Forgiven the Inexcusable

Imagine that today’s Scripture readings were proclaimed on the Sunday of our recent Anglican General Synod:
Let me take it upon myself to speak to the Lord, I who am but dust and ashes. Suppose five of the fifty righteous are lacking? Will you destroy the whole city for lack of five? …. Oh do not let the Lord be angry if I speak. Suppose thirty are found there.’ And God answered, ‘I will not do it, if I find thirty there.’ So suppose …. only twenty are found there ... Oh do not let the Lord be angry if I speak just once more. Suppose only ten are found there …’ (Genesis 18:20—32)

Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened … (Luke 11:1—13)

In light of the intense emotional roller-coaster that was the recent Anglican General Synod, these examples and instructions about prayer sound like …. what? Foolish and unrealistic, as many went away with broken hearts and conflicting feelings. Some felt betrayed by God and by fellow Anglicans, as they asked and did not receive, searched and did not find, knocked and the door remained closed.

Whether on a grand scale such as General Synod or in the privacy of our own lives, when things don’t go our way, we feel betrayed and let down, discouraged and in doubt. We can easily feel that God is not listening, that other people are preventing God to answer our prayers. When we feel deeply about something, we crave and need not only God’s own blessing; we crave acceptance, recognition and respect from our communities of faith, from our church. The question is: how do we know we are praying for the right thing? And why does God not answer prayer, or so it seems? It is said that God always answers prayer – always. The answer can be yes – no – maybe – wait – or … something different, something we would never think of on our own.

No doubt, Abraham was scandalized by the sins of Sodom. Abraham could have, in great righteousness, prayed the whole city to hell. But … he didn’t. Abraham did something much more scandalous: from a deep well of compassion for the people, Abraham pleaded … with God … to spare the city, despite its transgressions. So God, what if there are only 40 good people in it? What if there are only 30, or 20, or only 10? Imagine that… bargaining with none other than the Almighty! I wonder if Abraham already had a premonition of God’s saving work in Jesus and what C.S. Lewis would say millennia later: “To be a Christian means to forgive the inexcusable in one another because God has forgiven the inexcusable in us.”

The present pain in the Anglican LGBTQ+ community over feeling rejected by our church is enormous. On the evening of the vote on the Marriage Canon, when the results showed that the motion to redefine marriage had failed, the air was sucked out of the room, and quickly filled with weeping and wailing, esp. of the young delegates present.

Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for a fish, will give a snake instead of a fish? Or if the child asks for an egg, will give a scorpion?

That night, our young people were crying, and many along with them across the country. While that same Synod made great strides in reconciliation with our Indigenous sisters and brothers, through a formal request for forgiveness for the spiritual abuse inflicted in the name of God, another group experienced deep spiritual harm. While that same Synod made great strides in ecumenical and interfaith relations, dialogue and alliances, another group felt cast out into the cold, bereft, robbed, of all that their hearts yearned for.

Teach us to pray, O Lord, into the tears and agony of this moment … What can we do? How do we pray into this painful space and into the many painful spaces of our lives and of our world? And how can we remain open to divine answers, answers that we could never think of on our own? God always reserves the right to provide answers that we cannot possibly ask for or imagine. Many times in my own life, I have stood at crossroads, wondering which way God wanted me to go. Some of those crossroads were pretty painful, caused by major melt-downs and crises. Times of betrayal, hurt and rejection are painful; they feel like God is hanging us out to dry…

But our God is a God of life and love. Our God is a resurrection God. First, by becoming one with us in Christ Jesus, taking on the human condition, becoming part of creation itself, God says in a loud voice: all that I create is good and destined for goodness and love. Yes, free will, that greatest of gifts from our loving God, did come with the rather distasteful side-effect of sin. But in Jesus, God showed us by example how to live in grace and how to stare down our own sinful patterns of behaviours, motives and actions. In Jesus’ suffering, death and resurrection, God has declared once and for all: there is nothing that I cannot redeem, save and transform. In Jesus, even death was killed by love eternal.

In one of my own melt-down moments, caused by a brutal and abrupt termination of a pastoral position, a dear friend and mentor gently said: “I know your pain is real and raw, and it deserves to be honoured and respected. But I just want you to know that, once you are ready, our Saviour is eagerly waiting to teach you many things through this pain.” And indeed, our Saviour did, once my heart was ready and open …

So I got thinking: what can our Saviour possibly teach us in this moment of pain in our church? What does our Saviour teach us in all seasons of pain – in our church, in our lives, in our world? Is rejection and abandonment by God the only way to interpret seemingly unanswered prayers? Sometimes the no is indeed from God, because God has something else in mind. Other times the no is caused by our blindness and obstinacy. Still other times, what looks like a no in fact conceals another way, a way that is hard to notice if we are fixated on only one desired outcome. In the midst of our melt-downs how can God open up another, deeper answer, an answer we cannot possibly dream up ourselves, an answer lived out in the witness of our Lord Jesus?

Christ himself was no stranger to rejection, scorn and judgment. And yet, Jesus refused to let that rejection define him or define his acting and speaking in this world. Deeply anchored in his God-given identity of love, he carried the tension … He carried the tension of rejection and misunderstanding and scorn without letting it define or destroy him or fill him with rage (except for a temper tantrum in the Temple). Jesus took within himself the anger and hatred and injustice and bitterness, and gave back … graciousness, blessing, mercy and love. Like a water purifier, Jesus carried the tension and injustice … holding the dirty, murky water of our sin, letting it pass through him on the cross, and returned the pure and safe, healing and cleansing water of God’s mercy …

Whew … Impossible? Yep. Impossible on our own? Yep. That is why now, more than ever, we need one another. Our LGBTQ+ sisters and brothers need us. They need our unconditional love and mercy to lean on, so that their spirits can grow strong and resilient, so that they do not let rejection have the last word. For it is in community that we grow strong in our identity as God’s beloved son and daughter. It is in community that we confess sins and receive God’s healing. It is in community that we grow into God’s answers to life’s dilemmas. It is in community that God feeds our bodies and spirits with Christ’s own Body and Blood in the Eucharist. It is in community that our spirit can grow in safety and beauty. It is in community that we can say to one another: let my faith and love carry you for a while as you weep and heal. It is in community that we plead with God, like Abraham, will you not save us, O God, even if only a few of us are righteous in your sight?

Listen to Paul’s words from his letter to the Colossians: “As you therefore have received Christ Jesus the Lord, continue to live your lives in him, rooted and built up in him and established in the faith, just as you were taught, abounding in thanksgiving…”Because, “When you were dead in sin, God made you alive together with him, when he forgave us all our trespasses, erasing the record that stood against us. He set this aside, nailing it to the cross… “To be a Christian means to forgive the inexcusable in one another because God has forgiven the inexcusable in us.” In Christ, God has indeed … forgiven … the inexcusable … in us all.

This extravagant grace from a foolishly generous God eventually broke through at General Synod through the Indigenous presence. For many years now our church has been profoundly blessed by the faithful leadership of Indigenous elders who have tenaciously continued to walk with us, despite the historic spiritual and cultural harm we have caused them. While struggling to overcome their own inter-generational trauma Indigenous Christians have been diligent in pursuing reconciliation with the colonial church, even though the spiritual oppression inflicted upon them does not make us deserving of such a gracious pursuit. Why are they so persistent? Because of Christ…

Because despite all the harm we have inflicted, they have grasped the heart of Jesus, a heart that reconciles and heals. Our Indigenous sisters and brothers could have, in great righteousness, prayed the whole church to hell. But they didn’t … instead they are in the business of forgiving the inexcusable in us all, because like Abraham, they have found a handful of righteous ones among us and are pleading on our behalf. And through that extravagant act of pursuing reconciliation, our Indigenous sisters and brothers are revealing the face of our merciful God. Despite the condemning headlines in the secular media about the intolerance and exclusion of the Anglican Church, the healing features of God’s mercy and grace entered the real and broken hearts of those gathered in the Synod hall …

All throughout Scripture God’s primary concern is clear: God is in the business of saving us from ourselves, time and time again and again, especially when we have reached the dead-end of our tricks and tactics, and are face to face with our own brokenness and mess. God is still in the business of pulling blessings from curses, love from hate, peace from violence, life from death. And God will do this again, can do this again, with our consent, and with our willingness to surrender.

And so yes, Lord, … teach us to pray, show us a way forward, a way that we cannot possibly ask for or imagine. Teach us to forgive … teach us to carry one another in love.

If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will our heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him.

Homily preached on July 28, 2019
Genesis 18:20—32, Psalm 138, Colossians 2:6—15, Luke 11:1—13

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Truth – A Relationship

A few personal challenges of late sent me reflecting on truth again. Some of our loved ones confronted us with some difficult positions on important moral and family matters. It’s all I could do to keep conversations open and respectful, while working hard to share my opposing perspectives in non-judgmental ways and in a manner that deserved equal openness and respect. Maintaining open and loving relationships in times of disagreement is so heart-wrenching.

And then a peculiar thing happened. As if the ears of my mind and heart were sharpened by my own painful experience of discord, I heard and saw the same pain in so many places and over so many issues: disagreements over assisted suicide, disputes over the need to reconcile with our First Nations sisters and brothers, deep differences over the definition of marriage and how the church ought to care and seek justice for the LGBTQ community, strong disagreements within First Nations jurisdictions over allowing mining on their territory or not, a family feud over an estate, debate over whether to sit or kneel at the consecration or the place of the tabernacle (really!), sharp divisions over the peaceful nature of Islam,  vastly opposing opinions on how to eradicate racism and violence in the US, in Canada, in the world …

Sometimes I wonder: “How can we ever sort this out?” Is it even possible to reach for higher conversation standards; are there others who are dissatisfied with entrenched polarizing positions on controversial questions? The extent of volatile conflict near and far is scary; even disputes within churches sometimes resemble more a vindictive culture war than the Gospel.

What is so hard about acknowledging our vulnerability and awkwardness while affirming goodwill and desire for wholeness in every person? What is so hard about living God’s truth, Jesus’ truth, in the quality of our relationships, challenging ourselves to deliberately choose love as our foundational orientation? I sadly acknowledge the reasons for violence, war, and discords of all shapes and sizes. But are we doomed to live with this alienating way of relating to one another? In all these examples, a battle for “the truth” rages. I find myself asking Pilate’s ancient question again: what is truth?

As if an answer to the pleading prayer in my soul, along came the words of Pope Francis:
The truth, according to Christian faith, is God’s love for us in Jesus Christ. So the truth is a relationship! Each one of us receives the truth and expresses it in his or her own way, from the history, culture and situation in which he or she lives…. This doesn’t mean that truth is variable or subjective; quite the opposite. But it means that it is given to us always and only as a way and a life. Did not Jesus himself say: ‘I am the Way, the Truth and the Life’? In other words, truth being altogether one with love, requires humility and openness to be sought, received and expressed. ~ Pope Francis in his letter to Eugenio Scalfari, Nov. 9, 2013

What if this is true? I mean, what if truth is first and foremost a relationship of love patterned on the Trinity as the ultimate communion of love (long before it is a set of intellectual dogmas and beliefs), and is given to us always and only as a way and a life? If indeed this is true, that has enormous implications for those of us who claim to follow Jesus, the incarnation of that truth. We cannot ignore today’s local, national and international conflicts, both within and between our churches and in the wider world. Nor can we retreat in ideological fortresses of our own making and say to the rest of the Body ‘I have no need of you.’

But we desperately need to adopt conversation models “in a new key” so to speak, models which can equip us to listen without fear or prejudice and seek a better understanding of ‘the other,’ whoever that may be in any given situation. At best we can only change ourselves, and only if our Christian discipleship summons us to do so. In other words, the most life-giving reason to desire change is to deepen our capacity to love as God loves. I know that I need to change daily, as I struggle with difficult people, new issues and moral dilemmas. We may not agree, but can we be committed to hold together in love, and through that commitment, see the face of Christ in one another while inching ever closer to realizing God’s Kingdom on earth?

I read echoes of this same diagnosis and a desire for fostering a higher standard of discourse through the quality of how we relate to one another and the world in Fr. Richard Rohr’s words in Breathing Under Water (pg. 62):
The longer I live the more I believe that truth is not an abstraction or an idea that can be put into formulas or mere words. Our real truth has to do with how we situate ourselves in this world. There are ways of living and relating that are honest and sustainable and fair, and there are utterly dishonest ways of living and relating . This is our real, de facto, and operative “truth,” no matter whose theories or theologies we believe. Our life situation and our style of relating to others is “the truth” that we actually take with us to the grave. It is who we are, more than our theories about this or that. 

Jesus himself holds us to this higher standard, and yet we forget as quickly as water passes through a sieve. We keep making a categorical mistake, i.e. that loving and honouring our opponent implies consent and support for something that risks violating our conscience. But far from condoning sin, pain and woundedness, Jesus’ capacity to love unconditionally and show generous mercy had a radical life-changing effect on persons. His love shed clear truth-filled light into burdened souls, spontaneously exposed the darkness of sin and healed open wounds, while restoring dignity and honour.

Simply by experiencing the honour to be worthy to host Jesus, Zaccheus confessed of his own accord. (Luke 19:1-10) Simply by being in his presence, the sinful woman washed Jesus’ feet with her tears and dried them with her hair, evoking from Jesus the words: “Her sins, which were many; have been forgiven.” (Luke 7:36-50). In the parable on the weeds and the wheat, Jesus cautioned about pulling the weeds before harvest (Matthew 13:24-30). Even the Syro-Phoenician woman, an outcast by all social standards, felt the power of divine love, and claimed it for her daughter. (Matthew 15:21-28)

Simply put, the sheer power of divine love does the sifting and sorting, the healing and restoring; no need to add judgment or condemnation, no need to fear, dispute or despise. That is why St. Augustine said in his famous sermon on love:

Human actions can only be understood by their root in love. All kinds of actions might appear good without proceeding from the root of love. Remember, thorns also have flowers: some actions seem truly savage, but are done for the sake of discipline motivated by love. Once and for all, I give you this one short command: love, and do what you will. If you hold your peace, hold your peace out of love. If you cry out, cry out in love. If you correct someone, correct them out of love. If you spare them, spare them out of love. Let the root of love be in you: nothing can spring from it but good. …

Contrary to earlier reports, it became clear this morning (July 12, 2016) that the General Synod of the Anglican Church of Canada did pass the motion last night that will change the definition of marriage. While many are grateful and relieved there is also much pain over this decision across the Anglican and ecumenical landscape. Are there really any winners in such a divisive outcome? The most striking comments came from Rev. Dr. Iain Luke, soon-to-be the new principal at Emmanuel St. Chad College in Saskatoon:

The irony is that before the whole synod started, people were saying it’s a “lose-lose” situation. Everybody knows what it feels like now. Both sides have understood now what it feels like to lose, if you have to use that word. One side ends up not getting their way, but the other side knows what it feels like. For a day, they felt that, and I hope that that will help us.
The most important thing going ahead is that we bring those two groups of people together, that people see the leadership of those two groups working together to find one story for our church. It would be terrible if there were two stories of this synod, because two stories lead to two churches. We need one story, one church. But to do that, people have to see that both sides are working together to tell that story.
Why did it happen this way? There must be something for us to learn from this … (Anglican Journal, July 12, 2016)

My heart hurts and my spirit weeps as one group cheers and another group breaks. Can we take seriously Pope Francis’ words that each one of us receives the truth and expresses it in his or her own way, from the history, culture and situation in which he or she lives? Are we willing to look for “Holy Ground” in another’s painful life story? Can we let God’s love purify all our hearts so that love’s divine power can truly flow through us all freely, confidently and generously? For the sake of the world, create a clean heart in me, O God, and put a new and steadfast spirit within me. (Psalm 51:10)

O gracious and holy Father,
give us wisdom to perceive you,
diligence to seek you,
patience to wait for you,
eyes to behold you,
a heart to meditate upon you,
and a life to proclaim you;
through the power of
the Spirit of Jesus Christ, our Lord.
Amen.
~ St. Benedict

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