That Blessed Dependancy

"There wee leave you in that blessed dependancy, to hang upon him who hangs upon the Crosse…" -John Donne, "Death's Duell"

Tag: Lent Booklet

“For mortals it is impossible…”

Then someone came to him and said, ‘Teacher, what good deed must I do to have eternal life?’ And he said to him, ‘Why do you ask me about what is good? There is only one who is good. If you wish to enter into life, keep the commandments.’ He said to him, ‘Which ones?’ And Jesus said, ‘You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; Honour your father and mother; also, You shall love your neighbour as yourself.’ The young man said to him, ‘I have kept all these; what do I still lack?’ Jesus said to him, ‘If you wish to be perfect, go, sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.’ When the young man heard this word, he went away grieving, for he had many possessions. Then Jesus said to his disciples, ‘Truly I tell you, it will be hard for a rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.’ When the disciples heard this, they were greatly astounded and said, ‘Then who can be saved?’ But Jesus looked at them and said, ‘For mortals it is impossible, but for God all things are possible.’

 –Matthew 19:16-26

The first thing we must understand is what Jesus does not say. He doesn’t say “For mortals it is difficult.” He doesn’t say, “For mortals it is really, really hard.” He doesn’t even say, “For mortals it will require enormous displays of humility and devotion—piety and purpose.” No, when the disciples marvel and wonder and ask Jesus, “Then who can be saved?” he looks right at them and answers, “For mortals it is impossible.”

The second thing we must understand is what Jesus’ disciples are asking. Theirs is a reasonable question. Isn’t a wealthy person placed in a uniquely advantageous position for pursuing the spiritual life? Isn’t a rich man a man blessed with leisure for prayer and study, means for giving alms and aiding the poor, and power and status within his community to “do justice and love kindness”? If someone with all this going for him can’t get through the pearly gates, then who can?

The third thing we must understand is what Jesus is talking about. His statement is not about rich people getting into heaven. (Or rather, not getting into heaven.) The “Kingdom of God” of which Jesus speaks means as much in the here-and-now as it does in the hereafter. Jesus tells his disciples that wealth and all its trappings pose a spiritual hazard in this life, as well as in the life of the world to come. Wealth weds us to the status quo. Wealth aligns our interests and our hearts with a world that has grown old and corrupt and is passing away. Wealth can leave us longing for the fleeting dreams of the fleeing darkness, unwilling and afraid to turn our faces to the rising sun of God’s Kingdom on earth.

The fourth thing we must understand is that Jesus’ words are for us too. Is your plan to buy your way into God’s good graces by means of your great wealth—to endow and finance and pledge and purchase your passage to eternal life? Jesus voids your exchange and pronounces that path “Impossible.” Is your plan to work your fingers to the bone—to pour out your heart and soul in acts of charity and mercy so that you might gain a glimpse of the Kingdom of God in this life? Jesus frustrates your designs and declares your efforts “Impossible.” Is your plan to throw yourself wholly and completely into the spiritual life—to bathe each moment in prayer and contemplation, to make the soundtrack of your life the great hymns of the faith and the rhythms of your heart the chanted mantras of the saints, all in the hope of finding God’s Kingdom within you? Jesus breaks into your piety and bluntly announces, “Impossible.”

But the last and greatest thing we must understand is that Jesus’ words are Good News. “For mortals it is impossible.” We cannot break ourselves free from the powers that bind us: wealth, work, wine, women, whatever. We have no power in ourselves to help ourselves. We cannot buy or earn or pray our way into the Kingdom of God. “For mortals it is impossible…but for God all things are possible.” What we could never do, God has come to do. That is the meaning of the great events of Holy Week, soon to be upon us. That is the astonishing declaration written in the blood of Jesus on the Cross of Calvary. That is the earth-shaking announcement illumined by the inextinguishable brightness of Christ’s Resurrection. And as you contemplate with awe the mighty acts by which God won for us life and salvation, let these words be your heart’s song and your soul’s prayer:

“For mortals it is impossible, but for God all things are possible.”

Forgiven

Then Peter came and said to him, ‘Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?’ Jesus said to him, ‘Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times. ‘For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves. When he began the reckoning, one who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him; and, as he could not pay, his lord ordered him to be sold, together with his wife and children and all his possessions, and payment to be made. So the slave fell on his knees before him, saying, “Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.” And out of pity for him, the lord of that slave released him and forgave him the debt. But that same slave, as he went out, came upon one of his fellow-slaves who owed him a hundred denarii; and seizing him by the throat, he said, “Pay what you owe.” Then his fellow-slave fell down and pleaded with him, “Have patience with me, and I will pay you.” But he refused; then he went and threw him into prison until he should pay the debt. When his fellow-slaves saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their lord all that had taken place. Then his lord summoned him and said to him, “You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. Should you not have had mercy on your fellow-slave, as I had mercy on you?” And in anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he should pay his entire debt. So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.’

 –Matthew 18:21-35

On March 28, 2010, a young man named Conor McBride shot his fiancée, Ann Grosmaire, in the head. The ordinary bickering of a teenage couple had escalated wildly out of control, and a fight pursued for thirty-eight hours over telephone and text message ended with Ann staring down the barrel of a gun.

The tragic tale of this incident is told with feeling and power by Paul Tullis in a January 4, 2013 article for The New York Times Magazine. But Mr Tullis’s piece is not a crime drama. He spends only a few brief paragraphs describing the terrible violence at the root of the story. Rather, the theme that really animates Mr Tullis’s story—and makes it startlingly relevant to today’s Gospel reading—can be gleaned from the title his article bore when it first appeared in print: “Forgiven.”

You see, Ann did not immediately die from the wounds she sustained. For four days she lingered in the Tallahassee Memorial Hospital, her face and hands (she had raised her arms to block the blast) swathed in bandages. For four days, her parents remained by her bedside in prayer. And though she never regained consciousness and could not speak, nevertheless her father Andy Grosmaire later said that in those four terrible days he repeatedly heard his daughter’s voice urging: “Forgive him. Forgive [Conor].”

Forgive the young man who had murdered his daughter? Inconceivable. How could anyone ever do that? And then, on the day Ann was taken off life support, Andy had a realization. As Mr Tullis tells it, Andy “was in the hospital room praying when he felt a connection between his daughter and Christ; like Jesus on the cross, she had wounds on her head and hand…Ann’s parents strive to model their lives on those of Jesus and St. Augustine, and forgiveness is deep in their creed. ‘I realized it was not just Ann asking me to forgive Conor, it was Jesus Christ,’ Andy recalls. ‘And I hadn’t said no to him before, and I wasn’t going to start then. It was just a wave of joy, and I told Ann: “I will. I will.”’“

Did you notice the utterly unexpected word that came in the middle of Andy Grosmaire’s quotation? I had to read it twice the first time I encountered Mr Tullis’s piece. As Andy heard Ann’s plea—as he heard his Lord’s command—to forgive Conor, he felt “just a wave of joy” [emphasis added]. Not bitterness, not rage, not grudging acquiescence. Joy! Joy is what Andy Grosmaire felt as he promised to forgive his daughter’s killer. The Grosmaires and the McBrides face a long road ahead. But in that joyful forgiveness, something happened to break the endless cycle of violence and retribution that mires so much of our world in darkness. Light broke into their lives, even in an hour of great grief.

Beloved, forgiveness is not easy. It does not mean pretending that the hurt never happened, or talking as if “everything will work out ok,” or acting like pain and loss are illusory. Instead, true forgiveness is costly. True forgiveness goes into the depths of our pain and loss, for the locus and focus of true Christian forgiveness is always the Cross. On the Cross, God takes to himself all of our wounds: the wounds we have dealt and the wounds we have sustained. On the Cross, God bears the full price of our pain: the pain we have caused and the pain we have endured. On the Cross, God shows us the ultimate cost of forgiveness: the sinless One becomes sin, that in him we might become the righteousness of God.

Forgiveness is not easy. But it is possible because of what Christ Jesus has accomplished for us on Calvary’s tree. So it is that the Church on Good Friday dares to proclaim: “We glory in your cross, O Lord, and praise and glorify your holy resurrection; for by virtue or your cross joy has come to the whole world.” As we enter these final days before Holy Week, may you learn the hard joy of forgiveness at the foot of Christ’s Cross.

Lenten Meditations: Round Two

In addition to the meditations I wrote for the week of the Third Sunday in Lent, I also produced three meditations for the week of the Fifth Sunday. (I shared responsibility for this week with another clergy colleague, alternating days.)

Look for those meditations in the days to come!

“Blessed are your eyes, for they see…”

That same day Jesus went out of the house and sat beside the lake. Such great crowds gathered around him that he got into a boat and sat there, while the whole crowd stood on the beach. And he told them many things in parables, saying: ‘Listen! A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seeds fell on the path, and the birds came and ate them up. Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and they sprang up quickly, since they had no depth of soil. But when the sun rose, they were scorched; and since they had no root, they withered away. Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them. Other seeds fell on good soil and brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. Let anyone with ears listen!’

 Then the disciples came and asked him, ‘Why do you speak to them in parables?’ He answered, ‘To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given. For to those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away. The reason I speak to them in parables is that “seeing they do not perceive, and hearing they do not listen, nor do they understand.” With them indeed is fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah that says:
“You will indeed listen, but never understand,
and you will indeed look, but never perceive.
For this people’s heart has grown dull,
and their ears are hard of hearing,
and they have shut their eyes;
so that they might not look with their eyes,
and listen with their ears,
and understand with their heart and turn—
and I would heal them.”
But blessed are your eyes, for they see, and your ears, for they hear. Truly I tell you, many prophets and righteous people longed to see what you see, but did not see it, and to hear what you hear, but did not hear it.

 -Matthew 13:1-17

“Which historical figure would you most like to meet, and why?” I always loved that day in history class when we were asked to answer that question. Language barriers and cultural differences were suspended for the sake of the exercise, and students were encouraged to think long and carefully about their choices. It was always so interesting to hear which figures my classmates settled on. Some went for the obvious and the easy: George Washington, Albert Einstein, perhaps even Elvis Presley. Fine choices all, but rather hastily made. And then there were those who had plainly given careful thought to the question, and had chosen a person in history whose interests they shared or whose passions they sought to emulate: Marie Curie, Frederick Douglass, or maybe Joan of Arc. With every answer, I could imagine a sort of patron standing behind each of my friends, telling me something about their aspirations and values. By the end of the exercise, our class was a constellation glowing with the borrowed light of history’s great and good.

In today’s reading, Jesus plays something of an inverted version of that game with his disciples. He does not ask them what figure they’d most like to meet—Abraham? Moses? Isaiah? Esther? Instead, he tells them that if all the great heroes of their faith were asked the question, “Which person would you most like to meet?” every single one of them would reply in the same way. Who would the great figures of Israel’s past most like to meet? No one more than the Messiah, the Christ—Jesus himself. The One with whom the disciples ate and drank, talked and prayed, traveled and taught: this One was the hope and expectation of untold generations. “Many prophets and righteous people longed to see what you see, but did not see it, and to hear what you hear, but did not hear it.”

And what he earnestly wants the disciples to understand is that this privilege—this amazing opportunity—is not given in recognition of any special virtue or unique righteousness that his disciples possess. Jesus says simply, “To you it has been give to know the secrets of the Kingdom of Heaven.” There is no indication that the disciples had worked to prepare in their hearts good soil for the sower’s seeds. There is certainly no reason to suspect that they were better, or wiser, or holier, or more faithful, or more fervent than all of Israel’s prophets and sages and righteous people of ages past. But in the fullness of time, by the grace of God, the longed-for One had been revealed. This is purest gift. As Jesus says to his friends, “To you it has been given to know…”

Beloved, one of the greatest challenges we face in this season of Lent is receiving that same gift of grace. In this time when so much of our focus is on us and our worthiness—Are we keeping our disciplines? Have we been faithful to our vows? Will we grow in our faith?—we risk forgetting that this season of repentance and preparation is a gift and a work of God’s Holy Spirit. The desire to undertake a Lenten commitment is not a sign of some deep holiness of our own. Much more wonderfully, it is a sign that the Lord is at work in us. The fear that we might not be perfect in performing our disciplines is not a reason to doubt and to worry. Much more powerfully, it is a sign that God is convicting us: turning over the fields of our hearts and revealing the heaviest boulders and the rockiest soil.

Do not let what remains of this season become an occasion for self-righteousness. Do not forget that our hearts so easily grow dull, our ears so hard of hearing, our eyes so tightly shut. The Good News of this holy Lent is that God has come to walk the road with us. The long-awaited One is in our midst. To us it has been given to know the secrets of the Kingdom of Heaven. May we pursue that gift of knowledge with thankfulness and humility, following it even to the hill of Calvary. May we go with awe and expectation with the sad women to the quiet tomb. May we hear again the words of the Risen Jesus echoing in our grace-readied hearts:

“Blessed are your eyes, for they see, and your ears, for they hear.”

“Here are my mother and my brothers!”

While he was still speaking to the crowds, his mother and his brothers were standing outside, wanting to speak to him. Someone told him, ‘Look, your mother and your brothers are standing outside, wanting to speak to you.’ But to the one who had told him this, Jesus replied, ‘Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?’ And pointing to his disciples, he said, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers! For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.’

 -Matthew 12:46-50

I met one of my best friends—my daughter’s godfather, as it happens—waiting in line for the men’s room at seminary. It was the first day of orientation, and I was in a particularly foul mood. Debby, my fiancée (at that time), was thousands of miles away in Germany, I knew absolutely no one in New Haven, and I was beginning to wonder how or whether I would make it through the long year ahead of me. So as I found myself waiting in the long line for the toilets—being new to campus, none of us could figure out where other bathrooms were located—I resolved to crack through the isolation that I felt settling in like a thick fog, and turned to start a conversation with the person waiting next to me. That may seem an inauspicious start to a friendship, but by God’s grace, from that humble beginning has grown a cherished brotherhood in the Lord.

Our human relationships spring out of the most unusual and unexpected circumstances. Some are lowly—as lowly as a chance meeting in a frustrating line at Yale Divinity School. Some are exalted, and held in high esteem by every culture on earth. Think of marriage: the solemn sealing of two people brought together in the sight of God, and transformed into a sign of God’s love for the Church. Or consider the special ties developed among soldiers in a platoon, or athletes on a team: people bound together by a common goal and common concern, and made greater than simply the sum of their individual personalities. Or, towering over all relationships, think of the bond between a mother and her child: the care; the nurturing; the utterly immeasurable gift of love and concern that brings a helpless little ball of need into the full stature of man or womanhood.

And yet today, Jesus of Nazareth resets the standards for human relationships. Today he sets his disciples above his own natural mother and brothers. Today he announces that the measure of a relationship is neither the people involved nor the source of their connection, but the God who has brought them together.

Jesus’ words should rattle us a little bit. The Church has done its fair share to build up something of a cult around the nuclear family: mother, father, sister, and brother. We have told generations of Christian women that their highest aim must be the care of their families. We have told generations of Christian men that their greatest task is the support and sustenance of their households. And these are indeed high aims and great tasks.

But they are neither the highest, nor the greatest. Jesus is not saying that family life doesn’t matter. What he is saying is that the call of God matters more than any human relationship, no matter how essential and intimate. The new family that Christ has come to build is not traced through bloodlines, but through obedience to the will of the Lord.

By grace, we have been brought into that new family. May you, by your prayers and witness this Lent, invite all those whom you love—all those whom you call family and friends—into that same relationship. May we, together, learn not to exalt the bonds of blood or apologize for the humble beginnings of our friendships, but rejoice instead in the work of the Lord as he draws together his Church: a ransomed people brought “from every family, language, people, and nation.”