“As far as the east is from the west, so far has God removed our sins from us.” Amen. Psalm 103:12
This evening, I want to begin with a story.
Abbot Anastasius had a book of very fine parchment, which was worth twenty pence. It contained both the Old and New Testaments in full. Once a certain monk came to visit him and, seeing the book, made off with it. So that day when Anastasius went to his Scripture reading he found that it was gone and knew at once that the monk had taken it. But he did not send after him, for fear that he might add the sin of perjury to that of theft.
Now the monk went into the city to sell the book. He wanted eighteen pence for it. The buyer said, “Give me the book so that I may find out if it is worth that much money.” With that, he took the book to the holy Anastasius and said, “Father, take a look at this and tell me if you think it is worth as much as eighteen pence.” Anastasius said, “Yes, it is a fine book. And at eighteen pence it is a bargain.”
So the buyer went back to the monk and said, “Here is your money. I showed the book to Father Anastasius and he said it was worth eighteen pence.” The monk was stunned. “Was that all he said? Did he say anything else?”
“No, he did not say a word more than that.”
“Well, I have changed my mind and don’t want to sell the book after all.”
Then he went back to Anastasius and begged him with many tears to take back the book back, but Anastasius said gently, “No, brother, keep it. It is my gift to you.” But the monk said, “If you do not take it back, I shall have no peace.” After that the monk dwelt with Anastasius for the rest of his life.
Now, I invite you to notice several things about this beautiful parable. Notice first how Anastasius responds to the loss he has suffered. He is not angry or resentful. He is not despairing. He does not wallow in self-pity. In fact, Anastasius is never a victim in this story. He is always acting rather than re-acting. The initiative is with him, not with the thieving monk. And Anastasius chooses to begin with forgiveness.
It is forgiveness, complete acceptance, which defines Anastasius’ relationship with the monk who stole from him. So rather than Anastasius reacting to being harmed, it is the monk who finds himself reacting to the forgiveness he has already received. Before he acknowledges his sin, before he can apologize or make amends, the monk discovers he is already forgiven. Forgiveness comes first; then repentance is possible.
Anastasius, like God, reverses the usual order of things. We think we must repent, change our life, make good, prove our worth, and THEN maybe God will accept us. Not so. God begins with forgiveness. We are loved and accepted always and already, regardless of what we may do or think. It is when, like the monk in this story, we realize how much we are loved that we can relax and allow that love to change our lives forever.
So, we begin with forgiveness. The second thing to notice is the response that Anastasius invites from the repentant monk. He does require the monk to return what he stole. He doesn’t demand sacrifice or self-condemnation. Instead he offers the monk a gift. The monk accepts the gift and dwells with Anastasius for the rest of his life.
You see, this is the kind of response that God desires from us. God doesn’t seek to weigh us down with guilt or shame. There is no demand that we become someone we are not, or even change in any way. God offers us the gift of God’s self; represented in this story by the Holy Scriptures, the living Word of God. We are given everything we need as a free gift. Our response is simply to make our home with God.
When we accept the gift, then we change. We keep thinking we have to take the initiative, do something, before we can receive the gift. But we already have the gift. It is simply life with God, which is our birthright signified in baptism. We have everything we need. The only response God desires is for us to dwell with him forever.
God begins with forgiveness. Then we accept the gift, which is already ours. But it doesn’t end there. Notice, finally, that in dwelling with Anastasius for the rest of his life the monk, in effect, becomes united with Anastasius. He takes his identity from Anastasius. I would like to think that in doing so he discovered and expressed in his own life the tremendous freedom demonstrated by Anastasius.
The point of this story, my friends, is not finally to identify with the forgiven monk, but to identify with the One who forgives. We know ourselves as forgiven on the way to becoming forgiving people. Knowing and accepting God’s love for us, coming to take our identity from God, we become increasingly detached from the praise and condemnation, the harms and the pleasures, we receive from others. They no longer have the power to define us. We are free to act out of the abundance of love that we possess from God. We can become free to forgive as we have been forgiven.
Our Lenten observance, then, is an opportunity to renew the practice of forgiveness in our own lives. It is an invitation to let go of those things that keep us from taking our identity from God. When Jesus says, “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth . . . but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal,” he is calling us to the kind of freedom that Anastasius exemplified. Matt. 6:19-20.
With this freedom comes the capacity to embrace the kind of fast that the prophet invites us to choose: “to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke . . . to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; and when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide your face from your own kin.” Isaiah 58:6-7
Anastasius had his heart set on heavenly treasure, and thus was able to set the guilty monk free through the practice of forgiveness and mercy. God begins with forgiveness. We accept the gift, which is already ours. And then we share the gift with others so that they too, may find freedom – freedom from all the forms of suffering that keep people from experiencing the dignity of their humanity; freedom to choose to live with God for the rest of their lives.
Do you want to observe a holy Lent? Then begin with forgiveness. Accept the gift. Set others free. This is the heavenly treasure that cannot be taken away from us. Set your hearts upon it and live with God forever. Amen.