Lately, I have been listening to a new podcast hosted by the Lutheran minister, Nadia Bolz-Webber called The Confessional. Each episode of The Confessional features a guest who speaks with Nadia and reveals (to her and us) some of the worst things they have ever done. When I first heard about this podcast, before I had heard even a single episode, the traditionalist in me had his doubts. I imagined there might be something a little unseemly about taking the tenderness and intimacy of a one-on-one confession into the arena of public listening. The seal of the confessional is a grace that I cherish. The knowledge that whatever I disclose will be met by only three sets of ears—my confessor’s, mine, and God’s—is irreplaceable. I wondered if something about this kind of sacramental reconciliation would end up lost (even cheapened) over the airwaves and apps.
Yet as I began to listen to each of these brave, faithful people tell stories about their most notorious failures and deepest shames, my own suspicions began to disperse as something else became clear. Yes, these are stories about human failure, human weakness, and human insufficiency. At the same time (and perhaps more significantly), these are stories about God’s boundless generosity, forgiveness, and desire to be reconciled with his creatures.
So where are we now?
We have come, at last, to the end of one of the most bitterly contested national elections this country has ever seen. For many of us, finally naming a winner doesn’t bring the resolution we hoped it would; it feels like we’re all on the losing side in this contest. We are like two battered and weary fighters standing in the middle of the ring, faces bruised and bleeding, bent over with exhaustion, waiting for the referee to raise the arm of one of us. Our country is as divided as ever. Our political leaders are locked in seemingly irresolveable conflict that limits their effectiveness at home and diminishes our influence abroad. We are facing the largest public health crisis the world has ever known, with the numbers of new cases soaring to unprecedented heights in half of our states. We’re tired – of this pandemic, its restrictions, and all the pain and loss it has brought. We’re weary – of this toxic political deadlock, of the vilifying that characterizes election campaigns, of the threat of violence and lawsuits, of the seeming intractability of systemic racism, and of so much more.
What message of hope can the Church possibly offer?
Our answer begins with a reminder of who we are. We are human beings, created in the image of God, knowing ourselves to be loved by God in all our diversity. We are people who belong to God, who have been invited to live in a relationship with love with our Creator, who have been forgiven and redeemed by Christ, and who can reflect God’s glory in the world. The prophet tells us that God has called us by name, and we are precious and honored in God’s sight: every one of us. There is not a single human being that God does not love.
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.
Versions of these kinds of complicated family dynamics exist throughout the world – always have, always will – but as for this particular Gospel story, that’s what it is. It’s a made-up story by Jesus about two lost brothers and their father. This is one of Jesus’ parables. As were the two parables that Jesus tells immediately preceding this: about a lost sheep and a lost coin.
Sheep may know they are lost, but they are certainly not repentant. Lost coins are completely clueless. And yet, when either is found, there is rejoicing. The scholar Amy-Jill Levin reminds us that in Jesus’ parable about the brothers and their father, no one has expressed sorrow at having hurt one another. No one has expressed forgiveness.[i]And yet there is rejoicing. Sort of. Two out of three. So what’s Jesus’ point? What’s his point in this trilogy of parables?
Don’t wait. Don’t wait until your offender “gets it.” Don’t wait until you have received an apology. Professor Levin says, “share a cup of coffee; go have lunch.” If creating a banquet for this other person is too much of a stretch, at least keep in mind that’swhere this is headed: a heavenly banquet, where all will be well, and all will be reconciled. In the meantime, if you cannot begin to reconcile, cannot even imagine doing it, know that some day you will, if not in thislife, then the next. In the meantime, don’t be mean. Move away from resentment… a right move which will help prepare the way in your own heart and maybe in the other’s. Jesus reminds us he’s come “to seek and save the lost.”[ii]All of us get lost periodically. Most of us, most of the time, cannot find ourselves without help.
[i]My inspiration is Amy-Jill Levine in her Short Stories by Jesus; The Enigmatic Parables of a Controversial Rabbi (2014); pp. 25-70.
[ii]Matthew 18:11; Luke 19:10.
This afternoon marks the conclusion of our four-part Advent preaching series, entitled “Salvation Revisited,” in which we have been exploring the meaning of “salvation,” a concept that is at the heart of the Good News that Christian faith offers and proclaims. If you’ve missed any of the three previous sermons in the series – by Brothers Curtis Almquist, Geoffrey Tristram, and Mark Brown – you can read or listen to those sermons on our community’s website, www.ssje.org. This afternoon, our focus is once again on the meaning of salvation, this time asking the question: “Salvation: From What? To What?”
The very notion of “salvation” rests on the assumption that there is something wrong that needs to be put right; if all is well, there is no need for a savior. What is it, then, in the view of Christianity, that is wrong and needs to be put right? Frederick Buechner summarizes it when he writes:
I think it is possible to say that in spite of all its extraordinary variety, the Bible is held together by having a single plot. It is one that can be simply stated: God creates the world; the world gets lost; God seeks to restore the world to the glory for which God created it.[i]
“So therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you
do not give up all your possessions.” – Luke 14:33
The Brothers have been here since the 1950s, when this farm, which dates from 1635, came into our care, thanks to the generosity of the Emery sisters. But it was not only generosity to the SSJE that motivated these remarkable women. Sarah, Mary Elizabeth, Frances Louisa, and Georgiana Emery were devout Episcopalians who lived modestly on this farm, even after coming into a large inheritance. The legacy they received enabled them to be active in a number of ministries to the poor; in time, their paths crossed with Brothers from the SSJE, who were involved in some of the same charitable work.
Gardens and farms have been associated with monastic communities since the beginning of the monastic movement in the Church. We read stories of the Desert Ammas and Abbas tending their gardens. We know from the history of gardening that the monasteries of Europe were always associated with gardening (and in some cases plans and inventories have survived telling us, for instance, that garlic was one of the most popular things grown in English monasteries before the Reformation!) This connection between monasteries and gardens was for practical, theological, and spiritual reasons.
Practically speaking monasteries needed to feed themselves and the extended communities that grew up around them. As they are today, monasteries were centers of hospitality and mission, and there were always people who needed a bed, a meal, and a listening heart. Then, as now, food played an integral role in the daily life of any monastic community. What could not be produced by the monastery needed to be purchased, and so a surplus of what could be produced was used to buy or trade for what could not be produced. By the late middle ages, some monasteries in Europe had become great landholders, employing hundreds of people to farm and tend the land. In some cases land management and tenant relationships became a major preoccupation for many of the monks.
Most High, all – powerful, all good, Lord! All praise is yours, all glory, all honor and all blessing.1
There is a cost to being in touch with our natural world. Like just about anything worth having there is a cost to it. There is real joy in discerning nature and its wonders, yet there is also pain in knowing this.
How utterly removed many of us are from nature that we don’t even seem to have a care for what we are looking at. On the one hand we see the autumn colors in the fall and we think “What a pretty picture!” What a glorious creation. Or we see the first spring green in the woods and say to ourselves, “How thrilling!” What a glorious creation. But we know the names of nothing. And that makes our lives easier. Once you learn the name of things, maybe you will see the early fall color along New England roadsides and think, “Oh, my, look at all those choking vines aglow in yellow: oriental bittersweet, everywhere.” That first spring green in the woods? Japanese barberry. The downside to knowing the names of things can be an element of disenchantment.
To witness the Creation truly, it should be an honor to know the names of things, to know our world by name. Naming the world was one of God’s first gifts to humankind. We should be able to name Creation, even though it might sometimes mean introducing new heartache or anxiety into our lives where before there was none, where before there were just pretty pictures.
Learning the names of things also deepens our appreciation for the sugar maple, the white oak, the tree or the shrub we may before have regarded as just some tree or bush like all others. The tree and the shrub become individuals, which is what they are, with an identity in the Creation that is unique and fantastic, with an ancient lineage all its own. A lineage like your own that brought you to this place, time, and moment in Creation. That tree, that shrub is an inheritor of billions of years of survival and each also is a giver to pollinators, birds, and the myriad upon myriad of icky things from which we would rather turn our gaze.
Birders can tell a sparrow from a sparrow, or a gull from a gull – and the world becomes richer, truer, more real. And what might be thought of as a dull sparrow becomes a source of excitement and joy.
All praise be yours, my Lord, through Sister Earth, our mother, who feeds us in her sovereignty and produces various fruits with colored flower and herbs.
On an August afternoon during the Monastery’s renovation, the Brothers made a field trip to Garden in the Woods, located in Framingham, Massachusetts, about twenty miles west of Boston. That trip constituted a turning point for the community in thinking about how to restore and renovate the Cloister Garden after the site was cleared of the construction materials that were housed there during the renovation. Up to that point, we had been thinking along quite conventional lines. That trip to Framingham helped us to begin to imagine something that would seek to bring other values to our idea of what our garden should be like.
It was in that visit that the idea of a naturalistic, native plant garden was born. The results of that vision are now visible from the cloister windows.
With hundreds – no maybe thousands – of hours of careful research, planning, and design, the community’s friend, Patrick Smith, helped us bring to birth (the process sometimes felt just like that!) a vision of the cloister space that has been a transforming and life-giving experience for the entire community and our guests. Like so many other notions about the earth, the environment, and our role in that great interchange, ideas about what a garden is and should be are undergoing great changes. The garden design that Patrick developed for us tries to take many of these new understandings seriously and put them into practice.
We have been encouraged to think of our garden as an opportunity for us to be the best stewards of the land that we can be. Each plant was chosen with the site in mind, bringing into play the current thinking which advocates choosing plants that are appropriate to the existing environment rather than trying to artificially modify the environment to accommodate a less appropriate choice. This is about working with nature and what nature has already given to the site, rather than imposing something out of place. We also saw our garden as a being that should be life-sustaining to itself, us, and the other living beings with whom we share this space. This impulse lies behind much of what motivates any gardener to sink her hands into the soil: the desire to cultivate and connect with life itself.
Our garden is also intended to be a marker of time. We live our life according to a liturgical calendar that marks the natural rhythms of the seasons by recalling the great salvific acts of the Creator. Through the four seasons, the garden is designed to be a grand calendar, from snow covered limbs, through the bud-break of a million shining chalices, the steamy heat of summer alive with crickets and katydids, and then through the cool and refreshing fire of autumn’s colors.
Finally, the garden is a way of extending monastic hospitality to non-human guests. We are blessedly close to the beautiful Mount Auburn garden cemetery, the home or migration ground to so many birds and animals. Our garden’s berries, water, and shelter are already drawing wild birds that we have never seen before on the Monastery’s urban-enclosed grounds. In a sense, those visiting and lodging birds have become ambassadors by carrying those seeds and berries outside the garden perimeters into the wider world. As a nourishing and nurturing place, the Cloister Garden has in common with other native plant gardens the capacity of existing beyond its borders for the benefit of all.
The new Cloister Garden is a palate that will hopefully help each of us grow more and more into relationship with the individual plants. We hope guests who come will learn, as we Brothers have, to name and know the beautiful and varied forms and flowers of native dogwoods, sourwood, sweet-bay magnolia and autumn witch hazel, old man’s beard, ironwood, serviceberry and paw-paw. We hope you’ll spot the divine presence along the paths that wind through an understory of viburnum, rhododendron, holly, spice-bush, and mountain laurel.
Praise and bless my Lord, and give him thanks, and serve him with great humility.
1. [The italicized lines throughout this article are taken from Francis of Assisi’s Canticle of the Creatures (The Society of St. Francis, Little Portion Friary, Mt. Sinai, NY: 1926).]↩
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, God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself… entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. –2 Corinthians 5:17-20
In Christ, each of us is made a minister of reconciliation in the realizing of God’s vision for a new creation in which all creatures are made one with God and each other, freed from the bonds of evil and death. Grace-filled, transforming reconciliation, therefore, both within our own selves and with others, always takes place in partnership with the One who first brought us into being. God has always been reaching out to us and continues to reach out to us, yearning for companionship with us. In this longing, we can see that the essence of both the divine life and our created nature is to be in relationship. In Christ, God has been revealed as a community of reciprocal self-offering love, the Holy Trinity. Thus we, made in the image and likeness of God, can only come to be fully reconciled in and alive to our created dignity through relationship with God. We, like God, find the fullest expression of who we are in community, so our relationships with one another also have their source in God. We become truly who we are only in relationship to others. In lives committed to loving ourselves and one another as God loves us, we fulfill the ministry of reconciliation by beholding and honoring the image of Christ in every person.
Jesus Christ is the exemplar and embodiment of the ministry of reconciliation. Fully human and at one with God, Jesus chooses to bear in himself the misunderstandings and rejections that mar and distort human relationships, and he takes the risk of personal vulnerability and loss in order to redress our brokenness. Jesus looks at the disciples gathered around him and says, “These are my brothers, my sisters, my mother,” that we might come to understand ourselves, in relationship to him and one another, as having been adopted into the family of God. Jesus teaches that relationships involve the exercise of tough love and the willingness to forgive – even before those who have wronged us seek forgiveness. Jesus commands us to forgive as many as “seventy times seven,” to expose ourselves to the same vulnerability toward others in which he lives. It is much easier to avoid difficult relationships and to ignore within ourselves the same traits we despise in others. But Jesus calls us to live into the fullness of our humanity, to embrace what we, in our brokenness, experience as physical, psychic, or spiritual limitations. Jesus urges that, rather than seeking to be cured of our limitations, we ask God to heal us in them, and waken us to the spiritual gifts hidden in them. God desires that each of us live into the particular image of divinity which only we can be, and which God’s world needs in order to be reconciled.
One way to find renewed energy and desire for our role in God’s work of reconciliation is taking time for intimacy with Christ in silence and prayer. The chapter on retreat in the Society’s Rule of Life explains how times of retreat give us an opportunity to “celebrate the primacy of the love of God” in our lives as the sole focus of our attention. Regardless of how fragmented our lives may seem, how alienated from the world or at odds with others we may feel, retreat allows us inner space and time to know that we are beloved of God. Many guests in our houses remark on the experience of coming to a deeper knowledge of themselves and those around them in the silence of retreat. They are learning, as the Rule also says, to cherish “adoring love for the mystery of God,” to “honor the mystery present in the hearts of our brothers and sisters, strangers and enemies,” as well as to revere that mystery present in themselves through the indwelling of Christ. This kind of silence does not see the mystery of self or other as a problem to be solved or as something to be understood. Instead, in silence, we acknowledge the mystery of self and other, like that of God, as a wonder to be adored. Even in the absence of those with whom we seek to be reconciled, praying for them and practicing silence can help us come to truly love them.
Reconciliation takes place within us not so much by what we think as by who we allow God to help us to become. God calls us to emotional honesty with ourselves and others, and we can best find that disposition through intentional relationship with God. In the humility of silence, we can hear the voice which speaks in every human heart, and says, I cannot be the God I truly am without being fully in relationship with you. Times of retreat can help to awaken in us the desire for that time when all people will be drawn into that community of love which is the only God.
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.