Psalm 91:1-12 and Numbers 35:6-15

If we were to get right into the heart of what it means to be Christian, all underneath the bylaws and the doctrines, right to the quick of the deep— something we would find there is forgiveness. Now I don’t mean to suggest that other religious traditions do not include forgiveness; they do. But when it comes to being Christian, forgiveness is a defining practice of our faith.

When the younger brother decides to turn around and come back home, his father runs out to meet him with forgiveness. When Jesus is dying on the cross, he looks at the people and speaks words of forgiveness. When the early Christians were telling the whole range of stories of how the cross and resurrection proclaim God’s promise of salvation, you can hear the power of the Spirit in their stories— it’s in the forgiveness.

I know most of the time, we think of forgiveness as a change in heart. So a person carries anger toward his grandmother for years. Once he begins down the road of forgiving, that anger begins to dissolve. Bitterness turns into peace.

On the other hand, something I find interesting is when the New Testament mentions forgiveness, it’s often invoking a financial practice. So forgiving sin is literally cancelling a debt. That’s that. It doesn’t matter how you feel about the other person! Forgiveness is a deliberate action.

So we’re starting to see part of the spectrum. In some ways, forgiveness is the turning in our heart, the release of the resentment that’s killing us. In some ways, forgiveness is the tangible work of our hands. Here, sit and eat, there’s no charge. Do you hear? There’s no charge.

This dynamic reminds me of a distinction I heard about at a conference on church leadership. As the keynote speaker explained, there are two kinds of change that happen in organizations. Technical change fixes problems by bringing a straightforward, tangible solution that maintains the status quo. Adaptive change gets into the deeper side of the story. It is concerned with the issue beneath the issue; and it might turn everything upside down.1 Hamm, Richard L. Recreating the Church: Leadership for the Postmodern Age. Chalice Press, 2007, pages 11-12.

Last summer, when bullets came through the parsonage window, replacing the glass was a technical solution. Working with CCC to make our neighborhood safer is an adaptive change. The hazard, as the experts warn, is when we respond to an adaptive challenge with a technical solution. Sometimes both are needed and then some.

Forgiveness can get into the deeper side of the story, and forgiveness can come running to greet you at the door when you least expect it. It is the work of our hearts, and hands, and stomach, and soul… It is the power of God.

And look at our world right now. What if what we are missing is a revolution of forgiveness? And what if this is up to us…

Today we are continuing the Lenten series on homelessness. In the United States, something that homeless people might experience is getting fined by the police or arrested simply for trying to survive.

Many communities have laws against trespassing and loitering. Many parks close at dusk, so sleeping on a park bench all night is illegal. In some communities, asking people for money is illegal. Now they don’t mean giving a stewardship moment in church; nobody gets arrested for that. But in some cities, if a person is homeless and asks you for help, that person can be criminally charged.

Trying to solve the problem of homelessness with laws that punish the homeless is trying to answer an adaptive challenge with a technical solution. The rules are the rules, I get it, and rules can protect us and make our communities safe. And look, the law doesn’t care whether a person is too poor to pay rent; it can’t care. The law can’t be the law and get into the deep side of the human story. But you and I know, somebody’s got to.

When Emily Harvey from Humility of Mary spoke to us, she mentioned that her organization has developed a partnership with the police. Now when Davenport police officers get called to pick up someone who is homeless, the police are empowered to take the person to Humility of Mary instead of jail. This practice saves the city money; it also saves people.

We mean for the law to be objective, blindfolded and uncaring, and unflinchingly fair. The truth is sometimes laws are enforced with cruelty; sometimes we want to punish the poor for being poor. But sometimes, as Emily explained, laws can be enforced with a measure of compassion.

So there is the law. Once actual human beings get involved, there is the need to grapple with the law, and adapt the law, and apply the law so it can be useful. This is exactly what we hear about in the scripture from Numbers.

The book of Numbers is part of the Torah, and the story of the Torah is that God and the Israelites keep trying to be in right relationship. The covenant gets established, and broken, and re-made, and re-claimed, until it breaks the next time. All through Numbers, the people are moving through the wilderness, grappling with the law.

According to the scripture, the LORD spoke to Moses to insist that murder is illegal; anyone who murders another shall be put to death. One life for one life. It could be that this law was introduced to prevent a rampage of revenge, only one life for one life. What I find interesting is that Moses himself had murdered a man ages ago back before the burning bush, and God is not suggesting that Moses should be executed, but here’s the rule going forward.

The problem with the rule is, what happens if you’re out with someone and you wind up killing them by accident? Before you even have a chance to explain how it was an accident, their family could find you and kill you to avenge the death.

Accordingly, the law prescribed the establishment of six cities of refuge. The cities were spaced out, three on each side of the river, so they could be easily accessed. The law required wider roads leading to the cities and clear signs. Now the plan is that if you accidentally kill someone, you should run to a city of refuge. You must stay in the city until there can be a trial, and while you are in the city, no can kill you in retaliation.

Now if the trial determines the act of death really was an accident, you must continue to live in the city of refuge until the death of the high priest. His death will become the atonement for the death of the person you killed by mistake (Numbers 35:28).

These cities provide a safe haven to a person in trouble. The Mishnah mentions that it was common for the mother of the high priest to make sure the refugees who flee to these cities have food and clothing. She wants them to be comfortable to prevent them from wishing for the hasty death of her son.2 So in some ways, the cities of refuge are like sanctuaries.

In some ways, the cities of refuge are like prison camps. Yes, a person’s safety is protected, but by being required to live there, they are exiled from their own family and community. There’s the idea that if a person was killed, even accidentally, still the killer should have to pay some kind of price. Still the killer should have to suffer.3see this excellent commentary by Rabbi Aron

There is the law. There is the law developing and adapting to meet actual needs of actual people. And in our world, there are ways in which the law is not enough. Here in the U.S. today, the legal system’s response to accidental killing is at best, limited and at worst, cruel.4This article by Alice Gregory inspired the initial idea for this sermon: You have heard the stories that seem horrifyingly unimaginable, precisely because they are too imaginable.

So a sleep-deprived mother buckles her baby in the car seat on a summer day, and drives to work and starts thinking about her big meeting with a client. Then she has the meeting, and she’s heading to lunch, and it’s too late. She just forgot. She always goes to day care on the way to work, but the meeting had her distracted, and she never stopped. Her baby is still buckled in the car seat, and it’s too late. And it could have been any one of us. It could happen to us.

How can this mother forgive herself? I don’t mean that polemically, like how dare she try to forgive herself! I mean, practically, how does she forgive herself…because the law can’t help her with that. We’ll summon the authorities to arrest her and they might acknowledge, she’s not a murderer. She might get charged with involuntary manslaughter. Society will call her a criminal. This is our technical “solution” to a much deeper question.

Who is going to go sit down with this mother and tell her she can stay here for a while?

Who’s going to put on a fresh pot of coffee and tell her the stories of forgiveness and tell her how God’s love is more than her worst day…

Who is going to hold her, and hear her silence —all of it— then stay to hear her talk about her baby… This is what forgiveness looks like.

Right now, people are coming out of prison. People are coming home from being deployed in the military. People are coming home from the hospital having survived trauma. People are trying to get a spot in the shelter —Christian Care always has a waiting list.

More and more people are desperate to come home and hear a word of forgiveness they can believe. They don’t need us to tell them, “Jesus died, so you can go to heaven?” What they need is to hear God’s grace. And if this is not the work of the church, I don’t know what is.

This is forgiveness. It takes the tangible work of our hands as well as the turning of our hearts. It hears exactly how the deep side of the human story echoes the soaring promise of God’s compassion. Oh and you need to eat! Sit down here, I’ll get you a plate. We will hear you. Together we will hear forgiveness all the way home.


1 Hamm, Richard L. Recreating the Church: Leadership for the Postmodern Age. Chalice Press, 2007, pages 11-12.
3 see this excellent commentary by Rabbi Aron
4 This article by Alice Gregory inspired the initial idea for this sermon:

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