In nomine Jesu!
It's hard to let go.
"Holding on" is comfortable β seductively comfortable.
So comfortable that we often idolize the thing we insist on holding on to;
So comfortable that we act as if we have to live without it; we'll die;
So comfortable that we find Paul's words about "forgetting what lies behind and pressing forward to what lies ahead" to be nothing less than irritating.
Of all that crowds our minds these days, some things just shouldn't. They distract us, discourage us, turn us away from all that's right and good, and yet we hold onto them still.
Before I go more deeply here, I need to stop to remind us that, according to Jesus, his words and actions, there is something we are destined for and must hold on to, and that is one another. For Jesus and for his people, discarding another, letting go of one another is simply not an option. Judas Iscariot would discard a whole group, "the poor," and more personally, Mary, a member of Jesus' community, the sister of Martha and
Lazarus; and Jesus rebukes him. Such behavior, Jesus reminds us, is contrary to the "design of God's great love" and never enters Jesus' mind. To the contrary, the notion that all are beloved of God and never expendable or forgettable is at the heart of Jesus' ministry; at the center of God's heart. Even the loss of Judas is lamented. God's heart is broken when someone is discarded, marginalized, "put away" or in some way lost. Re-membering; never forgetting, is at the heart of what God and God's people do.
As we prepare to enter Holy Week and the great three days of Easter, there will be some remembering, some never forgetting, that we will and we must do, even though do this and admitting our anguish in doing this is difficult and painful. Several people who have been always with us are missing. Some of them β Fred Renwick, Thora Rusch, Trish and Howard Blohm β remain with us, but as the poet puts it's "yet on another shore." Others are missed because of self-imposed, but soon to end, absence. And there is one whose absence seems incomprehensible to many and is felt by nearly all. Nancy MacLeod, who this week, became a more-or-less permanent, safe, well-cared for and, according to her own wishes, freed from
any decision-making resident at Wartburg. Although not far away and easily visited, Nancy's absence from us especially in these holy days is painful and palpable. Don't deny that pain, but at the same time, hold on to Nancy, as well as those other beloved ones, just as Jesus held on to Mary and Peter and Lazarus and, yes, even Judas. As we enter these holy days, don't let go of any of these, our beloved because in the great design of God's great love God holds them close, together with us. "Forgetting what lies behind and pressing forward to what lies ahead" does not mean forgetting them.
But there are other things we ought to be forgetting.
Fear, for instance β we hold on to our fear with the strongest of grips; and for good reason, too. Why not be afraid? Fear is learned. Something bad happens. We survive. Then the fear kicks in β we don't want to re-live the things that hurt. Fear is not exactly irrational, is it? And so we hold on to it, gripping it. Yet the tighter we grip it, the tighter it grips us, often without our even noticing it.
So maybe we do want to listen to the Apostle
Paul today. Maybe we'd just love to "forget what lies behind" us. In this, we maybe even get Paul. Always looking forward, constantly pressing ahead often sounds exactly right. Paul wants us to understand that to do otherwise is counterproductive, ethically as well as theologically. Turning back, holding on, often means firmly grasping something other than God. That's his theological argument. Ethically, or behaviorally, looking back, holding on β especially to our fear β always gets us stuck; and the damage to ourselves and our community β to the Church, the city and the world, as I like to put it β is enormous.
Remember that Paul is always concerned with the community. So imagine a community in which everyone feels stuck. It isn't hard to do. Everyone looking back. Everyone remembering what's gone wrong. Everyone focused on the bad, fixated on problems, real or imagined, of the past. These thoughts, these experiences can be so strong, the memories so pervasive, that the community finds itself so obsessed with things that have or have not happened so that they cannot see what's happening now. You don't have to imagine the consequences of this "stuckness," we are experiencing those
consequences in our public rhetoric, behavior and mood every day. How can we notice God's work among us when we're stuck looking elsewhere? Stuck in our fear. Stuck in our anger. Stuck in our frustration. Looking everywhere else but toward God?
"This one thing I do:" Paul says, "Forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus."
In an article to be published next week in Christian Century, our immediate past vicar, Joseph Schattauer-Paille gives us a helpful hint as to what "forgetting what lies behind" and "straining forward toward the goal ... of the call of God in Christ..." might really mean for us today. He calls this "not pretending." Before he submitted it, he asked me to read and critique it. I did as he asked, but warned him I'd quote him as well. He writes,
Not pretending is something many white Christians like myself have had to learn this year. We have had to stop pretending that this country's long history with racism ended in the 1960s. We have had to stop pretending that
Islamophobia is a fringe movement. We have had to stop pretending that the arc of history will inevitably bend towards justice.
And he concludes:
Perhaps this Holy Week we should give ... ourselves permission to stop pretending; [and] see the cross, and the world, more fully. The narrative of Holy Week is not a story to be lived through chronologically. It is not an unfolding drama full of cliff hangers or a two thousand year old script that needs to be reenacted. Holy Week does not ask us to be anything that we are not. Holy Week tells us something else. It tells us that we are never closer to the cross than when we are gathered around the table, the arc of history bending [beneath] us.
"Forgetting what lies behind, pressing forward to the call of Christ ahead" does not ask us to be anything we are not. It means something more. It means being real. It means being human in communion with one another and in the presence of Christ, who is real and human and always present here at the table with us.
Amandus J. Derr
Saint Peter's Church
in the City of New York
FIFTH SUNDAY IN LENT
Isaiah 43:16β21, Psalm 126, Philippians 3:4bβ14, Saint John 12:1β8