The Sins You Forgive; the Sins You Retain

At my first assignment as a United Methodist pastor out in California’s Upper Mojave Desert, I served two congregations.  One of them, the one in Randsburg, I was supposed to close after the church had received a bequest left it by the matriarch of the parish, Mrs. Jewell.

Since we had only 4 members there upon my arrival that July 1, closure made complete sense.  However, since our attorney handling the matter was less than diligent, this matter was dragging on and on.  Pretty soon we were up to ten members, then twenty.  This was becoming a thriving operation.

One of the couples who lived up the hill above town, Muriel and Harold Beck, attended regularly, but Harold’s brother who lived next door wouldn’t darken the door of the church for Sunday services.  But if we needed any repair to the furnace or the plumbing, he was most willing to come down and get us operational again.

One weekday, when I’d usually make my visits to folks there, Harold asked me if I might make a pastoral call on his brother Jim.  He’d love to meet me.

Was I in for quite a story!  First of all, Jim had worked with the Wright Brothers – yeah, the first airplane Wright Brothers.  He had some wonderful reminiscences to share of Wilbur and Orville and their bicycle shop.  He had left before they had started building their biplane, the Wright Flyer in 1899.

But here’s the thing which stuck with me:  The tragic story Jim shared.  Upon leaving high school, he was signed up as a baseball player in one of the minor leagues, then for a short while went up to the majors.  I don’t remember the team, not even positive now that Jim was his first name.

When Jim told his pastor that he would have to be missing Sunday services, the pastor told him in no uncertain terms that he would be going straight to hell.

That was the last Jim’s church ever saw of him.  Or any church.  Though he and I developed a good friendship and we had numerous visits, he could absolutely not get over the hurt that pastor had inflicted on his soul.

In our reading from Matthew, we are told that the Church has been given great authority.

“And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.  I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”

That foundational passage has been the source of much hurt and pain when interpreted in support of an imperial version of the Christian faith.  And it has been the source of much Gospel Joy, when interpreted as a prompting for servant leadership.

Too often those in authority have, since the rise of the Constantinian church, used this passage to exclude, to flout their authority, to oppress.  The abuse of authority, cloaked in those few verses, has itself been the source of great sin.

When confronted with such clerical pomposity, my wife responds, “And who put you in charge?”  Of course, they themselves did.

And the evil which flows from such misuse and distortion of authority is legion.

I believe that Paul Tillich best described the parameters of sin when he looked at it as a three-fold separation:  Separation from others, separation from self and ultimately, separation from God. 

Sin is not those nasty, spiteful or criminal things we do.  They are all symptoms of that initial separation.

We can remain locked in to this separation.  Out of judgmental disposition we can attempt to lock others into the tragic separation which is often the human condition.  To remain bound, we tie ourselves to something that will eat our souls alive.  Much as flesh-eating bacteria consumes the living body.

Or we can choose release.  “Let go and let God” – an insight from the Holy Spirit.  Grace abounding.

Yes, we can retain sin.  But our calling in Christ Jesus is to pronounce release.  Sometimes called forgiveness.

Some of you are aware that recently my brother Tom passed away.  He had been a resident of Twin Falls, Idaho.  He had never married and had no children.  I was his only sibling.  So, guess to whom the chore has come in wrapping up his affairs.

Tom, had an extra copy of the family packrat gene.  Little by little, I’m discovering what all he left behind.  One of his former employees, now my employee, discovered in going through is check register, four huge storage units here in California.

These are really huge – 14 feet by 50 feet – completely packed with stuff:  Pieces of scrap metal, furniture, assorted piles of lumber, machinery, and at least two vehicles.  There was an old Chevy panel truck in one and a Ford Ranchero in another.  The Ford’s worth restoring, but I have to first find the hood somewhere.

When we got the first storage door opened and I looked inside, I could only mutter, “Lord, take me now!”

He owned a triplex in Loma Linda and one of the garages there is also full of his stuff, including an 80s-something Lexus.

Besides leaving all this stuff behind, Tom had a personality disorder, leaving behind a lot of hurt.  He could say all manner of hateful and resentful things.

Looking back at our troubled relationship, I’m faced with a spiritual choice:  Do I retain all this hurt and emotional mess, or am I willing to release it?

This choice was given greater focus when I was confronted with the responsibility of writing his obituary.

Also, most helpful was meeting one of his tenants at the Loma Linda triplex, an African named Rose.  Rose, a former citizen of South Africa, was most kind and generous in her hospitality.  This was the open and welcoming African hospitality I had experienced in Ghana.  I was invited in to her apartment, given a warm hug and offered coffee or tea.

Rose, was completely devastated to hear of Tom’s death.  She reminisced on what a generous landlord he had been.  She needed a new dishwasher?  He had one installed.  She needed a new refrigerator?  He purchased one for her.  Over the years, he had kept rents well within reason.

When I met with two of the women who ran the storage facilities, I heard similar stories.

From his former employee, I heard of his concern for the environment.  He would not use plastic anything if he could avoid it.

The final analysis?  Tom was a mixed bag, even though he had been estranged from the rest of the family for years.  In writing his obituary, I was given the Spirit-nurtured opportunity to both acknowledge the damage he had done over the years, and to acknowledge the grace-filled aspects of who he was: in short, to “let go and let God.”

Over the weeks and months to come, as I empty out the mounds of stuff from his storage units, I will pray for the spiritual strength to keep this perspective.  One day at a time.

We can, in our own hurt and despair, choose to retain the sin of separation, but our life-giving opportunity, our calling, in the Jesus Movement is to release it.  And the promise is that even greater life will flow back into us. 

As we pray every Sunday after communion:

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.
  Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
  where there is injury, pardon;
  where there is discord, union;
  where there is doubt, faith;
  where there is despair, hope;
  where there is darkness, light;
  where there is sadness, joy.

Grant that we may not so much seek
  to be consoled as to console,
  to be understood as to understand;
  to be loved as to love.

For it is giving that we receive;
  it is in pardoning that we are pardoned;
  and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.

A tough assignment for sure; yet in such living, we are led the door of eternal life.  Amen

August 20, 2023
13 Pentecost, Proper 16

The Rev. Dr. John C. Forney
Isaiah 51:1-6; Psalm 138;
Romans 12:1-8; Matthew 16:13-20

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