12 January 2013

Sermon: Begging forgiveness

After a long hiatus, the reason for which is explained in the sermon below, I've written my first sermon in well over two years. Hope you gain something from it.

Sermon for the First Sunday after Epiphany (Baptism of Jesus), Year C

Isaiah 43:1-7, Psalm 29, Acts 8:14-17, Luke 3:15-17, 21-22

Today we’re celebrating the Baptism of Jesus, part of the Christmas season leading up to Candlemas on Feb. 2nd. The events described in the Gospel today have an obvious personal reminder for me.

Back in 2010, here in this church something extraordinary happened right over there behind you – I had the great honor and pleasure of sponsoring Jon for his baptism. It was a moving and powerful experience, and I was deeply honored to be a part of it, welcoming Jon into the Church. I’m very glad and proud to see how he’s become such a pillar in our parish in the time since then.

In the process of that Easter Vigil 2010, not only was he baptized, but also in a sense this church we’re standing in now was itself baptized. It was the first service we celebrated in this church that we are truly blessed to have, the first baptism to be held in it, and the waters in the baptismal pool were in turn used to renew our own baptismal vows and to hallow the church long before it was formally consecrated by our bishop almost 18 months later.

It was also, however, in a way the beginning of the end for me, though of course I had no idea about it at the time. As you may remember, Jon was not the only person who was baptized that night. The other person, Michelle, and I developed a powerful attraction to each other, and my horrible guilt over what I felt was the final straw that led directly to the breakdown of my marriage. My life of apparent normality and seeming stability came crashing to an end not long after, seemingly without warning. My marriage fell apart, my family torn to pieces, and my own personal unhappiness, which until then had largely been hidden from the rest of the parish and the outside world for literally years, exploded into view for all to see. It was without a doubt the worst time of my life, and I’m still sorting through the emotional debris left over.

For a time I seriously considered leaving the parish and never coming back. But I didn’t want to abandon the place where I had invested so much of myself. So to try and reboot, to get out of the spotlight and let things calm down, I withdrew from my parish duties while still attending services. Those duties included doing something I really enjoyed, which was writing sermons for the English services. This is the first time I’ve preached since then, and I have to say, I feel very strange doing it precisely because of all those events that began around the time of that Easter Vigil. When writing this, I often wondered if I even belong up here.

So do I have any business talking to you about right and wrong, about moral issues? My moral example is damaged goods. Without putting too fine a point on it, I’m an adulterer, a sinner. I caused immense pain to my wife and kids and disappointed and shocked a lot of people. To top it off, Michelle and I later broke up, compounding the pain and uproar. I’ve had a hard enough time asking the forgiveness of the Church, but the hardest part of all has been to forgive myself. So I hardly feel like I should be up here now. And I also can’t help but wonder what would be going through the minds of my ex-wife or ex-girlfriend or my friends if they were here listening now, let alone what God thinks about all of it.

But maybe today’s Gospel has a ray of hope for me. In the Gospel, Jesus, the one human being without sin, the one person who ever lived who didn’t need baptism in any sense, that Jesus goes to John the Baptist and asks him for baptism. In the parallel reading in the Gospel of Matthew, John exclaims to Jesus that Jesus should be baptizing him, not the other way around.

Maybe it’s because of the name, but I can easily place myself in John’s shoes right now. I’m supposed to stand here and act all holy and wise and pretend I can teach you something in a sermon, when I feel like I’m the one who needs teaching and guidance most. To carry the metaphor further: The Church, like the local parish, is referred to as the Body of Christ, and at the Eucharist, we often say we receive the Sacrament so that we “may become what we have received, the Body of Christ”. In effect I’m John the Baptist standing here in front of Christ’s body – that would be you – and wondering what the Body of Christ wants with someone like me, because I certainly don’t feel worthy to do much of anything church-related. Like John, I’m here exclaiming, “who, me?!”

I have a wonderful book I love to read to the kids at bedtime, called Mungo and the Picture-Book Pirates. It’s about a little kid named Mungo who loves having a pirate story read to him multiple times every night. But the hero of the book, dashing Captain Horatio Fleet, gets tired of having to go through the motions of being the hero so many times in one evening. As he is leaving the book to go on a holiday, he tells Mungo that maybe Mungo should just go do it himself if he likes the book so much. Mungo exclaims, “Me?! I can’t do anything!” but is left with little choice but to save his favorite book from the evil pirates. So he jumps into the book and becomes the hero himself.

After much buckling of swashes, Mungo does indeed save the day from the dastardly pirates, and Captain Fleet returns from his holiday to give Mungo a medal. 

There is a parallel here. It’s not a perfect one, but it will do. Mungo is like John the Baptist – or me – and the hero, Jesus, or Captain Fleet, wants us to not just like him and admire him, but to follow in his footsteps, to save the day like he would. That’s what we’re here for in the Church. If we sit back and say, “I can’t do it” or “I’m not worthy” and let our guilt destroy us, then the paradox is that we only hurt ourselves while not solving anything or doing anybody any good. We have to forgive ourselves before seeking forgiveness from others, and we can do that by accepting God’s grace and peace within us. We can’t wish others peace and spread peace until we make peace inside and with ourselves and with God. God is there to help us by sending out His Holy Spirit, but that Spirit can’t do anything to guide us if we’re so bound up with our own problems that we fail to notice the dove coming down and filling us with grace. It’s a free gift, the gift of salvation, there for the taking if we just stop navel-gazing and beating up on ourselves.

Even the unworthiest person, the gravest sinner, can accept God’s grace and turn things for the better, doing God’s work. So I ask – beg – God and His Church to forgive me, but I especially ask God to help me forgive myself – and then I will have His grace within me, which I need to buckle swashes and swing to the rescue in His name. 

So what I can give you, even as unworthy as I am, is this: I ask you to forgive yourselves in the same way, and to forgive one another, so that we, like Mungo, can all set sail into the setting sun and see the waters off the coast of tomorrow – for as Jesus promised on the Cross as He died for our sins, tomorrow we sinners shall be with Him in Paradise. Amen.