Sunday, March 5, 2017

The Penitential Hymn

O gather up the brokenness
And bring it to me now
The fragrance of those promises
You never dared to vow

The splinters that you carry
The cross you left behind
Come healing of the body
Come healing of the mind

And let the heavens hear it
The penitential hymn
Come healing of the spirit
Come healing of the limb

Lent: I shall speak of repentance and forgiveness, of healing. 
You may be seated.

An extraordinary life, Leonard Cohen died last fall age 82. Though Leonard was Jewish from birth to grave, he was a seeker [of peace not a new religion]. He sampled spirituality where, when and as he found it, from weed to acid to Zen, wine, Buddhism, Islam, Catholicism, sex and love, togetherness, aloneness, music, poetry, escape, forgiveness. His music and lyrics groan it out as bass, dark and murky as life itself:

Behold the gates of mercy
In arbitrary space
And none of us deserving
The cruelty or the grace

O solitude of longing
Where love has been confined
Come healing of the body
Come healing of the mind

O see the darkness yielding
That tore the light apart
Come healing of the reason
Come healing of the heart

Once a year, Ash Wednesday, the minister says to the people - -

"I invite you in the name of the Church, to the observance of a holy Lent, by self-examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting, and self-denial ..."

But not just a yearly event: every Sunday year in and year out,

"Ye who do truly and earnestly repent you of your sins, and are in love and charity with your neighbors, and intend to lead a new life, following the commandments of God, and walking from henceforth in his holy ways: Draw near with faith, and make your humble confession to Almighty God"

Then priest and People together,

"Most merciful God,
we confess that we have sinned against you 
in thought, word, and deed, 
by what we have done,
and by what we have left undone.
We have not loved you with our whole heart;
we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves. 
We are truly sorry and we humbly repent. 
For the sake of your Son Jesus Christ,
have mercy on us and forgive us"

Liturgical forgiveness and absolution follow, but it is dangerous, risky, even disingenuous. Dare not come on Sunday morning expecting to hear God’s forgiveness and the church’s absolution, of sin that we simply go out and resume on Sunday afternoon and Monday morning; or of wrong for which “amendment of life” does not include seeking forgiveness and reconciliation with whom we have offended. “We are truly sorry” is not repentance, repentance is not a feeling. And absolution is conditional upon our confessional vow to make things right. Without amendment of life, confession is a sham, and your sin is retained. 

The Church does not purvey what Dietrich Bonhoeffer damned as “cheap grace,” Bonhoeffer, who lived, walked and died in the Way of the Cross, a life of love and sacrifice that answers the call of Jesus Christ. The grace of God is unconditional, but grace is not cheap, and cannot be cheapened by the wave of a priestly hand. As with Bonhoeffer, to submit to Grace is a costly undertaking that may cost you your life. But Jesus whom we follow in the Baptismal Covenant, was about the cross that he calls you to carry throughout your earthly life of God’s kingdom here and now. "We are truly sorry and we humbly repent. Have mercy on us and forgive us." To repent is to take up your cross as you pray “Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.” 

So Forgiveness, this theological and moral notion that steals out of the shadows to stalk us every Lent. If repent is not a feeling but About Face and Go In The Other Direction as Father Steve rehearses the children up and down the center aisle from time to time, what is Forgiveness? 

Like Repent, Forgiveness is not a feeling. Forgiveness is something that you do for God and neighbor; or that God and neighbor do for you.

This is the Episcopal Church, but I’ll resort to the Bible anyway: the Ten Commandments address sin against God and sin against Neighbor. God forgives sin against God. Neighbor forgives sin against neighbor before God will get involved: Matthew 5:23, “If you are offering your gift at the altar, and your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and only then come and offer your gift to God.” The penitence of Lent is not cheap grace. If I offend you, I cannot go smugly, piously to God for forgiveness, I must first seek your forgiveness. I apologize. Whether you accept my apology may depend on your sense of my remorse. You may require restitution, that I restore what I took, or its value. Or your forgiveness may be what you do not do: not take vengeance: do not sue me, do not whip me, do not kill me. Or that you are content if legal justice deals satisfactorily with my offense. 

I’m still on Leonard Cohen. Leonard’s close and trusted friend stole five million dollars from him. Leonard sued for restitution, and The Law prosecuted the crime. Court judgments were to repay, and prison time. The thief went to prison but Leonard never collected, Yet his forgiveness was real: he walked away, he did not hate, he went to work, restored himself financially and morally. Forgiveness is not a feeling: regardless how Leonard felt his walking away was forgiveness that made himself whole.

O troubled dust concealing
An undivided love
The heart beneath is teaching
The broken heart above

And Let the heavens falter
And let the earth proclaim
Come healing of the altar
Come healing of the name

As Leonard’s song is bass and dark and murky, forgiveness is often complex, never simply a ritual formality, a wave of the priest’s hand. And forgiveness-not-a-feeling, can be the Way of the Cross: 

In the Passion Story at Luke 23:34, dying on the cross, crucified in agony, Jesus forgives, imploring God, “forgive them.” Jesus’ prayer does not assuage the anger of God the Father as temple curtain is torn, sun darkens, the sky goes black, earth shakes, graves burst open and the dead walk the land: it’s the fury of God the Father; but Easter comes every Sunday morning as Jesus’ Resurrection proclaims that we are forgiven for the death of God the Son..

During Lent, examine yourself to see where you have sinned, that you might repent: and where you have been sinned against, that you might forgive. If you have sinned against God, God is gracious and quick to forgive. If you feel that God has sinned against you [as Carl Jung in his “Answer to Job”] -- when my father died, my mother blamed God and raged against God for taking away. I don’t know that she ever forgave -- if you feel that God has sinned against you - during Lent you may want to reconcile with God about that.

If you have sinned against neighbor or a loved one, the condition of Forgiveness and Absolution is that you make amends such that you may come away in newness of life. If, Lent or ever, someone who has offended you comes to you for forgiveness, do your best to make forgiveness happen, both for their sake and your sake, and (as we pray) “for Jesus’ sake.”

++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

Ending, the people kneeling, the priest or bishop stands and says,  

"Almighty God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who desires not the death of sinners, but rather that we may turn from our wickedness and live, has given power and commandment to his ministers to declare and pronounce to his people, being penitent, the absolution and remission of their sins. He pardons and absolves all those who truly repent. Therefore we beseech him to grant us true repentance and his Holy Spirit, that those things may please him which we do on this day, that the rest of our life hereafter may be pure and holy, and that at the last we may come to his eternal joy; through Jesus Christ our Lord." 

Leonard again, Leonard Cohen:

O longing of the branches
To lift the little bud
O longing of the arteries
To purify the blood

And let the heavens hear it
The penitential hymn
Come healing of the spirit
Come healing of the limb

O let the heavens hear it
The penitential hymn
Come healing of the spirit
Come healing of the limb



The Reverend Tom Weller in Holy Nativity Episcopal Church, Panama City, Florida the First Sunday in Lent, March 5, 2017, first Sunday back from sabbatical. As ever, I do not post these sermons by any means pridefully, but only to keep a promise to a dear friend.  DThos+


Pic: pinched online. The Passion of the Christ


Poetry, lyrics. Leonard Cohen. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MUB1O2cT2gM

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