My Minister, Reverend Rochelle Stackhouse preached a moving sermon September 16, 2007 titled: Undeserved Forgiveness. Here it is in its entirety. It may seem long--please stick with it, I think you will find as I did that it speaks to a place so deep and sacred that you will immediately be renewed. And feel free to share with folks. Of course I could have linked it--if I knew how to do that. I just like having it right here without clicking to it.
Exodus 32:7-14, I Timothy 1:12-17, Luke 15:1-10
September 16, 2007
Rochelle A. Stackhouse
Draco Malfoy. Isn’t that a great name, Draco Malfoy? The name has its linguistic roots in words that mean Dragon of Bad Faith. Draco Malfoy is one of the people you love to hate in the Harry Potter books. He’s obnoxious, mean, petty, cruel, sneaky and likes to dabble in evil magic; he’s the epitome of the school bully. All through the first 6 books of the series, many of us were just waiting for Draco and his even nastier father, Lucius Malfoy, to get what was coming to them in the final book.
But there we were given a surprise by the author, J. K. Rowling, and I’m not giving away a crucial plot point here for those who still haven’t read the final book. Our hero, Harry Potter, saves the life of Draco Malfoy twice in the climactic final scenes of the story, once at great risk to his own life and to the horror of his friend, Ron Weasley. And probably to the disappointment of many readers who were hoping Draco would get paid back for all he had done to Harry over the years.
Harry, clearly, was operating under a different sense of what is “fair” and “just” than many of his readers or his classmates at Hogwarts. In that way, he is like Moses in this curious little scene we witness in the story from Exodus, or like Jesus in the way he treats Saul, now Paul, the formerly zealous and venomous persecutor of Christians in the early church, as described in the Timothy reading. Not only do the faithless (“malfoy?”) people of Israel not get destroyed, as many of them might deserve, not only does Paul not get punished for his harm to the early church, but Moses and Jesus go out of their way to try to save the nasty, the faithless, the evil.
Look at Moses. God has made him a pretty good offer. “How about if I get rid of this people who have been a pain in your neck since before you led them out of Egypt and find you a people who would be more cooperative for you and faithful to me?” A tempting offer, no doubt. But Moses doesn’t even consider it. He pleads with God not to harm the people, and he does so by appealing to the very nature of God. He tells God that it would be inconsistent with who God is as one who is loving, merciful and patient, the one the Psalmist describes as “not dealing with us according to our sins or repaying us for wrong-doing.” “Remember who you are, O God,” Moses says, “and act accordingly.” So God does, and sends Moses with the Ten Commandments to give the people yet another opportunity to “do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with their God.” Not only does God forgive these people undeservedly, but God actively seeks after them to help them turn from their ways and live. A whole nation whose religious life has turned from faithlessness to faithfulness is pardoned and sought out; because God still hopes they may hear the words of justice and love and respond to them.
God does this a lot in the Bible. If you remember the little story of Jonah, you’ll remember that Jonah did not want to follow God’s command and travel far to Nineveh, (in modern day Iraq, by the way), to a people who were so mean and immoral that Jonah wanted God to fry them with a righteous and holy and vengeful fire. But God instead used Jonah to seek them out and call them back to faithfulness, hoping they would respond. God sent prophet after prophet to the Hebrew people every time they turned away to chase after them and try to bring them home. And when all that seemed to fail, God came in person, in Jesus, who went out of his way to seek out the lost, the sinners, those rejected by their neighbors and families, those of bad reputations and many sins. God does this because it is in God’s very nature to do so.
Jesus is trying to explain this when he tells these two little stories about sheep and coins, and then the parable of the Prodigal Son which follows. Notice that the shepherd doesn’t wait for the sheep to come home, saying, “stupid sheep; if she doesn’t know enough to stay with the flock, then she deserves to die. I can’t be bothered to go and find her. It’s up to her to find me.” Notice that the woman doesn’t just sit and wait for the coin to roll out from under some furniture or tumble out of a pocket in her apron. Both the shepherd and the woman search diligently, believing that a single sheep or a single coin is worth finding and bringing back into the community from which it came. After the lost are found, the response of the seeker is not to devise deep punishments for the foolish ones who are lost, but to rejoice that the lost have been returned to those who can love and care for them, that the community is reconciled and restored. The nature of God is to want the community to be whole, for it is only together, God knows, that each of us can come to our own wholeness, can receive mercy, can live into the abundant life God yearns to celebrate with us.
God is the seeker. What God calls us to do is to cooperate with grace, both the grace offered to us as individuals and the grace that is offered to others, individuals or groups of people, as in the case of the Hebrew nation wandering in the wilderness with Moses.
God knows, this is not easy to do. We are a suspicious people. Sometimes we cannot believe that God would so eagerly seek us out and so willingly forgive us, and so we lay on ourselves guilt and burdens that we could easily let down. Sometimes, like Jonah or Ron Weasley or the Pharisees and unlike Moses and Harry Potter and Jesus, we don’t want God to go seeking after those who have broken the rules, those who have hurt us or others, those who seem to be so evil. We want punishment, justice, we say, let them fry or at least not be accepted into our community. People who don’t deserve forgiveness shouldn’t get it, because it will seem like we condone what they do.
Yet neither God nor Moses condoned what the Hebrew people did by making that calf. God did not condone Paul’s persecution of Christians. The shepherd does not say to the sheep, “O, it’s okay, you go and wander, and it doesn’t matter.” This is not about condoning what is wrong. It’s about putting the wholeness of a person or a community or a nation above seeking punishment or vengeance. It’s about cooperating with grace.
I learned this in an interesting way when I was in seminary studying for the ministry. One of my classmates at Princeton was a man named Jeb Stuart Magruder. For some of you, that name will mean nothing, but for those who remember Richard Nixon and the Watergate hearings in the 1970’s, that name may ring a bell. Magruder served in the first Nixon administration and then as deputy chair of the committee to re-elect the President. He was the second person convicted and sentenced in the scandal around the theft and spying in the Watergate building offices of the Democratic National Committee. He served time in federal prison for a felony. Believe me, this was all still very present in the nation in 1979 when I went to Princeton. There were a number of fellow students (and perhaps some faculty) who did not trust him, who did not believe that this man who had so misused immense power on a national scale could have had a quick turnaround and now be a man of faith, to be trusted with the care of a congregation and fit to be called “pastor.” Couldn’t this smooth political operator be snowing all of us at this nice, naïve seminary?
Perhaps. But Jeb Magruder had a very strong sense of being sought after by God, and his road to ordination (he became a Presbyterian minister and has served several churches) was his response to being sought by God. The most challenging thing about becoming a pastor for him was not the study of Greek and Hebrew or thinking about the hours of pastoral care or the pain of sitting beside someone who had experienced a tragedy in their lives; the hardest part was the constant experience of having church people reject him as a sinner before they ever knew him as a human being.
God knows, it is not easy to cooperate with undeserved, exuberant, irrational grace. We tell our children every day to make the right kinds of friends and not hang out with the bad crowd (and really, that’s exactly what the Pharisees told people about prostitutes and corrupt government officials like tax collectors). But we also believe in and serve a God who, while on earth, constantly hung out with troubled and troublesome people in the hope that they would let him pick them up, drape them around his shoulders, and lead them back into the community of the safe and loved. Sometimes they responded; sometimes they betrayed him. Jesus felt it was worth the effort if only one lost sheep came home.
To those of you here today, then, who may feel you are beyond hope for the grace of God or of the Christian community, I say you are here this morning because God seeks after you and led you here to become one with us. To those of you here today who are among the 99 sheep still in community with one another and with God, I say that we need to be as zealous as that shepherd or that woman in Jesus’ stories (or Harry Potter, for that matter) in cooperating with God’s irrational, undeserved grace toward individuals and even nations whom we perceive to be beyond redemption. From the time of Adam and Eve in the garden, hiding after eating that apple, to this very day, God is still seeking. That, my friends, is the best news of all. Rejoice.