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Dearly Beloved, we are gathered here today to get through this thing called “life”.
We are gathered here today to seek the voice of our God – to fill our ears with the sounds of praise and petition, to say to one another that you are forgiven, to listen to the Word of God. Dearly beloved we are gathered here today to baptize our hearts and minds so that we no longer call profane what God has made clean.
There are four things that happened this week that have made me think obsessively about life but also about death and the Devil. Sometimes I wish to God that I could obsessively think about something less heavy like celebrity gossip or sports but it ends up I don’t care about the Kardashians or basketball so I walk through my days obsessively thinking about sin and death and the devil and forgiveness and life. It’s like having a not-very-interesting mental illness. And it’s definitely been that kind of week.
Tuesday: I sit with a friend on a bench, in the middle of mid-town Manhattan, the city’s life swirls busily around us as he describes his grief. To say the death of his adult child last year was tragic is to not even come close to the real truth of it. It was violent and senseless and their son wasn’t the only one to die.
Grief is such a disfiguring thing. It’s so common and yet it’s also completely particular. Every person’s grief is their own and all we can do is move through it. Grief will not wait for us to be ready. No one is ever ready.
I sit next to this friend who, on some level, blames themselves for a horrible tragedy – as so many of us do when something happens that is beyond our control. It’s too hard to just accept that we can’t control the tragic things that happen, so it’s easier to blame ourselves or others. And that accusing, blaming voice in his head is so loud, the thing the voice says to my friend a hundred times a day is “you could have stopped this”.
On Friday: I read a New York Times cover article about the suicide rate in America. Only I read the article 3 times because I couldn’t believe it was true. Over the last 30 years, the suicide rate has shot up in almost every demographic…but for women in my age group, it has shot up 64%.
Suicide is an epidemic in this country. As is death by accidental overdose of painkillers. I don’t know many people who haven’t been affected by it. And as I thought about the accusing voice I couldn’t help but think of what that voice says to those who are so low and when they die what the accusing voice then says to those who remain behind. Because I know that voice. It’s the one that makes us think that we could have kept that friend or loved one alive if only we’d returned their last voice mail or said the right thing or showed up at the right time. And yet it doesn’t really work like that.
Yes, I am familiar with that accusing voice. The one that tells me that I am what I’ve done. The voice that accuses me of already forgiven sins. The one that repeats harmful things said to me as a child. For some of us, those voices don’t ever really shut the hell up. That voice makes us eat less than we should or more than we should. Sometimes we try and shut that voice up with alcohol or dope. That voice can make us spend more hours at work than we should. It makes us go to ridiculous lengths to try and prove it wrong. Or try to prove it right.
But that accusing voice is not God’s voice. It’s not God’s voice.
There’s a reason that in parts of the Hebrew Bible, the devil is called ha satan….which translates The Accuser. The Accuser. It is the voice of The Accuser that tells us lies about ourselves and other people.
I don’t know what thoughts run through the heads of those who overdose or starve themselves or commit other fatal harm against themselves, but I know it is never God’s voice.
Don’t mistake me…it is necessary for us to be convicted of our sins. Because as Paul says, we all sin and fall short of the glory of God. This is the human condition from which none are spared. If we did not believe this we would not start each liturgy with confession and absolution. But what I’m talking about – the crippling messages on repeat in our heads, that’s something different. That’s shame. Not simple guilt.
Shame is like wearing our already forgiven sins like a spiritual name tag “Hi, I’m ____” (a liar, or a thief or an adulterer or a drug addict)
Or a psychological name tag reading “Hi, I’m that horrible thing my dad used to say to me”
The reason I believe in the devil is that I have seen the ways he pulls from the divine trash heap our sin and shame that God has already cast off, rubbing our noses in them and saying this is who you really are.
But see, Martin Luther said it is the Devil, not God who brings up forgiven sins. If God has gone to such lengths to love us and forgive our sins, should we not leave those sins in the past?
I’ve taken confession of dying people and there’s nothing sadder to me than the weight they carried through their lives of the things they’ve done. Like they’ve taken a second mortgage out on things they’ve already been forgiven of.
Retaining our sins and those of others is to steal from our Lord what he has gone to great lengths to take from us. For he has said that our burdens and guilt and shame and sin are his. He has made them his own. He has said “give me those and I shall exchange them for the cleansing heart of the Father” And yet we sneak in – tip toing around his throne to steal them back. Calling profane what God has already made clean.
In our reading today from Acts, God comes to Peter in a vision – forever expanding the menu…destroying legalistic dualism…erasing the boundary between us and them saying What God has made clean do not call impure. That includes us. What God has forgiven, do not dig out of the trash heap. What God claims to love do not deem unworthy of that love. And when that accusing voice is on repeat in your head, know that it is not the voice of God. God’s voice is the warm voice of a mother for her newborn. God’s voice is one that says You are beloved. God’s voice declares us clean, justified, forgiven, and new. And yes, Martin, it is indeed the Devil and not God who brings up already forgiven sins. So let’s help each other shut the bastard up.
Which brings me to yesterday. I sat for 3 hours with many of you at the Our Witness conference hearing the faith stories and testimony of GLBTQ Christians. Story after powerful story from people of faith who have quieted the accusing voices of shame and judgment enough to hear the voice of their God calling forth their truest most beautiful self. It was a thing to behold: so much grace and power flowed into that room. And I realized what a gift it is to each other when we live as who God created us to be. I especially loved our own Asher O’Callaghan. Asher came to us 7 years ago as Mary, transitioned while a member here and eventually went on to seminary and now is the first trans person ordained by the ELCA – he serves a Lutheran church in Idaho Springs. Asher said that being a girl for 24 years has made him the guy he is today. And were he able to go back and magically be born male, he would not…because God intended him to be trans. To the glory of God Asher managed to quiet the voices of toxic religion and bad therapists and society and the accuser and live as the glorious, kind, weird, beautiful trans guy God has made him to be. Listening to those stories yesterday helped me quiet the voices.
So dearly beloved, we are gathered here today to get through this thing called “LIFE”. We are gathered here today to silence the voice that accuses. To absolutely luxuriate in a cleansing baptism of our brains and hearts. To celebrate a repentance that leads to life. To love one another as God has loved us. To remind each other of the true voice of God and to shut up the accuser. This is how the beloved of God have always gathered together to get through this thing called life. So come to this table tonight as the child of God you were created to be for that is a gift to us all.