Friday, March 29, 2013

“Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.”

Homily preached on Good Friday, 2013, at Grace Episcopal Church, Cincinnati, by Ken Lyon.

My reading today is taken from the Gospel of Luke—Luke’s account of Jesus’ ministry.

Luke 23: 33-34a: When they came to the place that is called The Skull, they crucified Jesus there with the criminals, one on his right and one on his left. Then Jesus said, ‘Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing. ‘


What a day! Jesus hangs before us on a cross! It’s the day we call Good Friday.

What a week it’s been! It started with a triumphal entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday.

What a life it’s been!

Born 30-odd years ago, Jesus grew up in Nazareth, a town up north in Galilee, where he apparently took up his father’s trade as a carpenter.

Just about three years ago, Jesus came south to the Jordan River not far from Jerusalem to hear John the Baptist preach. John was saying that people should turn their lives around because the Kingdom of God was imminent. John washed people in the Jordan River as a sign that they were cleansed of past misdeeds and were preparing to live in God’s Kingdom. John also preached that there was a person coming after him who would bring in that Kingdom.

As Jesus listened to John, there came a moment when he realized that he was that person John was talking about. In a flash of insight, he heard God himself saying, “You are my son, my beloved, with you I am well pleased.” In that moment, Jesus’ life was changed.

It took a little while—40 days alone in the desert according to the Gospels—for Jesus to discern what his new life would be about. Then, inspired as never before, he returned to his home territory up in Galilee. There he preached the good news that the Kingdom of God was near.

Jesus said many things about what the Kingdom would be like, but, in Luke’s account, perhaps this passage captures it best:

Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. … Do to others as you would have them do to you.

If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. If you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. … But love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return. Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful. Do not judge, and you will not be judged; do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven; give, and it will be given to you. … the measure you give will be the measure you get back.’

And Luke records that he taught his followers to pray thusly:

Father, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come. Give us each day our daily bread. And forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us. And do not bring us to the time of trial.

As a result of his preaching up there in Galilee, Jesus developed a large following.

One day, people came to him saying that they’d heard that Herod—the man who ruled over Galilee, the man who had cut off John the Baptist’s head—that Herod wanted to kill him. Jesus responded that it wasn’t right for a prophet to be killed anywhere but in Jerusalem.. And Jesus began heading for Jerusalem.

As he headed for Jerusalem, he began telling his disciples about how he expected things would end—with his death—but they didn’t get it.

Now, Jesus planned his entry into Jerusalem to remind people of the entry into the city of the kings who had ruled in Jerusalem before foreign powers had taken over. He arranged to ride in on a donkey, echoing the prophet Zechariah: “Lo your king comes to you triumphant and victorious …riding on a donkey.” His followers lay down their cloaks as had been done for the ancient king Jehu. And they shouted, “ Blessed is the king….”

And the powers that be in Jerusalem got the message.

The Romans saw this man being proclaimed as king to be a direct threat to Pax Romana—the peace that the Romans had brought within their empire.

The Jewish authorities--who were charged by the Romans with managing their people and keeping the peace--were caught in the middle, between the followers of this Jesus person and the Romans. They reckoned that it would be better to sacrifice this one person than to risk Roman wrath coming down on the whole population (and in this, they were prescient—because that’s exactly what happened during the Jewish revolts 30 and 80 years later, and finally—once and for all—100 years later).

If the way he entered Jerusalem sealed Jesus’ fate, he didn’t make things any better when he publically predicted the destruction of Jerusalem, and when he went into the Temple grounds and drove out the merchants who were selling things there.

And so it’s no surprise that today—Friday--we find Jesus has been condemned to be executed and is now hanging on a cross--the instrument that the Romans had used so many times before to quell insurgency.

And it’s at this moment of excruciating humiliation and pain that Jesus climaxes his ministry by saying, “Father, forgive them; for they don’t know what they’re doing.”

I’ve been told that every great story can be said to have a single sentence that all of the rest of the story is written to lead to. And I think that, for Luke, this is the sentence: Father, forgive them; for they don’t know what they’re doing.” I think, for Luke, this is what Jesus’ life and death was all about. For Luke, perhaps this is the reason that Jesus had to die the way he did—so he could say these shocking words from the cross to those who crucified him, and to all the world.

The more I think about these words, the more troubling they become.

We’re all familiar with the idea that if we confess our sins and ask forgiveness, that God will forgive us. But with these words, Jesus asks God to forgive people who haven’t admitted they’ve done anything wrong—and will never do so. Yet here Jesus asks God to forgive everyone involved in his death even for those who never will.

Who is Jesus asking God to forgive?

· Jesus asks forgiveness for Roman soldiers who nailed him to the cross. Jesus says that they don’t know what they’re doing, but if you had asked them, they would have told you that they knew perfectly well what they were doing. The shallower of them would have said they were following orders. But the more thoughtful would have said that they were protecting themselves and the other citizens of the area from the anarchy of revolt and the mass killings that would result. But Jesus asks God to forgive them anyway. And that same forgiveness would apply to all Roman authorities.

· And the Jewish authorities? What about them? Jesus asks God’s forgiveness for them, too. And this is particularly interesting for me, because as I read the Gospel accounts, it’s as though the writers of the Gospels hadn’t quite been able to internalize the radical forgiveness that Jesus asked for on the cross. For throughout the Gospels, the Jewish authorities get nothing but blame for getting the Romans to crucify Jesus. But no matter--they, too, are forgiven.

· And Judas, who led the authorities to Jesus so they could kill him? Even though the Gospel writers never described Judas as other than derogatory terms, Jesus asks God’s forgiveness for Judas.

· Who else might Jesus have had in mind? I think he almost certainly had his disciples in mind, even though he certainly didn’t see them from the cross. Well, he did see a few of the women, and perhaps the man known as “the disciple Jesus loved.” But as for the rest--the twelve men closest to him—they were nowhere to be found. According to one Gospel, they were probably running all the way back to Galilee. What were they thinking, I wonder? Perhaps, “Hey, this is more than I bargained for. I didn’t sign up for this!” But Jesus asks forgiveness for them, too.

· Of those disciples, the story of Peter is especially poignant. Peter was the one who said, only a few weeks earlier, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” And who, only the night before, had promised, “Even if all fall away on account of you, I never will.” But, as we know, when push came to shove, Peter denied even knowing Jesus. What was he thinking? Did he know what he was doing? Whatever. Jesus asks God to forgive him.

Well, that was then, and this is now. How does this event in Jesus life and death story apply to us?

It points to the radical nature of God’s forgiveness of us and of those in the world around us. The radical truth is: God forgives it all.

He forgives the things we—and those other people--are sorry about. But he also forgives the things we—and those others--are not sorry about. And further, he forgives the things that we—and they--are clueless about.

And we are expected to follow Jesus example--to practice radical forgiveness.

In my life, I’ve done things I’m sorry about. I’ve asked God to forgive me, and, in some cases, I’ve asked the person I’ve wronged to forgive me. In other cases, I haven’t yet gotten up the courage to admit I was wrong. And in some cases, it’s too late. Yet, God forgives it all.

In my life, others have done some things that hurt me deeply. There were times—most times, perhaps—that they didn’t realize what they’d done, or at least know the extent to which I was feeling hurt. Rarely did they ask my forgiveness. Yet, God forgives it all. I need to, too.

In the life of our country, we’ve done some terrible things. Slavery and our treatment of Native Americans would be easy examples. As a country, we’ve said we’re sorry. Sometimes, we’ve tried to remedy the situation. And sometimes, the remedies have caused more harm than help. No matter, God forgives it all.

In the life of our country, some terribly wrong things have been done to us. I think first about 9/11—the killing of 3000 people by 19 suicidal hijackers. If Jesus had been a passenger on one of those airplanes, what would he have said? “Father forgive them, for they don’t know what they’re doing?” I think so. I still have much to learn about forgiveness. God forgives it all.

How can we get our minds around this kind of radical forgiveness?

Here are some forgiveness do’s and don’ts from an article by one Dr. Ray Pritchard.

a. You do not forgive because they understand what they did.

b. You do not forgive because they have suffered as much as you suffered.

c. You do not forgive because they “deserve” forgiveness.

d. You do not forgive to gain some personal advantage over them.

e. You forgive in spite of what they’ve done.

f. You forgive because of God’s grace.

g. You forgive because that’s what Jesus did on the cross.

h. You forgive because that’s what Jesus does for you.

It turns out that forgiving is good for us.

There is a part of us that believes in fairness. Our ability to accept the forgiveness that’s offered to us—our ability to forgive ourselves--is proportional to our ability to forgive others. There is real truth in this line from our Lord’s Prayer: “Forgive us as we forgive others.” The prayer of St. Francis puts the idea thusly: “It is in pardoning that we are pardoned.”

So forgiving is actually a gift we give ourselves. As someone has said, “Forgiveness is unlocking the door to set someone free … and realizing you were the prisoner!”

And not forgiving hurts us. One saying that captures this idea very well for me is, “Refusing to forgive is like taking rat poison and waiting for the rat to die.”

Jesus on the cross sets us an impossible example of forgiveness: “Forgive them; for they don’t know what they’re doing.” The best we can do is try to internalize this idea in our daily lives. As we do so, we may come to realize that forgiveness is not an occasional act, it is a constant attitude. And our lives may become an adventure in forgiveness.

As I said, Jesus sets an impossible example. So, as we struggle to come up to that example and fail, keep in mind: God forgives it all.

In our Episcopal Book of Common Prayer, we find a prayer that I think captures the idea that God’s forgiveness is offered unconditionally whether or not we knew what we were doing—whether or not they knew what they were doing. If you’re interested in looking it up, it’s on page 393 of the red Book of Common Prayer in your pew.

For ourselves, we pray:

Have mercy upon us, most merciful Father;

in your compassion forgive us our sins,

known and unknown,

things done and left undone;

and so uphold us by your Spirit

that we may live and serve you in newness of life,

to the honor and glory of your Name;

through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

I have modified this prayer so that we might use it to pray for others as well:

Have mercy upon them, most merciful Father;

in your compassion forgive them their sins,

known and unknown,

things done and left undone;

and so uphold them by your Spirit

that they may live and serve you in newness of life,

to the honor and glory of your Name;

through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Job Description: Communications

Responsibility: See to it that Grace Church’s particular story is communicated coherently to members, visitors and the world at large, at zero dollar cost to the church, excepting use of the copy machine.

What this entails:

· Work with the congregation in groups and as individuals to ascertain what the congregation’s story is.

· Develop images and phrases that express the congregation’s story for consistent use in all communications.

· Seek out what’s going on in the congregation, community and diocese that deserves communication to this congregation and its audiences.

· Carry a camera to all congregation functions and take pictures to illustrate important events and themes.

· Publish eGraceNotes weekly. Elicit email addresses from visitors and others to build readership.

· Publish Grace Notes weekly as an addition to the Sunday service bulletin, and for possible mailing to shut-ins who don’t have email.

· Implement and support email groups to facilitate internal group communications.

· Design, implement, edit and support website.

· Create, maintain and feed the congregation’s Facebook page.

· Create and implement internal signage (bulletin boards, free-standing signs, signs over doors. etc).

· Create and implement external signage.

· Create picture post cards and picture cards to mail to visitors, et al..

· Create and update brochures.

· Maintain the five flags over the front entrance, repairing and replacing as needed.

Time required: About two days a week ongoing.

Out-of-pocket cost: About $500/year.

Ken Lyon

Sunday, March 10, 2013

"There was a man …"

Sermon by the Reverend Susan Lehman at Grace Church on the fourth Sunday of Lent, March 10, 2013.

Collect of the Day

Gracious Father, whose blessed Son Jesus Christ came down from heaven to be the true bread which gives life to the world: Evermore give us this bread, that he may live in us, and we in him; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.

Old Testament Lesson: Joshua 5:9-12

The Lord said to Joshua, “Today I have rolled away from you the disgrace of Egypt.” And so that place is called Gilgal to this day. While the Israelites were camped in Gilgal they kept the Passover in the evening on the fourteenth day of the month in the plains of Jericho. On the day after the Passover, on that very day, they ate the produce of the land, unleavened cakes and parched grain. The manna ceased on the day they ate the produce of the land, and the Israelites no longer had manna; they ate the crops of the land of Canaan that year.

Psalm 32

Happy are they whose transgressions are forgiven, and whose sin is put away!

Happy are they to whom the Lord imputes no guilt, and in whose spirit there is no guile!

While I held my tongue, my bones withered away, because of my groaning all day long.

For your hand was heavy upon me day and night; my moisture was dried up as in the heat of summer.

Then I acknowledged my sin to you, and did not conceal my guilt.

I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the LORD.” Then you forgave me the guilt of my sin.

Therefore all the faithful will make their prayers to you in time of trouble; when the great waters overflow, they shall not reach them.

You are my hiding-place; you preserve me from trouble; you surround me with shouts of deliverance.

“I will instruct you and teach you in the way that you should go; I will guide you with my eye.

Do not be like horse or mule, which have no understanding; who must be fitted with bit and bridle, or else they will not stay near you.”

Great are the tribulations of the wicked; but mercy embraces those who trust in the LORD.

Be glad, you righteous, and rejoice in the LORD; shout for joy, all who are true of heart.

New Testament Lesson: 2 Corinthians 5:16-21

From now on, we regard no one from a human point of view; even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view, we know him no longer in that way. So 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, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and 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. For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.

The Gospel: Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32

Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” So he told them this parable:

“There was a man who had two sons. The younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.’ So he divided his property between them. A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and traveled to a distant country, and there he squandered his property in dissolute living. When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed the pigs. He would gladly have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything.

But when he came to himself he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger! I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.’” So he set off and went to his father.

But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him. Then the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’

But the father said to his slaves, ‘Quickly, bring out a robe—the best one—and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!’ And they began to celebrate.

Now his elder son was in the field; and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. He called one of the slaves and asked what was going on. He replied, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.’ Then he became angry and refused to go in. His father came out and began to plead with him. But he answered his father, ‘Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!’

Then the father said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.’”

The Sermon

In the name of God.

This is the fourth Sunday in Lent, a day of refreshment. The church in her wisdom has so ordered our liturgical calendar that mid-way through Lent we pray to God as our gracious father. In tender words of acknowledgment we pray: “Gracious father, whose blessed son, Jesus, came down from heaven to be the true bread which gives life to the world. Give us this bread,” we ask our heavenly father.

Historically, Christians have paused in their Lenten practices of fasting and self denial to observe what we affectionately call Refreshment or Mothering Sunday. Mothering evokes an image of God as one who feeds, tends, loves and forgives

In England it was the practice on Mothering Sunday for the faithful scattered throughout the diocese to journey on this fourth Sunday of Lent to their Cathedral--their Mother church--and there make special money offerings. It served to remind Christians that their parish derived its identity and authority from the Bishop, seated in his cathedral. This was also the Sunday when apprentices and household servants were given a day or two off so they could return to their families, bearing refreshments, gifts of food--a practice we have lost in the American church.

The lessons for today are about what feeds body and soul. The Joshua reading records the presence of God in the memory of those who ate the unleavened cakes of Passover—who were fed manna as they journeyed in the wilderness and now eat the fruit of the land of Canaan. The psalm we pray reminds us that our hunger is always for more than bread for the belly. We hunger for forgiveness and reconciliation. “Happy are they whose transgressions are forgiven: whose sin is put aside:” who are free from guilt. The reading from 2 Corinthians picks up on this theme of forgiveness. Paul carefully makes the case that if we are in Christ, we are a new creation, reconciled to God, and given a ministry of reconciliation.

And what is this reconciliation? What does this kind of forgiveness look like? On this refreshment Sunday we hear one of the best known, perhaps most discussed of all Jesus parables: the one we call ‘The prodigal Son story. The prodigal, the younger of the two sons, in a voice that sounds insistent, if not petulant, demands: “Gimee, gimee my share of your property. And I want it NOW.” And so we read: this son takes his inheritance and all his stuff and goes off....and squanders it all. Squanders, what a wonderful word! and in “dissolute” living. We can only imagine!

And when a famine comes and he is starving, he hires himself out to feed … to feed the worst of the worst—pigs! What in the faith of Israel is “tref”—unclean--thus contaminates him and further isolates him from everyone around. The story reads: when he came to himself, he said: “Here I am dying of hunger, I will go to my father and confess: ‘I have sinned. I am no longer worthy to be called your son, treat me as a hired hand.’”

If this was truly a prodigal son story then it should end right here. For prodigal means a wastrel, a profligate. But the story does not end with his misery.

When he is still at a distance, his father sees him, has compassion, and runs—runs--to embrace him. A reconciliation. An occasion for feasting: kill the fatted calf. Adorn this son of mine in finery. The prodigal son reconciled. This should be enough.

But it is not enough in the mind of the gospel. For we always hear a second chapter: the story of the second son, the elder son. If we call the younger one the prodigal: what then shall we call this son? The one that for the most part is most like me. The one who watching all the activity surrounding this lavish feast, all the extravagance for the return of the prodigal, is angry. He refuses to participate. And when his father pleads with him, he says: “NO, No, all these years I have towed the line, worked like a slave, never disobeyed. Yet, I was never rewarded, with even a little extravagance.” And the father, the loving father hearing this says: “O my son, all that is mine is yours. You are with me always, but your brother, (the prodigal ), the one who was lost is now found; he who was dead is now alive.”

We may call this the Prodigal son story, but it is not about the sons. It is about the father. And it is a parable Jesus tells when he is asked why he welcomes sinners--takes meals with them. It is a story told to show what forgiveness—reconciliatio--looks like and it begins: “There was a Man, and he had two sons.” It is about forgiveness, about the mercy of God, about what in the end really does feed the soul, refresh the spirit. “Let me tell you about a man who had two sons.”

I am 72 years old and I ask myself, what kind of person would I be if every single day of my adult life, say for the past 50 years, I had begun my day with a reading, a prayerful reading of this wonderful account: There was a man who had two sons. I believe in my heart of hearts I would have been more gracious, more forgiving; less like that angry, embittered, self righteous elder son, the one who is law-abiding, responsible, contributing to society, but mean-spirited, begrudging his own father’s generosity. For I am persuaded our summons is not to take our clues from the children in this story; we are not called to be one of the sons; this is not about sibling rivalry; it’s not about the kids at all! It’s about the father, the adult, the dad: ‘There was a man...”

I think it is time that we in the church start acting like grown ups; that we start behaving like the father in the parable.

Grace church, I don’t know you very well, I am more of a “drop in.” I pray with you on an occasional basis. I see all the signs in your side yard; I listen to the announcements on Sunday morning: community dinners, work days and lunch with parolees, all kinds of music programs. You participate in and invite your neighbors to regularly scheduled healing services. Of all the churches in greater Cincinnati, I notice YOU are welcoming the recently re-activated Integrity group. I know many groups use your facilities and thus shape your presence, your ministry and mission here at the corner of Hamilton and Belmont. As an outsider, let me commend you: you have more going on in a given month, more engagement with the world, the body of God, than any other church I visit.

I look around at this large, extensive building you have and I wonder: how, how do you manage, financially, but more significantly, in terms of your own energy? This is not a congregation where on a Sunday morning you can just slip into a pew and let the timeless cadences of the liturgy roll over you. Every Sunday you pray with a different worship leader: ‘Fathers, Mothers, Healers, Lay Leaders, Retirees: all representing different styles, pieties and practices. And music: look at the song books you sing from; sometimes with John ringing the bells, or Bill at the organ, or maybe, Bill or Judy at the piano; and those drums that sit in the corner, I am just waiting for those

I am overwhelmed by the time, energy and devotion you manifest to be the church, the ecclesia, the fellowship of those who believe in the Lord Jesus and intend to be his disciples. I don’t know how you do it. I don’t know your business. I don’t know how you make decisions. I don’t know how you solve problems when there are disagreements, as there must surely be in this very complex ministry.

But this is refreshment Sunday and I am nourished by your witness. I think you are like the father in the parable we just heard. Jesus says: ”Let me tell you about a man who had two sons.” You are like that man. Your stony presence stands as one comes up the hill from Northside, like the father whose arms are outstretched to welcome those who pass by. Your doors are wide enough; your arms appear to be strong enough to embrace both the sinner who has gone astray and the self righteous embittered one. If you sometimes get weary or distracted, or even irritated with one another, do not let that take you off course. We are not meant to be like one of the sons: not the self indulged, “gimee, gimee, gimee” nor the whinnying: “it’s not fair, what about me.”

No. We are the grownups. We are meant to be like the father. Our calling is to proclaim: “Come, celebrate and rejoice, for what was dead is now alive: what was lost has been found.” This my friends, is the bread that gives life to the world.