A Lutheran Says What?

Sermons and random thoughts on God, the world and the intersection of the two

The Kingdom of God Is Near But the Road Might Be Rough Sermon on Luke 10: 1-11, 16-20 July 8, 2019

This sermon was preached at Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church in Holladay, Utah on July 7, 2019. The texts were Galatians 6: 1-17 and Luke 10: 1-11, 16-20

Children’s sermon: Have a large poster board with the words written largely: KINGDOM OF GOD. Have crayons, stickers available for the children to use. Ask them if they have ever felt left out. Talk about today’s gospel from Luke and Galatians where Jesus sends the 70 missionaries out to everyone about God’s kingdom being near and how that message is for everyone, even people who don’t believe it or like it. And how Paul talks about how we are to work for the good of all, we are all together. And this all together-the 70 working with Jesus and Paul telling people about the Kingdom of God, is what joy (Luke 10:17) is all about! It’s not about if everyone we tell about Jesus comes to OSLC or is our friend, but that we are all together in God’s love no matter what! Then ask the children (and adults as a prayer station) to write under each letter of KINGDOM OF GOD names of people, or groups of people who are included in God’s love (hint: everyone! This poster board should be full!)

I asked the children and now I’ll ask you all: have you ever been left out? Rejected? Yep, we all have! Sometimes it’s dramatic such as a break-up or an argument with someone you love, or you didn’t get a job you really wanted, or into a educational program you dreamed about. But sometimes it’s less obvious. You can simply be ignored, or in a place where there is an expectation that you will behave a certain way, or like certain things and when you stay true to yourself, the people around you don’t accept your differences and so don’t accept you. Being rejected, ignored or unaccepted, can make you reexamine yourself and wonder if you should change your thoughts, actions, words, or completely change who you are to fit in.  We all experiment with our identity growing up particularly in the teen years, but if we’re honest even as adults, it’s easy to think that who we are isn’t enough. Or we can judge others by their behaviors, likes and dislikes and criticize them for not being like us. We can subtly and not so subtly, send the message to people that they should change to conform to what makes us comfortable. It takes courage and vulnerability simultaneously to stay grounded in what matters and as our sign for today warns us, it can be a rough road.

Rough roads are not always to be avoided as they can also be a path that leads us to a deeper truth and can help us keep “the main thing the main thing” in our lives. Rough roads can be focusing as if you get distracted, it can lead to even bigger challenges. If you’ve ever driven or hiked on difficult terrain, you know what I’m talking about.

In our Luke passage today, the 70 are sent out to proclaim a very important message. And Jesus is clear that the road will be rough. They will be completely dependent on the people they meet, they will eat food they don’t like, stay in places for an uncomfortable amount of time (Jesus is telling them to overstay their welcome!), they will work hard, curing the sick, and they will more than likely be rejected. Sounds inviting doesn’t it? Sign me up Jesus! But Jesus is clear that the main point of their mission, should they choose to accept it, is to unequivocally declare that the Kingdom of God has come near to all-the welcoming, the strangers, the sick, the unbelieving, the unaccepting. The Kingdom of God is near to all whether they know it or not. This Kingdom is for all.

And when they return to Jesus full of joy, it’s not only because they had some successes (isn’t interesting that they don’t name their failures? Which I’m sure there were many!), but because they experienced this Kingdom of God for themselves in being together in community no matter how rough or smooth the road. Now, they also had a bit of ego tied into this: Jesus, you’re right we can do anything, even the demons submitted to us! Human nature hasn’t changed in 2000 years…Jesus tempers their egos by reminding them that their successes and failures are nothing, what is everything is that they are part of God’s mission to bring the kingdom off love to the world. This is the main thing, even in their own mission.

It seems so simple doesn’t it? All we have to do is proclaim that the Kingdom of God is near. Done. And yet…We know that it’s a rough road to do so, even in the 21st century, or maybe especially in the 21st century. We set up a table at Venture Out to proclaim that the Kingdom of God is near and some people love that we are there, and some people walk very quickly past our booth. We proclaim that the kingdom of God is near when we house families experiencing homelessness and we know that four families at a time is only a drop in the bucket. We proclaim that the kingdom of God is near when we welcome and accept all people of every race, color, gender, sexual orientation into this family of faith and there are people who will reject this promise for God’s love for all people. We proclaim the kingdom of God is near when we strive to steward the earth with care and there are people who will deny this as reality. We proclaim the kingdom of God is near with our daily lives, with generosity of time, words, talents and gifts for people we don’t know well or have never met, and there are people who will shake their head at our naivety.  But Jesus declares to us that when the road is rough, God’s Holy Spirit is guiding us and continually reorienting us-through community, bread, wine, water and word-to the main thing of God’s mercy, hope and love for the entire world.

And we can forget that we need to be grounded in God’s community and kingdom as we try and navigate the rough roads alone. We can put our own human egos, rules and boundaries into this mission work as Jesus cautions. We can get stuck in thinking that the success or failure of this message is dependent on us, our own abilities and talents. Jesus reminds the 70, and us, that all power and authority belong to God alone that God gives away for the sake of including all people into this unconditional and transformative love. We are not only recipients of this love but participant as well. This is the good news that the coming of the Kingdom of God is for all, those who accept it and those who reject it. The promise of God coming near isn’t dependent upon the ability of the person to receive it and it’s not dependent on the messenger. God has written our names in heaven, on God’s own heart to declare that our worth in God’s kingdom isn’t dependent on our abilities or gifts but is simply found in belonging to God. This is our true identity that never changes, no matter how we try or what other people might want us to be. We are never left out in God’s kingdom and neither is anyone else.

Paul reiterates this point in Galatians 6. After six chapters of breaking down why Gentiles don’t need to be circumcised to be brought into the new family of Jesus followers and being clear about the subversion of the law, at the end of the day, Paul soundly ends this letter (writing in large letters) that none of that human stuff matters. Follow the law, don’t follow the law, whatever, but just know that you are made new in the love of God through Jesus Christ simply because God loves you. This unconditional love always surrounds you  at all times and in all places-especially when the road is rough. God’s kingdom, where all are made whole, where all are included, where power and authority are turned upside down and where all names are written and known, is for the whole world, no matter what. We can rest in the peace that the Kingdom of God has come near, includes you and will stay. Thanks be to God.

 

Be A Free-Loader! (Or Accepting What is Given) Mark 6: 1-13 Pentecost 6B, July 5th, 2015 July 5, 2015

True confession time: I love the reality show The Amazing Race. I know, I know, it’s not necessarily deep, intellectually stimulating and a bit voyeuristic of other people’s relationships but it intrigues me on a lot of levels. One, is that I love to travel and they go to some pretty cool places that are on my bucket list. Another is that they travel in pairs, competing against other paired teams of people for prizes.  In the early seasons, they were given no money and they had to figure out how to get money to travel, eat, etc. They travel light with just a backpack of essentials. What’s more, because of all the exotic places they go, they never speak the language of the country that they are in. They have to rely on strangers who might have limited knowledge of English to help translate, to help get them going in the correct direction and keep them safe. I was astounded at the number of people who would help with transportation or money for the teams. It kind of bothered me, actually, that these teams just expected people to help them-felt like free loading a bit. But time and again, complete strangers with the barriers of language and culture are willing to help them. And the people helped them joyfully, happy to be hospitable in their country. Many of the people loved being invited to share in the journey with the team.

The teams also have to rely on each other-every so often the teams are given tasks that they have to complete in order to get their next clue of where to go and what to do. The team members sometimes work together but sometimes have to pick which one of them will complete the task before even knowing what it is. For example, the task could be to climb something and the person who is terribly afraid of heights will have to complete the climb.

It’s interesting to watch the teams navigate the tasks and the challenges together at each step determining who has what skills, knowledge and which of their gifts is needed in that moment. And yes, some arguing ensues.  The teams always get to a point in the race where the façade drops and the vulnerability is revealed. People have to admit that they don’t think they can make the climb, walk the tightrope, eat weird food, run the distance or whatever uncomfortable situation they encounter. The teams that do the best learn to give up on control and focus on encouraging each other, comforting the other and finding a way together when it seems impossible. Even when it doesn’t work out and they are eliminated from the race, I have never seen a team leave the show fighting with each other or ending the relationship. They walk away with a deeper understanding of themselves, others, the world and the gift of community from having to be vulnerable.

Vulnerability is at the heart of our Mark reading today on so many levels. Jesus comes to his home town and preaches, shares with those who know him what he’s been up to and it doesn’t go that well. One would think that Jesus’ return home would garner a good old fashioned potluck picnic celebration; a little Galilean hospitality– some pita, olives, hummus and the like. But hospitality is not exactly what happens here. Jesus unabashedly is vulnerable with the people he grew up with, he doesn’t hide any part of his identity or what he knows about God and the crowd questions his abilities, as well as his legitimacy. Naming Jesus as Mary’s son and not Joseph’s son calls his birth into question. This carpenter’s kid teaching like a rabbi offended the people and they reject him. The writer of Mark is showing us Jesus in his full human vulnerability; Jesus is astounded at their rejection and doesn’t have much he can do about it. He had to admit that he couldn’t even do all of the healing that he had done other places. One could call this trip a failure for Jesus.

So what does Jesus do? Well, he calls and sends his disciples to go and do what he just failed at. Huh.  Much like the Amazing Race, Jesus pairs the disciples off and tells them to go and take nothing with them. The disciples had to wonder about the wisdom of this, particularly in light of what had just happened to Jesus with people who actually KNEW him. How is this going to go with strangers? Jesus had removed any speck of self reliance from the disciples. When one enters a house as a guest, one steps completely into the world of someone else. You eat their weird food, you accept their customs, you sleep in a strange place, you smell weird smells, and you delve into their worldview.  It’s uncomfortable at best; disconcerting and stressful at most. It reveals the things that you’re good at, not so good at and even afraid of. As a recipient of hospitality at this level, you give up all of your control and you are left utterly vulnerable and it may not go well.

We, too, are sent, we are vulnerable and we just don’t like to talk about it. We, as the 21st century church, like to think that programs, buildings, pastors, staff, chairs, flowers, robes, candles and the like will guarantee proclamation the word of God and will share the love of God with the world. We believe that those things will help us to control and legitimate our ministry, that we are the self sufficient resource- the host in the community of the community and we will give the community whatever they need. It’s much easier to be the host than the guest. There’s less at risk.

Jesus knows that left to our own devices, we will hide behind extra tunics and bags of money to cover our vulnerability, mitigate the risk of rejection and use them as barriers to protect ourselves from needing other people, so that we can go on believing that we can control our lives and the lives of those around us.  We don’t need their hospitality but they need ours. And our culture of self reliance and autonomy backs us up. It’s not socially acceptable to be a “free loader” even if we come bearing this life giving message of life forever and being created in the image of the One who is pure love, grace, mercy and hope. We forget that God was first vulnerable with us, emptying Godself  to be fully human, to risk and to know what it is to be rejected, scared, and alone. Jesus vulnerably called friends who were less than perfect and would eventually scatter when times got hard and fully loved them anyway. Jesus wasn’t afraid of his vulnerability but embraced it as part of being with God’s people.

Jesus calls us to remove those barriers and brings us back to the reality that who we are as messy, imperfect, and broken humans is exactly who we need to be to proclaim God’ love. When we are able to be authentic, drop our façade and admit our brokenness is when we are most able to connect to one another and share what God has given us so freely. God has already equipped us with what we need for the journey: Jesus and each other, including the stranger, and this grace is sufficient. Our imperfection and vulnerability means that we have to invite others to journey with us because we need them as well. We need those who make us uncomfortable, push our boundaries, will walk with us in pain, wrestle with us in justice for all people and remind us that Jesus gathers us all to God. This isn’t a gospel of “go it alone” self sufficiency but one of radical inclusion where all people with their differing points of view and gifts are not just tolerated but needed for the proclamation of the coming of the kingdom of God.

God declares that we are never alone and we are already uniquely equipped by God to do whatever God calls us to do-we are enough just the way that we are, even when we are weary, afraid and rejected. Proclaiming the gospel only requires the willingness to vulnerably speak the truth about how the good news of Jesus Christ turned your world upside down with the promise of being made new each and every day, with the promise of unconditional love and forgiveness no matter what, that promise of God’s community, that the promise of eternal life, the reality of abundant life through Jesus, that is available not just someday but today. It’s proclaiming the good news that death is never the final word in God’s kingdom, that the meal of bread and wine we share is a not a pious ritual but the love of Jesus actually going in your ears, your mouth and your heart, and not just yours but your neighbor’s too. And this promise is for all people, in all places even if it’s risky. Amen.

 

Ordinariness, Best Friends, Dandelions and the Kingdom of God Mark 4: 26-34 June 14, 2015 June 14, 2015

I’ve known my best friend for 14 years now and looking back on our relationship, I can’t quite pinpoint the moment where are relationship deepened from acquaintances at work, to friends to best friend-my go-to person for joys and sorrows. It just sort of happened; we didn’t one day say, “we should try and be best friends,” no, it was more that we just had a daily life rhythm that connected and fostered that growth. We had children similar ages and we did work together at the same congregation in a connected role and so we began to know each other’s business, if you will, as well as sharing our life experiences-the ordinary and the extraordinary. We began to intertwine, even to sharing childcare. Our children consider themselves one of five siblings to this day.  We realized that we were always there for one another. Sometimes that connectedness is hard, we are aware of each other’s business and it can be uncomfortable and maybe too real. This kind of connectivity reveals the reality being changed and shaped by another person. We are not the same people we were 14 years ago because of one another’s presence. Now, we did not become the same person, and we most definitely have other friends and our spouses come first (well, most of the time!).

We are also each other’s truth tellers. We can speak the truth to each other about the consequences of our words and behaviors. Again, it’s uncomfortable, but it offers each other a mirror in which we can see a bit more clearly who we are as children of God and how we can grow, learn and be all that God created us to be in the world and for the world. Frankly, it’s comforting to know that there is someone who is authentic with me and will tell me to stop it, suck it up or challenge my thinking. It’s also comforting to know that when we agree with what the other is doing or feeling that it’s genuine, not just pandering or telling each other what we want to hear in order to feel good about ourselves or the situation. Love and support does not always look like agreement, sometimes it’s a swift kick in the fanny!
I hope and pray, that we all have at least one of these kinds of people in our lives (I’m blessed to have two-my husband Mike also fits in this category.) We may not understand why these people love and support us and are simply there for us no matter what. These sorts of companions on our life’s journey are constant, persistent and all up in our business whether we like it or not. Our ordinary lives intertwine and that frankly is extraordinary.

Our two parables in Mark this morning highlight the mystery of our lives intertwining with God, with each other and with creation. It’s important to remember that parables are not supposed to have nice, neat endings and are not to expound on some moral or ethical teaching but are designed to invite us into mystery, wondering and exploration. Jesus offers us two such ideas, both with agricultural frames. In the first, a farmer scatters seeds and they grow without the farmer understanding or doing anything extraordinary other than living his ordinary life and in the second, an invasive weed that is mostly unnoticed except when it’s invading your space. What if a relationship with God, the kingdom of God intertwining in your daily life, is about ordinary routines such as sleeping and rising and an invasive weed that you can’t get rid of no matter how hard you try?

Jesus is inviting us into the simultaneous hiddeness and revelation of God’s presence in our daily lives and in creation. God’s kingdom is everywhere around us and is part of everything we do in our day and yet we don’t always notice it. As we go to our jobs, school, the grocery store, as we sleep, eat, and interact with one another in our ordinary daily life, we are living in the kingdom of God. The seeds of God’s love and grace are ones that we carry with us and spread whether we know it or not and whether we do anything or not. We connect with other people and we just never know what God is going to do with those relationships or what will grow. All we can do is be who God created us to be and bring all of ourselves into our everyday lives in the world.

In our daily rhythm with each other and with God, we are also growing and being shaped by the kingdom of God. We grow together, intertwine with each other or are shaped by our daily faith practices in community of care, worship, prayer, Bible study, and holy conversations. It’s not so much a nice neat garden as it is a field of wild flowers.  The kingdom of God is everywhere, includes everyone and we can’t control it, like dandelions in our yard. This connectivity is ordinary, extraordinary, comforting, disconcerting and messy.

Jesus is inviting us to imagine what we can’t imagine: God is working in the world in our ordinary daily routines, where we least expect it, in spite of what we do or don’t do and God’s kingdom is all around us and invading our space all the time. Like our close friends, God is in our business, in our daily life, in our sleeping and rising, invasively growing around us all the time. Barbara Brown Taylor writes: “Wherever you are, you live in the world, which is just waiting for you to notice the holiness in it.”

This awareness the holiness of the kingdom of God around us all the time is difficult for us to remember. We easily look for God in the extraordinary such as a CO sunset or a magnificent painting but miss God in the routines of three meals a day with hungry and active toddlers, in rush hour traffic, paperwork, nonsensical phone calls with friends, doctor appointments, tense conversations with teenagers, being bored, yard work, etc. God’s kingdom is as ordinary as all of those activities and yet, isn’t it extraordinary that we have this God who walks with us in our daily boredom, muck, dirt, and routine? God’s kingdom comes to us in whatever way necessary so that God’s presence with us in all times and in all places can be revealed.  The presence of God is seeds, shrubs, birds, grain, water, bread and wine. We proclaimed this morning to Luke, that in ordinary water amongst ordinary people, with our ordinary words; that he is part of the kingdom of God and God is with Luke today and every day.  In the ordinary water there is holy, a set a part mystery with his life with God.

In Jesus, God proclaims that relationship with us, all of humanity and creation, is what God desires most. Our imaginations can’t grasp this so we have each other to point to this in breaking of the kingdom wherever we see it. We ask and wonder, “what is the kingdom of God like?” It is like calling a friend and saying “I’m sorry,” it’s sitting with our children and reading a favorite book over and over, it’s tears of laughter and words of truth with a friend, it’s offering a kind word of grace to the cable repair person who is three hours late, it’s checking on that cranky neighbor you haven’t seen in a while, it’s a farmer planting seeds not knowing how they will grow but trusting that they will, or it’s  a mustard seed that grows to be the greatest of shrubs. Jesus assures us that God’s kingdom is coming, it’s already here and it’s for us all. Thanks be to God.

 

#likeachildofGod Mark 1:29-39 #preachlikeagirl February 8, 2015

An interesting first occurred at the Super Bowl last week. No, it wasn’t the extremely misguided decision to pass the football instead of running it one yard, although seriously. No, it was a commercial from a company that made history. I’m probably about to make some men in my midst uncomfortable but you’ll be fine. For the first time in Super Bowl commercial history, a feminine care product was advertised. Ok, everyone cough and don’t make eye contact. The company Always spent about 3 million dollars of their precious advertising budget for a commercial that didn’t even directly show or talk about their product. Instead, they took head on the gender and the gender gap issue during the most consumer and arguably patriarchal television event of the year. Their premise was the idea behind the phrase “like a girl.” Now, this phrase is commonly used in a pejorative way such as “you run like a girl, you throw like a girl, you cry like a girl, you hit like a girl,” and it’s often directed at our young men.

They asked some grown young women to do some athletic activities that are normally associated with men, “like a girl.” They showed clips of women running kind of silly, throwing poorly, swinging a bat poorly and laughing at themselves. Then they asked some 9 and 10 year old girls to do these things “like a girl.” The difference was astounding. The young girls did these activities to the best of their ability, with a look of determination and grit on their faces and taking it very seriously that they were very good at these activities. All of who they were as a girl was a positive and life giving identity no matter what activity they were doing. Research shows that girls think that they can do and be whatever and whoever they dream until about age 13. At age 7 an equal number of boys and girls think that they can be president of the US. By age 14 only about 7% of girls think they could be president as compared to 50% of boys. Leadership ambition peaks for girls at age 8. Who we are as a female in our culture is tightly linked with what girls and women think we are capable of being and doing. Being who you are, your identity, and what you do are woven closely together.

The Always company has actually had this ad campaign on Youtube for about a year with the hashtag #likeagirl. The idea that women are enough in their own bodies and can do anything is an idea that the executives at Always thought was worth their time and energy. Is it completely altruistic? Of course not! They want to sell their product! But they purposely subverted the cultural meaning of “like a girl” and turned it into a national conversation. One of my preaching professors from Luther Seminary, Karoline Lewis, even started a hashtag #preachlikeagirl which I love!  Who we are as women, means that we do everything like a girl and that is not only enough, but it’s good enough just who we are as God created us to be, in all aspects. Women, as well as men, should be freed from how culture and society thinks we should act.

At first glance, verses 29-31 of our Mark story might appear to smack of cultural norms around the roles of women in the time of Jesus. It’s still the Sabbath, and after casting out the demon and teaching in the synagogue, Jesus goes to the home of Andrew and Simon (along with the other two so-far called disciples James and John) to find Simon’s mother in law (completely identified only through her son in law Simon with no name of her own) in bed with a fever. Fevers were serious business and often deadly. More than that, it would have isolated her from anyone else out of fear of contamination. If you’ve ever had a high fever, you know that you are not yourself. You can’t do much of anything.

Jesus was at once, Mark writes, told about Simon’s MIL and Jesus didn’t even hesitate to go to her. No one else had thought or even tried to help her. For one thing it was still the Sabbath and so work was strictly prohibited plus the problem that she was unclean. But Jesus isn’t worried about the cultural rules or what people will think and only is concerned about this woman. Jesus takes her by her hand and lifts her up, the same word used in 16:6 for Jesus being raised, and the fever leaves her. She is free from what kept her from being all she could be. She is returned to community and made whole despite Jewish laws of Sabbath.

But then this woman actually does something that is not only bold but is a statement about who she is and what this day for her and us all, really means, she serves. Not just makes dinner or cleans up her own room, but the word here is the same as in 1: 13 when the angels waited on Jesus-she is a devoted servant and follower of Jesus, God incarnate. I read that she could be called the first deacon or true follower of Jesus. So this is a first in the gospel of Mark for someone to actively respond to Jesus. In her serving, she was a leader in how we should respond to Jesus who came to serve. This unnamed woman gets that Jesus came to serve, had served her and now she proclaims with all who she is the good news of Jesus’ presence in the world.

She doesn’t ask permission to work on the Sabbath but serves without a thought to the possible consequences for not following the rules because of who now she truly is freed from the fever, she is part of Jesus’ radical announcement that the kingdom of God is breaking into human lives and human rules. This day heralds a shift in how we live together as the people of God and how we live in the world. We quit worrying about rules, ourselves, what others might think of us and love and serve each other as Jesus first loves and serves us. Simon’s MIL, because of whom she knew she was as a person made whole through Jesus, was unafraid to be and act in response to being made a whole child of God, she was unafraid of what others might think of her blatant and bold dismissal of cultural norms, she didn’t worry about fitting into the system.  All of who she was, was enough, she ignored the cultural restrictions and she responded like a girl, if you will.

The coming of Jesus and of the kingdom of God, proclaims that we are more than what the world tells us that we are: we are more than just male, female, sick, healthy, rich, poor, white, black, gay, straight, outspoken, meek, athletic, intellectual, leader or follower. Over and over again in the gospel of Mark and the other Gospels we read of story after story of Jesus proclaiming that in God’s kingdom, such distinctions don’t exist-the only identity that matters is that of child of God. With these casting out of demon and healing stories, we can be tricked by our own humanness into thinking that Jesus came to perform radical miracles that will do for us exactly what we want, when we want it, for our own purposes. But Mark is clear that is not it at all: Jesus came to dwell among us to reveal that in the kingdom of God, our human restrictions, cultural taboos and social boundaries are false, all are children of God and God desires to lift us up-to resurrect us- to our whole selves as made in God’s image, free from death and anything that separates us from God, for the sake of serving God and God’s whole world. Who we are, just being a whole child of God, informs our actions.

So, while the Always Company wants women and girls to do things “#likeagirl,” God calls us to be #likeachildofGod, whose whole life bears witness to God’s grace, love and forgiveness for all. #likeachildofGod who serves not just people in need but partners with another child of God in a full relationship, and so is served by them as well. #likeachildofGod who offers community, love and belonging to everyone, even if they make us uncomfortable, challenge our thinking and change us. #likeachildofGod who can rest in the trust that God is present always and that the promise is that God will take us by the hand, lift us to be with God forever and love us no matter what. Thanks be to God!

*This week let’s Tweet, FB and Instagram all of the ways that we are grateful to be freed in the love and mercy of Jesus to serve God and the world at #likeachildofGod Let’s see if we can get it to trend!

 

“You’re so vain, you probably think this sermon is about you.” Matthew 18:18-35, 14th Sunday of Pentecost, Year A, Sept. 14th, 2014 September 15, 2014

So, I’m a child of the 70’s and I love 70’s music. You’ve heard me say before that being in the car a lot I like my XM radio (if you hold out long enough, it comes down to a cheap monthly rate). The 70’s station is my favorite, a time when talented singer/songwriters such as Carly Simon were common. One of her hits was “You’re so Vain.” It’s a classic breakup song that regals us, with sarcasm and wit, the damage this former boyfriend (and the speculation of who that was) did to her. We all identify with her plight, as we all know people who only think of themselves and don’t really give much thought to how their words or actions might possibly affect someone else. We all have people in our lives who annoy us, lie to us, or wound us in some way and somehow belting out the words “You probably think this song is about you, don’t you? Don’t you?” as you roll down I-25 is slightly cathartic.
Carly Simon puts into a three minute song the microcosm of life with other people. It’s messy, complex and humans tend to be self absorbed. I don’t think that it’s a coincidence that in Matthew 18 we move from “where two or three are gathered in my name,” to Peter asking how many times he has to forgive these other people who are ostensibly gathered in Jesus name. I’ve been saying all week, “where two or three are gathered…you’re gonna need forgiveness.” We are focused on ourselves and so we bump into one another in ways we’re not even always aware we’re doing and we leave scars to show for it. We wound each other in small and large ways. What are we to do when this happens? Do we forgive the person who gossiped about us? Probably. Do we forgive the person who stole $20 from us? Again, probably. But what about my friend who asks me if she should forgive her ex-husband who killed their children? Honestly, I don’t know. Or what about a victim of abuse, should they forgive their abuser? I don’t know. I guess it depends what we mean by the word “forgive”. Is it to forgive and forget? Is is a clearing of the balance sheet of wrongs done to you by someone or wrongs that you have committed? Is it a second chance? Or is it something else entirely?
Peter is wrestling with this too apparently, and I bet he had a specific incident in mind when he asked Jesus about how many times to forgive someone. Peter must have had a repeat offender in his life. Jesus’ initial answer is frankly a little too school yard playground for me: you should forgive over and over. Well, that’s great if someone just takes your juice box and cookie but I’m not sure that speaks to some of the real abuse and damage that people can inflict on one another.
But Jesus doesn’t stop there with that seemingly oversimplified response. He continues and tells Peter and the others, this over the top parable of the “unforgiving servant.” It’s so steeped in ridiculousness that we know it’s not to be read literally. So we pay attention to the theme of the parable. The amount of debt this slave owes the king is more than a servant can actually ever rack up in a life time. It would be like you or me garnering a billion dollars in debt. We would actually have to work really hard at accumulating that amount of debt. This slave that owes so much, throws himself at the mercy of the king and the king responds out of pity-he feels bad for him and releases him from his overwhelming debt. The slave is free.
What’s the first thing the slave does with his newly found freedom? He takes a fellow servant by the throat and threatens him. In his freedom, he chose to continue worrying about himself. The other slaves told the king of course, who was furious. This slave, who for a brief bit of time, had it all, and lost it all just as quickly and is handed over to be tortured. And then Jesus, not being the touchy, feely, pacifist that I prefer, says that this is what will happen to us if we don’t forgive from the heart. Ok, about now all I’m hanging on to is that this is just a parable.
See here’s the thing. We all hear this story and immediately start to worry about ourselves. So, I have to forgive or lose God’s grace? I have to forgive no matter what the circumstance? How do I know if I’ve really forgiven someone? But I’m still mad, broken and hurt! We want forgiveness to be easy, clear, and neat. I forgive you and the pain goes away. You forgive me and I stop feeling guilty. I forgive myself and I can finally have peace.
But that is not our human reality. Forgiveness doesn’t necessarily end the damage that has been done to each other. God forgives us completely and unconditionally each and everyday; more than the 77 times Jesus talks about, unless you’re under 2 months old. God knows that forgiving us is actually about acknowledging and entering into our brokenness and pain of our past and present, and offering us radical hope for a different future. God walks with us into that future. God also calls us to walk together into that future. When we can offer forgiveness to someone else, we are being honest about our pain; not burying it, not denying it and not ignoring it. We are also calling out the other person’s real brokenness that affects us. Forgiveness is a new way to be in relationship together, built on the grace and hope first offered us by God through Jesus over and over.
We are created for community, to be gathered together to reflect and reveal the loving presence of Christ wherever we are. The kingdom of heaven is God’s mercy for all God’s people and God’s desire for her people to fully live in hope, love and grace at all times and in all places. But this kingdom of heaven is not yet fully here, so we continue wound each other and must struggle with our human frailties of thinking only about ourselves, realities of violence, cheating, lying, and all of the other ways that we unfairly deny each other abundant life. Forgiveness doesn’t excuse any of our harmful behavior or means that we have to allow harm to be done to ourselves or others. Actually, in community we are compelled to call out wrong when we witness it and stand with those in harms way. But there is also this difficult reality that because of our interconnectedness, when we withhold forgiveness, when we deny anyone hope, we ultimately deny it to ourselves. It can feel like torture to live without hope for a tomorrow filled with the promises of God.
God extends to all of us radical forgiveness that is difficult for us to even receive because it is rooted in the very heart, the very being, of our unconditional loving God. If we truly receive this forgiveness, it compels us to offer it to someone else because it’s too important, too meaningful and too life giving to keep it to ourselves. We will want with our whole heart, with our whole being, for our neighbor to have this gift. Because ultimately, this forgiveness is about you and about all of us rooted in God’s mercy and love. Thanks be to God.