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Sunday, June 17, 2007

Love, Forgiveness and Father's Day

A meditation on Luke 7:36-8:3
III Pentecost – June 16, 2007
The Episcopal Church of St. Paul, Chatham, NJ
(the Rev’d) Elizabeth Kaeton, rector and pastor

I don’t believe in coincidences. I do believe that “Coincidence” is one of the names God uses when s/he wants to remain anonymous. “Serendipity” is another.

The themes from the Hebrew Scripture, the Psalm and the Gospel appointed for today all have to do with love and forgiveness. Even if you were only half listening to the readings from Holy Scripture, that much is pretty clear. The story of that scoundrel King David being confronted by the prophet Nathan startles me each and every time I encounter it. If you think you aren’t familiar with the story, let me say one name to refresh your memory: Bathshe’ba.

Ah, now you remember, right? The story begins in Chapter 11 of the Second Book of Samuel with these words, “It happened, late one afternoon, when David arose from his couch and was walking upon the roof of the king’s house, that he saw from the roof a woman bathing; and the woman was very beautiful.” Sounds like the beginning of one of those pulp fiction romance novels that you buy for the steamy summer afternoons at the beach or the pool, right?

Of course, it’s Bathshe’ba, the wife of Uri’ah the Hittite. Does that stop David? No way! He sends his messenger to fetch her, they have a passionate afternoon tryst which results in Bathshe’ba’s pregnancy. Does that stop David? Not a chance!

He sends his messenger to the battlefield to fetch Uriah and bring him home. He tries to trick him into visiting with his wife so as to engage him in conjugal rights with her. But, Uri’ah, the good soldier, knows that a soldier consecrated for war is forbidden by religious sanction from such activity, so he sleeps at the door of the King’s house with all the servants of his Lord.

The next night, David tries to get him drunk on too much wine, but again, Uri’ah remains a faithful soldier. Well, what is poor David to do? There’s nothing left to be done but to send Uri’ah back into battle and make sure that he is killed. Uri’ah dies a hero and David, being the generous and compassionate man that he is, sends for the poor, young, beautiful widow Bathshe’ ba and, out of the gracious kindness and abundant mercy of his heart, marries the poor dear. That King David! What a guy, huh?

Is this a GREAT story to start the summer, or what? And you thought stories like this could only be found in supermarket Tabloids! Listen, all the Brittanies and Parises and Lindsays of the world are small time chumps compared to the Biblical Big Leagues. Scandal? You want sandal? We got your scandal right here! Put the Bible on your summer reading list if you want some really hot, steamy love affairs, political intrigue and murder mysteries.

Ah, but the eyes of the God of Abraham and Sarah are not blind. Chapter 11 ends with these words, “But the thing that David had done displeased the Lord.” (Cue the theme song of that now defunct daytime soap opera, The Young and the Restless.)

Enter Nathan, the prophet, who is sent by God to David. Nathan tells David a parable to trick him into confessing his sins. (I probably watch way too many movies, but I’m thinking Nathan might be played by an aged Jack Nicholson to Tom Cruise’s David) At the most dramatic moment of revelation, Nathan yells at David: “You are the man!”(In the same way Nicholson’s character yells, “The truth! You can’t stand the truth!” There’s something poetic in that for me.)

David immediately confesses and repents. Nathan pronounces God’s forgiveness on David. All should end well, but it would appear that the God of the ancient Hebrew nation has certain conditions on forgiveness. The infant son that Bathshe’ba conceived with David while she was still married to Uri’ah is struck ill, presumably by the hand of the Lord. Within seven days, scripture tells us, the infant dies as a sacrifice to the sins of his father. Apparently, you do not mess with the God of the ancient Hebrew nation.

Not so with the forgiveness of God as explained by Jesus. It’s Luke’s gospel story of the woman who lavishes Jesus with expensive oil and perfume and bathes his feet with her tears and wipes them with (scandal of scandals!) the outward and visible sign of her feminine sexuality – her hair! That is the last straw for Simon the Pharisee, who begins to mutter to himself off in a corner of the house.

If the eyes of the God of Abraham and Sarah are not blind, the ears of the son of God can hear a mouse sneeze on a cotton ball in the back closet of the church sacristy. Jesus tells Simon the Pharisee a story which parallels the one told to David by Nathan. This time, however, there are no strings attached – no conditions made. The first born son of the Pharisee Simon does not have to be sacrificed in order for God to be satisfied and sins forgiven.

Jesus is teaching a radically new understanding of forgiveness. It is unconditional. In so doing, Jesus is revealing something about the nature of God which could not have been known to the Hebrew people of antiquity. It could only be known because the Rabbi Jesus of Nazareth had to teach it to us. Indeed, Jesus and only Jesus could reveal it to us in his very self, being of one nature with God. Scripture often reminds us that when we see something of the nature of Jesus, we see something of the nature of God.

The way of God revealed in Christ Jesus is the way of love. Love and forgiveness are inextricably entwined. Jesus says, “ . . . her sins, which were many, have been forgiven; hence she has shown great love. But the one to whom little is forgiven, loves little.”

There’s a rule in the cosmos that says, “You can not give away what you don’t have.” You can’t give away love if you don’t have love for yourself. You can not forgive unless you know yourself to have been forgiven – unless you have forgiven yourself. The one who is forgiven of much forgives greatly, because the one who has been greatly forgiven understands what it is to be greatly loved.

Let me say that again so you can take it in: “The one who is forgiven of much forgives greatly, because the one who has been greatly forgiven understands what it is to be greatly loved.”

Love and forgiveness often flow, one from the other. It takes a heart full of love to forgive. And, once forgiveness has been bestowed, the chambers of the heart which had once been clogged with sludge like anger and hatred, resentment and revenge, suddenly become unblocked, and love flows freely.

That’s no coincidence. That is the way of love and forgiveness. Neither is this: Today is Father’s Day. For some, this is a joyful day, and this morning is filled with delightful expectations of a phone call or a visit, a special meal at home or in a favorite restaurant, perhaps a special gift to show love and appreciation for one of the toughest and thankless jobs in the world.

This is not so for everyone. Today is Father’s Day. For some, this is a day filled with exquisite pain, and this morning is filled with dreaded expectations of the same things which, for others, will be nothing less than pure delight. For still others, it will be a day filled with loss and grief, regret and remorse. Why? Because we are human. We make a mess of our lives as easily as drawing a breath. We hurt the ones we love. We are David and take what is not ours. We are Simon and resent what others are able to give.

Today is Father’s Day and it is no coincidence that the scriptural message is about love and forgiveness. We all need to hear about love and forgiveness, but especially parents who, even the best among us, mess up from time to time – some, even more than their share. Today, especially today, many need to hear a word about love and forgiveness. For ourselves. For the ones who are or were our parents, especially our fathers. For the fathers we are. For the fathers we never were. For the fathers we’ll never be.

I can’t remember where I read or heard this, but someone once said that forgiveness is to set a prisoner free and discover that the prisoner was you. Perhaps Mark Twain said it best: Forgiveness is the fragrance the violet sheds on the heel that has crushed it.

On second thought, perhaps it is no coincidence that today, Father’s Day, Jesus gives us these words to consider, which are the best words I know about forgiveness and love: “ . . . her sins, which were many, have been forgiven; hence she has shown great love. But the one to whom little is forgiven, loves little.” Only the pronouns were changed to protect the innocent.



emmy said...

Are those to whom little is forgiven doomed never to love greatly?

Bill said...

Elizabeth writes: “Today is Father’s Day. For some, this is a day filled with exquisite pain….. a day filled with loss and grief, regret and remorse.”

This is one of those topics that I needed to give some time. Or more precisely some space. I needed to respond, but not immediately; not while I was too hot or too angry. This is a topic I most often choose to ignore, and have for many years. The pain is still there, even after all this time. Why? Well, I guess as Elizabeth writes: “Why? Because we are human”. When all you have left is the pain, it’s hard to let go. If I let go of the pain, I have nothing.

When I look back and try to think as I did as a child, I was angry when my father left. I was angry when he wasn’t there for me, the way other dads were there for their kids. And, because my mother was raising three children all on her own, she wasn’t there either. I was probably angry at her too, but at least she was there at the end of the day.

Now when I look back with the perspective of an adult, I can pick out certain failings in my early logic. I can see my father as human, and as human he had human failings, human weakness. I can look back at my mother and know that she wasn’t the easiest person to live with. I can see these things now, but not then. As a child our needs are immediate. We either love or hate. There is no middle ground. Now I have to look back and think about forgiveness and that is not easy.

He went off with another woman when I was about three years old. My mother was stuck with raising three kids and little income. Sacrifice was the norm.

So, where does that leave us? I need to forgive him for being human and I do. That doesn’t make the pain go away of course but at least it’s one more thing checked off on my “to do” list. I can’t bring myself to be angry with my mom. It just wasn’t her fault. There’s nothing to forgive. But there is still pain. The pain is still there and still real. Talking about it and writing about it makes it easier. And perhaps someday, Father’s day will pass without pain. Some day, some day in the future, but not just yet. After all, it’s only been sixty years since he walked out.

Grandmère Mimi said...

Elizabeth, it's lovely. I liked your transition from the OT story to the Jesus story.

The Bible is not for the squeamish, but it does include wonderful stories with - as an English professor might say - universal themes.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Not to worry. To be human is to mess up greatly, which starts the cycle quite naturally.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Bill - I just want to acknowlege the exquisite honesty and integrity of your note, and thank you for your courage to write about your pain.

Jim said...

In addition to thanking Bill for the intensely honest portrayal of his experience, I think there is something to think about on both fathers and mothers day.

The church uses both parents as metaphors a lot. Mary as the perfect mother, God as our father are ideas that flow through our thought. It seems to me that there are a lot of folks who find those images disturbing.

I was graced with loving, supportive, wonderful parents. My dad not only helped me become a man, he was wise enough to celebrate my doing so instead of trying to keep me a child or build me in his image. I miss him every day. My mom was a fantastic loving person and I miss her every day too. So for me, the divine parent is an image of support, encouragement, not restraint, not abuse, not fear, an image of love.

I hope and pray my sons would say the same thing. And I think my grand babies will be able to say something similar about their moms and dads.

What about the kid in a shelter where her mom is hiding from an abusive man? What about the children who live in violent families? How do they internalize the divine parent? I think we have some work as a church to do on that subject.


klady said...

I was blessed with having loving parents, especially my father (who is much the reason why my heart and soul seems bound to God the Father, as much as I have no doubt that He is as much She and It and Other and All).

Nevertheless, I feel some of the pain others do every year when we get hit with these days on what I think of as the Hallmark liturgical calendar. My father and both my husbands all had very difficult relationships with their fathers, and both my children suffer much pain and confusion over theirs, who only recently died last summer, and who still haunts us all in untold ways.

For me it is not just a matter of bringing love and forgiveness to heal the wounds within our families. It is also some anger and frustration at a culture that increasingly seeks to make an idol of the biological man + woman family as if a) that is the only kind of "real" family there is and b) that those who grew up in and themselves created the traditional male-female twosome-plus inevitably got love and nurture from it.

I strongly suspect that there was no time in human history or pre-history when biological families were not plagued with all sorts of strife, abuse, mental, physical, and emotional, infidelities, abandonment, and the like. Your Bible soap opera in your sermon seems to attest to it.

While there certainly is something to said for honoring one's mother and father, even and especially those who played their roles poorly, if at all, the deep truth in that commandment hardly seems to be the one that comes across the greeting card counter. Would we be better off without the holidays? Or should there be a religious observance for both parents, at once, that reflects on the complexity, joy and pain of these relationships, together with the need for love and forgiveness?