(Proper 6C) Galatians 2: 15-21; Luke 7: 36 – 8:3
Good morning, and grace and peace, Father’s Day, last Sunday of the Spring, as we slide at the end of the week ahead into the first days of summer. 1:04 a.m. Friday in the Northern Hemisphere.
I want to begin this morning by sharing a prayer from a book of prayers that I have used in my daily devotions for many years, by a wonderful Scottish Presbyterian scholar and pastor, John Baillie, in a little book called “A Diary of Private Prayer.” There are two prayers in the book for each day of the month, morning and evening. This is the last part of the prayer set for the evening of the 26th day, and I've asked Michelle to print the text here in the service leaflet on page 15.
Dear Lord, if at this evening hour I think only of myself and my own condition and my own day’s doings and my day’s record of service, then I can find no peace before I go to sleep, but only bitterness of spirit and miserable despair. Therefore, O Father, let me think rather of Thee and rejoice that Thy love is great enough to blot out all my sins. And O Christ, Thou Lamb of God, let me think of Thee, and lean upon Thy heavenly righteousness, taking no pleasure in what I am before Thee but only in what Thou art for me and in my stead. And, O Holy Spirit, do Thou think within me, and so move within my mind and will that as the days go by I may be more and more conformed to the righteousness of Jesus Christ my Lord; to whom be glory for ever. Amen.
Just very simple, acknowledge the reality of sin, brokenness, falling short. I've heard some people say that this is what people of our time have lost. Though I think every generation and every human being engages with the same battle with denial. A vivid sense of sin as something personal. Not as some kind of abstract and hypothetical state of being. But sharp enough to keep us awake at night. The knot in the stomach, sometimes accompanied by the grinding of teeth. Things done and left undone. An experience only those of us who are sinners will have known, in any event. We have followed too much the devices and desires of our own hearts. Martin Luther used a Lain phrase incurvatus in se to describe our natural condition. Turned in on ourselves. Stuck in sin. A kind of quicksand. The more we flail around, the more we sink in. This congenital and insistent self-centeredness. And when we aren't in the deepest waters of denial, this awareness as a kind of sorrow almost, or sometimes frustration, or sometimes exploding in anger and mean-spirited violence. Miserable offenders. “If at this evening hour I think only of myself . . . then I can find no peace.”
And so Baillie's simple prayer to turn instead in loving attention to our loving God, opening heart and mind to his presence. Eyes and ears. To see Jesus, the merciful generosity of his life, the Cross, the Empty Tomb, and to allow the richness of his New Life, his Holy Spirit, to fill our lives, Lord of all—so that it no longer is about us, but about him. So that who we are is no longer distorted by our brokenness, but instead beginning to be transformed into something of beauty and goodness, because we have drawn closer to him. That I may be more and more conformed to the righteousness of Jesus Christ my Lord. The way a boy with a new girlfriend starts to dress a little more carefully. The way a New Englander who moves to Texas gradually picks up a new accent. Starts wearing cowboy boots. What begins to happen when we have drawn closer to Jesus.
The last two weeks we've paused during the sermon over the opening section of St. Paul’s Letter to the Galatians. His pastoral response, and as we've noticed a fierce pastoral response, to the word that the churches he had founded with the Good News about Jesus are now being influenced by teachers who want to complicate the Christian message with an emphasis on adherence to the teachings and customs of Jewish Law: circumcision, Kosher kitchens, Sabbath observance. And Paul says, Christian people of Galatia, there is no need any longer to look to those ancient traditions to bring ourselves into a good relationship with God. The only righteousness we need now and forever more is his righteousness. The righteousness of Jesus, in his life, as he overcame the power of sin, and in his death on the Cross, in which he overcame the power of death. Don’t make yourselves all anxious about which prayer to offer on which day, which food to eat, which candle to light. That all dissolves into nothing, as we put our lives in his hands, and as we ask not how should we order and organize our lives, but how he will take up residence in our lives. That we might be more and more, more and more, conformed to his righteousness.
And we know it when we see it. The last two weeks in these readings from Luke 7. The dying servant of the Roman Centurion. The dead son of the Widow of Nain, wrapped in his shroud and being carried to the cemetery. The righteousness of Jesus is a righteousness that is life-giving. Figuratively, metaphorically, spiritually, and in literal fact. Really and truly. The blind see, the spirit-possessed are freed, the dead are brought back to life. A goodness that falls like a fresh rain over a dry field. Bringing forth life, and giving growth. The righteousness of Jesus is a righteousness that is all about healing.
And then as Jean has read for us this morning, this wonderful story at the end of Luke 7 and into the beginning of Chapter 8. The woman who anoints the feet of her Lord with the precious oil, with her tears, and in this tender, tender, and loving act of worship, to dry his feet with her hair. Making herself entirely vulnerable. Opening herself to him, so that the deepest love of the Father fills her heart.
She was full of sin, broken, on the wrong path, in rebellion against God and man. But this is what repentance is all about. The Greek word, metanoia. A new mind. A new self. The point isn't that she wasn't a sinner. Broken. In rebellion against God and the good of her community. Nor that her sins aren't really all that important. In fact, in reality, her sin is her death sentence. To be clear about that. But her life is turned around, reformed, renewed, restored, purified, set on the right path, not because she has sought the righteousness of the Law, but because she has placed her mind and her heart and her life into the hands of the one who is the perfect Word of the Father. Thinking about the intimacy of the prayer we pray on most Sunday mornings, Prayer of Humble Access, that he may dwell in us, and we in him.
A husband and wife sit with a marriage counselor. She says: our relationship has gone stale, dried up. He says, just tell me what to do, and I’ll do it. Give me a list of what you want me to do. And she gives a sad sigh. Remember when Jesus spoke about forgiveness to his disciples, and their question, “how many times do we forgive?” Missing the whole point. If we’re counting, we’re paying attention to the wrong thing. Making lists. Scorecards. We will have lives radiant with God’s love, pure and holy, all about healing, all about forgiveness, not because of how hard we work. Because that never works. Not because of what we have done, but because of what he has done. And so because of who we become as we are drawn to his presence, as we hear his Word, as we sing our songs, as we share Holy Communion, as we pray, and as we discover in our lives this deep longing to be his. Ezekiel 36: “I will give you a new heart.” Again, John Baillie. A prayer to pray before going to sleep:
Therefore, O Father, let me think rather of Thee and rejoice that Thy love is great enough to blot out all my sins. And O Christ, Thou Lamb of God, let me think of Thee, and lean upon Thy heavenly righteousness, taking no pleasure in what I am before Thee but only in what Thou art for me and in my stead. And, O Holy Spirit, do Thou think within me, and so move within my mind and will that as the days go by I may be more and more conformed to the righteousness of Jesus Christ my Lord; to whom be glory for ever. Amen.