I'm Not Interested in Excusing; I'm Interested in Forgiving

     I heard it at a funeral, a time for honesty. At death it’s over; there is nothing more we can do or say with the departed: and so, both rightly and wrongly, we feel guilt. With regard to this person who has died, there are things we did that we ought not to have done, and things we did not that we ought to have done. And it hurts to face the hard fact: there is nothing for us to do.
    The preacher was taking us down into this scary territory, and he was not letting us off the hook. Which is to say, he was showing there’s no alternative to honesty in these places. I thought of an earlier death, and of people saying to me that I should feel proud, that I had cared so well for my beloved for so long—and I thought, if only they knew the truth, they couldn’t say that.
    It’s partly true that we can explain things, and partly true that explanations can excuse. We had limited knowledge. We did the best we could with the time we had. We know that no one is perfect. We cut ourselves some slack.
    As we should! But it’s also true that we “cut some slack” only because we are (in addition to being finite creatures) sinners.
    It’s not the whole truth about us—what was said to me was partially true. Yet part of the truth of us remains that we are sinners. The pain of death is indeed, in part, the pain of sin.
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    The preacher said a lot of other things. But he did not say that it’s all okay because God understand us. Yes, it is true that God understands every action of ours; he knows our motives better than we do; and he loves us. Still, that’s not what the preacher said.
    Instead he said: God forgives. Forgiveness is not just understanding; forgiveness is not excusing. It’s making right. It’s fixing. It’s restoring relationships.
    God forgives from the cross, from the point of death, from the cruciform impression that sin makes upon perfect humanity. And there he asks us to do the same.
    You’re standing at the grave, and you say: I love you, and I forgive you.
    You’re standing at the grave, and you say: I love you; please forgive me.
    You’re standing at the grave, and Jesus makes this exchange of forgiveness possible, and honest, and real.
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    Those Frenchies: Since writing last week’s blog, I have learned that the translation of the Roman Catholic liturgy into French, just like that into English, recently was revised. From 1966 until last Advent, French Catholics said “Do not submit us to temptation” (Ne nous soumets pas à la tentation). That line was changed to “Do not let us enter into temptation” (Ne nous laisse pas entrer en tentation)—thus explaining why it was emphasized on the poster seen in the French church. It is, of course, a petition that is notoriously difficult to interpret (in any language); I take it to be asking God to grant us the gift of perseverance so that we remain faithful to the end of our days.
    It remains remarkable (and it seems to me almost mystical), that the Lord’s Prayer, and nothing else, would be what a visitor first sees when visiting that church.
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    Out & About. I am preaching at All Souls’ Church in Oklahoma City this weekend, Aug. 18-19: Saturday at 5:30 p.m., and Sunday at 8 and 10 a.m.

Church Advertising

    What do you put out in front of people when you want to tell them about your church? This is a fundamental question today with, I think, quite different answers than even one generation ago.
    The answer hangs on whom we want to speak to. We might want Episcopalians to know that we are in their area, and that we have the “flavor” of worship that they want. So we could advertise “Rite One” or “Eucharist” or “Choral Mattins” or “Informal” or whatever.
    Similarly, we might want Christians who are church-going already to know we are around, and to know something about the Episcopal difference. So we might say we’re “the Catholic Church with Freedom” (a late bishop used to describe us that way) or “a middle way between Protestant and Catholic” or “biblical and ancient” or, again, whatever.
    Both of these are necessary. But they are, it seems, increasingly less helpful. Here are some quick sightings of churches in recent memory. All of them are in cities where people walk, and thus they don’t easily adapt to car-culture cities and towns. The questions they raise, however, are worth our pondering.
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    Churches in New York City are often hidden away, squeezed by neighboring buildings and definitely shorter than most of their neighbors. A steeple does not stand out on the Manhattan skyline! Once, walking to a hospital, I happened to notice a Greek Orthodox church. They had chosen to put this rather cheeky but memorable line on their signboard: “Preaching the Gospel since A.D. 33.”
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    Another city church conveyed great busyness with multiple signs telling of programs, services, homeless assistance, elegant dining (yes, they had both), and on and on. It was like walking past a market.
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    A friend recently wrote about a small church he visited in France. He walked in—one loves a church that one can walk into—and found inside just one sign. Standing there to greet the visitor the sign says: Notre Père, qui es aux cieux, que ton nom soit sanctifié, que ton règne vienne, que ta volonté soit faite sur la terre comme au ciel. Donne-nous aujourd’hui notre pain de ce jour. Pardonne-nous nos offenses, comme nous pardonnons aussi à ceux qui nous ont offensés. Et ne nous laisse pas entrer en tentation mais délivre-nous du Mal. Amen.
    That’s the Lord’s Prayer—and it stood there to greet the visitor, with no other signs around it. One line was in bold italics: Lead us not into temptation. My friend reflects that anyone who would walk into a church is someone who has known temptation, and has doubtless succumbed, and wants help. And here it was: not why they were Catholic, or what being Christian means, but just (!) a prayer.
    One wonders, too, how many visitors might enter that church never having heard that prayer before.
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    Out & About. My August 5 sermon, which turned out to be on manna and remembering, can be heard here: https://incarnation.org/worship/sermons-archive/

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The Rev. Canon Dr. Victor Lee Austin is the Theologian-in-Residence for the diocese and is the author of several books including, "Losing Susan: Brain Disease, the Priest's Wife, and the God who Gives and Takes Away."