As a Pastor, I often get asked “what is your favorite hymn?” That’s like asking “which one is your favorite kid?” Okay, well, maybe for me that’s not too far of a stretch. But, in reality, I have so many favorite hymns that to pick one would really be torture. I often joke that when I pass away (which, God willing will be many many years from now) that we will need to have a hymn sing as part of my funeral because there are just too many good ones to choose from.
However, that is not the case for scripture. At this point in time in my life, my favorite passage in scripture is included in today’s readings: Romans 8:38-39 “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Friends, there is a lot of good scripture that you should commit to memory. This is one that I have committed to memory because it is filled with the overwhelming grace that we all receive.
And here’s the thing, you know I love preaching about grace. Or, at least I hope you know that by now. I want anyone and everyone to know what an amazing and wonderful gift this grace from God can be. But at the same time, I cannot, for the life of me, figure out why this grace would be given to me as well. It’s as if I think my Bible needs an asterisks. “Nothing can separate you from the love of God in Christ Jesus….asterisks, except for you, Jealaine.”
And this struggle isn’t new for me. I think what it boils down to is this: self forgiveness. I have sin in my life, just like you do. And my sin is ugly and it is usually coated in a nice thick layer of shame. And so I engage in a vicious cycle of thinking that goes something like this: Romans 8 tells me that nothing will separate me from God’s love. That means that God forgives me of my sins. Well, that’s just ridiculous; if I can’t forgive myself, how in the world can God forgive me?” And there, right there, what I am essentially saying is “if I can’t love me, how is it possible that God would love me?”
I’m hesitant, almost afraid to say this, but I fear that my illogical, circular thinking is familiar to some of you as well. And maybe your brain doesn’t function like mine and so you haven’t had those exact thoughts. But maybe you’ve had these thoughts or said these things instead. “I can’t come to church, the whole place will crash around me.” Or “I’ve been in here for a few moments and things are okay but I wouldn’t stand too close to me.” Or you know someone who used to be a frequent attender (like 3 out of 4 Sundays or something) and now they don’t want to return because their absence is so long. They’ll say “I can’t go back now, I’ve been gone too long.”
Now, I admit, I’ve only skimmed through our constitution and bylaws and no where did I find that it says “if you are gone for X amount of weeks, you can no longer come to church.” I’ve also had people say that they don’t want to come up to church or come up when we have communion. “I don’t deserve it” they’ll say. And to that, I say “none of us do. That’s why eating the bread and drinking the wine is so offensive. We did nothing for this gift. We can’t pay off this gift or repay this gift. It was and is given to us for free. That’s really offensive.” But it is because communion is a tangible reminder of God’s grace and God’s forgiveness, that is why we should come to the table, eagerly, as often as possible. Even if as often as possible means every week. I’m just going to let the thought that we should have communion every week just sit here for a moment and let it sink in.
Anyway, all of these thoughts and ideas are versions of “if I can’t love me, how can God possibly love me?” Sure, the words are a little different, but the base feeling is ultimately the same. What in the world is in our DNA that gets in the way of us believing that we would be loved and forgiven despite anything and everything we have done? I want you to take a moment. Close your eyes if you have to. Now think. Think about the thing that troubles you the most. Think about whatever sin you have that is the heaviest. Think about whatever sin you have that makes you feel ashamed. Think about whatever sin you have that if people found out about this, you would hide or run away. I’ve got mine, right here, in the front of my head. Is yours in your head? Does it have a face or a name? I hope you can see that sin clearly.
Now, I want you to take your index finger and draw a cross on your forehead and repeat after me. “God loves me and I am forgiven.” Let’s do that one more time because this may be a new concept to some of you and it may be hard to believe. So, once again, take an index finger, trace a cross on your forehead and out loud repeat after me, “God loves me and I am forgiven.” We are now going to offer this same forgiveness to one another. Turn to someone next to you, please ask permission to touch them, even if it is a family member, and trace the sign of the cross on their forehead and repeat “God loves you and God forgives you.” This is a fantastic thing to remind ourselves of over and over and over again, brothers and sisters. That cross was traced on your forehead in baptism and your sin no longer has power over you.
Repeat after me, “my sin no longer has power over me.” Do that again but louder. Let’s try another affirmation “God loves me for me.” I want the people in Goose Lake to hear us. Are you starting to understand that when Jesus tells you that nothing can ever separate us from the love of God that he really means nothing. There is no asterisks in your life or mine for that matter. You are forgiven so start acting like it. The time has come for you to cut loose the chains of bondage that have been keeping you a prisoner to your sin. God’s grace is for you. God’s love is for you. God’s forgiveness is for you. Nothing, not even death, can separate us from God’s love in Christ Jesus. Shout this good news from the rooftops, tell anyone who will listen this amazing news. But first and foremost, tell it to yourself. And keep repeating it until you believe it.