“The term “forgive” is literally “release.” To forgive is not to say that what has transpired does not matter. Rather, it is to say that the wrongs that have occurred no longer define the relationship. Forgiveness or “release” means that there can be a different future, which is not defined by the past.” – Craig Koester
There were a few chores I really enjoyed while growing up. Feeding the chickens and ducks was always fun, and hanging up the laundry on the clothesline was also something I never minded doing – but the one chore that my brother and I actually fought over getting to do was to carry the trash up to the big old burn barrel at the top of the hill, dump it in, and light the stuff on fire. I liked burning stuff. I liked creating that little spot of warmth on a dead cold winter day. I liked watching the sparks rising into the evening sky. I liked the smell of the smoke that would hang on my old wool coat for days afterward. And as I got older I remember the ritual of tossing things into that old burn barrel as a rite of passage of sorts…a bad exam or two that I felt my parents didn’t need to see, some of the tattered magazines that we cleaned out of grandma’s house when she died, old clothes and dolls, and as the years of high school and college unfolded, even some old love letters met their fate on top of that hill. There was something ceremonial about throwing things in that burn barrel and tossing a match on top. Sometimes they had to be coaxed into catching fire – but then they would burn brightly until finally all that was left was just glowing cinder and ash. Of course the leftover ash wasn’t nearly as fun as the blazing fire. A chore we didn’t like was emptying out that burn barrel when it was full of ashes…we had to shovel it into a big wheelbarrow and wheel it to a specific spot that my dad had designated as the place where the ashes and other remains of the burn barrel went. It is in that spot where still today you can see the unburnable bits of the our history – the metal zipper from my favorite 2nd grade jacket, the nails that held together an old picture frame, parts of my brother’s toy fire engine. No, the place where the ashes went wasn’t the fun place. It wasn’t warm and light-giving like the fire on top of the hill. The ashes were cold and grimy. The ash place was full of forgotten, dead, and unwanted things. Of course I have been thinking a lot about ashes as this Ash Wednesday approached. “Remember you are dust and to dust you will return” are the words we each hear spoken to us when we have ashes placed on our foreheads. This is a day that we choose to think about the dead and unwanted things in our own lives – the things we need to repent. The broken parts of our lives that require God’s grace and mercy.
This is a reflective day in our church year – the scripture uses words that promote that idea of quiet – in fact, the word secret is used 6 times just in the nine verses of our Gospel reading. Jesus uses it to express how our giving and praying and fasting should be done – and also to express God’s presence even in the parts of our lives that we think are most secret. Do you have any secrets? Oh, I think most of us have a few. There are many kinds of secrets.
Some secrets people keep are wonderful secrets – I think of couples I have known who didn’t want to share what they were going to name their baby that was on the way because they just wanted to treasure that information for themselves and not be getting everyone’s opinion on the name beforehand. Secrets can be sweet – an engagement ring being hidden away until just the right time, a surprise birthday party. Those kinds of secrets are fun.
Another kind of secret is the one we keep just because we don’t know how others will react if they find out the truth. Until we know if others are Republican or Democrat, Liberal or Conservative, mean or nice, we often keep our true feelings about certain things to ourselves.
At the first church I served in New York, I had been there a few years when one of the older gentlemen in the church invited me over for coffee. I had spent a lot of time with him over the years I had been there – sitting in the hospital room with him and his wife, Evie, as she was dying; and later as he was helping out with different projects at church. I felt I knew him pretty well. But this particular day as we had coffee he was telling me stories – amazing, stories – and not all of the stories were about good church-going sorts of behavior. They were the sorts of stories you tell a friend…not necessarily your minister. And at the end of the afternoon before I left I said to him, “Pete, thank you for telling me stories about your past. I’ve known you three years and you never mentioned any of this before. I had no idea what a colorful life you have led.” And he smiled and said simply, “Well, now enough time has gone by that I know I can trust you with my secrets.” It’s true, isn’t it – we don’t share our secrets with people unless we know they will treasure those secrets, keep them safe like we do. It is a privilege when you are entrusted with someone’s secrets.
In his book Telling Secrets Frederick Buechner writes about a difficult secret in his own life and the relief he found when he finally began to share a story he had kept secret for a very long time. He says, “One November morning in 1936 when I was ten years old, my father got up early, put on a pair of gray slacks and a maroon sweater, opened the door to look in briefly on my younger brother and me, who were playing a game in our room, and then went down into the garage where he turned on the engine of the family Chevy and sat down on the running board to wait for the exhaust to kill him.” Buechner continues, “Except for a memorial service for his Princeton class the next spring, by which time we had moved away to another part of the world altogether, there was no funeral. He was cremated, his ashes buried in a cemetery in Brooklyn, and I have no idea who if anybody was present. I know only that my mother, brother, and I were not. As far as I can remember, once he had died we rarely talked about him much ever again, either to each other or anybody else. We didn’t trust the world with our secret, we hardly even trusted each other with it”
In the years that have passed, Buechner has since written many times about his father’s death. He says that for him, carrying the burden of that secret was too much. He needed to share it – and that he found that each time he shared it – it somehow gave permission to others to share their secrets as well. And the surprising thing was that once those terrible things that people kept inside were spoken out loud, admitted, looked at directly, they weren’t so frightening anymore. When they were brought out into the light of day those secrets lost their power.
Ash Wednesday, the season of Lent – we spend time in confession. We dare to take a look at our secrets – those things we have done or have left undone and by offering these things up to God along with our heartfelt repentance, they lose their power over us. The darkest sins, the blackest stains on our hearts – they will never be as strong as the light and love of Christ.
God knows who you are. God knows what you need. Don’t bother to bring anything with you to receive the ashes on your head tonight except your real self and your repentant heart.
Tonight the ashes that will be put on our foreheads will remind us that we have fallen short, that we have failed in much, that all dies – even us. But thank God, there is one who can take ash and dust and make something new. That is what our journey over the next forty days is all about.
In many ways, this is the darkest night of the church year. One could argue that Good Friday is darker and more solemn as it closes with Christ in the tomb, all hope lost – and yet, I would argue that it is this evening, Maundy Thursday, when the darkness presses in most deeply – it is nearly suffocating when we pause to consider it long enough.
It is this quiet evening we remember Jesus, vulnerable and sharing a final meal with his disciples. Here he is, experiencing final words and moments with those who were the closest to him. Here he is, knowing that the end was coming, and that these events that would lead to his death were set in motion by someone from his inner circle. While on Good Friday we can imagine the crowd of strangers noisily shouting, “Crucify him,” – somehow the shouts of an angry mob are easier to understand than the betrayal of a friend, a loved one. I sometimes think that while the beating and torture he endured on Friday was horrible, the cruelest blow was that of the kiss of his friend, Judas.
Have you ever betrayed someone you love? Whether on purpose or by accident – have you caused harm to another?
If you have, you know that there are the stories we don’t like to tell. These are memories that haunt and the stories that we try to shove deep inside and put on a smile and pretend they don’t exist. Try to drown them with drink or soften their edges with pills- yet, they remain. Their truth cannot be dimmed. The stories of our deepest failings feel like they need to be shut up tight and never spoken out loud – and yet, I have found in my own life that there is a certain healing that is possible only with admission and confession.
I’ve spoken many times to you over the years about my mom. Many of you met her during the brief time she lived here before she died. You know she went through a time of major depression and that was why she came from Minnesota to live with us. Her depression had gotten so overpowering that she would no longer make the effort to eat or take her medicine or do anything without someone to make sure she did so.
When mom came to live with us, I was so glad to try to do whatever I could for her. The ways that she had lovingly cared for us as kids and then took care of my dad when he got older, I wanted to extend that same kind of care to her when she needed it. We moved her into a room in our house, we loved having her with us even though she really wasn’t anything like herself anymore. Her anxiety and depression were so deep that days with us were spent mostly sitting by the kitchen table, not speaking. I would make her breakfast and go to work and then come home and make her lunch and then go back to work and then make her supper and three days a week I took her to a support group for seniors who were going through severe depression. At the same time, the boys were in preschool and my final project for my doctorate was reaching its’ deadline.
I took her to doctor’s appointments and checked her blood sugar twice a day. She had diabetes and liver troubles and a heart condition that required that she get the thickness of her blood checked monthly so she wouldn’t get clots. These were all things that she had tended to doing diligently before this but now that she couldn’t, I was determined to tend to all of it for her.
And after a while, it felt like we were finding our way. It was a strange new normal that we had as a family, but as I said, I was so glad to have her with me and that my boys could get to know her – even though her newfound anxiety and nerves made it hard for her to tolerate the loudness and chaos of a house with little boys. It seemed like the support group was helping mom and now and then I saw glimpses of the mom I grew up with. I was getting my work done and getting my dissertation done and getting the boys and mom where they needed to be. It was a blur of days and I wasn’t sleeping much, but it felt like everything was going to be okay.
But then one afternoon I noticed mom was shaky and she went to lie down in her room. I went in to check her blood sugar and I saw she had thrown up and was disoriented and couldn’t speak. We called the ambulance and she went to the ER in Waco. In the emergency room, the doctor was asking me many questions – about her medications, about when was the last time she had her blood checked. You see, mom had just had a stroke because a clot had developed in her heart. A perfectly round clot the size of a walnut. And the clot was there because her blood had gotten too thick. And her blood had gotten too thick because her medication dosage was apparently not right anymore. And her medication dosage was not right because, as I ticked back through the days and weeks in my mind, I realized it had been well over six weeks since we had gotten it checked, instead of one month as it was supposed to be.
Because of that clot, mom had to have surgery to get it removed, a surgery from which she never recovered, and died a few months later.
I often used to joke about my forgetfulness, how I have to write everything down in order to remember both small and big things. I figured if being forgetful was my worst flaw, then it wasn’t so bad. But in all my juggling of life and family and work and school, I had forgotten an astronomically important thing – to make sure she got her blood checked – and the consequences were catastrophic. I’ll bear the grief and guilt and sadness about this until the day I die – because even though I would never, ever willingly have betrayed or harmed my mom, I did. She had needed me to watch out for her, and I blew it. Utterly and fully blew it. There are no words to express the remorse I feel about this.
It’s a confession, that’s what it is. God and I have talked about it an awful lot over the years. As I proclaim the forgiveness of sins each week, I try to remind myself that forgiveness extends to me, too, and hopefully one of these days I will believe it.
I share this story with you not just out of my need to speak it out loud, but to hold up the truth that we so deeply need what this night is about. We come together as a big group of imperfect people, people who have histories and secrets, failures and longings, regrets and sins. We may do a great job of hiding all these things so that no one would guess how broken we are inside, but we know. And God knows. And in this meal we share tonight we remember that even so, we are loved. We are treasured. It was because of our brokenness that Jesus sacrificed all for us. He knew exactly what he was doing. And even though nothing can erase our brokenness, or fix all our mistakes, that God is able to always, somehow, still use us for good.
It seems too good to be true. Judas couldn’t imagine it. He was so overwhelmed by what he had done that the scripture says first he went and tried to give back the thirty pieces of silver he had gotten for betraying Jesus and then immediately went and hanged himself. He couldn’t bear the thought of what he had done.
It’s human beings who feel such a greedy need to hoard guilt and shame – it’s not God. Judas couldn’t forgive himself, but Jesus could. He did. On this Holy Thursday we remember how Jesus the Christ knelt and washed the feet of his disciples, even Judas. He begged them to love one another, even as his heart grieved knowing how they would fail. He loved them through his tears, even Judas. His forgiveness so great that the cross would not extinguish it. His forgiveness so great that it was for everyone for all time, even Judas. Even you. Even me.
May God grant us grace to believe in this truth, in this Jesus, now and always. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.