A Forgiveness Story

There is a story in the Bible that goes like this. A man is sitting with a group of his friends in a town that some of them call home. There are thirteen of them – the man and twelve companions, let’s call them twelve disc…erning followers. They have been traveling together, hiking up mountains and passing through new towns, healing the sick and talking about taxes, and they have stopped here for a moment to rest and catch their breaths. Inexplicably, the followers choose this moment to ask their guide questions about status and prestige. Who is the greatest in this kingdom he talks so much about? They aren’t quite jockeying for position – at least not yet – but you can see that the question of “…and which one of us is most like that person who is the greatest?’ isn’t too far off.

Except, in our story, that question never gets asked. Because the leader, as he often does, redirects the conversation. You want to talk about who is the greatest? Okay, let’s talk about that. The greatest in my kingdom is like – he looks around – her. He points to a little girl romping up the hill towards them with her mother. This is what the greatest in my kingdom looks like, and woe to anyone who puts a stumbling-block in front of any children such as these.

Suddenly the twelve followers aren’t so interested in asking their follow-up question, which now seems to be, “…and which one of us is most like this little girl.” And anyway, their guide is still talking. He tells them that they should be on the lookout for those who are weak, those who are powerless and dependent, the one lost sheep amongst a hundred. These are the greatest in the kingdom of heaven, where the humble players are given pride of place.

And if you’re looking for a place to start practicing finding these little lost ones, he goes on, why don’t you begin in your own community? Rather than letting people simply fall away from this movement, he tells them, you should follow after them and find them. If someone has sinned against you and the Church, go find them. Go find them and offer them a chance to repent. Go find them, even if it takes three tries. Go find them so that you can forgive them, mend that relationship, and bring a lost sheep home.

One of the followers, who has recently been a bit of a stumbling-block himself, asks what he thinks should be a simple follow-up question. And how many times should we forgive this lost sheep? He searches in his mind for a number that seems appropriate, a number that’s generous, even overly-generous, without seeming preposterous. 7? 7 times? 7 times I should slog around looking for the same lost sheep before deciding that he just really wants to be lost? 7 sounds good. I mean, 7 is a lot. Let’s say my brother here, oh, I don’t know, abandons and betrays me. I go to him, we talk it out, he realizes the error of his ways, asks for forgiveness, I say okay. Then, two days later, he abandons and betrays me again. I go to him, we talk it out, he realizes the error of his ways, asks for forgiveness, I say okay. He does it again, I forgive him again. He does it again, I forgive him again.  He does it again, I forgive him again.  He does it again, I forgive him again. He does it again, I forgive him again. That’s 7. Seems fair. Seems like a goodly, biblical number.

But the leader, once again, redirects the conversation. He isn’t interested in the lowest-common denominator, the reasonable, or the limited. Not 7, he says, but 77 times. He sins, you forgive him. And again and again and again and again and again and again…and we, who are listening to this story, begin to get the point. This story is about not just forgiveness, but extreme forgiveness. This story is about forgiveness that is truly massive, the fatberg of forgiveness. And if we’re going to forgive this way, we need to get ready, to start training for this Iron Man seventy-septathon of Forgiveness.

We’ve seen examples of this kind of extreme forgiveness before. The Amish community that reached out to the family of the man who had walked into their schoolhouse and killed three of their children. The families of those killed at Mother Emanuel Church in Charleston who prayed for the killer. The grieving father who publically forgave the shooter at Sandy Hook, the mother who reached out to the man who had killed her daughter in a drunk driving incident, the child at Our Little Roses whose mother had abandoned her who wrote in a poem that her time without her family felt like “a knife trying to get inside a rock” but then told God “when I am finally somebody in this world…I will go straight to Mexico where my mother lives and I will stare at her like I stare at the stars and with a voice that cracks like thunder I will say: i forgive you.”*

We’ve heard of examples of this kind of extreme, Iron Man forgiveness in the world, and it seems that our story is telling us to prepare ourselves for just this kind of forgiveness. Let’s go, the leader seems to say, get out your cross-trainers, set your alarm for oh-dark-hundred, and get ready to work. Get ready to forgive even if it’s through gritted teeth, get ready to sweat as you welcome someone back into the flock, get ready to wake up morning after morning aching from the grind of your extreme forgiveness.

Except that our story does not end there. In our story, the guide decides to tell his twelve disc…erning followers a story of his own. There once was a man who owed his master a great debt. Not just a great debt, but like, a million-bagillion dollars. And when he could not pay his master back the million-bagillion dollars, and his master was threatening to ruin his life, the man fell on his knees and begged his master to forgive what he owed. Which, unbelievably, his master did. The man, chuffed with this new development, immediately walked over to his nearest companion and asked for the hundred bucks he owed him. When his companion couldn’t fork over the money, the man had him arrested and locked up without bail. The master, getting wind of this, changed his mind about the million-bagillion dollars and had the man tortured until he could pay every single cent back. And so – the leader tells his followers – so will happen to you if you do not forgive your sisters and brothers from your heart.

Now the first story is true. It is, of course, the story of Jesus of Nazareth teaching his disciples about forgiveness. The second story is, of course, also true. It may not be factual, but it is certainly true. Because in this parable, Jesus reminds his disciples and us of the great truth that in order to forgive others, we must first know ourselves to be so forgiven. And to begin to know ourselves as those who are forgiven, we must take that one additional, challenging step deep into truth: we must first acknowledge that we ourselves have sinned. We are sinners, we sin: we abandon and betray, we deny Christ three times thirty times, we lie and gossip and hate and steal and misuse our bodies and neglect our prayers and forget the poor and blame the victim and make bad choices again and again and again. We are part of systems that have spent centuries setting up stumbling blocks before people of color, women, the gay, lesbian, and trans community, and countless other least of these. We have sinned, O Lord, we have sinned, and we know our wickedness only too well.  

All this is true. Also true is that God will forgive us. If we confess our sins, repent and return to the Lord, the Lord forgives us, forgives all, every cent of sin that we have misspent during our lifetimes. This, finally, is the point of our story – not that we need to buckle down and forgive 77 times, but that God freely forgives us a million-bagillion times. This is the true extreme forgiveness – not that we must become Iron Men of Forgiveness but that this man stretched out his arms upon a cross of wood and iron and offered himself in obedience for the sins of the whole world. We have sinned, O Lord, we have sinned, and we need to know our forgiveness too, and well.   

As followers ourselves of this Jesus of Nazareth, we must learn to forgive. But in order to do this, we must first learn the whole story. We must read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest the truth of God’s forgiveness. We must recognize ourselves as broken and humble, as those who are as weak and helpless and dependent as a little child, so that we can move into our world with mercy and love, looking for the connection of our mutual brokenness so that we can first speak truth with love, work for justice with kindness, empathy, and compassion, and finally forgive others in the radical, life-changing way that we have been forgiven. "For as the heavens are high above the earth, so is his mercy great upon those who fear him. As far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our sins from us. And as a father cares for his children, so does the Lord care for those who fear him." This is forgiveness; this is our own true story.

*This poem may be found in Voices Beyond the Wall: Twelve Love Poems from the Murder Capital of the World

Preached by Mother Erika Takacs

17 September 2017

Saint Mark's Church, Philadelphia

           

                         

Posted on September 19, 2017 .

Act III

Some of you know that for about a week each summer I try to get over to Ireland to a little area of east Galway where I ride horses over the dark green Irish grass during the day, and sip pints of Guinness in the evening.  Over one such pint this past summer I was given, by an acquaintance of mine who had in his prime been a champion equestrian show jumper, a short list of rules to live by.  “Sean,” he said to me, “three things you need in life: quality shoes, a quality mattress, and a good, safe horse.”  This is a highly idiosyncratic, and slightly eccentric list of priorities; and almost anyone could quibble with it.  At any given time in my life I have been lucky to be in possession of two out of the list of three.  The horse has been elusive.  But so appealing was the straightforward simplicity of the list that I wrote it down and have been carrying it with me ever since.  With this advice in my pocket, I started to evaluate my life just a little.  What kind of shoes was I wearing?  How is my mattress?  And what about a horse?  What am I going to do about a horse? 

The more I look at all three items, the more I start to question how far I have come in my fifty years on this earth.  Maybe I don’t have any of the basics that I really need in life.  Wouldn’t I be glad to have all three?  What have I been doing with my life?  And yet, I haven’t done a thing by way of heeding this advice.  I haven’t bought new shoes; I haven’t bought a new mattress; and I haven’t bought a horse.

I hadn’t exactly walked into the pub that night in search of advice.  I wonder if people like you come to church on a day like today in search of advice.  Are you hoping that I will offer three little gems that you can hold onto as rules for life?  Wouldn’t it be simple, in a way, if you left here with the news that all that stands between you and salvation are quality shoes, a quality mattress, and a good, safe horse?  Oh, if only Jesus had given that kind of advice – how happy we would be!

But Jesus spends nearly every word of the eighteenth chapter of Matthew’s Gospel teaching about sin and forgiveness – part of which we heard just now.  He’s not talking about sins that we commit against God (e.g. I ate meat on Friday; forgot to go to Mass on Sunday, etc), but specifically about sins we commit against each other: offenses against our family, our friends, our neighbors.  Jesus provides a detailed, multi-step processes for seeking and granting forgiveness.  It’s like he thinks it’s important.  I don’t know too many people who take Jesus very seriously on this point.  I’m not sure most of us spend a lot of time evaluating our record of sins and forgiveness, to ask what we are doing with our lives.  Though, I’m sure some do.

The question Jesus was responding to, when he began his roughly thirty-verse-long discussion of sin and forgiveness was this: “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?”  I don’t think the disciples were merely curious.  I think they were angling for a good spot.  They were known to do that.  But Jesus takes a child in his arms and tells them, “whoever humbles himself like this child, he is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.”  And then he launches in on sins against one another and on how to forgive one another.  I don’t know how the first disciples took it, but for us, Jesus might as well be talking about quality shoes, a quality mattress, and a good, safe horse.  Right, Jesus.  Got it.  Thanks.

What would people think if they came in here and saw you sitting there silently, looking up at me while I told you how you should “tell it to the church” if you need to resolve a dispute with your friend, your neighbor, your sibling, or your spouse?  They would think that they had stumbled into a highly idiosyncratic, and slightly eccentric approach to conflict mediation, and they’d ask why you’d bother listening to me, anyway.

Sitting there in that pub in east Galway, listing to a former champion show jumper impart wisdom about shoes, mattresses, and horses, made me wonder for a moment what I did to prompt that bit of advice, since my friend was answering a question I did not ask.  Listening to Jesus impart wisdom about the ways we hurt each other and forgive each other has a similar effect.  I wonder why he is going on like this, and I am afraid Jesus is answering a question that nobody has asked him.  Or is it just a highly idiosyncratic, and slightly eccentric discussion?

After all, what is the kingdom of heaven?

Now, I know that there are a good number of people in this congregation who think the kingdom of heaven is sort of like going to the Metropolitan Opera, but with lower ticket prices.  But for me, I want to suggest that the kingdom of heaven is more like a musical than an opera.  To be specific, I’d say the kingdom of heaven is like Act III of a musical theatre production.  Because in Act III of a musical, the conflict that was set up in Act I, and reached its climax in Act II, is finally going to be resolved, and love will win the day.  In Act III of an opera, everything (and everyone) could still be going straight to hell, with no sign of redemption.  But in a musical, everything is going to work out just fine by the end of Act III.

So the kingdom of heaven is like a musical with the most wonderful cast, and the best score, and with choreography that just keeps building and building, and there are more and more dancers on the stage, and you wonder how they could possibly fit more on… and the costumes are stunning, and the lights are ethereal… and the stage is of crystal, and the seats are spacious and covered in velvet, and you can recline in them if you want, and still see the stage, even if there is a tall person sitting in front of you… and the story sweeps you up into it, with the music, and the dancing… and the reprise of the big show-stopper at the end of Act II left tears streaming down your face, and you can hardly image that the big, full-company finale at the end of the next act could surpass it, but you know it will… and you look around and the theatre is filled with everyone you have ever loved, and with people you never knew you loved, but you now discover that you do, and you can’t believe how wonderful it is that you get to enjoy this extraordinary experience with them, and you feel that you are being positively lifted out of your seat by the sheer joy of it… and the sadness and the loss of Act II are still very much present in your mind.  It’s because the sadness and the loss were so real, the betrayal so awful, the estrangement so poignant, the suffering so great… because this is not just theatre, this is real… but with the first notes of the entre-act, and the way the strings shimmer softly, as the curtain rises on Act III… you just know that hope is in the air…!

So… yes, I want to say that the kingdom of heaven could be like a musical… but it’s a musical you can’t get tickets for yet, although you’ve heard great things about.  It’s like Hamilton, but better.

In one version of my musical (working title: The Kingdom of Heaven) during Act I there is a scene in an Irish pub where a young, handsome innocent abroad is told by a mysterious character with a thick brogue that there are three things you need in life: quality shoes, a quality mattress, and a good, safe horse.  A production number ensues (I’ve Got the Shoes Right Here).

In another version of the show there are terrible floods in Act II, or a hurricane slamming into Florida, or the Caribbean. In another version there is an earthquake in Mexico, and in another version forest fires are raging across the west.  All the while in each of these versions, the director of the EPA is gleefully cutting red tape while he sings a song in a minor key.

There’s a version in which a white supremacist drives his car into a crowd in Act II; another in which North Korea builds a hydrogen bomb.  There’s even a scene in which the pastor of a church bolts the church doors from the inside as disaster victims, or homeless people, or the hungry and the poor try to get inside.  You get the idea.

There are versions with more poignant, quiet scenes of more personal betrayal in Act II, too, where children lie to their parents, couples are unfaithful to one another, disease cuts life short, addiction destroys relationships, accidents leave people broken beyond repair, and where over and over again a solitary figure is found on the stage, evaluating life, wondering if he’s gotten anywhere in the decades that have been given to him, standing all alone, down stage center, in a small pool of light, singing a song that might as well be Where is love?

In one of my least favorite versions of the show, a young father is shot and killed on the streets of Philadelphia by two criminals trying to steal his car while his two-year-old daughter sits in her car seat, still inside the car.

These first two acts are admittedly a little operatic in the scale and acuity of their disaster, betrayal, and pain.  But throughout, a mysterious and misunderstood figure has been promising that the kingdom of heaven is at hand, and urging forgiveness of one another by any means possible.  He even sings about forgiveness in a song called Seventy Times Seven, but by the end of the song no one is listening.  And by the end of Act II, this unnamed, mysterious character seems like a tragically comic figure, woefully delusional, on whom we can only look with cheap pity.

Writers and dramatists understand why Act III is so important.  Because Act I may present you with an equestrian offering advice in a pub; and Act II may lead you through disaster, betrayal, and hurt.  But Act III is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things unseen.  Maybe in Act III the delusional, mysterious character who has been preaching forgiveness in Act II will turn out to be the same funny guy who gave kooky advice in the Irish pub in Act I.  Who knows?

But Jesus’ teaching about the kingdom of heaven is a promise that Act III will come, and that it will be worth the wait.  In fact, Jesus’ teaching about the kingdom of heaven is that Act III is already in the making, has begun in some other sphere: the sets, and the songs, and the steps; the forgiveness, and the redemption; the salvation, and the hope are already being built, written, choreographed, orchestrated, and sung, even if you and I have not gotten there yet.

And in one version of Act III, the big finale may be a reprise of a song that was introduced earlier – Where Two or Three Are Gathered – in which the mysterious figure reveals himself to be the Lord of Love and Life, and in which minor characters who have wronged one another are reconciled to each other, as they help to repair the damage done by natural disasters, and they seek to care for those who have been maimed by war, and they work to clean and care for the planet that his supported their lives.

In that version of the show, the finale begins around a table, where the various injured, insulted, impaired characters have gathered, having seen their hopes shattered that they would ever be among the greatest in heaven or anywhere else.  In their midst is the mysterious figure, who urges them to seek forgiveness from one another and to offer it freely.  And as they do, a feast appears on the table, and wine flows, and the tempo of the music picks up, and the lights begin to brighten, and the song is taken up.  And you can see that everyone on stage is wearing quality shoes, and somehow you just know that at home everyone has a quality mattress, and you feel certain that for those who need it, there is somewhere, in a stable, a good, safe horse.

And you realize that it hardly matters who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven, just as long as we don’t get stuck in Act II, and the promise is real.  And the opening chords of Where Two or Three Are Gathered can be heard from the orchestra… and you thank God for Act III, and you sit back, and let the music wash over you, ready to forgive, and ready to be forgiven.

 

Preached by Fr. Sean Mullen

10 September 2017

Saint Mark’s, Philadelphia

Posted on September 10, 2017 .

Of Wrath and Rainbows

Nothing says “the wrath of God” quite like a flood.  And the floods we have seen covering parts of Texas and Louisiana as Hurricane Harvey came through have been enough to make you wonder about the power of God, and what it would be like to be required to endure the wrath of God.  It would be reassuring today to come to church and hear the story of the rainbow that Noah saw as the great flood receded in the aftermath of God’s wrath; and to be reminded that that wrath was replaced by a promise never to do such a thing again, and in fact to give a lasting sign of the covenant of love between God and humanity in the brilliant colors of the rainbow.  It’s worth remembering that promise and that covenant as we try to account for all the rain that’s fallen.

Few snippets of theological wisdom have worked their way into the modern consciousness with as much clarity and precision as the old trope that the God of the Old Testament is an angry, wrathful God, but the God of the New Testament (the God of Jesus) is a loving God.  This kind of hogwash is repeated over and over again as if there was the slightest grain of truth in it – which there is not.  It must make some Christians feel better to convince themselves that although the Scriptures report that God grew weary, impatient, frustrated, and angry with the children of Israel for their repeated backsliding, idolatry, sinfulness, and faithlessness, he harbors no such responses toward us – sprinkled, as we have been, in the waters of Baptism – when we engage in backsliding, idolatry, sinfulness, and faithlessness.

More to the point, however, some of us really believe, despite everything he tells us, that Jesus has brought with him a Pollyanna Gospel that has nothing but happy thoughts for us.  Learning from our great forebear Thomas Jefferson, we have omitted and forgotten whatever portions of the Gospel don’t sit easily with us, judging our own wisdom (with a little help from the sage of Monticello) to be superior to whatever wisdom of God has been enshrined by the Church in the Holy Scriptures.

It is jarring, therefore, to come across phrases in St. Paul’s great epistle to the Romans that don’t sit easily with our common expectations of the cheery God of the New Testament, to wit these words: “but leave room for the wrath of God.”  Admittedly, in this passage the words come in a highly specific context regarding God’s claim that vengeance is his and not yours, so you should leave well enough alone when your mind turns toward avenging yourself, your family, your friends, or your neighbors.  And the passage in which these highly contextualized words appears is one that most of us decided to ignore long before we arrived in church this morning: “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them… live in harmony, do not be haughty but associate with the lowly… do not repay anyone evil for evil… live peaceably with all….”  Insofar as we heed St. Paul’s advice at all, in our mouths these phrases may amount to the lip service we pay to our “loving” God, who can and will level no judgment toward us that could cause us any worry.

And yet, there remain those strange words: “leave room for the wrath of God.”  How could St. Paul have failed to see how misguided he was – still looking backward at the ancient, angry, Jewish God?  Doesn’t he know how outmoded his outlook is?  Our God is a loving God; we don’t need to leave room for the wrath of God, since we have no more of that in the world… do we?  Here we stand at the edge of a flood and we hear St. Paul tell us to “leave room for the wrath of God.”  Is he kidding us?

Everywhere we turn these days we are confronted by wrath.  If it’s not at home then it’s abroad.  If it’s not about missiles and nuclear war, then it’s about a war on drugs, or poverty, or cancer, or some other foe against whom we have decided that war is the only answer.  If it’s not the president, it’s the Congress.  And if it’s not them, then it’s a gaggle of Christian folk issuing “statements” about things they really don’t need to be making statements about.  There is always someone to be angry, and always someone to be angry with.  We have wrath enough to go around.  We don’t need the wrath of God any more than we needed a flood.

St. Paul knows that wrath is a sharp and a powerful weapon, and when he says to leave room for the wrath of God he is trying to take such a weapon out of our hands and leave it to God.  In this passage, he is not so much telling us what God is like, as reminding us what we are like: haughty, presumptuous, willing to repay evil for evil, disinclined toward peacefulness, full of curses, and thirsty for vengeance.  Wrathful.

Taking the weapon gingerly from our hand, Paul entreats us to let God handle that, especially as the flood waters are receding.  Paul knows how ready we are to expect the worst of God and the best of ourselves, but he also knows that the reverse has always been true: that we should expect the best of God and the worst of ourselves.  We’ll be surprised with much less frequency.

I don’t know what Jesus and Peter expected from each other.  But in the famous exchange we hear today, Peter gets a bit of the wrath of God: “Get thee behind me Satan!  You are a stumbling block to me!”  It would have stung.  For Peter wanted only to advance the cause of Jesus.  But Peter here represents anyone and everyone who has ever suspected that he or she could show God how to do things a better way.  Suffering, death, and resurrection?  Peter must wonder.  No!  Let’s do it a better way!  Peter does not yet see how different Jesus’ kingdom is, how distinct is the power of love, or how purposeful is the wrath of God.  He does not know that Christ’s power is made perfect in weakness.

“Those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.  For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life?”  Jesus had never heard of the Powerball.  Jesus never imagined the Dow above 20,000.  Jesus hadn’t anticipated Manhattan real estate being sold for $9,000 a square foot.  All the same, he knew what a fortune was.  He meant his question to be rhetorical, but it turns out that it is provocative: what would it profit me to gain the whole world…?  Jesus never thought in numbers as big as we do, all the same he knew.  We are deeply interested in what it might profit us to gain the whole world.

And yet the daily invitation of Jesus is to lose your life with him.  This is why we come to the altar every day in this church to remind ourselves that the path of righteousness leads through suffering, death, and resurrection.  This path looked problematic to Saint Peter, so you should expect it to look a little complicated to you and me, too.

I can’t possibly claim to understand the many and complex causes that led to a catastrophic hurricane like Hurricane Harvey.  I am prepared to accept that human pollution of our natural environment has contributed greatly to the occurrence of weather events such as this.  It is interesting to contemplate that one lens through which to view the national debate on climate change is a theological lens.  Floods, after all, have traditionally been thought of as “acts of God.”  But nowadays we are not so sure.  And many of us see our own hands at work in the clouds that gather and the rain that falls, and the heat that scorches, and the snow that melts.  Which is to say that many of us are willing to admit that we have been meddling in things that belong to God.  Thus has it ever been.

If we see things this way, we might hear Jesus hissing in our own ears this morning, “Get thee behind me, Satan!  You are a stumbling block to me!”  We might peruse the front pages of the papers and wonder what it would mean to leave room for the wrath of God.  Could God really do anything to us that’s worse than the things we’ve done to ourselves?

The headlines in this morning’s New York Times have replaced the news of the flood with news that “North Korea Says It Tested Hydrogen Bomb.”  If only the wrath of God was our only worry.

Jesus is among us in his church to tell us again that the path to righteousness leads through suffering, death, and resurrection.  But this covenant – that our pain is sanctified by his pain, that our death has been trampled by his death, and that our resurrection is assured by his resurrection is extremely difficult for us to hear, let alone to believe.  Mostly, we would rather hit the Lottery, or at least own a few hundred shares in Facebook.  We would like to exercise vengeance on our own.  We would like to claim all the wrath we want for our own.  We would like to do things our way.  We would like to skip the pain, the death, and even the resurrection – it’s just not our way.  We would like to set our minds not on divine things, but on human things.

I hear Jesus hissing in our ears, “Get thee behind me, Satan!  You are a stumbling block to me!”

And I wonder if anything less than the wrath of God will ever lead us to that path of righteousness that leads through suffering, death, and resurrection.  Speaking for myself, I would rather be led there by love, which I think is what St. Paul had in mind, too.

So, I’m watching as the waters of the flood recede.  I am looking to the heavens.  And I am praying for a rainbow.

 

Preached by Fr. Sean Mullen

3 September 2017

Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia

 

Posted on September 3, 2017 .