25 March 2007

The Art and Grace of Forgetting

5th Sunday of Lent: Isa 43.16-21; Phil 3.8-14; John 8.1-11
Fr. Philip N. Powell, OP
St Paul Hospital and Church of the Incarnation

[NB. This homily is a mess. Look for a revision later on...]

[P.S. OK, it makes a bit more sense now that I've preached it. Check out the Podcast and tell me what you think.]


I count everything as loss…

Everything: picking beans in our Mississippi garden; learning to drive at 12 and denting the Pontiac fender on a tree; my Boy Scout awards and their red velvet matte and frame on my dad’s office wall; the grocery store encyclopedias my mom bought one at a time week by week; that time in Mexico when fireworks woke us for prayer and we went instead to buy silver; climbing the Great Wall of China in August and making bead necklaces for Peruvian orphans in March; all those childish fits of impatience and anger b/c I would not see or listen; my hard head and the seventeen years I ran from God…I have accepted the loss of all things in Christ, but I can’t yet call them all rubbish. Like Paul, I have not yet attained perfect maturity, but b/c Christ has taken possession of me, I run after the hope that there will be a resurrection of the dead, and that once dead myself, I may rise with Christ! But for now, I strain forward and fail.

Paul teaches us to be conformed to Jesus’ death and to share his sufferings and count everything a loss b/c we have found righteousness in him. What do you count as loss? What have you lost in finding Christ? In Christ, in his righteousness, we see the impermanence of things, the instability of creation at its root and its inability to satisfy our greatest longing; in Christ we see and hear his Word seducing us with hope, rejuvenating us with faith, and giving us a final purpose, a reason to live, in love. What can’t we count as loss when held up next to “the prize of God’s upward calling, in Christ Jesus”? What will you count as more important, grander, of greater value than the friendship, the love of Him Who made you? The Lord said to Isaiah, “I am doing something new!...In the desert I make a way…” And that way for us in this Lenten desert is the way of forgiveness and forgetfulness, the way of the Cross with the Cross as our goal. We must practice the art and grace of counting everything as loss so that we “may gain Christ and be found in him.”

Perhaps you have not yet taken hold of the hope of the resurrection? Perhaps you have not yet attained perfect maturity in living day to day our Father’s Easter promise? If not, why not? There have to be as many reasons out there as there are people to sin! But I wonder what light Paul and our gospel narrative can shine on this question? Notice that Paul admits his spiritual immaturity but suggests that the cure for his ailment is “forgetting what lies behind…straining forward to what lies ahead…” In other words, if he must count as loss everything he has b/c of Christ, then he must also forget everything he has lost and pursue, in righteousness, Christ Jesus. What is this “forgetting”? To forget is to fail to remember; to cease to ponder on or think about; to leave behind and to cease recalling mind. To forget someone is to remove them from your life as an influence, as a subject of thought; to forget them is to stop remembering them intentionally. They are history out of mind.

Do we see this forgetting in the gospel? Yes. But first we see what happens when we remember. The woman accused of adultery stands before the crowd. Once Jesus has heard the charges against her, he says, “Let the one among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” You can see the men in the crowd stop and think. What were they thinking about? They were remembering their sins! They had not taken possession of the Word, the promises of the Father, b/c they were looking behind to their transgressions. Though the scribes and Pharisees came to test Jesus on a point of Law, they themselves were tested on a point of Love. They could remember their sins b/c they had not received God’s forgiveness; literally, they had not obeyed the Lord’s greatest command: love God, self, and others with all your being, everything you have and are. Jesus then teaches the woman (and us) what it means to forgive and forget: “I do not condemn you. Go, from now on do not sin any more.” Mercy and an admonition to be holy.

Earlier I asked you if you had taken hold of the Father’s promise of the resurrection? Do you believe His Word? If not, why not? Look at the scribes and Pharisees. They didn’t bring that woman to Jesus b/c they wanted her executed or b/c they abhor adultery and needed Jesus’ consent. They brought that woman to Jesus to test him. They wanted a word from him that would allow them to charge him with breaking the Law. And why did they think that the case of this woman’s alleged adultery would give them what they wanted? Simply put: they had heard that Jesus was forgiving notorious sinners their sins and they misunderstood his reasons for doing so. They suspected him of laxity, of being too wet and squeamish when it came to judging sinners. How wrong they were! They slinked away thoroughly judged and condemned by their own memories! They tested Jesus b/c they failed to hear his Word and to see him as the Christ. Their desire to test him—to exam him and put him on trial—that desire is both the dark that blinds them and the reason for the darkness. All they have is their loss and so they clamor after defeat as if it were a prize.

Is this why you are having difficulty taking hold of the Father’s Easter promises? Is this why you struggle and strain in despair and anxiety this Lenten season? Are you testing Christ? Are you holding up the sins of others for public scrutiny and all the while remembering your own? Will you forgive and forget? With stone in hand, how would you answer Jesus’ challenge? To throw the stone is a lie. To drop it is the truth. But to drop the stone while remembering your sin is a defeat. Drop the stone and embrace your loss in Christ.

There is an art and grace to accepting everything as loss in Christ. That long shadow you see on the desert sand is the Cross cast darkly against your sin. You’ve been here for a month now and all those Lenten temptations have set your weaknesses to ringing aloud like bells. What does the desert know about you that you don’t? What have you learned about your immaturity in Christ? About your growth in righteousness? What stones do you need to drop? What tests for Christ do you need to cancel? What have you lost in finding Christ?

If we will be conformed to his death and his resurrection, we must share in his sufferings and count all things as loss. The shadow of the Cross just touches our feet now. The prize is on the other side.

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