Saturday, September 10, 2011

Forgive us our sins

Over twenty years ago, someone hurt me very much.  There’s no need to recount the details; the reason I bring it up is because I have forgiven this man many times.  Sometimes, I remember the incident, think it over,
nd tell myself I’ve forgiven him.  Then I put it away again, determined not to give it any more thought.

But I do think about it.  It hasn’t been more than a few months since I told someone the story!  I can’t tell you how many times I have “forgiven” him.  In truth, I understand he didn’t intend to hurt me.  I don’t hold it against him.  And I don’t bear him a grudge.  But somehow, the incident has remained alive for me all these years.

When I began thinking about what to say today, this story popped into my head.  This time, I realized
that I have forgiven him but until now I hadn’t been able to see my own involvement as being other than victim.  In truth, I had a lot to do with my own hurt.  There were several places in the conversation where I could have stopped it, where I should have stopped it, and yet I didn’t.

How many times must I forgive my brother, Lord?  As many times as it takes, replies Jesus.

I think I’ve finally forgiven this person for the last time.  It won’t make a difference to our relationship.  He’s dead now; yet, even if he wasn’t, we would be living far apart and traveling in different circles.  But I still need to forgive him for my own sake, for my own spiritual health.

An important part of forgiveness is deciding to release ourselves from the unhealthy baggage not forgiving piles on us.  As usual, I did not come to understand this on my own.  I was reading an article called, “Is forgiveness possible at Ground Zero?”

Today is 9/11.  Ten years ago today, we stopped whatever we were doing and watched the horrors of that day over and over again. Almost immediately, Americans began looking at Middle Easterners differently
and many began casting blame for the tragedy on the nearest Arab-looking person.  Then there were all those officials that might have stopped it if only…. 

We are very good at placing political blame in this country.  We are doing it again at all levels of government
over the jobs and debt crises.  Perhaps blaming someone helps at first.  But in the long run, it is an impossible game to win.  Because, you see, it doesn’t help anyone heal, it doesn’t help rebuild cities and towns, it won’t feed the hungry or clothe the poor.

And it really doesn’t make us feel better, either.  Forgiving those who chose to attack this country, forgiving those who seem to put politics ahead of what’s good for the country, has to be the Christian response.

Now here’s what we need to remember about forgiveness.  It in no way releases the wrongdoers from the sin of their actions.  Saying, I forgive you, does not wipe the slate clean.  What it does, is allow us to heal
and to learn trust once more.  Forgiving someone does not mean they can continue doing the same old thing,
causing the same hurt.  It means that by our act of forgiveness, we are working to turn them around.

Do you remember in the epistle two weeks ago, Paul said if our enemies are hungry, we should feed them;
if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads?
What a strange thing to say, but Paul means that we are to treat those who have wronged us, who are our enemies, with the same kindness we treat each other.  In so doing, we embarrass them into changing their ways.  Changing their heart is the part of forgiveness that is about them.

And that’s what the parable is about today.  An oriental potentate calls for an audit of all his accounts and discovers that one of his officials has mismanaged a great deal of money.  The sum in the parable is so huge
that no one could ever pay it back which makes you wonder where the potentate got it in the first place!

In any case,  the official begs for mercy, assuring the potentate that he will indeed pay it back if given enough time – perhaps three lifetimes would be enough.  He is greatly surprised, as is everyone within earshot, to hear the potentate forgive him the entire debt.

And yet, the official then sees someone who owes him a trifling amount of money – easily paid off in a matter of months or years – and he orders him thrown into jail until the debt is paid.  When the potentate hears this,
he has the official treated the same way. 

How can we be forgiven if we are not willing to forgive?  It is not a simple matter of asking our own sins to be forgiven and then going about business as usual.  If that was the case, forgiveness would be cheap,
not worth asking for.

Remember that forgiveness requires a response from the one being forgiven, some kind of restitution or admission that leads to a changed life.  By refusing to accord his own debtor the same magnanimous treatment given to him, the official has cancelled out the forgiveness given to him.  It does not take the act of the potentate to do this.  No, he merely makes it official.  The sinner, by refusing to learn anything from the potentate’s act of forgiveness, condemns himself to living in the torment of his sin.

In reading this parable, we need to be careful not to allegorize it.  The potentate does forgive just as God forgives – limitlessly – but that is the only way in which he is like God.  God does not sell families into slavery.  God does not renege on promises made.  The parable is strictly about forgiveness and how we are not to set limits on the forgiveness we offer those who sin against us.

Jesus taught us to pray Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.  If I am not willing to forgive, how can I be forgiven?  Just as we work at not causing others harm, so we must work at forgiving
those who harm us. 

One of the lessons to come out of 9/11 is that we do not understand the mind of our Islamic brothers and sisters.  We are working to correct that but we may never fully understand.  St. Paul warns us not to pass judgment on another, that our Lord has welcomed them even though they may not know it.  The one who is faithful to his or her lord is upheld by our Lord.  That was a radical teaching for Christians then and it is still one for us now.

God’s mercy and forgiveness are unlimited.  It is not ours to build in limits.

The images of the World Trade Center being hit, burning and collapsing are part of our memory now.  The plane slamming into the Pentagon is not an image we can forget.  The courage of the people on board the plane that went down in Pennsylvania, as well as the courage of those who tried to put out the fires at all three sites and lost their lives, is part of who we are now.

But, while we can’t forget, we certainly can and must forgive even if we don’t really know who we are forgiving.  If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live
or whether we die, we are the Lord’s. 

The Lord has forgiven.  So must we.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Psalm 103:8-13

You are full of compassion and mercy,
     slow to anger and of great kindness.
You will not always accuse us,
     nor will you keep your anger for ever.
You have not dealt with us according to our sins,
     nor rewarded us according to our wickedness.
For as the heavens are high above the earth,
     so far have you removed our sins from us.
As a parent cares for a child,
     so do you care for those who fear you.
                  --St. Helena Breviary

Being slow to anger and of great kindness are two things I strive for.  I don't like to be angry but I don't understand people who rarely are.  I am getting better, though, at not reacting out of anger quite so quickly.  The kindness part has slowed that down and often give me time to think of why I am angry and how it happened. 

But it is a great comfort to me to know that God is slow to anger and of great kindness.  That God does not count our sins and then decide how to care for us is astounding.  The call to hate the sin and love the sinner is one we don't manage very well and usually find not the least bit helpful.  But that seems to be one description of how God loves us.

I suspect every parent and an awful lot of children read that last verse with fear and trepidation.  Have we treated our children the way we want God to treat us?  When we are called to punish - and all parents are so called at times - do we take the other four verses into consideration?  By our actions, what are we teaching our children about God?  I know there are times I should have done better, should have been slow to anger, should have somehow managed to remember mercy and kindness.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Shall we shun one another or dine together?

This is the sermon on MT.18:15-20 that I will likely preach at St. Christopher's tomorrow morning.

Sometimes, in preparing sermons, I will go back and see what I wrote in the past – something that is hard to do since I often don’t use a text. In any case, the sermon from six years ago, before I got here, actually used the word shunning. Somehow – I confess I stopped reading at about that point – I went on to suggest that shunning can be a good thing. I’ll bet a lot of people were confused that day!
No one likes confrontation. It happens and, if we do it well, it clears the air. Most of the time we don’t do it well, though, so we avoid it and hope we will eventually forget whatever is causing the conflict. That rarely happens, either.

In her sermon on this gospel text, Barbara Brown Taylor creates this fanciful story*:

Fred, a fellow parishioner, asks you one Sunday if he can borrow your lawn mower after church. His is in the shop. You’ve known Fred for a number of years and worked with him on several projects so you agree. Well, a week goes by and then another and Fred hasn’t returned the lawn mower. So you go over to his house and ask to have it back. “Oh,” says Fred. “My neighbor borrowed it from me and left it in his driveway. He forgot it was there and backed out over it and there’s no lawn mower left. Sorry about that.”

Well, you are really steamed. So you tell Fred that it was his responsibility to take care of the mower and get it back to you in one piece and you suggest that he give you a check for half the cost of a new one. Fred tells you it’s not his responsibility and too bad for you!

So you go get a few other members of the church who know Fred and go back to ask for the check. Fred won’t even open the door but shouts some unkind remarks through the door.

Then you call the parish together and tell them what happened. They get busy making signs encouraging Fred to help pay for the mower and you all head back to Fred’s house. No one answers the door when you ring the bell and all the blinds are closed. But everyone waves their signs and smiles, waving any time the curtains flicker.

Finally, Fred comes out, looking quite sheepish, and hands you a check for half the cost of a new mower.

And I suppose this is where someone says, “They all lived happily ever after.” Except I don’t think we would. Fred will likely leave the parish because he is embarrassed. Others will wonder why they went along with this crazy scheme and will probably not speak to you for a few weeks at least. And, while you have gotten the check, I would imagine you don’t feel too good about this, either. This just doesn’t work.

Let’s put the gospel passage in context. The disciples have come to Jesus to ask, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” And Jesus says that unless we become like children, we will never enter the kingdom. He’s talking about humility and probably curiosity and trust. Jesus goes on to say that the one who causes a child to stumble would be better off tossed in the sea with a great huge millstone around her neck. And then comes that awful part about cutting off an offending hand or foot and tearing out an eye that has caused you to stumble.

Just before our reading, Jesus talks about the lost sheep, how the shepherd leaves the 99 to go and find it, what rejoicing there is over that one sheep. “So it is not the will of your Father in heaven that one of these little ones should be lost,” says Jesus.

With that last line in particular in mind, hear again what Jesus says today.

If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one. But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses – why? Well, not so you can be vindicated or the other be castigated, but rather so rumors have no chance of being spread about what was said. If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax-collector.

And, once again, that last line is the kicker. It sounds exactly like we should shun the greatest sinners – recognizing, of course, that we are all sinners of one sort or another, I’m sure. But who is writing this gospel? A tax-collector! And who did Jesus eat with more than the righteous? You have it. Gentiles, tax-collectors and all the heinous sinners those two words represent.

I have to admit it never occurred to me that Jesus goes through that long instruction about how to deal with conflict and then tells us to have dinner together. Jesus always seemed to be enjoying himself at those dinners, too.

This entire chapter of Matthew is about how we treat each other. And how we treat each other says a lot about how we are a community.

What kind of community do we want to be? I asked this question yesterday on Facebook. David Lose, a professor at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota, asked it first. He says there are all sorts of communities all over the place and we are probably part of several – work-related ones, social-media ones, communities based on specific activities like running or watching our kids play soccer. But, asks Lose, “What kind of community do we want from our congregation – largely social, somewhat superficial (which is, of course, safe)? Do we want something more meaningful or intimate (which is riskier and harder)? Do we want a place that can both encourage us and hold us accountable? Are we looking for a place we can be honest about our hopes and fears, dreams and anxieties? Do we want somewhere we can just blend in or are we looking for a place we can really make a difference?”

That is a huge question. It is the foundation for the work I hope we will do at our parish retreat in a few weeks. Think about it. Write down some answers and share them with someone else, maybe two or three someones. And then come share those answers with the church at the retreat. I, for one, am hungry for your answers. I am dying to listen. I guarantee you that the Holy Spirit will be there to help us take all of our answers and forge a vision for our future together. This is Kingdom work and it will take every single one of us sinners to do it.

*story is paraphrased