St. Aidan’s Episcopal Church
One of my earliest significant mentors was a counselor I had for a week-long summer camp when I was a rising ninth or tenth grader. The camp was Christian, not associated with our diocese, and more conservative in various ways that I would later come to view with a sharply critical eye. But through conversations I had with this counselor and with several fellow campers, my faith had started to take on a different, deeper scope. How was faith active in our day-to-day lives, we were asked? Could we sense God with us as we made our way through school? In our friendships or family relationships? Particularly if we experienced a sense of pain or of brokenness in our lives, was God there? If the answer was no, as it clearly was for me at that time, our challenge was to invite God into it. I can recall a follow-up conversation in which I asked what on earth that could mean, this “inviting God into” painful aspects of our lives. “What it means,” I recall the counselor replying, “is that if there is a relationship that is painful or broken, that relationship needs God’s forgiveness.” Actually, I believe the statement was sharper, something like: “that relationship? That thing you’re angry and feel betrayed about? You’re stuck in it. You need to figure out how to forgive.”
What I remember feeling in immediate response to that statement was overwhelm and resistance, even anger. For starters, I was stumbling over what I later came to understand as a conflation in the phrase “forgive and forget,” where forgiveness seemed to imply forgetting what caused the harm in the first place. Especially if the harm is part of a pattern, a push to “forget” has always struck me as risking erasure of the cause of the harm, which can make it easier for the harm to continue or repeat. And while I have not found holding onto an injury in any prolonged way to be emotionally and spiritually healthy – I say that with some experience – I have found it important to be aware of past hurts as signs of survival and resilience, markers of distance traveled through a difficult landscape. Important, too, for making sure not to remain subjected to situations or relationships that are harmful and unhealthy. Bearing these important lessons in mind, I was also resistant to the challenge to forgive because it felt like it pushed me into a state of vulnerability. Furthermore, why should I be challenged to forgive, especially in situations where the other party or parties weren’t actually asking to be forgiven in the first place? I continue to believe that all of these responses on the part of my young teen self were totally reasonable and just.
As reasonable and just as that position may be -- for the young teen me or for anyone else -- whatever hurts we may carry, whatever broken places may exist in our lives, the question of where God is in relation to those wounds remains. How can we allow God into those places? Whatever our particular shortcomings may be, wherever we may have sinned and fallen short, missed the mark in our relationships, however others may have missed the mark with us, whatever structures of oppression we all may be bound up with, the question remains: how can the forgiveness that God freely offers to all of us make its way into our hearts, our lives, our relationships, our systemic structures?
Forgiveness is not about forgetting. It is about being transformed. It is about newness of life. It is also a spiritual practice. It is a practice at the very heart of our calling as Christians. It is a practice that stems from our agency, our ability to in fact do something when the broken contexts impacting us are in fact much larger than us. But the most important quality of forgiveness is that it is something we practice because God has already achieved it for us. The very heart of the mystery of our redemption is in fact the root and heart of forgiveness. We hear about it in our reading from Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians this evening. God in Christ took on our brokenness, stepped into the breach between creation and Creator and took it on, in some sense became it so that we would not have to bear it any longer (2 Cor 5:21).A few sentences before our reading, Paul says, “if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us” (2 Cor 5:17-18). In Christ somehow everything old, everything broken has passed away and been made new. Relationships mended, pains soothed, hurts healed. We are invited to share that news with our very lives.
There came a point in my life when the realization hit me: reconciliation at the deepest level, particularly in those situations that are truly intractable and difficult, taps into the wellspring of what God in Christ has done. In the most intractable situations there are limits to the results of our efforts—there is only so much reconciliation that can actually result from what we ourselves do. But we can still do something. We can orient ourselves to the deeper mystery of reconciliation. We can open our hearts to it. We can practice forgiveness, even as the final mystery of the reconciliation of all things belongs to God. That mystery at the very heart of our faith is already a done deal. It is tied up in the words we profess each week, “Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again.” And it is tied up, too, in the prayer that Jesus taught us, the line that inspires the series on forgiveness that we will embark upon for five weeks beginning next Wednesday: “forgive us our sins” or trespasses “as we forgive those who sin (or trespass) against us.” We ask for the forgiveness that God has already promised us, and we pray that God’s forgiveness will sustain us in practicing it ourselves.
When ashes are marked on our foreheads, we immerse ourselves in this mystery. It isn’t that we know the way in any detail. Step by step—with Thomas we might cry out as reported in John’s gospel, “we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way” (Jn 14:5)? But we do know this person, this Jesus, who lived it. If our hearts might be opened to him anew this season, we might deepen the impress of that way upon our hearts. Upon the most difficult and intractable of our relationships and their histories. Upon our interconnection through that web of relationships that remains so deeply entrenched in systemic patterns of brokenness and evil. “Rend your hearts and not your garments,” we are urged to do this day (Joel 2:13). Because by opening our hearts to the mysterious truth of God’s reconciliation, we can be drawn into it despite what may be totally just and legitimate reactions and resistances. This Ash Wednesday and this Lent, we are invited to open ourselves anew to the mystery of reconciliation, to the spiritual practice of forgiveness. Whatever it may look like for you, know that it is much larger than you. Know that it has been accomplished by God. And for that thanks be to God.