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

Not of This World

What is truth? … Truth and power are on trial these days. Each seem to get more corrupted by the minute. Kings and presidents, religious and secular leaders,  have their truth and power scrutinized and tested, judged and betrayed, condemned even. Fake news and cover-ups are swirling around us like uncontrollable tempests and hurricanes, messing with our head. Nothing seems certain anymore, nothing seems truly true, even on the religious front. Nothing seems spared this dizzying unravelling of securities, of stability, and of clarity.

In the midst of this confusing ethical, cultural and moral tsunami comes today’s account of Jesus before Pilate. Two kings, two rulers, in a showdown of power and truth. Jesus’ truth and power was completely other. And deep down Pilate sensed it. Pilate so sensed how completely different Jesus’ power and truth were, that his nerves … trembled … Even Pilate’s arrogance couldn’t hide his inner shaking. “Are you the King of the Jews?” “My kingdom is not of this world …”

In the wake of fake news, in the wake of never-ending revelations of failures and sins by leaders in all spheres of life – politicians, teachers, principals, religious leaders, business giants – we celebrate today’s Feast of Christ the King. We, foolish followers of a King, dare to claim that in this King lies salvation, in this King lies the way to fullness of life even in death. What a ludicrous claim in the face of today’s world!

How do we respond as followers of Christ, this new King? Our response truly sounds ludicrous. Our response is a king hung on a cross. A king on a cross … not a popular answer right now. Yet that’s our answer, the only answer … A king – himself a victim of the atrocities we inflict on one another, no matter whether committed in secret behind closed doors in family homes and workplaces or on a world stage in government offices and churches.

Pilate agonized, pacing back and forth as he questioned Jesus. He agonized, because here before him was a man who puzzled, scared and intrigued Pilate. Pilate is aware on a subconscious level that his power and authority is really just an illusion. That illusion gets challenged by this weird prisoner. And that makes Pilate very nervous. And so he should be. Because the power and authority of Christ the King, what makes Christ King is indeed a power “not of this world” meaning, completely counter-intuitive for us humans.

What makes it so? Because unlike the increased show of force called for by world powers today, and the cacaphony of voices claiming truth, for the very first time in human history, and so far the only time in human history, someone DARED to refuse to project and pass on the violence and pain inflicted on him. Someone, with a power not of this world said: the buck stops here. In this determined non-violent response, Jesus released a power far greater than the kind we humans normally employ. That’s …. what gives Jesus the crown of glory.

Richard Rohr describes it as follows:
God is to be found in all things, even and most especially in the painful, tragic, and sinful things—exactly where we do not want to look for God. The crucifixion is at the same moment the worst and best thing in human history. The cross reveals a cruciform pattern to reality. Reality is not meaningless and absurd, but neither is it perfect and consistent. Reality, life, is filled with contradictions. Jesus was killed in the collision of opposites, conflicting interests, and half-truths. This King of Glory hung between a good thief and a bad thief, between heaven and earth, inside of both humanity and divinity, a male body with a feminine soul, utterly whole and yet utterly disfigured.

The Letter to the Ephesians tells us that Jesus broke down the barriers of hostility by creating one humanity where formerly there had been two – and he did it this “by reconciling both [sides] in one body through his cross, which put that enmity to death.” (Ephesians 2, 16)

How? How does the cross of Christ kill death itself? Ron Rolheiser, theologian and author, replies as follows:
Jesus on the cross took in hatred, held it inside himself, transformed it, and gave back love. He took in bitterness, held it, transformed it, and gave back … graciousness. He took in curses, held them, transformed them, and gave back … blessing. He took in paranoia, held it, transformed it, and gave back … big-heartedness. He took in murder, held it, transformed it, and gave back … forgiveness.

Jesus revealed the deep secret, the key to salvation. And that is to absorb and hold within ourselves all that divides, all that brings strife, all that sows hatred, to hold it long enough so that it gets transformed. Like a water purifier which holds within itself the toxins and the poisons and gives back only pure water, we must hold within ourselves the toxins that poison relationships, that destroy communion, both in the human family and in the natural world, and give back only graciousness and openness, give back only compassion and care, to everyone and everything. It’s the only key to overcoming division.

We live in bitterly divisive times, paralyzing every sphere of life with half-truths and fake power, polarized on virtually every sensitive issue of politics, economics, morality, and religion. That stalemate will remain until one by one, we each transform rather than fuel and re-transmit the hatred that divides us.

We see in the person of Jesus a strange power at work, a power clearly not of this world … the power of God’s unmerited and merciful love. We claim Jesus as King of Glory, and that he is. But besides claiming this and adoring him, we are also called to imitate him. While fear can choke our compassion and generous loving, our world is famished, starved, for peace and reconciliation, for inclusion and equality, for love and grace and mercy.

So how serious are we about embracing this kingdom of Jesus not of this world? Living by Kingdom ways still comes at great risk, just as Jesus learnt from his experience on the cross. Can we, will we, like Jesus, become signs of dangerous hope for God’s world, possessed by a power not of this world? I think it would surprise and scare and intrigue the world, just as it did Pilate, when he faced that unusual character. We can only profess Christ as our King if we allow God to change us, from the inside out, so that we become the water filter sifting out human impurities, toxins and poisons. As God’s water filter we are transformed into beacons of hope and grace, of love and mercy – all those things for which our world is starving.

But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. He is our peace; in his flesh he made us into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us … He created in himself one new humanity, thus making peace, reconciling us to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death hostility, division, strife, jealousy, and enmity. (Ephesians 2:13—16)

Homily preached on the Feast of Christ the King, November 25, 2018
2 Samuel 23:1-7; Ephesians 2:11—22; John 18:33-38
* I am not real happy with this sermon. Not that anyone criticized it, but as I preached I felt it — it was too wordy, too repetitive and lacked story. Just goes to show I can’t always be at my best.

Prairie Encounters

Thank you for reading this reflection. For private comments, use the Contact Form below; for public comments scroll down further and use the space below “Leave a Reply.”