Sunday, June 16, 2013

Some Father's Day Lessons

The connection between today’s liturgical readings and the annual celebration of Father’s Day may not be immediately apparent. In the context of having raised two children, a boy and a girl, the Scriptural phrase that occasionally passes through my mind is the one which speaks of the Lord “holding children accountable for the iniquity of parents...” (Exodus 20:5) Particularly during the three years when I was a single dad, there were times when, under stress, I remember raising my voice to my kids more than a few times, then regretfully anguishing afterwards over how deeply my angry words might have distressed them. 

Luckily for us parents, and you often come to realize this only in conversations with your children after they’re grown, our children seem to have an abundant capacity to overlook and forgive our humanness, our foibles and failings: our impatience, our taking them for granted, our belching or passing wind in their presence, or our inconsistency in decisions, etc. But the real sins which they don’t readily forgive are far more serious: such as hypocrisy, a double standard, not taking them seriously or respecting them, lack of fairness and justice, dishonesty, betrayal. The connection between today’s readings and Father’s Day is that some of those serious sins are the point of the readings.

There’s no illusion in Scripture about the reality of human sinfulness: it’s more or less taken for granted as a fact of life. In the readings (2 Samuel 11:26-12:10; Galatians 2:15-21; Luke 7:36-8:3), the real root of the evil depicted there is the willfulness and deliberateness with which people act out of disrespect for other people. Aside from David’s macho pride and lack of self-control in his dalliance with the beautiful and desirable Bathsheba, it was the use of his power as king to seduce her that was dishonorable. That was compounded by his deliberate deceit with Uriah, her husband, and by David’s subsequent setting Uriah up to be killed in battle, truly a violent act of indirect murder. These are the real sins. And sadly David seems to have passed that on to several of his own children: Amnon, Absalom, and Adonijah.

For St. Paul, it was again arrogance and pride in the Jewish Law handed down by Moses which led to his sin. As a devout Pharisee Paul took the Law very literally and lived it, crossing every “t” and dotting every “i”. In his self-complacent smugness, he disdainfully looked down upon a rag-tag sect in Jerusalem, one generally mistrusted and harassed, especially by the Jewish leaders and priests. These folks had continued to follow what they called “The Way”, in imitation of their model: a disgraced transient Jewish teacher, named Jesus, from God-forsaken Nazareth, who’d eventually been crucified as a criminal outside Jerusalem’s walls. When the leaders arrested one of that company, a man named Stephen, and tried him in a kangaroo court, Stephen had the audacity to speak up and challenge their decision, calling them a “stiff-necked people” who were opposing the Spirit of God. It enraged them so much that they dragged Stephen out of the city and stoned him to death. Luke, in the Acts of the Apostles, notes: “...and the witnesses laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul”, who later recounted his own firsthand version of this incident, after he himself had dramatically converted and changed his name to Paul. In the Epistle, addressed to the Christians of Galatia, Paul writes with deep emotion: “For through the law I died to the law, so that I might live to God. I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me...” 

Simon the Pharisee, the supposed “host” of a party in his home to which he invited Jesus, displays calculated ungraciousness, even as he’s showing off Jesus, his conversation-piece, the latest controversial prophet about whom everyone is talking. He goes even further when an unwelcome guest appears: a woman of the city, a “sinner”, according to Luke. While she bathes Jesus’ feet with her tears, wipes them with her hair, and anoints them with probably expensive ointment, Simon the Pharisee can only sit in his self-righteous silence and haughtily judge her. “If this man were prophet, if he were the ‘real thing’, he’d know what kind of slut this was touching him...” As outside observers, I guess we could rightfully ask how Simon seemed to know so much about this woman!

Jesus, ever the One who knew “the rest of the story”, as radio commentator, Paul Harvey, used to say, quietly tells Simon: “I have something to say to you.” Perhaps Simon was even arrogant enough to imagine that Jesus was going to commend him publicly for his “generous” hospitality. Instead, Jesus tells him a parable about a creditor who forgave the debts of two people who owed him: one a little bit, the other, big time. “Now which of them will love him more?”, asks Jesus. Simon, now feeling a bit uncomfortable, answers back: “I suppose the one for whom he canceled the greater debt.” “Yes, you’ve got that right, Simon”, Jesus replies, and then goes on to itemize Simon’s inhospitality to  him, in contrast to the abundant outpouring of the woman’s devotion and love. “You gave me no water for my feet...You gave me no kiss of greeting...You didn’t anoint my head with oil.” -- all of which were the common, most basic Middle Eastern signs of graciousness to friends and strangers. “...I tell you, Simon, her sins, which were many -- and there’s no question about that -- have been forgiven;...she has shown great love. But the one to whom little is forgiven, loves little: and that’s you, Simon, if you haven’t already figured it out.

The first thing we might learn from these three people, David, Paul and Simon the Pharisee, is how inwardly destructive their attitudes were. You and I are often preoccupied with worry over the lesser “sins” in our lives. It’s a sort of cop-out to avoid facing the really deadly ones of which we’re often guilty: our inner propensity for violence toward others, at least in thought or desire; the way we often live according to a double standard: one way in the workplace, another at home or at church; one way when we’re by ourselves, another in front of our children; and finally our smug, self-righteous, judgmental attitudes towards others, because of their appearance, because of their differences from us, or because of our so-called moral “standards”.

But the second, and most important, thing we might carry away from today’s Scriptures is that a new beginning is always possible in for any of us. Nothing in our life or background, no skeleton in the closet, no damage is so irreparable, no brokenness so beyond repair, that the reconciling, compassionate love and presence of Jesus can’t touch and heal it.

That doesn’t mean, of course, that there’s no price, no cost for forgiveness. Dietrich Bonhoeffer reminds us that there’s no such thing as “cheap grace”. You and I are invited, challenged, to repent, i.e., to undergo a change of heart: to be willing to accept and live with the consequences of our mistakes and sinfulness, and to try to set them right. Sometimes the aftermath of sin is the most difficult to live with. Paul drew on his own anguished past when he wrote those words:  “I have been crucified with Christ, yet it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.” A new beginning is always possible if we choose to live in faith, i.e., to set our hearts on Jesus the Christ.

I’m guessing that many Episcopalians may be still unaware that in the Book of Common Prayer we have a singularly beautiful liturgical rite called The Reconciliation of a Penitent (pp. 446-452). At the conclusion of Form Two, which is a favorite of mine, the celebrant, laying a hand on the penitent’s head, speaks these words: “Our Lord Jesus Christ, who has left power to his Church to absolve all sinners who truly repent and believe in him, of his great mercy forgive you all your offenses...Now there is rejoicing in heaven; for you were lost, and are found; you were dead, and are now alive in Christ Jesus our Lord. Go, abide in peace. The Lord has put away all your sins.

This Father’s Day is as good an opportunity as any for us who are fathers, and those who are mothers, or grandparents, or guardians to reflect on our relationships: with our children, with each other, and with the Christ who lives in us. Do I live by faith? Is Jesus, who loves and gives himself, at the center of my relationships? Can I, others, our children say that Christ lives in me?

Louise Darcy has written:

To understand a child is to begin
A journey through a land of mystery.
To help another being to unfold,
And yet to leave its seeking spirit free.
Impatience is a detour on the path
And loss of temper is a desert place
Where understanding for awhile is gone
Until there is an honest search for grace.
There must be putting of the self aside,
A deep humility that ever waits
To guard and guide, to stop and listen well,
A love that never hesitates
To show itself no matter what the hour,
That gains its inner strength from God’s own power.”   

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