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Isaiah 66.7-13

Romans 14.13-23 (New English Bible)

Mother, May I?

Permission and Forgiveness

Fourth Sunday of Easter

I was little once.  And I remember that being little made it seem like the entire world was designed to keep me out.  Doors that were shut tight refused to yield to my skinny little frame. While I could reach the kitchen sink, the faucets were hopelessly, tantalizingly out of reach.  And the cookie cupboard, much to my chagrin, may as well have been in another world.  Of course the world of childhood was restricted by more than merely physical limitation:  turning on the television, getting whatever I wanted out of the refrigerator, and locating that monster can of Charles Chips – Remember Charles Chips?  They were delivered straight to the house every other week and came in a giant tin canister and were available in a variety of flavors; it’s been a long time since I’ve seen a Charles Chip truck any more… - but anyway, the TV, the fridge and the chips were things that were all easily within my reach, but there was something even more forbidding than my size or age which kept them from me:  it was that awesomely adult authorization called Permission.

There are other ways of looking at the world as a child though, and since so many things seemed – unfairly, I might add – to conspire to keep me out, I decided that their real purpose in life was to test my ingenuity and tenacity for getting in.  A simple chair, for example, became a wonderfully magical instrument, once I discovered it could become my key for accessing the formerly inaccessible.  Once I made the initial journey from floor to chair to counter, everything was within reach.  The same chair that led me to a treasure trove of cookies in the heretofore unreachable cupboard also brought me all the water I could splash around in the kitchen sink.  And, to my delight, it also introduced me to previously unimagined recesses like the freezer, home of all the ice cream I could want, as well as closet shelves which in themselves held no particular interest, but the fact that now I could reach them naturally meant I must!

But being old enough to figure out that chairs are not just for sitting also meant being old enough to realize that asking permission to get into all those spaces would prove patently counterproductive.  I mean, beds are veritably made for jumping, right?  How else was I supposed to imprint the palm of my hand on the ceiling?  Dad’s shaving cream showed me what a six year old with a white beard might look like.  And discovering mom’s hand lotion meant I could sense her reassuring presence even when she wasn’t in the room - especially when she wasn’t in the room.  I mean, can you imagine actually asking permission to get out of bed at two o’clock in the morning so you could eat cookies and watch the late, late show, when you could achieve the same result unbeknownst to anyone in authority by simply moving around the sleeping household with the lights off and keeping the volume turned down nearly all the way?  Besides, we all know there are only two answers for children who are dim enough to ask permission for the clearly impermissible:  one is “No,” and the other, intoned by untold generations of fathers is, “Go ask your mother.”

It isn’t until you’re a little older that asking permission becomes the prudent thing to do, when you reach the age where you realize there are points to be made by being politic, the age where you learn it is possible to leverage a handful of tactical “No”s to negotiate to that single strategic “Yes.”  And it is as we grow up, it is as we gradually become adults, that asking permission becomes almost a way of life, only we don’t call it permission any more, we call it approval.  But in the end it is much the same thing.

For as much as we avoided having to ask permission when we were little, when we grow up we look for approval in an entirely new set of circumstances.  We seek approval from the people we work for, whether for a specific undertaking or simply to know that ours is a job well done.  We seek approval from the people we work with, because not only do we want to work well with others, but we genuinely want them to be successful.  We tend to associate with people whose style of living and point of view are most like our own, so we can exchange mutually tacit approval.  Whether or not we call it by its own name, so much of life involves the seeking of permission, the desire for approval, because we want to know that the way we go about life is right and true and pleasing to those we most desire to please.

But asking permission, it turns out, is not always the most expeditious way of achieving a goal.  Permission can be granted, and permission can be withheld.  I’m not going to do too deep a dive into this week’s leaked news report of the Supreme Court’s pending decision regarding abortion rights; I’m going to hope against hope that the decision is not final until it’s final.  But I can’t help but wonder about who gets to grant permission to a woman who wants to make her own choices about her own body, her own health and her own life.  If the answer is four old men and a solitary female, then you can count me among the unpersuaded.  If I have agency over my own body, why shouldn’t everyone?  And if the reason I have agency over my own body is because I am male, white and straight, then there is something seriously wrong, and I would be wrong not to call it out.  As I said, I’m going to hope against hope that the decision is not final until it’s final.

Very often you and I think of God as a permission-giving God.  God’s divine “thou shalts” and “thou shalt nots” ring through many of our scriptures and pulpits.  But this picture of God the disciplinarian turns out to be far from the God we know in Jesus Christ, and indeed far from the God we know in much of both Testaments.  I asked Diane to read the passage from Isaiah this morning, in part because today is Mother’s Day, in part because I know it is a favorite of many, and in part because it is an image of a God who gives us permission before we even ask.  Isaiah describes it this way:  we are cradled in God’s arms; we are held tightly to God’s breast; we are nourished at God bosom; we are bounced up and down upon in God’s lap with affection and playfulness; we find in God’s presence that sense of peace and security and permission and forgiveness which every child instinctively knows in a parent’s embrace.  Who of us would not jump at the invitation to come to this kind of God, to know we are welcomed into the open arms of such a holy love?  As children hold a special place in the heart of those who raised them, so do we find an unconditional affection in the heart of the one who both created and redeemed us.

And in the spirit of the notion that sometimes it is wiser to seek forgiveness than permission, the apostle Paul generously conflates the two in his letter to the Romans.  “Everything is pure in itself,” he wrote, reminding us that while creation is inherently good, it still remains for us to enjoy God’s creation in good and useful and faithful ways.  What we eat and drink, the things we say, the work we do, all may be done to the glory of God.  It is only when we misuse God’s gifts, or when we do not use them to their greatest potential, to the greatest good, that sin can sneak into the equation.  What is right for me may not be right for my neighbor, and what is right for my neighbor may not be right for me, and if this is the case, then Paul insists I need to think of my neighbor before myself.  As people of faith, we have God’s blanket permission to work for what is good and blessed in the world, as Paul writes, “to pursue the things that make for peace and build up our common life.”

To put it another way, the forgiveness we know in Jesus Christ is God’s permission to do anything we want; or as Augustine famously said, “Love God, and do as you please.”  “If you have a clear conviction,” Paul wrote, “apply it to yourself in the sight of God.”  You and I know what it is to be loved unconditionally by God, or at least that God is doing everything within God’s power to convince us.  And so whatever we do, inasmuch as it serves to manifest and extend that love, and to build up the community around us, is permissible.  When you and I engage in what is helpful to others, when we bring justice and peace and joy to the world, when we experience the love of God in all its satisfying fullness by loving others with the same extravagance, then everything we do will be lawful, and we may do as we please.  For what we please will by definition be pleasing to God.

Because we have God’s forgiveness, we have God’s permission. You and I are free in God to do as we please.  We can love each other without reservation; there is no limit to what we are allowed to do to build up our church; every opportunity to help somebody else is fair territory, and we can go back to the well and be refreshed as often as we like.  God has approved us, and in the end, this is all the approval we need. 

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