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]
Isaiah 1:2-4, 16-20
Psalm 50:7-15, 22-24
Much of the snow here melted last week, changing our perspective. The grounds and gardens came back into view. As soon as the river thawed, rowers went back out in their sculls. We see what was hidden: water, plants, and paths along with trash and twigs. Lent invites revealing, attending to what has been hidden, and reordering our lives. It may include gathering the trash and raking up the twigs within our souls, what we can see is out of place.
God says through the prophet Isaiah in tonight’s scripture: “I reared children and brought them up, but they have rebelled against me. … Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove evil … cease to do evil.” It is more than lawns or riverbanks and more than simply tidying up. Wash yourself from evil. From denying goodness in each other. From denying goodness in ourselves and in the world. From all our little to large words and actions and inaction—including allowing others and systems to act on our behalf—all that degrades, oppresses, shames, and enslaves.[i]
Particularly in Lent, we are called to realize, name, and turn from our sin. As we will sing: “Lenten gifts invite us, searching deep within, claiming our desires, naming all our sin.”[ii] Not in order to beat ourselves up. Not because God wants revenge. Rather, surrender by acknowledging our need and receive grace. God comes wanting to save.
All of us have secrets: secret thoughts, secret feelings, secret fears, hopes and desires. All of us know more about ourselves than we care to share with others. We allow others to think we have pure hearts, but we know that we harbor impure thoughts. We hope others will notice how unselfish we are, yet we know that selfishness still resides in us. We want people to see us as strong and courageous, but we know that often we are weak and afraid.
We live with secrets, all of us. We’re sometimes shocked when we learn something about a person that we never would have guessed, something that had been hidden from us. But the truth is that we will never fully know even the closest of our friends and companions. We are mysteries to each other, like icebergs of which we can see only the tip. And we are mysteries to ourselves. We will never fully understand why we think and act in the ways we do. Only God knows the secrets of our hearts.
Jesus often exposed the secrets of others. He perceived the hypocrisy of the Pharisees. He discerned the true motives of the crowds that followed him. He saw into the hearts of his disciples. He knows our secrets. He knows that what we do on the outside does not always match up with what is going on within us. We may appear to be seeking God and trying to do what is right, and yet inwardly we are preoccupied with the impression we are making on other people. We may give the appearance of serving God, but it may not actually be God’s approval that we are seeking, or God’s purposes that we are trying to advance.
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.
Although very rarely rising to the surface, profound anguish and anger hid within me for a very long time. I was once angry at the ones who tormented me as a child, causing such painful wounds. I was angry at God for allowing it to happen and not intervening. And I was angry at myself. Could I have made different choices? Maybe if I tried harder to be part of the “in” crowd. Maybe if Little Nick had acted more aggressive, or had worked out and took karate. It would be fair to say I was angry at choices made all around, choices the bullies made, choices God made, and choices I made. It didn’t even occur to me until much later that perhaps no one in this story had any choice at all.
Choice, and the freedom to choose, is fundamental to how we see ourselves in the world. We feel powerful when we have choices, and powerless when we have none. There’s an inherent human desire to be powerful, to feel we’re agents of change making choices that impact our lives and the lives of others.
However, whatever we might think of the plethora of choices we make, for good or for ill, we tend to forget an underlying assumption, namely that we really do have the ability to consciously make a decision. We’re assuming we have free will or personal agency, the ability to make decisions on the behalf of what we perceive to be our selves. On closer examination, though, it isn’t at all clear that we do.
Numerous studies in the field of neuroscience, for example, have examined our decision-making process, with some surprising results. In a typical study, researchers measure activity in different areas of the brain while having subjects make various sorts of choices. They found that certain kinds of activity in the brain predicted the subject’s eventual decision, well before the subject was conscious of making a decision.
Perhaps, then, free will, in terms of a person consciously making a decision, is an illusion. Maybe what we call free will is simply the story we tell ourselves after the decision has been made. Some part of my brain begins the process of pushing a button, and then several seconds later my conscious self pushes it. In that scenario my conscious choice is only a story about my own sense of volition in the world, with the real choice happening below consciousness.
2 Samuel 11:1-17 & Mark 4:26-34
I am haunted by a vivid memory: a lush, green vine consuming a tractor, an abandoned car, a telephone pole, and even a small house. The vine is kudzu, a species innocently introduced to the southern U.S. in the late 1800’s from Japan. Now known as “the vine that ate the south,” kudzu is an aggressively invasive species, often growing a foot in a single day. My vivid memory stems from seeing this vine for the first time at age nine, when my family relocated to Alabama from New Jersey. On one stretch of highway, I gawked at the shape of a tractor, an abandoned car, a telephone pole, and then a small house clearly visible beneath the lush foliage. I silently wondered if our new house would eventually suffer the same fate.
Sin is not unlike kudzu on an untended stretch of highway. In the second book of Samuel, we encounter a passage that is notoriously timeless in its relevance. A simple stroll and a lingering glance in the direction of the unknowing, innocent Bathsheba prove fatal. So much harm grown from a single, tragically misguided decision, to act on his tempting thoughts in flagrant abuse of his power as king. David’s sin rapidly multiplies in a sequence of events leading to worse and worse consequences. An innocent woman’s life is changed forever, and a good man is put to death by the king whose interests he was fighting to defend.
When we’re watching a good movie, and find ourselves swept along by the story, it’s easy to see the movie as having a reality of its own. We forget that what we’re actually seeing is only light dancing on a screen, and we relate intimately with the people and situations of the story as if they were real. We can even become so absorbed in the story that on some level we think we’re in the movie, like when something scary happens and we jump as if we’re in any real danger.
We can describe this shift in perception between what seems real and is real as a loss of a certain kind of freedom living within us. We move from being freely aware of light projected onto a screen to being caught in a misperception, no longer noticing the light or the screen, but only seeing the story as it unfolds. This loss of interior freedom is usually experienced as a fun kind of escapism, and it’s often just what we’re looking for when we need to unwind a little. We might even get annoyed if something gets in the way of that experience, like when filmmakers try showing movies at high frame rates, and people complain that the movie looks “too real.”
The ancient desert monastics had a lot to say on the subject of interior freedom, and the consequences of losing that freedom. They called this interior freedom apatheia, and it meant for them no less than abiding in the Kingdom of God, being free to love God with all one’s heart, and being free from the kind of suffering born from being a slave to sin. They described how this interior freedom allows us to see God’s Light and Truth in the world, as when Maximus the Confessor wrote: “Wisdom consists in seeing every object in accordance with its true nature, with perfect interior freedom.” Evagrius Ponticus turns our gaze inward to discover our true nature, writing: “If you wish to see the transparency of your own spirit you must rid yourself of all thoughts, and then you will see yourself looking like sapphire or the color of heaven. But to do that without interior freedom is not possible.”
John the Baptist saw Jesus this way, recognizing him as the one who would free us from the slavery of sin. And since Passover celebrated the delivery of the Jewish people out of slavery he thought of Jesus as the Passover Lamb, exclaiming here is “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!”
When we consider sin, what typically comes to mind are the actions we take, or even the thoughts we have, that are judged as immoral or unethical, or that violate some aspect of religious law. Sin can also refer to a state of being. When John says Jesus takes away the sin of the world, he intentionally uses the singular form of the word “sin,” referring to the condition of being a slave to sin, blinded by our own willfulness instead of willingly letting our eyes be opened to God’s Kingdom. In other words, this condition of sin is what the ancient monks would have described as the lack of interior freedom, and Jesus was offering a way back to this freedom.
John’s two disciples don’t seem to have recognized Jesus the way John did, but they did trust John, and so they followed Jesus. Gazing upon them from that place of interior freedom, Jesus felt moved to ask the two what they were seeking. They answered by asking where Jesus was staying, although a better translation of the original text would give the sense of abiding, as in “Teacher, where are you abiding?” Of course, Jesus was abiding in God’s Kingdom, and in what’s probably a reference to Jesus giving sight to the blind, he responds “come and see.”
Then we’re given what might seem like an odd detail. The disciples abided with Jesus at around four o’clock in the afternoon. In the Greek text, that line reads as “The hour was about the tenth,” with the dramatic emphasis landing on that final word. Many bible translators must have assumed we’d want to know what time of day that meant by our clocks, but keeping with the original text opens a richer layer of meaning.
The theologian Rudolf Bultmann, for example, suggested the tenth hour was symbolic of a coming to wholeness or fulfillment. St. Augustine saw the number ten in a similar way, while also recognizing it as a symbol of ancient Jewish Law. He understood the tenth-hour reference to mean that by abiding with Jesus, the Law had been fulfilled.
The Law had covered the moral and religious transgressions referred to as sins in the plural, while Jesus’ fulfillment of the Law amounted to addressing the underlying condition of sin. As the Passover Lamb of God he offered his disciples the way out of bondage, freeing them from that condition of sin. Interior slavery becomes interior freedom, and this fulfills the Law, because while abiding with Jesus in God’s Kingdom that long list of sins just doesn’t seem like much of a problem.
In chapter 8 of John’s gospel Jesus tells some of his Jewish followers that the truth would make them free. They respond indignantly saying they’ve never been slaves to anyone. And this was one of Jesus’ toughest jobs, convincing people who think they’re free that in truth they’re still enslaved.
Jesus responds to them saying “Very truly, I tell you, everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin. The slave does not have a permanent place in the household; the son has a place there forever. So if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed.”
By “free indeed” Jesus means abiding with him in God’s Kingdom, that place of interior freedom from which we see God’s Truth clearly. We’re “free indeed” when we’re no longer enslaved to the sin mentioned in John the Baptist’s original proclamation. Jesus takes away sin, and it is the sin of the world. The world, or more specifically being attached or overly identified with the world, is the sin we’re freed from when we abide with God in Christ.
It may help in describing this interior freedom and the sin of the world to revisit the movie metaphor. Imagine you’re watching a movie and you become so completely caught up in it that you forget, on some level, that it’s only a movie. Your awareness shifts from watching light move across a screen to seeing only the story as it unfolds, a story that seems very real. The movie represents the world, and the enlightened screen represents the Truth of God’s Kingdom.
If we’re in the world, but not of the world, then we participate in the world, experiencing all its ups and downs, while also having the interior freedom to see the world as an expression of God, seeing God’s Truth in all things, including ourselves.
On the other hand, if we’re in the world and of the world, then we’ve become enslaved to the world, forgetting that the world in all its many forms is an expression of God’s Goodness. If we’re of the world, we might even believe that our identity in the world is who we really are, forgetting our Truest selves as children of Light.
The good news is that Jesus offers us a path back to interior freedom. This path, though, is counterintuitive in its simplicity, especially in our culture of extreme busyness, productivity, and the need to always be doing something. The way of Jesus, it turns out, is mostly about doing nothing. That’s one reason Meister Eckhart called the way of Jesus the Wayless Way, because it’s not about getting somewhere or doing something, but about coming to rest where we already are.
It might not seem obvious, but if you’re completely absorbed in a movie, forgetting it’s just light on a screen, your mind is expending energy and effort to sustain that illusion. Or look at it this way, if you’re watching a movie, caught up in the story, how much effort does it take to notice the movie as just light on a screen? It takes no effort at all, just a shift in awareness which happens quite naturally when we’re at rest.
Abiding in Christ, in God’s Kingdom, is the fulfillment of God’s greatest wish for us. God wants us to reclaim our interior freedom and be free from the sin of the world. God wants us to escape the slavery of sin and abide in the eternal Peace and Joy of Christ beyond understanding.
We fulfill God’s wish for us, receiving this amazing grace when we follow where Jesus leads, abiding with him and finding deep rest for our souls. When we let ourselves rest in God’s presence, we let go of all the ways the world has us in its grip, so we’re free to be in the world, but not of the world. From this place of rest, we allow God to heal us and make us whole, dying with Christ, and rising as new creations in Christ.
Abiding in Christ is the fulfilment of God’s desire for us, and the fulfillment Jesus brings us as his disciples. Our hope is that we follow Jesus’ Wayless Way back to our true home, God’s Eternal Kingdom, where we bear witness to God’s Truth, Beauty, and Goodness in all things.
(for contextual notes about this passage in the arc of Mark’s Gospel, see the end of this sermon)
Picture this: Jesus and his disciples are traveling on a hot and dusty road from Galilee – the territory in the north where he was raised and where he has been teaching and healing – to Jerusalem, the holy city in the south that is the center of Jewish faith and practice. He has deliberately set out to go there, “setting his face towards Jerusalem,” knowing full well its dangers, and the opposition he is certain to face there.
Along the way, he has revealed to his disciples that he must suffer and be put to death by his enemies, but that God will raise him to life again. These words confuse and frighten them and they repeatedly demonstrate their failure to understand not only the meaning of this prediction, but also who he is and what he has been teaching them. They seem not to have grasped at all the concept of the “kingdom” of which he has been speaking – an “upside-down kingdom” in which the first are last and the last are first, in which to lose one’s life is to gain it, and in which the greatest is the servant of all.
Just now they have been arguing amongst themselves over who will be the greatest in the kingdom which they are sure he will establish once he arrives in Jerusalem and defeats his foes. Jesus corrects them and tells them plainly that in God’s kingdom “whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” Then, we are told, “he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, ‘Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me’” (Mk 9:35-37). For Jesus, children are a sacrament of God’s presence and of his presence and are therefore to be protected and loved.
“Do you want us to go and gather them?” He replied, “No; for in gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them. Let both of them grow together until the harvest.” O Lord of hosts, * happy are they who trust in you.
This may only be true for me, but my guess is that somewhere along the way we’ve all known a very particular kind of longing: a longing to be, in the words of Fr. Basil Maturin, “as though [we] had never sinned,”—a “longing of the heart… at any cost to pluck up the tares which have been left to grow so long.” This morning Jesus invites us into another agricultural parable of the Kingdom; and unlike the parable of the sower, which we hear in the same chapter of Matthew’s gospel, this one draws us into the uneasy fields of yielding—yielding to God’s wisdom alone. As we tread upon the soil of this parable, let us keep the words of Our Lady near at hand: be it unto me according to your word.
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]