“…Forgive us our sins, for we also forgive everyone who has wronged us…” – from the prayer Jesus taught his disciples according to St. Luke’s account (11:4).  This statement, or something near it, is uttered by the lips of most Christians on a weekly, and for some, daily basis. We entreat the God who gives daily bread to forgive our wrongs. In Matthew’s rendering of Jesus’ teaching, that is the only part of the prayer that Jesus returns to immediately in order to exegete: “If you forgive others their sins, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you don’t forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your sins” (6:14).

One of my New Testament professors, Joel Green, wrote of this part of the most commonly uttered prayer (emphasis mine):

The ‘for’ [of Luke 11:4b] does not introduce a relationship of quid pro quo between divine and human forgiveness, as though God’s forgiveness were dependent upon human activity (6:35; 23:34!). Instead, Jesus grounds the disciples’ request for divine forgiveness in their own practices of extending forgiveness. As in previous texts (esp. 6:36), Jesus spins human behavior from the cloth of divine behavior; the embodiment of forgiveness in the practices of Jesus’ followers is a manifestation and imitation of God’s own character.

The image conveyed here is that of an open or closed hand. If you clinch your fists in holding a defiant grudge, they are not open to receive divine forgiveness either, for forgiveness can only flow through extended arms and open hands (viz. Christ on the cross).

Forgiveness is a significant word in the vocabulary of those of us who claim to have been recipients of Divine forgiveness. We who embrace the forgiveness offered by the crucified One who cried out to his God, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do…” find that as we have been forgiven, we are expected to be forgivers when others offend us. Yet what I witness and even feel in many encounters and my own experience where a wrong or injustice has been done is that forgiveness is a term that though often used, is rarely understood or expressed in the delicate yet precarious way I perceive it to be offered by our Lord.

An Historical Case Study

Cover of _The Sunflower_ (credit: betterworldbooks.com)

Cover of _The Sunflower_ (credit: betterworldbooks.com)

Simon Wiesenthal, an Austrian Jew and Holocaust survivor, in his book entitled The Sunflower: On the Possibilities and Limits of Forgiveness recounted a time when he was randomly called to the bedside of a dying Nazi soldier. When Wiesenthal entered the room the patient begged for his forgiveness for atrocities he had committed in his life, particularly of an incident where he took part in the mass murder in a building housing about 300 Jews. This soldier and his comrades had set fire to the building and as Jews tried to escape the flames, they gunned the victims down. Being haunted by the tremendous guilt for participating in such a despicable act and knocking on death’s door himself, the fear of eternal punishment crept in upon this man who begged for “any Jew” to come and absolve him. Wiesenthal listened to his confession, but left the room (never to return) without saying a word.

Wiesenthal pondered and invited the reader to respond to the question of whether his silence was justified or if he should have offered words of judgment or forgiveness to the soldier. His plea for feedback regarding the predicament he faced garnered hundreds of deeply intriguing responses from people of various backgrounds all across the world. I highly recommend my readers to pick up a copy of the work and wrestle with the dilemma, because as the subtitle suggests, the situation raises not solely the question of whether he should have forgiven the soldier, but even challenges the presupposition that he could have done so. The (real or hypothetical) possibility or impossibility of absolving such a person varies according to the worldview of those who have responded and their replies will surprise you, I think.

Our World Today

Wiesenthal’s dilemma brings to the surface the significant differences of people’s approaches to forgiveness. If you think that Wiesenthal not only could have but should have said, “Yes, I forgive you” with ease and then gone on back to his imprisoned livelihood under evil’s grip, then I think you’re greatly underestimating the true costliness of forgiveness. Yet what I hear in the court of public opinion when someone has committed some terrible act or spewed some poisonous and hateful words and it appears in media outlets is that very idea. And forgiveness appears to be packaged that way not only by those advocating for the absolution of the offender but also by those who call for his or her head on a platter. Forgiving someone, in this seeming popular sense, means giving them a clean slate, a free pass, maybe even desiring to let them pick up where they left off before the offense was brought to light.

But forgiveness, as I see it, is not a mere free pass; else we could call it cheap grace. It’s not a blank slate, although to some degree we might call it a second chance. Forgiveness is rarely an instantaneous thing like a simple transaction and is not a merely static reality. Forgiveness, like giving birth or being born, takes time and requires the giving up of something valuable (by both the forgiver and the forgiven) in order to be fully experienced.

I remember being taught that the best way to define justification (a word commonly interchanged with forgiveness in theological circles) as “It is ‘just (as) if I’d‘ never sinned.” Now that’s a clever play on words and gets some of the concept, but ultimately this cliched slogan is insufficient, for it fails to truly wrestle with the reality and depth of the consequences of humanity’s proliferation of injustice, immoral behavior and evil. It also often fails in that it tends to see forgiveness as an end in itself rather than as a means to a more perfect goal: the real change that comes from the Divine life implanted within.

The Mechanics Of Forgiveness: East and West

Although this isn’t always true, it is generally the case that Eastern and Western cultures approach the agents and actions of forgiveness quite differently. A big difference lies in the expected answer to the question: Who takes the first step toward forgiveness and reconciliation: the offended party or the victim(ized) party? In most Western paradigms, forgiveness is potential when the offending party approaches the victim(s), expresses sorrow and asks to be forgiven. Forgiveness is achieved if the request is granted. In many Eastern paradigms, I’ve been told that forgiveness is an offer given by the victim(s) in approaching the party who offended [them].

Now consider the paradigm at work in Christ’s ministry of forgiveness, reconciliation, and wholeness.

Forgiveness As Means To A Greater End

I love what C.S. Lewis said about forgiveness that my friend Matt O’Reilly recently pointed out in this post. Lewis said:

Real forgiveness means looking steadily at the sin, the sin that is left over without any excuse, after all allowances have been made, and seeing it in all its horror, dirt, meanness, and malice, and nevertheless being wholly reconciled to the [person] who had done it. That, and only that, is forgiveness, and that we can always have from God if we ask for it.

And this is part of why I’m of a Wesleyan/Methodist brand of Christian. Because the grace that bears with it the forgiveness of sins is free, on the one hand, and costly, on the other, but never cheap nor quick. If forgiveness is all you want, I think you’re not asking for enough. Forgiveness itself isn’t the remedy, but the means to something greater. In forgiveness, Christ sees the mess we’ve made of our world and our lives, yet loves us enough to reconcile us to God’s self, help us see the evil we’ve perpetuated, repent from it, and cooperate with this God whose kingdom comes to end all death, evil and hostility. This opens that path to wholeness and reconciliation, which will bring the work of grace that began in forgiveness to its completion. So as we live and forgive, may we hear and continually speak to one another the good news that both allows us to feel the costliness of our own sin as well as the freedom that comes with declaration of absolution: “Christ died for us while we were yet sinners; that proves God’s love toward us. In the name of Jesus Christ, you are forgiven.”

And that, sisters and brothers, opens a window into the unique nature of this divine forgiveness in which we are called to participate. For in the holy mystery that these words accompany, we will discover that forgiveness is much more than an emotional feeling or expression but is a sacramental act that came and comes at such a terrible and great cost. Thanks be to God!

Alleluia! Christ is risen! Easter is not just a day, but a season of celebrating the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. The Gospel passage for the 2nd week of Easter (this past Sunday) was John 20:19-31, where Jesus mysteriously showed up twice through/behind a closed door to be with his disciples who were gathered together. The first time, they were all there except for Thomas. The second time, however, Thomas was there along with the rest.

A week (or so) separated the incidents, and I can’t help but imagine that that week must have felt like an eternity for Thomas, who wanted no less of an encounter with the risen Jesus than what the others were afforded, but was merely told it was true that Jesus was no longer dead. Underneath the surface, there is something quite wonderful, however, about that week and the relationship between Thomas and the other disciples. That is that despite Thomas’ struggles, his doubts, his defiance at demanding further proof, the others did not cast him out, condemn him, shame him, or beat it in his brains to “just believe!” No, they sat with him in his doubts, broke bread with him (surely more than once in the course of the week), allowed him to struggle and waited with him until the Lord graciously and peacefully returned in their midst. And sure enough, Jesus showed up again.

Though there’s no record of a meal with his disciples in these two gatherings when Jesus appeared, there is, nonetheless, something beautifully sacramental about what takes place and our senses and minds can be drawn to the holy mysteries of Jesus’ resurrection and the meal we celebrate as we await Christ’s return in final victory where we will feast at the heavenly banquet.

In those two encounters, Jesus’ presence was real in the midst of his followers, who were gathered together. He gave words of peace and reconciliation, and offered his body and the marks where he had bled to not just be seen, but even to be touched by those seeking the truth. And he breathed on them the Holy Spirit, sending them into the world as the Father had sent him. If you listen carefully to these parts of the story, you will notice that each of these aspects is integral to our understanding of the Eucharist, or Holy Communion.

Jesus offers his scarred body to Thomas (credit: Joel J. Miller's blog on patheos.com)

Jesus offers his scarred body to Thomas (credit: Joel J. Miller’s blog on patheos.com)

Christ is really present in the shared meal when we are gathered together for Communion. In confessing where we had abandoned and/or failed in our design to faithfully follow Christ, we are forgiven our sins and hear the pardoning words in the name of Christ and then share words and signs of peace and reconciliation. Christ invites us and offers his body and blood to us, not just to see, but to touch (and in the sacrament, to partake). The Holy Spirit is poured out upon those gathered and the elements to make it so. We invoke the Holy Spirit to enable us to bear the scars and be the body of a crucified and risen Lord for the world around us. Even the final prayer reiterates this plea for the Holy Spirit’s empowerment for mission: “Eternal God, we give you thanks for this holy mystery in which you have given yourself to us. Grant that in the strength of your Spirit, we may give ourselves for others, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.”

“…As the Father has sent me, so I send you…”

In mid-January I went to a training event in Dickson, Tennessee with other young clergy in the Memphis & Tennessee Annual Conferences in the United Methodist Church. That weekend was special in that our bishop, Bill McAlilly, was present with us and led us as he began to reveal more about the missional theme of his vision for the Nashville Episcopal Area. In short, he led us in conversation that centered on two key passages that are often in view when we think of mission and evangelism: Matthew 25:31-46 and Matthew 28:16-20. It became clear as we shared with one another that it is a rare thing for a congregation to excel in both of these areas. If a local church is vital in the least, it will do well in one (the social justice ministries often associated with what is mentioned in Matthew 25, like feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, visiting the sick and imprisoned, and so on) or the other (experiencing growth through evangelism and discipleship with an eye toward the Great Commission in Matthew 28), but typically not both.

The conversation then began to shift toward what would it look like if we didn’t divorce these two areas of mission (social justice & disciple-making) but integrated them and saw missions & evangelism as two sides of the same coin, so to speak. While we were having these conversations, at some point my mind began to wonder about those two passages and the fact that they both come toward the end of Matthew’s account of Jesus’ life. Beyond the missional connection between the two passages, it wasn’t long before I began to wonder what is the literary connection between the two in Matthew? Maybe it was the long time I have spent studying the doctrine of the atonement that drew my attention to the cross and resurrection as that narrative is found between the two passages. So internally I began asking: What is the relationship between Matthew 25 & 28 and the narrative in between them? What does mission and evangelism have to do with Jesus’ Passion and Resurrection?

Let’s let that narrative sink in…what is found in between? The plotting of the chief priests to capture Jesus, the worshiping of Jesus by the woman with perfume, the disciples scandalized by Jesus’ allowance of this, Judas’ agreement to betray Jesus, preparation for and celebration of the Passover, confusion, more worship in the sharing of the bread and the cup and singing, hollow promises of faithfulness, agonizing prayer for another way, betrayal with a kiss, a battle abated, disciples scatter, a sham arraignment, ridicule, adamant denial, deep regret and a failed attempt to undo betrayal, sham trial, speechless lamb, the guilty goes free and the innocent one is condemned to die, washed hands, swayed crowds, more ridicule, beating, more ridicule, more beating, more ridicule, more ridicule, more ridicule, darkness, a cry for rescue, pause, death, a curtain torn in divine grief, earth shook, rocks split, (are those zombies?), identification of God’s Son from an unlikely source (a Roman centurion), women watching and waiting, burial, an attempt to be sure he stays buried…

cross in office

…the attempt fails – Resurrection…

Those 72+ hours between Matthew 25:31-46 & Matthew 28:16-20 are, for the community who follows the crucified and risen Lord, the most intense hours in human history. In those moments are the darkest of hours of despair that bring out the worst in humanity’s capacity to do harm. But in these moments we also find in the Human One’s actions the very best of humanity (Jesus was and is fully human, after all) and the very source of our hope. These hours proclaim that even in the midst of betrayal, sin an darkness there is Eucharist, and that on the other side of suffering and death is their defeat at the hands of Life.

So what sort of relationship or weight do those days of suffering, death and resurrection bear on the missional passages before and after the Passion narrative? Maybe in telling us that when we give food, drink or clothing to those in need or visiting the sick and imprisoned we are doing these acts of mercy to Christ himself, he was dropping a hint that it would not be long before he would be hungry, thirsty, naked, afflicted, and condemned. When disciples of Jesus do these acts of mercy, we’re ministering to the suffering & crucified Messiah who humbled and emptied himself to such a degree as to be counted among criminals. When we clothe the naked, we condemn the criminal actions of Jesus’ torturers who stripped him down and cast lots for his clothing. When we give water to the thirsty, we cease from stopping the one offering a sponge to the dying Jesus with an ounce of water to soothe his lips. When we visit the imprisoned and offer words of encouragement to them seeking to set them free from whatever holds them in bondage, we display our contempt of the fraudulent court system and trial that condemned the Innocent One to death.

And maybe in telling us to make disciples of all nations, baptizing them and teaching them, Jesus is pointing back to what was just before as the content of what it looks like to live like genuine disciples of his. That is, when we are baptized into Christ, we are united with Christ in his suffering, death and resurrection, and lay claim to hope that sin and death’s defeat has been guaranteed in our own lives and for the world. That is, the closer we draw near to Jesus, the more we are genuine disciples who do not betray, slumber, scatter, or deny, but who follow near and are willing to be counted among the hungry, thirsty, naked, sick, condemned just as Jesus was. That is, that genuine disciples are not afraid to cry out to God when we feel most deserted by the world, by our friends, and even by the God Jesus called Father, too. And that this movement would be so radical that the world could not stamp it out, but that people of all nations would be drawn to the sacrificial love that is willing to forgive those who betray, scatter, deny, and even those who condemn. And in that, we’re given a most blessed promise…that God’s presence in Christ will be with us as we embark on that mission.

And to me, these are the sorts of things that distinguishes a community who follows a crucified and risen Lord from a mere charity organization who just wants to be kind to others or a country club who just wants to increase in size. The narrative in between centers our missional life in that we are united with Christ in his death and resurrection.

Last year saw perhaps the most poetic placement of Palm Sunday: it fell on April Fools’ Day. Remember? I remember it because it was the one opportunity I was given to preach on a Sunday morning at Nicholasville UMC in Kentucky. But even more so, I remember because of the irony of celebrating the fool in all of us on a day when the people in Jerusalem fell for the right person but had the wrong expectations of him. Or, as my friend Phil Tallon said it, “Today we celebrate Jesus saying April Fools to Israel’s militaristic messianic conceptions.”

Those are the thoughts that dwelt on my mind this morning as I stepped outside to burn the palm fronds used in last year’s Palm Sunday festivities at Liberty & Post Oak that were graciously handed down to me from my predecessor, Joey Reed.

Last year's palms = this year's ashes

Last year’s palms = this year’s ashes

Until last year, I wasn’t aware of the longstanding tradition of burning the previous year’s palm leaves to be imposed during the Ash Wednesday service of the following year. But when I discovered it, and found out I was being sent to Liberty & Post Oak, asking for these was one of the first things I did in my correspondence with Joey prior to moving here. Nicholasville had a practice where they had burnt sheets of paper from the previous year in a ceremony where the congregation was invited to write down their struggles, pains, sins, and so on, and nail them to the cross on Good Friday. There are a few good ways that can convey significant meaning for the community that practices these ceremonies and services.

I wanted this one, at least for this year, because of Palm Sunday’s alignment with April Fools’ Day last year. Each year on that day we cry aloud, “Hosanna in the highest!” But as the rest of that week unfolds, we discover anew that Jesus saves us in the highest only because he descended to the lowest…and that went even deeper than riding a donkey, which the crowds thought was humbling enough for a conquering deliverer. But like us, Jesus too went to the dust and tasted death with us. “…and became obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross” as St. Paul would later write.

Many of my friends are aware that I am a fan of the musical band Mumford & Sons. They released an album in 2012 called ‘Babel,’ which won the Album of the Year on the Grammy Awards. Upon my first couple of times listening through the album, I was drawn toward the song ‘Lovers’ Eyes,’ unsure of what story or concepts were behind his writing of the lyrics. But after listening and reading through the lyrics a few times, he is telling a powerful story reflecting on the past and even expresses a repentant spirit when he writes, “Should you shake my ash to the wind, Lord forget all of my sins; well, let me die where I lie.” Those lyrics have played over and over in my mind as I’ve prepared for this Ash Wednesday, dwelling upon the themes of forgiveness, repentance, self-denial, and death, which will continue to play all throughout this Lenten season.

Lord, forget and forgive all of my sins, including those of false presumptions thinking I knew better than you how you should save the world (and me). I will “Remember that [I am] dust and to dust [I] shall return.”

I’m now a few weeks removed from having preached the series at Liberty’s revival on the Prodigals & Prophets. One of the details of the parable continues to stick out in my mind and blow me away. With all the love and forgiveness that the father lavishes on his lost son who has returned, the one that stands out to me as the most puzzling, at least at such an early stage is the command given by the father to the servants that they put “sandals on his feet.” I find myself asking, “Really, Jesus? A father who puts sandals back on the son’s feet? Don’t you realize that opens up the door for being hurt again, perhaps even worse than the first time? After all, he’s been in a few rough parts of the world that we wouldn’t dare dream of here in the safety of this farm. Sure, let’s put a robe on him, give him a ring, and have a nice barbecue, but you really want to trust him enough to give him a way back out again?”

In preparation for the sermon on the centrality of the father in the parable, my mind raced back to the class I took in college on the 8th century prophets (Amos, Isaiah, Hosea, & Micah were the prophets whose ministries were during the 8th century BC). With all the things that I forgot from that 8:00 am class, two things I remember: 1. the time the professor started to ramble in his prayer one day and began praying for aliens; and 2. the gut-wrenching, tear-jerking analysis of Hosea 11. Now, Hosea’s story certainly has some interesting twists and turns, many of which are not analogous to a parent-child relationship but to a spousal relationship. Nonetheless, chapter 11 portrays the compassion of a heartbroken parent whose children have lost their way, were “bent on turning away from” God, and yet though showing tremendous disappointment, admits an unwillingness to give up on these children. “My heart recoils within me; my compassion grows warm and tender.” What moves a parent to have such compassion?

Hosea 11 showcases the “covenant faithfulness” of God: that God remembers his faithfulness. This isn’t meant to imply that God had “forgotten” it, but that the ultimate character of God is remaining true in faithful love to God’s people. God remembers, among other things that, “Yet it was I who taught them to walk.” Examine what happens in the message of Hosea, the parable of the returning son, and a modern rendition…

God’s children had used their pedagogy to walk away. The younger son received the inheritance and walked away with it. A rebellious teenage daughter is taught how to drive and is given the keys to her parents’ car and decides to leave town with it.

God’s children had lost their way and were scattered without a home and without hope. The younger son wasted half the family fortune and found himself desiring to eat pig slop. The daughter runs out of gas, finds some ways to remedy that and get by for a while,  but eventually runs out of options and gives up the car to keep the collateral from being herself.

God doesn’t give up…

They return. He comes home. She hitches a ride back.

View of the feet from Rembrandt’s painting of ‘The Return of the Prodigal Son’. (Photo credit: snailskin.blogspot.com)

“They will walk after the LORD…” (Hosea 11:10); “put sandals on his feet” (Luke 15:22); “Here’s a key to our new car”

Really, God? You’re willing to trust them? him? her?

“We are accustomed to finding a catch in every promise, but Jesus’ stories of extravagant grace include no catch, no loophole disqualifying us from God’s love…I imagined God as a distant thundering figure who prefers fear and respect to love. Jesus tells instead of a father publicly humiliating himself by rushing out to embrace a son who has squandered half the family fortune.” – Philip Yancey

“Behold with wonder and pleasure the gracious reception they find from Divine, injured goodness!” – John Wesley

“Yep. Sandals. They’re my children. My children, like me, are free.”

One of the most popular shows on Food Network is Iron Chef America. On each episode an esteemed chef in some exotic or specialty restaurant somewhere in America challenges one of the “iron chefs” to a cook-off, in which the challenger and the iron chef each build a 5-course meal around a “secret ingredient,” which has to be present in each of the dishes. This can get really interesting when chefs have to decide whether they want to push the envelope on coming up with something creative for a dessert when the secret ingredient is something that is not generally associated with a dish that would round off the meal nicely. Anybody in the mood for some lobster ice cream? No, thanks.

But often times, one of the chefs will dedicate one of the courses to promote a variety of ways a single item can be prepared and served on the same plate. Hence, the judges for the competition may be served, “Tuna: Three Ways” when the secret ingredient is tuna.

An example of yellow fin tuna prepared “three ways”; photo credit: tuvoweb.com

As the parable of the father and his two sons (see Luke 15:11-32) has been unfolding this week in revival at Liberty UMC, and in particular how the elder son shows his unwillingness to forgive and embrace his returning younger brother, I began to consider the various ways in which we tend to serve up our forgiveness to those on whom we’re called to show mercy. In the heat of the moment when someone has wronged me and I’m particularly peeved about it, here is the course I am tempted to serve up called, “Forgiveness: Three Ways”…

The first way I’ve prepared it is with a hint of sourness that will remind you that forgiveness isn’t always a sweet thing. When you bite into it, you’ll be reminded of the fact that I told you so. I told you that if you went down that road, you’d get hurt, but you didn’t listen, so now you get to taste some of the taste I’ve gotten to enjoy these last few years. So yes, I forgive you, but admit that I was right! Enjoy!

The second way I’ve cooked up this dish is perhaps something you’re used to hearing and may sound a little bitter, but I really don’t care. It’s the “I’ll forgive you, but only because I have to” method. I do want to let you know that even though I am required to love you and forgive you, I don’t have to like it or like you, for that matter. Cheers!

The final way I’ve prepared forgiveness is packed with a little extra kick that you don’t realize is there until a few bites later. I call it the warning of what’s to come if you try to hurt me again. I like to live by the phrase “fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me.” Well, I don’t want to be shamed, so I’ll let you know that I’m not gonna put up with any nonsense again. Bon appetit!

Now contrast that course with this one…

“I saw you and was moved with compassion. I ran to you, hugged you, and kissed you. Then you said to me, ‘I have sinned against heaven and against you. I no longer deserve…’ But I said to others, ‘Quickly, bring out the best robe and put it on him! Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet! Fetch the fattened calf and slaughter it. We must celebrate with feasting because this person was dead and has come back to life! This person was lost and is found!’ And we began to celebrate.” (Luke 15:20-24, reworded)

Rembrandt’s oil painting is more well known than this one, but this drawing was also done by Rembrandt, with pen & brush and is another wonderful portrait of the loving embrace of the father with his returning son. Photo credit: wikipedia.org