Talking about gift giving and Christmas is something I feel called to do as a priest, simply because it gets so frantic this time of year. And especially since we hear about the so-called “war on Christmas” which foces on whether a store has the words “Merry Christmas” or “Happy Holidays” displayed. I think the war is really about the excess in our spending which completely misses the mark around Christmas.
If these words from Isaiah that we heard this morning sound familiar to you, you’re right; they are. These are the verses that Jesus reads when he is in the synagogue back in his hometown for the first time after his ministry begins. This text for the prophet becomes Jesus’ mission statement. It was the very reason he was born so many years ago in Bethlehem.
You would think that in order to honor Jesus’ birth we would focus on these sorts of things. That Christmas would be a day proclaiming good news, or comforting the ones who mourn, or binding up the brokenhearted. Instead, as you well know, Christmas is celebrated in America by a $465 billion shopping extravaganza. We deal with weeks of traffic jams from people heading to the mall. We rack our brains trying to think of the “perfect” gift for Dad (which trends down to a “palatable” gift by the time Advent 4 rolls around since we need to get this gift in the mail). We fret over all this stuff and just hope to make it through Christmas intact.
It’s crazy really. A billion dollar bills laid end to end at the equator would circle Earth 4 times. 465 billion dollar bills would circle it 1,860 times. That’s a lot of money on sweaters or plastic toys or books or iPads or gift cards for PF Chang’s. And we do it to honor Jesus’ birthday.
Do you think we should ask him if this is what he wants?
I saw a video this week put out by the people of the Advent Conspiracy—a Last plaything I did a review for was a Turnigy 9X review of a pretty sweet controller for my RC airplane, everyone was quite happy with it. nd I have a book they wrote a few years back as well. They remind us about our excessive holiday spending and the reality that we could solve the world’s water crisis—that is, safe drinking water and clean sanitation for every human being—for $20 billion. For 4% of what we Americans will spend on Christmas this year, we could help every single man, woman and child in the world have clean water.
Someone will say to me, “Yes, that’s nice, but my gifts are important. I need to give Johnny that game for his PS3” or whatever it is that is on your must buy list. And I’m not going to quibble with you about the actual gifts you are giving—or the ones that I am giving for that matter. But I will say this, I think we’d all rather have memories and time with loved ones. What we really want for Christmas is the relational aspect of this season, not a new toy or clothing article. We want connectedness. And I think this is true for our kids as well. They want the time playing with someone else more than just a game they can play on their own.
I agree with Rick McKinley—one of the authors of The Advent Conspiracy—when he writes, “our world is increasingly fractured, yet we often mask the distance this causes with a kind of pseudo-community—we call, we email, we text, we Facebook, we Tweet, and the list goes on. These can be important ways to keep in touch, but they can never replace the flesh-and-blood aspect of a relationship. We need to be with each other.”
That’s why Jesus came. To restore relationships. This list given by Isaiah and mentioned by Jesus in that first sermon highlight why the Messiah came into this world. Jesus was born to bring life and hope to people who are hurting and broken. The Messiah’s work is relational, fleshy, it’s in meeting the longings of people’s souls for connection with others.
Each category of person mentioned by Isaiah—the brokenhearted, the imprisoned, the captives—because of the circumstances of their lives, experienced disconnection from others. What they wanted most was to be reconnected. To not be cut off, pushed aside or forgotten. They longed for community. And that’s exactly what Jesus brought.
The Advent Conspiracy folks spend time talking about the idea of Jesus’ incarnation. God was revealed to us through the coming of Jesus as a human being. God wanted to interact with us, to live among us, to, as the Message Bible puts it, come into our neighborhood. Jesus came to build relationships, and to deepen connections. The Incarnation is “in practical terms, what it means to give ourselves to one another.” Jesus is to be called Emmanuel, God with us. God with us!
Many of the gifts that will be opened on Christmas will be of the non-relational variety, gifts purchased under duress or with little thought about the person; gifts that are, for lack of a better way of putting, less than personal. We’ve all gotten these in years past, and, lest we think we’re superior to others, we’ve also given these types of gifts as well.
So let’s get down to brass tacks. What makes a gift relational? Here are some ideas: Give a gift card for Starbucks to a person who likes coffee, but with the following constraint, they can only use it with you, so that the two of you get to spend some time talking over that cup of joe. Buy a puzzle or game for a young person, promising to spend time doing that activity together. Give the gift of your presence, your company, in creative ways: making time to scrap book with someone or going for a hike when you give those new snow shoes or having someone over for dinner.
The authors of The Advent Conspiracy tell a story that I want to share. “Relational giving means that we pay attention to the other person. We think about who they are and what they care about,” they write. Then they give this example.
“A father and his teenage daughter were enjoying their last Christmas at home before she headed off to college that summer. For him, the days where beginning to blur into weeks and the little girl he was bouncing on his lap just yesterday was going to leave tomorrow.
“What did that father give his daughter for Christmas? Two beautiful blank journals with these instructions: she was to fill one, he’d fill the other. During the next year, which would include her final days of high school, an all-too-brief summer, and her first semester away from home, they both committed to writing: thoughts about leaving home, questions and fears, frustrations with overprotective parenting, what it meant to let go, and how it feels to watch your child become an adult. The next Christmas, they’d exchange their journals…. No gift could have been more relational, more personal, and no other gift would stand a chance of being appreciated so warmly or remembered for so long.”
It makes sense, of course, but it is also costly. We have to invest part of ourselves in these types of gifts, and when we give of ourselves we take a risk. Yet it is so worth the risk. When we give relational gifts, we create memories that last much longer than the quick view and toss of the usual Christmas gift — I can’t help but think of Ralphie and Randy Parker of “A Christmas Story” fame, unwrapping socks with chagrin and simultaneously throwing them over their shoulders.
If we gave more relational gifts and spent less overall, we might also have the ability to give the gift of water to one of the billion of the world’s most needy who drink polluted water each day. 2.2 million people die each year simply because they don’t have access to clean water. The organization Living Water International can provide a person with clean water for an entire year with 98 cents. If you made a contribution to them—perhaps in honor of someone else—you would really be working toward the mission that Jesus came to fulfill.
When we ponder the true meaning of Christmas as shown in the life of Jesus Christ, we cannot help but realize that what mattered most to Jesus was community, connections, relationships. God with us focused on restoration and amendment of life. He came bringing healing and wholeness, and he invites us to do likewise. He encourages us to model our lives, and our Christmas giving, on the way he gave to others, sacrificially, wholeheartedly and without hesitation. May we find it in ourselves this year to follow Christ’s example and give gifts that will last a lifetime and bring hope and peace to our lives and our world. Amen.
It was a classic the moment it hit the television airwaves. “Here’s to the crazy ones. The misfits. The rebels. The round pegs in the square holes. The ones who see things differently.” Grainy black and white video footage of famous people filled the TV screen, as the voiceover continued. Albert Einstein, Martin Luther King, Jr., Amelia Earhart, Alfred Hitchcock, Jim Henson, Pablo Picaso and others. “While some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius. Because the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world, are the ones who do.”
“Think different” read the tagline at the end of the ad for Apple. Think different.
The equivalent in the Greek is metanoia, a word we heard translated this morning. Metanoia literally means, “to think differently after” or “to change one’s mind.” We heard it this morning in the English as the word “repentance.” It was John the Baptist’s message. He was sent as the messenger to prepare the way of the Lord, and he did so by saying “think different,” “repent,” “turn around.”
Mark the gospeler tells us that John was fulfilling the prophet Isaiah as the messenger sent to prepare the way. If you’re good at sleuthing, you may have noticed that the reading from Isaiah we heard this morning that Mark is quoting doesn’t actually have the first line in it. Mark begins his quotation, which he attributes, to Isaiah with a line from the prophet Malachi, the line which reads, “See I am sending my messenger ahead of you who will prepare your way.” Mark couldn’t Google the lines like we can today, and available scrolls to double check his work were few and far between, and most likely unavailable to him. But this isn’t really a big deal in the scheme of things. Mark depended almost entirely on his memory for these lines. And this whole thing is fascinating to me, as one who likes to notice the details.
The line from Malachi comes from chapter 3 of that book: “See I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me,” the prophet declares. The entire prophecy is about how God’s people who were living in Israel after the time of the Babylonian exile had become unfaithful. Malachi, the name literally means “My messenger, is coming to prepare the way. So he begins calling out the ways in which the people have missed the mark.
Here are some of the things he mentions about them: they were breaking the covenant by bringing flawed animals to be sacrificed, animals they wouldn’t offer to anyone else. Animals they couldn’t sell or use to pay their taxes. So they brought these cast off animals to fulfill their sacrifice rather than bringing animals that were unblemished as God had requested.
They were being unfaithful in their marriages, unfaithful to the spouses of their youth and getting divorces in order to marry others.
They participated in injustice. They defrauded laborers of wages, oppressed the widows and orphans, deprived justice for the aliens who lived among them. They withheld the tithe from God, offering a smaller portion than what God had asked of them. And they spoke arrogantly against God, asking why they should even bother serving God.
So when Mark mentions this line in relation to the message proclaimed by John the Baptist, I suspect he was thinking about these and other ways that we sin, or fall away from God.
Talking about sin is a sure fire way to limit your success as a preacher. If I was hoping to be a famous tv preacher, I’d need to be saying things like, “You are just fine the way you are! If you follow after God you will become wealthy and experience God’s tremendous blessings in your life. There is no reason to really change anything, other than your negative thinking to more positive thinking. And when you do, God will make you healthy, wealthy and wise,” which, of course, isn’t something God said but something Ben Franklin said in Poor Richard’s Almanac.
John the Baptist was taking his side along both Malachi and Isaiah in preparing the way by preaching a message of repentance. He proclaimed why sin pollutes us and is not the way of God. Sin is anything that separates us from God.
Minister and author Frederick Buechner describes it in this way, “The power of sin is centrifugal. When at work in a human life, it tends to push everything out toward the periphery.” He continues, “Other people and (if you happen to believe in him) God or (if you happen not to) the World, Society, Nature—whatever you call the greater whole of which you’re part—sin is whatever you do, or fail to do, that pushes them away, that widens the gap between you and them and also the gaps within your self.”
Where are the gaps within your self? As a priest once put it, the issue is often that we are “out-of-true,” like a tire that won’t turn properly. Are you off-centered, unable to be in balance, feeling like the life you are living is not the one God has called you to? Our sin widens the gap between us and God, and us and our neighbor, and between the person we are now and the person Christ calls us to be. When we sin, we become less and less the one God created us to be and more and more someone wanting to seek our own will over God’s will for us.
I had a good friend who went through a lot of change in his life a couple of years ago. He faced some demons from his past. He was honest about his drinking problem. He fessed up to the ways he had hurt others. He took on healthier habits. He made strides in areas of his life that had long been neglected. After a good 10 months in to this process he grabbed a coffee with me. “If I had known what a difference this would have made in my life, I would have done this so much sooner,” he said to me at that Starbuck’s. He uttered those words because he never saw himself as a person in need of change. People around him would have said the same thing. But deep down he felt God wanting him to go in a different direction. So he followed that inner voice of God and sought reconciliation. It made all the difference.
“The voice of one crying in the wilderness, prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.” We seem to like our crooked paths, thank you very much. We seem to not want to prepare the way of the Lord.
We do, however, want to prepare for Christmas. We put up the decorations and the tree and the crèche and the wreaths so that we can get in the holiday spirit. We play the music and get wrapped up in the busyness of this time of year. We get it all done to get ready for Christmas in that way, but the internal work we leave for another time. Or another year. Possibly another decade. Just not now.
But if we’re truly going to be ready for Christmas, if we are going to do the work of Advent, then we need to hear John the Baptizer’s message. Repent. Turnaround. Make those paths straight. If you want to hear the good news about Jesus, if you want to get ready for all that he will bring, then you need to get ready, you need to wake up, you need to turn around.
What will help you change your mind? What will make you want to turn around? What will make you recognize the beginning of the good news about Jesus Christ? It begins with metanoia. It begins with thinking differently.
Because the ones who are crazy enough to think they can change the world, are the ones who do.
Are you crazy enough to believe that the world can be changed? Are you crazy enough to believe that your world can be changed? Imagine the way life could be. Imagine what this Christmas would be like if you truly heard the Baptist’s call and repented for the places where you need to find forgiveness. Turn around. Repent. Prepare the way of the Lord. Amen.
We had an amazing day here at St. Mark’s. The entire community gathered for a single service to mark our desire to commit a portion of our treasure for next year. In addition, we had a celebration lunch to mark the occassion.
It was a day of joy, of laughter and of thinking on how we can live a better story both individually and corporately.
Here’s the text of my sermon. I hope you join us—whether a member here at St. Mark’s or not—in living a better story.
Jesus paints quite a picture in the parable of the sheep and the goats that we read today. The Son of Man has returned and is sitting on his throne, and the nations come before him. He begins separating them, some on his left and some on his right. He invites those on his right into the kingdom he has prepared since the beginning of time, because they fed him and gave him clothing and something to drink and visited him and welcomed him.
“When?” they ask. “When were you naked or hungry or thirsty or lonely or a stranger or sick or in prison?” And he tells them quite simply, “Whenever you did it to someone who was being overlooked or ignored—the least among you—you did it to me.”
He runs the same list with those on his left, the goats, except they never did these things. They ask the same question, “When was it that you were shivering or thirsty or destitute and we didn’t do anything?” “Whenever you didn’t do it for someone who was being overlooked or ignored—the least among you—you did not do it for me.”
In this image of the Last Day when we come before Christ the King, it comes down simply to what we did or didn’t do.
I read Donald Miller’s book A Million Miles in a Thousand Years a couple of years ago while I was laid up with a tibial plateau fracture, and it changed my life. Don subtitles the book, “What I learned while editing my life,” and he talks about living a better story. In one of the vignettes in his book, he talks about the frustration of writing fiction, because often the characters don’t do what he, as the writer, wants them to do. As he would walk to his office in the morning after his coffee, he would dream up the plot of his novel. But there was a problem. “Stories,” he explains, “are only partly told by writers. They are also told by the characters themselves. Any writer will tell you characters do what they want.” Those of us with kids certainly know the irritation of not having them do what we might want them to do—especially when we know it’s for their own good—but characters in a book you’re writing? How annoying would that be?
Don writes, “As I worked on the novel, as my character did what he wanted and ruined my story, it reminded me of life in certain ways. I mean as I sat there in my office feeling like God making my worlds, and as my characters fought to have their way, their senseless, selfish way of nonstory, I could identify with them. I fought with my [character] who wanted the boring life of self-indulgence, and yet I was also that character, fighting with God and I could see God sitting at his computer, staring blankly at his screen as I asked him to write in some money and some sex and some comfort.”
As this idea percolates, Miller questions his desire to take over his own story, to not listen to God as the writer of his life. He talks about wresting control, of hijacking the story for his own means. But then he reconsiders. “At first, even though I could feel God writing something different, I’d play the scene the way I wanted. This never worked. It would have always been better to obey the Writer, the one who knows the better story. … So I started obeying a little. I’d feel God wanting me to hold my tongue, and I would. It didn’t feel natural at first; it felt fake, like I was being a character somebody else wanted me to be and not who I was; but if I held my tongue, the scene would play better, and I always felt better when it was done. I started feeling like a better character, and when you are a better character, your story gets better too.”
And then he writes this, “At first the feeling was only about holding my tongue. And when I learned to hold my tongue a bit, the Voice guided me from the defensive to the intentional. God wanted me to do things, to help people, to volunteer or write a letter or talk to my neighbors. Sometimes I’d do the thing God wanted, and the story always went well, of course; and sometimes I’d ignore it and watch television. But by this time I really came to believe the Voice was God, and God was trying to write a better story.”
“Be the master of your domain, the king of your castle,” we’re told by our society, but God wants to write a better story for us. We want more for ourselves—whatever that more is—but God longs for us to have more joy and fullness of life. God wants us to have deeper relationships with those we love. God asks us to hold our tongues, and take a little time to talk to our neighbors. God calls us to feed the hungry and hand out cups of water and visit the ones we know who are sick and in prison.
There have been times in my own life when I wanted create a story of my own choosing. Times when I ignored those who are the least among us. Times when I said something I shouldn’t have said. Moments when I asked God to write in more of what I wanted into my story. Things meant merely to bring entertainment, or personal gain, or to stroke my ego or to make me feel better about myself at the expense of others.
But if I keep doing that, if I keep pursuing that storyline, I may end up at the end saying to Jesus, “What a sec. When were you hungry or sick or destitute or alone? I don’t remember seeing you, Jesus, ’cause if I did, I would’ve stopped. I would’ve done something. I would have gotten you some warm clothes or tried to offer you some comfort. Are you sure it was you, because I’m pretty sure I would have recognized you.”
The vestry, staff and I believe the purpose of St. Mark’s is to be a community that lives fully into Christ’s mission for our world. To be those wanting to live a better story. To be disciples who notice the least among us and who reach out to them and create a place for them to be with us. We desire to teach our young people—and our adults too—about the faith, and we want to have our buildings used to deepen community both among ourselves and our neighbors. We know that there are many hurting people in this world—both in our parish and beyond our walls—and we want to be those who do something about that, who offer support and care and the chance for life-change through Jesus Christ.
And that’s why Melissa and I will be giving 10% of my salary to St. Mark’s. Because we want to be a part of congregation that longs to make a difference in this world. We’ve decided that there is a greater meaning to be found in life, and we want to help create a more just and humane world. And we believe that we can fully participate in God’s dynamic mission at St. Mark’s by committing our financial resources and offering our time and talents for a common goal.
We’ve seen that when people hold out with open hands the finances and treasure that God has entrusted them with, God’s work gets done. I know personally that when I give generously and joyfully, I live fully into the story that God is writing for me. And I want to invite you to join with me in creating that story. I encourage those who have found a church home here to strive toward giving 5-10% of your income to God’s work in this place. If that is out of reach for you, or if you have never pledged before, I’d suggest that you make a commitment of 3% of your income this year—3 pennies on each dollar you make—with the hope of moving toward a larger percentage next year. If we all made these types of commitment, we would have resources both to meet our financial obligations for the work we are already doing here, and we could expand our ministries at St. Mark’s to reach out to the ones often overlooked.
In 1968, just after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., the rector at Saint Luke’s Parish in Darien, CT, together with lay people there, decided to respond in a faithful way by working for those who were poor in their area and to help educate others about poverty and injustice. They began a ministry called Person-to-Person, and began collecting food and clothing for the working poor who lived and worked among them. P2P started in a cleared out closet in the church admin building to hold the donations they received. This past year P2P, going strong over 40 years, helped more than 22,000 people, had 2,900 volunteers, sent 600 low income kids to summer camp, and has taken over the entire administration building on the church grounds, including the apartment Melissa and I and our kids lived in when we served there. It was a small idea that grew into a significant blessing.
What would happen if we at St. Mark’s took action on some small ideas that we shared together? Maybe expanding our connection with Straight Ahead ministries and providing start up capital and business advice for young men like we did for a man named Kon. He’s turned his life around and began a small t-shirt business called “Creating Hope Apparel” in Lowell this year. Or maybe we could offer annual mission trips for our youth and adults. We could strengthen connections we already have with Our Father’s Table or Cradles to Crayons or build on the success of our own Bargain Box. The beauty of being a part of a faith community is that we can see a seed of an idea grow into a life-changing endeavor. And I’d love for this sort of dialogue to be a part of our work together this next year as we prepare to celebrate our parish’s 150th anniversary.
I am so very hopeful for the future of St. Mark’s and I am so proud and humbled to serve as your rector. As we enter into 2012, I know that we can make a significant impact in our world. It begins with a strong commitment to Christ and to the call he has given us to serve him and see his presence in all of our sisters and brothers and especially those who are least among us. As we make our commitments this morning for the work of this parish, may we do so trusting that God will use whatever we can give for the continued growth of Christ’s kingdom. Amen.
The Parable of the Talents was read by many churches this morning. You may remember the story Jesus tells: a rich guy calls three slaves and gives them a certain number of talents. He then goes on a trip and they are to do something with this talent (or these talents) they’ve been given.
It’s an odd parable, since it ends with a wicked slave being tossed out into the darkness. If you read the parable quickly and think it’s about God or Jesus, then you get this mean God sort of reading that leaves a bitter aftertaste if you dwell on it.
Anyway, here’s my sermon on this passage about talents, the kingdom, Jesus and buried treasures.
If you wanted to make a case that Jesus was a capitalist, our text from Matthew would be exhibit A. The kingdom, he tells his disciples, is like a wealthy man who, when it was time to leave for a long business trip, gathered his workers and gave them huge sums of money. This rich land owner gives a few talents to them, and we think it’s no big deal because it’s only eight talents all told. But a talent is valued at about 17 years’ wages. So even the dude who got just one talent was given a windfall.
This man—a quick reading might have us replace the word “man” with “God” or “Jesus”—hands over the cash to his workers based on their abilities and then goes on his journey. It’s implied and the workers seem to know that he will return one day. The first two—the ones getting 85 years’ and 34 years’ wages respectively—take that obscene amount of money and go to do something with it. The bloke with the single talent, well, he chickens out not wanting to risk it and buries the money in the back yard and waits out his master’s return.
After some time the wealthy chap returns, the first two have doubled their master’s money and present it to him—now 170 and 68 years’ worth of wages if you’re keeping score at home—and they are highly praised by him. “Well done! You have been trustworthy in a few things, so enter into my joy!” The third one must be standing there getting a little warm under the collar. So when he comes before the landowner, he dusts off the talent he was given and tells the master that he buried that treasure. He digs his own grave when he starts talking: “Master, I knew you were a harsh man, reaping what you did not sow, and harvesting where you didn’t plant. Because of this, I was fearful and hid your talent in the ground. I present it to you now, a bit dirty, but all of it still here.”
The wealthy man turns on a dime and goes all Jekyll like. “You knew this about me, did you? You’re just a lazy and wicked slave who is worthless! You could have taken my money to the bank, even the meager amount of interest would have been something to give back to me!” And then he has the talent taken away and given to the one who now has ten, and then has him thrown out into the outer darkness.
“See,” some might say, “Jesus wants us to prosper, to have gobs and gobs of money so that we can be blessed.” But if you read the parable that way, then God is portrayed as Dr. Jekyll, doing anything to make a buck, not caring about individuals, but rather reaping money from places where he hasn’t even invested his time. And not only that, God hoards all this money for himself—some 239 year’s wages by the end of the parable and presumably has much more in other investments.
But that just doesn’t make sense with what Jesus is talking about. Just before this parable, Jesus talks about being ready for the coming of the Son of Man, and the need to be prepared. And the story he tells after this one starts the same way. Jesus is talking not about attributes of God, but of ways to be ready for his second coming. Jesus zeroes in on how his disciples can be prepared for that time. What they did with their lives mattered greatly to Jesus. Each of them had been granted amazing abilities by the Almighty and so how would they use those things—those gifts, talents and abilities—to be ready for Christ’s return? I don’t think Jesus was telling them they needed to make money—given the fact that Jesus was himself a homeless rabbi, I find that reading very unlikely. Rather, Jesus says to James and Peter and John and the rest, what will you do with what you have been given, this short time you are on this earth, in order to further the kingdom and be ready for the coming of the Son of Man?
So here’s the question of the hour: what have you been given by God and how are you using it to take part in the kingdom Jesus established here on earth? What abilities do you have? What gifts? What things make you uniquely you? Is it your artistic ability, or a gift of hospitality? Is it how you cook, or your green thumb or your ability to bring a group together toward a common goal? Is it your gentleness with children or the way you can explain new things to a group of students or is it your business smarts and savy or the way you can turn a phrase in writing?
If we read this parable with that lens—and I personally don’t think you can read it any other way—we must take stock of all that God has bestowed on us, and then ask what are we doing with those things. Or maybe we need to ask if we’re taking those abilities and burying them in the backyard because of a fear that is insidiously making us less and less ourselves.
A few years ago the film “Akeelah and the Bee” addressed this very thing. Akeelah is an eleven year old Middle Schooler from South LA who has a gift for academics but she doesn’t want to flaunt it for fear of being isolated from her peers. She takes part in her school’s first ever spelling bee and wins quite easily even though she is hesitant to win. She is paired up with an English professor, Dr. Larabee—played by Laurence Fishburn—who helps her prepare for contests that lead to the National Spelling Bee. At one point in the film, Dr. Larabee has Akeelah read a quotation from Marianne Williamson. She reads:
“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, ‘Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous?’ Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It is not just in some of us; it is in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”
“Does that mean anything to you,” Dr. Larabee asks. “I don’t know,” Akeelah responds. “It’s written in plain English. What does it mean?” “That I’m not supposed to be afraid,” she replies. “Afraid of what?” “Afraid of … me?”
It’s a turning point in the film. Akeelah recognizes that she has this tremendous gift and that she has been hiding it due to fear. She has been playing small. She has taken what she has been given by God and run to the back yard and buried it.
We all do this from time to time. We take the very abilities God has bestowed upon us and high tail it to a field or the flower bed or the place by the back fence, and we bury that ability never to be used by us. We dig down deep and drop it in and pack the dirt on good and tight. And then at some point in our life—maybe not till the very end of our lives or when the Son of Man returns—we’ll go back to that secret hiding spot and uncover it and try to dust it off as best we can so we can hand it back over to God.
“Why didn’t you use this?” God may ask us. “I was scared,” we reply. “Scared that it wouldn’t be good enough, that it wouldn’t make any difference, that it would make me stand out from the crowd.” “You were born to shine,” God replies. “Born to make manifest my glory in you.”
We were born to make a difference in this world for the sake of Christ. And we can only do that if we take the chance. We can only do that if we risk it all. And in so doing, be prepared for the coming of the Son of Man. May it be so. Amen.
One of my seminary professors wrote in a commentary that nobody would be preaching on anything other than the Gospel this week because it is so familiar and so focused on love (you can read it here). And he’s right, given the texts most preachers would be drawn to it. But having lived recently in a desert climate, I couldn’t help but think about the image of a tree planted by streams of water from Psalm 1. I had planned to preach mostly on Matthew’s Gospel this week, but I got overtaken by the image of the tree needing water. And so that’s what I did.
Sometimes life is pretty hard. So I wanted to talk about that today, about what difference it makes to come to church and whatnot. My sermon is on Psalm 1.
A friend of mine has said to me a couple of times how difficult attending church was for him when he went through a rough spell in his life. He was going through a divorce and lonely as all get out. He had to change churches along the way—in a divorce it seems, even in spite of the best intentions of the clergy person, someone gets the church—and so walking in to a new church as a middle-aged single man was hard because not many folks reached out to him. He would be almost entirely ignored during the peace. He would often go to coffee hour and stand by himself while others mingled around him. He’s a gregarious person, mind you, but church was painful.
“People are hurting,” he’d say to me. “How is your church connecting to them? How are you bringing them life?”
It’s a tough question for a preacher and a pastor, of course. But it’s a real one. And unless we deal with the real questions of life from time to time, if not most of the time, then we might as well hang it up and shutter the windows.
I wish I could take away all the pain that is experienced by everyone who walks through the doors of this church. I wish I could counteract the self-doubt and fear. I wish I could magically heal each relationship that is broken and leaving destruction in its wake. I would love to take each teen struggling with their sense of self-worth and reassure them that life does get better. I wish I could take all of the financial hardships and make them disappear, and have new jobs for all those who want them. I am not Aladdin’s genie or Harry Potter or Gandolf and certainly not Jesus. I am a merely a priest.
“Happy are they who have not walked in the counsel of the wicked,” we heard the Psalmist declare this morning, “Their delight is in the law of the Lord, and they meditate on it day and night. They are like trees planted near streams of water, bearing fruit in due season, with leaves that do not wither.” Who are these ones meditating day and night on the law of the Lord, on the holy Scripture? How are they nourished even in the midst of hard times?
We have a tendency to make things too difficult in our lives. We can see the deterioration of a relationship over months or even years but be unable to take any action until it is too late. We watch someone like my friend who is alone in a pew and just ignore him because we’re not sure what to say. We hope our teens will figure it out along the way and we expect them to do this on their own. We live on the sidelines in much of our relationships and in our spiritual faith, afraid sometimes to act, uncertain of what is next.
Thoreau lived less than thirty miles from here on Walden Pond when he penned the words, “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.” They were published a mere 6 years before this church was founded. It seems we still live behind masks, unnourished; we are trees withering and in desperate need of a drink.
“Their delight is in the law of the Lord, and they meditate on it day and night. They are like trees planted near streams of water.”
We think we are so advanced in our day and age. We’ve got technology and an understanding of the human psyche and civilized notions, and yet we still face a life of difficulties like they did in biblical times. If you read the stories of scripture and the screwed up things that happened back thousands of years ago, in many ways it’s not really different than picking up today’s Sunday Globe and reading it.
We heard the distilled version of the law this morning from Jesus, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, strength and mind, which is the greatest commandment. And the second is like it, love your neighbor as yourself.” It comes down, all of it, to that. Love. God and your neighbor. Love them without fail. Love them without worrying about yourself first. Love them when it’s not convenient. Love.
Yet we do not fully love. Either because we don’t know how or because we are hidden behind desperate masks of our own making. Or because we’re afraid of what it might cost us.
I read an amazing op-ed this past week from the New York Times, called “Notes from a Dragon Mom.” Emily Rapp writes, “My son, Ronan, looks at me and raises one eyebrow. His eyes are bright and focused. Ronan means “little seal” in Irish and it suits him.
I want to stop here, before the dreadful hitch: my son is 18 months old and will likely die before his third birthday. Ronan was born with Tay-Sachs, a rare genetic disorder. He is slowly regressing into a vegetative state. He’ll become paralyzed, experience seizures, lose all of his senses before he dies. There is no treatment and no cure.
How do you parent without a net, without a future, knowing that you will lose your child, bit by torturous bit?
Depressing? Sure. But not without wisdom, not without a profound understanding of the human experience or without hard-won lessons, forged through grief and helplessness and deeply committed love about how to be not just a mother or a father but how to be human.”
She writes about what it’s like to live as a parent knowing your child will have no future, when all of childhood seems geared toward that future on which hopes and dreams are staked. She homes in on the thing that is necessary in life, “the only task … is to love.”
I do not know why we don’t love as we should, but I do know that for many loving God and loving our neighbor seems like an insurmountable task, especially when we are looking in from the sidelines. I don’t know if it is fear or a lack of loving ourselves or pride or some combination of those or other things, but whatever it is, we hold back, and we are dying of thirst. And when we hesitate and don’t move toward love, it becomes easier and easier to stay where we are, to remain closed off, to keep hidden behind the wall, to desperately languish by ourselves.
“Happy are those who delight in the law of the Lord,” “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul and with all your mind” and “Love your neighbor as yourself.” We are happy if we delight in love. We are blessed if we love God, if we desire to follow God’s yearnings for us and if we show love to each person whose lives intersect with ours. We are nourished and rejuvenated and strengthened and restored.
The first step is in looking beyond ourselves. It is in reaching out to both God and others.
And this important reminder: we need to take that first step. We cannot expect change without moving incrementally toward the goal. As the Chinese philosopher put it, “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” We need to lower the masks. We must recognize our own quiet desperation and seek God, recognizing that loving God with all our heart begins with an action like coming toward this altar rail or kneeling quietly in prayer or taking a walk in the afternoon sun asking God for guidance.
I cannot wave a wand to make your life—or even my own life—better; I am no miracle worker. But I think in the long run that’s for the better and that we can be made stronger by facing the challenges before us. There have been times in my own life where I have worn the masks and been overcome by fear. There were moments when I felt that I would not make it through the darkness. I wish I could say that I always had amazing faith for those times and made it through unscathed, but that would be a lie. Sometimes I have been the tree away from the stream dying for a drink. I too bumble along at times needing to be reminded that it is about love and ruminating on that love day and night.
So how would I answer my friend’s question about how to bring life to those of us who are hurting? I’d say this: I stand before you proclaiming that God’s deep desire for you is the fullness of life that you seek, knowing full well that I will lumber along myself in attempts to both declare that love and show it. Yet I will keep trying because I know that it is the only way that I will draw closer to the stream of living water. It is the only way that any of us will flourish. So come. Come to this church and to this table because it is here that we can reconnect with God; it is here that we can find comfort and grace and acceptance for who we are. It is in this place that we can finally let down the masks and be vulnerable and share in the life God longs for us to have. Amen.
Let’s just be honest. The parable we just read is scary. Especially when we start doing the one to one mapping that we like to do with Jesus’ parables to get the easy meaning. We start by saying, God is the king and Jesus is the son getting married. The Pharisees and other Jews are the ones who send back the rsvp card and then decide they are too busy to attend. God gets angry, destroys the Pharisees and blows up their city, the wedding still goes on with others now on the invitation list (these would be the new Gentile Christians). These new people come in and start enjoying themselves—or enjoying themselves as best they can, since the king is given to rage every so often, so they’re probably sitting on pins and needles. And sure enough, the king finds one of these new attendees that isn’t wearing the right stuff, and he gets tossed out of the party to the place of utter darkness.
This image of God is pretty hard to deal with when we do this sort of one-to-one correlating. It’s this view of God that can easily lead to a stance of anti-Semitism—which has often been done with this parable in the past—and that puts us on shaky ground. A couple of notes about this: Matthew is writing to a primarily Jewish audience of Jesus’ disciples who have been persecuted because of their faith by the non-believing Jewish authorities. These followers of Jesus are certainly a minority in that community, and so Matthew is a bit harsh on the Jewish leaders in his Gospel. Also, Matthew is writing to them sometime after the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD. If we were to map this parable, we could see that the destruction of the city mentioned here could allude to the destruction of Jerusalem. If this is what God is like, this angry deity waiting to cast us into utter darkness, it can cause you to cringe or be afraid. I don’t think that is really good news, which is what the word “gospel” actually means. This interpretation of God is one that leads us primarily to a response of fear.
But the parable doesn’t start with “God almighty is like a king….” Rather it starts, “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king…” and that makes all the difference to me. We aren’t learning so much about who God is in this parable as we are learning what it takes to be a part of the kingdom. That is the ultimate end for us and all of creation, the hope that we all have. Jesus is telling us what it takes to be a part of the kingdom he is proclaiming, the one that began with his ministry, the one that continues on even now, and the one that will ultimately come at the last day. Is there judgment? Of course. I cannot just wave away the judgment aspect of this parable, and if I were to do so, I would be doing a great disservice in proclaiming the gospel to you.
Yet there is certainly good news to be found in these words from Jesus. The kingdom, Jesus says, is like a wedding banquet thrown by a king for his son. It is a time of unbelievable joy. The kingdom is like a huge party. And so the king invited all sorts of friends and neighbors to the bash, and a good number of them said, “Yes! We can’t wait! We got the save the date card, and have marked the party on our calendars.”
But when the day came, many of those initially invited changed their minds. They didn’t want to be a part of the feast. In other words, they decided that the kingdom wasn’t what they were really interested in after all. They had other things to do that were much more important. One was anxious to close on the property he was buying. Another guffawed at the whole idea, thinking he never really liked the king or his son. Still others decided there was too much to be done at the office, and hopped in their cars for the commute. A few even went so far as to mistreat the messengers from the king because they were so filled with animosity and were hell-bent on deriding the king.
And so after the king responded to these ones who had rejected his invitation, he sent others servants out and called in any they could find on the streets. These he invited to be a part of the kingdom, no matter where they came from or what they had done, they were invited to the party. And so they came in droves, not wanting to miss this wonderful opportunity. They came and had unbelievable hors d’oeuvres and listened to the most fantastic music, and finally were called in to the hall for dinner itself.
However, one of those who came, as he made his way to the table, was called out by the king. He didn’t have the proper clothes on; he wasn’t ready for the party. When asked about it, he was dumbfounded, having nothing to say at all. And so the king had him taken out because he showed he didn’t really want to be a part of the kingdom either; he was like the ones who mocked the king. Many are invited, but few respond in a way that reflects kingdom living.
To me, there is much good news to be found here. Jesus assures us that entrance to the kingdom—to the huge wedding feast—is open to us all. The ones who don’t think they have a chance of getting in because of their social standing, and the ones who may have it all together, the good and the bad. The glorious grace of Jesus is free to all. But to stay at the wedding feast, we must be dressed in the likeness of Christ; we must live in the clothes of his kingdom. To be a part of the kingdom Jesus proclaims, we must try our best to live in that way even now.
In our parable, this sort of kingdom living is best demonstrated by the generous hospitality of the king. God swings wide the doors and takes anyone who shows up. We are often much more cautious in our own lives, especially when we talk about opening up our home to guests. We agonize over cleanliness and having the perfect place to entertain. If it’s a dinner party, we worry about the chipped plate on the bottom of the stack in our cupboards. We think hospitality is somehow only possible if we are perfect.
Yet that is so far from what hospitality means. At its core, hospitality asks us to open up our lives to one another. To share of ourselves. To sit around a table, or go for a walk, or grab a pumpkin spice latte and share our lives and listen to someone else as she shares hers. The kingdom is like a party, a place of enjoyment, of shared connection around a dinner table.
As a college student I experienced this sort of hospitality at a professor’s house. On Friday nights, Jim and his wife would open up their home to as many as a dozen undergrads and other professors to share a meal. The menu ranged from homemade pizza and salad to beef curry and homemade bread. Even more important on that menu was grace filled conversation. We discussed the words from our college-wide convocation gathering, or the movies we had seen or books we had read. We laughed often and on countless occasions someone would run to grab a dictionary or a cookbook or atlas to make their point. We spoke of our travels and experiences and so much more.
Those moments changed me in more ways than I could imagine. I developed deep friendships. My love of cooking grew as a result of those dinners. I felt profoundly cared for and totally accepted for who I was. It was a wonderful gift. It was kingdom living.
It isn’t by accident that we gather each Sunday around this table to eat and drink. In the early church, this was done in homes, and so the bread and wine and prayers were shared in concert with the eating and talking around the table. There is sacredness in the meals we share both here and in other places, be it in the parish hall or at the Red Barn or in our homes. Nora Gallagher writes, “The early Christians practiced some form of an early Communion ritual… [and] these early communities almost always had a meal together. In other words, the ritual was linked to actual food, a real meal, a gathering of friends over dinner.” They opened their doors to whoever came and wanted to be a part of the community. They exemplified kingdom living by showing generous hospitality.
What might that look like for us today? I think we have a tendency to shun getting together in our homes because of desiring perfection—be it the perfect house, meal, family or whatever. We tend to not reach out to those around us because of fear of the unknown. Often we don’t serve at the soup kitchen because we aren’t sure who we will encounter there. We don’t share who we are or what we are experiencing either because we don’t make the time or because of fear that we won’t measure up.
But Christ’s kingdom compels us to a life of generous hospitality. Of sharing our lives. Of telling our stories and listening. Of serving. Of welcoming others into our midst both here at St. Mark’s and in our homes. And through all this, making our faith real and visible and relevant.
May we become those who exhibit the generosity of God to others. May we be people who open up both our homes and our lives in order to cultivate deep friendships. May we live as those both invited to life in the kingdom and those who make the kingdom manifest in our own lives. And may we yearn for the hope of the kingdom yet to be, that day of true joy and feasting and communion together with Christ. Amen.
We got a couple of passages that are, well, doozies. They speak about God’s mercy which is way beyond what we could ask or think. This sermon is a continuation of sorts from my sermon for 9/11 on forgiving.
Here it is.
Jonah 3:10-4:11 & Matt 20:1-16
We heard the tail end of a story many of us may remember from our childhood if we went to Sunday School: the story of Jonah and the Whale. We know the part about Jonah being on the boat and getting tossed overboard and being eaten by that great fish, but the other details are fuzzy.
So I’ll give you the recap: Jonah, an Israelite prophet, was called by God to cry out against the Ninevites because of their great wickedness. Jonah didn’t want to do this, so instead of heading east to Ninevah, he went west. He gets to a sea town, pays his fare and hops on a ship. In the middle of the Mediterranean, a wild storm kicks up, each crew member prays to their particular god. Still stormy. They throw everything overboard. Still raging. They draw straws, and Jonah gets the short stick so they want to know what he’s done.
He tells them that God is angry with him, and the only way to calm the sea is to throw him overboard. They’re reluctant, but finally do it.
Whale enters stage right, swallows Jonah. He prays there in the belly of that fish (and yes, I know whales aren’t fish; Scripture says great fish, but the size we’re talking has to be what we know today as a whale). Indigestion sets in after a few days, the fish burps up Jonah on dry land. And he high tails it to Nineveh.
He preaches, they repent and, as we heard today, God forgives them all of their great wickedness and decides not to destroy the city and all its inhabitants, both human and animal.
And Jonah is ticked. He knew God was going to do this, which was why he fled west in the first place. He wanted to see those blasted Ninevites suffer for all the wrongs they had done; Nineveh was the capital of the Assyrian Empire and had, many years earlier, destroyed the Northern Kingdom of Israel. He wanted them to pay for their transgressions.
But they repented. And God was merciful.
So instead of being thrilled as a preacher for bringing all those Ninevites to repentance, Jonah is angry at God. He goes off to sulk on a hill overlooking the city to see if God might be fickle enough to flip-flop again and rain down fire and brimstone, because the relatives of these very Ninevites had destroyed the Kingdom of Israel, who were among God’s chosen people.
Last Sunday I spoke about Jesus’ call on us to forgive and how difficult that can be, and yet how it is the only real Christian response. Some of you have followed up with me and said things like, “I can maybe forgive, but I can never forget” or “That’s fine, but I’ll still remember what happened on 9/11.” We say things like this because we’ve heard that we are supposed to “forgive and forget,” as if forgetting traumatic experiences is something that can be done with the snap of a finger. And we don’t want to forget. And I would agree that forgetting isn’t really possible and that we should remember. But I want to push a little and say that it’s important how we remember. If all we are remembering is the hurt inflicted on us, if what we don’t forget is the anger or hurt, then we aren’t really forgiving.
One of my seminary professors, theologian Miroslav Volf, has written extensively on this topic of forgiveness and remembering rightly. Prof. Volf knows what he’s speaking about. He’s a Croat Christian from the former Yugoslavia, and tells of his experiences of being treated as a CIA spy when he returned from his studies in the US leaving his American bride behind in order to perform his compulsory military duty in the early 1980s for the then communist Yugoslavia. He speaks at length about watching the horrors inflicted on his countrymen by the Serbs in the 1990s. And he speaks about wrestling with the call of Christ to embrace the Serbian fighters, called cetniks, who were ravaging his homeland.
Ultimately what Prof Volf says is this: “the Passion of Christ requires us to recognize that the grace of God… extends to every human being” Even more so, the cross “honors victims even while extending grace to perpetrators.” And ultimately, the work of Jesus Christ “helps the wronged and the wrong doer reconcile.” We are to remember that through Jesus Christ those harmed and those doing the harm are each offered grace by Jesus, and while those harmed find solace in Christ’s being harmed as well, we are reminded as well that Christ died to forgive the wrongdoers.
And the catching point comes precisely at the next line often repeated in the Epistles, which is this: and we are, all of us, wrongdoers. This is not to say that we should dismiss any evil lightly, or that we shouldn’t even remember. But our remembering, as Prof Volf explains it, should be done in light of the work of God done in Christ’s Passion. When we are harmed, we should through God’s grace take the long view, the one that recognizes in Christ that we are all to be reconciled. We are not to overlook wrongdoing, we are indeed called to denounce injustice. But that must never lead us to retributive violence. He writes, “The Passion memory is a hopeful memory since it anticipates deliverance from the wrong suffered, freedom from the power of evil, and reconciliation between the wronged and the wrongdoers — for the most part, a reconciliation between people who have both suffered wrong and inflicted it.” Let me say that last line again, “a reconciliation between people who have both suffered wrong and inflicted it.”
In other words, none of us is as innocent as we might like to think. It’s so easy to look over at the “other” —whoever that is, the person or group that we have vilified—and see the wrongs done. But to see the wrongs we’ve done, well they’re not quite so bad in comparison.
But God shows mercy on us all, without regard of whether we think someone deserves God’s mercy or not.
Which is quite unnerving if we think about it from our perspective. We are like Jonah wanting the Ninevites of our day to get their just desserts. We’re not sure we want to share the message of God with them for fear that they too repent and come to experience God’s mercy. We want, instead, to hoard God all to ourselves, letting the evildoers in our lives to enjoy the consequences coming their way.
We want, like Jonah, to go sit on a hilltop to watch the impending fireworks rain down on their lives.
So when Jesus compares the kingdom of God on this day to this unbelievable generosity, it makes us squirm, or I’ll speak for myself, it makes me squirm. It is so much easier to place labels on people and say they are outside of the love of God. It requires little work to determine who is part of God’s “in” group and who’s out. But God keeps on showing that when we do this, we get it wrong.
One commentator this week repeated a lesson he learned from his first seminary professor: “I remember [her] saying that universal salvation may or may not be true, but it is certainly unchristian not to hope it is true.” That’s uncomfortable to us who want God to be fair, that is, we want God to be merciful to us and judgmental to those who’ve harmed us. But what we see as fair, God sees as completely unfair. God want to extend the arms of love that God offers to each and every one of us. To the conservative one and the progressive one. To the American and the Libyan. To the border patrol officer and the illegal immigrant. To the white woman on Wall St. and the Hispanic woman cleaning her home. To the child on the streets of Bangledash and the pimp who claims ownership of him. From the American soldier to the member of the Taliban. The cross of Jesus is for us all so that we all can find God’s mercy and forgiveness, and, ultimately be reconciled one to the other. That is the hope of God for us all. Shouldn’t we join God in that hope as well?
 See Miroslav Volf, The End of Memory, 2006, Pg 118.
We are inundated with words today, and I suspect mine won’t add much to the mix. These are the words I spoke this morning to my congregation as I reflected on the Gospel assigned this week—Matthew 18:21-35. Once again providence shows in the readings assigned for the day.
On that glorious Tuesday morning 10 years, I walked from my apartment to the Divinity School. It was my second full week of studies as a new seminarian—I had left the corporate hi-tech world and was eager to be on my way toward my training to become a priest. After saying Morning Prayer with classmates and sharing a cup of coffee with them, I headed off to an 8:30 am preaching class. While I soaked up pearls of wisdom on how to bring the good news of Christ to a hurting world, four planes were hijacked, and three of them had been intentionally crashed. I heard the news from some other students while checking email in the library, and I quickly scanned headlines on a news site to see if it was true.
I rushed back to my apartment, and I turned on NBC just as the South Tower fell. I called family members not quite knowing what to say other than, “Are you watching TV?” I watched in dismay as New Yorkers covered in that white dust ran from the horrific epicenter. I waited as best I could for Melissa to return from her day of teaching, and when she came home I listened to her tell of the many students there in Southern Connecticut who called parents and others to learn the fate of loved ones. I remember climbing into bed that night, holding tight to Melissa and praying that we would be safe, safe in this newly shattered world for us.
It impacted my preaching class significantly. Fellow students in the weeks that followed preached at length about how our world had changed forever. Innocence was lost. Some weighed the demands for justice with a call for peace. A few mentioned the homemade signs that had popped up around New Haven: Nuke ‘Em, read one of the placards that I remember. We heard about the ways we as Americans had let go of the divisiveness that appeared during the 2000 presidential election and how neighbors truly became neighbors. Most of all, we wrestled with how to think theologically about September 11th.
You know what followed, of course. The loss of nearly 3000 people on that day, stories of bravery and heroism, images of people rejoicing in Afghanistan, the Afghan War, the hunt for Osama bin Laden, the war in Iraq, the hunt for Weapons of Mass Destruction, the forming of Homeland Security, the capture of Sadaam Hussein, water boarding, airport screening, the infamous photos of Abu Ghraib, the Patriot Act, terror threat level Orange, the death of bin Laden, images of Americans rejoicing, and the loss of even more life: over 6000 American troops, hundreds of international troops from coalition forces, and over 100,000 Iraqi and Afghani civilians, never mind those maimed bodily or emotionally.
What we have learned most of all, I suspect, is that violence begets violence, which continues on and on like a never-ending game of ping pong. We cite Just War and Self Protection, as do those labeled as America’s enemies, and the cycle never really ends.
We are justified, to be sure. When we have been wronged, we long for retribution, for justice to be handed down. You may remember that Presidential debate in the fall of 1988, when former Governor Dukakis was asked if his wife were brutally harmed would he want to enforce the death penalty. He gave some lame answer, dodging the question entirely, when he should have answered honestly: “Absolutely!” If he had, he could have gone on to say, “And I am glad that I don’t have that power, trusting in the courts and the rule of the commonwealth, recognizing that I wouldn’t be in the right frame of mind to make that decision. I believe that death is not the answer.” But he didn’t, and he sounded so shallow and hollow because of it.
But we desire justice; many of us instinctively want to throttle the one who harmed us. Whether through the attacks of September 11th and its aftermath for which some here today may still be impacted, or maybe some other personal tragedy—a personal 9/11—that has turned your world upside down. The infidelity of a spouse or abuse experienced in your life or the life of someone you love. The constant belittling by a boss or co-worker. The bullying experienced on a playground so long ago. The betrayal of a close friend. Whatever the tragedy, our initial response is that we want for things to be made right.
So when Jesus tells us that we need to be forgiving, we are right there with Peter. How many times, Lord? If we are wronged by someone, what’s the upper limit? Two times? Three? Seven? Surely not more than seven times. “Seventy-seven times,” he says, “Or seventy times seven” in the ambiguous Greek. In other words, “Too many to keep track of.” Just forgive. Vengeance belongs to God, we are reminded. It is not up to us. Forgive.
Before Peter or we can even respond with a “But, but…” Jesus tells a story. A servant owed his lord an insane amount of money, all of his yearly wages for the next 150,000 years. He would never, ever be able to pay it back. Ever. And the lord demands restitution. Now. And seeing that the slave can’t repay, the lord demands that he be sold, and his wife and kids as well. The slave falls down on his knees pleading for time, if he just had enough time, he could make it all up.
He can’t, of course. If it were today’s money, and assuming this person made only $25,000 a year, we’re talking 3 billion 750 thousand dollars. The lord looks down on him and has compassion. “Okay,” he says, “you’re forgiven. All of it. You don’t owe me a penny.”
The slave can’t believe his lucky stars and goes out on his way with that huge load removed from his back. And the first person he runs into is a friend of his who borrowed some money from him. A little under 10 grand, about the wages he’d make working for 4 and half months. The debt-free slave grabs him by the neck and demands his money. The slave falls down on his knees pleading for time, if he just had enough time, he could make it all up.
Nothing doing. There’s no mercy this time. Even though this debt might be in reach in a few years time with some good budgeting, the slave is merciless to his friend. He throws him into prison so he can squeeze every last cent out of him.
When the lord hears what has happened, he is stunned and furious and calls the first slave to him. “You owed me nearly $4 billion and I forgave you, and this other slave owed you $10 grand and you couldn’t show mercy?” So he reneges on his debt forgiveness and tosses that slave in jail. “So it is with my father if you don’t forgive a brother or sister,” Jesus tells us.
In other words, Jesus says to Peter and us, you may think that when someone wrongs you that there is a substantial debt owed to you. You may want to harm that person, or torture them, or make them pay for what they did. But you owe me even more. You owe me for the ways in which you have been unfaithful to me. It’s more than you could imagine. It would take hundreds of years to repay. And I forgive you. No strings attached; I forgive all the ways that you have wronged me.
And then that line at the end, if we don’t forgive those who have wronged us, then God shackles us. Actually, I think, God doesn’t even need to do it to us, we shackle ourselves. I’ve seen it first hand. Those who cannot forgive the one who wronged them. They live with bitterness and cynicism. They carry around this desire for revenge, for restitution and the life is being sucked right out of them. The anger and hurt and depression pushes others away, and creates a living hell for them. When we don’t forgive, we slowly die to the life we once had and never find peace again.
“But Jesus,” we say, “you don’t understand. Innocence was lost. Lives taken. My childhood destroyed. My marriage made a mockery. You just don’t get it.” And he looks down at us from that bloodied cross in silence. Then looking toward heaven he says, “Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing.”
I’ve always liked Bill Murray in the film “Groundhog Day.” He plays Phil Connors a weatherman who has made his way to Punxsutawney, PA to see if the groundhog—also named Phil—will see his shadow or not. Phil the weatherman is not pleased about being there. He’s covered this story for four years running and can think of a gazillion other places he’d rather be. He covers the story, tries to get out of town but is unable to due to a blizzard, and can’t wait for February 3 to arrive when he climbs into bed that night.
Except it never does. Phil Connors wakes up back at the morning of Feb 2, and the whole thing begins again. For everyone else it’s as if the day is new. For Phil, it’s a living hell. He remembers the day fully, what happened, what people did or said. He’s an automatic repeat. And it keeps going. He wakes up the third day, and fourth and… you get the picture (or remember the film).
Early on he gets so depressed, he just does himself in at the beginning of the day so he doesn’t have to live through it again. He wakes up the next morning back at Groundhog Day. Then he tries to use his previous days’ experience to his benefit, trying to get his producer into bed with him or robbing the armored car.
Until he turns the corner, and starts realizing that if he is doomed to live this day over and over and over again , then he will make it the best day ever. He saves the person who is choking. He shows up at the right time with a jack and a spare tire for the old woman who gets a flat. He is compassionate and merciful and exudes joy and care. He’s in heaven.
I say all of this as a lead in to Rob Bell’s new book Love Wins because I think Bell is saying some of the same things. His main thesis is that many of those in Christendom focus on getting to heaven, that faith is a ticket out of here for some place in the future, after our lives are over. But they forget about today unless it’s about making conversions, helping others to get the ticket to heaven. And today and what we do now is really, really important to Rob Bell.
Bell argues that we can make our own heaven and hell right here, right now, by the choices we make. And often these choices seem disconnected to faith. He writes, “Often the people most concerned about others going to hell when they die seem less concerned with the hells on earth right now, while the people most concerned with the hells on earth right now seem the least concerned about hell after death.” Those hells on earth are places of famine, war, brokenness in our own lives, hatred, greed. It is the stuff of individual and corporate sin, and it does create hell on earth.
Where Rob goes with this—and the point at which many of his detractors leave him (if they even read his book; I think many didn’t give him that courtesy)—is by saying that the creation of heaven and hell based on our actions and choices continues past our earthly death. In other words, while many Christians say that this life is all you get to make a decision about being a follower of Jesus, Rob argues that God’s love is so expansive that there will still be time after death to respond to that love. (By they way, Bell gets this from that most beloved of Christian authors of the last century, C.S. Lewis (see The Great Divorceor even The Last Battle)) It helps him come to terms with the reality of untimely deaths (like a teenager killed in a car accident) or those who’ve been harmed by the church and cannot accept Christianity for whatever reason.
Rob Bell is full of compassion in this book. And that might make some people edgy because many of us want to have clear definitions about who is in and who is out. When you start muddying the waters like that, some want to get defensive (and they have), and some even claim Bell is destined to hell (ironic, given his book, but there you are).
There is a full chapter devoted to asking a simple but profound question: Does God get what God wants? He asks this because Paul writes in his first letter to Timothy “God wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth.” In other words, if God wants this, and God is all-powerful, does God get this desire? Of course, Rob balances this with God’s biggest gift to us: our freedom to choose life or death.
Is Rob Bell a universalist? Not really. He even says as much when he writes, “As soon as the door is opened to Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, and Baptists from Cleveland, many Christians become very uneasy, saying that then Jesus doesn’t matter anymore, the cross is irrelevant, it doesn’t matter what you believe, and so forth. Not true. Absolutely, unequivocally, unalterably not true” (155, emphasis mine). Jesus does matter. But, and this is where many get tripped up, maybe not Christianity.
Jesus the Son of God matters. Christianity the institution and religion, not so much.
Do I agree with him? In some ways, yes. This work, while quick and written from a high and general level, gives some clarity for me. And I would whole heartedly agree that Jesus is the way. That he matters. That through his work on the cross and by his resurrection life and love are extended to all. Will that continue on past this life? Rob makes a biblical case that it does (again, C.S. Lewis says so too), but I need to chew on that one.
I think at the end I need to, as a professor of mine once said, put this in my theological pipe and smoke it for awhile. This book and its emphasis on love will be a balm to many damaged by the church, by Christianity, by friends or relatives whose view of Christ has been dominated by anger. And if that is what it does, then I believe Rob has done work for Christ in bringing healing to a broken world. In other words, love does win.
I hope you’ll read it. You can get a copy at Amazon or the local library (which is what I did). And I’d love to talk more about this, so leave your comments.