May 16, 2021   Grace. Period: Forgiveness, by Rev. Tatgenhorst

Grace. period; Forgiveness

God claims our lives through blessing, through repentance and  through forgiveness. God claims your life from the very beginning through baptism, through grace, and forgiveness. God claimed my life and I knew it in high school. I felt it in several big life-changing precious moments. Those moments are really clear in hindsight. At the moment they were not so obvious. 
I felt claimed by God not to be a pastor, not even to be a Christian. God claimed me to grace and humanity. The best way I have found to express that grace and humanity has been through Christianity, through the tradition in which I grew up - the United Methodist Church. It was clear to me, even back then that my Catholic friends could be claimed just as easily, and it was not hard to imagine God claiming all kinds of people, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist and Bahai. God just seemed bigger to me than any kind of division I could imagine. 
I would love to hear about the time or times that you have felt claimed by God, the time or times that you have known God’s grace was moving into your life, and what kind of claim that was - whether you knew the claim as being from Christ as a particular calling, or from God as a blessing or a kind of forgiveness. I would love to know how you have felt God’s forgiveness - that could be the juicy part! -  and whether that forgiveness felt like it was for something in particular or as a general all-encompassing pardon and renewal. How as grace entered your life? 
I feel the strength of God’s grace giving this sermon, writing this sermon, sensing God’s presence with us today. It’s a sense of wonder and awe and blessing. Sometimes we think of grace as synonymous with forgiveness. And grace and forgiveness are certainly related. When John Newton wrote the song “Amazing Grace” he was feeling God’s grace forgiving him for the sins of slave-trading. 
But grace is bigger and more encompassing than forgiveness - as big as that was for John Newton - (and one hopes that the grace he felt came from repentance nd taking action to counter the wrongs he had been involved in.) Grace is bigger, don’t you think? Grace has felt to me at times like a release of loneliness and anxiety. Grace has felt at times like a release from fear of death and fear of what other people think. Grace has felt like just looking at my hand and being amazed at what a gift a body is - the miracle of fingers and veins and fingernails. Does that ever happen to you? That is a feeling of grace.

Our passage for this morning does not mention grace, but it is all about grace. Luke tells the story of Jesus ascension at the end of Easter. Whether that’s at the end of the day, as it seems to be in this gospel or at the end of 40 days as we celebrate it in the tradition and as Luke himself records it in his next book, the book of Acts, the ascension story is less about where Jesus goes and more about the blessing Jesus gives and expects.
(Pictures of the ascension often show only the feet of Jesus going into the clouds. Pastors and other leaders sometimes reply to that portrayal with the words of scripture: “Mortals, why do you stand looking up in the sky? Christ will meet you where you live.” The passage is more about blessing than about Jesus feet. In fact, it ends with a kind of summary or mission statement for disciples: “Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in Christ’s name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things.“ And then at the end of the story Jesus had every reason to want to get away from these people who had just betrayed him and yet he leaves blessing the disciples, and the gospel ends with the disciples gathered in joy, passing on the blessing. See, it’s all about grace, blessing, joy. 

There is this part about forgiveness too, I have to say. In my adult years, the place where I have experienced grace most profoundly is the work challenging racism. In that work I have found the need time and again to be about the work of repentance and forgiveness, as we are called to do in this passage. And here, in the work against racism I have found deep and consistent and real forgiveness and grace, that both helps me realize how deeply flawed i am and have been and that helps me accept the love of the Living God.
Listen, on June 17, 2015, six years ago, a young white man knocked on the door of Emmanuel African Methodist Episcopal AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina. The members were holding Bible study and they welcomed the 21 year old into their circle. In the middle of prayer the man pulled out a gun and killed the pastor and eight of the parishioners. The man was arrested and only a short while later he was arraigned in court. 
Usually family members aren’t allowed to speak at arraignments, but the judge for some reason in this case allowed the family to speak. Five of them chose to address the defendant and each one who spoke, spoke words of forgiveness, inviting the man to repent and turn his life around. The granddaughter of one woman who was killed said that the pleas for the shooter’s soul were proof that ‘Hate won’t win.” She said, “I am ready to forgive him. I have to because (unforgiveness) would block so many blessings. Nothing grows positive out of hate.” 
There are a lot of reasons those grace filled statements were so moving. For me, one of those reasons is I feel that grace coming to me as well. I have come to realize through this work that sis is sin, and racism is racism. And mine isn’t any better or worse than anybody else’s. For some reason, that’s the place where I most know how far short I fall. Maybe for you it’s another part of your life. 
Wherever that place is in you, that place that feels unforgivable, I would invite you to risk taking that part out and giving it to God, or showing it to the granddaughter of that woman who was killed, and know that you too receive God’s grace, God’s forgiveness in the hardest place of your life, in the place where you have not been who you know God wants you to be. 
Today, God offers you the opportunity for repentance and forgiveness. This is what Jesus asked us to be about in the last words of the gospel - “that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in Christ’s name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem.” We liberal Christians seem to think we don’t participate in the evil parts of the world, as though we don’t have any need for repenting - that we’ll just take the forgiveness and be on our way. 
I tell you what though, this is how God really claims our lives - when we know God’s love and grace in the places where we are most broken, where we know we fall short. That’s the place we ask God to walk with us. That’s the place we know God’s grace. that the place we know God’s good news. 
Responsive Hymn: 521 I Want Jesus to Walk with Me