Amos 5:6-15; Luke 18:9-14

In the name of God, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

“I didn’t mean to…”

At seven it seemed the only right thing to say when I had succumbed to the temptation to use the forbidden India ink in my father’s desk only to see it cascade over freshly painted walls and carpeted floors.

“I didn’t mean to…”

Sometimes the words were spoken with genuine contrition and at other times not so much. These have been the words of shock and dismay at time when what was intended for the good became something quite awful unraveling my own life and the lives of others, wreaking havoc on relationships. Saying sorry and being sorry was never quite enough, and I wondered if among the first words I learned to say were:

“I didn’t mean to…”

Perhaps these were the words that gushed out of a child’s mouth when the pistol that seemed only an extension of imaginative play was the gun that caused the deadly wound in the other children. It has been claimed countless times as the defense when someone shoots someone else because it is thought the other person had a weapon ready to be used. In a prison cell in Israel the man wrote a full diary of time spent in a concentration camp during World War II. He was only following orders. He didn’t mean to…preside over the systematic destruction of thousands of lives.

“I didn’t mean to…”

“Seek the Lord and live,” says the prophet Amos. In no uncertain terms the prophet tells us that the Lord of all creation is calling for an end of the victimization of the truth tellers among us, to cease partaking of endless ways of bribing our way through life, to understand as our interim dean so artfully put it that a life in which the rich get richer and the poor get poorer is not only unsustainable, it is the sure and certain way to death that is literal and spiritual. Amos exposes the meaninglessness of our excuses for who we are and what we do. Like the psalmist, Amos tells us that the road to becoming a holy people begins with the sacrifice of broken and contrite hearts.

We have nothing to commend ourselves to God, except this heart-rending action. All the I-didn’t-mean-to’s in the world only confirm the sinful and broken nature of our being. The time-honored ways of breaking open our closed hearts are to fast, to pray, and to give alms. The intent of these actions is not a showy humiliation on our part, nor a “suck-up” to God for a magnanimous gesture of forgiveness. Rather, without false modesty we are to come face-to-face with our own limitations, our weaknesses, our failures, and our sins. We are to embrace humility, the earthy “dust we are and the dust to which we will return” in ways that cause us to give not by stooping down to those who have less, but by walking alongside those who have great needs and great gifts different from our own. We are to undertake not a self-serving diet, but an eye-opening discipline to the presence and work of God. It is a commitment to be changed by God’s word and it can only begin with an honest conversation. It is to quote theologian Roberta Bondi, “a way of seeing other people as being as valuable in God’s eyes as ourselves.”

In this crisis of faith in our time and in every age we are called to repentance because of the very character of God. Our God is gracious, showering unqualified favor upon us. We who are nothing are the recipients of the favor of the One who is utterly above and beyond us. Our God is merciful, showing us the same care for our welfare as a parent would for a helpless child. Our God is patient, restraining anger when it is our due. Our God loves steadfastly giving us to one another in community, loving us with excessive faithfulness even when we shred the covenant relationship we are given.

Given all that has been done for us by God, by the Spirit, by the Son, by the Father we should know better, do better. Our memories and our nerve fail us. This night’s ashy crosses are a reminder that while we cannot ever save ourselves, God can. God did and God does. We are invited today to do more than begin a season of being good or even doing the right thing. Today we rend our hearts, put away the excuses and become ready and able to receive the divine love and concern. God has invaded our present to bring this gift of reconciliation. We receive it be choosing to no longer be the people who “didn’t mean to.” Amen.

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