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Trinity 22 - 11/08/09 Prov. 25:8-24; Ps. 32; Phil. 1:3-11; Mt. 18:21-35
Both our Psalm and our Gospel lessons this morning talk about repentance and forgiveness.
My experience growing up concerning repentance and forgiveness was a very mixed bag.
On one hand, although I had some powerful positive experiences with both repentance and forgiveness, my experience in the Church was, for the most part, of a very negative, condemning attitude, not one which might rightly be called freedom in Christ.
On the positive side, when I was about 12 years old, I was mowing the front lawn of our house in Edina, MN, with one of those reel mowers, back in the days before they were motorized. You just had to push hard. We did not have a large lawn, but it was hard work, especially if the grass had grown tall. As I pushed back and forth across the lawn, I began musing about the Lord's Prayer. When I got to the part about "forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us...," everything in me stopped.
I thought, God probably means business, and I actually began to go through my list of family and friends to forgive them. It was easy until I got to one particular family member. I really got stuck with that person. Forgiving that person seemed impossible. Something in me refused. But after a few more paths back and forth across the lawn, and suspecting that God was watching to see whether I would forgive or not, I finally relented... "I forgive..."
The effect was electric -- as if I had been energized. I was flying back and forth across the lawn effortlessly. I was mowing the lawn "on cloud nine", as we say. The sense of freedom and elation lasted most of the day, but then I began to slump back down to "normal" again. It did not last long, but it was a memory which burned itself into my psyche. I knew something about freedom in Christ.
A major part of my problem was that our family went dutifully to our local Episcopal church, but we never once, in my memory, ever talked about church or what it meant. I had become a Christian when I was about seven, under strange circumstances, but quickly understood that religion was not a discussible topic in the family. So I just stuffed it down so far as communication was concerned.
Then later on in my high school years, I had some friends who were active and believing Methodists, Baptists, and other evangelical persuasions, who actually talked about Jesus (which we "proper" Episcopalians rarely did). But my experience with many of the evangelical pastors whom I heard preach and teach was negative. They had a strange sternness which was unfriendly, and which I took to be a condemnation of sinners, which I had no doubt they considered me to be.
It was not for many decades that I learned a distinction which has become fundamental to my understanding of our Christian faith -- namely that who we are is not the same as what we do. But when I began teaching that distinction to my flock at St. Stephen's Church in East Haddam, Connecticut, during the 1970's, they had a hard time catching on to what that might mean.
Nevertheless, I knew it was absolutely important to get this across to them. It was that important because the whole of the Biblical understanding of atonement, grace, judgement, and forgiveness hangs on that distinction. We must understand the difference between who we are and what we do.
For example, our being, who we are, is what God is saving. God loves me -- at enormous cost to Himself. God is willing to pay an unbelievable price to save me from my own self-destruction.
On the other hand, God is not necessarily pleased at all with my behavior, what I do. He did not die on the cross to save my behavior, He died on the cross because of my behavior, and so to change my behavior. But God is always pleased with my being. God wants me to be myself. My self is a good thing. It is always a good idea for me to be Earle Fox. It is not always a good idea to do what I do. But if we do not understand that who I am is different from what I do, then we will take criticism of what we do as an attack on our being, our identity. We will resist repentance because it will feel like self-condemnation -- not behavior-condemnation. We will be unable to forgive ourselves.
So God goes after my behavior, to change my behavior to conform to His law, the topmost level of which is to love Him and to love one another. That is why repentance is so important. It means changing my behavior, purpose, and attitude to conform to the law of Godly love.
But then, as I become more and more obedient to His law, I find that I am, strange to say, becoming -- more and more free to be my real self. Obedience to the law of God leads to more freedom to be my real self, not to self-condemnation.
I never learned that growing up. That was not at all what I understood my childhood pastors and preachers to be teaching. I, very often, at least, understood them to be saying that I, myself, at the deepest level of my being, was fundamentally evil. And I did not hear them saying anything that would ever change that. I understood them to be saying (though I would of course never have been able then to use this kind of language) that my being was the problem, that being myself was a sin. And that no matter how often I repented, I would always have more to repent of, because I was forever stained. I could never produce anything but flawed behavior. I could never become sinless. It (no surprise) felt hopeless.
On the other hand, I knew that there was a different message in the Bible, that Jesus was not saying that. The Jesus whom I had actually met in my life experiences (as above) was not saying that. But the image of those stern pastors and preachers frightened me. As I began to come out of that terrible spiritual trap, I felt I was having to unlearn nearly everything I had learned as a young Christian. Much of that new learning was coming to understand the distinction between who I am and what I do.
In a sermon at St. Stephen's Church in East Haddam, where I was pastor for ten years, I said (out loud for the first time in my life) that it is always a good thing for me to be Earle Fox, and that God created me to be Earle Fox, that is my destiny. Something in me expected the roof to fall in, or lightning bolts. But nothing happened. No parishioners got up and stomped out.. The truth, I think, is that I was challenging my own terribly mistaken interpretation of the Gospel message.
The Apostles, the early Church, did not begin this way. We know that -- because so many of them were set free from their sins to become strong and loving people, not condemned, not packed off to hell. But over the centuries, for many complex reasons, we Christians had lost our understanding of the freedom of the Gospel message, and we had produced a new legalism specializing in self-condemnation.
We got roundly criticized for this by many secular psychologists for producing what they told us were "guilt complexes". And, I think, they were right. Not all, but many pastors and their flocks did not, and still do not, understand the difference between who we are and what we do, and how fundamental that is to understanding and living -- our freedom in Christ.
Most Christians will still today react to confession as "negative", as dwelling on the negative side. So Christians today are not famous for repenting of their sins. We should be positive, we think. But if you have cancer, it does no good to think and act as though you did not. If you have sinned, if you have broken your love relationship with God or your neighbor, it likewise does no good to pretend that you did not.
Confession of sin is no more "negative" than is getting a cancer properly diagnosed. Until you know the truth of the matter, you cannot deal with it positively and helpfully. You will only ensure that you die earlier and more painfully, not later and comfortably. You pay your doctor good money to tell you the truth, not to allow your fears to dictate to your life.
We should, for exactly the same reasons be pleading and begging for the judgement of God on our lives -- that is, for a clear and frank diagnosis of our moral and spiritual lives. Sin is the most terribly self-destructive thing there is. Nothing can out do sin for self-destruction. We do ourselves a big favor by asking for the light of Christ to shine openly and clearly on our lives, forcing our hidden spots into the light of day. Not necessarily for the whole world to see, but for sure for us to see ourselves as we really are.
The best way to ensure that that happens is to have a few close friends with whom you will share your lives, and with whom you have a covenant to be frank with each other about what you see in each other. We all need some mean friends who will tell us the hard truth whether or not we want to hear it. There is no better place to do that than with small groups right within the Body of Christ.
In Psalm 32, we read, "For whilst I held my tongue, my bones consumed away through my daily complaining..." The psalmist is saying, -- because I refused to be honest about my bad behavior, my bad attitude, I felt miserable. I felt contradictions within myself. I felt at war with myself.
And then, "For thy hand was heavy upon me day and night, and my moisture was like the drought in summer." I was drying up, withering away because I was alienated from my very source of being. I was not being honest with God, and resisted His being honest with me.
When we sin and do not repent, we are alienating ourselves from the Hand of God upon which we stand, the Hand of God which is the source of our being, our life-line. How could we not feel miserable? God is not attacking our being, we are. We become our own worst enemy.
God is trying to get us to repent of our violation of our love of God and/or neighbor because it is that behavior which is destroying our ability to be ourselves in front of God and each other. Only as we repent, stop hiding our sins, can we be restored to that fount of our being from which flows our security, our goodness, our reason for being.
God wants us to repent so that He can restore the goodness of our being, not so that He can tell us how awful we are. He wants to replace our Original Sin with our even more fundamental Original Innocence. Our Original Sin can get in the way of our Original Innocence, but it cannot destroy it. And that is what makes salvation possible. By the mercy and grace of God, our Original Innocence can always be restored. But only if we are honest about our behavior and attitudes and purposes. Only if we are willing to confess how far astray we have gone.
Our Original Goodness is more fundamental than our Original Sin because our Original Goodness is the creation of God. Our Original Sin is our own creation. If we will put our Original Sin into the Hand of God, He will replace that again with our Original Goodness. We become, as Paul says, new creatures in Christ.
When you put it that way, it becomes stunningly clear that we must distinguish between who we are and what we do. Who we are is what God is doing in our lives, that fundamental and ineradicable foundation of our being. Our sin is what we do in ignorance of, or rebellion against, what God is doing. So, only if we confess our sin (what we do, not who we are), can God restore us to our Original Innocence -- the real Who We Are. Our real selves.
And so the psalmist says: "Blessed is he whose unrighteousness is forgiven, and whose sin is covered..."
The Gospel this morning is about forgiving, about a man who had been forgiven but who would not forgive another in an almost identical situation.
His lack of forgiveness for the man who owed him money when he had just been forgiven concerning a much larger amount of money tells us that he did not consider the Original Goodness of the other person, that he did not see a reconciliation with his fellow servant as important. He was so focused on the behavior of the servant that he could not see the worth of the servant beyond his behavior. He did not see that his master had valued him as a person -- despite his personal indebtedness, and forgave him and valued him over his indebtedness. He could not say to his fellow servant, "You are more important to me than your failure to pay your debt." He did not value a person over his behavior. He did not value being over doing. So he treated a person like a commodity, to be valued as an object, not a person. He could not love his neighbor like he himself had just been loved.
Loving oneís neighbor like we want to be loved means loving our neighbor for his being, not for his doing. Yes, our doings can be very important, and we need to do things for each other. But our deepest worth cannot be based on our doings. Our worth is based on our being creatures of God for whom God is willing to pay that enormous price -- precisely to save us from our wrongful doing.
We often fail God in our doings, our service to God and one another. But our being is Godís doing, not ours, and it is Godís doing and His purpose for our lives which must guide our behavior and form our relationships with one another. And God chooses to value us, our being, as worthy of His forgiveness for our wrongful doing. That is His continual bailing us out of our indebtedness, so that we can repent and receive back our Original Goodness. (Our politicians might learn a lesson on honest and healthy bailouts... They require honest judgement and deep repentance.)
Perhaps we can imagine the wicked servant at some point reading Psalm 32 as he sits and contemplates his fate in prison, and falling on his knees before God, "For whilst I held my tongue, my bones consumed away through my daily complaining..." Perhaps we can imagine him reading on, "I acknowledged my sin unto thee; and mine unrighteousness have I not hid. I said, I will confess my sins unto the Lord, and so thou forgavest the wickedness of my sin."
And perhaps we can imagine his master once again forgiving him for a much deeper sin, acknowledging his Original Goodness yet one more time. As God does for us, over and over.
Here we come again, Lord, to Your altar. Lord, we have perhaps been in our lives, at some time, the master, the poor servant, or the wicked servant -- maybe all three. We ask Your judgement, your light to shine upon us, we ask for reality about ourselves so that we can do as the psalmist, acknowledge our sins, and be restored to our own personal Original Goodness in Your grace and mercy.
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