Forgiveness: from transaction to wholeness

We ran all-out with back packs and walking poles to catch the bus. Yes, we were on a walking pilgrimage. But a few of us didn’t feel up to walking through one of northern Spain’s downtown city streets. After hiking a couple days already through the beautiful, peaceful hills along pristine trails with spectacular ocean views, the thought of breathing gas fumes and hitting the hard top sidewalks in an urban jungle just didn’t appeal. It was only three or four kilometres, and a city bus conveniently would take us to the other side where we could pick up the pilgrimage trail out in the open again.

As I clambered onto the bus behind my Dutch walking partners with all my gear, mindful of not clobbering someone with the swing of my bulky pack, I realized I did not have the correct change for the single fare ticket. Without any hesitation, my pilgrim friends dropped enough euros to cover my ticket. I expressed a deep-felt thanks to them, making a mental note to treat my friends later on. “I owe you coffee,” I said as the bus wove through San Sebastian’s downtown core.

IMG_5341

There’s a culture on the trail among pilgrims that doesn’t operate according to the normal etiquette of life back home. You see, early the next morning, my friends wanted to get going right away. I, on the other hand, wanted to stay at the hostel of my name’s sake (San Martin) a little longer to enjoy the view and the home made breakfast offered by the hosts. Off they went, and I never saw them again. I didn’t have a chance to ‘repay’ their good deed done unto me.

At the same time, there were other pilgrims to whom I’d catch up a few nights later at another hostel. Everyone walks at a different pace. Paths would cross, un-cross, and cross again. Sometimes I’d meet someone on the trail and never see them again. Other times I’d bump into the same group every other day, or so, somewhere along the way. Because of the nature of the pilgrimage community, I looked for opportunities, therefore, to treat another fellow pilgrim at a roadside café whenever the opportunity arose.

The economy of quid pro quo – paying back another individual and keeping the economic scales even on an individual basis – just couldn’t operate neatly on the Camino. It didn’t matter to whom you were being gracious. Only that you were gracious – that you offered help when help was needed, to whomever, regardless of whether or not they had earned your favour in some way earlier on.

The challenge was to receive the gift when it was offered, and give a gift when it was needed. Period. It was as if, on pilgrimage, we were all in the same boat. Which, of course, we know before God we are. It’s just in our daily lives we are not often able to appreciate that reality clearly.

Forgiveness is the theme in the Gospel text for today[1]. I’ve wondered why the servant who was forgiven his debt didn’t do likewise when given a chance. A more general question, is:  Why do we find it so difficult to forgive one who ‘owes you’ an apology for some wrong committed against you. I think it’s important to understand first some elements of the Gospel story. Because this story first tells us something very important about God and God’s ways.

To begin with, the servant owes the master ten thousand talents. ‘Ten thousand’ here signifies an absurd amount of money.[2] In that day and age, even if the servant lived three life-spans working full-time, there was no way he could ever repay that amount. The master has pity on him because the servant pretends that he can somehow work hard enough, in his plea for mercy, to repay the debt. The absurdity of the extra-ordinary amount should tip us off to something vital in our understanding of God forgiving us:

There is nothing we can do to make our lives right before God. And what is more, God has already forgiven us, and reminds us over and over again that we are forgiven before we do anything. Yes, we can say we ‘owe’ God. But no matter how hard we try, no matter all the things we can do to make it right, this effort will never, ever be able to erase what is stacked up against us – all our moral failing, our mistakes, our brokenness.

We puff ourselves us up in embarrassing, false piety when we pretend we can. As if forgiveness was simply a matter of paying our dues. But it isn’t. Like true love, forgiveness is a function of grace. And, oh, the Lord has compassion on us, even in all our futile toiling and striving.

I suspect one reason why the forgiven servant does not ‘pay it forward’ to his own slave, is because what the slave owes the forgiven servant was not as large an amount. In other words, the slave could technically repay his debt.

It’s so easy not to apply God’s economy of extraordinary grace to our ordinary lives. It’s so easy to slip into the transactional ways of our world, and apply the values of the culture to our life of faith. Meaning, we don’t really forgive others when they have to ‘earn’ our attention, our love, and our friendship. We will not really forgive others when they don’t behave in a way that meets our approval.

We live in a transactional economy – even in our spirituality – where people have to pay for their sins. We are to a large extent products of our culture. Our view of justice, therefore, is naturally retributive. Whereas God’s economy is about transformative justice. To move from one to another calls for a monumental shift in our thinking.

God’s grace, indeed, “surpasses all our understanding” (Philippians 4:7). God’s economy of grace does not make sense in our quid pro quo culture of transaction and merit. God’s love crosses all these boundaries and systems of our making. The gift is simply given. Will we receive it, freely? Will we pass it forward, freely, without any expectations nor strings attached?

In God’s economy of grace, we move from transaction to wholeness. Love and forgiveness – these functions of grace – expand outward. There are no losers in this economy. Only winners.

A transactional economy goes something like this: If I have twelve, gold coins and you take six, I will only have six left. I’ve lost. You’ve won. And so it goes with everything we do with others in life. Someone described our culture this way, sadly: We love things and we use people.

In an economy of grace, in contrast, we love people and use things. It’s as if I had planted twelve lily bulbs. I can divide my bulbs and give you twelve and I will still have twelve left. Then you can plant your bulbs and eventually you can give away twelve more. Grace multiplies. Everyone gets more. Grace is infinite, in truth. The win-lose economy changes into a win-win economy.[3]

Moreover, forgiveness is not just about evening the score between just two individuals. It’s not entirely a private act. Forgiveness is communal.[4] When, in the Gospel text, the others saw how unjustly the servant treated his own slave who owed him money, they didn’t simply wipe their hands in denial and avoidance of the injustice before them. They went back to the master and told him. The proverbial whistle-blowers, they were involved in the process of forgiveness.

This is necessary, because sometimes individuals are guilted into forgiving someone who is left unchallenged, unaffected, and unaccounted for their misdeed. Sometimes victims are not able to easily forgive the one who has hurt them. It took Joseph all the way to the last chapter in Genesis to finally forgive his brothers for throwing him into a well and selling him to slave-traders.[5] As they say, it takes a village. And sometimes time. Lots of it.

Forgiveness is validated in community. Because sin is something we all participate in. If we are human and live on this earth, we will sin. No matter the colour of our skin, no matter our creed, our ethnic background, no matter where we were born or what our political stripe. We will make mistakes. We will all contribute to the problems we face. As Paul wrote, “since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God”.[6] No one is immune to the complicity and consequence of sin. It is woven into the fabric of our common existence.

And so is forgiveness. When forgiveness is offered and received, it becomes part of a wider field of responsibility and accountability. We are not alone. We need the community of faith. We need to be real. Forgiveness does not mean enabling sinful behavior to continue by excusing it, or letting it happen over and over again. Forgiveness means people of faith seek the justice of the matter. Forgiveness can only happen when people see their own lives as part of the human condition, just like everyone else.

People will not be changed in their hearts for God unless they are loved unconditionally, freely. Martin Luther believed that we would be so overcome by God’s unearned, unconditional love that we would be so moved to spontaneously and unconditionally love others in the same way.[7]

May our hearts be moved to forgiveness and justice for all.

Our Father in heaven …. forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us.

Amen.

 

[1] Matthew 18:21-35

[2] David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds., “Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary”, Year A Volume 4 (Louisville Kentucky: WJK Press, 2011), p.71

[3] Janet Hagberg uses the gold coin versus lily bulb analogy to describe transitions in power, in “Real Power: Stages of Personal Power in Organizations”, 3rd Edition, Salem Wisconsin: Sheffield Publishing, 2003, p.77

[4] Susan E. Hylen, “Forgiveness and Life in Community,” Interpretation, Volume 54, Number 2 (April 2000), p.146-57.

[5] Genesis 50:15-26

[6] Romans 3:23

[7] cited in Bartlett & Brown Taylor, eds., ibid., p. 70

Gospel, Italian style

On the Sunday before I left for a family vacation to Italy, you encouraged me to — “know your history”. I think that message came to me mostly during the children’s chat when we talked about the Canadian flag on my backpack, and why Canadians had been so well appreciated and admired in western Europe, especially, over the past several decades.

The conversations then, as well as following the service over coffee, reinforced to me the value you place upon ‘history’ in general. 

Well, Italy is not exactly the hotbed of Reformation, Protestant Christian history as such. At the same time, the buildings there stand clearly as testimony to the dedication of Christians in certain times and places in history.

It was the first day we walked in the older section of Naples — a sprawling metropolis at the base of Mount Vesuvius on the Mediterranean coast — when I began to feel this history pressing in the air all around me.

I say sprawling because Naples is today the most densely populated urban centre in all of Europe; some 8,500 people inhabiting one square kilometre in a metropolis of nearly four million people — making it the third largest city in Italy, and the ninth most populous urban area in the entire European Union.


The noise was overwhelming: the hustle and bustle of pedestrians, car horns beeping, motorcycles and mopeds buzzing, shouting street vendors, impassioned conversations, two-toned emergency sirens, barking street dogs, screeching tires.

In conrast, the neo-Gothic styled ‘duomo’ in Naples offered a welcome break to this outside clamour. 

The expansive interior spaces of this main cathedral embraced silence and only hushed speech. You could occasionally hear the squeak of rubber-soled shoes and someone dropping a book on the stone and marbled flooring as people sat and wandered solemnly throughout the holy spaces.

Perhaps the most significant feature of this cathedral is the baptistery, which is the oldest baptistery in the world, built in the fifth century, C.E. It is remarkable to connect with such an ancient symbol in a material form. 

When the baptized emerged from the water, looking upward at the ceiling, they would be encouraged in their faith; the first images they saw after being baptized were scenes from the Gospel expressed in Byzantine, mosaic art: Jesus saving Peter from drowning, the women at the empty tomb, the miracles of the multiplied fish, an image of Saint Paul, the Apostle, etc.

Seeing with my own eyes and touching with my own hands this font that was built by human hands only a few hundred years after Jesus, affirmed my conviction in the longevity and validity of the sacrament which has endured as profoundly meaningful for Christians throughout the millennia. 

I felt that faith is not just about the good old days when I was young, but the good old days when the Christian faith was younger. We are part of something much larger than our immediate reality. And, when we connect with that broader history, we realize it wasn’t always peaches ‘n cream and rose-coloured a history.

If you are movie watcher, you might recognize another cathedral we visited — the Duomo in the Umbrian, medieval town of Orvieto. 


This cathedral was featured in the opening scenes of Under the Tuscan Sun. This cathedral’s highlight is the Chapel of San Brizio, featuring Luca Signorelli’s brilliantly lit frescoes of the Day of Judgment and Life after Death. 

Although the frescoes refer to themes of resurrection and salvation, they do so through images not from the bible (that is, stories from the Gospels or Old Testament) but from the turbulent political and religious atmosphere of Italy in the late 1400s. Signorelli told the story of faith through his contemporary human events, rather than the traditional symbols (such as Jesus, God, the Trinity, the Apostles, disciples and other biblical characters) that we see in most other places.

Those frescos in the Orvieto cathedral chapel were snapshots of an historical era particular to a specific time and geo-political reality (i.e. 15th century Italy). And the impression of faith put ‘on it.’ Historical to us. Yet current to those who built that Cathedral in the Midlle Ages.

Faith is more than merely appealing to our past. Coming to worship today is not just about being reminded of something or someone from a long time ago. What we do here today is not just an exercise in recalling historical facts. As if decisions we make today are really not about faith. When we talk about our building renovations, worship practice and art, musical choices, communion, budgets, outreach initiatives  — these issues are very mcuh about the Christian faith ‘in the real world’, so to speak. All of these real things do reveal what we believe in, our values, what is important to us, who we are. How do these ‘mundane’ decisions reflect the Christian Gospel, faith, kindgom values in this time and place?

Lutherans make a similar mistake, I believe, when we define ‘Lutheranism’ as a belief/doctrinal system that is limited to the words and conceptual formulations of sixteenth century Germans. When we say that to be Lutheran is merely to ‘turn the clock back’ to 1537 when the Book of Concord was finally assembled including Luther’s Small and Large Catechisms, the Augsburg Confession, and the Apology to the Augsburg Confession.

I prefer a view that is reflected in the Evangelische Kirche Deutschland’s (EKD) logo for 2017, “Celebrating 500 years of Reformation”. Five hundred years of Reformation. In other words, Reformation started happening — in our tradition — with Martin Luther, yes. 

But, Reformation continued through the 500 years following, and continues to this day and beyond. We are always reforming the forms and means by which we express our evangelical, Gospel-centred faith. Always finding new and creative ways to tell the story of God.

What can we say, then, about Christian history? If we can apply a macro view over the ages, we can say that the history of the Christian faith is about a God who loves us. Christian history is about a God whose compassion never fails, who “will not come in wrath” (Hosea 11:9) — even though the people of God continue to keep “sacrificing to the Baals and offering incense to idols” (v.2).

The history of the Christian faith is about our lives being “hidden with Christ in God”, being “revealed with Christ in glory” (Colossians 3:3-4), dying daily to ways of sin and being renewed daily in Christ who “is all and in all!” — even though we are imperfect and sin as long as we hold breath. Christ is all and in all — despite us!

The history of the Christian faith is about how each moment of history — including this one right now — reflected Jesus’ love in the fifth century, the fourteenth century, the 21st century in Palestine, Egypt, Italy, Canada, etc. God for all times and places!

We validate the Christian faith by our lives today, now. This is where the rubber hits the road. This in-the-moment approach fuelled the generosity of medieval Catholicism represented in the magnificent building projects for worship as much as it did the passion and commitment of European Christians during the Reformation era.

We do not leave the practice of faith for some distant, utopic and dreamy future. Neither do we rest on the laurels of the tremendous sacrifices made by our forebears in Canada. 

Now is the time. Now is the time to live out of the conviction of God’s grace and love, despite the many and various ways Christians have messed up in history, and continue to do so today. Now is the time to live out of the faith that is full of hope, that despite our waywardness and unfaithfulness, God is faithful. Now is the time to claim God loves us, not because we are good, but because God is good. God is so good!

You know Jesus’ familiar exhortation, most often translated as “be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48). Christians have often interpreted this word ‘perfection’ as being made whole. 

A much better translation might be: “be merciful.” Because this verse comes right at the end of a passage calling Christians to “love your enemies” (v. 43-48). Only God is perfect. But we can participate in God’s perfect mercy, God’s all-inclusive and impartial love.

Echoing Saint Paul’s words from the Epistle today (Colossians 3:11 — “Christ is all and in all”) St. Bonaventure later said, “Christ is the one whose centre is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere.” [1] 

Christ’s mercy is everywhere evident in history. This is the Wholeness, the forgiveness, the grace, that holds you forever and everywhere. You can’t figure this Wholeness out rationally, nor can you control it. All you can do is fall into this Wholeness that holds you when you stop excluding, even the dark parts of yourself. [2] And that, my friends, is the Gospel — good news — for all times and places.

Thanks be to God!

1- Alan of Lille, ‘Regulae Theologicae’, Reg. 7 as quoted by Bonaventure, translated by Ewert Cousins, “The Soul’s Journey into God”, Classics of Western Spirituality (Paulist Press: 1978), p.100

2- Richard Rohr, “Daily Meditation on the Spirituality of Imperfection” Week 2 – Perfection of Wholeness, Thursday, July 28, 2016

Window panes

A retired pastor gave a group I was with last week some sage advice from a professor telling seminary graduates how to be ‘out there’ in parish land. Afterward I thought this may be helpful food-for-thought not only for public church leaders, but for anyone on the path to wholeness and health in their lives.

He said, “Be like a window. But not just any window; there are three basic windows you can be like.

“First, you can be like a stained glass window. People can first notice your beauty. What people see is the intricacy, the colour, the ‘picture’ you show — and the glass is perfectly constructed, wonderfully arranged; folks admire and gaze upon your image for hours at a time.

“Or, you can be like a cracked, dirty window pane. What people see and what you show are your wounds, your brokenness, your pain. When people see you they want either to ignore you and pretend you are not there. Or they might instinctively want to ‘fix’ you.

“Finally, you can be a clear window — transparent. You have nothing, really, to hide. You are who you are. In all your humanity you are not ashamed to reflect the truth in you that is Christ Jesus. The divine presence who created you to be who you are shines through you and illumines the world.”

What kind of ‘window’ describes you in your life now?

Thank you to Rev Orlan Lapp who is currently serving St Johns Lutheran Church, Germanicus in the Upper Ottawa Valley, Ontario, for this illuminating illustration.