Forgiveness

Save-Money-Shopping-for-Clothing-at-Thrift-Stores-1491One of the interesting aspects of living in a small town (or at least a city with a small town feel) is that one begins to associate people with their stuff.  I have, for instance, gotten to the point where I can determine who is at an event based on which cars are parked in the parking lot.  I can quickly evaluate who is at church based on which coats are hanging on the coat rack.  And this extends beyond possessions.  At several restaurants in town, I am known not by my name or by my role as an Episcopal priest, but rather by what I order every time I walk through the door.  In a small town, one is able to identify a person on the basis of the things that they use on a regular basis.  There is a corollary to this rule: small town living also enables one to associate people with what they give away.  When I walk around Heavenly Rest’s Thrift House, our secondhand store on the north side of Abilene, I can generally identify which member of our parish donated a particular jacket or piece of crockery, because I had associated the item with that person.  In a small town, we are known not only by what we have, but also by what we have given away, by what we have let go of, by what we have abandoned.

Yesterday, we reflected on the intensity of Jesus’ instructions about sin in the Sermon on the Mount.  We would be remiss if we did not now consider one of the most important prayers that deals with sin in the Christian tradition.  Just after Jesus gives us a new understanding of the Law, he teaches us how to pray with words that have become known as the Lord’s Prayer.  One of the clauses in this prayer petitions God for forgiveness: “Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.”  (Though “debts” is the literal translation of what needs to be forgiven, the alternate versions [trespasses, sins] are equally appropriate, especially since Matthew uses debt as an illustration for sin a few chapters later).  Notice that asking God for forgiveness is contingent on forgiving those who have wronged us.  Just as God has forgiven us through Jesus Christ, we are called to forgive one another.

A few weeks ago, I led a discussion in confirmation class about forgiveness.  After my extensive presentation about the importance of forgiveness, someone asked, “What exactly does forgiveness mean?”  I’m a little ashamed to admit that I had trouble answering the question.  What is it that we affirm God does for us and what is it that God calls us to do for other people?  The word that most versions of the Bible translate as “forgive” can also mean “abandon,” “release,” “pardon,” “cancel,” and “let go.”  In other words, we could potentially translate the Lord’s Prayer “Let go of our debts, as we let go of those debts we hold from others.”  What strikes me about this is that the “letting go” is entirely our initiative.  There doesn’t seem to be any room for us to expect a penitent response from the person we are forgiving.  God is calling us to let go of our grudges, to let go of our anger, and sometimes, to let go of something that has caused us deep pain without expecting anyone to apologize.  As Christians, we are called to be known by what we have forgiven, by what we have let go of and abandoned.  This is enormously challenging, and leaves us with some unanswered questions.  While I will address some of those tomorrow, we must remember that God calls us to consider how we can let go of those things that have driven a wedge between us and others.  We are called to abandon those things that have separated us from God’s reconciling love.

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Deception

“If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.”  1 John 1:8

Bloch-SermonOnTheMountJust after the Beatitudes in Matthew’s gospel, Jesus makes an interesting statement: “Do not think I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.”  He goes on to warn his hearers that if their righteousness and their attention to the Law does not exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees (who were very righteous indeed), they will never enter the kingdom of heaven.  Though this is a surprising statement (given what people may have learned about Jesus from Paul and others) it also seems very cut and dry.  Jesus appears to be saying that the Law of Moses should govern Christian behavior and that we should abide strictly by its precepts.

In the very next portion of the Sermon on the Mount, however, Jesus indicates that the Law has a much deeper significance than we think it does.  He begins by quoting directly from Scripture: “You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times (in Exodus 20:13 and Deuteronomy 5:17), ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgement.'”  This would have been very familiar to his hearers.  But immediately after quoting from the Law of Moses, Jesus says, “But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire.”  In other words, the Law is not limited to our deeds, it also encompasses our words and even our thoughts!  All of a sudden, righteousness is not only a matter of controlling what we do, it is a matter of controlling how we feel.  As Jesus expands the definition of sin in this passage, he leaves us wondering how we can abide by this seemingly impossible standard.

Many of us are uncomfortable with the conception of sin that Jesus presents in the Sermon on the Mount.  It doesn’t seem fair that we should be held accountable for our fleeting thoughts or our emotional responses to a situation.  But notice that Jesus is concerned with how our actions, words, and thoughts impact our perception of other people.  If we are angry with our brother or insult our sister, even in our minds, we fail to honor the image of God in our brother and we destroy the relationship we have with our sister.  It’s really difficult to call someone an “idiot” behind his or her back without allowing that insult to change the way we relate to that person.  Our anger feeds our prejudices and grudges and prevents us from seeing our fellow human beings as children of God.  We have all been guilty of this kind of sinfulness at one point or another.  If we don’t think we have, then we are deceiving ourselves and wandering away from the truth.  But there is no need for us to despair.  Remember that it is God who is reconciling us to God and to one another.  We are called to acknowledge that we have sinned before God in thought, word, and deed, because it is only by taking this first step that we can reach out for the reconciliation God has offered through Jesus Christ.  It is by confessing our sinfulness, by acknowledging our failure to honor the image of God in each other, that we can begin to see all of our fellow human beings as brothers and sisters, as children of God.

Passive Voice

a river runs through itWhen I was growing up, one of the favorite movies in my house was A River Runs through It.  Directed by Robert Redford, the film is the story of how the Maclean brothers grow up and grow apart in rural Montana during the 1920s.  The fabulous cast includes Tom Skerritt as their Presbyterian minister father, Craig Scheffer as the older, more reserved brother, and a young Brad Pitt as the rebellious, self destructive free spirit.  My family’s favorite scene in the movie was one in which the Reverend Maclean is teaching young Norman (played by a very young Joseph Gordon-Levitt) how to write “the American language.”  In the scene, Norman brings a manuscript that his father proceeds to systematically mark up with a red pencil.  The Reverend Maclean hands the paper back to his son, instructing him to make the essay “half as long.”  This occurs several times, until the merciless editor finally says, “Good.  Now throw it away.”  

I think this scene resonated in my household because this was my father’s approach to teaching his boys how to write.  My father would give us feedback on our writing assignments, and invariably his critique had to do with the efficiency of our language.  He would mark out extraneous words and put question marks next to sentences that repeated information.  But my father’s primary linguistic pet peeve was unquestionably our use of the passive voice, wherein the grammatical subject is the recipient (rather than the source) of the action of the verb.  When I was first learning how to write, the passive voice felt classy and sophisticated, and so I would write sentences like this: “It was hoped by the combatants that the truce would last.”  Of course, there is a far more efficient and far less clunky way to write this sentence: “The combatants hoped that the truce would last.”  And efficiency is not the only reason to use the active voice.  I was at the airport the other day, where my father would have mercilessly criticized the following public address announcement: “Any unattended bags should be reported immediately.”  Since this announcement is in the passive voice, it diffuses responsibility.  Surely, airport personnel want us to take responsibility for reporting unattended bags, but this announcement merely suggests that it is someone’s job.  The passive voice is not only inefficient, it can also lead us to pass the buck.

In Scripture, however, passive voice is used frequently.  In deference to the Jewish convention of not uttering the name of God, the New Testament writers would often refer to God in terms of God’s actions.  We saw this last week in the epistle that we read on Ash Wednesday.  In 2 Corinthians 5:20, Paul enjoins us to “be reconciled to God.”  In the New Testament, the verb for reconciliation only occurs in the passive voice.  This is not because Paul and others are trying to diffuse responsibility, it is because God is the only one who can be the subject of that verb.  It is God who reconciles us to himself and to one another.  And so when Paul tells us to “be reconciled to God,” we are responding to God’s action; we are allowing something God has already done to transform our lives and allow us to walk in newness of life.  This is important for us to remember, especially for those of us who have strained relationships and are struggling to reconcile with those who have hurt us or whom we have hurt.  If we remember that it is God who reconciles, that it is God who renews our relationships, then our responsibility is to live out that reconciliation, to embrace what God has already done in our lives and in the lives of others.  During the next week, I will exploring the subject of reconciliation, but I hope we will remember that it is ultimately God who reconciles.  Lent is an opportunity for us to use the passive voice (sparingly), embrace the reconciliation offered through Jesus Christ, and affirm what God has already done in our lives.

Opportunity

“When the devil finished every test, he departed from Jesus until an opportune time.”  Luke 4:13

jesus temptationToday is the first Sunday in Lent, the day that we traditionally hear the story of Jesus’ temptation by Satan in the wilderness.  Luke’s account mirrors that of Matthew: both stories feature the devil offering Jesus food, power, and protection, and both stories detail Jesus’ Scriptural refutation of the devil’s wiles.  There is, however, a significant difference between the two accounts.  While Matthew’s version concludes with angels waiting on Jesus, Luke’s version ends with an ominous prediction that the devil would return at an opportune time.  At the end of Matthew’s account, we get the sense that the devil has been defeated and that Jesus is clearly going to come out on top at the end of the story.  In Luke’s account, the devil is not a vanquished foe limping from the field of battle; he is a cunning strategist engaged in a tactical retreat.  This detail makes the story of Jesus’ temptation much more frightening; it leaves us wondering when the devil is going to make his next move.  The opportune time finally presents itself in Luke 22:3, when “Satan enters into Judas called Iscariot.”

People tend to reject the notion of Satan.  I think this is partially due to popular imagery.  Thanks to Dante and others, “Satan” connotes images of a horned figure with a goatee, cloven feet, and a tail who is the master of numerous demonic minions.  But “Satan” is actually a more generic title for one who is the “adversary,” the one who opposes, tempts, and challenges us in our journey through life.  In this sense, Satan can represent a whole variety of forces in our lives, including our pride, our hypocrisy, and our failure to care for those less fortunate than ourselves.  We are not called to deal with a particular satanic being, we are called to deal with all of those things in our lives that draw us away from God.  In many ways, this can be even more intimidating than the devilish character popular in books and movies.  Instead of looking for a specific foe, we are faced with the uncertain reality of destructive forces that constantly seek opportunities to draw us away from a relationship with God and other people.  Just as Satan is ominously lurking in the shadows in Luke’s gospel, these forces are constantly tempting us away from a life of grace.

The good news is that through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, God has dealt with the power of evil in this world.  Not only that, God equips us to deal with Satan and with those things that draw us away from the love of God on a daily basis.  Just as Jesus confronted Satan with the aid of prayer, Scripture, and discipline, we can deal with these adversarial forces through perseverance in prayer, the study of Scripture, and intentionality in our spiritual routines.  As our deacon pointed out in her sermon this morning, Lent is our opportune time to deal with the power of Satan.  Lent is the time that we remind ourselves that God has equipped each one of us to embrace God’s love and share it with others.  We are called to use Lent as an opportunity to examine those places in our lives that are susceptible to the forces of sin and death, deny their power, and renew our trust in God’s grace and love.

Tents

When I was growing up, I was an enormous fan of M*A*S*H (although I only got to know the show through reruns).  250px-M*A*S*H_TV_title_screenFor those of you who don’t remember the program, M*A*S*H was a sitcom about the 4077th Mobile Army Surgical Hospital, or M*A*S*H (get it?) in the Korean War.  The show featured a team of wisecracking surgeons, gruff but loveable commanding officers, sassy nurses, and quirky enlisted men as they attempted to save lives close to the front lines in Korea.  Of all the historical inaccuracies in the program (and there were plenty; after all, the show was on for about four times as long as the war lasted), the most striking was that this mobile hospital did not seem particularly mobile.  I can only remember one episode in which the unit had to “bug out,” and it took an inordinate number of hijinks to get the job done.  Of course, the show probably would have been tedious if the fictional M*A*S*H unit had to move as frequently as its real-life counterparts, but I wonder if there was a deeper reason for the fact that the hospital tended to remain in one place.  Was it perhaps because people generally tend to be apprehensive about transition and change?

Our spiritual ancestors were well acquainted with transition and change, because like the denizens of the 4077, they lived in tents.  The patriarchs were nomadic herdsmen who had no place to call their own.  The people of Israel wandered in the desert for 40 years after their exodus from Egypt, to the point that there is a feast prescribed in the Old Testament meant to remind the people of their history of living in temporary dwelling-places.  I think that many of us like to imagine that we have arrived wherever we are.  We like to think that our current situation is permanent, that it will only change if we decide we want to move on.  But our Jewish ancestors show us that we often don’t have much choice when it comes to change.  Change and transition are a part of who we are; we are tent-dwelling people.  And since tents get broken down and erected on a regular basis, we need to make sure that the fabric has no holes, that the tent poles are sturdy, and that the rain fly has been properly waterproofed so that it will protect us from storms.

I like to think of our Christian faith as a tent.  Ideally, it does not keep us in one place.  Though we would prefer to be physically and spiritually comfortable, our faith often impels to move into uncomfortable and challenging situations.  But if we have a well-nurtured faith to protect us from storms, then we have a place to provide shelter and rootedness even as we deal with the realities of transition and change.  I believe that Lent is one way we can fix our tents and prepare for the possibility of change.  Lent comes from the Old English lencthen, which refers to the fact that the season tends to coincide with the lengthening of days (at least in the Northern hemisphere).  During Lent, the days get longer, flowers begin to sprout, and the deadness of winter begins to give way to the new possibilities of spring.  It is, in other words, a season of outward change.  But Lent is also meant to prepare us for the ultimate change, which is the Resurrection.  There is a reason that we give ourselves time to prepare for the the celebration of the Resurrection at Easter.  Lent is a time when we can mend the holes in the fabric of our tent and replace the poles that have rusted out.  During Lent we try to live our spiritual lives with more focus, more discipline, and more intentionality so that when the time comes, we can be ready to allow the Resurrection to change us and to transform us in a meaningful way.

 

Discipline

“What are you giving up for Lent?”  cadburyWhen I was growing up, this was a common question in the week or so before Ash Wednesday.  For the most part, my friends and I saw Lent as an exercise in willpower: we picked the thing that we thought we couldn’t live without and gave it up for more than a month (for me, this was generally chocolate).  I remember that the first few days would be just fine; I might have even thought that I could go for even longer than forty days without chocolate.  By Easter, however, I would be clamoring for chocolate rabbits or peanut butter cups or my absolute favorite, Cadbury Mini Eggs.  Easter became less a celebration of the Resurrection and more a commemoration of the fact that I could not eat chocolate again.  The sacrifice I had endured for forty days made those chocolate morsels all the sweeter.

This is certainly one way to look at our Lenten disciplines.  By giving up that thing we think we cannot live without, we will hopefully come to the realization that the only “thing” we truly cannot live without is God.  The problem with this approach, however, is that we either end up in the place where I always ended up on Easter (counting the minutes until I could eat chocolate again) or we see our Lenten disciplines not as an opportunity to renew our relationship with God, but as a recapitulation of our New Year’s resolutions: “During Lent, I’m going to give up chocolate, which will hopefully help me lose 10 pounds.”  I’ll admit that at one point or another, I have taken both of these approaches to Lent.

I would encourage you to look at your Lenten discipline in another way.  A discipline, after all, is not supposed to be an overwhelming or insurmountable obstacle.  A discipline is something that we engage in on a regular basis, something that challenges us and constantly pushes us in a new direction.  Athletes are disciplined about their training regiments, not because they have a static goal in mind, but so that they can challenge themselves to be the best that they can possibly be.  We should take the same approach to our Lenten disciplines: we should not have a fixed goal in mind (“I’m going to make sure I say the Lord’s Prayer at least once a day”), our disciplines should allow for the possibility of spiritual growth (“I’m going to say the Lord’s Prayer every day and see whether it changes the way I experience God”).  For this reason, I’d like to encourage you to think not in terms of a “Lenten discipline,” but in terms of a “Lenten routine,” something that you do every day to bring yourself closer to God.  Naturally, this can include giving up those things we think we cannot live without, but we must be careful not to see our Lenten routines as ends in themselves.  Our Lenten routines should not focus on what we are sacrificing during this season; our Lenten routines should focus on our spiritual growth and on increasing our awareness of God’s grace.

Unprepared

Note: For the next forty days or so, I will be writing brief daily devotions for Lent.  I hope that they will help you in your reflections on this season of penitence and renewal.

“Lent is early this year.”  For those of you who spend time in the Church, you’ve probably heard this statement more than a few times.  alarm clockLast year, you probably remember hearing that Lent was late.  What is striking to me is that in all of my years in the Church, no one has ever said that Lent was “on time.”  Tell your average Episcopal clergyperson (someone who probably pays pretty close attention to the liturgical calendar) the date of Ash Wednesday and the reaction you get will invariably be, “Really?  I had no idea!”  Lent always surprises us, always catches us off-guard, always leaves us unprepared for the season of penitence.  Lent never arrives when we expect it; it never arrives when we are ready: Lent comes whether we are ready or not.

I think that this is a good thing, because if we’re honest, we’re never going to be ready for the arrival of Lent.  We’re never going to have savored that last piece of chocolate or that final morsel of barbecue.  We’re never going to be prepared to take on that discipline we have adopted.  We’re never going to be ready to engage the hard work of self-examination.  And there are other, more important things for which we will never be ready without some prompting.  We tend to dwell on our past failures and sinfulness so much that we forget that God loves us unconditionally.  If we’re honest, we’re never going to be ready to accept God’s promises of renewal.  We’re never going to be ready to accept the grace offered to us by God through Jesus Christ.  We’re never going to be ready to allow the Resurrection to transform our lives, and so we must be caught off guard and taken by surprise.  God’s gracious love doesn’t wait for us to be ready; God reaches out to us even when we are completely unprepared.

And so during Lent this year, I invite you to savor being unprepared.  Be confident in the knowledge that God has reached out to you even when you weren’t expecting it.  Let this season be an opportunity for you to be transformed by the unexpected and unconditional love of God.