Seeing the light

On the carriageway out of the castle
about halfway down, the tunnel bends sharply.
They told us that a dray horse,
poorly schooled in perspective,
would find it hard to believe that
the tight, bright portal at the end of the driveway
would admit its escape.
Poor, simple soul, it would rather trust
blank walls and blind corners
than see light at the end of the tunnel.

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Year A Proper 19: forgiving

You remember the Joseph story:

“Way way back many centuries ago, not long after the Bible began…”

Jacob was the grandson of Abraham, and the father of the twelve tribes of Israel – in fact, it was Jacob who was given the name “Israel.” Unfortunately, favouritism was well in fashion in the Bible, and Jacob made no secret that he favoured Joseph, the first child of Jacob’s favourite wife. Joseph unfortunately absorbed all of his father’s fondness and allowed it to make him proud, puffed up; he lorded it somewhat over his brothers, relating dreams of them bowing before him and the like. The brothers, as you can imagine, didn’t like it one bit. In fact, they threw Joseph in a pit, then sold him to slavers, and told his distraught dad that he was dead.

Joseph went to Egypt, and after a story worthy of an afternoon soap opera, or even a Broadway musical; after a story filled with ups and downs and dreams and dilemmas, Joseph ended up in charge of the Pharaoh’s stocks and shares, with the power to give or withhold life from any suitor when famine fell across the region. When his brothers came begging for food, Joseph had the perfect opportunity to take his revenge – but fortunately, he recognized instead the opportunity for mercy, forgiveness, reconciliation. All of which didn’t happen at once, but he worked through it and in the end, they all lived together happily ever after.

Until their father died. After all was said and done, after Jacob died, Joseph’s brothers were afraid he’d take back his forgiveness.

They were afraid, in fact, that Joseph would behave like the King in the parable, offering mercy with one hand, and taking it away with the other – they were concerned that his forgiveness was conditional, temporary, unreliable.

Is that the message of Matthew, that God’s grace is unreliable? I think that if that’s the message that we are getting, we may be reading the parable wrongly.

One commentator puts it this way:

“It is better to let the story remain unallegorized, so that it is an earthly king who reneges of his original gracious forgiveness, and let it illustrate, in an analogous way, the awfulness of failing to forgive as God forgives.”*

It says in the Bible how fearful a thing it is to fall into the hands of the living God (Hebrews 10:31); and yet it may be more terrible to fall into the hands of one another, imperfect in mercy as we are.

The King, in the parable, is more like us than like God. He is happy to be dispensing mercy, it makes him feel good, right up until the moment when he realizes that his reach is limited, his influence only felt by those who choose to be converted by his mercy and grace. We are fools if we think that our mercy waves a magic wand and heals the world.

And yet we are called to persevere. Not seven times but seventy times seven. No matter whether the rest of the world joins us and joins in.

In this past week alone, we have remembered the victims of 9/11. We have been rudely reminded of the shootings in Chardon High School, when the killer briefly escaped incarceration. Countless smaller, sharper shocks have no doubt punctured our own dignity and shaken our complacency. How many times have you found yourself apologizing this week? How many times have you been called upon to accept the repentance of another, at face value, at the cost of giving up a comforting and comfortable grudge?

We will be challenged to give up on forgiveness, grace and mercy. But forgiveness, grace and mercy are grounded in the hope that things can be better; that, as Joseph told his brothers, “God intended it for good” – not that God intends each act of evil, so that good can come from it; that would make no sense. God did not will Joseph’s brothers to put him in the pit – how could God will creatures made out of the goodness of God to do evil? But God is able to twist even our acts of evil, even our worst atrocities, and make good out of them. Not make them right. This is not a whitewash. But God can make good out of everything. And so the arc of history, however crooked, will always end up bending towards mercy, grace, love.

You remember the people of Nickel Mine, Pennsylvania. After a man killed their children in their one-room schoolhouse, and himself, they turned to forgiveness to heal themselves and others from that terrible act.

After the July 2005 bombings in London, many of us wondered about the widows of the men who carried out the attacks – how much did they know? Were they complicit? Even in they were innocent, could we forgive them for loving the men who tore our capital, so many families apart?

The Amish community of Nickel Mine had no such reservations. They reached out to the widow of their killer and pulled her to their hearts. I can only imagine that they saw this as the one way that they could twist some good out of something so terrible; wring life out of death. And so with God. God creates only good; and God intends for our good; and God will not, eventually, be denied.

If you were to ask me how we are to forgive certain acts – acts of terrorism, the beheading of the innocent, the murder of children – I would have to tell you plainly, I don’t know. I don’t know. We all struggle with forgiveness, sometimes as much in the small as in those great things.

It is rarely easy. But I do know, I believe that it is our call to uphold hope, to preach the gospel that God intends the world for good, and good for each person in it. And it is in that gospel context that we are to extend mercy, to practice forgiveness, by the grace of God. Seventy times seven we are to meet the cruel realities of the world with the gracious reality of the gospel.

Will we be taken for fools? Maybe so. But the foolishness of God is beyond the wisdom of humanity. More than seventy times seven times beyond.

***

And so, at the end of their little story, Joseph forgave his brothers. He forgave them all of their petty acts of evil and all of their grand gestures of hatred because he knew that God is bigger than his big brothers. He knew that the mercy of God is true and that the justice of God is loving. He knew that the good that God intends for the people of God is bigger than any foil we can find for it; God’s good creation can withstand any evil we invent for it. Joseph was able to continue in forgiveness, many times over, because he knew in the end that God is good, all of the time; and that all of the time, God is good.

* Leander E. Keck in New Interpreter’s Bible (Book 8): Matthew, Mark  (Abingdon Press, 1995)

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Since

I watch her in the early light, her breath slight,

her skin soft; barely there, she is solidly unconcerned.

Since, she has become like a little sparrow,

evasive yet everywhere; I saw one in a Walmart once,

swooping between the home supplies, fragile to touch

but way out of reach it went where it chose;

the rest of us watched it anxiously, as if it mattered.

After a time, I get up, as in everything I do

since: careful not to disturb her.

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Prayers post concussion

I am realizing how much of a Pelagian I am; how much of my worth, my self-satisfaction is wrapped up in works and words;
what I do is what I am;
what I say is what I pray.
Which leaves me, post concussion, a little lost at sea; un-anchored; unhinged.
Dazed doesn’t do it for me, and doctor’s orders to take it easy are not easy to follow.
I am trying:
cutting back on meetings, evenings, even a twenty-four hour break
(if you don’t count the emails);
but all so that I can hurry back to the front, in time not to miss the main action.
I am fighting myself, tying myself down trying to protect and preserve my remaining sane brain cells, whilst straining against my own constraints.
This morning, in the spaced-out space between dropping the girl at school and drawing together strength to drive to work,
body and mind equally empty,
an idle thought scudded by, and I watched it lazily:
I should at least be able to pray.
Here’s hoping God saw it, too; understood.

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Year A Proper 18: where two or three

And isn’t this what the church is for? Two or three gathered together to raise up the Divine Presence among them? I don’t mean that the Eucharist is some sort of séance to conjure up the Spirit of Christ.

We know that God is always with us. We know that God’s presence is between and among us and within us; sustaining us, creating and redeeming us. And yet so often we turn our backs, close our eyes, stop up our ears.

I don’t believe that we can shut God out of our lives. But sometimes we shut ourselves away from the knowledge of the love of God, of the peace that passes all understanding. And so from time to time we need to make intentional the effort, the act of opening ourselves up to God, to remind ourselves of the presence of Christ in our lives.

Sometimes it’s painful; sometimes it’s painful to open up, to acknowledge our own sin, to admit our own hurt, and we need company to hold us while we bear the pain. And sometimes it is joyful and we need company for that, too. My late Aunt Joyce told me that the times that she missed my Uncle Ted the most after he died were those evenings when she came in from a wonderful date night with friends, and she came home on top of the world, and there was no one to tell. We need, we look for company in our joys as well as in our sorrows.

We know that God loves us, but we close ourselves off and shut ourselves away like sulky children; like sad and lonely and hurting children; like guilty children; even like happy little narcissistic children, so pleased with ourselves that we don’t feel the need to acknowledge anyone else.

And yet, the commandment to love one another is right up there; it is the corollary, the flipside of the greatest commandment, to love God. And we can never love another alone. We need the other to love.

It’s there at the beginning, in one of our own creation myths: God said, “It is not good that the man should be alone;” and God should know, the one who made all things and saw to it that they were good.

It is not for nothing, it was not for kicks that God became Incarnate, became a person like us; because God knows that we need one another, and that we find God’s presence in those around us, the others made in the divine image. Of course, each of us can pray alone, and we know that God hears us; except when we don’t, except when we are afraid, or guilty, or hurting, or even sometimes when we are joyful; when we need to hear the Amen of another human being. When we need the reassurance of one another’s prayers. We are the symbols of God’s presence to one another, and when two or three are gathered together, on purpose in the name of Christ, we know from one another that he is with us.

I think, perhaps, that this is what our healing prayers are for: that we bring God’s presence to bear on one another, in body and in spirit. When we lay hands on one another, we say, I know that God made (in whatever way I understand that to work); I know that God made my hands. I know that God is present in these hands and I want to use them, these hands, to remind you of God’s presence with you, come what may; of God’s power to heal you, whatever may befall; of God’s love for you, God’s intention to embrace you with an all-encompassing love. We reveal God to one another, by our actions, in our prayers. Where two or three are gathered.

Matthew, in this gospel passage, is concerned about what happens next, about how our communities care for one another in times of conflict or disagreement; when one member sins, because every member will. Hopefully we take turns and don’t all break down at once.

Because Matthew and his church, his community had already realized that this effect, this Christ-effect, this presence lasts longer than the gathering moment, if a true community of Christ can be built.

Think about the Sunday mornings that you are away from this place, or the times that you have been in trouble and have known that there was a community here praying for you. Where two or three are gathered, there Christ is – but he is also known to the one who relies on the community to pray.

I was out on my bike earlier this week, and I had the revelation that ever since I joined the community of riders that participates in the Bishop’s Bike Ride each year, I never feel as though I ride alone any more. I was on my own, vulnerable to all sorts of passing traffic, and subject to all kinds of distractions, but at the back and ground and root of my brain was an awareness of all those people with whom I have shared that fellowship of the road in the name of Christ; people with whom I have prayed and broken bread and broken a few miles of pavement in the process. Once we become part of a community that gathers on purpose in the name of Christ, we are never quite alone again.

But such community and such bonds take work. Matthew talks about the work of repairing breaches; but the first and most basic work is simply showing up for one another, week in and week out; being present to one another in prayer and in spirit and in body; because it was not for nothing that God became Incarnate, became human. It was because we need God standing next to us. We need reminding how close God is to us, how real God’s presence among us, and within us, and between us.

Sometimes, love for one another, love for our neighbour; sometimes love is simply showing up. And when we do, Jesus promises, Christ promises, God promises, so will God.

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Friday morning prayer

Dear Christ I give so many thanks that you have called me not to save the world but to serve it. I pray, keep my horizons hopeful and my reach reasonable, that I may rest safely in your saving grace and rise restored to your good graces and refreshed to face the work ahead. Amen.

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Break water

Breakwater before
midnight; primal elements:
dark water. Let light
break. This dark water
tastes wrong; unseasoned soup, it
will not hold me up.
I throw up my hands.
Your thoughts are not my thoughts, there
will be no meeting
of minds. Dark water
ebbs and flows like breath; it will
not return empty.

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