I have recently been watching a lot of Hell’s Kitchen. Has anyone seen that show? To sum it up, a bunch of aspiring chefs come together to prove their skill in a series of competition while a famous chef named Gordon Ramsey yells at them and tells them what bad cooks they are.
In fact, Gordon doesn’t waste time teaching these budding young chefs skills or building a relationships with them. Instead, he expects his chefs to be perfect from the get-go. When his chefs do not live up to those expectations, when his chefs don’t salt the risotto or cook the fish thoroughly enough, Gordon yells them, laments that no one knows what they are doing and – if he is really angry – kicks them straight out of the kitchen.
In Chef Gordon Ramsay’s kitchen, there is no room for error.
Except that in every show, the chefs keep making error and everyone makes at least one. I mean, it wouldn’t be a show without mistakes right? And so what Gordon – with his standards of perfection – ends up revealing is the universal truth that we all fall down sometimes.
Gordon ends up revealing the truth that —
Yes, there are ways we have all messed.
Yes, there are times when we have not made the right choices.
Yes, there are times when we let our teammates down.
On the show, even though all the chefs are incredibly talented, all you have hear them talk about is the mistakes they made. The pan they dropped. The challenged they failed.
The contestants show us how easy it is to count our shortcomings.
I can’t help but wonder if the Israelites that Joel addresses in today’s passage were doing the same thing. I wonder if he could see the ways the Israelites were tallying up their failures and mistakes. I wonder if he could see how hard they were being on themselves. I wonder if he could see their hunger for forgiveness.
I wonder this because Joel speaks up so clearly to remind the Israelites that God is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. One commentator said that those last words might translate better as unbreakable love.
No matter where we might go, what we might do, Joel reminds us, God’s unbreakable love and grace and mercy persist.
I heard a story recently and it told of a pastor who had an Ash Wednesday service outside. She set up a table and nearby she placed two signs: one said, “Life is very, very short.” The other said, “More forgiveness.”
I think there is a truth to this and I wonder if – in the face of the Israelites’ guilt – Joel saw how deeply they needed more forgiveness.
How deeply we all need: more forgiveness.
I recently read the story of author Sara Miles that portrayed the need, like Joel, to speak words of forgiveness and repentance.
In the book City of God, Sara tells the story of a unique Ash Wednesday practice. In her church, on Ash Wednesday, in a small chapel, folks gather, forming in two circles, facing each other. And the inside person says: Forgive me, a sinner. And their partner responds: God forgives you. And then the partner says: Forgive me, a sinner. And the inside person responds: God forgives you. And then they shift down a person.
As Sara is going around saying these words to each new person in the circle, she comes across a woman she doesn’t really know that well. It was a middle-aged woman, who Sara hadn’t exactly avoided but had never gone out of her way to connect with or pay attention to her.
“Forgive me, a sinner,” Sara says, suddenly aware of all her stupid mistakes, minor cruelties, and real betrayals. “God forgives you,” the woman says. She takes a deep breath: “Forgive me, a sinner.” “God forgives you,” Sara responds, and moves on to the next person.
Sara looks down the line and sees an older couple, married for years, hold hands as they looked steadily without speaking, into each other’s faces. “Forgive me, a sinner,” says the old man, finally . His wife gazes at him. “God forgives you,” she says. “Forgive me, a sinner.”
I was struck by this story because we – like the chefs in Hell’s Kitchen – seem to count our failures so readily but hear the words of forgiveness so rarely.
Imagining saying to one another and to me: God forgives you, forgive me a sinner, God forgives you, forgive me a sinner, God forgives you.
My friends, the good news of today is that: We are children of the holy one. We come from God and we return to God.
Although our minds and bodies might fail, although we might make mistakes and our risotto is bland, the unbreakable love of God, and the mercy of God and the forgiveness of God persist above all else.
They are the final word. And the defining word.
Forgive me a sinner. God forgives you.