Today is the big game. Football fans have been waiting for months to see tonight’s showdown between the Seahawks and the 49ers. Russell Wilson is the young Seahawks quarterback whose success, he says, is due to disciplined habits of practice, practice, practice. Russell Wilson knows that for better or for worse, we all become more of what we practice.
For Christians, Sunday worship is our practice field. The pattern of our liturgy, the symbols of our faith, the message and meal that we receive week after week—these are what we practice in order to prepare for the Big Game. And what’s the Big Game? It’s not heaven! It’s not the afterlife. The Big Game is how we live our lives Monday through Saturday.
Like football, Christian faith is a team sport. Christian faith can no more be practiced alone than a football game can be played only by the quarterback! If Christian faith is a team sport, how can a person skip team practice and still be ready for the Big Game? No, worship is the center of our life together. Missing worship means missing practice. Missing practice means that it will be harder to be part of the team. Missing practice means that it will be much harder to be ready for the Big Game the rest of the week.
For example, we begin our Sunday morning practice, as we did today, with Confession and Forgiveness–either that, or the Thanksgiving for Baptism. Thanksgiving and Confession, as we find in today’s readings, are two inseparable sides of the same coin. But if we miss our weekly practice, we stand a good chance of falling right back into human ways of thinking, which is, “My team is the best.” That’s the attitude we find in today’s reading from Luke. Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to Jesus. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” Jesus is investing in people not on his team!
Notice who’s grumbling in this story. It’s the religious people— people who show up for practice every Sunday. But as this story shows, just “showing up for practice” doesn’t necessarily change anything. It’s possible to show up for practice and stand on the sidelines, criticizing those who are out on the field trying new things and risking failure. It’s possible to show up at practice and risk nothing, to stand on the sidelines, grumbling, complaining, and criticizing. But can you imagine members of a football team doing that?
But although the scribes and Pharisees grumble, the stories that Jesus tells are not about complaint. They are about rejoicing! There is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents…I tell you there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety- nine righteous persons who need no repentance.
“Why so much joy?” you might ask. Well, because God is in the forgiveness business. God is in the mercy business. God is in the compassion business. God doesn’t stand around waiting to bless and reward righteous people. Where there’s no need for mercy there’s no need for God! The Pharisees and scribes were good, religious people but they didn’t need God. They relied on their own goodness to sustain them.
In recent years it’s become popular in our land to criticize the 1%. And rightly so. The gap between rich and poor continues to widen. Those who have great wealth tend to guard that wealth for themselves, rather than to give it up for the common good and the well-being of the poor or others that our society tends to treat as “sinners.”
But today’s story turns those numbers upside down. In today’s story the 10% or the 1% are those who have discovered a path to joy. It is a path that begins with repentance. It is a path that starts with confession.
Paul the Apostle learned repentance. This is Paul, who had spent a big chunk of his life “attending practice”—going to worship–but like the scribes and Pharisees, stood on the sidelines criticizing, complaining—and worse. This is the same Paul who was willing even to kill those whom he considered “sinners.” Grumbling, defending our team as the best—these don’t seem like a big deal, except that they represent the same spirit that leads to and tries to justify violence, including war. When a team is at war, confession goes right out the window–along with gratitude and joy.
But practicing confession can lead to gratitude and joy! I am grateful to Christ Jesus our Lord, who has strengthened me, because he has judged me faithful and appointed me to his service, even though I was formerly a blasphemer, a persecutor, and a man of violence. But I received mercy because I had acted ignorantly in unbelief, and the grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. And then this: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the foremost, he declares. Who among us is able to practice this level of honesty and at the same time experience this level of gratitude and joy?
In today’s first reading God’s team—God’s people—come across as as independent, self-serving, and completely out of practice. God’s response: I have seen this people, how stiff-necked they are. “Stiff-necked” in the Bible means stubborn, a word that some folks wear as a badge of honor. But “stubborn” in the Bible indicates a faith that has stopped growing. The writer of Exodus describes God as furious. And yet, God’s anger soon gives way to forgiveness, compassion, and mercy. Moses in this story is out on the playing field, risking a lot, daring even to challenge the team owner. Turn from your fierce wrath; change your mind and do not bring disaster on your people, he dares to plead. Incredibly, the Lord changed his mind about the disaster that he planned to bring.
Here is a story in which the living God changes direction. The religious language is repentance. This is confession. And the message is clear. If the team owner can practice repentance, members of the team itself should be practicing it every day!
This is not about shame. A team that is willing to make confession its practice week after week, day after day, will grow better and better at what they do. Paul the Apostle was able to call himself the foremost of sinners but he was not burdened with guilt or shame. Paul was able to simultaneously hold the truth that he was the chief of sinners while at the same time holding the equal truth that he was God’s beloved. If we really believe that we are God’s beloved, we don’t need to rely on our own goodness; we spend less energy investing in judging ourselves and others. We spend more energy invested in our mission: bringing hope and healing to the world, assuring the world of God’s unconditional love and forgiveness for all people!
So, team—good practice today so far! We all are both chief of sinners, and God’s beloved. Let us keep practicing repentance; let us be grateful for God’s love and mercy, and we will be ready for the Big Game!