Jeremiah 31:31-34

John 12:20-33

Children’s Time:

The reading from Jeremiah talks about knowing what is right or wrong, so here is my story (and it’s not one I’m proud of). When I was pretty young – about as young as you are – I was at a friend’s house, and they had some special kind of candy. I was jealous, and I wanted that candy, but I knew my mom would say no if I asked her for it. So one day I was at the grocery store, and I saw the candy right there on the shelf. No one was looking, and I took the candy and walked out of the store.

So you tell me: what did I do? Was that right or wrong? We know this deep inside ourselves because God gave us the knowledge of what is right and wrong.

I thought at first I got away with it, but my mom found out. She gave me that “mom look” with the raised eyebrow. She didn’t even need to say anything, because she knew I already felt guilty. I already knew the moral of this story, that it’s wrong to steal. I was and I still am sorry for doing it.

We all do things we know we shouldn’t do, and we almost always feel guilty for doing them. We usually feel guilty right away. God teaches us right and wrong, and we all know it deep inside. God also gives us the chance to say we’re sorry and start over. God forgives us because she loves us so much. Jesus came to show us that even if we do the worst thing we could do (and we did the worst thing we could to him), God still loves us and gives us the chance to start over.

Let us pray: God, thank you for the chance to start over. Thank you for the sense of right and wrong that tells us when we need to start over. In Jesus’ name, amen.

Grown-up sermon:

It’s hard to let people start over, especially to forgive sins against ourselves. We’d prefer to hold others in our debt. It’s like the saying: “fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me.” That’s a pragmatic rule about whom to trust in the politics of our everyday life, isn’t it? But we know that we desperately want a chance for ourselves to start over, to put the past behind us and try again like it never happened. We would rather not stand up in front of a room full of people whose respect and approval we need, and admit to having been a seven-year-old shoplifter. So, what if we admitted to ourselves that we wish we could begin again, even in part? Then, what if we remembered Jesus’ basic instruction we like to etch in gold, to give each other the same chance we know we need?

That would be very difficult, wouldn’t it? We would have to die almost as literally as Christ did and be raised to new life. We’d have to give up our old self and old habits, to come into a new way of living. We’d have to do this over and over, at least as often as every Lent. Most of all, we’d have to give each other this same chance, because our reactions to each other are usually the habits we most need to be free of. We would have to treat each other as if we were brand new people.

It’s terribly hard to do that without feeling like we’re dismissing past wrongs and disrespecting those who were hurt. As an example, starting over is a big issue in prison ministry, where Christians reach out to convicted felons. A pastor I’ve talked about many times has done his share of prison ministry, and he wrote an inspirational book about his work with one inmate, Barry. It’s a story of conversion and new beginnings, which of course I don’t know well enough to verify one way or another. The victim’s family, on the other hand, felt they knew enough, and they couldn’t bring themselves to believe Barry’s conversion. The pastor, with whom I usually disagree mightily, saw the capacity for this man to be changed by God.

The pastor was right. People can be changed, and our work as Christians is never done as long as we’ve written someone off. Now, this pastor probably shouldn’t have written this book, because it did seem to publicly disrespect the victim’s family. He should have reached out to the victim’s family too, because they desperately needed healing. They didn’t get healing from this book. They evidently didn’t get it from the criminal justice system, and it sure didn’t seem like they got it from their church. It would have been long hard work to demonstrate Barry’s contrition, to truly reconcile him with the family he hurt so profoundly, but only that work would have actually healed this relationship.

That’s how imperfect our human work is, but this is the “new covenant” Jeremiah foretold. The promise is that we can be changed. It’s not as if it were easy – it’s impossibly hard work. It’s as hard as putting our old selves to death and starting over again. But that’s the promise, that even if that’s what it takes, God is up for that. God is willing to take on flesh, die unjustly, and live again to demonstrate that nothing can come between us and God’s love. So when we’re stuck in this old life, God is with us. God comes into our prison, into our consciences, to tell us that we can live again, that we’ve never been truly abandoned, that we are still loved.

Thanks be to God. Amen.