Sunday, July 10, 2005

Pentecost 8 - Year A

NB: Willimon's Pulpit Resource was a big help with this sermon

“And grant that we may serve you in newness of life, to the honour and glory of your holy name. Amen.”

Those are the words we sometimes use when we pray our prayer of confession, “Grant that we may serve you in newness of life.”

That’s quite a request, when you stop and think about it. “Serving God in newness of life.”

Newness of life. Starting over. A fresh start. A complete overhaul.

But truly fresh beginnings are hard. I think that’s one reason why there is so much joy when a baby is born. You look at that little bundle of newness, at that little life, so fresh, new, untested; no failures, no regrets.

For us, who are all grown up, or well on their way to being grown up, newness of life means the power to start over. It means to have found that way to release the powerful grip upon our lives by the past.

One of the ways we keep people in their place, one of the ways we stifle the vitality of another life is by being reminded of the past.

In Halifax, I used to get together occasionally with fellow who used to be a member of our church. But he hadn’t been to church in years, except for weddings, funerals, Christmas and Easter.

He was a very gifted opera singer and I thought I could recruit him to sing on Sunday mornings.

“Don’t think so,” he told me, “I’m done with church. I’ll go on special occasions to make my mom happy, but I can’t do the Sunday morning thing.”

“Why not?” I asked. After all, his parents were very active members. His aunt was the organist. His sister was the financial secretary.

“I just can’t be ‘me’ there,” he replied.

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“I left Halifax when I was 18 to get as far away from my family as I could. I worked hard to create my own identity and be my own person. But when I go back to church, they only see the little boy, the troubled child who was always getting yelled at. They still even call me ‘Danny.’ “I’m ‘Dan’ or ‘Daniel.’ I’m not that little boy anymore. I don’t want to be treated like him any longer.”

The Church –capital C – has a long and deep memory. All of Dan’s hard work and life experience was swept aside, so that the past still had a hold on his life. The only way he could release that grip was to walk away from the community that still wants him to be the little boy whom they want to remember.

Through such remembering, we exercise power over peoples’ lives. We keep hurting them by bringing up their past mistakes, sins, or even identities.

Perhaps that’s why a certain amount of amnesia can be a gift. There was a woman who had started forgetting things. Mostly, what she forgot were things that happened a long time ago. Her short term memory was fine. Folks tried to sympathize with her, but she said, “Actually, it’s not that bad. There are a lot of things in my past that I am only too happy to forget. I would rather remember only the good things that happened a few minutes ago, rather than having my memory dredge up things that happened 30 years ago.”

I could see what she meant. There are some things from the past that are not worth remembering. In fact, to remember them, only tightens an unbearable grip upon the present, to say nothing of the future.

There are many of us who, when we look back at the twists and turns of life, youthful indiscretions, cruelty towards others or ourselves, wounds inflicted, poor choices made, relationships needlessly severed, we might pray that God has a certain amount of selective amnesia as well, what we call “forgiveness.”

Forgiveness is not forgetting, although we might wish it was. When we say, “Let’s forgive and forget,” that’s not the forgiveness that Jesus was talking about. He’s wasn’t talking about deleting these events from the memory bank of God’s hard drive, or having our deeds rubbed out from our permanent records. He was talking about something much deeper. He was talking about restoring what was lost. And from that restoration emerges newness of life, freedom from the past, not a retreat from it. As Jesus told his critics, “If the Son of Man makes you free, you will be free indeed.”

This freedom is hard to grasp. For many people it’s impossible. They can’t see beyond their own pain and anger.

As a pastor I’ve noticed that if there’s one thing more tragic than a marriage that ends in divorce, it’s a divorce that never becomes a true divorce. They go to the lawyers, they sign the papers, and they are legally divorced. One of them hangs on to the relationship with two hands; perhaps never taking off the wedding ring, re-living the pain of the relationship; the injustice of the divorce. There can be no newness of life in the midst of a broken-down relationship without forgiveness. Forgiveness is the great healer.

Maybe that’s why, throughout the gospels, Jesus goes from place to place, constantly forgiving people. Sometimes it seems as if everybody Jesus encounters is met with “Your sins are forgiven.” Sometimes, they don’t even have to ask for forgiveness.

Jesus understands that there are some pasts that shouldn’t be remembered; that love demands the humility to let go, to be free, to embrace the newness of life that God wants for each one us.

Maybe that’s why God was so persistent in forgiving us, because God knows that forgiveness, wiping the slate clean is the only way for our relationships to be the strongest they can be – our relationships with each, and our relationship with God.

In one of [St. John] Chrysostom’s sermons on Divine Providence, h asks us to ‘Imagine someone without the least notion of agriculture, he says ‘observing a farmer collecting grain and shutting it in a barn to protect it from damp. Then he sees the same farmer take the same grain and cast it to the winds, spearing it on the ground, maybe even in the mud, without worrying anymore about the dampness. Surely, he will think that the farmer has ruined the grain, and reprove the farmer.’ The reproof comes from ignorance and impatience, Chrysostom says; only waiting until the end of summer, then the observer would see the farmer harvest that grain, and be astonished how much it has multiplied. So much the more, he adds, should ‘we await the final outcome of events, remembering who it is who ploughs the earth of our souls.”

This indeed is part of the harvest that good soil produces abundant seed for the sower to sow once again and grain that is more than enough for all who hunger for newness of life. Amen.


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