Sunday, 14 February 2016

Prayer for reconciliation

The Living Brook benefice is marking Lent with a series of talks on aspects of prayer. We began on Ash Wednesday with the theme of reconciliation.

 Good relationships depend on good communication. And good communication means both talking (or whatever variant of sharing information is being used) and listening. The talking should be clear, honest, unambiguous. The listening should be open hearted, focussed, and should be the more important priority. 
In our relationship with God, the relationship that is the most important of all relationships, we call that communication prayer. And prayer, as we all know, takes many forms, just as any kind of communication does. Our Lent course will touch on some of them, and give us the opportunity to look in greater depth at a few. We begin, since it is Ash Wednesday, with prayer for reconciliation.

You might know this phrase well, or be more familiar or comfortable with phrases like ‘confession’ or ‘prayers of penitence’. In one of the variants of the four or five parts of prayer, confession comes first, and generally that is the case in liturgies. That variant, incidentally is STAR – sorry, thank you, adore, request. It’s a sensible order for those conventional kinds of prayer. If communication is at the heart of relationship building, then when a relationship is damaged, two-way work on repairing that relationship is going to be needed before any other kind of communication is truly effective. Admission of fault, exploring what needs to be done to put things right, accepting the apology, actively forgiving, all are needed, often repeatedly.

In the modern church what was called the sacrament of confession is now called the sacrament of reconciliation, and that is a much more helpful way to see it. This kind of prayer is two way, as any prayer should be, and reconciliation as a name reminds us that it is about relationship and that God has a part to play. It isn’t only about being hauled before God to say sorry, but about approaching God with an awareness that our behaviour in so many ways impairs our relationships with him and with each other, and wanting to put that right, and to allow God to be a part of putting it right. 
Perhaps you can remember as a child being taught to say sorry by being stood in front of an adult and told ‘say sorry’. You may have been seething with resentment because the crime in question was actually committed by your little brother, or you’d been goaded into it. You didn’t feel sorry at all. At the other end of the scale, those of you brought up to go to the sacrament of confession may remember desperately trying to think of things you’d done wrong because you had to say something to Fr. John… Some of us find we are stuck with this approach to penitential prayer. It is a thing we do because we must, a hoop that must be jumped at the beginning of the service before we can get on with things. We know in our heads that it is important, but most of the time we’re saying the words without a great deal of thought, hearing the priest pronounce the absolution and moving on. The moment passes in the service so quickly that there is barely time to actually think about the things that
might have affected our relationships.

Ash Wednesday is one of those days that challenges us to think about confessional prayer – the prayer that seeks to restore our relationships – more deeply. It is a day
when we make a point of acknowledging that in so many ways we do not give God
the attention we should, we put ourselves before God and before others. We do all sin, and the things we do affect others, whether we like to admit it or not.
There is a traditional story called 'the wise thief' (which can be found in Wisdom Stories by Margaret Silf), in which a thief persuades the King and his ministers to let him go by demonstrating that every one of them has done something dishonest at some time in their lives. The story includes admissions of fiddling a national treasury and of adultery. For most of us, our sins are not as dramatic as the ones in the story, but they are there, nevertheless, every time we cherish a selfish thought or harbour a grudge or take out our bad moods on some innocent person who crosses our path at the wrong moment. Richard Coles writes this about prayer:
‘In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus teaches us how to pray. Go to your room, he says, and shut the door, and there pray to your Father who is in secret. In all of us there is such a room, with a tightly closed door, windowless. We want it that way, because in it we keep those things that shame us, the humiliations we endure, our foolishness and cruelty, the very worst of us. That’s exactly where Jesus wants to meet us, and we dread it because his grace falls on us like a judgement; but in his revealing light we find not a misbegotten horror, like the Monster of Glamis, we find ourselves, nothing special, nothing dreadful.’

The prayer of reconciliation then, is prayer that allows Jesus to see us as we really
are, and to address ourselves. To seek to change and to live in his ways more closely. To keep on trying to do better. The wonder is that Jesus helps us to make this
change. His forgiveness is greater than words. His forgiveness teaches us how in turn to forgive. Reconciliation is not only about acknowledging when I have wronged, but dealing generously with this who have wronged. Henri Nouwen puts it this way:
‘God’s forgiveness is unconditional; it comes from a heart that does not demand anything for itself, a heart that is completely empty of self-seeking. It is this divine forgiveness that I have to practice in my daily life. It calls me to keep stepping over all my arguments that say forgiveness is unwise, unhealthy, and impractical. It challenges me to step over all my needs for gratitude and compliments. Finally, it demands of me that I step over that wounded part of my heart that feels hurt and wronged and that wants to stay in control and put a few conditions between me and the one whom I am asked to forgive.’

I think a lot of us learn as small children about those conditions that we expect to be there. So many of us as small children were told – not necessarily in so many words, but by example – that forgiveness involved having to go through an action. I will forgive you for throwing mud around if you clean my car; I will forgive you for breaking that ornament if you sit absolutely still in the chair for the rest of the evening. Even the stories of the confessional seem to have conditions attached – go and say the Lord’s Prayer and six Hail Mary’s. We can’t help imposing a set of standards on
others, standards we often would not like imposed on us – standards that expect
others to behave like us, to conform to our social or cultural norms, to see the world
as we do, and when people don’t conform, the temptation is to withhold forgiveness. Relationships are damaged and become increasingly impaired. We might not even
realise that that is what we are doing, but where there is resentment against others who don’t fit in with our ways of thinking, or who we know or believe to have wronged us, even in minor ways, withholding unconditional forgiveness itself becomes a sin, because that withheld forgiveness damages a relationship. The one not forgiven may not realise that they have committed a wrong – the prayer of reconciliation reveals to us wrongs we did not see as wrongs. When Jesus told us to pray ‘forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us’, he was asking us to be mindful of those times when our withheld forgives damages relationships.

The reason we cannot place conditions on forgiveness is because God does not. There was a time when the people of God imagined that there was a condition – a price to be paid – for the freedom of being a forgiven people. Sins were to be atoned for – an eye for an eye, a life for a sin. The inherited sins of the fathers were invested in eldest sons, and the firstborn male, animal or human, paid for these sins dearly. In the case of animals, by being sacrificed. In the case of humans, the life was redeemed – paid for – with the death of an animal. For those who could afford it, that meant a lamb, but the poor could substitute two young pigeons. This was the price paid for the life of Jesus when he was presented at the temple as a child. He was
redeemed – freed form the inherited sins of his fathers, but the death of two birds.

But Jesus taught a different kind of redemption. He asked us to forgive freely, without cost, without expecting a price to be paid, a bargain to be struck or a condition met.
He reminded people that everyone of us sins. The story of the sinful woman in the temple in John 8, who escaped with her life because of Jesus’s challenge to the crowds – ‘let the one who is without sin cast the first stone’ – like the wisdom story we heard earlier, reminds us that all of us need forgiveness.

Jesus was referred to by his cousin John as ‘the lamb of God’. This title is a reminder of the redemptive lamb killed to save the firstborn and of the other redemptive lamb killed to save the Hebrew people from the angel of death, and then killed again annually in a ritual reminder of that saving moment. So many lambs – uncountable, since the ritual demanded repeating again and again. One was not enough. Until Jesus, the lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. Jesus taught us to forgive – repeatedly, unconditionally, and he showed us that forgiveness no longer required a price. In forgiving, he paid the price himself, once and for all. Jesus poured himself out for us, gave all he had for love of us. As innocent of sin as the lambs killed in place of the sins of others, Jesus died rather than give up on us. He was condemned by the same people who slaughtered those ritual lambs, and even from the cross prayed ‘Father, forgive them, because they don’t understand what they are doing’.

As we approach prayer of reconciliation, our challenge is to be as generous in our
forgiveness of others as Jesus is towards us. It is also to come to understand what we are doing, so that we can learn not to do it. John V. Taylor, in ‘The Go-Between God’ writes: ‘it is of the essence that the healing which we call reconciliation that it
always includes both the recognition and the containing of the wrong, and by a strange alchemy this happens both in the one who forgives and the one who is forgiven.’

So what can we actually do?
Confession.  Whether we choose to share our confession with another human being or not, confession to God is all important. Anything that affects our ability to pray, to live as God wants us to, to love as God wants us to, should be named before God, faced up to – and as psalm 139 tells us, not only that, but we ask God to look at us intently and see what needs to be changed. God leads us in the way that is everlasting – in God’s own ways.
Psalm 139. 23-24
Search me, God, and know my heart;
    test me and know my anxious thoughts.
 See if there is any offensive way in me,
    and lead me in the way everlasting.

Thankfully for most of us, our sins are not made public. But we daily read about the sins of others, spread across the television, newspapers and increasingly social media makes publicising of the slightest failing part of a general shaming process
that society seems to delight in. The recording of sins for public consumption is not new. It served across time to shame those who were not popular, or to serve as object lessons for others. David, celebrated as a great king chosen by God, founder of the royal dynasty and ancestor of Jesus himself, knew that public humiliation well, and chose to publicise his repentance. Psalm 51, the great psalm of penitence, was written as he made his own prayers of penitence following the death of his child after his adulterous affair with Bathsheba.

Psalm 51
For the director of music. A psalm of David. When the prophet Nathan came to him after David had committed adultery with Bathsheba.
1 Have mercy on me, O God,
    according to your unfailing love;
according to your great compassion
    blot out my transgressions.
2 Wash away all my iniquity
    and cleanse me from my sin.
3 For I know my transgressions,
    and my sin is always before me.
4 Against you, you only, have I sinned
    and done what is evil in your sight;
so you are right in your verdict
    and justified when you judge.
5 Surely I was sinful at birth,
    sinful from the time my mother conceived me.
6 Yet you desired faithfulness even in the womb;
    you taught me wisdom in that secret place.
7 Cleanse me with hyssop, and I will be clean;
    wash me, and I will be whiter than snow.
8 Let me hear joy and gladness;
    let the bones you have crushed rejoice.
9 Hide your face from my sins
    and blot out all my iniquity.
10 Create in me a pure heart, O God,
    and renew a steadfast spirit within me.
11 Do not cast me from your presence
    or take your Holy Spirit from me.
12 Restore to me the joy of your salvation
    and grant me a willing spirit, to sustain me.
13 Then I will teach transgressors your ways,
    so that sinners will turn back to you.
14 Deliver me from the guilt of bloodshed, O God,
    you who are God my Saviour,
    and my tongue will sing of your righteousness.
15 Open my lips, Lord,
    and my mouth will declare your praise.
16 You do not delight in sacrifice, or I would bring it;
    you do not take pleasure in burnt offerings.
17 My sacrifice, O God, is a broken spirit;
    a broken and contrite heart
    you, God, will not despise.
18 May it please you to prosper Zion,
    to build up the walls of Jerusalem.
19 Then you will delight in the sacrifices of the righteous,
    in burnt offerings offered whole;
    then bulls will be offered on your altar.

The images of washing and the contrast of dirt with the whiteness that represents purity is often used in penitential prayer, just as David does in this psalm. We see this
in the origin of baptism as a rite for adults who had fallen away from the Jewish faith, and who repented of their lack of faithfulness. They would wash, or be washed by a leader such as John, as a sign that they were being made clean. The rite of baptism has moved away from that penitential aspect now, especially in the baptism of infants, but water remains a strong symbol of penitence and absolution. Modern prayers often include writing words representing sin onto stones using chalk, and then washing the words away, or dropping stones into water and retrieving white stones as signs of the cleanliness that comes with being forgiven.

St Luke emphasised the task of those who preach the gospel as preach a gospel of repentance for the forgiveness of sins in the name of Jesus. The ultimate image of our forgiveness by Jesus is the instrument of his condemnation: the cross. Jesus had been symbolically redeemed or saved as a baby when he was presented at the temple and two pigeons were sacrificed in his place as a firstborn son. Jesus ended the requirement in religion for such sacrifices when he took the place of not only every firstborn son but every human being and every animal that ever died on a human being’s behalf. As David wrote in psalm 51, God does not require sacrifices, but he does look for a broken and contrite heart. Jesus, so determined to tell us the good news of God’s love and forgiveness for those who accept it and repent, risked his life rather than keep the news of salvation from us. So it is fitting that we often choose to bring our symbols of penitence to a cross.

On Ash Wednesday the cross as a sign of penitence is made in ash, a reminder of our humble beginnings, made by God from the dust of the ground. Humans often behave as though we are grander than other parts of creation, and in some ways we are – but only because God chose us, called us in a particular way to be stewards of the rest of creation and loves us so much that he became human in Christ. That privilege of being is a gift of God, not a right, and it is good for us to remind ourselves that we are lowly, and dependent on God’s grace for our salvation. We cannot earn our way into heaven, or talk our way in, or rely on the reputation of our relatives. We are but dust, sinners, needing to repent and turn to Christ, who is the only source of grace and salvation. On Ash Wednesday we practice an act of penitence at its most deliberate, taking the symbol of our humility – dust or ash – and the symbol of the way humans humiliated Jesus – the cross – and wearing it as a reminder that we need to turn to Christ at all times, to continually seek to repair our relationship with Jesus and with each other; and as a reminder that we are a forgiven people, granted life out of dust and salvation out of death on a cross.

Often in the Eucharist we use the Greek phrases: Kyrie eleison, christe eleison, kyrie eleison. Lord, have mercy, Christ, have mercy, Lord have mercy. We cry out to our Lord to have mercy on us, sinful people, using words that echo the two blind men we find in Matthew 20:
As Jesus and his disciples were leaving Jericho, a large crowd followed him. 30 Two blind men were sitting by the roadside, and when they heard that Jesus was going by, they shouted, “Lord, Son of David, have mercy on us!”
31 The crowd rebuked them and told them to be quiet, but they shouted all the louder, “Lord, Son of David, have mercy on us!”
32 Jesus stopped and called them. “What do you want me to do for you?” he asked.
33 “Lord,” they answered, “we want our sight.”
34 Jesus had compassion on them and touched their eyes. Immediately they received their sight and followed him.
The men asked the Lord to have mercy. In their case his mercy gave them sight, and restored them to the possibility of full and beneficial lives. They chose to use that merciful gift wisely, by following Jesus. Our response to the Lord’s mercy should be the same, to respond to his grace and forgiveness with thankful hearts and to follow him wherever he leads.

So reconciliation is a hopeful, happy and marvellous part of prayer. It heals and restores. It gives us hope just as David was given hope. It leads us through the way of the cross into the light of Easter life. The prayer of reconciliation is always completed by the prayer of absolution, the words that assure and remind us that we are forgiven, over and over again, if we repent and turn again to Jesus with all our hearts. The words that remind us of sin are burned away, or washed off, or rendered silent by the absolute sanctity of the confessional. The white stone, the wet forehead, the lightened heart lifts us as we move on, having sought to reconcile and restore our relationship with God, to pray for our needs and those of others.