Tag Archives: Forgiveness

The Jesus Kind of Love

A Sermon for 24 February 2019

I read wise words this week regarding the text I’m getting set to read – the portion of the gospel of Luke assigned by the revised common lectionary for this 7th Sunday of Epiphany.  By the way, Transfiguration of the Lord Sunday is on the way next week with Lent beginning on Ash Wed a few days thereafter.  Just to get us all in an open frame of mind, I want us to hear those wise words first, so we might willingly keep our ears open for the reading of the gospel!

Of Luke 6:27-38 – the words immediately following the gospel of Luke’s version of the Beatitudes – the Blessing and the Woes of the Sermon on the Mount, biblical commentator Vaughn Crowe-Tipton writes this:  “Congregations respond to this text in the same way my children respond to seeing cooked spinach on their plate at dinner.  No matter how much I explain the nutritional value, no one around the table really wants to dig in.  I suspect preachers are not terribly different.  Even though we know enough to understand how texts can be bound by culture and time, we also know this text goes down hard, no matter when or how it is served.  Perhaps we should not be surprised that professionals and neophytes in scholarship and faith struggle to swallow what Jesus served us in this text.  Maybe he would have had an easier time of it if he had left this item off the menu.  Goodness, Jesus, who wants to love an enemy?”  Crowe-Tipton goes on to write:  “Jesus focuses, however, on the real problem with nutrition; there is a vast difference between what we want and what we need.  All who dare prepare a sermon with the ingredients Jesus offers will do well to remember that tension.  (‘Cuz) no one comes to (worship) on Sunday already thinking, ‘I would really like a challenge today; perhaps I will be asked to love my enemy.’  Nevertheless, that is what Jesus demands.  Look at this text for what it is.  Jesus offers this ridiculous teaching to his closest followers.  Remember that anyone else who heard it probably laughed out loud and with good reason.”  Crowe-Tipton writes:  “This clarion call is to swim upstream.  It asks the disciples to break conventions, to stand out in a crowd, to find fulfillment in going a second, third, and seventy-seventh mile” (Feasting on the Word, Yr. C, Vol. 1, Vaughn Crowe-Tipton, p. 381, 383).

So, with this warning in mind; let us listen for God’s word to us in a reading of Luke 6:27-38.  This next portion of Jesus’ Sermon on the Plain according to the gospel of Luke.  Listen.

“’But I say to you that listen, love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, 28 bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.  29 If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt.  30 Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again.  31 Do to others as you would have them do to you.  32 If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you?  For even sinners love those who love them.  33 If you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you?  For even sinners do the same.  34 If you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what credit is that to you?  Even sinners lend to sinners, to receive as much again.  35 But love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return.  Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High; for (God) is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked.  36 Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.  37 Do not judge, and you will not be judged; do not condemn, and you will not be condemned.  Forgive, and you will be forgiven; 38 give, and it will be given to you.  A good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap; for the measure you give will be the measure you get back.’”

            This is the word of God for the people of God.

Thanks be to God!

 

In 1906, a man was born in Germany who would grow to become a force in such opposition to Adolf Hitler, he was seized by the age of 37 and taken to Tegel Prison in Berlin.  (Details here from http://www.dbonhoeffer.org/Biography.html.)  Nearly two years later, he was moved to Buchenwald Concentration Camp.  Then two months after, executed by hanging at Flossenburg – 29 days before World War II came to an end.  When just 31 years old – six years into his ordination as a Lutheran pastor and a few years after helping to establish an underground seminary for the German anti-Nazi Confessing Church – this devote follower of Christ wrote the following words:  “How then does love conquer?  By asking not how the enemy treats her but only how Jesus treated her.  The love for our enemies takes us along the way of the cross and into fellowship with the Crucified.  The more we are driven along this road, the more certain is the victory of love over the enemy’s hatred.  For then it is not the disciple’s own love, but the love of Jesus Christ alone, who for the sake of his enemies went to the cross and prayed for them as he hung there.  In the face of the cross, (Christ’s) disciples realized that they too were his enemies, and that he had overcome them by his love.  It is this that opens the disciple’s eyes and enables (us) to see (our) enemy as a brother.  (We) know that (we) owe (our) very life to One, who though (we) were his enemy treated (us as brothers) and accepted (us), who made (us) his neighbor, and drew (us) into fellowship with himself.  The disciple can now perceive that even (our) enemy is the object of God’s love, and that (our enemy) stands like (ourselves) beneath the cross of Christ.  . . .  God loves God’s enemies,” who the author explains, are all of us sinners.  The author goes on to write in this infamous work entitled The Cost of Discipleship, written by the young Dietrich Bonhoeffer just after the Gestapo closed the underground, anti-Nazi seminary he helped to start.  Bonhoeffer writes:  “God loves (God’s) enemies – that is the glory of (God’s) love, as every follower of Jesus knows; (because) through Jesus” we have become partakers “in this love” (Dietrich Bonhoeffer [1906-1945], The Cost of Discipleship; New York:  Simon and Schusster, 1995, pp. 150-151).

The words from the gospel of Luke may be some of the most difficult commands on the lips of Christ.  Love our enemies?  And I don’t think he was talking about just those big, world enemies we like to name.  But what about the family members with whom we just cannot get along?  What about the neighbor who seems to care nothing about the needs of others in the neighborhood and just takes and takes and takes from all the other property owners around?  What about ones with drastically different worldviews?  What about the person at work, or at school, who maybe even has done something really terrible to us?  Let me be clear – because this part of scripture long has been mis-heard and at times even mis-used by being thrown in the face of those hurting at the hands of another.  Failing to have proper boundaries between ourselves and another is not at all love!  Turing a blind eye to abuse, neglect, violence is NOT love and never to be tolerated by Christians who rightly are to know and to work for the difference between good and evil.  Never is the Jesus of the gospels puzzled over the rightness of things like his arrest.  His flogging.  His humiliating execution.  Never once would we hear on his lips that the injustice he confronted daily was ok – no big deal.  Rather, every day of his life – even in his death – Jesus, the Christ, God embodied among us, worked to heal those hurt by others; to call those doing the hurting to change; and to work for the abolition of hatred in this world.  The only way he could do that was by love.

You see, Jesus teaches us that love is what allows us to see and thereby live differently.  He actually prayed to God that those killing him would be forgiven – and wants us to live that way too.  He knew their act – our act – was wrong.  Love is clear on that.  But love.  His love – the kind of love he expects of us, his followers, harbors no bitterness.  Holds no grudges.  Is way less concerned about punishment than it is about healing.  It’s not like what we often see around us each day and I know – heaven knows – it certainly isn’t easy.  It’s God’s way.  The narrow path, Jesus called it.  The Way into which we all are invited.

In The Cost of Discipleship, Bonhoeffer went on to write:  “This commandment, that we should love our enemies and forgo revenge, will grow even more urgent in the holy struggle which lies before us and in which we partly have already been engaged for years.  In it love and hate engage in mortal combat.  It is the urgent duty of every Christian soul to prepare itself for it.  . . .  And how is the battle to be fought?” Bonhoeffer writes, “Soon the time will come when we shall pray, not as isolated individuals, but as a corporate body, a congregation, a Church:  we shall pray in multitudes (albeit in relatively small multitudes) and among the thousands and thousands of apostates we shall loudly praise and confess the Lord who was crucified and is risen and shall come again.  And what prayer, what confession, what hymn of praise will it be?  It will be the prayer of earnest love for these very sons of perdition who stand around and gaze at us with eyes aflame with hatred, and who have perhaps already raised their hands to kill us.  It will be prayer for the peace of these erring, devastated, bewildering souls, a prayer for the same love and peace which we ourselves enjoy, a prayer which will penetrate to the depths of their souls and rend their hearts more grievously than anything they can do to us” (Dietrich Bonhoeffer [1906-1945], The Cost of Discipleship; New York:  Simon and Schusster, 1995, pp. 150-151).

Prayer for our enemies – not that they get what we think they have coming to them.  But prayer that earnestly asks God to provide what’s needed in them and in us for us all to live together in peace may be the best first step for us in loving those who hate us and curse us and take from us again and again.  It’s the most powerful way to live in the world.  Refusing to allow the hatred of another to permeate our own hearts.  It reminds me of the beautiful, challenging prayer said to be left by an unknown poet near the body of a dead child in the Ravensbrück Death Camp.  “O LORD, remember not only the men and women of good will, but also those of ill will.  But do not remember all the suffering they inflicted on us; remember the fruits we have brought, thanks to this suffering – our comradeship, our loyalty, our humility, our courage, our generosity, the greatness of heart which has grown out of all this.  And when they come to judgment, let all the fruits which we have borne be their forgiveness” (Quoted in The Wisdom of Jesus, by Cynthia Bourgeault, pp. 73-74).

It is tough stuff – to stand in such love.  Costly discipleship . . . may it be the command of Christ we seek to fulfill every day!

In the name of the life-giving Father, the life-redeeming Son, and the life-sustaining Spirit, Amen.

© Copyright JMN – 2019 (all rights reserved).

True or False?

A Sermon for 16 September 2018

A reading of Mark 8:27-30.  Listen for God’s word to us.

“Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi; and on the way he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?”  28 And they answered him, “John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.”  29 He asked them, “But who do you say that I am?”  Peter answered him, “You are the Messiah.”  30 And Jesus sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him.

And one more reading.  This one is a reading of James 3:1-12.  Listen for God’s word to us.

“Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers and sisters, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness.  For all of us make many mistakes.  Anyone who makes no mistakes in speaking is perfect, able to keep the whole body in check with a bridle.  If we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we guide their whole bodies.  Or look at ships: though they are so large that it takes strong winds to drive them, yet they are guided by a very small rudder wherever the will of the pilot directs.  So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great exploits.  How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire!  And the tongue is a fire.  The tongue is placed among our members as a world of iniquity; it stains the whole body, sets on fire the cycle of nature, and is itself set on fire by hell.  For every species of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by the human species, but no one can tame the tongue—a restless evil, full of deadly poison.  With it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God.  10 From the same mouth come blessing and cursing.  My brothers and sisters, this ought not to be so.  11 Does a spring pour forth from the same opening both fresh and brackish water?  12 Can a fig tree, my brothers and sisters, yield olives, or a grapevine figs?  No more can salt water yield fresh.”

This is the word of God for the people of God.  Thanks be to God!

 

Today’s sermon is a True-False pop quiz!  So, buckle up and get ready – now!

There once was a mother whose young adult son was taken in the middle of the night from their small home.  Such brutal police raids had become common around there at that time.  Their land was being ripped apart by the color of people’s skin.  Years later, in open court, the police officer involved stood before the young man’s family.  He told of the way the son’s body was beaten, bloodied, and buried by the police.  In great shame he said:  “I am sorry.  Now I see how wrong it all was.  I am so sorry about what I did to your son – to you.  To us all.”  It was hard to hear.  But at last this momma knew what had happened.  Tears streaming down her cheeks, with great courage she said:  “Thank you for facing me to tell me the truth.  I forgive you.”

True or false:  the tongue has great power.

There once was a twelve-year-old girl living in the rural South of the United States.  She was happy with her single momma and sister, living in their little trailer outside of town.  Everyone knew the pre-teen as being rather sweet.  A well-mannered child, who sang in the church choir and went weekly to prayer circle with her mother and sister.  But she also was a little different – some sort of problem at birth which left her a bit behind other kids.  The school bus picked her up daily to take her off to school.  Every day she was poked and teased and had her pigtails pulled on the bus.  The driver never said a word.  One morning, she just couldn’t take the name-calling any longer.  She pulled a handgun from her backpack, and it was as if this sweet, innocent, bullied child snapped.  Reports said no one was “injured.”  No shots ever fired.  She would spend the next two years of her teenage life in jail.

True or false:  the tongue has great power.

There once was a vivacious little girl.  She was creative and imaginative and so much fun!  ABCs didn’t come easy for her.  Neither did her 123s.  The further along she went in school, the more she couldn’t learn in the way the teachers taught.  Every day became a nightmare.  And homework time:  a knock-down drag out – leaving her often to go hide under her bed.  Frequently she was heard telling her family she was dumb.  Stupid.  She just couldn’t learn.  One year she got a teacher who said:  “I know how I can help.”  Though differently than all the other children, the little girl began to learn!

True or false:  the tongue has great power.

You may not know it, but it only took a speech or two.  Explanations of how the country’s economic demise was their fault.  Newspaper ads portraying them dirty, sub-human.  That’s de-humanization.  The process that has to happen in order to go against our own biology which is wired NOT to kill our own species.  One man was able to whip a crowd into an amazing, fear-incited frenzy through name calling and tribal sorting and de-humanizing some in order for some others to go against our natural, instinctual drive to connect.  A plan was born of how to return this presumably superior race to greatness. The rhetoric was:  be wary of certain neighbors.  They’re not like us – not human.  Do not trust them.  It’s all their fault.  The year was 1924, Germany.  A holocaust of eleven million people began – six million who were Jews.  According to one source, the other five million were “gay people, priests, gypsies, people with mental or physical disabilities, communists, trade unionists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, anarchists, Poles and other Slavic peoples, and resistance fighters” (https://m.huffpost.com/us/entry/6555604).  By the time it was all over, somewhere between 50 and 80 million people lost their lives in World War II (https://www.historyonthenet.com/how-many-people-died-in-world-war-2/).

True or false:  the tongue has IMMENSE power.

Do you know the words by the former slave, great abolitionist, and woman’s suffragist, Sojourner Truth?  Words she spoke at the Women’s Convention in Akron, Ohio in 1851, pre-Civil War, when gathered Christians – mostly white women and men – were arguing over whether women should be allowed equal rights in a burgeoning democracy.  It helps to know a little about the stature of this 6-foot-tall, chiseled, old grandma, who was born into slavery in New York but earned her freedom in 1827.  Her mere entry into the church assembly stirred the northern crowd that wasn’t too sure they wanted to mix their plea for women’s rights with that of the slaves of the South.  Sojourner listened long to the arguments, then finally rose to speak.  She’s quoted as saying:  “That man over there says that women need to be helped into carriages, and lifted over ditches, and to have the best place everywhere.  Nobody ever helps me into carriages, or over mud-puddles, or gives me any best place!  And ain’t I a woman?  Look at me!  Look at my arm!” she said bearing her muscular shoulder.  “I have ploughed and planted, and gathered into barns, and no man could head me!  And ain’t I a woman?  I could work as much and eat as much as a man – when I could get it – and bear the lash as well!  And ain’t I a woman?  I have borne thirteen children, and seen most all sold off to slavery, and when I cried out with my mother’s grief, none but Jesus heard me!  And ain’t I a woman?  Then they talk about this thing in the head; what’s this they call it?  [and a member of audience whispers, “intellect”]”.  Sojourner continues:  “That’s it, honey.  What’s (supposed superior intellect) got to do with women’s rights or negroes’ rights?  If my cup won’t hold but a pint, and yours holds a quart, wouldn’t you be mean not to let me have my little half measure full?”  Pointing to a pastor, she continues:  “Then that little man in black there, he says women can’t have as much rights as men, ’cause Christ wasn’t a woman!  Where did your Christ come from?” Sojourner, the uneducated slave woman eloquently argued, and I quote her:  “Where did your Christ come from?  From God and a woman!  Man had nothing to do with Him.  If the first woman God ever made (mother Eve) was strong enough to turn the world upside down all alone” (as throughout time has been an argument against mutuality for women).  Then, Sojourner said:  then, “these women together ought to be able to turn it back, and get it right-side up again!  And now they is asking to do it, the men better let them.”  (http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/mod/sojtruth-woman.asp).  Woo!  The eye-witness response was recorded as being “roars of applause (while Sojourner) returned to her corner leaving more than one of us with streaming eyes, and hearts beating with gratitude.”  The witness wrote:  “She had taken us up in her strong arms and carried us safely over the slough of difficulty turning the whole tide in our favor.”  The reporter quoted:  “I have never in my life seen anything like the magical influence that subdued the mobbish spirit of the day, and turned the sneers and jeers of an excited crowd into notes of respect and admiration.  Hundreds rushed up to shake hands with her, and congratulate the glorious old mother, and bid her God-speed on her mission of ‘testifyin’ (again) agin concerning the wickedness of this (here) ‘ere people’” end quote (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ain%27t_I_a_Woman%3F).

True or false:  even if some still are threatened by this one, isn’t it true that the tongue has great power?  Enormous, beautiful, miraculous, world-changing power!

We could go on.  An innocent insinuation on Facebook.  A text that quickly gets around.  One-liners that ring throughout history.  Words that change the trajectory of lives.  Words like:  I love you.  I am proud of you.  You matter to me.  You are precious in my sight.  . . .  We even heard it today from the lips of that great disciple:  “You are the Messiah!” (Mark 8:29).  Two thousand plus years later, thirsty souls still profess the name:  Jesus the Christ, God’s anointed one.  Savior.  Lord of all!  . . .  Indeed, the tongue has amazing, life-altering power!

The book of James is the New Testament’s only work classified as Wisdom Literature (Mark Douglas, Feasting on the Word, Yr. B, Vol. 4, p. 62).  It seeks to teach the faithful the importance of living the faith.  Though many of the Protestant Reformers of the sixteenth century rejected James all together.  In particular Martin Luther himself, who spoke of the book of James as “the epistle of straw” (Ibid.); the grand offense being wisdom’s claim that “faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead” (James 2:17).  And I guess due to their context in which notions of the grace of God had become something one had to do a work to earn, we can understand the concern.  Nonetheless, the wisdom the book of James seeks to teach is that true religion consists of three marks:  “care for orphans and widows in their distress, (keeping) oneself unstained by the world” (James 1:27), and speaking rightly.  For the tongue, like the smallest flicker of a flame, is able to set ablaze an entire forest (James 3:5).  Mature faith is evidenced by these three marks.

Even if you got a few of the true-false questions wrong today, our charge is to go into the world to live the life-giving truth.  May the blaze our words be the start of love’s revolution!

In the name of the life-giving Father, the life-redeeming Son, and the life-sustaining Spirit, Amen.

© Copyright JMN – 2018  (All rights reserved.)

Rocks

A Sermon for 2 October 2016 – World Communion Sunday

A reading from the gospel of Luke 17:1-10. Listen for God’s word to us.

“Jesus said to his disciples, “Occasions for stumbling are bound to come, but woe to anyone by whom they come! It would be better for you if a millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea than for you to cause one of these little ones to stumble. Be on your guard! If another disciple sins, you must rebuke the offender, and if there is repentance, you must forgive. And if the same person sins against you seven times a day, and turns back to you seven times and says, ‘I repent,’ you must forgive.” The apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith!” The Lord replied, “If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you. Who among you would say to your slave who has just come in from plowing or tending sheep in the field, ‘Come here at once and take your place at the table’? Would you not rather say to him, ‘Prepare supper for me, put on your apron and serve me while I eat and drink; later you may eat and drink’? Do you thank the slave for doing what was commanded? So you also, when you have done all that you were ordered to do, say, ‘We are worthless slaves; we have done only what we ought to have done!’”

 

And a reading of Psalm 137. Listen for God’s word to us.

“By the rivers of Babylon – there we sat down and there we wept when we remembered Zion. On the willows there we hung up our harps. For there our captors asked us for songs, and our tormentors asked for mirth, saying, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!” How could we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land? If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand wither! Let my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth, if I do not remember you, if I do not set Jerusalem above my highest joy. Remember, O Lord, against the Edomites the day of Jerusalem’s fall, how they said, “Tear it down! Tear it down! Down to its foundations!” O daughter Babylon, you devastator! Happy shall they be who pay you back what you have done to us! Happy shall they be who take your little ones and dash them against the rock!”

This is the word of God for the people of God. Thanks be to God!

 

Rocks tie these texts together today. Millstones hung around necks that sink to the bottom in an instant. And big, immovable ones that are best for the dashing against. Harsh feelings cause such fateful acts. A desire for retribution because heinous things have been done. It’s exactly why the Psalmist’s lament is filled with those shocking words. “Happy shall they be who do the unspeakable to your little babies!” (paraphrase of Psalm 137:9) The words seethe with hateful vengeance over the exile to Babylon. . . . In that context, maybe we can understand such sentiments. I mean, who among us too can tell a story about a time we were hurt so deeply by another, that we really wanted to lash out? Who here hasn’t stood stuck in the muck that makes for a bitter grudge? Has your spirit ever been shattered? Maybe a significant other pledged faithfulness, but strayed. Maybe a sibling has put your parents through high waters. Maybe due to the unthinkable, the earth-shattering, the awful that we’ve experienced in our lives: we close our hearts. The wall grows taller. We are too weary to trust again and again and again. . . . And these just are situations between people who know each other – not anything quite as destructive as the exile when Jerusalem was ransacked, burned to the ground, and the people carted off for the next seventy years to the distant land of their invaders. What about when nations clash today? What about when races can’t find a way forward? What about when one group seeks to hold back another for eons? How are we to live together pain after pain after pain?

If you were listening closely to the gospel reading of Luke, then you heard Jesus’ disciples declare: “O Jesus, increase our faith!” . . . That’s what the apostles said when Jesus told them the truth about life together. According to the text, it’s the context of the infamous: “If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree” – by the way, it’s a mulberry tree in Luke, not a mountain as in Matthew’s gospel. So you could say to this great big tree: “be uprooted and re-plant yourself in the sea” (Luke 17:6). . . . At the beginning of chapter 17, Jesus states: “Occasions for stumbling will come. . . . If another sins,” Jesus says, “tell them so.” I always like to add, “Just please be gentle when pointing out my mess ups.” I mean, “Log in your own eye,” remember (Matthew 7:3)? . . . We are told to forgive. To practice being ready – at all times – to receive back into the fold one who repents – one who turns to say, “I am sorry;” not only in words but in changed behavior too. We’re even to forgive the same person seven times in one whole day if it comes to that! . . . So be honest with yourself: is there a more appropriate response to such a charge than, “Lord, increase our faith!”

We’re human beings. Continuing in communion, as our Christ commands here, is tough stuff. Because, of course, that’s just it: all people in the whole wide world are human beings. We are not error-free. We all sin by separating ourselves from God and each other – sometimes intentionally and sometimes without us even knowing it at all. With the professional theologians, we can scratch our heads all through the day wondering about God’s original creation. We can expend great energy trying to parse out if sin is our natural state or not – which seems to be contrary to Scripture’s witness. After all, – Genesis 1 professes that the Creator declared it and us all good! Very, very good! (Gen. 1:31) . . . Still: “occasions for stumbling are bound to come.” We’re not supposed to try to do it. We’re supposed to do our best. We are supposed to aim for right-relationship between us and each other and the whole of the world – no separation between ourselves and others. But it happens. Jesus knows. God knows. Why do we expect otherwise? Whether one trips over their own two feet, or deliberately orchestrates an elaborate fall, no human being in this whole wide world is perfect. If we’re going to be in community, we’re going to have to find a way. . . . Jesus might as well simply say, “You will be hurt. And you will hurt.” Certainly God doesn’t want it like that. Still, such tumbles will happen. As servants of the unconditionally merciful God, we are to be ready to do our part. Seek to walk right. Rebuke gently when needed. Turn around to start again. And always forgive. There just cannot be community – will not be real community – without such forbearance.

Be certain to understand that Jesus is NOT saying that in community, anything goes. We were not created to be doormats. Every action is not okay – and some things that are okay at one time and place are not in another. At the same time, Jesus is NOT insinuating that we roll over to play dead by pretending that the pain caused by sin simply isn’t felt. It’s real. It hurts. Why do you think we have Psalm 137 with the blessing of those who bring an end forever to the ones who brought an end to us? It’s not there to justify our thirst for vengeance. It’s there to remind us that this relationship with God stuff is real. It’s about who we really are and how we really feel. Every last emotion that wells up within us is to be brought to our God. Nothing separates us from God’s love. That rage we feel is our signal that for us something has been violated. The Psalmist knew that. The issue is: how are we going to act after such damaging violations? . . . As an example: say so and so really screws up. Either we point it out to them, or they come to realize their mistake on their own. They stand ready to begin again – ready to turn around and act differently. Will we forgive? Will we do what forgiveness is: freely give grace to another so that reconciliation can begin? . . . According to Luke’s Jesus, even if it’s seven times in one whole day, “you must forgive” (Luke 17:4). In other words, forgiveness is a practice. One might even say it’s a spiritual discipline. Do you get it? Sometimes it takes practicing forgiveness repeatedly; choosing to release that bitter, begrudging desire within over and over and over until we can freely give grace to someone for the one thing they did that we just can’t seem to let go. Depending on the particular violation, we might have to wake up every morning and before we even set foot on the floor, we might have to plead: “O Lord, before I awake and let the bitterness I hold against so and so creep in, increase my faith right now!” That is what life together demands. And they say it only takes 21 times of doing something before it becomes a habit. So forgive that sin today and tomorrow and the next day for 21 times until the defenses in your heart breakdown and release that person for that particular act.

Of course, we’d like to remind Jesus that even if we’re busy gently pointing out each others’ transgressions in rebuke, not everyone comes to us ready to turn things around. Not everyone repents, right? Then what? Even if the transformation of reconciled life together never will take place, can we still forgive? Must we still forgive? . . . I love the artwork I think I’ve mentioned before as it’s been such a powerful illustration for me. It’s of two sets of chains in a dark, dank dungeon hanging free. The title reads: forgiveness. Ponder that a moment. Two sets of chains hang free. One was for the person we were convinced deserves it because of their hurtful actions. The other set was locked around us; the ones whose lives were just as mangled by life-squelching bondage because we refused to release our clutch upon the one who wronged us. That’s the most amazing thing about forgiveness – maybe reconciliation will not come because another refuses to change their behavior. Nonetheless, forgiveness can go forth. It must. We have to let go of the desire to punish another. For without such release, we are not free to be the ones Jesus sends out.

Is there any better message – even if it’s quite a challenge one – for us this day on World Communion Sunday? Jesus’ teachings on life together. . . . If we can practice it here among us, maybe those beyond the sanctuary walls will begin to see it too. Like the pebble falling into the water that sends ripples far beyond its reach, maybe our little bit of faithfulness will spread to the farthest corners of the world – showing another way. Servants of a magnificently merciful God, keep at it. Even the tiniest bit of faith will help us find the way.

In the name of the life-giving Father, the life-redeeming Son, and the life-sustaining Spirit, Amen.

© Copyright JMN – 2016  (All rights reserved.)

14 Sept. 2014 sermon — Mt. 18:21-35

DISCLAIMER: I believe sermons are meant to be heard. They are the word proclaimed in a live exchange between God and the preacher, and the preacher and God, and the preacher and the people, and the people and the preacher, and the people and God, and God and the people. Typically set in the context of worship and always following the reading of scripture, sermons are about listening and speaking and hearing and heeding. At the risk of stepping outside such boundaries, I share sermons here — where the reader will have to wade through a manuscript that was created to be spoken word. Even if you don’t know the sound of my voice, let yourself hear as you read. Let your mind see as you hear. Let your life be opened to whatever response you begin to hear within you.

May the Spirit Speak to you!
RevJule
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14 September 2014 – 14th Sunday after Pentecost

Click here to read scripture first:  Matthew 18:21-35 (NRS)

The lectionary is a list of scripture readings for each Sunday set by an ecumenical group years ago. And every three years in early September, the gospel readings of the lectionary come back to Matthew 18. The reading from last week about a process of direct conversation with those who sin against us. And now this week: Peter’s question about how many times we have to forgive. The last time this reading came up in the lectionary it was the Tenth Anniversary of 9/11. A tricky day on which to preach a rousing sermon about endlessly forgiving those who sin against us, which is the intent of Jesus’ response to Peter’s desire to put some limits on mercy. “Not just seven times,” Jesus says. The holy number – the whole number. “But seventy-seven” or “seventy times seven” as some manuscripts record. In other words: forgive times infinity, as the LORD our God does.

I doubt I’m the only person alive who struggles with forgiveness. And I should give a disclaimer that we’re not talking about letting the bad behavior continue. Jesus words about limitless forgiveness come after the process of recognizing and calling out the sin another commits against us. If someone else repeatedly is hurting us, that cannot go unchecked. We, the community, have a role to play in ensuring the health and safety of one another. If the sinner doesn’t change the bad behavior; we need to set in motion the process Jesus outlined early in chapter 18 of Matthew’s gospel. Continued right-relationship and forgiveness of another are two very different things. . . . Either way, if we give the Lord’s Prayer any weight in our lives with God and one another, then we might find ourselves panicking a little bit. “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors,” we mindlessly recite each week. When we stop to think about those words, we might find ourselves struggling with forgiveness. Is it really true that if I can’t forgive another their sins against me, then God might not forgive me mine? It appears to be the end to the parable Jesus tells here as recorded in the gospel of Matthew. But it doesn’t seem entirely fair. After all: God is God. Forgiveness has to be much easier for God than it is for us.

A few years ago I led an eight week course on forgiveness. I had some stuff of my own to sort out so when the trusted resource came along, I thought I’d give it a shot. I wasn’t really sure anyone would sign up for the class. But about 8 or so people did. Stories ranged from harboring decades of anger over being abandoned by parents, to siblings who had messed up the family with their addictions, to co-workers who had done them wrong. Over the years I’ve sat with survivors of incest, and wives whose husbands have had affairs, and people who have been deeply betrayed by loved ones. In story after story, I have learned that I am not the only one who struggles with forgiveness. And I’ve also learned the incredible strength of those who desperately want to forgive but just don’t know how.

A powerful image of forgiveness is contained in a quarterly Christian Spirituality journal called Weavings. Each article of the publication matches a theme for that issue. The “Forgiveness” issue of the early 1990s still is their most highly requested copy. “Forgiveness” had an incredible image in it of what looked much like a dark dirty dungeon. A solid, dead-end wall with heavy chains on it. Shackles around the wrists of a figure whose face appeared gnarled in emotion. One of the shackles was bursting free; the other tightly gripped the opposite wrist. Forgiveness: letting the prisoner go free. . . . The thing about forgiveness – or rather the lack of it – is that both parties end up shackled. And so often the other party doesn’t even know we’ve chained ourselves to them.

A rabbi tells a story about a woman who came to him. She was a struggling young mother whose husband unexpectedly filed for divorce. She spent each day working her fingers to the bone just to make ends meet for her and her three small children. Meanwhile, her ex was living it up in another state with his younger new wife. She was so incredibly mad at him – not to mention betrayed and left wondering what was wrong with her. She was not at all open to the rabbi’s suggestion that she forgive her ex. Finally the rabbi explained: “I’m not asking you to forgive him because what he did was acceptable. It wasn’t; it was mean and selfish. I’m asking you to forgive because he doesn’t deserve the power to live in your head and turn you into a bitter angry woman. I’d like to see him out of your life emotionally as completely as he is out of it physically, but you keep holding on to him. You’re not hurting him by holding on to that resentment, but you are hurting yourself” (Harold S. Kushner, “Letting Go of the Role of Victim,” Spirituality and Health, Winter, 1999, p. 34). That’s just it. When we can’t forgive, we stay stuck. We shackle ourselves even as we keep the emotional shackles on the other person.

In that Weavings issue on “Forgiveness,” Presbyterian pastor and spiritual director Marjorie Thompson writes an article entitled “Moving toward Forgiveness.” She states: “To forgive is to make a conscious choice to release the person who has wounded us from the sentence of our judgment, however justified that judgment may be. It represents a choice to leave behind our resentment and desire for retribution, however fair such punishment may seem. . . . Forgiveness involves excusing persons from the punitive consequences they deserve because of their behavior. The behavior remains condemned, but the offender is released from its effects as far as the forgiver is concerned. Forgiveness means the power of the original wound’s power to hold us trapped is broken.” (Marjorie Thompson, “Moving Toward Forgiveness,” Weavings, March-April 1992, p. 19). . . . Can you imagine a God like that? One who always chooses to release us from the judgment we deserve. One always ready to leave behind the resentment and desire for retribution that is our fair consequence. One who doesn’t punish us for our unacceptable behavior but releases us, at least in God’s eyes from the wound we have caused God. What Jesus is telling Peter and his whole church is that God is a God who forgives completely. The body of Christ – us, the church – is to do likewise. Someone has to be on earth that same kind of mercy. That same representation of freedom.

Unlike God, we may need to practice it. “Moving toward Forgiveness” Marjorie Thompson’s article is entitled. In other words, though God may be ever-ready to forgive, you and I may need to wake up each morning to make a conscious choice for that day. It’s another way to think about seventy times seven, or seventy-seven. Consider that young mother who sought out a listening from the rabbi. It might have been helpful for her to hear: wake up on Monday morning and begin the day with a prayer like: “Help me today, God, to forgive him.” At the end of the day when she put her head back down on the pillow, pray: “Help me tonight, God, to forgive him.” When the sun comes back up, pray: “Help me today, God, to forgive him – to release my resentment towards him.” And again that night: “Help me tonight, God, to forgive him. I choose to let go of my desire to see him punished.” And so on and so forth for as long as it takes until we wake up in the morning free from the resentment; our punitive spirit toward another gone. . . . I like that. Because it seems more real to me. More doable. Like any other virtue or Christian quality we’re working to develop: seventy times seven or seventy-seven times it may take us, but eventually we will be able to forgive. Little by little those prayers – that attitude in us will wear down our smoldering anger, will soothe that throbbing wound until we wake up one morning to find ourselves free. Forgiving and forgiven. Able to practice the same kind of excessive mercy which we find ourselves receiving from God.

“Lord: how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” Peter asks. No. Not just seven times. But every day. Over and over again until we find we’ve become experts at the practice. Spirits as free as our God to forgive one another.

In the name of the life-giving Father, the life-redeeming Son, and the life-sustaining Spirit, Amen.

© Copyright JMN – 2014  (All rights reserved.)