+Bishop Peter F. Hansen
Sermon for the 19th Sunday after Trinity – October 7, 2018
“Wherefore think ye evil in your hearts? For whether is easier, to say, Thy sins be forgiven thee; or to say, Arise, and walk?”
ONE OF THE BASIC INSTRUCTIONS I received as a police chaplain was what not to say at the scene of a tragedy. We chaplains come to personal tragedies in order to provide, together with police officers, some kind of order in an unruly world that has just torn a ragged hole at the place where another person stands in shock. Their loved one has been found dead, perhaps by his own hand, or by assault, or through carelessness. Bad news from a distant city comes with two badges and images of death passing before some nice person’s eyes. What we’re taught not to say are the platitudes that only make us feel better, and the poor person feel worse:
You need to be strong for your children.
It had to be God's will.
You’re young; you'll make a new life for yourself.
You need to count your blessings now.
I guess God needed Him more than you did.
I know how you feel.
Plato once said, “Wise men speak because they have something to say; Fools speak because they have to say something.” The best advice I’ve received in the chaplaincy is this: If you can’t improve on silence, then don’t.
People speak out of nervous habit. Some people, extroverts often, speak in order to hear what they themselves are thinking. They work things out - out loud. That can be a real problem when someone’s heart is going through the shredder. We may feel that a word is wanted, but unless we have the right word, what we tell someone in that hour may cut deeper than all the other swords that are already doing their worst. We chaplains have learned the value of simple presence. We’re there. We will offer common courtesies. We tell them the truth. We will care. But we don’t have to come up with the answer to whether their drug-addicted son went to heaven.
It’s so easy to say the wrong thing, to speak foolishly, to offer platitudes, to say what angels never would even think, let alone speak. Talk is cheap. But words can kill. Watch what you say and when you say it. Your words can either build or destroy. St. James wrote wonderfully clear descriptions of what an idle word can do.
“If anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a perfect man, able also to bridle his whole body. If we put bits into the mouths of horses so that they obey us, we guide their whole bodies as well. Look at the ships also: though they are so large and are driven by strong winds, they are guided by a very small rudder wherever the will of the pilot directs. So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great things. How great a forest is set ablaze by such a small fire! And the tongue is a fire, a world of unrighteousness… no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God.” James 3
Gossip can run wild and ruin reputations when the truth has not even yet been spoken. People believe the things their evil imaginations want to believe. I know I’ve been the subject of rumor campaigns—though not recently. Sometimes it’s the measure of a person’s stature and achievements that small people hatch lies about them. I’ve never cared much about rumors that circulate about me. Once or twice, however, baseless claims made against me in court documents have caused my bile to rise.
I respect the truth. Some people don’t. But what I’ve accomplished, or perhaps should be credited for, I don’t jealously guard or demand credit for. A Chinese philosopher, knowing that all the best achievements are shared acheivements, once quipped that “When the good leader's work is done the people say, 'We did it ourselves.'” Lao Tzu
Jesus Christ was the subject of fantastic rumors and gossip in His own day. He is still lied about, those lies forming the basis of a number of heretical religions, such as Islam, Mormonism, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Baha’ism, and Christian Science. What you say about Jesus doesn’t hurt Him, but it can do a great deal of damage to those who say it.
One day Jesus was in Capernaum, teaching in a house. There was such a crowd around Him, eager to hear what the famous teacher was saying, that a group of men carrying a stretcher that held their palsied friend couldn’t get close to Him. They managed, somehow, to climb the roof and open up a space through the tiles where they could lower the emaciated man by ropes to where Jesus sat.
The crowd was astonished by the audacity of such labor, and Jesus stopped His lesson, looking now at the man lying paralyzed at His feet. Jesus was impressed by the faith of the little band who’d gone to such lengths for their friend’s welfare, and so He spoke: “Son, you can be happy because your sins are all forgiven.”
Without missing a beat, the nay-sayers began whispering their disapproval of Jesus’ kindness. “How can he tell someone he’s forgiven? Only God can forgive sins. Who does he think he is? I knew he’d pull something here today. Watch him now. Take note. This may be something we can accuse him of later.”
Jesus was always aware of the whispers, and even of the thoughts, of those who were more interested in being right and making Him wrong than in the benefit some poor soul who was receiving miraculous healing. The palsied man obviously needed healing for his body, but Jesus knew that the deeper need in his life was the healing of his soul. Likewise, the deepest need of all who were present—healthy, normal people—was forgiveness of all their sins. And such forgiveness was unavailable to them in the religious walk that the scribes and Pharisees prescribed them. Their path was one of guilt, shame and sorrow. Now Jesus had said, “Your sins are forgiven.” Would the power of the Pharisees be broken by this? The rumors and murmurings continued.
Jesus spoke to them. “Why do you think such dark things in your hearts? Which of these do you find it easier to say: Your sins are forgiven, or to say, Rise up and walk?” Now the fat was in the fire. A word that brought physical healing to such a sick man would indeed look like God was here, the God who alone can forgive sins. And which of the two could these people do? Neither, of course.
Jesus continued: “But, so that you may know that the Son of man has just such power on earth to forgive this man’s sin, and yours,” and here He leaned over the palsied man, and to him He said, “Rise up, my friend, pick up your bed now and walk home.” The moment of truth. All rumors would die on the lips of these liars if this fellow actually stood up. They held their breath.
And he stirred. He tried to move. The bindings around him, tying him fast to the stretcher, were restricting him. People’s hands quickly undid the knots and freed him from his bonds. His own hands finished the job. Shaky at first, then growing stronger, and with confidence, remembering how this feels, his legs came under him, felt their power, and pushed him upright, as everyone there gasped in wonder. The man stood, looking around, then at his once emaciated body, now suddenly in full bloom of strength. With a look of wonderment at Jesus, he remembered the rest of his words and so he stooped down to pick up the bed on which he’d been a prisoner. He picked it up like a toy, and began to carry it outside.
“Praise God!” the people cried. There was no room for any word of doubt or accusation now, not to be expressed out loud. No doubt, some of Christ’s enemies who were present kept their dark assumptions for later, but in the sight of such a miracle, there was no room for rumors.
Some people must always say “no.” Say anything to them. “It’s a beautiful day.” “Well, it’s not as nice as yesterday.” “I saw Jesus raise a man up from near death, healing him of cerebral palsy. And He’d forgiven all his sins.” “No, that couldn’t be of God. No one can pronounce such forgiveness.” Eleanor Roosevelt once said, “Never allow a person to tell you no who doesn't have the power to say yes.” In psychological shorthand, such thinking is called ANTs: Automatic Negative Thoughts. We’re all subject to this attitude, countering every positive idea with caution, objection, exception, and words that kill joy, end hope, and darken the brightest circumstance. And it’s so easy to do. Just open your mouth and rain on someone else’s parade.
The Epistle today, along with its many other admonitions, commanded that we “let no corrupt communication proceed out of your mouth, but that which is good to the use of edifying, that it may minister grace unto the hearers… Let all bitterness, and wrath, and anger, and clamour, and evil speaking, be put away from you, with all malice: and be ye kind one to another, tender-hearted, forgiving one another, even as God for Christ's sake hath forgiven you.”
We have been forgiven. Christ said it from His cross. We know not what we do. And still He forgives us. The Son of man has power on earth to forgive sins. Not only that, He gave that power to such ministers as His Apostles, the night of His Resurrection. “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you.” And he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld.” This is the office of the priesthood, and since the Reformation some have doubted this authority exists on earth. Yet He said it. Love covers the multitude of sins, St. Peter wrote. We have been given the world for the office of reconciliation. We are to reconcile people to God.
How do our words fit that occupation? If every word we speak cuts someone else’s throat, even our worst enemy’s, even those so-and-sos who so desperately need it, even those who’ve done the same and more to us: our work here is not done so long as they are not reconciled to God. It’s a job bigger than we are. And it will not all get done. We can’t help that.
But the job of ultimate judge is not what we’ve been called to in this life. The judge that can send a soul to hell, who can make such a verdict that ends all light and hope and chances forever must be the strongest, best, and most worthy of us all. He must have the wisdom of God, and the empathy of a fellow human being. And that exact Person hung from a wooden cross and said, “Father, forgive them.”
It’s easy to say things that bash, cut, demean, abuse, and degrade another human being. Destruction lies in the power of the tongue. But so also does the power to create, forgive, make peace, cast vision, and create life. Either way, it’s so easy to say what we really mean. Watch your words and learn your own heart.
And then be glad He is so forgiving.