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Telling it Straight
a homily based on Romans 5:1-5
by Rev. Thomas Hall

Children are such theologians! Listen in on some of their letters they recently wrote to God by way of their Sunday School teacher. Maxine writes, “On Halloween I am going to wear a Devil's costume, is that all right with you?” And another little girl writes, “Is it true my father won't get in heaven if he uses his bowling words in the house?” Note the tension in the next child's prayer: “If we come back as something, please don't let me be Jennifer Herston, because I hate her,” signed Denise. “My brother is a rat,” writes Danny, “you should give him a tail. Ha ha.” But the last two letters turn a bit more serious toward God. Take Tim M., age 9, for instance. “I wish that there wasn't no such thing as sin. I wish that there was no such thing as war.” That's our prayer too, isn't it? But Larry suggests how God can deal with those problems. He's been doing some serious thinking about sin and war. He writes to God, “Maybe Cain and Abel would not kill each other so much if they had their own room. It works with my brother.”

Tim M., age 9 and Larry, at least you're honest enough to name that sin is the single thing that flaws our relationships with each other and God. A lot of us adults have a real problem with owning up to sin. But confession is not only good for the soul-it's healthy.

An emperor once ruled over a vast territory. His sin was that he liked to be the best-dressed man in the kingdom, so he taxed the people to death in order to afford his beautiful wardrobe. One day he caught wind of two new tailors who had arrived in town. But these were no ordinary tailors. They brought with them the most expensive and sheerest material in the world. So fine was this cloth that only fools or persons unfit for office could not see it. Summoned at once, the two tailors appeared before the emperor and assured him that, though their incredibly beautiful material was costly, they would be glad to weave him a new robe.

The tailors worked for two months preparing the emperor's new clothes. But finally, the day arrived when the Emperor donned his new clothes. Now as the Emperor dressed, all he could see was his red polka dotted royal fruit of the looms, but not willing to appear stupid or unfit for office, he walked out from behind his court dressing area. His courtiers were equally stunned to see their king clad only in underwear, but no one dared say anything because they were afraid of appearing stupid or unfit for office. So everyone made much ado about nothing. Worse yet, the emperor had arranged for a parade that day where he would strut about in his new robes. “Hear ye, hear ye! By royal proclamation, applaud ye the king in his new clothes.” Now it was the villager's turn to be stunned by the royal red polka dotted underwear of the king. But not a peep came from the crowd, because no one wanted to appear incredibly stupid or unfit for office.

That is, all except a little kid. Maybe it was Larry or Tim M., age 9.

Sitting atop his father's shoulders, the boy pointed to the emperor and shouted for all to hear, “Look, the king's walking around in his underwear. He doesn't have any clothes on!” That's all it took. Suddenly, the entire village began to lampoon the king. And as the king sat on the street, surrounded by jeering subjects, he made two discoveries. “The people,” he said, “know the truth about me. They see the truth about my vanity.” Then gazing down at his royal red underwear, he uttered his second discovery, “and that's not all they see.” So off he ran back into the castle to change his clothes and to change his life.

This morning we break the silence. About our nakedness. About ourselves. Like Tim M., age 9 and Larry, Paul tells the truth about us. A truth that has been confirmed again and again in our history .In the first four chapters of Romans, he says that all of us have fallen short of God's vision for human life. And so with Paul we must admit it--that we are sinners.

Sinner-the word may sound old-fashioned, but it's true. We are all of us, sinners. Most of us avoid the term. We have modern names for sin like “hang-ups,” or we can rattle off psychological stuff like “depression,” “anxiety ,” or a “guilt complex.” But again and again, we circle back to the old biblical word: We are sinners, all. Certainly, we can read about sin in the newspaper. Big sins, like murder or rape, bold-faced type sins. And we can name sins in the lives of others. “She doesn't care about anyone else,” we say, or “He's so vain.” But when it comes to our own lives, it's really hard to see our sin. Maybe “I should go back and apologize,” but then we don't and the moment is past. Or maybe, when tax time comes around we flip through our check stubs and think for an instant, “I shoulda given more away .” Or maybe when we hear our kids dream big dreams for their lives, we suddenly think, “well, I've settled for much less; I haven't been what I could have been.” Then, we move away and try to forget. But one thing is for sure, the world isn't divided into sinners and non-sinners: Deep down we know our lives are compromised. “We're supposed to love, but we all flunk,” says a TV detective hero. So time to 'fess up this morning. Time to get down on our knees and admit we are sinners. “Sinner,” is a word full of anguish. Sinner-that's the biblical word, and we know it's true. We are, all of us, sinners.

Of all the things that we do in this worship place on Sunday mornings, the most important act we can offer God is to truth-tell. To look at our world and our lives and to tell the truth of our need of God's saving act in Jesus Christ. Like the Emperor, we've made the discovery of our lack and our need for help and forgiveness. In our Collect this morning, we admitted as much when we confessed that before God all our desires are known, no secrets are kept hidden. Or as the Prayer Book says, “Grant, we beseech thee, merciful Lord, to thy faithful people pardon and peace, that they may be cleansed from all their sins, and serve thee with a quiet mind.” So on this Sunday morning at church, we pause for a moment of honesty, a moment of admission, a moment of being the Emperor, naked and exposed before God. Seeing and naming the truth about our lives. That's why Lent is so important. Lent is a time when we can say with the psalmist and mean it: “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me.”

But Paul also tells the truth about God. That we're not left to commiserate with each other in a cesspool of shame and sin. God has provided reconciliation and peace in Jesus Christ. Let me tell you a little story that helped me to see this in a new light.

During the late I960's a cannibal tribe was discovered in Papua New Guinea. Anthropologists were astonished to learn that one of the two highest virtues among the Sawi was treachery .The more treacherous one could be toward one's enemy the more virtuous one was in the village. So when the first Christian missionaries, Don Richardson and his wife, got to the part of the Gospel story where Judas betrayed Jesus. The Sawi warriors broke up with laughter and accolades for Judas--what a great example of treachery. So the missionaries stayed on to provide medical help and hygiene and to help protect them from outside interference, but they had no success in sharing the Good News of Jesus Christ.

The second characteristic among the Sawi it was learned was warfare, the constant infighting among neighboring Sawi tribes. Intertribal wars would go on for months on end. The missionary and his wife tended to the wounded and buried their dead, until they just could not take the fighting any longer. So they went to the chief and told him they would leave immediately if the fighting persisted.

Not wanting the missionary and his wife to leave, they agreed to end their fighting. “Sure,” thought the missionary .” How can they possibly bring peace among themselves when they haven't been able to stop in over three months.” But later that week, both tribes formed a long line facing each other. Everyone was silent for the momentous event. On one end of the long line the tribal chief took a baby from its mother--his own--and slowly began to walk down the line. The mother screamed and fell to the ground crying. But the tribal chief walked on with each warrior that he passed touching the child. At the end of the line was a woman from the enemy camp. Into her hands, the chief placed his child. The child was now their property, their “peace” child.

The somber occasion was interrupted with celebration as both tribes jumping up and down with furious emotion. The tribes had made peace that day in the giving of a Peace Child. And as long as the child lived, they would enjoy peace among their tribes. Among the first converts was the man who had offered his baby up as the Peace Child. He painfully understood the meaning of a God who had also given up his Son as a Peace Child in order to bring peace among the tribes of the earth.

Cicero once said, “Let war yield to peace.” Isn't that what Paul is telling us? That the war is over. Something about a Peace Child bringing us peace? Listen again. “Jesus,” Paul says, “was handed over to death for our trespasses and was raised for our justification.” Each communion service, you hear these words right out of Romans 5--”Hear the good news: Christ died for us while we were yet sinners; that proves God's love toward us. In the name of Jesus Christ, you are forgiven.” And then you say back to me, “In the name of Jesus Christ you are forgiven.” We're not playing God at church, we're just agreeing with what God says about us. This morning, hear the Good News according to Romans 5: In Jesus Christ you have been reconciled, you have peace and you are forgiven. Glory be to God.

But that's not all. Reconciliation isn't just a word that means we've been brought into friendship with God and God's love. It also implies that being reconciled, we are now free to become reconcilers. That much of our life is offering others reconciliation in the name of Christ. But what does that look like? Maybe it'll look something like this.

A number of years ago-using the technique called, “recovered memory ,” Stephen Cook filed a ten million dollar lawsuit that accused Cardinal Bernardin of sexual abuse. The young man claimed that the Roman Catholic priest had sexually abused him back in the mid-I970's. CNN picked up the story of sexual abuse by a priest and splashed the story across every television screen in America. Rage and shock was the immediate reaction. “Defrock him.” “Put the jerk in jail.” .But four months later the young man dropped the charges and admitted that they were unfounded. The accuser and the accused later met eyeball to eyeball in Philadelphia and there Cardinal Bernardin celebrated Mass and anointed Steven Cook. Bernardin: “Never in my forty-three years as a priest have I witnessed a more profound reconciliation. It was a manifestation of God's love, forgiveness and healing which I will never forget.”

A press conference was called. What was interesting was to watch the reaction of the talking heads. They seemed at a loss about how to “react” to a story like this. CNN had broken the story in a special report about sexual abuse against the Cardinal. But now, CNN's commentators seemed ill at ease. Normally, anchors have a stock set of facial expressions to accompany stories. Plane crash? Look sad. Genocide in Rwanda? Look concerned. More fighting in Bosnia? More concern. Christmastime? Cheerful. But what expression do we use for reconciliation? Maybe television doesn't quite know what to make of people like Cardinal Bernardin and his large heart. Such is the power of one who had received forgiveness and reconciliation.

The Good News of the Gospel invites us to be confident in the truth that in Christ we have hope, for we have been justified, given peace, and reconciliation. Therefore, let us leave this place to be reconcilers. Amen.