St. Mary Orthodox Church

Cambridge, MA

Lay Up For Yourselves Treasures in Heaven

Sermon Preached by Fr. Antony Hughes on Sunday, February 18, 2007

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, one God. Amen.

Glory to Jesus Christ!

There is only one way to know forgiveness and that is by forgiving. We may have an idea of what forgiveness is, but an idea is only an idea. We may have an idea of who God is, but an idea is only an idea. To know something means to have a direct experience of it. Ideas are not the same as experience. Forgiveness (and God) can only be known through experience.

Jesus says that if we do not forgive, God will not forgive us, but do you think the Lord means that God does not want to forgive? That cannot be true! God wants very much to forgive. “It is God’s will that all be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth.” He sent his own Son to die so that we might know forgiveness. How then could He not want us to enjoy it? The problem lies not in God, but in us.

I think the Lord means that to be able to receive forgiveness we must first believe in forgiveness; believe it is possible for us (for everyone) and believe enough to put it into practice. By believing in and practicing forgiveness we come to know how forgiveness works, what it feels like, the freedom and peace that it brings. The more we practice it, the more we are able to receive it. Perhaps you may argue that I have it backwards, that to be able to be forgiving we must first be forgiven. Of course you would be right! But the fact is, whether we accept it or not, forgiveness has already been given. Jesus has died for all. We have been forgiven. All of us. So what is there to stop us from forgiving?

We love because God first loved us. We forgive because God first forgave us. It is part and parcel of what it means to be human to forgive and love. What did Jesus say, “There must be no limit to your goodness since the heavenly Father’s goodness knows no bounds.” What makes this possible is that we are made in God’s image and called to develop His likeness. There are no limits for God or us.

Everything and everyone resides in the ocean of God’s grace. His tender loving care surrounds us. “In Him,” says St. Paul, “we live and move and have our being.” Forgiveness is the very air we breathe. Why do so many of us hold our breath? We struggle and fight when what we need to do is let go and breathe deeply. We need to stop defending ourselves against God’s grace. Our computers have spam filters. I believe many of us have “forgiveness filters.” We need to turn them off! One way is to begin consciously to nurture a life of forgiveness because forgiveness is not so much a tool we can use as much as it is a way of life.

For example, what happens when we are tired after a long day of work and the wife (or husband!) calls us to help with the dishes? Sometimes we tighten up. “Haven’t I done enough today!” We start to resist. Our bodies become rigid, our minds close up like clams, our eyes shut tight, our faces become pinched, our lips pursed. Everything closes up to support the resistance effort. What comes next? War.

Instead, we need to practice letting go and opening up so that we can allow the energy of humility and peace to carry us down to the kitchen! Try it next time. When you start to tighten up, loosen up! Peace is so much better than war. Accepting and receiving forgiveness is like that. We can close up or we can open up. We need to stay open all the time. Closing up keeps us in the darkness of guilt and doubt; opening up releases us from those debilitating bonds. It is a simple choice with far-reaching consequences.

Some of us do not believe God will forgive us because we are unable to forgive ourselves. This is also only an idea, but we all know what a powerful one it is. This idea is known as guilt. As long as we insist on holding on to guilt we cannot know the freedom of forgiveness. Our spiritual tradition does not see guilt as helpful. Olivier Clement writes that we must reject any obsession with guilt. Guilt is food for the ego in the form of self-torment; a strange and negative form of self-absorption. Opening to the ocean of forgiveness is the answer. We don’t have to wait for God to act before we do something about it. The Lord has already acted. Calvary and the Resurrection was the Lord’s response. What is needed comes entirely from our side.

We have spoken a few times of the need to live in the present. Notice that both guilt and grudges mire us in the past. If we refuse to let go of them, we will forever be trapped in the past which is an illusion and our lives will become dark and unstable. But the past, as Mother Gavrilia puts it, is over and in the hands of God. It is better to let it go as quickly as possible. As Jesus said, “Let the dead bury the dead.” In other words, what is done is done. Don’t hold on to dead ideas and dead actions. Move on. Holding on to the past means that we refuse to grow and to change as all living things do. Holding on to the past means we are rejecting and running away from reality. The past is a shadow and a dream. Clarity and wisdom can only exist in the present.

To forgive is both pure and wise. To forgive is divine. Forgiveness can only take place in the present.

We need to give up the hope for a better past and get on living a better present, filling every moment with love, forgiveness, peace and devotion. This is how we “lay up treasures for ourselves in heaven”.