Gospel: Matthew 6:14-21
Today, we are in a familiar place. Once again, we are about to begin the great forty days of Lent. We describe these forty days in many ways. Lent. The holy fast. The journey to Pascha. Bright sadness. In the last weeks, we have heard about desire (Zaccheus), humility (Publican and Pharisee), repentance (Prodigal Son), and judgment (taking care of the least of our Lord’s brethren).
Today, we hear a fundamental teaching that comes from none but God himself, spoken by the only-begotten Son of God, Light of light and true God of true God, from the mountain. Instead of inscribing this law on a stone tablet and giving it to Moses to show the people, he tells us the law in his own words, himself. We must forgive others their trespasses. It is a sine qua non for receiving God’s forgiveness. There is no loophole, no special session to change the divine law. We must forgive.
The Lord presents us with a difficult image today. The difficulty is not in forsaking cheese on this Sunday (unless, of course, you’re a Packers’ fan), but in seeing and hearing our human ancestor, Adam. Today is also the Sunday of the expulsion of Adam and Eve from Paradise. Adam sits outside of Paradise – he laments, and he weeps. Adam cries, “woe is me!” The hymns appointed to this day have Adam crying out, woe is me, over and over again. The hymns say that Adam’s recognition of his own sin is the source of his woe. He refused to obey God, and now he is in exile.
Look at Adam as a child. Paradise – the garden of Eden – was given to Adam and Eve to enjoy. They played there. They lived with God, in a kind of shared living that allows one to hear the other people walking in the house, as they could hear God walking in the garden. Adam is no longer permitted to play in God’s garden. His loneliness, his alienation from God is the source of his woe. He cannot get back in because an angel (cherubim) with a flaming sword guards the entrance to paradise.
This picture of exile from paradise and a closed door – that is really a contrast to our experience of Pascha, is it not? On Pascha, we open the doors of the iconostasis, and we leave them open during Bright Week. We experience joy, and not woe. God has reminded us that all will be well, no matter what.
Many of us yearn for Pascha even more now, because we have had a taste of Adam’s exile, his alienation, his bitterness, and his woe during this pandemic. Nothing is more beautiful than the metaphor of the open door, the brightness of the light, and the childlike joy of being together on Pascha. Our journey to Pascha begins today. To get there, we must begin to practice forgiveness.
Now, let’s make something really clear about the business of forgiveness. This is not a switch we can just turn on and off. The Church has been trying to equip us to begin the course of learning how to forgive for a while now. We learned about Zaccheus’s desire. He wanted to see Christ. What about us? Do we want to be with God for eternity? Do we want to share life with all of God’s children for eternity – including those who, for whatever reason, we would rather avoid altogether?
What happens if you fuse desire with humility? Last week, I got upset with someone I thought was being selfish. I wanted to cut that person off. I thought they were being unreasonable and indifferent to me. What part did I play in this? Is it possible that I was being selfish? And even if I wasn’t being selfish, did I need to hang on to that emotion? What good would come from me cutting that person off? What if I focused on my own transgressions and no longer dwelled on that person’s sin?
We are now making a soup of desire, humility, and repentance. The Church will tell us repeatedly that we need to be like the prodigal, recognize our sins, and seek God’s forgiveness. If someone comes to us and asks for our forgiveness, should we withhold it? What would happen if we set them free from the burden of guilt caused by their sin against me?
What about people we really despise, whom we see approaching the Church and asking for forgiveness? Should we become envious and angry that God forgives and then restores them? Shouldn’t they have Adam’s fate and continue to cry “woe is me,” instead of receiving God’s amnesty? Shouldn’t God throw a party for the righteous? Or should we rejoice when the one who messed up recognizes it and seeks restoration?
The Church gives us these lessons to prepare us to have the self-honesty to ask for forgiveness, the humility to grant it, the courage and guts to receive it, and the desire to live in a community with others who have also received forgiveness. We cannot gloss over the reality that some instances of forgiveness are much more complex, and even dangerous, than others. Let us not confuse forgiveness with enabling. Let us not extend the vulnerability that empowers forgiveness to allow perpetrators to exploit the one doing the forgiving.
We live in communities of many, many hurt people – physically, emotionally, sexually abused, through no fault of their own. Again, forgiveness is not the flip of a switch – it does not give a green light to the one who is forgiven to hurt others. As Christian communities, we have a sacred duty to make our churches safe spaces for those who have been hurt, to demonstrate to them that it is possible to forgive without returning to the same hell that one came from. Our Lord has charged us with making the widow and the orphan our priority – we just heard the lesson about the Sunday of the last judgment that sternly reminds us of our need to love – this is a verb – the least of our Lord’s brethren.
God delegates the responsibility of protecting the wounded and healing to us. It is absolutely essential to forgive those who ask for it – it is a twofold liberation from a burden, for both them and also for us. When we forgive those who have hurt us, though, we are not required to return to the exact same terms of the relationship. Sometimes, the terms have to change for the health of both parties, and we must be confident that God will bless the new terms that contributes to the healing of all involved.
We also ask for forgiveness of our involuntary sins – when our words hurt without malicious intent, when our action – or lack of action – is complicit in hurting others. May God give us the humility to confess these sins – even if we didn’t mean it – and the grace to grant forgiveness to those who ask for it.
Brothers and sisters, sometimes human relations are the cause of our woes, at all levels. These woes create barriers of alienation and separation, and the woeful condition is filled with bitterness that eats away at our hearts, souls, and bodies. More than anything else, we want to be healed of these woes. Today, our Lord shows us the inner meaning of Lent – through forgiveness. Our courage and guts in asking forgiveness, and our humility in receiving it begins the healing of woes and the transformation of our lives from alienation – in exile, outside of Paradise – to communion, life lived together in peace and joy with no bitterness, no tears, and without the sting of having inflicted or been afflicted by hurt.
Let us begin this Lent in the peace given us by the divine grace of the Lover of humankind – our Father who is without beginning, together with his only-begotten Son and all-Holy and lifegiving Spirit, now and forever, and to the ages of ages. Amen.