Forgive the Church, Forgive me

I must confess.  I have been angry at the church this last year.  Angry that a church that proclaims that Jesus Christ is present each Sunday in the Eucharist, that guilts us into going each Sunday (and putting money in the offertory) to be with Him, closes its doors at the first sign of a pandemic.   Angry that a church replaces the real presence of Jesus with a streaming video of the priest continuing to enjoy His presence.  Angry that when the world needs God the most, the church locked its doors.  Angry that when we returned, holy water was replaced with antibacterial hand sanitizer. 

I blamed the church for my own sin, my own fear, my own distrust.

No more!  The Church is made up of humans, just like me.  And we fail.  All the time.  Jesus reached out to the sick, he touched the lepers. He doesn’t shy away from illness or close His doors or require us to wear a mask.  He welcomes us with open arms when we are sick and when we are well.  He kisses us, embraces us, and pulls us closer.  Jesus isn’t afraid of death because he has overcome it.  As much as our church proclaims this, our church is still full of humans who doubt, who fear, who are more afraid of a virus and death, than separation from our Lord.  No more! 

The Book of Revelation has always confused (and scared) me – but today it sheds some light:

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth. The former heaven and the former earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. I also saw the holy city, a new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, God’s dwelling is with the human race. He will dwell with them and they will be his people and God himself will always be with them [as their God]. He will wipe every tear from their eyes, and there shall be no more death or mourning, wailing or pain, [for] the old order has passed away.”

The one who sat on the throne said, “Behold, I make all things new.” Then he said, “Write these words down, for they are trustworthy and true.”  He said to me, “They are accomplished. I [am] the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. To the thirsty I will give a gift from the spring of life-giving water. The victor will inherit these gifts, and I shall be his God, and he will be my son. But as for cowards, the unfaithful, the depraved, murderers, the unchaste, sorcerers, idol-worshipers, and deceivers of every sort, their lot is in the burning pool of fire and sulfur, which is the second death.”

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I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God almighty and the Lamb. The city had no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gave it light, and its lamp was the Lamb. The nations will walk by its light, and to it the kings of the earth will bring their treasure. During the day its gates will never be shut, and there will be no night there. The treasure and wealth of the nations will be brought there, but nothing unclean will enter it, nor any[one] who does abominable things or tells lies. Only those will enter whose names are written in the Lamb’s book of life.

Revelation 21:1-8, 22-27

There is no church building in heaven.  There is no need for one.  We fool ourselves into thinking that God is only in the building or that we can only pray and talk to Him there.  Or that we need priests or ministers.  We need God.  The church and its priests and ministers are helpful, because there is strength in numbers.  We need reminders of God’s presence.  We need help fighting off the distractions of every day life.  But our goal is not to be great in church. Our goal is not to have a great relationship with the church. Our goal is to have a great relationship with God.  Because the church closed its doors, I developed a closer relationship with God.  I discovered that although the church may be helpful, ultimately it is my personal relationship with God that is important, and He isn’t satisfied with a box being checked an hour a week, He doesn’t reward perfect attendance or hand out participation trophies.  He wants me all in.  He wants me to want to be with Him.  (Who would want to spend eternity with someone who didn’t want to be there.)

Lord, I want to be present with you for all eternity.  I want to be present with you every day here on earth as well.  Help me to focus on you whether I am in a church building, in my home or out in the world.  I want to embrace your presence wherever I go. I want the spring of your life-giving water to course through my veins. Lord, forgive the church and its leaders for being human, for having doubt, for being afraid, for cowering to the pressures of the world instead of standing steadfast in You and help me to forgive them too.  Father, forgive me for my own doubts and fear and the many times that I too cower to the pressures of the human world.  Forgive me for blaming the church when I am responsible for my relationship with you. Help me to remain steadfast in your love, your word and your glory.  Guide the church and me to do your will, not the will of those around us.  I know that your plan is far greater.  I know that I don’t need to be afraid.  I trust in you.

Father, Forgive Me

Holy Saturday. My contemplative day. The day of limbo. The day of reflection, of sadness. The world has just finished murdering Jesus. He has not yet risen. The day that he is absent from the world because of the world. The day I wonder whether He is absent from me because of me.

It is easy to read the story of the crucifixion and blame those involved. How could Judas who walked with Jesus betray him? How could Pontius Pilate, who knew it was wrong, allow it to happen? How could Peter, who Jesus chose to build His church upon, who had followed Jesus for three years, deny Him? How could the people choose a murderer over Jesus? How could the soldiers and people along the way mock Him and chant things like: “he saved others; he cannot save himself.” “Let him come down from the cross now and we will believe in him.” “He trusted in God; let him deliver him now if he wants him.”

I used to look down on all of these folks. I would surely do better. I would not be so stupid. And yet the story of the crucifixion is the story of all of our sins.

Judas knew Jesus for three years, I have known Him my whole life. And yet, I too choose silver, screens, and other earthly “treasures” over Jesus at times (more times than I would like to admit). I too provide lip service at times, providing a kiss in public, but betraying Jesus behind closed doors.

Father, forgive me. I wish I could say I know not what I do, but sometimes I do and I do it anyway. Father, forgive me. I do not want a world without you. I do not want my life without you.

Pilate knew that crucifying Jesus was wrong, but he didn’t want to get involved. He didn’t want to go against the crowd. If I had the power to save Jesus from the pain and torture, would I have? I would like to think so, and yet my sin contributes to His pain. I, too, have followed the crowd. I have decided not to get involved when I knew wrong was occurring, because it was easier for me.

Father, forgive me. I wish I could say I know not what I do, but sometimes I do and I do it anyway. Father, forgive me. I do not want a world without you. I do not want my life without you.

What I wouldn’t give to be Peter. To be able to sit with Jesus, talk with Jesus, learn from Jesus, embrace Jesus. He had it all! And yet he denied Him three times. I always blame Peter the most. Maybe that is why I sometimes struggle with the Church, with the priests and bishops, who have it all and still seem to turn so far away. Surely, I will not deny Jesus. Though others may have their faith shaken, mine will never be… And yet… it is. Peter had three years. I have had my entire life. Peter may have been with Jesus in the flesh. But I have weekly and daily communion available to me. Peter did not know or understand the resurrection. I know about the resurrection. I know the Truth. I can read the written gospels and have the benefit of two thousand years of church teaching. Why do I still deny? Why do I still hide my faith? Peter was afraid. Despite all that I know, I too am sometimes afraid, even though Jesus tells me not to be. Even though I know everything on earth is temporary, even though I know that if I have faith, I have nothing to fear.

Father, forgive me. I wish I could say I know not what I do, but sometimes I do and I do it anyway. Father, forgive me. I do not want a world without you. I do not want my life without you.

I am no different from the villains in Jesus’ story. I have betrayed Him, ignored Him, denied Him and turned my back on Him. I have mocked or doubted and I have been afraid. I may not physically nail Him to a cross, but my sins are just as painful. My rejection of His love is just as hurtful as those mocking him on the road. Father, forgive me!

I know it is easy to be remorseful as we are painfully reminded of the Lord’s crucifixion on Good Friday and as we sit today and are assured of the resurrection tomorrow.

Lord, help my heart and mind and spirit be resurrected this Easter. I want to always turn to you. Help me turn away from silver and the fake “treasures” that this world tries to offer. Help me to be strong in my faith. Help me not be turned by the will of the crowd. Help me to lead, not to follow. Help me to share your love and your word. As I look around, I see a world that is run by fear. I know that when I am focused on you, I have no fear. When my faith is strong, I have no fear. Lord, I know that in your hands, I am safe. I know that safe does not mean free from suffering, but that there is a resurrection promised. Lord, give me the strength and faith that I need. I do not want to turn away any more. I don’t want to contribute any further nails, I don’t want to be distracted by silver, I don’t want to live by fear and have my faith shaken. I know that I cannot promise, like Peter tried, that my faith won’t be shaken. I know that I am not strong enough to overcome fear on my own. And I know that I am a sinner and will continue to cause you pain. But I know that Your love is stronger than all things, including nails, silver and fear. Help me Father to always turn to you, to always return to you. Help me to remember you passion for me every day not just during the Easter season. Help me to follow you and not the crowd. Help me to love, as you do. Forgive me when I fail.

Love without Obligation

I hate being told what to do.  And I hate when others do what they think they are obligated to do without meaning what they do.

In Philemon, Paul asks for the release of a slave, Onesimus.  But he does not order it.  He urges it out of love.

Therefore, although I have the full right in Christ to order you to do what is proper, I rather urge you out of love, being as I am, Paul, an old man, and now also a prisoner for Christ Jesus.  I urge you on behalf of my child Onesimus, whose father I have become in my imprisonment, who was once useless to you but is now useful to [both] you and me.  I am sending him, that is, my own heart, back to you.  I should have liked to retain him for myself, so that he might serve me on your behalf in my imprisonment for the gospel, but I did not want to do anything without your consent, so that the good you do might not be forced but voluntary.  Perhaps this is why he was away from you for a while, that you might have him back forever, no longer as a slave but more than a slave, a brother, beloved especially to me, but even more so to you, as a man and in the Lord.  So if you regard me as a partner, welcome him as you would me. And if he has done you any injustice or owes you anything, charge it to me.

Philemon 1:8-18

This passage is powerful.  In it, Paul urges the slave’s master to forgive the slave who has run away (and perhaps committed another crime against the master).  To welcome him back with love.  To release him.  And in releasing him, releasing the master himself.

Paul refuses to order the master to accept him back and refuses to keep the slave away because doing either would prevent the master from having the opportunity to respond with love.  Paul recognizes that you cannot force love.  You cannot order love.  Love must be chosen willingly.  Forgiveness must be chosen willingly.  The good you do must not be forced but voluntary.   Paul is offering the master the opportunity to free the slave from any past debt or wrongdoing, and at the same time freeing the master to love and be loved.  Paul suggests that the “bad” that the slave did (running away) will bring about good: “Perhaps this is why he was away from you for a while, that you might have him back forever, no longer as a slave but more than a slave, a brother, beloved especially to me, but even more so to you, as a man and in the Lord.”

We all have slaves in our lives.  People who we have imprisoned or condemned in our own minds.  People who have made us slaves to our own anger and ill will.  Paul urges us to release these slaves.  To welcome them with love.  Not because of some obligation but out of a voluntary choice to love.  Out of a choice to follow God’s greatest commandment.  We all meet people everyday who seem useless to us.  But Paul reminds us that each of them is an opportunity.  An opportunity to choose love.  An opportunity to share God’s love, so that they (and we) can be useful.  After all, Onesimus is just one of us.

Lord,

You call us to love, not just to do good out of obligation.  Help me to release those who I have imprisoned in my thoughts and words.  Open my heart to the true love that you call us to share.  Open my heart to forgiveness.  Help me to share your love every day with every one that I encounter.

Let me cling no more!

Oh.  Today the Bible opened and hit me right where I feel most vulnerable.  Jesus’ words expose my weakness.

So the Pharisees and scribes questioned him, “Why do your disciples not follow the tradition of the elders but instead eat a meal with unclean hands?”  He responded, “Well did Isaiah prophesy about you hypocrites, as it is written: ‘This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me;  In vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines human precepts.’  You disregard God’s commandment but cling to human tradition.”

Mark 7: 5-8

“You disregard God’s commandment but cling to human tradition.”  It is amazing that 2000 years later Jesus’ words are still spot on.  Very few things survive the test of time or maintain their relevancy.  But God’s words do.  I should be in awe by this — but in my head my response is “Of course God’s words are still good.”  And my second thought is, why haven’t we learned this by now.

Jesus has hit right on the head where many of my failings start and where I sometimes get lost — following human tradition, following human ways.  It is easier to see and follow human rule.  God’s rules are not so easy and there isn’t always the immediate response to know when we are on the right path.  As humans though we receive money and praise and facebook likes when we have done “good” under human standards.

Wouldn’t it be great if God could send us a thumbs up picture when we do good.  And a quick thumbs down when we do wrong — or even better a big thumbs down right before we do wrong.

But as I think about it…  He kind of does.  It just may not be that blatant.  But I feel the guilt.  It is just easier to ignore.  Particularly when there is human reward.  Oh I am stupid.  I know that God’s reward is far greater.  But I do it time and again.

My hope in today’s verse, is that I am not alone.  For 2000 years this has been an issue.  I need God’s grace and forgiveness, just like everyone who has come before me.

Father,

I am a sinner.  I have disregarded you and your commandments more times than I can count.  Help me to fix my eyes on you.  Help me fix my eyes on the reward in heaven.  Help me to live as you want — not as the human world rewards.  Help me to cling no more to human traditions and human ways.  Help me put my heart into my prayers and into following you so they are not just words on my lips.  I need your grace.  I need your forgiveness.  Forgive me, Father.

 

Forgiveness first

Tonight the Bible opened to Matthew:

He entered a boat, made the crossing, and came into his own town. And there people brought to him a paralytic lying on a stretcher. When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, “Courage, child, your sins are forgiven.”  At that, some of the scribes said to themselves, “This man is blaspheming.”  Jesus knew what they were thinking, and said, “Why do you harbor evil thoughts? Which is easier, to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Rise and walk’? But that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins”—he then said to the paralytic, “Rise, pick up your stretcher, and go home.”  He rose and went home. When the crowds saw this they were struck with awe and glorified God who had given such authority to human beings.

Matthew 9:1-8

Jesus offered forgiveness first.  When I first read this passage I wondered why Jesus didn’t heal first.  I had to read it a couple of times before I realized He did heal first.  He healed the paralytic’s soul first.  As always God knows best.

Lord,

You know all things and know what I need. Heal me, Lord. Forgive me.  Help me to forgive others.