Take a Breath

John 20:19-31

It was just over a year ago that we all went inside and closed our doors.  We locked ourselves in for safety because of the worst pandemic the world has seen since the Spanish Flu.  Businesses closed.  Jobs were lost.  The economy took a nosedive.  Streets were empty and cities became ghost towns as we hid away from a virus that could kill us, our friends, our family—a virus that can be spread with a sneeze, a cough, or a breath.  We all withdrew from the places of our togetherness—from stores, from workplaces, from restaurants, from schools, from church.  

We did our best to stay connected and active with our computers and our phones and our tablets. But as the months dragged on and the statistics kept telling us that the world outside our doors was still dangerous, lethargy set in.  Psychologists are calling it Covid burnout and estimating that 75% of us are affected by it–  a feeling of low-grade stress.  Malaise.  Low energy. Lack of enthusiasm and purpose.  Fatigue.  Lack of focus.  Faulty memory.  

Productivity and creativity are down.  Weight is up.  The AMA says that the average pandemic weight gain is 29 pounds.  The prolonged worry, stress and anxiety of the pandemic has left millions of us living in a mental fog.  When we locked down our buildings, we locked down our psyches, too. 

We are grieving.  But we haven’t called it that.  

What we’ve been feeling must be similar to what the disciples were feeling after the crucifixion.  They were grieving.  Their hopes for change, for a better world and a brighter life had died with Jesus on the cross.  They felt betrayed by one of their companions, someone they had trusted.  They were ashamed of their own cowardice in deserting Jesus.  And they were afraid.  They didn’t want to be seen.  They didn’t want to expose themselves.  

They didn’t know what to do.  They didn’t know where to go.  They didn’t know what would happen next.  So they stayed locked inside the only place where they felt at all safe.  Emotionally, they were burned out.

And then Jesus came and stood among them.  Behind their locked door.  Jesus came to them where they were huddled in their fear and spoke peace to them.  He spoke to their anxiety.  He spoke to their fear.  He spoke to their loss of focus.  He spoke shalom.  Composure.  Stillness.  Peace. 

And then he showed them his hands and his feet.  He showed them his wounds not only so they would know it was really him, but to acknowledge the reality of what they had all been through.  It was his ways of silently saying, “Yes, there was real trauma.  There is a reason you feel this way. Here it is.  I carry it in my body.  You do, too, just in a different way.  Here I am.  Let my visible wounds speak for your invisible ones.”

When they realized it was really him, they were ecstatic, so he spoke peace to them again, this time maybe to calm them down, before he gave them a mission:  “The Father sent me, now I am sending you.” Imagine their surprise when he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit.  If you forgive anyone’s sins they stay forgiven.  If you hold on to anyone’s sins, they remain unforgiven.”

And then suddenly it was all over.  Just as suddenly as he appeared, he was gone.

We don’t know why Thomas wasn’t there for this brief reunion with the risen Jesus, but it shouldn’t surprise us that he didn’t believe the other disciples when they told him about it.  I imagine some of them were having trouble believing it themselves, even though they had experienced it.  We’ve all had that experience, haven’t we, where you see something extraordinary and ask yourself, “Did I really just see that?  Did that just happen?”  Of course Thomas doubted.  There is no shame or sin in that. 

What is a little surprising, though, is that a week later they’re all still locked in that room.  Think about it.  Jesus has appeared to them and told them he is sending them out.  He has given them the Holy Spirit with his own breath which should equip them for the mission.  He has given them the authority to forgive sins or retain them.  And one week later they’re still hiding behind that locked door.

Why?

Well, maybe they weren’t sure what to do next.  Maybe they, themselves, didn’t entirely trust their experience with Jesus.  Maybe they were still afraid.

So Jesus shows up again.  He speaks peace again.  He invites Thomas to touch his wounds.  And Thomas falls at his feet and proclaims, “My Lord and my God.”

Even that second appearance didn’t really kickstart their mission.  Jesus had to appear to them again before they really got started.  In chapter 21, the epilogue of John’s gospel, we read that they had gone back to fishing in Galilee.  Jesus met them on the shore and cooked them breakfast, and basically told them it was time to get moving.

It took the disciples a long time to get over crucifixion shock.  Crucifixion fatigue.  The Post-Traumatic Shock of all they had seen and been through.  They were real people who had witnessed a real horror, and even seeing Christ risen didn’t erase that overnight.  It would take a refreshing and renewing breath of the Holy Spirit—Pentecost—to reenergize them completely and set their mission in motion.

They began to share their story, the story of Jesus crucified and risen, anywhere they could with anyone who would listen.  When they could, they would share it in the synagogues.  When they couldn’t share it there, they shared it in caves or in private homes or in open fields.  Little by little their numbers grew.  Then came Paul, the adversary who became their greatest evangelist after he encountered the risen Christ, and their ecclesia, their church began to take root in places they had never imagined.

All this took time.  And imagination.  And creativity.  And love.  And caution.

Jesus is still sending us out to proclaim the kin-dom of God.  Like those first disciples, we are stumped about what comes next.  And we’ve lost some momentum while we’ve been locked behind closed doors.

As we contemplate opening those doors, we’re not sure what to do next or how to do it.  We know it’s not enough just to get all of us back together behind another set of doors, even if they’re our doors in our building.  Jesus is calling us, as always, to go out there with the good news of God’s love and grace and kindness.  And it’s daunting.  Not only has Covid stymied the normal way we do things, but how do we overcome the energy-sapping pain of declining numbers and increasing cultural indifference to religion in general and ours in particular?

We are like those first disciples.  We don’t know how to proceed with safety and enthusiasm.  We’re not sure where to go next.  We don’t know what to do next and how to do it.  

What we do know is this:  The risen Christ has stood among us and spoken peace to us.  He has breathed on us with the Holy Spirit.  He has given us the authority to forgive.  And he has told us to go.

And we know that Pentecost is coming.  

We don’t have to figure it all out before we step out.  The disciples didn’t.  They went out in faith and followed the guidance of the Spirit as they went.  We can do that, too.  The Spirit will guide us and strengthen us and propel us into the future Christ is leading us to.  

If we are faithful, there will be changes.  God is always doing a new thing.

It’s not our job to know in advance what will change, just that Christ is the architect of the changes that are coming.  Our job right now is to pray for the Holy Spirit to fall on us and light us up in a big way so that we are brave enough and healed enough to unlock the door and go out.

So take a breath.  Breathe in the Spirit that Christ is breathing out on us.  And then go…to make disciples of all people.  For the sake of the kin-dom of God.

In Jesus’ name.

Pardon Our Disruption

Numbers 21:4-9; John 3:14-21

Such an interesting story in the Book of Numbers.  The people of Israel are on the road between Mt. Hor and the Gulf of Aqaba.  They’re complaining.  Again.  They’re not happy with the food.  It’s always something.  Anyway, the people grumbled, so the Lord sent poisonous snakes among them, and many Israelites were bitten and died.  That’s how the Israelites tell the story.

Nobody ever tells the story from the snakes’ point of view.  The way they see it, they were all just hanging about, minding their own snaky business in Snake Land when suddenly the whole nation of Israel showed up with all their noisy grumbling and complaints and pitched camp right on top of them, driving tent pegs down into their dens, breaking their eggs, chasing them with sticks, throwing rocks at them, hacking at them with swords… So yeah, they bit a few of them.  They were just trying to defend themselves.  They weren’t trying to kill anybody.  Why would they?  The Israelites were too big to eat…at least for those kinds of snakes.  

Moses prayed to the Lord to make the snakes go away.  Maybe the leader of the snakes asked the Lord to make the people go away.  Maybe the leader of the snakes suggested that the Lord could tell Moses to put a big bronze snake up on a pole to remind the people that they were in snake territory, and that the snakes were there first thank you very much, so they should be careful where they were poking around and pitching their tents.  

Well, that’s not the way we get the story in the Book of Numbers, but then snakes never were any good at public relations, and they don’t come off too well in the Bible as a rule.  Still, it’s interesting that in this particular instance, even in the Moses version of the story, God is using the snakes to accomplish God’s business and that includes healing cranky, ungrateful people from snakebite… which they wouldn’t have got bit in the first place if they hadn’t been cranky and ungrateful and gone poking about looking for something else to eat when there wasn’t anything kosher out there anyway.

So, the moral of that story is be grateful for what you have, even if you’re a little tired of it.  And leave the snakes alone.  

Many, many, many, many, many years later, this story would come up again when Jesus sat down one night with a Pharisee named Nicodemus.  Jesus was trying to help Nicodemus understand some very basic things about living in the love of God.  This was difficult for Nicodemus because he was a very smart and knowledgeable person, a teacher, in fact.  He knew the sacred writings of Israel backwards and forwards and upside down, but the things Jesus was saying mystified him.  He had a lot to unlearn.  The way he understood things got in the way of him comprehending things…if you grasp what I’m saying.  

Jesus was trying to help Nicodemus learn how to see and enter and experience the kingdom of God.  Nicodemus was trying to just get his head around it when he needed to put his whole heart into it.  

Nicodemus needed another pathway into the mystery.

It’s like this, said Jesus.  Remember when Moses lifted up that bronze snake in the wilderness?  It’s like that.  The Human One will also be lifted up.  And in the same way that people were healed when they looked to that bronze snake gleaming in the sun,  they’ll be healed when they look to the Human One, only they’ll be healed of something much more deadly than snake venom.

Have you ever wondered what kind of magic was at work in that bronze snake on that pole in the desert.  It was a powerful magic, stronger than any other.  When people looked at that snake on the pole, the light flashing off of it pierced their hearts and reminded them that they had complained against Moses and against God.  They had been in a desert, in a land of no food and no water, and God had provided for them.  But they were ungrateful.  There was poison in their hearts and it came out in their words.  The snakes biting them was a kind of metaphor for the way they had been treating each other.  And Moses.  And God.

When they looked at that bronze snake glinting in the desert sun, they could see a very unflattering image of themselves.  They could taste the bitterness of their ingratitude and the venom of their complaining.  So they repented.  And they were healed.  Because they also saw that God loved them enough to transform them.  They could stop being snakes, metaphorical or otherwise.  The magic, the power that emanated from that snake on the pole was God’s forgiveness and God’s love.  

And now the whole world is snakebit, Nicodemus.  People believe they are walking always and everywhere under the dark night of God’s judgment.  They don’t see that they have been always and everywhere in the bright light of God’s love.  They’re perishing.  Their souls are dying because they can’t let themselves believe they are loved.

Listen, Nicodemus.  God loves the world so much that God has given God’s only Son so that whoever believes him won’t perish, won’t fade into an everlasting death and nothingness, but will instead live forever in the light of God’s love.  

You think God is about judgment?   I’ll tell you about judgment.  God wants to bring everyone and everything, even the snakes, into the light of God’s love.  But some don’t want to come.  Some want to stay in the dark.  Some want to keep living in the deep shadows of hatred and fear, and us versus them.  Some have a greedy hunger in them that wouldn’t be satisfied if they swallowed the whole earth.  Some think they are the whole earth and don’t have room in their hearts for anyone or anything else.  They think they’re all that and a bag of chips.  Some, many really, want to keep judging others, because it’s the only way they can make themselves feel like they have any value, so they just keep living in the shadow of judgment…and the shadow of their own fears.

But the Son of God is not here to judge.  The Son came to heal.  To save.  To lead people out of the shadows.

The world has forgotten how lovely it is.  The Son of God has come to help the world remember, to relearn its beauty and its kindness.  

The world has forgotten that when God created everything God said it was good.  All of it.  Everyone.  Even the snakes.

The Son of God has come to help people remember Original Goodness.[1]

When they see the Human One lifted up, they will be reminded of all the ugly things that happen in a snakebit world, they will be reminded of how the venom in their own hearts and souls can wound and kill.  And then they will remember they weren’t made that way.  Then they will see the love of God.  They will see that the Son came out of love, not out of need.  And the love of God will transform them.  They will step back into the light of God’s love.

All of that is what Jesus was trying to get Nicodemus to  understand.  And us.  It’s what he would like us to understand, too.

When you think about it, all of this is about disruption. 

The Israelites disrupt the generally sleepy life of the snakes when they pitch camp in their territory. The snakes disrupt the grumbly and quarrelsome life of the Israelites when they start biting them.  God and Moses disrupt the poisonous dynamics of fear and dissatisfaction when they set up the snake on a pole.  Nicodemus disrupts Jesus’ quiet evening when he drops by at night for a private interview.  In his conversation with Nicodemus, Jesus disrupts our understanding of theology and the scriptures, especially our understanding of how judgment works.  

God works through disruptions to transform things and people.

This week we observed the anniversary of two significant disruptions.  

Wednesday, March 10, was the 88th anniversary of the Long Beach earthquake of 1933.  Between 115 to 120 people were killed.  Damage was estimated at $40 million.  That would be more than $800 million today.  Two hundred thirty school buildings were either destroyed or declared unsafe for use.  Out of that disruption, though, came new standards for building safety, including specific codes for school buildings.  New methods of government assistance for disaster response and reconstruction were instituted, too, as people realized that these kinds of resources were needed when damage was too widespread or extensive to expect a city to be able to recover and rebuild on its own.  Essentially, we found new ways to take care of each other.  To love each other.

The other anniversary is one we’re all too aware of.  It’s been one year since we were all in church together, worshipping in our sanctuary.  Our building.  But we’ve never stopped being church.  The disruption of this pandemic has made being church more difficult in some ways, but it has also transformed us in some important ways, too.  Like all disruptions, it has taught us more about who we are and invited us to think about who we want to be, who we are called to be, as we move forward.

The Israelites weren’t the same people when they left the land of the snakes.  They complained less and were more grateful.  Life-as-usual had been disrupted.

Nicodemus wasn’t the same person when the sun rose the next morning as he was when he had sat down with Jesus in the dark of night before.  He had begun to understand both God’s love and God’s judgment differently.  Everything he knew, everything he understood had been disrupted. You might say he was being reborn.

We aren’t the same people we were a year ago.  All the patterns of our lives have been disrupted.  In a time when need and circumstances required us to stay physically apart you would think we would have made every effort to find ways to pull together, but all too often, as a nation at least, we let the polarity of our dysfunctional politics pull us farther apart.  We have seen the damage caused by the venom of our fears and anger.  But we have also heard the voice of Christ calling us together and helping us relearn our loveliness,  reminding us of our Original Goodness. 

We have seen the serpent lifted up in the desert.  But also the cross lifted at calvary.  Through earthquake or pandemic, polar vortex or politics…even snakes…  God’s love still flows to carry us through it all.  Together.

In Jesus’ name.


[1] Genesis 1:31

Let It Be

Matthew 18:21-35

When I was turning eleven, the thing I wanted more than anything else in the world was a gas powered model plane, the kind with its own little engine and propeller and a control grip with strings that connected to the elevators so you could make it take off and land and climb and, if you were really good at it, make it do loop the loops.  So when, on my 11th birthday, I unwrapped a large box to discover a balsa wood scale model Piper Cub (some assembly required) with an 18 inch wingspan, I was over the moon!  

Over the course of the following weeks I stole time from my homework and from practicing my clarinet and piano to carefully put the plane together, paint it a deep cherry red, then meticulously place all the decals so it really did look exactly like a miniature version of the Piper Cubs I had seen at the Long Beach Airport.  This was hard work for me because at that time in my life meticulous was not my strong suit.  Finally, though, my beautiful little plane was ready to fly. 

To prepare for the big first flight, I read the accompanying instructions over and over again.  I practiced holding my hand firm and steady on the control grip, rocking my wrist in small, steady movements just like it said in the booklet.  I waxed the control lines with beeswax so they would move easily through the guides in the fuselage.  I checked and triple-checked that they were properly and tightly connected to the elevators.  And then I told my dad she was ready to go.

Here’s the thing.  It took two people to get one of those planes off the ground.  This was 1964.  Radio controlled planes existed but they were rare and expensive.  What I had was the kind where the “pilot” held a control grip 25 to 30 feet away from the plane.  Two strings went from the grip to the plane.  By rocking your wrist you could make the elevators on the tail of the plane go up or down, which made the plane go up or down.  All of that was a one-person operation.  But once you got the engine started, somebody had to hold onto the plane and keep it in one place while the pilot took control at the grip.  If you tried to start the engine then run back to the grip, the plane would be likely to zip off to its own destruction before you could get control.

Dad had already convinced me that it would be best for him to start the engine which was done by twirling the propeller.  His argument was simple: the blade of that propeller could do a lot more damage to my smaller, fingers than it could to his if said fingers didn’t get out of the way in time.  So fine.  Dad would start the engine on my plane’s maiden flight.  That seemed reasonable.  

What didn’t seem at all reasonable to me, though, was when he insisted that I hold the plane while he ran back to the control grip so he could take the plane up for its first flight.  He pointed out that he was an aerospace engineer who designed fighter jets and spacecraft for a living.  He reminded me that he had piloted a B-24 during the war.  Yeah, I said, but it’s my plane, my birthday present!  I’ve read all the instructions!  Didn’t matter.  I was overruled. 

Dad started the engine.  I held the plane in place.  Dad ran to take the control grip.  He gave me a nod, I released the plane, and it was airborne almost immediately, lunging upward at a steep angle.  Then, just as suddenly as it had leaped for the sky, it plunged straight back into the ground, burying its propeller in the dirt and breaking the wing.  Apparently the skills required to fly a B-24 didn’t translate well to flying a scale model of a Piper Cub. 

I was heartbroken.  And furious.  Dad mumbled that he would fix it then disappeared into the house without another word.  No apology.  

That plane sat on his workbench in the garage for a long time.  I started to fix it myself once but Dad stopped me saying angrily that he would fix it.  At some point it got moved to a shelf above the workbench.  It was still there when I went off to college.    

Forgiveness is hard.  It’s especially hard if the wound is deep or if the person who wronged you doesn’t acknowledge what they’ve done.

We have close friends whose daughter was murdered.  Her husband deliberately drove their car into a wall, killing them both.  The fact that he died, too, doesn’t lessen the pain for our friends.  The fact that their son-in-law was mentally ill doesn’t reduce their grief or make it any easier to forgive him.  And they know they need to forgive him.  They know that holding on to their anger and their desire for retribution only keeps them shackled to the pain and ugliness of what happened.  They know this in their heads.  But it is oh, so hard to let go of it in their hearts.

We should be careful when we talk about forgiveness.  When we quote Jesus telling Peter that he needs to forgive seventy times seven, we need to remember that behind the hyperbole, Jesus knows forgiveness is not easy.  It’s not our default mode.  We need to make sure we don’t wound people who are already hurting by making something so difficult sound trifling or easy.

Jesus tells Peter a story about two servants who are in debt.  It’s a good metaphor, because when we’re wronged or when we wrong someone else, it creates a kind of debt.  There is a new imbalance in the relationship.

Our natural desire is to balance the scales.   We want the wrong acknowledged.  At the minimum we want an apology.  Usually we want a price to be paid, and if that doesn’t happen, we dwell on it.  We hold on to the wrong done to us.  It gets magnified.  We pick at the wound inflicted on us.  It gets inflamed and festers.  Interest gets added to the debt. 

The problem with all this is that even if we get the vengeance or retribution we want, it doesn’t change what happened.  It doesn’t heal the wound.  It doesn’t repair the relationship.  What happened still happened.  The debt can’t really be repaid.  The scales can’t be balanced because they’re broken.  And you can very easily end up in an endless exchange of tit for tat and spend the rest of your days keeping score.

 “Not forgiving,” said Anne Lamott, “is like drinking rat poison and then waiting for the rat to die.”[1]

Forgiving is hard.  But it’s the only way out.

Anne Lamott also wrote, “Forgiveness, means it finally becomes unimportant that you hit back. You’re done. It doesn’t necessarily mean that you want to have lunch with the person. If you keep hitting back, you stay trapped in the nightmare… forgiveness means you’re done.”[2] 

The Greek word that’s translated as forgive in the New Testament is aphiemi.  It means to release, to let go, to let it be.  Forgiveness is a decision to let the past be the past.  To quit dragging it into the present.  It is a decision to move forward, to release both yourself and the other party from whatever chains bind you to that episode of wrong.  

Lewis Smedes wrote, “To forgive is to set a prisoner free and discover that the prisoner was you.”

When Jesus tells the story of the two indebted slaves in Matthew 18, he uses outrageous hyperbole.  The first slave owes the king ten thousand talents.  That’s a staggering amount of money, equivalent to the national debt of a small country.  As Peter and the disciples listen to Jesus telling this story, the only thing more shocking than the size of that debt is that the king simply forgives it.  But even more shocking than that is that the forgiven slave refuses to grant the same kind of grace to his fellow slave who owes him only a hundred denarii.  

The traditional interpretation of this parable goes something like this: we should always be mindful of how much God has forgiven us, so we should forgive each other.

Okay.  Sure.  But let’s go back to that staggering number.  The ten thousand talents.  Sixty million denarii.  What if, instead of thinking in terms of all the ways known and unknown that we’ve offended God, that number represented all the ways known and unknown that we’ve offended each other.  Especially the unknowns.  The forgotten promises.  The stinging remarks.  The things left undone.  The unkind things said behind the back in the company of others.  The slow death of relationships by a thousand paper cuts. And then one day there’s a come to Jesus moment and we have a choice.  Do we forgive?  Do we let the past be the past?  

Forgiveness doesn’t mean you forget.  Forgive and forget is not a thing.  Human beings are not at all good at forgetting their injuries.

So forgive and remember, but don’t let that memory bind you to that injury.

Forgiving doesn’t mean you trust the person who wronged you.  But it may mean you give them an opportunity to earn your trust again.  Maybe.  Forgiveness means you release them from that old injury.  It doesn’t mean they automatically get a chance to injure you again.

Forgiving doesn’t mean you make yourself available for or vulnerable to more wounding or abuse.  

Forgiveness is hard.  It may take planning.  It may take time.

Forgiveness also takes understanding.

It took me a very long time to forgive my dad for wrecking my Piper Cub, especially since he never apologized for it.

It took me a long time to understand how he must have felt about crashing my plane.  Sure, it broke my heart and infuriated me all in about fifteen seconds.  But Dad was a pilot!  He was an aerospace engineer, a designer of supersonic aircraft and flight systems!  And here, in a moment of patriarchal arrogance he had destroyed his son’s toy plane!   And along with it more than a little of his own self-esteem.  

It took me a long time to appreciate that he had wounded himself at least as much as he had hurt me.  It took me decades to realize that the cloudy look I saw on his face as he stomped back to the house, the look I had thought was anger, was actually shame.  

My dad, was so capable of so many things, but putting his emotions into words, especially emotions that troubled him, was not one of them.  No wonder he never wanted to talk about that plane ever again.  No wonder it just sat there for years, untouched, on the workbench, a mute reminder of the day he failed to be both the father and the pilot he wanted to be.

The parable of the two indebted slaves ends this way:  the king is furious that the slave whose enormous debt he has forgiven has shown no such mercy to his fellow slave who owes him only a pittance, so he hands the greedy slave over to be tortured until he can pay his entire debt.  Jesus then says, “So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”

So, forgive each other or off you go to eternal debtors prison?  Is that the message?

Well, maybe it is.  Because if you’re not forgiving, you’re shackling yourself to old wounds and grievances.  You’re locking yourself in a past where the script is engraved in stone and the players always move through the same blocking and say the same lines.  The same scenes repeat endlessly just on different stages. 

Better to let it go.  Let the past be the past.  Let it be.

Move on.

Forgiveness is a decision to love.

“You can’t forgive without loving,” said Maya Angelou. “And I don’t mean sentimentality. I don’t mean mush. I mean having enough courage to stand up and say, ‘I forgive. I’m finished with it.’

I eventually forgave my dad for crashing my plane.  I’m finished with it.

I wish I had told him while he was still alive.


[1] Anne Lamott, Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith

[2]Anne Lamott, Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith

The Keys to Heaven

The body of the old man lay stretched out upon the table, prepared according to custom and covered with a shroud.  The priest, who had been gazing out the window, or perhaps deep into his own thoughts, broke from his reverie, stood up, and removed a papyrus scroll from the folds of his robe then moved to the body lying on the table and gently, reverently, lifted the edge of the shroud and took something from the right hand of the old man lying beneath it, and lifted it high in the lamplight for all to see.  Everyone reacted to the familiar object dangled before them.  Some smiled wistfully, a few nodded in recognition, one woman buried her face in her scarf and wept.  It was a plain thing, a simple leather thong suspending ten stones, seven smaller, three larger, each separated from the others by a knot in the leather.  They did not catch the light in any particular way.  They did not glow or sparkle.  There was no mystic aura about them.  But the faithful people in that gathering would not have traded those stones for rubies or diamonds or sapphires or pearls. “The Keys to Heaven,” said the priest.  With care bordering on ceremony he handed the odd artifact to the Deaconess who stood at the feet of the old man’s corpse.  She continued to cradle the leather strip and its stones in her hands so all could see it in the soft glow of the oil lamps.   The priest unrolled the scroll and began to read.

By vocation the priest was the chief reader at a busy scriptorium.  Six days of the week he would read aloud to a phalanx of copyists—reading slowly, distinctly, and loudly enough to be heard at the back of the room yet fast enough to keep up with the demands of the business, to meet its deadlines and keep it profitable.  The qualities that made him so very good at his job also made him an excellent public lector, a role which added to his income.  This talent also served him well, of course, in his role as priest in this small community of the faithful.  But now, as he began to read his dear friend’s last will and testament, he put aside his professional voice and tried to find in himself the deep wells of strength and gentleness that characterized his departed friend; he did his best to summon his friend’s voice for his friend’s words.  This is what he read:

My dear friends, my brothers and sisters, grace to you and peace in the name of the One we follow, who was, who is and who is to come.  Amen.  I pray you know how much you are loved.   I have so very little to leave to you in the way of earthly things.  My little house and my poor purse I entrust to this community.  Perhaps they may be used to benefit a widow or two.  Let the Deaconess administer these things as she is most capable.  Let the tools of my trade go Nathaniel, my apprentice.  I have no other possessions except the Keys to Heaven.  These I bequeath to you all for your common use and good, but I must tell you how I came to have them.

 I think that almost every one of you, most when you were children, but some when you were older, have asked me, “Andreas, what are those stones hanging from your belt?” and I would say, “They are the Keys to Heaven and I am giving them to you.”  Then you would say, “When can I have them?”  And I would say, “When you can tell me how they are made!”  So now, I will tell you their story.

For all the years I have lived among you, you have known me as Andreas the Leatherworker.  That was not always my name.  For that matter, working leather was not always my trade, but that is of no importance.  When I was much younger and full of anger at the world I did some dangerous and stupid things.  One thing in particular was even evil, though I did not think so at the time.  As a consequence, I found myself on the run, hiding from the patrols of soldiers that seemed to be everywhere on the road.  I cut my hair and shaved my beard.  I stole the tunic, mantle and belt of a tradesman while he was bathing in the river and left my very fine and costly clothes in their place.  Then I fastened a sword to my belt and kept on running.

 Three nights later, just at nightfall, I saw a man sitting by a campfire just to the side of the road.  Half mad with hunger and exhaustion, I moved toward him, drew my sword and said, “Give me your food and your money.”  I meant to growl it out in a menacing way but my throat was so parched I must have croaked like a raven.  “We will gladly share our food with you,” said the man, “but what money we have with us is not ours to give.”  I started to move toward him with my sword when his words pierced the fog of my hunger.  We.  He had said “we.”  I blinked, looked again, and could not believe I had not seen them the first time—four other men. Two of them were some small distance behind the man by the fire but were now walking briskly toward us.  Another man was emerging from the brush carrying an armload of wood for the fire, and another with a water skin was just coming up from the stream.  Five men altogether.  Even if I weren’t nearly dead from hunger and thirst I could never take on five men.  My head began to swim, my knees gave out and I fell, unconscious.

 I awakened to find one of the men bathing my forehead with a cool, wet cloth while another was bandaging my arm.  Apparently I had cut it with my own sword when I fell.  The man I had first seen, the one I had threatened and tried to rob, lifted a cup of cool water to my lips but urged me to drink it slowly.  As soon as I was able to sit up one of the men gave me a piece of bread and a piece of dried fish which I devoured immediately without a word.

I didn’t know what to expect next and I was too weak to try to run.  When the big man, the first man I had seen by the fire, picked up my sword I half expected him to kill me with it. Instead he laid it in front of me in the dirt.  “This is yours,” he said, “though I think you might be better off not to keep it.  That’s a Roman Gladius.  A soldier’s sword.  And you don’t strike me as a soldier. I think maybe that sword has already brought you trouble and if I were you I would just bury it here at the side of the road.” 

 I was dumbstruck.  That sword had been nothing but trouble.  That sword and my hot temper were the whole reason I had had to flee for my life. 

 I looked at the big man.  He was smiling at me, and I realized, looking at him, that there was no fear in him.  No anger.  “You must still be hungry,” he said.  “I tried to rob you!” I said, incredulous.  “I threatened you!”  “Yes.  You did,” he said.  “I forgive you.”  “But I…”  I started.  “Let it go,” he said, quietly.  “I have.  What you bind on earth is bound in heaven.  What you release on earth is released in heaven.  I release it.  I release you.  Let it go.”

 I sat staring at the ground for a long time, confused, not knowing what to think. 

I heard him chuckle, looked up and saw him smiling at me.  He leaned over and picked up a smooth agate pebble from the ground, walked over and placed it in my hand.  “Here,” he said. “Keep this.  This is the first Key to Heaven.  Forgiveness.”  “I don’t know if I can be forgiven.” I said. 

His expression became reflective and he gazed into the fire for a long moment. “I felt that way once,” he said at last. “I betrayed my best friend…my teacher…my master.  I betrayed him three times in one night to save my own skin.”  “What happened?” I asked.  “They crucified him,” he said simply.  “But I got away because I pretended that I didn’t know him. Three times in one night someone accused me of being one of his companions and three times I denied it.  And I didn’t think I would ever be forgiven for that.  But he forgave me.  And he helped me forgive myself.  He released me from my sin and he helped me let go of my sin—helped me to stop clinging to it..” 

“Wait a minute,” I said, “I though you said they crucified him.”  “They did,” he said.  “Well then how…when did he forgive you?”  The way he looked at me I could tell he was trying to decide something and it was another very long moment before he said, “That’s another story and if you would like to travel with us I will gladly tell it another day.  For now,” and here he smiled again, “hold on to that little piece of forgiveness and let that be enough for today.”

 And that, my beloved brothers and sisters is how I came to have the first of the Keys of Heaven, the Key of Forgiveness.  Having nowhere else to go and nothing to lose, I became a travelling companion of Petrus, the Fisherman, who taught me the ways of his Master and baptized me into a new life with a new name.  And along the way he gave me the Keys of Heaven and taught me how they are made, or where they can be discovered, so that each of us can have them and carry them with us and unlock Heaven around us wherever we are. 

 The first key is Forgiveness.  The Second is Gratitude.  The third is Generosity.  The fourth is Compassion. These four open your heart to the world God made, the world God loves.  The fifth key is Integrity.  The Sixth is Thoughtfulness.  These two open the soul and mind to look beyond yourself and deal fairly with all others.  The seventh is Be Not Afraid.  This key gives you the presence of mind to remember that you have all the others at your command and it helps you to use them wisely.

Then there are the three larger keys.  These give the first keys their power.  At the same time, the first keys can unlock the power of these three.  They are Faith, Hope and Love.

 So, my beloved friends, these are the Keys to Heaven.  I hope you can see that I spoke the truth all these years when I said, “I am giving them to you.”  I hope and pray that in my life you saw forgiveness, gratitude, generosity, compassion, integrity and thoughtfulness.  I hope you saw me live without fear.  I pray that you are gathering these keys for yourself by the example of our Master.  May you all continue to grow in Faith, Hope and Love until we are reunited in the Life to Come.

Peace be with you.  I am always your brother,

Andreas