Sunday, September 25, 2011

We Don't get to Choose!

The Lord's table is long, and wide, and there is room for all. Never doubt this, and never forget it.

Exodus 17:1-7

From the wilderness of Sin the whole congregation of the Israelites journeyed by stages, as the LORD commanded. They camped at Rephidim, but there was no water for the people to drink. The people quarreled with Moses, and said, “Give us water to drink.” Moses said to them, “Why do you quarrel with me? Why do you test the LORD?” But the people thirsted there for water; and the people complained against Moses and said, “Why did you bring us out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and livestock with thirst?” So Moses cried out to the LORD, “What shall I do with this people? They are almost ready to stone me.” The LORD said to Moses, “Go on ahead of the people, and take some of the elders of Israel with you; take in your hand the staff with which you struck the Nile, and go. I will be standing there in front of you on the rock at Horeb. Strike the rock, and water will come out of it, so that the people may drink.” Moses did so, in the sight of the elders of Israel. He called the place Massah and Meribah, because the Israelites quarreled and tested the LORD, saying, “Is the LORD among us or not?”

Philippians 2:1-13

If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind.

Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death — even death on a cross.Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

Therefore, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed me, not only in my presence, but much more now in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; 13or it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.

Matthew 21:23-32

When he entered the temple, the chief priests and the elders of the people came to him as he was teaching, and said, “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?”

Jesus said to them, “I will also ask you one question; if you tell me the answer, then I will also tell you by what authority I do these things. Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?” And they argued with one another, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will say to us, ‘Why then did you not believe him?’ But if we say, ‘Of human origin,’ we are afraid of the crowd; for all regard John as a prophet.” So they answered Jesus, “We do not know.” And he said to them, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things.

“What do you think? A man had two sons; he went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work in the vineyard today.’ He answered, ‘I will not’; but later he changed his mind and went. The father went to the second and said the same; and he answered, ‘I go, sir’; but he did not go. Which of the two did the will of his father?” They said, “The first.” Jesus said to them, “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you. For John came to you in the way of righteousness and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes believed him; and even after you saw it, you did not change your minds and believe him.”

This is the Word of the Lord.

In May of 1998, Stephen Alan Thompson became the seventeenth person executed in the state of Alabama since 1983. There wasn’t any doubt about his crime, there was no outpouring of protest against his going to the electric chair – three people showed up in Linn Park in Birmingham to protest on the night of his execution. Not exactly an international wave of support for the condemned.

He spoke to the family of his victim, saying he hoped that they would at last find some peace. And just before they threw the switch, he raised his hand against the leather restraint and made the International Sign Language symbol for “I love you” – a sign he learned in a prison ministry called “Kairos.”

You see, on Alabama’s Death Row, Steve Thompson had become a Christian.

In our Gospel reading today, Jesus enters the Temple and is confronted by the leaders of the Jewish faith. These are, for all intents and purposes, the guardians of righteousness, the ones who decide what is right and what is wrong for those who wish to worship the one true and living God. They examined the offerings to make sure they were fit for the sacrificial altar, interpreted the Books of the Law of Moses, and were generally the mediators between Yahweh and humankind.

Think of it – here, in the epicenter of the Jewish faith, the Temple, the men who held absolute sway over the spiritual lives of millions of believers were focused on one road-worn, nondescript, homeless rabbi. Amazing, isn’t it?

But people were listening to this rabbi. People were finding healing, hope, and new life in this rabbi, and (I’ve said this before) the one thing a totalitarian ruler can never allow, the one thing that will destroy his kingdom from within, is hope. And the chief priests served at the pleasure of Caesar. A bad day for Caesar meant a very bad day for them.

But it could be that I am being too hard on them, too cynical. After all, if these chief priests and elders took their responsibility seriously, someone like Jesus would have had them worried. He healed on the Sabbath. He ate with prostitutes and tax collectors. He even went into Samarian and Gentile lands to minister to the people there. Every time they turned around, this Jesus fellow was doing something else to stir the people up, and yes, the things he did were good, but he was doing them wrong!

But what does it mean to believe? In whatever context we put it, a pre-Resurrection belief in the one true God, or a post-resurrection faith in Jesus Christ, how do we define “believing?” What constitutes “faith?”

For both the Pharisees and the Sadducees, belief and faith were defined by religious rites, by personal piety, and by adherence not only to the Law of Moses but to specific interpretations of that law. For one to be a true believer, for one to have a valid faith, coming in contact with a Samaritan, a Gentile, or any person who was less pious was dangerous. Merely passing though Samaritan territory made a person unclean.

Yet this appearance of piety was a thin bedsheet which covered evil hearts. In the twenty-third chapter of Matthew, Jesus has nothing at all good to say about the piety of the scribes and the Pharisees: “The scribes and the Pharisees… say things and do not do them. They tie up heavy burdens and lay them on men’s shoulders, but they themselves are unwilling to move them with so much as a finger. But they do all their deeds to be noticed by men; for they broaden their phylacteries and lengthen the tassels of their garments. They love the place of honor at banquets and the chief seats in the synagogues, and respectful greetings in the market places, and being called Rabbi by men.

“…Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites, because you shut off the kingdom of heaven from people; for you do not enter in yourselves, nor do you allow those who are entering to go in. Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites, because you devour widows’ houses, and for a pretense you make long prayers; therefore you will receive greater condemnation… Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cummin, and have neglected the weightier provisions of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness; but these are the things you should have done without neglecting the others. You blind guides, who strain out a gnat and swallow a camel!”

All that work, all that dogged dedication to every area of the Law… and they missed the whole point!

Meanwhile, Jesus is doing amazing things in areas the Pharisees and Sadducees would never dare to go. He had touched lepers, he had gone to the territories of the Samaritans and Gentiles – going so far as to heal, so far as to feed a multitude in the same way he had fed five thousand in Judea, so far as to share the Good News of the Kingdom of God with men and women who would never have been welcome in the Temple!

Small wonder, then, that Jesus would have been the focus of so much of the chief priests’ and temple rulers’ attention. No wonder Nicodemus had come in the night to find out more about him. Jesus did things wrong, and upset the status quo. When they heard he was coming to the Temple, a direct confrontation was inevitable. The chief priests and the elders were the religious authority in the land, and Jesus needed to admit that he had no authority, he needed to be stopped!

But when prostitutes and tax collectors will get into the Kingdom of God ahead of you, your authority doesn’t much matter, does it?

You see, each in their own way, the Sadducees and the Pharisees thought they had the ability to decide who was worthy of acceptance into the faith, and who – because of birth or gender or any number of other factors – would never be worthy. They thought they could decide who would be allowed to believe, to have faith.

But no. They couldn’t make someone believe, and they most certainly could not decide who was not permitted to have faith.

And in reading the Gospels we see, time and again, that it is faith which so often is the key to the miracles of Jesus Christ. In the ninth chapter of the book of Matthew alone, Jesus performs four healings and an exorcism, and in each of the healings, faith – belief – are vital components. Those who brought a paralyzed person to Jesus displayed great faith. The synagogue official believed that Jesus could heal his daughter. The woman with the issue of blood believed that if she touched only so much as the hem of his garment, she would be well, and the two blind men received their sight because they believed! Over in the fifteenth chapter, the Canaanite woman we spoke of awhile back – not likely even a follower of Judaism – saw her daughter healed because of her faith in Christ, and everyone in her region who came to Jesus in need of healing got that healing!

By contrast, we read in Matthew’s thirteenth chapter that Jesus didn’t do many miracles in his home town “because of their unbelief.”

So people who were allowed to have faith did not, and people prohibited from having faith… well, they had faith anyway!

The Pharisees, the Sadducees, the elders and the scribes and the rulers didn’t get to pick who had faith.

And we don’t get to pick who has faith, either. 

When the Apostle Paul says, in our Epistle reading, in humility, to regard others as better than ourselves, to put the interests of others ahead of our own interest, to be of the same mind as Christ, it was with the knowledge that he was speaking to men and women and children for whom Jesus Christ had died. That same Jesus gave his life for each of us here today. This is a fact: we are beloved children of God, chosen and called by God into the citizenship of the Kingdom of Heaven, welcomed into loving relationship with the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Though we are uniquely loved, especially valued, this treasure is not meant to be hoarded, but shared! Shared with everyone, without reservation.

In the New Testament, we meet lepers and prostitutes and tax collectors and pagans and slaves and centurions and eunuchs and people who are crippled and a criminal on a cross who all believe in Jesus Christ, who all enter the Kingdom of God long before the religious elite, the people with the flawless theology and the perfectly crafted doctrine, even notice that a Kingdom of God exists.

And today? Today there are people just like Steve Thompson, who I met at Christmas in 1997 on Death Row at Donaldson Correctional facility, and who I shook hands with one last time in May of 1998, after listening to him preach from the Book of Psalms to his fellow inmates through the food-tray hole in his cell door. Steve was a murderer. But Steve had faith, he believed, he followed Christ.

We don’t get to choose who has faith.

Today there are people like Jay Bakker and Hugh Hollowell and Phil and Stephanie Shepherd and Neil Christopher who share the Gospel in bars and in homeless shelters and with outcasts and misfits, and who see many of these turn to Christ.

We don’t get to choose who has faith.

It is a fact that there is no person you or I have ever met – no person you or I will ever meet – for whom Jesus Christ did not die.

And that Jesus who died, rose again. And that Jesus who rose again will come again. And we don’t get to choose for whom Jesus will come. But we do get to share that joyous good news.

Thanks be to God!

Sunday, September 18, 2011

It's Not Fair!

I am always indebted to the thoughts and writing of preachers and friends who are smarter than me. I stole the title and the refrain outright from Rev. Dan Hayward, who also gave me at least one wonderful phrase to use in the text of the sermon. The work of Ira Brent Driggers, the Rev. Barbara Beam, the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton, and the Rev. Sarah Robbins all provided direction, inspiration, and instruction in writing this sermon. No, it isn't fair. Thank God, it isn't fair at all.  

Exodus 16:2-15 
The whole congregation of the Israelites complained against Moses and Aaron in the wilderness. The Israelites said to them, “If only we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots and ate our fill of bread; for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger.” Then the Lord said to Moses, “I am going to rain bread from heaven for you, and each day the people shall go out and gather enough for that day. In that way I will test them, whether they will follow my instruction or not. On the sixth day, when they prepare what they bring in, it will be twice as much as they gather on other days.” So Moses and Aaron said to all the Israelites, “In the evening you shall know that it was the Lord who brought you out of the land of Egypt, and in the morning you shall see the glory of the Lord, because he has heard your complaining against the Lord. For what are we, that you complain against us?” And Moses said, “When the Lord gives you meat to eat in the evening and your fill of bread in the morning, because the Lord has heard the complaining that you utter against him — what are we? Your complaining is not against us but against the Lord.” Then Moses said to Aaron, “Say to the whole congregation of the Israelites, ‘Draw near to the Lord, for he has heard your complaining.’” And as Aaron spoke to the whole congregation of the Israelites, they looked toward the wilderness, and the glory of the Lord appeared in the cloud. The Lord spoke to Moses and said, “I have heard the complaining of the Israelites; say to them, ‘At twilight you shall eat meat, and in the morning you shall have your fill of bread; then you shall know that I am the Lord your God.’” In the evening quails came up and covered the camp; and in the morning there was a layer of dew around the camp. When the layer of dew lifted, there on the surface of the wilderness was a fine flaky substance, as fine as frost on the ground. When the Israelites saw it, they said to one another, “What is it?” For they did not know what it was. Moses said to them, “It is the bread that the Lord has given you to eat.”

Philippians 1:21-30 
For to me, living is Christ and dying is gain. If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me; and I do not know which I prefer. I am hard pressed between the two: my desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better; but to remain in the flesh is more necessary for you. Since I am convinced of this, I know that I will remain and continue with all of you for your progress and joy in faith, so that I may share abundantly in your boasting in Christ Jesus when I come to you again. Only, live your life in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that, whether I come and see you or am absent and hear about you, I will know that you are standing firm in one spirit, striving side by side with one mind for the faith of the gospel, and are in no way intimidated by your opponents. For them this is evidence of their destruction, but of your salvation. And this is God’s doing. For he has graciously granted you the privilege not only of believing in Christ, but of suffering for him as well — since you are having the same struggle that you saw I had and now hear that I still have. 

Matthew 20:1-16 
“For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. After agreeing with the laborers for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard. When he went out about nine o’clock, he saw others standing idle in the marketplace; and he said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ So they went. When he went out again about noon and about three o’clock, he did the same. And about five o’clock he went out and found others standing around; and he said to them, ‘Why are you standing here idle all day?’ They said to him, ‘Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard.’ When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his manager, ‘Call the laborers and give them their pay, beginning with the last and then going to the first.’ When those hired about five o’clock came, each of them received the usual daily wage. Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received the usual daily wage. And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, saying, ‘These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.’ But he replied to one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?’ So the last will be first, and the first will be last.” 

This is the Word of the Lord.

A lot of times, Jesus’ parables use the same storytelling techniques that make for good joke-telling. Start with a believable premise, then as you build, it gets more and more unlikely, building toward the hilarious punchline. Only when Jesus gets through with this story, no one is laughing.

A little background: this parable takes place immediately after the familiar account of the “Rich Young Ruler.” A man asks Jesus, “what must I do to be saved,” and as the conversation progresses he is told, finally, to sell all he has and give it to the poor.

Peter brings up the fact that he and the other disciples have, in effect, done just that, forsaken all they had to follow this itinerant rabbi. “What, then,” he asks, “will there be for us?”

Peter is, in effect, asking “What’s in it for me?”

I can imagine Jesus doing a face-palm, taking a deep breath, and says, “Pete, didja hear the one about the vineyard owner who went to hire some workers?”

It starts simply enough, with a guy negotiating a wage and hiring workers for his vineyard. Then going and hiring more workers… only this time, he’s kinda vague about the wages. “I’ll pay you whatever is right,” he says, and he says it again when he goes out for yet more workers, and again for more workers, and he even goes out an hour before quitting time and gets another batch!

And then – and then! – he passes out the pay, starting not with the ones who had been picking grapes since the break of dawn, but with the guys who had been there barely long enough to break a sweat! But the others suddenly don’t care, because they see the one-hour guys getting a full days wages. They put their heads together and start doing the math, and they like the numbers they’re coming up with! Now I can get that big-screen TV I’ve been wanting!

And their smiles start to fade as they see the guys hired at three o’clock getting – a day’s wages. The guys hired at noon? A day’s wages. By the time the nine-o’clockers reach the pay window, the back of the line is grumbling. All that work, and they’re gonna end up getting no more than the guys who worked maybe an hour! Ridiculous! Unthinkable! Criminal! Unfair!

Of course it’s unfair.

One of the things that I find interesting here is that the landowner never mentions needing more workers when he goes out at nine, at noon, at three and at five. In fact, one could argue quite the opposite. The workers who lined up at the crack of dawn would have been the most able, the ones who could jump to the front of the line. As the day wore on, the pool of capable laborers would have been getting smaller and smaller. Older, perhaps, with some infirmity that made them not as quick, or unable to lift as much of a burden. It wouldn’t make sense for someone who needed labor to hire the ones left over at three or five in the afternoon.

But in that day and age, and in that area of the world, many people lived far below the level of what most of us would consider “abject poverty” today. Hand-to-mouth wouldn’t even begin to describe the situation for most families, who depended on day-to-day employment for their very survival. If you worked that day, you and your family ate… and if you found no work, everyone went to bed hungry, and hoped that they might be able to eat something tomorrow.

Imagine living in that stark reality. And imagine, as the dawn breaks, the landowners come and hire the most able-bodied, the strongest, the fastest… and leave, and you’re still standing there.

And about nine o’clock, a few others are hired. But not you. Noon? You’re still waiting there, thirsty, hungry, wishing the cloud of doom hanging over your head would at least provide some shade. By three o’clock, the only reason you’re still in the marketplace is the dread of going home empty-handed and facing your hungry children.

Then that landowner comes back, walks up to you, and asks, “why have you been standing around all day doing nothing?” You don’t even bother to look up. Can’t he see? “No one hired me” is all you say.

“Go to the vineyard, and I’ll pay you what’s right.”

You shuffle off. “What’s right” for an hours’ work? Maybe enough to buy some bread for the kids, you hope. It’s something, anyway.

Now imagine standing at the front of the pay line, staring at your hands as the manager hands you a full days’ wages. Suddenly, unfairness is a good thing, isn’t it?

Peter is interested in what’s in it for him. After all, success is judged on who finishes first, who gets the promotion, who gets the trophy, who gets the corner office. Winners keep score, and all that. And he’s not alone among the apostles. We read in the Gospels that James and John wanted to sit on either side of Jesus in his kingdom. They deserved it, after all, they had worked hard and sacrificed much, and they should be rewarded for their efforts!

But our Gospel reading begins, “…the Kingdom of Heaven is like…”

What if the Kingdom of Heaven is a place where there is no contest? What if “fair” isn't even a word that can be used, because each and every one of us is Abba's beloved child, equally loved, equally valued, equally undeserving of the grace we have received?

The idea of “first” and “last” make very little sense in a place where all truly are equal. The weakest and the lowliest and the most forgotten has the best seat in God’s kingdom, and so does the strongest and the best-known, because we have that place which Jesus has prepared for us.

Peter and James and John and the rest have the same viewpoint that we all too often do: If you work hard, if you show real effort and determination, if your dedication to the cause is solid and without shadow of turning, then you should be able to earn a better place than the folks who come later, right? And the very idea that someone who is late to the game, or who doesn’t meet our expectations, would be given the same grace and forgiveness and salvation and inclusion in the Kingdom that we enjoy, why, that’s not fair!

The mistake we make is thinking that our labor for the Kingdom, which is a gift from God, is rather a benefit to God.

But we know better, don’t we? It may not be fun to admit, but we know that God’s grace, that salvation, that citizenship in the Kingdom of God cannot be earned. God’s generosity is not tied to any of our human notions of fairness or equity. Far from it – the last shall be first, everything we thought we knew has been turned on its head! God figures our merits with a calculus of grace that is far beyond anything we can comprehend. God’s love is so overwhelming and generous that all we can do is receive it and share it with others.

The love and grace of God isn’t contingent on our abilities, our popularity, our possessions, our bank account or our good looks. Like those last poor souls who the landowner found an hour before quitting time, we only have to be present to be included, because that citizenship, and the grace and salvation which are part and parcel thereof are a product of God’s infinite, indiscriminate, abundant and, yes, even unfair generosity!

It isn’t fair, no. But that’s Good News, isn’t it?

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Forgive Us Our Debts As We Forgive Our Debtors...

In its way, this is a 9/11 sermon. How could it be anything else? My heartfelt thanks to the work of Sharron R. Blezard, Rosemary Thornton, Connie Knighton, and many others in writing this sermon.

Exodus 14:19-31
The angel of God who was going before the Israelite army moved and went behind them; and the pillar of cloud moved from in front of them and took its place behind them. It came between the army of Egypt and the army of Israel. And so the cloud was there with the darkness, and it lit up the night; one did not come near the other all night.
Then Moses stretched out his hand over the sea. The LORD drove the sea back by a strong east wind all night, and turned the sea into dry land; and the waters were divided. The Israelites went into the sea on dry ground, the waters forming a wall for them on their right and on their left. The Egyptians pursued, and went into the sea after them, all of Pharaoh’s horses, chariots, and chariot drivers. At the morning watch the LORD in the pillar of fire and cloud looked down upon the Egyptian army, and threw the Egyptian army into panic. He clogged their chariot wheels so that they turned with difficulty. The Egyptians said, “Let us flee from the Israelites, for the LORD is fighting for them against Egypt.”
Then the LORD said to Moses, “Stretch out your hand over the sea, so that the water may come back upon the Egyptians, upon their chariots and chariot drivers.“ So Moses stretched out his hand over the sea, and at dawn the sea returned to its normal depth. As the Egyptians fled before it, the LORD tossed the Egyptians into the sea. The waters returned and covered the chariots and the chariot drivers, the entire army of Pharaoh that had followed them into the sea; not one of them remained. But the Israelites walked on dry ground through the sea, the waters forming a wall for them on their right and on their left.
Thus the LORD saved Israel that day from the Egyptians; and Israel saw the Egyptians dead on the seashore. Israel saw the great work that the LORD did against the Egyptians. So the people feared the LORD and believed in the LORD and in his servant Moses.

Romans 14:1-12
Welcome those who are weak in faith, but not for the purpose of quarreling over opinions. Some believe in eating anything, while the weak eat only vegetables. Those who eat must not despise those who abstain, and those who abstain must not pass judgment on those who eat; for God has welcomed them. Who are you to pass judgment on servants of another? It is before their own lord that they stand or fall. And they will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make them stand.
Some judge one day to be better than another, while others judge all days to be alike. Let all be fully convinced in their own minds. Those who observe the day, observe it in honor of the Lord. Also those who eat, eat in honor of the Lord, since they give thanks to God; while those who abstain, abstain in honor of the Lord and give thanks to God.
We do not live to ourselves, and we do not die to ourselves. If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s. For to this end Christ died and lived again, so that he might be Lord of both the dead and the living.
Why do you pass judgment on your brother or sister? Or you, why do you despise your brother or sister? For we will all stand before the judgment seat of God. For it is written, “As I live, says the Lord, every knee shall bow to me, and every tongue shall give praise to God.”
So then, each of us will be accountable to God.

Matthew 18:21-35
Then Peter came and said to him, “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” Jesus said to him, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.
“For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves. When he began the reckoning, one who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him. and, as he could not pay, his lord ordered him to be sold, together with his wife and children and all his possessions, and payment to be made. So the slave fell on his knees before him, saying, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ And out of pity for him, the lord of that slave released him and forgave him the debt. But that same slave, as he went out, came upon one of his fellow slaves who owed him a hundred denarii; and seizing him by the throat, he said, ‘Pay what you owe.’ Then his fellow slave fell down and pleaded with him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’ But he refused; then he went and threw him into prison until he would pay the debt. When his fellow slaves saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their lord all that had taken place. Then his lord summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?’ And in anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he would pay his entire debt. So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”

This is the Word of the Lord.

Just like we do every Sunday, you and I are going to recite the Lord’s Prayer following the Prayers of the People today. If you’re like me, you’ve been hearing the prayer since about nine months before you were born, and reciting it since you learned to talk. There’s a line in the Lord’s Prayer that pertains to the Gospel reading today. In fact, when you think about it, it’s a little frightening: “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.”

I love talking about forgiveness, about how deep the grace of God is, to forgive us of our sin and how wide the love of God is, to welcome us into the Kingdom and into eternal relationship through Jesus Christ.

“Forgive us our debts… as we forgive our debtors.”

Anytime we venture into the realm of forgiveness – and I mean the necessity to forgive others based upon the fact that we ourselves are forgiven so much – we tend to step lightly, to try and be careful, not hurt feelings, not start arguments. Forgiveness is messy work, hard, backbreaking, and very often thankless toil… not to mention the fear of forcing someone to make a dangerous choice in the guise of forgiveness – forcing an abused spouse back into a violent relationship, for example.

“Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.”

Forgiveness, for the Christian, is not optional. Throughout Scripture, we learn two things about forgiveness: First, we are to seek the forgiveness of others – for example, Matthew 5: 23 and 24, where Jesus says, “Suppose you are offering your gift at the altar. And you remember that your brother has something against you. Leave your gift in front of the altar. First go and make peace with your brother. Then come back and offer your gift.” Second, we are to forgive, and to do so extravagantly, egregiously, vastly. Our Gospel reading today is just one of the illustrations of exactly how far we are expected to go when forgiving.

We are told of a slave who is brought before the king to pay an impossible debt. Ten thousand talents was equivalent to the lifetime earnings of three thousand people – something like twelve billion dollars in this day and age. Not so much if you are a corporation getting a bailout, or a country, I guess, but for a common worker? And a slave at that? It’s almost hilarious that, in pleading for himself and his family, he promises to pay it all back.

And the king forgave the debt. Just like that, the specter of a short, hard life of pain, spent in some mine shaft, his family sold into slavery and a world away, all that crushing hopelessness, that’s what twelve billion dollars of debt meant, and in an instant, it was all gone!

Imagine all the credit cards in your wallet maxed out, your bank account’s overdraft has broken the national debt ceiling, your mortgage is hopelessly behind and so far underwater you can see the fish, Operation Repo, Lizard Lick Towing and Dog the Bounty Hunter are looking for your car, and you just found out you are at the top of the IRS’ “Most Wanted” list. One day, a log black limo pulls up, and Donald Trump steps out. He tells you that he has acquired the bank, the mortgage company, the loan office, and the credit card companies you owe money to, and he’s here to collect, or else. The Sheriff’s Department pulls up, and they aren’t happy. Behind them are the Men In Black from the IRS, and they’re less happy.

Then, just as the deputies are pulling out the cuffs, Trump says, “Y’know what? Never mind. I’m cancelling your debts. Have a nice day.” He climbs back in his limo, the Sheriff’s deputies drive away, the black Suburbans carry off the IRS agents…

How would you feel?

And how on Earth, with this slave having been forgiven so much, could he not turn right around and give the guy who owed him what today would have been eight thousand dollars? Sure, eight grand is a lot, but in comparison to billions? Really? Do you blame the king for taking back his forgiveness and throwing that fellow in debtor’s prison? The very idea!

And it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see that the lesson is not about kings and slaves, but about God and us. We have been forgiven. The price paid was more than we can imagine: Jesus’ death on the cross. And as a response, we cannot do anything but forgive.

“Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.”

CS Lewis said, “Everyone thinks forgiveness is a lovely idea until they have something to forgive.” And isn’t it the truth? I mean, surely God understands that, well, in most cases, yes, we should forgive, but what this person or those people or that company or that agency did to me, well, it is unforgiveable! There’s no way God can really expect me to lay aside my hurt, my anger, my righteous indignation!

“Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtor.”
Think, for a moment, about the psychology behind unforgiveness. When we hold on to a wrong committed against us, we ruminate on it, we turn it over and over in our mind. Our anger smolders, our bitterness ripens, and our grudges grow like kudzu. We curve inward, consumed by the injustice we harbor—whether real, perceived, or a little bit of both. Our view of the world and the other becomes warped and clouded. Our bitterness takes on a precious but poisonous tang. Studies have shown that cortisol – a hormone produced by stress – increases in the bloodstream. Our blood pressure rises. Our heart rate increases. Our immune system is even compromised! Nelson Mandela said “Resentment is like drinking poison and waiting on it to kill your enemy.”

There are group therapies, individual therapies, self-help books galore on the subject of forgiveness. It’s a big deal psychologically, and spiritually.

Oh yes, make no mistake, there is a spiritual aspect to unforgiveness as well. It is an inescapable fact that whatever we think most about – whatever commands our emotions, our reflections, whatever we are most passionate about – has become an object of worship. And if the object of our worship is anything other than the living God, we are committing idolatry, pure and simple.

So if unforgiveness is bad for our health… if unforgiveness is detrimental to our relationship with the one true and living Creator, it makes sense that we, who are forgiven so much, should in turn practice forgiveness all the time and everywhere, as frequently and naturally as breathing.

But forgiveness isn’t at all natural, is it? Revenge, punishment, recompense, these are the natural reactions when we are offended in one way or another. “Fight or flight” responses are thought, by some psychologists and scientist types, to be leftovers from the days when reacting quickly to stressful situations – like being attacked by a saber-toothed tiger – was, well, life and death. And there are, of course, many situations where fight-or-flight reactions can save our lives.

But nursing a grudge – fantasizing about revenge – wanting someone to hurt like they have hurt you? There is no good that can come from it, and if we are honest, we can admit that we know it.

“Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.”

How? How do we forgive?

For the Christian, forgiveness is very much a spiritual discipline. And like all disciplines, forgiveness takes time, effort, and practice.

It’s a hard fact to swallow, but the resentment we feel toward someone who has wronged us doesn’t harm him or her in the slightest. Chances are, they’ve gone on with life and hasn't given it another thought. So let yourself off the hook! The Aramaic word for "forgive" means literally to "untie." The fastest way to free yourself from the physical and psychological and spiritual poison of holding a grudge is to forgive. Untie the bindings and loosen yourself from that person's ugliness. Release yourself from the resentment and bitterness that ties you to the person responsible for your pain. Your forgiveness enables you to start walking away from him or her and the pain.

This is key: forgiveness is for you and not the other party. Freeing yourself through forgiveness is like freeing yourself from chains of bondage or from prison.

A word of caution: Forgiveness does not equal trust. Nothing requires us to trust a person who has caused us harm, who hasn’t acknowledged that harm, and who continues acting in harmful ways. This person isn't likely to ever be trustworthy -- you must keep a distance. Acknowledge; move on.

Simply put, an offender who wants reconciliation must do his or her part: offer a sincere apology, promise not to repeat the offense (or similar ones), make amends, and give it time. If you don't see repentance, well, again, move on. Forgiving that person is a benefit to yourself, but balance that forgiveness against the certain knowledge that evil exists, and some people enjoy harming others, and those people should be avoided.

There are over one point six million results when you type “How do we forgive” into Google, and I hesitate to offer myself as some kind of authority on the mechanics of forgiveness. All I have are broad suggestions.

Suggestion number one is to retrain our thinking about a person, a group of people, a situation, a company, an entity that has hurt us. And retraining our thinking has a couple of different approaches. You know how, in Scripture, Romans 12:14 to be precise, Paul writes, “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse”? Try it! When a person or a situation or a company or whatever has offended us comes to mind, send him or her a blessing. Wish our enemy well. Hope the best for him or her. This has two effects. One, it neutralizes that acid of hate that destroys us, individually and as a community. Two, if it is true that the evil we wish for another has a rebound effect, the same must be true for the good that we wish for another. And if the Scriptures are true, then as we make ourselves able to return blessing for hatred, we know we are becoming more like Christ, who forgave even the ones who called for his death, even the ones who nailed him to the cross. Of course it’ll feel fake, even hypocritical at first. It’s a new thing, and we will stink at it. But eventually, it’ll become a habit. And we will be untied! Free!

Suggestion number two is to learn to mentally and emotionally change the subject. One of the things I teach in sales training is how to warm up with people, develop rapport. When you’re getting to know someone in the context of a sales presentation, it’s a cardinal rule to avoid politics and religion – unless they bring it up, and then you should only proceed if you’re comfortable discussing politics or religion. If not, you can change the subject.

“Oh, you’re a practicing Satanist? Fascinating. So, that’s a nice flower arrangement, did you do it yourself?” “Ah, I see, you’re a member of the American Communist Party. Interesting. So how many grandchildren do you have?”

Similarly, we can focus on other things when we begin to ruminate over past hurts and offenses. We remind ourselves that we have made a conscious choice to forgive, and we move on. Perhaps we think of someone who was especially kind to us in the situation, or we focus on some good that came out of the situation.

“Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.”

Y’know, mathematically speaking, the kind of forgiveness God gives to us is not rational. It is an unequal equation of which we are the beneficiaries. Like the slave in the parable, there is no way we can ever repay the debt we owe. We are totally and completely reliant on divine love, grace, and forgiveness. Thanks be to God that heavenly math is different from what I learned in school. And in seeing what I have been forgiven of, I am humbled and challenged by what God requires of me in forgiving my neighbor and my enemy—not just from my rational self but from my broken, wounded, and very human heart. Yes, it’s hard. Yes, I will make mistakes. I never was very good in math; I pray that through continued practice I become better at forgiveness.

Let us pray.

Oh God,
Give us hearts of compassion where we seek an understandable revenge.
Open our minds to your wider justice.
Help us not to fear those who would kill our bodies but those who would maim and ruin our souls.

(prayer for individuals)

(The Lord's Prayer)


Sunday, September 4, 2011

Christ, the Reconciler

No new ideas here, but I fear the ideas I am passing along are too rarely acknowledged.

Exodus 12:1-14
The LORD said to Moses and Aaron in the land of Egypt: This month shall mark for you the beginning of months; it shall be the first month of the year for you. Tell the whole congregation of Israel that on the tenth of this month they are to take a lamb for each family, a lamb for each household. If a household is too small for a whole lamb, it shall join its closest neighbor in obtaining one; the lamb shall be divided in proportion to the number of people who eat of it. Your lamb shall be without blemish, a year-old male; you may take it from the sheep or from the goats. You shall keep it until the fourteenth day of this month; then the whole assembled congregation of Israel shall slaughter it at twilight. They shall take some of the blood and put it on the two doorposts and the lintel of the houses in which they eat it. They shall eat the lamb that same night; they shall eat it roasted over the fire with unleavened bread and bitter herbs. Do not eat any of it raw or boiled in water, but roasted over the fire, with its head, legs, and inner organs. You shall let none of it remain until the morning; anything that remains until the morning you shall burn. This is how you shall eat it: your loins girded, your sandals on your feet, and your staff in your hand; and you shall eat it hurriedly. It is the passover of the LORD. For I will pass through the land of Egypt that night, and I will strike down every firstborn in the land of Egypt, both human beings and animals; on all the gods of Egypt I will execute judgments: I am the LORD. The blood shall be a sign for you on the houses where you live: when I see the blood, I will pass over you, and no plague shall destroy you when I strike the land of Egypt.
This day shall be a day of remembrance for you. You shall celebrate it as a festival to the LORD; throughout your generations you shall observe it as a perpetual ordinance.

Romans 13:8-14
Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not covet”; and any other commandment, are summed up in this word, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.
Besides this, you know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers; the night is far gone, the day is near. Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light; let us live honorably as in the day, not in reveling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarreling and jealousy. Instead, put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.

Matthew 18:15-20
“If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one. But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. Again, truly I tell you, if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.”

This is the Word of the Lord.

I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that some of the most contentious, most divisive arguments in all of Christian history center around the common event which is designed to bring us all together. The Lord’s Table. Communion. Eucharist. The Lord’s Supper.

The gist of the disagreement over the millennia is what, precisely, the meaning and content of the Lord’s Supper really is. We’ve discussed this before: there are, generally speaking, four broad areas of theology and doctrine concerning Communion, and they center around the phrase or idea of “The Real Presence;” that is, if and how Jesus Christ is present within the activities or elements of the Lord’s Supper.

The theology we Presbyterians are most familiar with is what’s called “Pneumatic Presence,” which most simply put is the understanding that the Spirit of Christ is present, through the Holy Spirit, not in the elements of the Eucharist, but in the communal act of Eucharist. When we participate corporately in the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, Jesus Christ is present, providing nourishment to those who believe, strengthening us in our faith journey.

At one side of the Pneumatic Presence is Memorialism, which is practiced by the Baptist Church, as well as most related evangelical denominations. The understanding here is that the bread and wine are not changed at all when consecrated, and, further, since Christ is physically present in Heaven, his presence in any form in the Lord’s Supper would be impossible. Congregations that practice Memorialism, in general, do not hold Communion as sacramental; rather, it is considered to be an act of remembrance of Christ's atonement, and a time of renewal of personal commitment.

On the other side of Pneumatic Presence is the theology held by Lutherans and others called “consubstantiation.” In the doctrine of consubstantiation, the physical reality of the elements is unchanged – they are still bread and wine – but the Real Presence of the Body and Blood of Christ are "truly and substantially present in, with and under the forms" of consecrated bread and wine. Those who participate in the sacrament eat and drink both the elements and the true Body and Blood of Christ Himself.

Now, I understand that the phrasing there is clunky, but it has to be like that in order to differentiate consubstantiation from transubstantiation, which is the theology held by the Catholic and Orthodox churches, among others. The belief here is that, from the time Jesus first uttered the words of the Institution until today, when the bread and the cup are consecrated, they become, quite literally, the body and blood of Jesus Christ. The outward appearance of the bread and the wine are not altered – it still looks and feels and tastes like bread and wine – but what is called the “inner reality” is changed. The Real Presence is a physical reality in transubstantiation, the person participating in the Eucharist quite literally ingests the real, physical body and blood of Jesus. Christ as a whole is present in the elements – body and blood, soul and divinity.

We could go round and round all morning about the relative strengths and weaknesses of the differing theological understandings, but the point is that all of them try to understand where, and how, and when, and under which precise circumstances, is the Real Presence of Christ, well, present?

I wish that I could say that the question has been the subject of discussion and respectful debate for the last two millennia. It has, in fact, been the subject of fights, splits, schism, hate, condemnation, and even bloodshed.

It is, then, ironic that all of this disagreement over the Real Presence of Christ misses completely the place that Jesus himself said the Real presence would be – the time and place and circumstances in which he promised that he would always be truly present.

Oh, it’s easy to miss, I suppose, because our Gospel passage has all too often been misused as a way to protect the status quo, to keep people from speaking truth to power, to make the vulnerable even more vulnerable… Like far, far too many passages of Scripture, this has been a hammer to beat people down, rather than a beacon to bring them home, wings to lift them up.

The challenge of the Gospel reading is to hear what Jesus is really saying. If a brother or a sister does something that offends, hurts, or harms you, or if he or she is committing a sin – and yes, it is entirely accurate to include all of this in the Greek word “hamartia” which is taken from archery and means “missing the mark” – then find a space where you are both alone, and point out the problem. If there’s no meeting of the minds, no resolution, go back with a couple of witnesses. If that doesn’t work things out, take it to church, and if that doesn’t fix it, “let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.”

Is this a justification for excluding from fellowship anyone who hurts our feelings or does something we don’t like? Is Jesus simply giving us justification for shutting others out, or is there something deeper at work here?

To be sure, if all Jesus is doing is offering us the mechanics of church discipline, the church as a whole does a really lousy job of carrying this discipline out. And, in any case, doesn’t the passage speak more to personal discipline within the body of believers? If a brother or sister sins against you – you go… you take one or two others with you… you go to the church…

That’s hard, isn’t it? And we are wired so differently than that. It’s easier, almost more natural that, rather than face the person we have a problem with, in private, one-on-one, we tell someone else about the offense, who tells someone else, and on and on and on. It’s the easier, more face-saving option, sure, because all that gets out as far as we are concerned is our side of the issue… but all too often we see churches split, fellowships broken, or families destroyed, when a simple conversation would have set the whole matter straight in moments. But confrontation in love, speaking softly, with humility, with an eye toward working things out is hard, hard work.

But the Gospel is about relationship.

In our Old Testament reading, God is in the process of making a mighty nation from a gaggle of slaves, working mighty and terrible miracles in the dark and horrible night to bring about their release. The blood of the lamb is the symbol by which the children of Israel are not only set free from the Egyptian oppression, but a continuing reminder that, in being set free, they have become one family, one people, one nation.

It is no mistake that, on the night in which he was betrayed, Jesus took the elements of the meal – a meal which memorialized the night the Hebrew slaves became a nation – and began a new tradition, one which reminds all who partake it that we may have been slaves to sin, butthrough the blood of the Lamb of God we have been set free; we may have done everything we could to alienate ourselves from our creator, but God has called us by name; we may have been adrift and alone, but through Jesus Christ we are members of a singular body and a singular Kingdom of God.

The Gospel is about reconciliation. In Christ, we are reconciled to God. Jesus Christ is all about reconciliation, and the good news is that even here, even in this Gospel reading, the focus of what Jesus is saying is not exclusion or excommunication – not how to keep people out – but reconciliation and restoration – how to keep people in!

That first step Jesus talks about has a wonderful focus to it! “If [he or she] listens to you, you have regained that one.” Reconciliation!

That second step – having one or two others who can hear both sides, and help work things out! Reconciliation!

And what about that last, seemingly harsh pronouncement: “let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector?” Think about it – the one who is speaking is the same Jesus who made it a point to specifically reach out to, eat with, care for, heal and feed the Gentile? Who not only ate and spent time with tax collectors, but even called one, Matthew, to be his disciple?

Knowing this, it makes sense that Eugene Peterson, in “The Message” paraphrase, interprets the “Gentile and tax collector” verse to say something shocking, something profound: “If [the sinning fellow believer] still won't listen, tell the church. If he won't listen to the church, you'll have to start over from scratch, confront him with the need for repentance, and offer again God's forgiving love.”

Again, reconciliation.

And where is Jesus in all of this? Right there! “…I tell you, if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.”

Jesus’ presence is found in the hard work of reconciliation!

In our reading from the book of Exodus, the congregation of Israel is told to eat the Passover with their traveling clothes on, their walking stick in hand, and to eat it in a hurry, a quick bite before they hit the road. Fuel for the journey ahead.

Have you ever thought about how we here at Fairfield Highlands Presbyterian Church participate in the Lord’s Supper? It’s really kind of unique among Presbyterian churches. With rare exceptions, most Presbyterian congregations remain in their pews to receive the elements. But here, we all stand around the Table. And you’ve probably never noticed it, but when we stand around the table, our backs are straight, no one’s arms are crossed, everyone’s hands are at the ready to receive, and pass on, the elements of the Lord’s Supper. I’ve struggled for an apt metaphor, and I have to say that it looks a whole lot like a group of soldiers standing ready to receive their orders. We could just as easily turn and go back to our seats and finish the worship service, or turn as one and march out the door, and start the journey which brings all of God’s people to the reconciliation of the Kingdom of God!

What a perfect picture! The people of God equipped and ready! Eager to do the hard work of reconciliation, the hard work of restoration… and never, ever do we do it alone.

We have a guarantee, a wonderful promise – Jesus is present with us in the breaking of bread. Jesus, through the Holy Spirit, is present with us in each moment of our lives – and Jesus, the Reconciler, is with us when we work to repair relationships between one another, and when we restore everyone in this broken world to wholeness through reconciliation with a loving Creator!

Christ, our Passover, has been sacrificed for us! All of us! Reconciled, as one! Therefore let us keep the feast!