Three Little Words

Romans 3:19-28

It is said that a good marriage depends on the number of times you say three little words… “You’re right, dear.”

OK, that’s not what you were thinking, but doesn’t it feel good to be right? So often our assessments are wrong, our memory fails, or our reasoning is faulty. So isn’t it a delicious pleasure on rare occasions you can think to yourself, (inside your head), “I told you so.” Love may make the world go round, but when push comes to shove, we love to BE RIGHT.

But it isn’t always easy to get things right. Remember when they used to ask you in the grocery stores if you wanted paper or plastic bags? It seemed like a simple question, but doing the calculation proved otherwise. Plastic is made with fossil fuels—bad for the environment. On the other hand, they can be recycled—good for the environment. Paper requires cutting down trees—bad for the environment. But they biodegrade—good for the environment. Here we are tied, at 0-0.

What about the reusable cloth bags? Made with cloth, which doesn’t take either trees or fossil fuels—you can even get organic cotton ones, AND there’s no waste…right answer! Except that I learned that people don’t wash them enough, so antibiotic resistant strains of bacteria are growing in them, ready to infect the world!  

How can we get the right answer in a case like this? It seems there is no right answer. From the interpersonal to the geopolitical, it seems there are many cases where there are only varying degrees of wrong answers. Try as we might, we just can’t get it right. This is basically what St. Paul was saying in his letter to the Romans. He wrote, “no human being will be justified in God’s sight,” and, “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” It doesn’t matter how hard we try, there is something about the human condition which predisposes us toward mess-ups. And means that even when we are faithful and trying to do the right thing, there may only be degrees of rightness to which we can aspire.

It makes me think of WWII Lutheran theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Bonhoeffer was part of the Confessing Church in Germany, Christians who resisted the Nazis. He even secretly joined a plot to assassinate Hitler. Eventually he was imprisoned and executed.    

Bonhoeffer’s writings focus largely on the ethics of Christianity—that is, how to live out the Christian life. Obviously, since Bonhoeffer was ready to assassinate Hitler, being a Christian wasn’t about getting everything perfect. It wasn’t right to kill another human being, but what Hitler was doing was so much worse. One of my seminary profs was fond of saying, “Bonhoeffer never expected that you could get out of life with your hands clean.”

What Bonhoeffer did do was rely on was the grace of God, no matter his course of action. He wrote in this seminal book, “The Cost of Discipleship”: “I’m still discovering, right up to this moment, that it is only by living completely in this world that one learns to have faith. I mean living unreservedly in life’s duties, problems, successes and failures, experiences and perplexities. In so doing, we throw ourselves completely into the arms of God.”

We throw ourselves into the arms of God when we live in the ambiguity, consider carefully our actions, and make the best decision we can. It’s not about trusting in your own ability to make it all right—instead it’s trusting in God’s ability to make it all right.

According to St. Paul, this is what God has already done in Jesus. “Since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.” What we can’t do for ourselves, is given to us, clear and free, as a gift. Call it forgiveness or call it a fresh start, the word “justified” means that we are returned to good standing with God. I tell my confirmation classes that it has the words inside it: “Just-as-if-I’d.” We are justified, and that means God looks at us just as if I’d never sinned.

So this means that we leave behind all that wrong counting and rule following. And this is good, because being right is not all it’s cracked up to be. When you believe you are right, it’s easy to judge others. It’s easy to divide people up into camps. It’s easy to be angry. When you are convinced that you are right and someone else is wrong, there is little room for compassion or understanding. Being right doesn’t necessarily bring us closer to God or each other.

In the end, it doesn’t matter how right you are, because ultimately being right doesn’t get you where you want to go:

Where we all want to go is love.

To love and be loved.

You don’t get to love by being all alone on your righteous island.

You don’t get to love by feeling entitled to judge.

You get to love by letting go and leaving being right to God.

St. Paul wrote that God sent Jesus “to show his divine righteousness, for in his divine forbearance he passed over the sins previously committed.” God is the one who is right, all the time. The right thing that God did was not to crush us for our pettiness, but to forgive us.

Brothers and sisters, sometimes we just can’t get it right. But the good news is that we don’t have to. Our job is to accept God’s forgiveness. Because the more we accept God’s forgiveness, the more we can let go of the wrongs others have done us. The more we can free ourselves up to act boldly, like Dietrich Bonhoeffer, even though our actions are imperfect.

It makes me think again of that saying about marriage: a good marriage depends on the number of times you say three little words… Today I want to change that saying a little so that it applies to all of us. A good life depends on the number of times you each accept three little words…you are loved.

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