5/28/2018 0 Comments
Luke 24: 36-48
Some years ago, I took a trip to the sites of the Reformation, which included not only Germany but also the magnificent city of Rome, where we visited the Sistine Chapel. Because the frescoes are so magnificently beautiful and numerous, it is impossible to take it all in, so the eye must choose its visual target.
Our guide wanted us to focus on the scene of the Last Judgment, which in most chapels and churches is painted on the west wall, facing the setting sun. But Michelangelo painted it right behind the altar, above the place where the priest celebrates the mass. The Last Judgment, in other words, has pride of place, riveting your attention. Before we entered the chapel, we were told to look at one particular character, whose classic pose suggests The Thinker, later memorialized by the great French sculptor, August Rodin. Pulled toward hell by the sheer weight of a green serpent and two demons, the victim crouches in a gesture of self embrace, one hand covering his right eye. While other hell bound characters fight to save themselves from the fires, this one assents to his fate.
As we stood there, mesmerized by the sheer power of the ceiling, we heard a voice, trying to describe the scene. Our guide was annoyed, because silence is commanded in the Chapel, and so explanations have to be given either before or after the visit. But her annoyance quickly subsided, when she realized that the voice was attempting to verbally paint the scene for a blind man. "Imagine," the voice said, "the balance between perfect justice and perfect mercy, and then lunge toward justice. That is where Michelangelo paints, the guide told her blind charge. “No artist can paint that balance”, she insisted. “All art, like all theology, errs on one side or the other, either justice or mercy. Only in God does the balance lie, she said, and no one, not even the genius of Michelangelo can paint it, no one, not even the genius of St. Thomas Aquinas can think it."
The perfect balance between justice and mercy: We cannot even imagine it, let alone achieve it. Perfect Justice, perfect mercy: justice takes seriously what we have done with our lives, what we have made of the gifts we have been given, and mercy compassionately comprehends the struggle, the weakness, the ignorance, the compromise. Justice without mercy is cruel; but mercy without justice can look weak. Only in God do the two meet; only in God is the balance achieved.
One of the criticisms mainline Protestantism faces these days is its failure to take sin and judgment seriously. Many churches no longer have regular prayers of confession in their Sunday worship, because parishioners and clergy often find an emphasis on sin a turn off. After all, the Gospel is finally good news: God’s love for all people, so why talk about sin, when Jesus said that he came that we might have full and abundant life? Yes, the gospel is certainly about that promise, but it is undeniably true that people are often weighed down by burdens (feelings of guilt, failure and inadequacy) that so easily get in the way of full life. Indeed, this is why Luke shows us a resurrected Christ speaking of repentance and forgiveness of sins. Forgiveness frees us from sin. Yet we profoundly misunderstand sin if we reduce it to a list of bad things we have done or good things we have failed to do. Besides the commission and omission that sin is, it also the structures and systems which hold us in bondage---racism, sexism, economic oppression for which direct responsibility is often hard to assign. Go to any mental hospital or prison, and you will hear stories of sin that are reminiscent of a line from the Greek tragedian, Sophocles: “Who is the victim? Who is the slayer? Tell me, if you dare think you know.”
Just two weeks ago I was visiting someone who wondered if she were hated by God, because her life has been anything but full and abundant. And I know of another young woman, struggling under the weight of a recent schizophrenic break, after three lay offs from companies, moving elsewhere to do business more cheaply. She has struggled her whole life, given up to foster care by a 13 year old mother, and then tragically abused and taunted for being an interracial child. And yet she persisted and was doing well—until she lost her third job and then her condo and everything she owned. If she is full of self-loathing, it is not because she has sinned, but rather because she has been sinned against not only by the cruelties of systems, but also by systems, which reward profits above people.
Because human beings are often so conflicted and burdened, Jesus commanded that the Good News of forgiveness be proclaimed to the whole world. In our own country, soon after the end of the Civil War, the Universalist denomination took off with its preaching of universal salvation, meaning all will finally be saved through the love and mercy of God in Jesus Christ. The awful carnage of the War, led some (including Abraham Lincoln) to interpret the war as the wrath of God, judging the nation for the sin of slavery. Battered and bruised by four agonizing years of battle, the country ached for Good News, and so when the Universalists declared that God loves all, forgives all and will finally save all, that theology felt like the balm of Gilead, warming the sin sick soul. And indeed by the middle of the 20th century, the hope for God’s universal salvation was embraced by many of the mainline churches. But universal salvation does not mean that judgment has no place in the gospel or in our lives. In our reading today we hear the resurrected Christ speak of both repentance and forgiveness. It is hard to forgive, when there is no repentance, as someone commented last week in our book discussion on Mother Theresa. And although God may not require our repentance to forgive---After all, Jesus from the cross, commanded, “Father, forgive them for they do not know what they are doing,” yet repentance remains critical for us in our lives, because without it, we remain ignorant of our true self, pulled down by the weight of sin’s power---like the man on Michelangelo’s ceiling.
Some years ago I had a lesson in mercy, forgiveness and years later repentance. I was working at a big medical center, where a 38 year old neurosurgeon, a mother of two young children, married to another surgeon, came to die. Stricken with a brain tumor, which she courageously battled for two years, she was facing inevitable defeat, when her husband, who saw the defeat coming, panicked and ran. He could not remain, he said, and watch the love of his life die. God forgive me, he insisted, I cannot and will not do it. And so he left, and Pamela came with their children to the hospital and medical school, where her father was a recently retired professor of medicine. “I will die broken hearted,” she said, “but I will not die embittered. That will be my spiritual victory. To understand all is to forgive all? I understand why he ran, she said. He battled death as his great enemy, and whenever the battle was lost with one of his patients, he would fight depression. Pamela did die broken hearted, hoping against hope, her husband would come to her side at the end. He did not. Nothing could prevail against his terror and his rebellion against the cruelty of fate, and there he remained, frozen solid like the block of ice in Dante's hell, which encased Satan.
Twelve years after his wife’s death---long after I had left my job there--- he returned to face his children and his in-laws. Late one afternoon he came to the office of pastoral care to see my colleague and friend, a priest, also a professor of medical ethics at the medical school. The shadows danced on the walls, and as Jeff entered the office, he looked more like an apparition than a man, the priest thought.
"I didn't come to seek forgiveness," Jeff insisted, “because if I had to do it all over again, I know I would run. I am not an evil man, he insisted, but I am a weak and a cowardly one. Most cowards and weaklings live a lifetime guarding themselves from that knowledge, but I have no such luxury. Pamela was the love of my life, and I abandoned her, because I did not have the guts to stay. And I've remained away these years, because I have not had the courage to face my children with what I have done."
Imagine living with that guilt, with that knowledge of yourself. He's right; most of us do manage to defend ourselves from such awful truth. If this isn't judgment, I don't know what is. Michelangelo's image of the poor agonized thinker, pulled down into hell while offering no resistance, because he knows what he has done and that he would do all over again, pales in comparison.
How does judgment square with forgiveness, justice and mercy? Life, like art and theology, errs on one side or the other: justice or mercy. Choose on which side you will err as Michelangelo did, but dare to hope that in Jesus Christ the opposition is overcome and perfect justice meets perfect mercy so that all manner of things shall finally be made well---if not on this earth, then in a time beyond our seeing or knowing.
About Our Pastor:
I am very happy to be here at the First Church of Christ, Congregational in Unionville, CT. I arrived here in July, 2017, and have been warmly received. This is a wonderful church community. I have been an ordained minister for over three decades now, and I consider it a great privilege and challenge to be called to serve. Before coming to Unionville I served churches on Long Island, Middletown, CT and then ten years in New Haven, Center Church on the Green. My home is in Middletown, where I live with my husband, Donald Oliver, who is a professor of molecular biology at Wesleyan University. We have four grown children, two boys and two girls and three granddaughters, the youngest born on October 3, 2017!