Sermon: Lent III RCL A – “Forgiveness, Pt. 3 – Obedience, Guilt, Imitate”

images-19The new priest is nervous about hearing confessions, so he asks an older priest to sit in on his sessions. The new priest hears several confessions, then the old priest asks him to step out of the confessional for a few suggestions… The old priest suggests, “Cross your arms over your chest and rub your chin with one hand.”… The new priest tries this. The old priest suggests, “Try saying things like, ‘I see, yes, go on, and I understand, how did you feel about that?”  The new priest says those things, trying them out. The old priest says, “Now, don’t you think that’s a little better than slapping your knee and saying, ‘No way! What happened next?'” – I’m not sure if this would be a good time to encourage you all to go to confession during Lent or not.

It is in the fifth chapter of James that we hear specific instructions on healing: “Is anyone among you sick? Let them call the elders of the church to pray over them and anoint them with oil.”   A few verses later, “Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed.”  James is showing us that there is often a link between sin and sickness, therefore he encourages us to confess our sins to each other.  Often, when we hear these instructions we think of the confession between a penitent and a priest, but James is also talking about Christian speaking to Christian as a means of accountability.  For example – if you have a problem with ___, then you can confess this to a trusted friend or even a group of trusted friends who will in turn hold you accountable.  They do this not so they can beat you over the head when you slip and fail, but so that they can support you in your time of weakness and give you encouragement when you hold strong.

So we confess our sins to God and to a priest for absolution.  We confess to one another for accountability and encouragement, and finally we confess so that we might receive forgiveness from the person who we injured.

Back in the day before I was the saint that you see standing before you today, I had a favorite expression for someone who had injured me in someway when asked if I would forgive them.  I heartily responded, “I wouldn’t spit on them if they were on fire.”  That left very little room for reconciliation and Jesus was not amused.  Yet finally I heard that call from St. Paul’s letter to the Colossians, “Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience.  Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone.  Forgive as the Lord forgave you.”  I understood that I must learn to forgive as I have been forgiven.  For me, I also discovered that there were three main reasons that compelled me to forgive: obedience, guilt and imitation.

Take obedience.  Some folks choose to go to work out of obedience, which can sometimes be closely linked to fear.  Obedience in that they know what is expected of them and fear that they will be fired if they don’t.  The same line of thought applies to forgiveness.  Consider Jesus’ parable of the unforgiving servant: a servant owed a great debt to his master and yet was unable to pay when his master called in the debt.  He therefore begged his master for forgiveness and the master forgave the debt and let him go; however, when that servant went out he encountered someone who owed him a debt and demanded that it be paid.  When the man said he couldn’t pay the servant had him thrown into prison until he could.  When the other servants saw what had happened they went to the master and reported it.  The master recalled the servant and said to him, “‘You wicked servant; I canceled all that debt of yours because you begged me to.  Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?’  In anger his master handed him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed.”   Jesus concludes by saying, “This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”  There are times when we may also forgive someone out of obedience to the command to forgive and out of fear of the repercussions of not forgiving.  Is that forgiveness?  Yes, as long as it is from the heart.  As long as we truly forgive.

Second, we may choose to forgive out of guilt.  Take for example the parable of the father who had two sons.  The father went to the first and said, “‘Son, go and work today in the vineyard.’  ‘I will not,’ he answered, but later he changed his mind and went.  Then the father went to the other son and said the same thing. He answered, ‘I will, sir,’ but he did not go.”  Jesus asked those who were listening to him, “Which of the two did what his father wanted?”  “The first,” they answered, but the question for us is: what turned the first son’s heart?  Probably a number of things, but I suspect it started with guilt.  “Dad asked me to do this [grumble.  grumble.]”, yet off he went.  In a similar manner – because of guilt – we may choose to forgive.  If I am being hard hearted and not wanting to forgive, but then look at an image of our crucified Lord and recognize the price he paid for my sins that I might be forgiven… guilt.  Plain and simple.  The guilt of my own sin and understanding the price paid by Jesus for those sins, will compel me toward forgiveness.  Is that forgiveness.  Again, yes, as long as it is from the heart.

So we can forgive out of obedience and guilt, but I would suggest to you there is an even better way: imitation.  Why do you do something in a particular way?  Oh, that’s how my dad always did it.  Why are you a dentist?  Oh, my mother was a dentist.  We imitate the behavior we see from others.  In the first paragraph of the first chapter of the Imitation of Christ by Thomas a Kempis, “‘He who follows Me, walks not in darkness,’ says the Lord.  By these words of Christ we are advised to imitate His life and habits, if we wish to be truly enlightened and free from all blindness of heart. Let our chief effort, therefore, be to study the life of Jesus Christ.”

Ephesians 5:12 (NIV), “Follow God’s example, therefore, as dearly loved children and walk in the way of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.”  “Follow God’s example” is also translated in other versions as “Be ye therefore imitators of God.”  That word “followers” / “imitators” is translated from the Greek word “mimEtai” (μιμηταὶ)  It is where we get the word “mimic.”  What is it we are to imitate / mimic as dearly loved children of God?  “When they came to the place called the Skull, they crucified him there, along with the criminals—one on his right, the other on his left.  Jesus said, ‘Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.’”  That is what we are to imitate.  We forgive, because Jesus forgives.

If you forgive from your heart out of obedience or guilt, then you have done as Christ commanded.  You have forgiven because you have been told to forgive and know that you must, and there is absolutely nothing wrong with that; however, in being a follower / imitator / mimic of Jesus you will forgive – not because you have been told to do it – but because you want to be like Jesus.

Is that asking too much?  Is it to hard to want to be like Jesus?  If so, then to paraphrase George Herbert, set it up there as a mark, something to aim for “since he shoots higher that threatens the moon, than he that aims at a tree.”  Forgive by any means you can summon, but seek the higher way of imitating Christ.

Sermon: Lent I RCL A – “Forgiveness, Pt. 1 – Where to Begin?”

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The Beatitudes.  Blessed are the poor, those who mourn, the meek, those who hunger for righteousness, the merciful, the pure in heart, peacemakers, and the persecuted.  Have you ever read those and thought to yourself, “I am so going to hell!”  There are days when I think that my ticket is already stamped.  This notion  of going to hell is only confirmed when I consider the seven deadly sins.

Pride.  How could I possibly be prideful when I’m the humblest person I know?  Greed?  Yeah.  Here’s a good one, lust.  You know what I think of when I think of being lustful?  Roy Orbison.  No.  Not Roy himself, but that song of his, “There she was just walking down the street, singing do wah diddy diddy dum diddy do.  She looked good, she looked fine, and I nearly lost my mind”  What is wrong with me?  Sloth?  Wrath?  Gluttony?  Please!  Just look at me.  I couldn’t come close to measuring up to a single one of the Beatitudes, but give me the seven deadly sins and I’m batting 1,000.  I am most certainly going to hell and my only consolation is that I can look around the congregation and know that I’ll at least have several friends with me!

In our Gospel today Jesus was able to overcome all the temptations that the Devil threw at him – worldly pleasures, fame, power, everything – but if you were to set a double beef cheeseburger, large fries and an ice cold Coca-Cola down in front of me, I’m fairly certain that I would commit at least half of the seven deadly sins.  If you set that same double beef cheeseburger, large fries, and ice cold Coca-Cola down in front of somebody else, I would probably break the other half.

I know it is Lent and we aren’t suppose to be having any fun in Church, but I’m sure you see the point as it would apply to a wide range of sinful activity that’s a bit more serious than a double cheeseburger.

St. Peter implores us, “Dear friends, I urge you, as foreigners and exiles, to abstain from sinful desires, which wage war against your soul.  Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us.”  As a Christian people, that is the goal, but so often we end up in the same boat as St. Paul, “I do not understand what I do.  For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do.”

Pride is at the top of the list of the seven deadly sins, because it takes a great deal of humility to admit that we have sinned.  Think how difficult it is to go to confession, how much humility it takes to confess your sins to another –  many can’t even make themselves practice this sacrament, but if we do humble ourselves, we can recognize that we have sinned, that we have damaged our relationship with God.

But the committing of the sin is not the saddest part?  We can discuss the fact that we have sinned.  We can identify times in our lives that we committed horrible acts.  We can identify times in our lives when someone committed horrible acts against us.  We will gladly beat ourselves up time and time again for something we did wrong even if it was years ago.  I can stand up here, point you out, and say, “You are a sinner.”  With the exception of the very proud, most, in humility will hang their head in agreement and defeat.

During the Ash Wednesday service we recited the 51st Psalm and we can agree with the words David wrote, “For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me.  Against you only have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight.  Indeed, I have been wicked from my birth, a sinner from my mother’s womb.”

But you know what?  That’s not the sad part.  The sad part is that in the next sentence after I have said you are a sinner – in the very next sentence – I can tell you that you are forgiven – you are forgiven – and the sad part is… you won’t believe me.

Jesus said, “Take heart, son; your sins are forgiven.”  Again “Jesus said, ‘Your sins are forgiven.’” And again, “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.”  Peter declares, “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins.”  St. Paul writes, “Blessed are those whose transgressions are forgiven, whose sins are covered.”  St. John confirms, “I am writing to you, dear children, because your sins have been forgiven on account of Jesus’ name.”  All that and many still won’t believe those words, “You are forgiven.”

Not only that, but believing that we are forgiven is almost as difficult as it is for us to forgive others.  That whole bit about “forgive, that you may be forgiven.”  “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive others.”  Yeah, there are days when I definitely don’t want to pray that!  Do you really always forgive others?

Forgiveness, in every form, is key to the teachings of Holy Scripture.  We know that it is a large part of our Christian identity, but what does it really mean?  I should probably spend Lent beating you over the head with your sins, but most of us don’t need any help with that.  So I’ve decided that during this Holy Lent we are going to look at the various aspects of this rather illusive topic.

To begin with, you have an assignment for this week: think about forgiveness.  No.  Not about who you should forgive or anything like that, but consider your ideas about forgiveness.  What do you think Jesus means when he says we should forgive?  How can we forgive ourselves?  Next week we will begin with many of the myths out there about what true Christian forgiveness is all about and see if what we believe is right or wrong.

In the meantime, consider these words Mahatma Gandhi: “The weak can never forgive.  Forgiveness is the attribute of the strong.”

 

Sermon: Ash Wednesday

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The Bureau of Labor came out with some statistics on how we spend our time.  It breaks down like this:

Working and related activities:  8.7 hours

Sleep:  7.7 hours

Leisure and sports:  2.6 hours

Household activities:  1.1 hours

Eating and drinking:  1.1 hours

Caring for Others: 1.3 hours

Other: 1.5 hours

This means that over half the day is gone, with over 12 hours a day devoted to working, eating, household and caring activities.  Then there is the time for sleeping, 7.7 hours, which leaves only a few hours remaining for anything else.  The majority of that extra time would seem to be assigned to the La-z-boy and the TV.  However, of that “other” category, 16 minutes are given to “organizational, civic, and religious” activities.  If we were being generous with the religious aspect and gave it 50% of that time, we would have 8 minutes per day or 56 minutes per week that we give to God.

Now, the unaware and self-righteous side of me would like to rail against those statistics, start telling folks that they need to get their priorities straight and all that.  Truth is, if I weren’t a priest – receiving a stipend so that I could spend time with God on behalf of the people – if I had a job in the secular world, children to care for, school and family functions, if I had all these things and more, then I’m fairly certain that my minutes per day that I spend with God would be less than eight.  Heck, even as a priest there are days when 8 minutes with God seems like a lot!   But that doesn’t make it right.

Much of our life with Christ is about sacrifice, the giving up of who we are and replacing it with who God is.  It is about a relationship and with any relationship it requires time, nurturing, giving, and sacrifice.

In the time leading up to Lent there are always discussion about what we will be “giving up,” that which we abstain from.  However, this giving up is not about an act of will power: “I’m giving up coffee for Lent or smoking or whatever.”  Heck, I gave up beer one Lent and really learned to enjoy red wine.  The point of abstaining from something is so that you will be able to give that time, those resources, etc. to God.  I’ll give up half an hour of TV a day so that I can spend that time with God.  See how it works?

I read our Gospel today and it speaks of doing certain things for God: giving alms, serving Him, praying, and fasting.  It talks about how we rightly do these things, not in public and not for show, but with a world that is constantly demanding more and more of our time, before we can do these things properly we must first learn to simply DO them.  We discover how to give God more than 8 minutes per day, to sacrifice something of ourselves so that we can enter more deeply into that relationship with Him.  This time with God is not just one more thing that we have to accomplish, as a Christian people, time with God, serving Him is our joy!  Thomas a Kempis understood these things.  In his Imitation of Christ, he writes, “I WILL hear what the Lord God will speak in me… Blessed is the soul who hears the Lord speaking within her, who receives the word of consolation from His lips.  Blessed are the ears that catch the accents of divine whispering, and pay no heed to the murmurings of this world.  Blessed indeed are the ears that listen, not to the voice which sounds without, but to the truth which teaches within.  Blessed are the eyes which are closed to exterior things and are fixed upon those which are interior.  Blessed are they who penetrate inwardly, who try daily to prepare themselves more and more to understand mysteries.  Blessed are they who long to give their time to God, and who cut themselves off from the hindrances of the world…. Consider these things, my soul, and close the door of your senses, so that you can hear what the Lord your God speaks within you, ‘I am your salvation,’ says your Beloved. ‘I am your peace and your life.’”

The Lord is your joy.  Your salvation.  Your peace.  Your life.  During this Holy Lent make the sacrifice, take the time, and hear what the Lord your God will speak in you.