The Reading from the Holy Gospel according to St. Matthew. (6:14-21)
Imagine that you are a treasure hunter. Your only goal in life is to accumulate treasure. You dedicate your life searching for gold, silver, diamonds and precious stones and jewels. One day as you are traveling and searching for all of these treasures, which are rare and hard to find, you come across a trail. And every few feet along this trail you find scattered treasure. The further you walk, the more of this treasure that you find. In fact, if you walk all the way to the end of the trail you find that there is a giant heap of treasure that is so large that you do not even have a way to collect it all or carry it all. There is only one problem. A giant wall surrounds the treasure. It is 50 feet thick and 50 feet high and there is absolutely no way to go under it, over it, around it or through it. In fact it seems that it is actually two walls that are back to back, two layers of barriers. You are alone with no tools at your disposal.
My brothers and sisters, the treasure that we are trying to accumulate as Christians is the grace of the Holy Spirit and the corresponding virtues, the fruits of the Holy Spirit. The path that we are going to travel to find this treasure is Great and Holy Lent, all of it’s practices, fasting, services, readings and prayers. Yet as we prepare to go on this journey we should be convinced that there is a huge pile of treasure at the end of the journey and that there is a great wall that separates us from the treasure. What is this great wall? It is our sins against others and their sins against us. All of our resentment, all of our hatred, all of our animosity, all of our keeping score, all of our petty differences, all of our hurt and all of our pain, they are the stones used to build this wall. Often times we are even worse with those that we love and are close to, such as our families. We are polite with outsiders but we let our guard down and treat our own families and friends poorly at times. This is true for husbands and wives, parents and children, and between siblings, between friends.
So here we are, all of us are part of this fallen human condition. Each one of us unknowingly building a brick wall that keeps us and others from reaching the mountain of treasures that God would like to share with us. How can we break down this wall? Do we even care to try? If the answer is “NO, I do not care to break down this wall.” Or “No, I do not need to change, only others need to change.” Then why do we bother to come and to go through the motions of prayer or the motions of lent? God does not need us to go through the motions. He doesn’t need us at all, but He desires us. He wants to know us and commune with us.
One of the most amazing aspects of the Christian religion. Something that can be found in no other religion if we are honest, is the idea of God’s unconditional love and forgiveness. God has forgiven us. God has removed the first layer of the wall that separates us from Him. The way is open, but the second layer of the wall, the wall that we spoke of earlier is still there. How can we bring this wall down? We have no tools to knock down this wall. What is the correct method? The correct method for breaking down the final wall is through our sincere forgiveness of others. That is much harder than in may seem. We are really good at pretending that we have forgiven others but as we search our hearts we find that perhaps we harbor lots of bad feelings towards others that are just below the surface. We harbor resentment and pain. We also harbor a sense of shame for our own sins and ill dealing with others. All of this can only be healed by starting the process of forgiving others and also allowing others to forgive you.
This means that not only should we be receptive to forgiving others, but we must also be open to asking forgiveness of others. To refuse to apologize to others, to refuse to ask forgiveness of others is to assume quite a lot. The first thing it assumes is a haughty and prideful disposition. It also assumes a lack of love and tenderness in your heart. When someone asks you to forgive them you should respond to them with love and acceptance, understanding that in fact you are no better than them, and at various times in your life, you might actually be worse! But the act of forgiving and asking for forgiveness is the start to the process of healing. It begins the process of demolishing the walls that are between us and the final layer of the wall that separates us from the Lord Jesus Christ. In fact the Lord Himself tells us in today’s gospel that “if you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, but if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.” This should cause us dread and shock us into a correct disposition. It should also comfort us. God is ready to accept us and He stands on the others side of the wall but since the wall is part of our heart, He respects it and will not knock it down. It is our property, and we must choose to knock it down through unconditional forgiveness and love towards our brothers and sisters.
So important is this aspect of our spiritual journey of Great Lent that tonight we will all return to the church for “Forgiveness Vespers.” This is our time to pray together and to come to each member of the community and open our hearts to them, both asking them to forgive us and offering them our forgiveness and reminding them that God forgives all things. This is an especially important year to offer this to one another because the last year was full of so much pain, judgement, distrust and anxiety and all of this made us much more likely to be angry, resentful, impatient and unloving. Let us come together tonight and offer healing to one another and open up our hearts to receive all of God’s healing grace.
Let me leave you with a quote from St. Tikhon of Zadonsk who writes, “Do we refuse to forgive? God, too, will refuse to forgive us. As we treat our neighbours, so also does God treat us. The forgiveness or unforgiveness of your sins, then, and hence also your salvation or destruction, depend on you yourself. For without forgiveness of sins there is no salvation. You can see for yourself how serious it is.”
I pray that this Lent will be powerful and profitable and that we will follow the lead of the Church by starting this Lent asking for the forgiveness of our sins and generously forgiving others, remembering that the treasure is waiting for us. Glory be to God forever AMEN.