Thursday, March 29, 2018

Love One Another

Do you remember Gary Larson? I realize I’m dating myself, but there’s an old "Far Side" cartoon that I am always reminded of on Maundy Thursday. God is in the kitchen cooking up the world and He’s got all kinds of ingredients to sprinkle over the globe, which is in a skillet on the stove. There are birds and trees and reptiles and light-skinned people and medium-skinned people and dark-skinned people. But the “spice” that Chef God is holding in his hands says “jerks.”  And the caption reads: “just to make it interesting…”

Twenty years ago, The Alban Institute published a little book for clergy and lay leaders with the title Never Call Them Jerks, Healthy Responses to Difficult Behaviors. It’s a good read and I think the title is a good reminder. So I won’t call anyone a jerk tonight.

But here is the thing: the fact that a book needed to be written on this topic makes the point about the challenges of congregational life; it’s not always easy. Sometimes in the midst of our own disappointments and conflicts and hurts, we are tempted to see those who stand in our way or disappoint us as “jerks.” And if we are honest about this, we might admit that we don’t always bring our best selves to church. Behaviors that would never be tolerated in the workplace (and more closely resemble a two-year old tantrum) are all, sadly, too commonplace in congregational life. We don’t always speak to each other in ways that “respect the dignity of every human being.” People act out in inappropriate ways…

Now here is the good news that I want to share with you tonight: it is precisely at that moment in time that the true journey of the spiritual life really begins. It is precisely at such moments that we need tonight’s gospel reading and that we need to double down on building authentic community.  It is precisely at such moments that I recommend two books by two giants of the Christian tradition: C.S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters and Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Life Together. 

In the fifteen years that I was the rector in Holden, I read each of those books probably a dozen times because I needed the reminders that badly. And each time I realized anew that the biggest challenge I faced was not someone else, but me. To put it as Bonhoeffer puts it, I had to keep learning to let go of my own idealized “wish dream” for Christian community and give thanks for what was, even in all of its messiness. To say it the way Jesus put it, I had to get the beam out of my own eye before worrying about the splinter in somebody else’s.

So, never call them jerks. Even though people are a mess, and wherever two or three are gathered together it’s even messier, we are still (by the grace of God) all saints.  

It’s a whole lot easier to be spiritual, but not religious. It’s easier to go for long walks on the beach alone than it is to be part of a community of faith with real people. As this familiar story unfolds, we see Judas betray not only Jesus, but the rest of the gang too. And Peter denies what he knows to be true: “I do not know the man.” Three times! And all of them fall asleep even after Jesus pleads with them: can you not stay awake with me for one hour? Occasionally, Christians get it right. But more often we mess it up.

The question as these three holy days enfold us is this: what happens next? What do we do when we are hurt or disappointed and when we learn that this congregation like all congregations in our diocese and across the Church is not perfect and cannot fulfill our own personal “wish dreams” of what a congregation is supposed to look like?

What we do is we begin again, because that is what the Paschal mystery means. As I read it, this night is an engraved invitation to find a way forward. As you heard, we are commanded to love one another. This day takes its name from the Latin words mandatum novum—a new mandate that we love one another. That is strong language. These words represent Jesus’ final instructions to the Church before his crucifixion. In John’s Gospel he will reiterate this commandment from the Cross tomorrow when tells the beloved disciple and his mother to love one another like parent and child. 
Only then his work will be “finished.”

The Word became flesh and pitched tent among us not so we could all like each other and not so that “jerkish” behavior would be eradicated from the planet. According to that theologian Larson, this is what makes life so interesting. So tonight’s gospel isn’t first and foremost about the people we like or already feel committed to or who always get it right. Nor is about giving people a free-pass or not holding them accountable for their actions. Tonight’s gospel is about what makes Christian community possible. As St. Paul put it in his letter to the Church in Corinth, it takes a lot of faith and a lot of hope, but it takes even more love.  Jesus acts out a parable tonight that is incredibly relevant to the Church in our time and in every time. He invites us to change the way we talk to one another and about one another.

To enter into the mystery of what our Lord does on this night is a hard and difficult path. And not because we are embarrassed that we forgot to get a pedicure before church, but because such an act really does require risk and vulnerability and intimacy that most of us are scared to death of.
As the African folk song puts it: Jesu, Jesu, kneels at the feet of his friends. Silently washes their feet. This king of kings and lord of lords and very God of very God (begotten not made)—humbles himself in the form of a servant, and gets on his knees and takes a basin and a towel and washes his disciples’ feet. All of them, including the betrayer and the denier and the sleepers. Including you, and me.  In that vulnerability—all the way to tomorrow’s conclusion at Golgatha—he gives us this mandatum novum: love one another.

I want to invite you to think about one other person who has hurt or disappointed you in the past year. In this congregation. You can only pick one. Please don’t shout their name out loud. But it has to be someone who has in some way denied your dignity or betrayed you or maybe fallen asleep when you needed them to be attentive. Maybe he serves on vestry with you or maybe she sings in the choir. Or maybe she just rubs you the wrong way because—well you know because you were in that Bible study together that time and she did all the talking. Or didn’t say a word, but just kind of sat there.
The reasons don’t matter much. Just picture that person: one real person (not a composite of your own anxious projections) with a story and real hurts and real joys and real questions and real problems of their own.And then imagine what it would be like for you to wash that person’s feet tonight. Imagine praying for that person in all of her vulnerability. Imagine what it would be like to listen to that person’s life story, not from the position of power but from a place of vulnerability. And then imagine what it would be like for you to have the grace to let that person be your servant, too, and to wash your feet as you reverse positions so that the shoe, as it were, might be placed on the other foot and so that they will hear your story. And they will pray for you.

People are complicated and most of us are a mess and we carry a lot of old wounds and sometimes we act from a place of fear rather than faith. But never call them jerks.

This liturgy remains, for me, one of the great gifts given by Jesus to the Church. Because everything I have tried to say to you, All Saints, over the past six months we have shared together, is summarized in the washing of feet and in the new commandment that Jesus gives to us on this night. What I can tell you is this: you can wash a person’s feet and still get up and still disagree about many things. In fact that’s probably a given. You can even get up and still not want to invite that person to your home for your next dinner party. That’s ok too. But it is very difficult, and maybe it’s even impossible, to judge a person after you have allowed yourself to be vulnerable in this way. It’s very difficult to just write them off.

I am convinced that the God who sprinkles all these different kinds of people into the world and into our congregations and into our lives is a God with a terrific sense of humor. So I expect that at the Great Banquet in the Kingdom of Heaven, the seating arrangements may well be such that we have to continue to deal with people who get under our skin. As it turns out, they really do make life interesting.  They also make our lives interesting because they help us to figure out a great deal about ourselves and to glimpse the kingdom of God which is much bigger than any of us can imagine on our own.

I don’t know if you’ve ever noticed this or not, but sometimes the traits that most irk us in others are ones we possess ourselves. So they are, in a real sense, our teachers. The mystery of the commandment given to the Church on this night is that it invites us to see one another differently. We are invited to look through a different set of lenses than we are used to looking through. We are invited – no, commanded – to see each other through the eyes of love. And that changes everything. 

We are asked to look for the face of Jesus in one another, and to be servants to one another in love. This is the whole gospel, in a nutshell. It has the potential to change us for good, by inviting us all to find our place in the communion of saints.

Saturday, March 24, 2018

Marching For Our Lives

I am not preaching this weekend. In my tradition, however, there is a liturgy of the Palms that remembers Jesus' triumphant entry into Jerusalem that is then followed by a dramatic reading of the Passion of Christ. This year it comes from Mark's Gospel. Six years ago, I preached the sermon below at St. Francis Holden, when I was still the rector there. The context of the world and my own context in ministry have shifted since then. But today I marched in Worcester against gun violence, with many thousands across this nation who are marching for their lives. Led by the students of the Margery Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, FL and amazing youth from Worcester today, I feel inspired to do more marching. I invite you to hear this six year old sermon with new ears as we enter into Holy Week - and Passover. May those with ears to hear, hear. 

I want to think with you today for a bit about the crowd. Over the years, when we Episcopalians do this dramatic reading of the Passion Narrative, I almost always have a hard time finding someone willing to be cast in the role of Jesus. While Judas is another tough role to cast, interestingly enough I find that it’s usually slightly easier to find a Judas than a Jesus! Most of us, it seems, would rather be a bystander or a slave-girl or even Peter. I may be wrong, but I don’t think that’s generally about a discomfort with public reading so much as it is about the roles themselves. 

In any case, there is also the crowd, a role that all of us are asked to play. Every year at least a few people will confess to me at the door: I didn’t say my lines. I don’t like to do that. I refuse to shout out, “crucify him, crucify him.” 

During this Lenten season I’ve shared with you a number of photos from my trip to the Holy Land two years ago. Today’s cover comes from a Franciscan church in Bethphage—the House of the Little Fig. That church is where we began remembering the events of Holy Week as we made our way to the Holy City and ultimately through the streets of Jerusalem for the Stations of the Cross.

Before that pilgrimage, I tended to think of the crowd that greets Jesus with palm branches shouting, “Hosanna, blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord” and the crowd that shouts, “crucify him” a few days later as one and the same, as comprised of the same people. I wasn’t alone. There are some very good Biblical commentaries that suggest that people are fickle: one minute we are looking for a messiah and the next we are wanting to kill him for not being the kind of messiah we wanted. And our liturgy reinforces that point because those indeed are the very lines all of us have spoken today.

And it’s not bad theology, actually. We do sometimes set up our heroes in order to tear them down. There is a verse in a rather old Good Friday hymn (by old I mean going back about four hundred years) that I think is very much in sync with that reading of who “the crowd” is. It goes like this:

            Who was the guilty? Who brought this upon thee?
            Alas, my treason, Jesus, hath undone thee.
            ‘Twas I, Lord Jesus, I it was denied thee:
            I crucified thee. 
(Hymnal page 158, words by Johann Heermann (1585- 1647)

I think that there is depth and wisdom in understanding the Passion Narrative in this way and on the positive side it keeps us focused on confessing our own sin, our own complicity with evil, our own capacity for mob mentality. And in that sense it is good for us to shout out, “crucify him” because it has the potential to keep us from scapegoating others.

Because that is what we do when we don’t see our own complicity. We blame and scapegoat somebody else. We project our own capacity for evil outwards. Throughout Church History, there is a great deal of evidence that the ones who have been blamed are “the Jews.” Not the individuals who conspired together in a specific context under a specific set of circumstances but just “the Jews.” 

They killed Jesus…

So it can be a good and healthy thing to see how tempting it is to project evil outward, onto someone else—usually someone who doesn’t look like us, someone who prays differently than we do. In saying those difficult lines as we enter into the events of this Holy Week we are forced to confront that part of us that wants our God—our Messiah—to fix everything. To be the Messiah we want Him to be. And when Jesus disappoints us, we kill him. I crucified thee.

So maybe that is right, even if it is pretty jarring. Crowds are fickle and can easily be turned into mobs. And we are a fickle bunch. If we are not careful we can contribute to the polarization and demonization that are part of the human condition, and that lead to so much violence and fear in this world, where the innocent suffer and die. We want to stand on the side of justice, but if we aren’t careful we can become what William Sloan Coffin used to call “good haters.”

Having said all of that, however, what I learned when I was in Bethphage two years ago is that more recent scholarship imagines two crowds, and suggests that this week begins with two parades. This makes more and more sense to me as I reflect on it. One is the official state propaganda; the other is a counter-demonstration. After all, it’s Passover. King Herod, the guy who literally claims to be “the King of the Jews" without any irony, is in town for all the festivities. And of course Pontius Pilate is there too. In other words, these politicians are there for their own big event and no doubt in the midst of all kinds of official festivities, the ones with the brass bands and the marching centurions.

The suggestion, then, is that our parade, the one that begins in Bethphage on a donkey, is more of a protest march. It’s the original Occupy movement, a band of outsiders from the hills of Galilee who have finally arrived in Jerusalem. While they have been adding numbers along The Way, they are (at least when compared to the official parades) a much smaller, but passionate group.

In this reading of the text, they totally get it that when they claim Jesus as King of the Jews—as the Son of David—they are directly challenging Herod’s authority. That’s not a “spiritual” claim. It’s not an otherworldly claim. It’s a direct challenge to the rulers of this world and the claims of the Roman Empire. When they say that Jesus is the true one, the awaited one, it’s a rallying cry. Jesus is Lord, not Caesar. 

Hosanna in the highest heaven. We shall overcome! Deep in my heart, I do believe…

So in this reading, essentially what is about to unfold as we remember the last days of Jesus’ life is that these two crowds are about to collide. And as always happens, the stronger force will win. The powerful will crush the weak. They will silence the demonstrators by executing their leader. They’ll use force to scare them into running and hiding. 

Well, at least that is their goal. And that is what they will believe that they will have accomplished by Friday afternoon. And yet as it turns out, and as you all know, that isn’t the end of the story.

I have not yet had a chance to see The Hunger Games. I will see it once I get through Holy Week! But I did see Donald Sutherland, who plays President Snow in the film, on CNN the other day with Soledad O’Brien. He talked about the film as an allegory, and potentially a generation-changing catalyst. The clip they played goes like this, with President Snow saying:

Why do we have a winner? Hope….hope is the only thing stronger than fear. A little hope is effective; a lot of hope is dangerous.

Jesus comes into Jerusalem offering a lot of hope. And that is definitely stronger than fear. But it is also a very dangerous thing. It makes the powers-that-be incredibly nervous. 

Pontius Pilate in this reading is not nearly so innocent as he may appear. He’s an astute politician, a President Snow, who knows how dangerous too much hope can be. And so, before you know it, there is an angry mob that has been stirred up, a mob that cries out for the death of an innocent man even as a guilty man is set free.

Now if this reading is correct, then a whole new set of questions emerge for us as we live our lives in this time and place. Which crowd do we choose to associate with? Where do we choose to stand in this world, in the midst of deeply contested narratives about who is lord of our lives and of this world? Do we stand in an angry mob or with those who are willing to lose their lives to find them, for the sake of the Gospel? What do we render unto Caesar and what do we render unto God?

In this reading, the “crowd of protesters” that choose to stand with Jesus—over and against all that hurts or destroys the creatures of God—becomes a visible witness to an alternative way to be in this world, a counter-cultural community over and against an angry mob comprised of those who allow themselves to be manipulated by those who have the most to lose whenever too much hope is unleashed.

Yet even here, truth be told, it is probably best to be humble about where we stand. Sometimes we get it right and sometimes we don’t. Sometimes we stand with the Communion of Saints, a great cloud of witnesses, and we rightly shout out, “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.” And sometimes we get sucked into the ways of this world and we find ourselves a part of the mob that shouts, “crucify him.”  

The Good News here, though, is that Jesus dies for the sins of the whole world: not only for the band of faithful disciples but for the sins of the mob—and for the sins of Judas and Barabbbas, and Pontius Pilate and Peter and those women from Galilee. The righteous and the unrighteous, the saints and the sinners.

Sunday, March 18, 2018

A Sermon for the Fifth Sunday in Lent

The readings for this day can be found here. This sermon was preached at All Saints Church in Worcester.

John Chapman was born not too far north of here, just outside of Leominster, in 1774. You may know him as “Johnny Appleseed.” He planted seeds all over New York and Pennsylvania and into the Ohio River Valley and beyond to Indiana, Illinois, and Michigan.

What you may not know is that he was a faithful Christian who envisioned a wilderness blossoming with apple trees—providing beauty and the wonderful smell of apple blossoms and ultimately a fruitful harvest that leads to hot apple cider and homemade apple pies. He saw his work as ministry – as a calling.

There are connections for me with his ministry and the season of Lent. First and most obviously, there is the very Biblical metaphor of a wilderness that blooms with new life. But this metaphor of planting seeds is also so central to the teaching of Jesus. His ministry reminds us (or at least reminds me) that all we need is contained in the smallest of seeds, and that our work—our ministries—our vocations—are about planting those seeds.

Think about the vocation of teaching—which is always about far more than conveying information about the Civil War or the square root of 49. It’s about planting seeds that have the potential to change lives. Every human encounter holds within it the power to heal and to transform.

Think of all the seeds Jesus talks about. He says the Reign of God is like a mustard seed that begins even smaller than the apple seed but then grows into a great bush to provide shade and shelter for the birds of the sky. He speaks of ministry as the planting of seeds: the gospel is planted in people in the same way that a farmer sows seeds, and for various reasons only some of them ever grow to fruition.

In today’s gospel Jesus is using the image of a seed as an image of resurrection of the body. He is preparing his disciples for his dying, and ultimately for their own dying as well. It’s a metaphor St. Paul will also pick up on to speak about resurrection. So Jesus says: “very truly I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.”

Deep within a tiny seed you can barely see lie the possibilities of full and abundant life: of not only fragrant blossoms, but of a bountiful harvest. That is a great mystery that we miss in a society where apples from all over the world are available 365 days a year at the grocery store.

Only a few of us are as connected to the land as people were in the time of Jesus (or for that matter in the eighteenth century in this part of the world when Johnny Appleseed was doing his thing.) I readily admit that with my two brown thumbs I am not one of them. But each October, around Columbus Day weekend my family is often in Southern Vermont. One of our favorite things to do is to attend an heirloom apple tasting at the Scott Farm in Dummerston, Vermont. There you realize when you taste a crisp apple on a cool fall day that that God is good, and that what we get in the grocery store in March is a cheap imitation.

If we aren’t careful we can skip over metaphors like this without pondering their deep and hidden and mystical meanings. Jesus insists that you find life when you lose it; that when things die they are really in the midst of a process of transformation and that new possibilities too wondrous to imagine are already emerging.

Do you believe this, All Saints? Do you believe that when things die they are already beginning to be transformed and that new possibilities too wondrous to imagine are already emerging for those who have eyes to see?

Our Lenten journey has brought us in safety to this new day. A week from now we will walk through the holiest week in the Christian calendar, the journey from Palm Sunday to the empty tomb. On Good Friday we will contemplate the meaning of Christ’s death and passion.

How is Christ’s death a saving act? How is it that life can come from such a death? These are questions that point to a great mystery and no one sermon or liturgy can hold all the answers any more than a film that tries to capture the passion of the Christ can do so. But I think the seed that holds within it the possibility of beauty and abundant life is as good a place as any to start.

Do you know that the Fourth Gospel does not focus as the synoptics do on the suffering of Jesus? Rather, from beginning to end, the Cross reveals to the mystical eye of the beloved disciple the-love-of- God-made-flesh—the Incarnate Word that has come into the world to reveal the Father’s love for the world, in order to save the world. The gospel we heard today surely lies behind the collect for mission that is used in the daily office, at Morning Prayer. Remember it?
Lord Jesus Christ, you stretched out your arms of love on the hard wood of the cross that everyone might come within the reach of your saving embrace: So clothe us in your Spirit that we, reaching forth our hands in love, may bring those who do not know you to the knowledge and love of you, for the honor of your name. Amen.
John’s mystical gospel focuses on the outstretched arms of a loving God, arms that embrace not only the church—not only the faithful—but the whole world. Or as we heard Jesus saying in today’s gospel reading: "…when I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw all to myself.”

It’s interesting that in the most ancient manuscripts it isn’t even all people—even if that’s what we read today. It’s just all: all things, all the world, all creation. All the cosmos. What happens at Calvary changes the world and restores it to blessing again. In that event, God’s glory is revealed. It’s an odd notion; how we can behold the hard wood of the cross and in it see God being glorified?

One of the hardest questions that a parent or church school teacher will ever get asked by a child is about why Jesus had to die on the cross. It is tempting to resort to big theological words, to try to explain the various theologies of atonement. But maybe like that book about how everything we needed to know we learned in kindergarten, maybe it’s true to say that everything we need to know about God we learned in church school. We just have to come back to it again and again with open eyes and listening ears.

We say grace at my house over every evening meal. When my kids were little we often sang grace – my kids are both accomplished tenors and I like to think they identified that gift at the supper table. We had a repertoire of sung graces but one of our favorites went like this:

          Oh, the Lord’s been good to me,
          And so I thank the Lord:
          For giving me, the things I need,
          The sun and the rain and the apple seed;
          Oh, the Lord’s been good to me.

Good old Johnny Appleseed knew that when a seed dies, it has the potential to become what it is meant for in the first place. When it goes into the ground and the good Lord gives sun and rain it bears fruit and the only response is gratitude.  

In the cross of Christ we see the culmination of Jesus’ life and ministry. We see why he came into the world in the first place: to make the love of God manifest—even unto death, so that the world might live.

Notice where this gospel reading today began: some Greeks come to Philip and Andrew because they want to see Jesus. The attentive listener to John’s narrative will recall that this is where it all started, way back in chapter one of John’s Gospel, when these disciples were invited to “come and see.” They now, in turn, are extending that invitation to others: to these Greeks and to all the world. Come and see

The Greeks wish to see Jesus. What follows seems like a non-sequitor. But in truth it is very much an answer not only to those Greeks but to all of us. If you want to see Jesus, then pay attention to the world around you.

  • Pay attention to the trees and your gardens and to the life that will soon be emerging again from a sleeping earth. Now the green blade rises…
  • Pay attention to those who are willing to lose their lives in service to Christ around the world. Talk with David or Beatrice Kayigwa about the martyrs of Uganda who stood up to Idi Amin.
  • Pay attention to all those places where people choose to live as servants rather than lord it over others including in this parish where people have “stepped up” in the midst of big challenges.
  • Pay attention to all those places where love and charity is palpable. Because there, God is being glorified. Because there the Christ is being revealed. Because there Easter, in all of its wonder, is already beginning to unfold.

Saturday, March 3, 2018

Forgiveness, Part II

The difference between justice and forgiveness: to be just is to condemn the fault and, because of the fault, to condemn the doer as well. To forgive is to condemn the fault but to spare the doer. That's what the forgiving God does. (Miroslav Volf)
If you read my post from yesterday on Forgiveness: The Heart of the Matter, you might be left with the impression that I don't appreciate the depth of sin. On the contrary, it is because I take sin very seriously that I believe that the only way forward is to forgive. But this needs to be unpacked. Otherwise we are left with what Bonhoeffer called "cheap grace."

I think that the most powerful witness to what I mean here can be found in the work of The Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa, set up in South Africa to both tell the truth about what happened under apartheid and to find a way forward by offering forgiveness.This happens on much smaller scales between people whenever one person says to another, "I'm sorry" and the other says, "I forgive you."

One of the great challenges, of course, is when people refuse to confess their sins and to acknowledge the hurt they have caused. How can we forgive one such as this, one who refuses even to admit the truth of what they have done?

I've been re-reading M. Scott Peck's People of the Lie which I commend to readers of this blog. But be forewarned: it is a painful and difficult read. Even so, it is important to understand why Peck wrote the book. The clue is in the title in what comes after the colon: the hope for healing human evil. You cannot begin to heal what  you refuse to acknowledge.

Peck distinguishes between ordinary sin and evil. We are all sinners. But the central defect, Peck says, of evil is not the sin but the refusal to acknowledge it. It is narcissism on steroids that allow some to consistently "cross the line" and commit the same sins over and over again, destroying relationships in the process and yet absolutely refusing to admit that they have done anything wrong. They lie, and not just Hope Hicks "white lies." Eventually it is all they know how to do.

How then to find a way toward hope for healing? Peck says that evil hates the light: the light of goodness that shows them up, the light of scrutiny that exposes their lies, the light of truth that penetrates their deceitfulness. Like the sociopath, Peck writes, people of the lie are continually engaged in sweeping the evidence of their evil under the rug. Clarity and truth-telling are the only way forward, which I think is what the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was all about.

This is deep stuff, but real and heck, it's Lent! I consider myself a progressive Christian. But one of the dangers of progressive theologies is the inability to name evil in this way. Progressives are good at naming the isms and we should: sexism, racism, heterosexism and all the rest. Sin and evil can be institutionalized and enmeshed in society in these and other ways. But what Peck writes about can make us a little more nervous. Yet when we refuse to name evil or ever speak of it, grace will always become cheap.

Bonhoeffer had to wrestle with the evil of not just one man - Adolf Hitler - but of a nation that became "possessed" by the demon of National Socialism. To keep on saying that we just forgive in such a context suggests not just naivete, but complicity with evil.

Miroslav Volf wrestles with the same kind of large stage in Exclusion and Embrace. There, as well as in his later writings (especially Free of Charge)  he is as clear as Peck and Bonhoeffer about evil. Even so, in the quote with which this post begins, he insists that the heart of the matter is still forgiveness. We forgive the doer even as we condemn the fault. But if the doer won't even acknowledge the fault then it falls upon us to allow the truth to see the light of day.

Most of us do this work on much smaller stages than that of Nazi Germany or Apartheid South Africa or in the former Yugoslavia. Even so, we live in families and in neighborhoods. Every time there is a mass shooting we have to listen to the litany of NRA talking points that insist that their second amendment rights (as they interpret them) are more important than the victims' rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Some have experienced clergy misconduct that violates trust and threatens to destroy faith communities. Some have been entangled in abusive relationships and then gaslighted on top of it all. Each of these encounters with evil challenge not only our faith, but sometimes our grip on reality. They call us to question how we can possibly forgive the unrepentant.

Unfortunately these experiences are also a part of the human condition. We try to make sense of what is not in fact sensible. But at least when we can find words to name our experience we can begin to address it. In those moments when we come face to face with evil, we rediscover the difference between "cheap grace" (which holds no one accountable) and the amazing grace that brings clarity and truth-telling. And the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness still cannot overcome it.

Friday, March 2, 2018

The Heart of the Matter: Forgiveness

Collect for the Friday in the Second Week of Lent
Grant, O Lord, that as your Son Jesus Christ prayed for his enemies on the cross, so we may have grace to forgive those who wrongfully or scornfully use us, that we ourselves may be able to receive your forgiveness; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen. 
I'm learning to live without you now
ut I miss you sometimes
The more I know, the less I understand,
All the things I thought I knew, I'm learning again
I've been tryin' to get down
To the heart of the matter
But my will gets weak
And my thoughts seem to scatter
But I think it's about forgiveness
Forgiveness. (Don Henley)

I've been a bit AWOL on blogging of late, even as the world keeps racing along. There has been much to ponder. Yet I've been silent. 

There are two main reasons for this. First is that I continue to work with the good people at All Saints Church in addition to my "day job" as Canon to the Ordinary in the Diocese of Western Massachusetts. So my days have been exceedingly long. They have been good, and rewarding but they have left too little time for writing, which is how I think and to some extent even how I pray.

But also it does feel like we are living through times that require more than memes and tweets. We need some depth of thinking, especially for those of us in the midst of Lent. We need repentance which is hard to come by in Facebook fights.

So it is not that I have not been ruminating. (A colleague made me laugh yesterday when he got my blog name wrong and commented on my "ramblings." Indeed...) In any case I've been doing my best ruminating on the Mass Pike, where I spend a fair amount of time, but it's hard to write a blog post from there.

I have also been a bit hesitant to speak into the midst of so much gun violence (and not just that, but a whacky religious sect blessing AR-15s in a church in Newfoundland, Pennsylvania, not far from where I grew up) and of a White House in utter chaos (can we all agree with this statement regardless of our politics?) I feel that my ramblings or ruminations ought not to be knee-jerk or trite. When I write, I want at least some who disagree with my theology or politics to at least see something they can recognize as pointing to a way forward, and not just adding to further polarization. And yet we seem so polarized and preconditioned in our responses that I worry that this is almost folly.

So I've had a little writer's block, to be honest. But here goes...

The collect for today is short and sweet. It seeks to follow in the footsteps of Jesus: if he could forgive his enemies on the cross, perhaps we can in turn forgive those who wrongfully or scornfully use us. And then the circle is completed: we forgive others so that we might be able to receive God's forgiveness. This takes us right into the prayer that Jesus himself taught us, and therefore right to the heart of the Christian faith. (And while it's not the subject of this post, there is ample evidence that this prayer is really a very Jewish prayer rooted in first-century Judaism, and not unique to Jesus.)

We get stuck in cycles of violence. Gun violence leaves so many casualties, and not only those who lose their lives. There are also those countless friends and family members who love those who have lost their lives and who may never fully recover. I had a former parishioner who lost a son in Vietnam and every time I'd go to visit her this is what we talked about. She had another son, and grandchildren, and I'm sure she loved them all. But at least when I was in her presence, decades after her son's death, this was where she was stuck: in pain and grief and loss. It happens again and again: in divorce, in war, in politics. And the cycle of violence continues. The absent one looms large and I'm sure for a very long time, certainly after the reporters move on to the next thing, their absence will be felt - at school and at home.

A lot of us get stuck in much lesser experiences of grief and loss. And it's real. The way forward is through forgiveness, which opens up a doorway to the Divine. It takes us, always, to heart of the matter. It takes us to the heart of what Lent is all about because Jesus is always Giver and Forgiver. Again and again (even turning over the tables in the Temple) this is at the heart of the Incarnation: God so loved the world. God so loves the little children of the world. (And their parents and grandparents, too.)

God so loves that God forgives. In stretching out his arms of love on the hard wood of the cross we are given an example. It is meant to inspire us to beat swords into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks and AR-15s into money for school supplies. Which is simply to say it is about way more than "thoughts and prayers." Thoughts and prayers lead to repentance and repentance leads to action and amendment of life.

We are meant, in much smaller but no less real ways, to take the hurt that others cause us when they use us wrongfully or even scornfully and to let it go. To release it. Not because they deserve it or even always because they are wise or compassionate enough to ask for it, but because holding it only begets more violence. And letting it go makes room for us to receive the love of God and know that we are forgiven.

I think this is empowering. I think those who are able to receive God's forgiveness are able to better see Jesus as Forgiver and then in some small ways to become forgivers in our daily lives. This is what  these forty days of Lent are for.

Alexander Schmemann reminds us that Sin is the experience of division, opposition, separation, and hatred. We all have some experience of Sin and it feels daunting. It feels like always winter, but never Christmas, as C.S. Lewis wrote.. But the first chink in the mighty fortress of Sin, Schmemman reminds us, is forgiveness, which opens a pathway to unity, solidarity, and love. It is a breakthrough to a new reality. It is a breakthrough to God's reality. "To forgive is to reject the hopeless dead-ends of human relations and refer them to Christ."

I have been privileged to lead a three-week study on some of the texts from the wilderness of the Old and New Testaments this Lent at All Saints Church in Worcester. It was a lively and faithful group. It was only three weeks because my "day job" responsibilities will take me this week to the Transition Ministry Conference and the following week to other responsibilities. But in three weeks we covered some ground as we reflected on what is learned in the wilderness. It was a faithful and eager group of a couple of dozen people who are themselves experiencing a wilderness time in their congregation - and so our texts felt less like "history" about some other people and more like a mirror that invites theological reflection. I had fun with them, and I think they had fun too. But we also put some things on the table and over homemade soups and bread we got a glimpse of authentic community. I pray those glimpses are enough to go on.