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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Can We Do Better?

Be the person who breaks the cycle.
If you were judged, choose understanding.
If you were rejected, choose acceptance.
If you were shamed, choose compassion.
Be the person you needed when you were hurting,
not the person who hurt you.
Vow to be better than what broke you—
to heal instead of becoming bitter
so you can act from your heart, not your pain.
~ Lori Deschene

I began writing this reflection in Holy Week, a time of intense spiritual scrutiny as we accompanied Jesus in his final days. The above words from Lori Deschene echo poignantly Jesus’ summons to live into another way, to relate to one another in another way than the adversarial model of the world with winners and losers. “One of you will betray me,” Jesus predicted at the Last Supper (John 13:21—33). Only one betrayed Jesus? Yes, Judas did, but so did Peter, and all his other friends who ran for cover, more concerned about saving their own skin than reaching out to their Lord in his time of need. I’m afraid that all of us betray Jesus, all the time and in all places. I see it most painfully among well-meaning Christians, especially when we disagree on moral matters.

Anglicans in particular have a special duty to take Jesus’ summons seriously as we stake our unique contribution to Gospel discipleship on the quality of our relationships, our bonds of affection. Paul Avis articulates this well in his book The Vocation of Anglicanism: “Anglicanism seeks to hold together (often otherwise polarizing) truth together in theology and practice in order that it may hold people together. (It does this by claiming) to be catholic and reformed, episcopal and synodical, universal and local, biblical and reasonable, traditional and open to fresh insight.” (pg. 182)

In a month’s time we Canadian Anglicans are heading into a most challenging General Synod (GS2019) with the motion to change the definition of marriage up for a second reading and subsequent vote. For those cherishing a traditional understanding of marriage, Jesus’ summons to relate differently is betrayed when regarding supporters of same-sex marriage as apostates and heretics, and when convinced beyond a doubt of their own righteousness. Supporters of same-sex marriage betray the same summons of our Lord when regarding opponents as enemies and homophobes, and when convinced beyond a doubt of their own righteousness. Both sides dismiss the good faith in the other. Both dismiss the primacy of conscience in the other. Both relate from a place of judgment and fear, anger and pain instead of trust, acceptance and compassion. Then, in an uncanny look in the mirror, both become eerily alike in their worst behaviours.

Acceptance in Christ runs deeper and is qualitatively distinct from approval and agreement. Jesus brought a new way of belonging and relating to God and, by extension, to one another. That new way challenges us all to love radically in faithfulness to our God. This becomes particularly important in matters of deep disagreement. In his book A Letter to My Congregation, Ken Wilson writes:

The demands of acceptance require us to maintain a relationship of honour and respect with those with whom we may ardently disagree. We accept the fact that our convictions (…) differ, and those with whom we differ hold their convictions, as we do, unto the Lord. Inasmuch as this is not easy for us, we commit ourselves to bearing it as part of the disciple’s cross. We don’t agree to disagree by diminishing the importance of the question (…) We recognize that human beings, made in God’s image, must strive for integrity and unity. Violating one’s conscience, even when it is mistaken, can do harm to that integrity. (…) We must respect the measure of faith a person has received without attempting to persuade them to act against it. (…) We practice this form of acceptance by recognizing that each of us stands or falls, lives or dies, unto the Lord, trusting that the Lord is able to make even us wretched sinners stand. We ruthlessly practise the discipline of seeing those with whom we disagree in the best possible light, trusting God to judge their motives, intentions and heart better than we can. (pg. 114/115)

The question of same-sex marriage is a salient one in all Christian denominations. Even Roman Catholics are not off the hook, despite what Rome says. Not only is the conversation among thoughtful Catholics going on “under the table,” so to speak, but Roman Catholic gay and lesbian people are steadily migrating to more welcoming churches, most notably the United Church and Anglican ones. As the discussion on the subject in a recent ARC Canada meeting pointed out, we are very much in this painful conversation together. A unique illustration of this togetherness is the fact that ARC Canada was invited to contribute a submission to the Anglican Church of Canada’s Marriage Commission on the ecumenical implications of a changed definition of marriage between the two churches. This was likely a first; inviting an ecumenical partner to weigh in on an internal ecclesial discernment and decision-making process on a controversial subject is still rather unprecedented.

If our difficult conversations are truly Spirit-led, modelling a way not of this world, as Jesus summons us, all of us need to practice restraint, suspend suspicion and labeling, and refrain from holding others in contempt. Trusting one another, presuming good faith, embracing instead of excluding – all this might feel like too heavy a cross to bear for proponents of both sides of the question before us. It will feel like dying to ourselves. It will involve relinquishing the need to be right, resisting the temptation to use our pain as a weapon of mass relational destruction.

My heart goes out to those who feel caught in the ecclesial cross-fire on marriage. I share respect and compassion rather than judgment and scorn to all. What if it might be too soon in the cultural, religious and anthropological process of appropriating the Christian implications of same-sex attraction to come to definitive conclusions? Those whose lives are directly affected, who live in this in-between, liminal, space need a robust spirit of ruthless honesty and healthy humility, a healed inner constitution and a mature engagement drenched in faithful patience for the masses to catch up, esp. in our churches.

Can we vow to be better than what breaks us? Do we take seriously Paul’s words: “If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honoured, all rejoice together.” (1 Cor. 12:26) Can we muster the courage to appreciate that the Holy Spirit can draw us together in a powerful unity, despite very diverse perspectives and convictions? Only then do we offer a valid alternative to a world mired in polarization and controversy.

Pope Francis has said that, long before dogma and doctrine, truth is a relationship of love patterned on the Trinity. This is my heart’s desire as we move into GS2019. Please pray for us all.

“We must love them both:
those whose opinions we share
and those whose opinions we reject,
for both have laboured in search for truth,

and both have helped us in finding it.”
~ St. Thomas Aquinas

A shorter version of this reflection was published on page 6 of the June 2019 issue in the monthly newspaper The Saskatchewan Anglican.