St. Mary Orthodox Church

Cambridge, MA

On the Sunday of Forgiveness

Sermon preached by Fr. Antony Hughes on Sunday, February 18, 2018

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

Glory to Jesus Christ!

“It is a lie, any talk of God that does not comfort you.”

That is one of my favorite quotations from the great Western mystic Meister Eckhart. Growing up as a Southern Baptist kid in Tennessee, I heard many things said about God that did not comfort me. In fact, I was often quite frightened of him. Sometimes in Orthodoxy there appears a very negative view of humanity quite the opposite of what our theology teaches. It is easy to fall into the trap of holding a dim view of human nature, since there seems to be so much evidence for it.

Because we do we often project negativity on to Great Lent, seeing it as some kind of dark and dismal and impossible requirement, even as a punishment, to make us worthy to be accepted by God. Nothing could be further from the truth. I think we must resist the temptation to see Lent in a dark and negative light. Lent may be the time of “bright sadness,” as Fr. Schmemann said, but remember, its brightness is the illumination of God’s unlimited and unconditional love and its sadness is not because we are rejected by him, but because we come to see how our rejection of him robs us of the experience of the fullness of his love.

Lent is an invitation to enter into a journey within. “And you?” writes the poet Rumi, “When will you begin that long journey into yourself?” That journey to the heart, to the kingdom is what Great Lent is all about. It is a pilgrimage to the truth of who we are and who God is.

The truth, of course, is that we are by nature good and endowed with dignity as the image of God. Our fallenness is an aberration and our sin a virus and a parasite. The sin we do is not who we are for nothing can destroy the divine image in which we were made. We are his children, loved most tenderly in a radical and reckless love; a love that brought the Son of God to crucifixion in a sublime demonstration of Divine Love in real time and in living color.

All of the Lord’s life reflected the Father’s compassion. When Jesus stood at the tomb of his dear friend Lazarus he wept. He was moved with compassion. Let me quote from a sermon being delivered this morning by a brilliant seminarian by the name of Kevin Mellis. He puts it so well.

“When you read in the Gospels that Jesus was ‘moved with compassion’ it means that his gut was wrenched, his heart torn open, and the most vulnerable part of his being laid bare.”

There is no reason to believe that God loves us less than he loved Lazarus. That when we are hurt, when our suffering overcomes us, he doesn’t weep for us as he did for his friend.

The truth is that God loves us with tenderness beyond our ability to comprehend. We are precious in his sight. When he sees us, he sees his children, not adversaries, not enemies. He sees his children. Kevin Mellis rightly and beautifully calls the Lord’s Compassion “relentless tenderness.” I like that a lot.

On this Forgiveness Sunday I want you to leave with this message. We are forgiven. There are no hoops to jump through, no tests to take, nothing to prove, no worthiness to conjure up, no prostrations to make, no akathists that have to be prayed before God forgives us because he already has. “Even while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.”

All that is needed now is to let go of our resistance to his too-good-to-be-true salvation. How does our resistance manifest itself most often? Guilt and shame and fear. What if we were to let go of all that and open our hearts to him, as St. Simeon wrote, “the One who loves us so completely?” We would discover the truth that it is God’s mercy that endures forever.

I noticed in our baptismal service a theological note that probably goes unnoticed most of the time. Here it is. “It is God’s will that all should be saved…” We know this, don’t we? For God in Christ has saved the entire human race. But there is more. “It is God’s will that all should be saved AND come to the knowledge of the truth.”

It is not our choice whether to be saved or not. It is done. It is finished. However, it is our choice whether or not we will choose to come to a knowledge of the truth. In other words, whether or not we will dive deliberately into the experience of what it means to be loved, forgiven, and saved and that comes only through an internal pilgrimage. Lent is a quiet time, a much slower time than is normal for most people. If we choose to acknowledge it, everything that happens directs us to look deeper and to live more deliberately and consciously.

Tonight as the service comes to an end and the rite of forgiveness begins, when the lights dim and darkness falls, listen carefully. There are some beautiful hymns that will be chanted for the first time. Unbelievably, paradoxically, mysteriously and wondrously, the bright and joyful Paschal Canon, filled with light and hope and resurrection will be heard, chanted reverently and quietly in the dark stillness. If nothing else, this confirms that Lent is filled with light and joy and hope.