[a sermon preached on Hebrews 10:11-25 at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church, Gallipolis, Ohio]
For the last two months, I have been on a journey. I have been journeying with a guide—a spiritual director, who is akin to a therapist for one’s relationship with the Divine. The journey is called a “retreat in daily life” and is based on the works of St. Ignatius of Loyola, who wrote The Spiritual Exercises in the sixteenth century as a way for folks to enter into a very intentional (and intense!) 30-day journey to finding a deeper relationship with God. But how many of us are really able to check out of our daily lives for 30 days in order to devote ourselves 24-hours-a-day to our relationship with God? As much as I might want to, that wasn’t going to happen… at least not right now. Two kids and a spouse are three very convincing reasons why it just isn’t possible! The “retreat in daily life” is a way of walking the journey that Ignatius laid out in the middle of the real world. In the middle of the life you’ve been given by God, a spiritual director and the materials help focus you on what really matters, help you dive into the deep recesses of your mind to uncover the things that block you from being who God has truly called you to be.
The journey I’ve been on, sometimes without me even realizing it at the time, has worked itself into just about every sermon I’ve preached over the last two months. Many of the conversations I have—in the community, at my own dinner table, or privately—also seem to be informed by and formed around this very intentional journey. It has been, is, and will be a journey of profound transformation. But, frankly, it is tough. It is drawing out of me all those things that I think, in some sort of delusion, I can hide from God and myself. It draws attention to those areas where I am the weakest, not as a way of shaming me, but to show me just how deeply God loves and cares for me, despite—and even because of—my inadequacies and failings.
So, it happened that about twelve days ago, after having been forced to slow down by a nasty cold that turned into bronchitis, that I had fallen behind in my retreat schedule. I spent the better part of a week without the energy to focus on the material. As I prepared for my weekly phone call with my spiritual director, I knew what I needed was to spend more time with the material.
“I think I need to spend another week on this,” I said. “I know it’ll put me a week behind, but I think it’s what I should do. Do you think that’d be okay?”
“Of course that would be okay, AJ,” she said. “But now, I’d like to ask you, why did you think you needed to ask my permission to slow down, to repeat this last week’s material?”
Now, if any of you have ever been in therapy, or have ever even watched a movie scene in a therapist’s office, you know that this is a classic question! I shouldn’t have expected something huge or transformational to happen through a question that seems pretty innocuous… pretty standard, really, for this setting. But through that one prompt, “tell me about why you wanted to ask,” a floodgate opened. What I began to realize and what I’ve spent the better part of two weeks thinking about is that I asked for permission (and, in reality, I was asking forgiveness, too, for not having met the expectations of the retreat and my spiritual director) in two ways.
When I asked for forgiveness from my director, part of me asked because I was ashamed at having failed. Part of me knew that there were guidelines, expectations, and a program. A way of doing things that I had failed to live up to. I was ashamed of that. This part of me says that a relationship with my spiritual director is based on these weekly transactions. If I don’t meet the set standards, it is somehow indicative of my worth. So the only way to make sure I maintain that relationship and my worth is to beg forgiveness, to turn to my superior and beg for mercy.
But another part of me—a part I am learning to pay more attention to—still wanted to ask for forgiveness and permission, but for a totally different reason.
“Did you think, even for a moment, that I would say no to you, AJ?” my director asked.
“No,” I said. “I knew that you would say that it was fine. But somehow asking seemed like the right thing to do.”
“Tell me more…”
Another classic therapy line! And then slowly, through conversation, I began to realize that I knew she would extend me that grace, that she would lovingly say yes because of our relationship. And because of that relationship—one of deep respect, of teacher and disciple, of guide and explorer—I knew that the best thing for us was for me to reiterate my dependence on her by asking, meanwhile knowing full well that she would grant me that grace and honor my request.
The writer of the letter to the Hebrews says this morning, “[t]herefore, my friends, since we have confidence to enter the sanctuary by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain (that is, through his flesh), and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us approach with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. Let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who has promised is faithful.” (Hebrews 10:19-23, emphasis added)
What I saw mirrored in my relationship and interactions with my spiritual director was what I think the writer is getting at in this passage this morning. What I was and am discovering about myself… and what I’m inviting us all to discover about all of ourselves, is that each of us approaches forgiveness, the act of confessing, the repairing of a breach, from two perspectives… what is often called the “true self” and the “false self.”
One, the false perspective, is transactional. “I have fallen short. In falling short, in failing, in sinning, I have proved myself worthless and unworthy. I ask for forgiveness from the one who holds the right to forgive and hope against all hope that it is offered. Then I can be worthwhile again, made to be acceptable.”
But the second, the true perspective, is when I realize or at least have an inkling that forgiveness is relational. It is when I have a deep understanding that is, frankly, hard to articulate and even harder to believe sometimes. A deep understanding that I am good. I am created in God’s own image. I understand that God already loves me and that I am already washed over by Divine Love and Grace. From this perspective, my confession and seeking forgiveness are less transactional (“I beg you to mete out your forgiveness on me, an undeserving and lowly worm”) and more relational (“I am so sorry, Lord. I know that I have been created for good and that I am loved beyond my wildest imagination. I know your grace is limitless. I am sorry. Reorient me, reform me, remind me of my own goodness. Remind me of my own belovedness. Remind me of the grace and mercy I’m already sprinkled with, already washed in.
Here we are on the second Sunday of our extended Advent season. Advent, where we prepare ourselves for the coming of Christ. But not just for the coming of the Word Incarnate at Christmas, but also for the second coming, the great Eschaton, the culmination of all things when all is made one and brought into fullness with God. When the relationship between Creator and creation is brought into completeness. We prepare ourselves for the coming of God. That is what Advent is all about—preparation. Confession and our own reorientation is central to that preparation. But we are human beings, after all. We are a mixture of true and false selves. We are apt to forget our belovedness, to miss the mark on what we truly are at our core. The language of corporate confession in the liturgy, despite how we might treat it sometimes, was crafted by human minds and written by human hands. Frankly, sometimes we can miss the mark. Sometimes, in this one person’s opinion, the language of the confessions we are most familiar with (there are four versions of corporate confession authorized in the Book of Common Prayer, by the way) tend to push us toward that transactional mindset. For example:
“Almighty God, Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, maker of all things, judge of all men: We acknowledge and bewail our manifold sins and wickedness, which we from time to time most grievously have committed, by thought, word, and deed, against thy divine Majesty, provoking most justly thy wrath and indignation against us. We do earnestly repent, and are heartily sorry for these our misdoings; the remembrance of them is grievous unto us, the burden of them is intolerable…” (BCP, page 331, emphasis added)
That is rough. That is transactional. But there is also this in the Book of Common Prayer:
“Almighty and most merciful father, we have erred and strayed from thy ways like lost sheep, we have followed too much the devices and desires of our own hearts, we have offended against thy holy laws, we have left undone those things which we ought to have done, and we have done those things which we ought not to have done. But thou, O Lord, have mercy upon us, spare thou those who confess their faults, restore thou those who are penitent, according to thy promises declared unto mankind in Christ Jesus our Lord; and grant, O most merciful Father, for his sake, that we may hereafter live a godly, righteous, and sober life, to the glory of thy holy Name. Amen. (BCP, page 41, emphasis added)
We human beings may not always get the language just right and we will probably always have some competition between the true and false selves when we approach the Throne of Grace—some wrestling between a transactional and relational understanding of God’s love for us. But at least for this season, we remind each other that we are beloved and that our call is to prepare ourselves and all of creation to look upon a loving God, face-to-face. And the world will be changed.
As we confess our own sins to God this morning, remember your belovedness. Forgiveness is relational. God invites us back into a right relationship, where we remember how good we truly are created to be and are lovingly invited back into that goodness.