Back in the sixth century before the birth of Christ, the Israelites were in a bad way. They had been separated from their God by sin: against God’s commands, they had betrayed their covenant with the Lord and made foreign alliances, which he had forbidden them to do. As punishment, God separated them from their homeland: the cream of the crop of their society was taken into exile in Babylon, and those left behind had no one to lead them and protect them. Because they moved away from God, God seemed to move away from them. But he hadn’t. In today’s first reading, God shows them that he still loves them and cares for them, and promises to make them a new people. I love the line: “See, I am doing something new! Now it springs forth; do you not perceive it?” God would indeed bring them back and create their community anew.
The Israelites were in exile, but exile can take so many forms. And St. Paul had a good sense of that. For him, the exile was anything that was not Christ; a sentiment we would do well to embrace. St. Paul knows that he has not yet taken possession of the glory that is promised him by Christ, but he knows also that he has already been taken possession of by Christ. He wants to leave behind the exile of the world and strains forward to all that lies ahead, the goal and prize of God’s calling in Christ.
Which brings us back to the woman caught in adultery. We certainly feel sorry for her, caught in the act, dragged in front of Jesus and publicly humiliated. But the truth is, just like the Israelites in the sixth century before Christ, she had actually sinned. And that sin threatened to put her into exile from the community; well, it even threatened her life. The in-your-face reversal in the story, though, is that Jesus doesn’t consider her the only sinner – or even the greatest sinner – in the whole incident. We should probably wonder about the man she was committing adultery with; that sin does, after all, take two. And adultery is a serious sin. But Jesus makes it clear that there are plenty of serious sins out there, and they all exile us from God. As he sits there, writing in the sand, they walk away one by one. What was he writing? Was it a kind of examination of conscience? A kind of list of the sins of the Pharisees? We don’t know. But in Jesus’ words and actions, those Pharisees too were convicted of their sins, and went away – into exile – because of them.
Sin does that to us. It makes exiles out of all of us. The more we sin, the further away from God we become. And it doesn’t have to be that way.
Jimmy and Suzy went to visit their grandmother for a week during the summer. They had a great time, but one day Jimmy was bouncing a ball in the house, which he knew he shouldn’t be doing. After not too long, the ball hit grandma’s vase and broke in half. He picked up the pieces and went out back and hid them in the woodshed. Looking around, the only person who was around was his sister Suzy. She didn’t say anything, but later that day, when grandma asked her to help with the dishes, Suzy said “I think Jimmy wanted to help you.” So he did. The next day, grandpa asked Jimmy if he wanted to go out fishing. Suzy jumped right in: “He’d like to but he promised grandma he would weed the garden.” So Jimmy weeded the garden. As he was doing that, he felt pretty guilty and decided to confess the whole thing to grandma. When he told her what had happened, grandma said, “I know. I was looking out the back window when you were hiding the pieces in the woodshed. I was wondering how long you were going to let Suzy make a slave of you.”
That’s how it is with sin: it makes a slave of us, and keeps us from doing what we really want to do. It puts us deep in exile, just as surely as the ancient Israelites. And it doesn’t have to be that way.
You see, it’s easier than we think to end up in exile. Here are some ways people find themselves in exile:
• They ignore the needs of the poor and exile themselves from the full community;
• They judge others and thus draw a dividing line between themselves and those they judge;
• They lie and are no longer trusted by others;
• They refuse to forgive, and are trapped in the past, not willing to respond to the present;
• They cheat, steal and abuse the rights of others and thus offend the right order of the community;
• They act violently in words and actions and thus perpetuate forces that splinter and violate the human community;
• They withdraw from their church and diminish the community’s ability to witness to God and serve others.
Exile is heartbreaking. And to the exile of sin, God says three things today:
First, “Go, and from now on, do not sin anymore.” That sounds like something that’s easy to say but hard to do. But the fact is, once we have accepted God’s grace and forgiveness, that grace will actually help us to be free from sin. Of course, that’s impossible to do all on our own. But God never commands us to do something that is impossible for us, or maybe better, he never commands us to do something that is impossible for him to do in us. God’s grace is there if we but turn to him.
Second, God says: “Forget what lies behind and strain forward to what lies ahead.” Once sin is confessed and grace is accepted, the sin is forgotten. God is not a resentful tyrant who keeps a list of our offenses and holds them against us forever. If we confess our sins and accept the grace that is present through the saving sacrifice of Jesus, the sins are forgotten. But it is up to us to accept that grace. We truly have to confess so that we can forget what lies behind and be ready for the graces ahead.
Third, God says: “See, I am doing something new. Now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?” We are the ones who get stuck in the past, always fearing to move forward because of past sins, hurts, and resentments. We are called today to be open to the new thing God is doing in our lives. The way to open up is to get rid of the past.
For a long time I didn’t go to confession. I didn’t think I needed to. I grew up in that whole time of the church when it was all about how you felt about yourself. Garbage. I knew something was wrong when I was in my young adulthood and felt lost. I took a chance and went to confession at a penance service, and the priest welcomed me back. In that moment, I knew exactly the new thing God was doing in me, and it felt like a huge weight was lifted off of me. In fact, I was released from the exile of all my past sins and hurts.
I never forgot that, and whenever anyone comes to me in confession and says it’s been a long time since they went, I am quick to welcome them back. Because that’s what God wants. He wants to lift that weight off of you, to end your exile. All it takes is for you to see that new thing he is doing in you, and to strain forward to what lies ahead.
Tomorrow night at 7:00 we have our parish reconciliation service. If you have not been to confession yet this Lent, or if, like me, you haven’t been in years, it’s time to end your exile. We will have six priests here to hear you, and we are looking forward to the opportunity to do that. Would that we would all take this opportunity to forget what lies behind, and strain forward to what lies ahead. God is doing a new thing in all of us these Lenten days. Let us all be open to it.