The film is now 30 years old but it has stuck with me. “The Mission” was about “18th century Spanish Jesuits (a Catholic order) trying to protect a remote South American Indian tribe in danger of falling under the rule of pro-slavery Portugal.”* Based on actual events, it leads to an unhappy yet somehow inspirational ending, and evokes lots of questions.
One of the main characters was a man who had lived a violent life as a privateer who converts to the faith under the spiritual direction of the head of the mission. As part of dealing with his past life his spiritual director has him carry a sack full of symbols and tools of his old life – swords, armor, etc. He must carry this into the remote mission, even dragging it up a cliff which he had to climb. When he reaches the tribe at the mission, they find his carrying it to be ridiculous and cut it off of him. In that moment, touched by the grace of people he does not even know or understand, he feels finally free. Such physical penances are pretty much a thing of the past now, but the point was not for him to work off a debt. Christ’s forgiveness is free, is it not, and who could ever work off such a debt?
Ahh, but we do still carry stuff around from the past, forgiven or not. We can’t help it! My reading in Matthew’s gospel this morning (Matthew 14:1-12) featured the grim account of King Herod ordering the beheading of John the Baptist. The burden of that wrong so disturbed his soul that he thought Jesus, with all his healings and miracles, might be John the Baptist risen from the dead. Those are the thoughts of a haunted man. Things we have done and scars from things that have been done to us do not go away. Somewhere they are stored in the mind and the body. There is no escaping them. They continue to influence how we see and react to situations in our lives now. To think of them as a sack we carry around with us, weighing us down, is a pretty helpful image of this. Do we need to keep carrying them? No. Does God want to set us free of them? Yes. Can we simply let go of them? Often not.
This is in fact an important part of the faith journey. It takes prayers, inviting Jesus to enter this realm of scars, burdens, and wrongs within us. It takes action. Twelve Step programs like A.A. take these things very seriously, asking participants to do a “fearless moral inventory” of their lives, share it with a trusted soul, and move toward the correcting of wrongs. It is not about obtaining a forgiveness that God freely gives. It is about opening up where this stuff is stored so it can be cleared from the life and the mind. It will often take people and situations that rub our wounds in the wrong place so that we are even aware they are there, and it will often take some wise people to accompany us on the journey. We will carry these burdens until we stop carrying them, and the ability to let go of them usually involves a journey with them (and our willingness to take that journey).
We can either take those journeys or stay haunted by old pains. God is patient, persistent, and has already forgiven. Jesus is already hidden in the things we fear to face. After all, he didn’t go to the cross for nothing. May we all grow in this trust!
- Rev. Charlie
*Quote taken from IMDB plot summary