Poet and author Elizabeth Barrett Browning is probably best known for the words she wrote in a letter to her future husband: “How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.” Her father, Edward, was a controlling man who forbid any of his twelve children to marry, and when Elizabeth defied her father’s wishes to marry Robert Browning, her father never spoke to her again.
Elizabeth wrote weekly letters to her father in the hope that they might be reconciled, but for ten years there was no response. Then one day, after a decade of silence, a box arrived in the mail from her father. Her excitement quickly turned to anguish, however, when she opened it and found that it contained all of her letters – unopened. Edward Barrett’s heart was so hardened towards his daughter that he didn’t open a single one of the hundreds of letters she wrote to him.
Unforgiveness does that. It hardens the heart. It magnifies the perceived offense to the point where we can no longer appreciate a person’s value because all we see is how they have grieved us. If forgiveness is one of the most powerful forces for redemption in the Christian faith, unforgiveness is one of the most powerful forces for destruction. In today’s gospel lesson, Jesus gives us a parable that speaks to us about forgiveness and unforgiveness.[i]
For which is easier, to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Stand up and walk?’
I do not really know, Jesus. That is the challenge of our walk of faith, is it not? Forgiveness. To arise, to walk, knowing we are forgiven. It is all too easy a thing to say, ‘I forgive you.’ But I think all of us know that the manifestation of those words in a lived, shared life can feel as daunting and impossible as trying to cure paralysis with a speech act. It is easier to say, ‘I forgive you.’ It is harder to live the sacrifices required of what is said.
The scribes in this morning’s gospel—however swayed by ‘even thinking’ in their hearts—are nonetheless right: true forgiveness—forgiveness of sins, forgiveness of human disintegration—is the property of the divine. It is priceless. It has the power to bring life out of death. But of course the scribes don’t quite see what is in front of them.
Therein lies the miracle of today’s gospel. Yes, a paralytic man regained authority over his limbs, but this is not what amazes the crowds, and it is not what should amaze us. For the healing of the paralyzed man is merely the sign of something much more significant. As with all of Jesus’ miracles, I often have to remind myself that the sign is not itself the thing signified.
Saint Peter and Saint Paul
2 Timothy 4:1-8; John 21:15-19
Jesus had said to his apostles, “You did not choose me, but I chose you.”[i] This certainly applies to Peter and Paul. I don’t think they would have chosen each another to be members of Jesus’ closest circle.
Paul was erudite, both a Pharisee and a Roman citizen. He was literate and probably multi-lingual. Peter, on the other hand, was from backwater Galilee, way up north and nowhere. There was this rhetorical, tongue-in-cheek question people from Jerusalem asked about Galilee: “What good can come out of Galilee?” What did Peter actually know about? Fish. Peter knew his fish. In the ensuing years, two letters attributed to Peter eventually found their way into the New Testament. Whether Peter penned these letters himself or if he used a scribe, we don’t know. And Peter was married; Paul was not.
Peter and Paul did have several things in common. They were both very strong-willed. And they both had significant character flaws. At the time of Jesus’ crucifixion, Peter publicly denied even an acquaintance with Jesus. And Paul was complicit in a murder, the murder of a fellow Jew, in an attempt to squelch the cult that was following Jesus.[ii]Both Peter and Paul were eventually arrested – their attention was arrested – by Jesus. Both of them became zealous, fearless followers of Jesus. Both of them were ultimately martyred for Jesus’ sake.
For many years following his conversion to Christ, Paul had lived in a self-imposed exile in the desert and in Damascus. Paul eventually comes to Peter to learn about his leadership in the church at Rome. Peter has come a long way. In his writings, Peter speaks of Paul as his “beloved brother” and acknowledges the wisdom of Paul’s writings, but as an aside, Peter says he knows that some people find Paul’s writings difficult to understand.[iii] On the other hand, Paul recognizes Peter’s seniority, Peter having been called by Jesus as “the rock” on whom Jesus planned to build his church. Peter and Paul held each other in deep respect and affection… except when they did not.
Did the non-Jewish converts to Jesus actually need to become Jews? Must Gentiles be circumcised? Must they adopt Jewish dietary laws? Or was baptism sufficient? Should the focus of Peter and Paul’s energies be on their fellow Jews, or should it be on the Gentiles? The two of them wrangled about these things and others, sometimes agreeing, sometimes not.[iv] St. Paul’s letters are very self-revealing. When Paul writes to his fellow Christians, more than once, about “jealousy, quarreling, anger, dissension, factions, slander, gossip, and conceit,” he’s not just writing about other people; he’s writing autobiographically, about himself. Peter is much the same. When he writes to “rid yourselves of all malice, and all guile, insincerity, envy, and all slander,” he’s writing to the church; but he’s first writing to himself.[v]
What ultimately unites these two deeply faithful, deeply flawed followers of Jesus is not their virtue, but their need. What unites them is their weakness, not their strength, what Paul calls “strength being made perfect in weakness.”[vi] What broke their hearts open for one other and for so many other broken followers of Jesus were two things: one, a humility, redeemed from their mistakes in judgment. Peter writes in a very self-revealing way: “All of you, have unity of spirit, sympathy, love for one another, a tender heart, and a humble mind.”[vii] And Paul is first coaching himself when he writes to the church in Corinth: “Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.”[viii] Paul is reminding himself.
The other character flaw that unites them was their own need to be forgiven, endlessly. They realized that they, again and again, had either missed the mark or attained the mark but in the wrong way.[ix] St. Paul confesses: “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.”[x] These two very driven, very hard men were broken open by their own awareness of need.
Michael Ramsey, sometime Archbishop of Canterbury, says that “the secret of the Christian is not that he [or she] is always in the right and puts other people in the right, but that he [or she] is forgiven. That is the secret of a Christian’s humility, liberation, and strength.”[xi] In the end, both Peter and Paul were driven to practice what they preached. They could not save themselves. They needed, daily, to surrender to the intervention of Christ’s grace.
Blessed Peter and Paul, whom we remember today.
[iii]2 Peter 3:14-16.
[iv]See Galatians 2:11.
[v]1 Peter 2:1.
[vi]2 Corinthians 12:9.
[vii]1 Peter 3:8.
[viii]1 Corinthians 13:4-7.
[ix]See 1Corinthians 13:1-3.
[xi]Michael Ramsey (1904-1988), was the 100thArchbishop of Canterbury.
“A voice was heard in Ramah,
wailing and loud lamentation,
Rachel weeping for her children;
she refused to be consoled,
because they are no more.”
Rachel refused. She refused to be consoled. Wailing and weeping bitterly, she refused to be consoled.
And, yet, the very next line in Jeremiah has the Lord saying “Keep your voice from weeping, and your eyes from tears;” “there is hope in your future.” Don’t cry, God says, don’t be sad, it’s OK. My immediate reaction on reading that was, “Are you kidding me?”
I’ve imagined Rachel’s response, and let’s just say I’ll refrain from sharing it in polite company. What I can say, is that a perfectly natural reaction would be for her sadness to blossom into anger, even a righteous rage. How dare God offer any kind of consolation in the depth of her anguish. How dare God say anything at all. Where was God when children were being mercilessly slaughtered? How could God allow that to happen?
To know something is, in our imagination, an intellectual endeavor. To know something is to study it, to ascertain its dimensions, to come to conclusions about it, to test those conclusions, always refining your conclusions based on that testing, and to be able to articulate what you’ve learned to another. This is a valuable and useful approach, and it’s consistent with the general standard of knowledge that Western culture has adopted in the modern era.
But I find it lacks. I find it unsatisfying. It, perhaps, can sate my intellect, but I find that that’s not enough. As much as I’d sometimes like to be, I’m not merely an intellect. And as I learn to have less fealty to my intellect and more loyalty to my full humanity, I increasingly find this approach to knowledge to be somewhat sterile. Helpful, useful, yes, of course. But after this meal of the intellect, I often walk away feeling undernourished.
It is reassuring to find, then, that this is an incomplete understanding of the idea of knowledge in Christianity. St. Ephrem, a fourth century Syrian deacon and hymn writer, put forth the idea that there were three ways to attempt to know something.1 The first, the crudest, the most rudimentary, is a pursuit of knowledge that seeks to dominate the subject that is to be known. This is knowledge merely as a means to an end. There is nothing inherently wrong with coming to know something purely in service of some other goal, but it is no full depiction of Christian knowledge
August 30, 2016 – The Beheading of Saint John the Baptist
For Herod himself had sent men who arrested John, bound him, and put him in prison on account of Herodias, his Brother Philip’s wife, because Herod had married her. For John had been telling Herod, “It is not lawful for you to have your Brother’s wife.” And Herodias had a grudge against him, and wanted to kill him. But she could not, for Herod feared John, knowing that he was a righteous and holy man, and he protected him. When he heard him, he was greatly perplexed; and yet he liked to listen to him. But an opportunity came when Herod on his birthday gave a banquet for his courtiers and officers and for the leaders of Galilee. When his daughter Herodias came in and danced, she pleased Herod and his guests; and the king said to the girl, “Ask me for whatever you wish, and I will give it.” And he solemnly swore to her, “Whatever you ask me, I will give you, even half of my kingdom.” She went out and said to her mother, “What should I ask for?” She replied, “The head of John the baptizer.” Immediately she rushed back to the king and requested, “I want you to give me at once the head of John the Baptist on a platter.” The king was deeply grieved; yet out of regard for his oaths and for the guests, he did not want to refuse her. Immediately the king sent a soldier of the guard with orders to bring John’s head. He went and beheaded him in the prison, brought his head on a platter, and gave it to the girl. Then the girl gave it to her mother. When his disciples heard about it, they came and took his body, and laid it in a tomb. Mark 6:17-29
Forgiving is in your best interest. To not forgive someone is to incarcerate them in your memory: your offender being the prisoner; you being the prison guard. The tragedy is that both of you are in the prison. Forgiving is setting someone free for your sake. By forgiving someone, you unbind yourself from the residual power this person – from whom you have experienced an injury, offense, or disappointment – continues to have on you. To not forgive will leave your wound vulnerable to infection, which eventually can metastasize into resentment. Nelson Mandela, on being freed from twenty-six years of imprisonment in South Africa, felt bitter toward his captors; however he was determined to claim his inner freedom, to forgive and not to resent. “Resentment,” he said, “is like drinking poison and waiting for it to kill your enemy.”
Do you wait until someone who has hurt or offended you asks for your forgiveness? No. To wait gives this other person tacit power over you, certainly a control over the healing of your wound. And they may never own or even realize they have committed a wrong toward you.
Do you tell someone that you have forgiven them? Probably not. To do so might sound terribly pompous or presumptuous on your part; you could offend them. They might say something like, “Who do you think you are to speak so condescendingly to me?” Most often your forgiving someone is a matter within your own heart, though you may need some assistance from a trusted soulmate or professional helper.
Do you forgive someone for a repeated offense? Yes, but with a qualification. This is the energy in Peter’s questioning Jesus, “How often should I forgive?” Jesus answers in code language: “endlessly.” You will understand this if there is a person or some kind of person from whom you cannot escape and whom you find repeatedly offending. Your relationship may have a Velcro-like quality, “hooking” you. You may find in this relationship both a need and invitation “to pray without ceasing” for yourself and for this other person. They may even be a disguised teacher, exposing you to your own character flaws. SSJE’s founder, Richard Meux Benson, taught that “in praying for others we learn really and truly to love them. As we approach God on their behalf we carry the thought of them into the very being of eternal Love, and as we go into the being of him who is eternal Love, so we learn to love whatever we take with us there.” The qualification is when the offense has an abusive or addictive quality. Then there is a need for you to establish at least a protective boundary, and maybe an escape plan. You will need help with this – pastoral, sacramental, psychotherapeutic, and/or the assistance of a support group or 12-Step meeting. Help is very helpful. Get help.
What about mutual forgiveness: both persons being offended; both persons forgiving each other? Those are amazing moments when they happen. When you do find yourself sharing conversation with someone about your afflicted relationship, if you are prepared to forgive, also be prepared to be forgiven. You may have missed or misinterpreted something in your altercation, how they experienced you. That missing information may make all the difference, not just in the freedom that comes with forgiveness but in the shared delight of reconciliation.
Must you always be reconciled with someone whom you have forgiven? No. Reconciliation, when it can happen, is a beautiful thing. But the timing and setting must be right, especially when there was or is a power differential between the two individuals, i.e., a difference in age, in seniority, in status, in authority. The less-powerful person continues to be quite vulnerable.
I recently shared a conversation with a young woman who had been appallingly abused by her father in her childhood. (I write about this with her permission.) The woman was a walking miracle. She had not only survived but found the courage, the desire, the help to thrive. She claimed what she called “an amazing grace” to have forgiven her father. The point of our conversation was about her reconciliation with her father who had never admitted his repeated transgressions. The young woman thought she should and must be reconciled to him, and she was very, very anxious about this. She invited my response. I said, “No, not now.” I strongly sensed it was not safe for this woman to attempt the reconciliation. It would have every prospect to tear open the sutures in this woman’s soul; it could re-ignite her father’s prowess. It was essential for her wellbeing to retain a clear boundary with her father.
We ultimately talked about what more she could do in her relationship with her father. Pray. She was aware of his own upbringing, how he had been abused by his own father, and – from a safe distance – she actually felt a good deal of compassion for him. How to pray? I asked her. She had a flood of images: to pray for her father’s liberation and healing, for hope, for love.
Sometimes this is the best we can do: to pray for Jesus’ light and life and love to shine upon a person from whom we need to keep distance. In the fullness of time – and maybe not until eternity – reconciliation may be able to happen. In the meantime, use Jesus as a go-between. Ask for Jesus’ mediation, whether this person be alive or dead. At death, “life is changed, not ended” (the language of the Book of Common Prayer). You may find enormous comfort and streaming energy to whisper into Jesus’ ear your own hopes for this hurtful, hurting soul. Pray candidly. Even if your feelings toward this person remain conflicted, pray your conflict. Jesus will sort it out. For how long should you pray? You will know.
David Watson, priest and canon of the Church of England, wrote about his conversion experience in his autobiography You Are My God. This conversion experience began when his college chaplain, a priest named John, inquired about Watson’s faith. Watson writes:
“John began by asking if I felt any need of God. I couldn’t honestly remember feeling any need, apart from the impulsive cry when I was suffering from a hangover. That surely was enough. Perhaps in my more reflective moments I was unsure of the purpose of my life. ‘Is that what you mean by a need of God?’ I asked John. He explained that a sense of purpose is certainly included, but that our primary need of God exposes itself in our need of forgiveness. In countless ways we have broken God’s laws, we have gone our own way, we have done our own thing. That is why God is naturally unreal in the experience of us all, until something is done to change that. Surprisingly, I did not need much convincing about this. I was ashamed of some things in my life; I would not like the whole of my life exposed. Also, I could see logically that this was a possible explanation of my sense of God’s remoteness and unreality. If he did exist, and if I had turned my back on him, it followed that there would be a breakdown of communication. ‘Yes,’ I said after further discussion, ‘I’m prepared to admit that I have sinned and so need forgiveness.'”
But Jesus is not just concerned with how these attitudes affect other people; Jesus is concerned with how these attitudes affect us. When we are judgmental, turn our backs on someone, or refuse to forgive, it is not the person toward whom we feel these things that suffers; but we suffer, because we must live with these negative emotions day-by-day. Similarly, when we forgive and are giving, we’ve no doubt all experienced the joy and freedom it brings. In either case, the measure we give is the measure we get back.