‘If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one. But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax-collector. Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. Again, truly I tell you, if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.’
There is a scene in Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov where Alexei, one of the tormented sons of the murdered Fyodor Pavlovich Karamazov, is talking with Father Zosima, the revered Orthodox monk, a staretz. The conversation is about suffering, the apparently-senseless suffering in Alexei’s own life and in the world. You need not have recently read The Brothers Karamazov to be able to make your own list of the kinds of things Alexei is so disturbed about. They are the very things we see in the headlines of our own media every day: the seemingly-endless suffering of so many in our world because of war, starvation, disease, injustice, and the wounding that so many children will carry all their lives because of their family of origin… which is Alexei’s chief source of suffering. Father Zosima hears young Alexei’s lament and despair about suffering and the meaninglessness of life.
And then Father Zosima responds with a very different vision of the world, almost opposite Alexei’s. It’s surprising, because they both live in the same town, and they both know the same people. Rather than seeing life as hell, Father Zosima speaks passionately about paradise surrounding us now, in the present moment. The experience of paradise is real and accessible for everyone with eyes to see, now. How is that possible, Alexei wonders? So Father Zosima tells Alexei that one must embrace the whole world with love: to love every person, young and old, near and far; to love every leaf, every ray of light, every animal, every plant, every inanimate thing for the love of God. Zosima speaks of revering the whole world with an all-embracing love. It’s even to treat animals and birds with a tenderness beyond measure, even to ask their forgiveness when need be. And above all, we must pour out our heart of love for children. That’s Father Zosima’s practice of living in paradise, now. Live for love. In the practice of love we will come to see life now as a foretaste of the paradise to come, with God dwelling in all people, all creatures, all things. I find Father Zosima’s vision of paradise now, very compelling, an elixir to seeing life as living hell.
I want to suggest two spiritual practices of love that can make a world a difference to you now, for God’s kingdom of heaven to be within your grasp here on earth, which is the very thing we ask for in the Lord’s Prayer.i
For one, it’s to take stock of what is so good in your life now. If your life just now seems filled with more bad news than good news, you are probably not paying attention. There is so much good. Consider the amazingly-wonderful people in your life, who are like angels (maybe they are!?); the beauty of creation that surrounds us with sights and sounds and aromas; the amazing ability we have to feel; the mystery of our memories; the wonder of laughter and smiles; the abilities we have to create with our hands and minds and words. The most amazing thing about life is how very, very, very good life is amidst what is undeniably bad. If your life seems filled with more bad news than good news, you are probably not paying attention. Saint Paul says in the Letter to the Philippians, “Beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.”ii
Living, loving the goodness of your life will re-proportionalize the weight of what is bad.
This is to cherish life, which is a way of keeping what is good, good. To cherish our life is to give reverence, gratitude, delight, care, enjoyment to everything good that has come our way, which is so much. Now to cherish is not to clutch at something, but rather to hold this good thing in our open hands, to venerate it with enjoyment and gratitude, but not to cling to it. It seems to me there’s enormous freedom in taking what we could otherwise regard as “possessions” and turning them into “offerings.” Detach yourself from any notion of “possessions.” Take an inventory of every good thing that you could otherwise call “mine” and make it an offering to God as “thine.” We are not “owners” of anything but simply temporary stewards in life, entrusted with various “goods”: qualities, gifts, distinctions, appointments, gadgets, properties, relationships which – sooner or later – are going to pass away from us. And in the meantime we take what we’ve been entrusted and offer it back to God, recognizing that all of it is very temporary.
And this is to see life as a gift from God, to be used as a means by which to know God and to love God and to serve God in our own very unique ways, whether we live in a monastery, or have a profession as teacher, or lawyer, or doctor, or administrator, or volunteer, or whatever. Jesus says here in the Gospel according to Matthew, “where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.”iii It seems to me our ultimate treasure, the end for which we have been given the gift of life, is all about love of God. And therefore everything else in life is a means to realize our good end, which is to know God and to love God and to serve God.
This is the distinction between an idol and an icon. An idol is something which, in itself, we may deign ultimate worth. Whatever it may be – our good name, our wonderful relationship with someone, our chest of money, our piece of property, our thing of beauty – if that thing comes to mean the world to us, has the ultimate and absolute value in life, what we will unquestionably fight for and cling to… we risk idolatry, no matter how good or lovely it all is. If we can get our hands around it and if we can assign ultimate worth to it, whatever it is has the potential to become an idol and, at best, it will disappoint us because it will not last and it will not be enough. The subtle difference between and idol and an icon. An idol – which is some thing we fix on, clutch at, possess or be possessed by; and an icon, which is like window a through which to see something more, something larger. And it makes a world of difference if we see life as being iconic (like an icon) full of the most amazing people and other gifts of creation which come from God and are channels to God. This a subtle but important distinction between pantheism and panentheism. Pantheism: God is everything – every rock or stone or wave or mountain, or person is the sum total of God. Panentheism: God is in everything, every thing having its cause in God, every thing coming from God, as a window through which to see God). And this is the distinction between an idol and an icon.
How is paradise within your grasp now, where life on earth is a foretaste of heaven? Claim the good things of your life and see them as God’s gifts to you, temporarily entrusted to you. Cherish what is good, so good in your life. But don’t confuse your goods with your possessions. They’re not. And see it all in the light of God, and in the life of God, and in the love of God. Why has God given us life? For love, and that will last forever. Claim love.
And then, secondly, for paradise to be within your grasp, don’t claim bondage. I’ve already named how even good things, if they become “possessions,” can snuff our life, which is when goods become bads. That’s a kind of bondage. And there’s kind of bondage around an unchecked addiction that can make life hell. But I want to speak to the kind of bondage that Jesus is speaking about here in our Gospel lesson appointed for today. That is bondage because of unforgiveness. Life can be a searing experience. Life is full of disappointments (at best) and outright violations (at worst). And there is no place where life is more compromised, and paradise more unrealized, than to live with unforgiveness. The metaphor for this in the Scriptures, the metaphor which Jesus uses, is a metaphor from prison. To be locked down or tied up in a prison. That’s the scriptural metaphor for unforgiveness. And it can be the most hellish form of solitary confinement for both the person who is being hated and the person who hates. Both are in prison; both are locked up.
What Jesus meant is not altogether clear when he said, “Whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” If you have ever lived with unforgiveness – your not forgiving someone, your not setting them free for something they have done or not done, said or not said – you know something of the power of bondage, as does this other person. If you are possessing some unforgiveness about something or someone, let it go. You might need help with us, but you need to let that go, because it is crimping your life. And if you’re in touch with some unforgiveness in your own life toward someone who is no longer alive on this earth, don’t let that stop you for getting on with forgiving some. As we say in the funeral liturgy, “life is changed, not ended.” By forgiving someone who has died, you may be participating in the work of heaven, someone’s ultimate healing in the life to come. As we say in the Apostles’ Creed, “We believe in the communion of the saints.”iv We also believe in the communion of all souls and all sinners. Now that someone has died, someone who hurt you, you may find yourself in a place of need and also a place of safety and freedom to forgive them, if that is your need. That act will unbind you, and somehow in God’s eternity, that act of forgiveness will also be used by Christ in the unbinding of this departed soul, in setting them free also.
Live in love. Embrace all the goods in your life and don’t make any of those goods your possessions. Nor let anything bad possess you, and here I’m particularly talking about living with unforgiveness, which is kind of an oxymoron. Unforgiveness is not life, certainly not the “abundant life” that Jesus has promised us, for now.
i From the Lord’s Prayer: “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven…”
ii Philippians 4:8.
iii Matthew 6:21.
iv Book of Common Prayer, p. 96.
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