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Thursday, September 18, 2014

September 14, 2014

Gospel: Matthew 18:15-20
1st Reading: Genesis 50:15-21
2nd Reading: Romans 14:1-12

Ok, everyone, I have here a tally sheet of how many times Joseph’s brothers sinned against him. I will need your help. First they were jealous of him. Then they plotted against him. They threw him in a pit. They took his coat, killed an animal, put its blood on it and took it to their father to lie to him and tell him his son had been eaten by a wild animal. They kept that secret for years. Should we put a mark for every year they kept that secret, kept Joseph from his father and family? Now they come to him, and they haven’t changed their ways. They’ve got another lie to tell. They said, “Dad told us he wanted you to forgive us.”

Now we could try to make a list of every time we sinned against God. I don’t know if that would be helpful or not. I’ll let you make your own list at home if you think it would be valuable. We’re going to make a mark for everything we owe God, every way God has been generous to us. A roof over our head: should we put one mark for every year we’ve had someplace to live, or every day? How about food to eat? Do we make a mark for every day, or each meal? How about our profession? Do we put a mark for each profession we worked? For each year, for each day. How about family? Do we just count each one once, or for every time one of them did something nice? Then we’ve got friends. How do we measure how generous God has been to us. How about our health? How many marks for that? How about our congregation? How do we measure all that God has done for us?

Of course, the point is that we owe everything to God. There is no way we could ever repay a debt that large. But I’ve been thinking of it in terms of parenthood. Now that I have a child of my own, I can see what my mother did for me. Five years of constant supervision, every meal, every bedtime, every bath, washing every article of clothing, shopping, cleaning, teaching, guiding, everything. In the same way that I could never repay God, I could never repay my mother and Sterling could never repay me. Except that parents don’t do it to be repaid. We would never say that if our child was a jerk to another child that all that we do stops. No, we work harder to help our child grow into a generous person, kind to others.

I can’t think of God like I do this king, as someone who would throw someone and their whole family into prison to pay back a debt or punish and torture a servant who was unkind to someone else. Thankfully, the scripture doesn’t say this king is God. Instead, I think this is a picture of the kind of lives many people live. We live with debt hanging over our head. We sometimes step all over other people in order to get ahead. It isn’t always on our radar screen how we’ve been given everything we have, that it isn’t our due from working hard. Plenty of people work hard every day and have next to nothing. Even when we’ve “earned it” someone else has picked our food, processed our gasoline, built our house, cared for our children, and so on. What if we stopped feeling entitled and started feeling grateful?

If we started noticing all the blessings we enjoy and remembering where they came from, we would probably approach our lives very differently. That’s what this reading is about. The king hoped that his forgiveness of the servant’s debt would make a difference in the life of the servant, would sink in and affect his behavior toward others, just like a parent hopes that all the energy they pour into their child will someday result in some beautiful relationships, a capacity for forgiveness, an attitude of gratefulness, a kind and generous person, someone who thinks of others and their needs. God doesn’t require gratefulness and generosity in order to be generous to us. But God delights when God sees that behavior being mimicked in the world, because that means God’s values have been internalized. We aren’t just taking, taking, taking from God and taking it for granted that we get what we want. Instead, we are receiving more than just blessings, but an open and generous heart, a heart like our parents, like God. And when we have such an open heart and open hands, sharing what we have, we help create the world that God has in mind where everyone is valued, where resources and money are shared, and where everyone has enough and live in love and peace.

Now translate this from resources to forgiveness. We can make our lives a big contest to gather resources to ourselves and to take care of ourselves. That doesn’t fit into God’s value system and it isn’t going to do us any good, because eventually we all get sick and die. Sharing all that is what is going to mean abundant life, not just for us, but for our whole community and neighborhood. We can also make life into a game of innocent verses guilty. Since I make the rules, I always have myself in the innocent category. My behavior can always be explained or excused, but I make up stories in my mind about why the other guy screwed up and is worse than me. God says, you’re all alike in my eyes. There is no innocent. We all owe God a debt. None of us has lived a life above reproach or even near what we could have done if we had really trusted God. Jesus says we must forgive our neighbor, our brother, or fellow member of the church 77 times. The number 7 means “complete.” Put another one next to it and we’ve got completely complete. This is simply a number that says there is no number for forgiveness. There is no amount of times or tallies you can make on forgiveness. It is a process. You may think you’ve let go and it comes back to you. How do you even know if you’ve forgiven? Do you even want to forgive?

I think of Joseph. If it had been me, I probably would have said so self-righteously. I’ll forgive you all the rest if you prove you’ve changed your ways and admit you’re lying to me that dad said to forgive you. I’d want to lord it over them that I knew they were lying and that they needed me and they were afraid. That’s not what God says to do. It says to forgive. I’ve been looking at definitions of forgiveness this week, because it is such a difficult subject. The best definition I’ve heard is this: “Forgiveness means letting go of the hope that the past can be changed.” It doesn’t mean we aren’t vigilant with someone who has hurt us before. It doesn’t mean we let others hurt us, over and over. It doesn’t mean we never think about the wrong that happened to us. It is just a letting go of an obsession that wasn’t doing us any good to relive again and again. And another point, what is the alternative to forgiveness? As hard as forgiveness is, there is no viable alternative. We can seek revenge. That doesn’t help anyone. There is no satisfaction in that. We can keep going over it, again and again. That’s only hurting us. Forgiveness is the only possible way forward, the only opportunity for health for us and for others, the only way to freedom.

Thankfully, God is all for forgiveness. God sent the Son to show us that love and forgiveness is what God’s all about. And when we practice the values of our Father and forgive others we experience heaven and they experience heaven, the Kingdom of God right here, right now.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

September 7, 2014

Gospel: Matthew 18:15-20
1st Reading: Ezekiel 33:7-11
2nd Reading: Romans 13:8-14

Happy Anniversary, King of Kings. We’ve been together 10 years now. I don’t know if we should renew our vows, or buy each other flowers. I’ve never been that good at things like this. It is kinda funny, looking back over these years together—what we each were like when we came together 10 years ago and who we are now, what we’ve learned, how we’ve grown and what we’ve endured and what we’ve enjoyed about each other.

On this day, we get these readings about trust, and rebuilding trust, when needed. They tell a new pastor not to make any big changes for the first year and maybe not even for the first three years. That is so trust can be built. It takes a while for the pastor to get to know the congregational context. It takes the people a while to trust the pastor.

But these readings go way beyond pastor and congregation. They are about how people can live in community or family. We’re social creatures. We need each other. We need rules to help us negotiate that. We need ways of coming back together when we’ve broken the rules. We need each other. And it should make a difference how we handle these situations, if we are Christians. We have a special set of tools. We have a special set of teachings that, hopefully, help us figure that out and do something about it.

Paul, in the book of Romans, has been giving general ethical instructions, but now he moves into a new phase. In case your situation hasn’t been specifically laid out, so far, here’s what it all boils down to: Love.

Now you think that would be easy, but it isn’t. What does it mean to love? Does it mean I have to like someone? When do I use tough love? If I am loving, does that mean I overlook it, if they hurt me? Do I let them keep making the same mistakes, over and over again? Do I have to love absolutely everyone? How about Hitler? How about a child abuser? On the other hand, we throw the word “love” around until it is meaningless. “I love ice cream.” “I love your outfit.” Love becomes something superficial that we never put into action.

Paul reminds people that it isn’t just love, but to “Love your neighbor as yourself.” First, it isn’t about some hypothetical person that you might never meet. It is your neighbor. It is someone you run into now and then and have contact with. It might include your enemy, too, but it is a real life situation you are living in. Next, love them as yourself. It doesn’t mean to let yourself get walked all over. You have to love yourself enough that you have love to give to another. This love is about recognizing God’s handiwork in every person, including yourself. And some have suggested that perhaps trees and squirrels and rivers are our neighbors, too. That how we treat our world matters too and that what we put into the water or air is fundamentally tied to loving our neighbor. So it is even about recognizing God’s handiwork in every creature.

Then Paul goes on and we get to the urgency of it. We probably aren’t going to be convinced to start doing loving things because we are expecting the second coming in the form of angels blowing on trumpets and Jesus descending from heaven. I have heard of some people doing loving works near the end of their lives, feeling their time is short and sorting out their priorities in a new way. We might look at this urgency, though, in terms of a world in need, or a neighbor in need. Yes, maybe our neighbor might be able to wait another day for our love to be shown to them, but do we want to wait another day for this love to be born in our world, to exist between people? I would put it this way, “What are we waiting for?! There is love to go around! Let’s do this!” It’s like having a fresh tray of cookies. The sooner you get them distributed, the better!

Sometimes I think when couples get married, they look at it so cut and dry. “We’ll get married. We’ll always feel this way toward each other. We’ll have some kids. We’ll take vacations. We’ll get a house and good jobs and be happy. The end.” I don’t know if couples really know about marriage, how every day it is a full-time job, you have to work at it, very hard, and you don’t always feel like it. Sometimes you feel close to your partner and sometimes you don’t. And sometimes an argument about how you chop the garlic isn’t really about that at all.

Many other relationships are like marriages. When you join a church, it can be like a marriage. You have all your criteria for what you are looking for in a church and it seems to fit. There might be a little magic sometimes, those goosebumps. Finding the right job can be like a marriage or finding a community to belong to. But, no matter how good it starts out, misunderstandings happen, people sin against you and you sin against them. This Gospel reading shouldn’t say, “If another member of the church sins against you…” It should say, “When another member of the church sins against you…” This is part of what it means to be in a relationship. We step on each other’s toes. But we are a part of the body of Christ. We are committed to this relationship. So Jesus gives us some tips for surviving and rebuilding trust.

The first thing is so essential. Go to that person. Don’t just gloss over it. Don’t pretend you haven’t been hurt. Go and get it out in the open. And don’t wait for them to come to you. If you have a scratch on your arm and it is bleeding, you don’t just look the other way and hope it disappears. Sometimes I think we’ve been so afraid of conflict in a church, that we have caused ourselves a lot more pain and infections and scarring than necessary. Get it out there. There is probably a perfectly reasonable explanation. Chances are the other person has no idea they’ve hurt you and welcome this information. Now they have a chance to make it right. But don’t expect that. We don’t really have a right to get attached to certain outcomes. If the other person listens, you have achieved something pretty extraordinary, and that might even be enough to heal the wound or regain the peace.

And if by chance they are offended by your approach, here is a next step. Don’t think you are the first to have needed this step. That’s why it is here. Get someone to go with you. And it is ok to do that, because this isn’t just about you. When two members are fighting or hurt, it isn’t just affecting them. It affects the whole community. We are the body of Christ. The rest of the body is involved when the pinkies are fighting or injured. Sometimes other parts of the body have experience that will help fight the infection, or have access to bandages and Neosporin. Sometimes they hear something that the two having the original conflict have. This doesn’t say to go to others and gossip and get them to take your side. It says that everyone should listen and put the health of the body before petty differences. Decide what it is worth binding and hanging on to, and what is worth loosing, and letting go of.

And if they still don’t listen, treat them like a Gentile and a tax collector, that is, “Love them like yourself.” What? Forgive them 77 times. Have them over for a barbecue and eat with them. Come to the communion table with them. Be in the body of Christ with them.

We could all do better at this stuff, facing conflict, acting like adults. I’m learning just the same as you are. I have to say there is nothing better than two people who have had their differences and have reconciled, come to a place of love and acceptance of each other, people who have weathered hard times together and have that sticking power that you have to admire. I see it in long marriages. You know every moment has not been a walk in the park. I know that being part of this church is not always a walk in the park. I know that you have put up with each other and yourselves and me and I appreciate your stick-to-itiveness. It is like a mosaic of broken shards of pottery, each beautiful on its own, each formerly a part of something else. Now broken and damaged, but coming together to make a beautiful picture to spark the imagination, to inspire, to uplift, and to catch the light 1000 different ways and send back into the world color and warmth and love.

The good news for this morning is that Jesus is with us. We’ve had good times and not so good times, but Jesus is inviting us into relationship again, to be his children, to be brothers and sisters to each other, to experience extraordinary love, and to share that love.