Category Archives: Faith

Through Christ: Whose Image? – Sermon on Matthew 22:15-22

An earlier version of this sermon was preached on October 19, 2014, and has been updated here for October 22, 2017.

We’ve completed all the coursework for Discipleship 101 and have jumped to the graduate level of learning to be fully devoted followers of Jesus Christ. Over the next few weeks, we will celebrate the vows of our baptismal covenant that call each of us to be a minister, through our prayers, our presence, our gifts, our service, and our witness.

How is God calling each of us to grow closer to God, deeper in faith, and more active in the mission and ministry of this congregation? If we really want to stay centered on Christ and offer Christ by doing everything through Christ, we will want to pay close attention to what Christ himself has to say.

Our gospel reading for today takes us back to the Temple court in Jerusalem, only a few days before Jesus will be betrayed. Jesus is still teaching about what it means to belong to the kingdom of God, a kingdom that has already broken into our world and is growing toward its fullness.

Because the kingdom of God is already present, our citizenship in that kingdom rubs up against our very real day-to-day living in a broken world. Sometimes the conflict between worldly reality and kingdom living becomes confusing and uncomfortable. Sometimes we don’t know how to reconcile our allegiance to God with our worldly obligations. Jesus was faced with this same dilemma, and in today’s reading, he shows us how to live in the world while living into the kingdom of God.

Then the Pharisees went and plotted to entrap him in what he said. So they sent their disciples to him, along with the Herodians, saying, “Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and teach the way of God in accordance with truth, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality. Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?”

But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, “Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites? Show me the coin used for the tax.” And they brought him a denarius. Then he said to them, “Whose head is this, and whose title?” They answered, “The emperor’s.”

Then he said to them, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” When they heard this, they were amazed; and they left him and went away. (Matthew 22:15-22)

Here’s the story so far: We’re in the Temple on Tuesday of Holy Week. Jesus has already cursed a fig tree, challenged the authority of the chief priests and elders, and told parables to anger the Pharisees – and it isn’t even noon. That’s the setting for the story.

The characters include Jesus, of course, but the rest of the cast has changed somewhat from earlier in the story. Now, instead of the Temple rulers who challenged Jesus’ authority in the last chapter, the Pharisees have sent some of their own disciples to speak with Jesus. This is the only time disciples of the Pharisees are mentioned in the entire New Testament, so that might be an important detail to hold in the back of our minds.

In addition to these disciples, the Pharisees have enlisted the help of their opponents, the Herodians. The Herodians weren’t particularly religious. They were political leaders who supported the Roman authority given to Herod over Israel. An alliance between the religious Pharisees and the political Herodians was unusual – they only worked together because of their mutual fear of Jesus and his growing influence with the people. So we have Jesus, the Pharisees’ disciples, the Herodians who have joined them in an awkward alliance, and the silent onlookers who have gathered around Jesus to hear him teach. We have the setting and the characters. It’s time to introduce the plot.

As the Pharisees go off to conspire with the Herodians, they look for a way to force Jesus to reveal himself as a rebel against Rome or a blasphemer against God. Preferably both. They decide to start with flattery, hoping to get Jesus to let down his guard, so he will walk right into their trap. They describe his impartiality to all, and his disregard for rank, encouraging him to denounce Roman authority. At the same time, they refer to his sincerity and truthfulness, encouraging him to claim a level of righteousness that belongs only to God.

The problem these religious and political leaders set before Jesus is one we face every day: To whom do we give our primary allegiance? When the law of the land seems to go against the law of God, what choice will we make? This is the problem in the story’s plot that must be resolved. They think they have set up the perfect “either/or” riddle, because whichever way Jesus answers, he’s going to offend one group or the other: he will either break Roman law or Temple law – he can’t have it both ways. They wait for Jesus to answer. They are sure they’ve got him now.

When you think about it, the world we live in today is becoming an increasingly polarized society. Everything is ‘either/or’ and if you don’t land on the same side of an issue as your neighbor, that makes you an immediate enemy. The Pharisees and the Herodians lived in a similarly polarized world. You either paid allegiance to Caesar, or to God. But Jesus says that looking at this question from a polarized perspective gets it all wrong. If we insist on ‘either/or’ we miss the point.

“Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites?” he asks. And we suddenly remember another conversation, at the very beginning of his ministry, when Jesus quotes Deuteronomy 6:16 to Satan in the wilderness:
Do not put the Lord your God to the test” (Matt 4:7).
In that conversation, Satan has invited Jesus to throw himself down from a pinnacle of the Temple, to prove that he is the Son of God. But Jesus knows better.

And now, facing the Pharisees and Herodians as they gang up on him, Jesus sees through their hypocrisy, just as he sees through ours whenever we pretend to submit to God, but hold in our hearts the desire to have our own way.

We don’t like to think of ourselves as hypocrites. We don’t like to fall into that category Craig Groeschel describes in his book, The Christian Atheist: people who claim to believe in God, but who live as if God doesn’t exist.

And those disciples of the Pharisees, who stood before Jesus, didn’t like it either. The Herodians might not have cared one way or the other, but those Pharisees considered themselves among the most faithful of all God’s people. They did not like being called hypocrites. At. All.

Let’s pause here at this point of tension in the story. Imagine you are one of those silent onlookers in this drama.

Maybe you have been following Jesus as a faithful disciple throughout his ministry. You’re one of the insiders, one of the chosen twelve. You think you know this guy, this Jesus, but you are wondering how he’s going to wriggle his way out of this one. You’ve been close enough to hear him say, “The Son of Man is going to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and on the third day he will be raised” (Matthew 17:22-23). You may be wondering if Jesus is about to be arrested, leaving you without a leader.

Or maybe you are one of the people who came to Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover, and when you heard that this Jesus was preaching in the Temple courts, you went looking for him, to hear for yourself what this new rabbi was teaching. You are here simply out of curiosity.

Maybe you were laughing along with the crowd when the pompous religious leaders heard their own words used against them. You are here, not as a believer necessarily, but as a skeptic. And if this Jesus can embarrass those self-righteous religious leaders, you want to be around to see the show.

Or maybe your heart was “strangely warmed” as you listened to this man teach with an authority that could only come from God. Maybe you have been wondering, as you listened, if this could be the Messiah after all.

Whatever has brought you into this crowd, you wait to hear what Jesus will say, how he will solve this riddle the Pharisees and Herodians have put before him. Because you are certain that whatever he says will force you to decide where your allegiance lies. Whatever he says will tell you if you should put your trust in him, or if you should walk away.

And Jesus says, “Show me the money.”

Notice that Jesus does not happen to have a denarius in his own pocket. But he’s pretty sure one of his challengers will have brought such a coin into the Temple. And he’s right; they hand him a denarius immediately, not even realizing they have exposed their own blasphemy, by bringing a Roman coin, bearing a Roman inscription that calls Caesar “divine,” into the Temple where God alone is to be worshiped as holy.

But Jesus does not call attention to this. He turns the coin over in his hand and asks a question any child could answer. “Whose image is this, and whose inscription is on this coin?” And with this seemingly simple question, Jesus raises the stakes even higher.

You see, this wasn’t just any coin, but a coin required for paying a tax to the Romans. And it wasn’t just any tax. First century Jews had to pay their share of taxes, just as we do. But the tax that required payment with a denarius was the Imperial tribute, or “census” tax that had been instituted about the time of Jesus’ birth. It was the tax Jews paid to support the Roman occupation of Israel. The Jews had to pay one denarius a year to finance their own oppression.

I have to imagine it was the Herodians, those Jews who supported the Roman occupation, who answered first. “The emperor’s,” they said. Jesus doesn’t blink. “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”

You can almost hear the wind going out of their sails, can’t you? The Pharisees and Herodians are amazed. There is nothing more they can say, so they turn and walk away. Those who are gathered around Jesus are left to ponder what this all means. At first, it seems as if he has foiled his opponents once again with a “both/and” answer to their “either/or” question.

But an unspoken question hangs in the air: If the image stamped on a coin determines whose it is, what has God’s image stamped on it? The Herodians and the Pharisees may have already left, but a deeper truth begins to dawn on the rest of us as we remember the story of Creation from Genesis:

So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them” (Genesis 1:27).

You belong to God, for you were made in God’s image. Whether male or female, God created you to bear his own divine likeness. Your purpose, your calling, is to bear that image into the world as a constant reminder that God’s kingdom has a higher claim on each of us than this broken world of ours has.

Some have used this passage to defend the separation of church and state. That isn’t what Jesus is talking about. Some insist that this is another one of Christ’s lessons on the proper place of money in our lives. It isn’t. This lesson isn’t even really about money at all.

It’s about recognizing the image of God when we see it in one another, and calling attention to that image as a reminder that God is very present, even when we feel the most oppressed or threatened by the world around us. When Jesus says, “Give to God the things that are God’s,” he’s reminding us that all we are and all we have belongs to the one who created us, the one who loves us more than we can ever imagine.

At another time in Jewish history, another oppressive regime ruled over the nation of Israel. The prophet Isaiah described the love of God to people who had given up all hope, who were certain that God had abandoned them forever. We read in Isaiah 49:15-16,

Can a woman forget her nursing child,
    or show no compassion for the child of her womb?
Even these may forget,
    yet I will not forget you.
See, I have inscribed you on the palms of my hands;
    your walls are continually before me.

Not only do you bear the image of God, you have been inscribed on the palms of God’s hands. Not only are you inscribed on the Creator’s hands, but also on the hands of Christ, those hands that bear the marks of death on a cross for our sakes.

Sometimes the image we bear may be difficult to recognize. It may be distorted by the world’s inscriptions on our lives – what we wear or drive or eat, how we live and whose opinions we value. But under all those inscriptions is a deeper mark. It is the mark of the cross, drawn on us at our baptism, on Ash Wednesday, and at the time of our death. It is the mark that says, “You belong to the God who formed you, who loves you, who will not let you go.”

This is why we say, here at First UMC New Ulm, that we are centered on Christ, and that we offer Christ, doing all things through Christ. We bear the image of Christ to the world around us, and how we bear that image determines how willing others may be to receive the good news that Jesus died for their sins and wants to give them eternal life.

This is our primary identity: we are the beloved children of God. That identity is the filter through which we make all our decisions. It is the standard against which we must measure all our choices. Give to the emperor what belongs to the emperor. But give to God the things that are God’s.

Since we are in the middle of a discipleship drive, you may think I’m asking you to reflect God’s image by increasing your pledge or your commitment to service or worship attendance or prayer. Since we are in the middle of nominating season, you may think I’m asking you to reflect God’s image by agreeing to serve in a leadership position. As much as I would love to see your deepening faith expressed in all these ways, I’m not asking any of those things.

I’m simply asking you to remember that you are the image of God shining out into the world, and the people you encounter every day, whether you like them or not, whether you approve of their actions or political opinions or theological beliefs – they also bear the image of God to you. Look for it. Recognize it. Know that someone is looking to you, often when you least expect it, to find that image and see it as a reminder that God has each of us marked on the palms of his hands.

Our identity as beloved children of God, bearing God’s own image, shapes our behavior and our thinking. It urges us to become the people Christ calls us to be, centered on Christ, offering Christ, doing all things through Christ, to the glory of God the Father. ###

 

Discipleship 101: Through Christ – sermon on Philippians 4:8-13

October 15, 2017

This week concludes our Discipleship 101 series with an introduction to our next season of focus. We could call it “Discipleship 201” and bring everything to the next level, but in reality, this is more of a graduate course in following Jesus. From this point forward, we have to decide if this Jesus-following path is really something to which we want to commit our entire lives.

I’m reminded of the time that Jesus’ teachings became too difficult for his disciples to understand, and some turned away from following him. Jesus looked at the twelve and asked, “What about you? Are you going to leave me too?” And Simon Peter answered with a question of his own, “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.” (John 6:66-69)

Coming to know Christ in the same deeply personal way as those first disciples did brings us to a new level of maturity in faith. This level can only be found when, like those first disciples, we decide to be fully devoted followers of Jesus Christ. The apostle Paul addresses this kind of Christian maturity in his letter to the church at Philippi.

It’s interesting that the verses we will read in a few moments do not appear anywhere in the Revised Common Lectionary cycle of readings. The lectionary only goes as far as verse 9 in this 4th chapter of Philippians. I find this curious, because it omits one of the most popular verses found in scripture – right up there with John 3:16 and the 23rd Psalm: Continue reading

Staying Centered on Christ

Back in September, I started a sermon series called “Discipleship 101.” In my planning, I thought it would last about 4 weeks, maybe six. It was intended to help the congregation of First United Methodist Church live into its mission to “stay centered on Christ and offer Christ.” We do pretty well at “offering Christ” through various ministries, but it’s that “staying centered on Christ” part that is often a struggle. This sermon series was originally intended to help us go deeper into a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. I thought it would be a handy bullet-pointed list of things we can do to grow in faith. Wow, was I wrong.
youth.bibleThe scripture passages from the Revised Common Lectionary kept bringing me to messages of forgiveness and reconciliation and living in community with fellow believers. As I prayed over these passages and listened for a theme to emerge, I discovered that the path to true discipleship isn’t a “to do” list at all. In fact, nothing we do in our own strength will bring us closer to Jesus or deepen our faith. Discipleship isn’t about what I do, it’s about the One I follow.
Followers of Jesus stay focused on the One they follow. Everything else – Bible study, prayer, spiritual practices, equipping people for ministry, generosity, hospitality – these are simply evidence of a life devoted to Christ. They aren’t the “how to” steps for getting there. The only way to become a better follower of Jesus is to ….follow Jesus.
Yes, it really is that simple. And that hard.
The next few weeks will bring us to the completion of this particular series, as we slide into “Discipleship 201” – but where will God lead us on this journey? I invite you to join us on Sunday mornings at 9:30 at First United Methodist Church in New Ulm, MN to discover “what’s next?” And if you can’t make it to worship with us, check back here for a link to the sermon each week. Together, let’s stay centered on Christ and offer Christ to one another. Peace be with you. – Pastor Jo Anne

Discipleship 101: Pressing On -Sermon on Philippians 3:4b-16

October 8, 2017

In his letter to the church at Philippi, Paul describes a life of discipleship. He tells us in no uncertain terms what it means to be a follower of Jesus Christ. But he begins by telling us what a disciple is not, and he uses his own life as an example. Paul writes:

If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless. Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.
For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but one that comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God based on faith. I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead.Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Beloved, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.
Let those of us then who are mature be of the same mind; and if you think differently about anything, this too God will reveal to you. Only let us hold fast to what we have attained
. -Philippians 3:4b-16

“I regard everything as loss
because of the surpassing value
of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.” (v.8)

Paul was a Jew’s Jew. He belonged to the most elite and religious sect within Judaism. In this letter to the church in Philippi, Paul addresses a growing concern among the  churches. The big question then was, “do you have to become a Jew in order to become a Christian?” As more and more non-Jewish believers joined the church, this question became a point of deep discord, and the division it caused threatened the order of this new movement. Members were more focused on their disagreement over circumcision than on following Jesus.

So Paul sets out, in this letter, to remind the Christians in Philippi that adhering to strict Jewish laws means nothing. And he ought to know, because he himself had lived like that. The kind of life that was bound up in rules was “rubbish” – a nicer word than the one Paul actually uses, by the way. The only thing that has any value is “knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.”

Paul is willing to give up everything that was important to him before, “… in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but one that comes through faith in Christ, …” (vv 8b-9)

Knowing Christ, gaining Christ, … this is what matters. Not how many times we pray each day, or how many chapters of the Bible we read, or how much we put in the offering plate, as good as all those things are. Knowing Christ, in order that I may gain Christ. This is the goal toward which we run as followers of Jesus. “I want to know Christ,” Paul writes again, “and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings, by becoming like him in his death.” (v 10)

Whoa, Paul. Hang on there a minute. Knowing Jesus, that’s all well and good. I like that part about the power of his resurrection. But what’s this stuff about sharing in his sufferings and becoming like him in his death? Do you remember the passage from last week, back in chapter two, that included the ancient hymn to Christ? Here’s a refresher:

Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death— even death on a cross. – Philippians 2:5-8

Sharing in Christ’s sufferings, becoming like him in his death – this is how we gain Christ, how we come to really know him. Christ emptied himself, humbled himself, and became obedient, even to the point of death on a cross.

On Friday, I was invited by the bishop to attend a workshop on discipleship and evangelism. In his message during the opening worship, Bishop Ough described his own experience of coming to know Christ. He had grown up attending church, and his parents were faithful Christians, but it was not until he was a teenager that he gave his life to Christ. Bishop Ough told us that he could sum up that experience in one word: surrender.

This is what Paul is talking about when he says, “I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection, and the sharing of his sufferings, by becoming like him in his death.” Becoming like Jesus in his death means giving our all to obeying God, no matter what it costs us. A life of following Jesus is a life of surrender.

Even a super-Christian like Paul has a long way to go when it comes to complete surrender. “Not that I have already attained the goal …” he writes, “but I press on to make it my own…” And why? What motivates Paul to this kind of surrender?

Because Jesus has made me his own.

It might sound like Paul is describing his own effort, his own striving to become like Christ. But the truth is that Paul is “pressing on” – or leaning into the realization that he belongs to Jesus.

Several times each week, people come into my office to tell me about the particular struggles they are experiencing. When I ask if I can pray for them, they almost always respond with eagerness. As I pray, I ask God to remind them that they are God’s own beloved children. I can’t tell you how many times people respond to this simple prayer with sobs. No one has ever told them before that they are God’s beloved children.

They have never experienced what Paul is describing here, what we who claim to follow Jesus should also know: Jesus has made us his own. That’s a truth worth leaning into. That’s a reality worthy of our complete surrender.

The next sentence Paul writes is full of prepositional phrases that drive deep into this truth:
I press on
toward the goal
for the prize
of the heavenly call
of God
in Christ Jesus. – Philippians 3:14  

This is what discipleship means, friends. It is answering the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus with full surrender. Pressing on toward this goal yields a prize, and that prize is God calling us in Christ Jesus. You see, it isn’t what we do that makes us good disciples – it’s what Jesus did. All our effort, all our striving to be righteous and live according to the “good Christian” rules, is just like Paul’s former life as a Pharisee – it’s rubbish.

If you want to be a follower of Jesus Christ, answer the call God extends to you. Press on toward the goal of knowing Christ – not just knowing about Christ, but developing a personal relationship with Jesus. And as that relationship grows, the evidence of your maturing faith will be seen in the way you live your life.

Paul writes, “Let those of us then who are mature be of the same mind; and if you think differently about anything, this too God will reveal to you. Only let us hold fast to what we have attained.” (vv15-16) Paul brings us back to unity of thinking, having the same mind as Christ Jesus, as he encourages us to hang onto the level of maturity we have reached in our faith.

Discipleship is not what we do, it’s who we follow. All the marks of a mature follower of Jesus are evidence of following, not the means by which we follow. In his book, From Membership to Discipleship, Phil Maynard identifies five areas of discipleship that contribute to this picture:

  • A life of worship
  • A life of hospitality
  • A life open to Jesus (spiritual practices)
  • A life obedient to Jesus
  • A life of service
  • A life of Generosity

But we don’t necessarily arrive at full maturity in all of these areas at the same moment. If you were to plot your spiritual development the same way a pediatrician tracks a growing child’s physical development, you would notice that you grow faster in some areas, and others take longer.

But let me emphasize that each of these areas of discipleship do not come about by our own effort or design. Our efforts to become more hospitable or more generous can’t be sustained for any length of time by our trying. They aren’t the means to become better followers of Jesus. They are the evidence of a whole-hearted surrender to Christ.

This is going to sound counter-intuitive, but …

  • If you want to become more generous, you don’t doing by giving more – you do it by knowing Christ more intimately.
  • If you want to improve your worship life, you don’t do it by singing louder or lifting your hands higher – you do it by surrendering your life to Jesus.
  • If you want to experience a life of more effective spiritual practices, such as prayer and Bible study and fasting, you don’t do it by scheduling more prayer time or signing up for another Bible study group or skipping more meals. You do it by drawing near to the heart of God in Christ Jesus, and centering your life in him.
  • If you want to engage in more meaningful service, you don’t do it by signing up for every serving opportunity that shows up on the bulletin board. You do it by diving deeper into your relationship with Christ, and letting him guide you into a more profound awareness of how he wants you to use your gifts.
  • If you want to be more obedient to Christ, you do it by listening more closely for his direction, and leaning into a life of full surrender to his will.

And as you devote yourself completely to following Jesus, you will find yourself growing in faith, developing into a mature and robust way of living that reflects Christ more and more in your worship, your hospitality, your service, your spiritual practice, your obedience, and your generosity.

Next week, you will receive a letter inviting you into a commitment to become more Christ-like in the coming year. It will ask you to consider growing in your faith through the promises that we make in the baptismal covenant. These are promises to offer our prayers, our presence, our gifts, our service, and our witness.

There will be some very concrete suggestions for fulfilling your commitment to develop a more mature faith – things like committing to attending worship a specific number of times each month, engaging in a specific number of serving opportunities during the year, and inviting a specific number of people to join you in worship or service.

The numbers you write into the blanks won’t make you a better Christian. They aren’t the means for you to grow in your own discipleship, and they aren’t the goal of your walk with Christ. They represent a promise you make every time we renew our baptismal vows. It’s a promise to press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly calling of God in Christ Jesus. It’s a promise to grow into a mature follower of Jesus. It’s a promise to want to know Christ, who has made you his own. Let it be so.

Discipleship 101: Forgiving Like Jesus – Sermon on Matthew 18:21-35

I don’t think any of us come to worship God in this place with the idea of becoming less like Jesus as our goal. We’re all in it to become more like Jesus. Sometimes, it’s hard, though, isn’t it? Sometimes we’d like Jesus to let us off the hook a little bit, tell us what we are doing is good enough, pat us on the head and let us get on with being a little less like him. Right?

But it never seems to work that way. Jesus always calls us gently toward greater perfection. Christ sets the barre high for us, as his followers. Jesus doesn’t let us off the hook, because we’re all he’s got. Christ depends on us, as he reaches into this troubled, broken world of ours, to show people what it means to follow him into the Kingdom of God. We matter. And what we do, how we treat one another, matters. How else will people who are in pain, who need God, see the difference that following Christ can make in their lives? How else will they know that they matter to God?

In today’s passage, we pick up the conversation between Jesus and his disciples from the point where we left off last week. Jesus has been teaching us how to live in the Kingdom of God, and he has urged us to be reconciled to those who have wronged us.

Last week, we learned a process for resolving conflict between two believers, and in the UMC we call that process the Rule of Christ. It outlines a series of steps for confronting a brother or sister in disagreement. We must first examine our own contribution to the problem, then go directly to the one who has hurt us and tell that person what is wrong. If they don’t listen, or won’t be reconciled to us, then we must bring in another believer to act as mediator or advocate, and if the other party still will not listen, we are to call upon the resources of the whole church. Once we’ve tried everything, and there is still no resolution, we are to treat the other person as a Gentile and a tax collector – in other words, as an outsider.

While many traditions interpret this to mean we are to exclude, or shun, the person, a look at the way Jesus himself treated Gentiles and tax collectors may indicate that what we are really supposed to do is work even more diligently at finding ways to live in community with the offender, offering the same invitation to discipleship that we would offer any other outsider we would win to Christ.

The “three strikes and you’re out” that Jesus gives – go directly to the offender, then take one or two witnesses, then take it to the church, if all else fails, treat the offender as an outsider – line up nicely with the common practice of first century Jews. It was understood that three pardons were enough – a fourth offense did not need to be forgiven. If I forgave you three times, and you wronged me again, I could hold a grudge and still claim to be righteous.

As the disciples listened to Jesus teach about conflict resolution, they may have interpreted his words in this way. But Peter knew better. He knew that with Jesus, it was never that simple. With Jesus, the old order of things was never good enough. So, to clarify things, he asked a question, hoping that – for once – he had guessed the right answer in advance.

Then Peter came and said to him, “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” Jesus said to him, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.

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

Peter thought that surely, if the standard was forgiving up to three times, seven ought to be more than enough to satisfy Jesus. Seven was a perfect number, after all. When Jesus says, “Not seven. Seventy-seven” or maybe even “seventy times seven,” depending on how you read it, he’s asking Peter to go deeper in his understanding of forgiveness. And Jesus invites us to go deeper, too.

You see, the issue isn’t a number at all. And Jesus makes this clear in the parable he tells to explain his point. Here we have a king and his slave. The slave owes the king an enormous amount of money. It’s possible he became a slave in order to pay off a debt he owed to someone else. We don’t know, and how he came to be a slave, or came to owe the king so much money doesn’t really matter in this story.

The important thing is that this debt is so huge, he will never be able to pay it. A talent was equal to about 130 pounds of silver, or about 15 years of wages for a laborer. At 10,000 times that amount, it would take the slave 150,000 years of work to pay off the debt. Impossible.

Yet, when the slave begged for more time, the king had pity on him, and not only withdrew the sentence, but actually forgave the entire fortune the slave owed. The king showed mercy.

But what does the slave do after receiving such generosity from his master? On his way out of the king’s presence, he runs into a fellow slave who owes him the equivalent of 100 days of wages. Not 150,000 years, but 100 days. A manageable sum. A realistic debt.

You would think that the first slave would be feeling generous, having just received a very sweet deal from his master, but instead, he grabs his fellow slave by the throat and demands payment. The second slave falls into the very same posture of humility, and uses the very same words the first slave used to beg for a little more time. But this time there is no mercy. There is no pity. There is no generosity.

And the other slaves see how wrong this is. Even without benefit of Facebook or Twitter, the word gets back to the king that this slave he forgave will not forgive. The king is furious, and rightly so. Not only is this behavior wrong, it reflects badly on the king for one of his own slaves to behave so badly. It makes the king appear weak when he shows mercy to a scoundrel who apparently doesn’t get the concept of ‘paying it forward.’

So the king rescinds the original pardon, and the first slave suffers the consequences of his own lack of mercy to another. If he won’t forgive another, the king won’t forgive him.

I wonder why that slave would not show mercy, don’t you? Maybe he was just greedy. Now that his own debt was gone, any money he could force out of another would be free and clear cash in hand – he didn’t have to ‘borrow from Peter to pay Paul anymore.’

Or maybe he was so used to a cycle of violence and coercion that threatening the other slave was just force of habit for him. Whatever the reason, the slave who had been forgiven had not been transformed by the grace shown to him. The change in his circumstances did not bring about a change in his behavior, or his outlook on life. He suffered the consequences of his actions, and was thrown into prison.

And Jesus says, “This is what will happen to you if you don’t forgive from your heart.”

It isn’t the numbers that matter; it’s what we hold in our hearts that really counts. Seven or seventy-seven or seven times seventy doesn’t matter. 150,000 years of wages or 100 days of wages doesn’t matter. What matters is the stuff that goes on in the depths of our hearts.

If we accept the forgiveness that God offers us through his Son’s death and resurrection, we become new people. We are changed. And if we are changed, our behavior changes. The way we look at life changes. The way we treat other people changes. Our capacity to forgive others changes. There is no room for holding grudges in a heart that has been touched by God’s unmerited favor.

This does not mean that we should allow others to abuse us or take advantage of us. Theologian David Lose writes, “If someone is repeatedly unkind or hurtful, let alone mean-spirited or violent, we may very well want to put some distance between us. But even that decision doesn’t completely define … our … relationship with the other person, only how we conduct that relationship. We may continue to love a child or sibling or friend who is abusive, but we don’t have to put up with the abusive behavior. Indeed, the most loving and forgiving thing to do may very well be to stop putting up with the behavior.”[1]

Remember that this passage belongs to the one we heard last week about confronting one who has wronged us. Confrontation without forgiveness only serves to make a conflict worse, but confrontation is necessary in order for forgiveness to bring reconciliation and healing.

The point of Jesus’ parable isn’t to get us to increase our forgiveness quota. It’s to get us to stop counting altogether. Because forgiveness is part of love, and love can’t be counted. If Peter had asked Jesus “How many times should I love my neighbor?” we would think the question ridiculous. Love can’t be counted.

Neither can forgiveness, because forgiveness is really a decision to accept what you can’t change in the past, so that the past no longer has power over you. When you cannot forgive, the past puts you in prison. Forgiveness is the freedom to let go of the past, and walk into the future.

And isn’t that good news? Isn’t it worth sharing the good news that forgiveness, like God’s love, is without limits? The only thing God can’t forgive is an unwillingness to be forgiven, and it isn’t because God refuses to offer forgiveness, but because we have to be willing to accept the offer for it to go into effect. And when we accept Christ’s offer of forgiveness, it changes us into people who offer forgiveness to others.

Just like those servants who ratted out the ungrateful slave, others will spread the word, but this time, the news will be that we care, that we aren’t here to judge others, but to share God’s saving love with them. Instead of pointing out our wrongs, people will be talking about how forgiveness is in our DNA, and how it has changed our lives.

That’s how we reach others for Christ. Christ transforms us by his grace. We respond to that grace by offering grace. We answer God’s forgiveness by forgiving the people who have wronged us. And the word gets around.

Christ sets the barre high for us. Jesus doesn’t let us off the hook, because we’re all he’s got. Christ depends on us, as he reaches into this troubled, broken world of ours, to show people what it means to follow him into the Kingdom of God. We matter. And what we do, how we treat one another, matters. How else will people who are in pain, who need God, see the difference that following Christ can make in their lives? How else will they know that they matter to God? As disciples of Jesus Christ, we want to live like Jesus and love like Jesus. This means forgiving like Jesus.

It’s part of Discipleship 101, a basic course on learning to follow Christ. This life-long devotion to discipleship begins in love. God loves us so much he gave his own Son, so that by believing in him, we might have eternal life. Receiving that love and entering into a loving relationship with God forms the core of Christian discipleship. But it doesn’t end there.

Following Jesus means that we become something new. We become connected to Christ as members of his Body, the church, and we live out this life-changing faith in community with other believers. Loving God, loving each other, we sometimes mess up. We sometimes hurt each other. That’s why these first few weeks of Discipleship 101 have focused on reconciliation and forgiveness within the Body of Christ. It’s the starting point for growing deeper in faith and furthering Christ’s mission.

In the weeks to come, we will dig into the spiritual practices that help us become more obedient to Christ, and we will examine how that obedience makes us into mature Christians. We’ll look at worship and generosity as evidence of maturity. All of these elements of discipleship have no meaning, unless they are grounded in love. And this kind of Christ-centered love is bathed in forgiveness. Friends, believe the good news: In Jesus Christ, your sins are forgiven. So go, and do likewise[2], in the name of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.

[1] http://www.davidlose.net/2014/09/pentecost-14-a/

[2] Luke 10:37

Discipleship 101: The Marks of a Disciple – sermon on Romans 12:9-21

September 3, 2017
Watch a video of this sermon here. 

Last week, we heard the Apostle Paul encourage us to offer our bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God. We learned that we do this, not by being conformed to the world, but by being transformed through the renewing of our minds, so we can discern God’s good and acceptable and perfect will for us.

Paul went on to describe how we are each part of the Body of Christ, with many diverse gifts that help us equip ourselves, and each other, as members joined together in Christ. We discovered that living sacred lives in a secular world is really a call to discipleship. But what does that word, ‘discipleship,’ mean? What do I have to do in order to be a disciple? Continue reading

Intersections: Sacred Living in a Secular World – Sermon on Romans 12:1-8

August 27, 2017

Someone once said, “The problem with living sacrifices is they keep crawling off the altar.” Maybe people cringe from offering themselves completely to God because they focus on what they will lose when they make a sacrifice. Maybe it’s because our idea of a sacrifice is pretty gory, and always fatal.

But Paul asks us to consider a different meaning for the word “sacrifice.” He calls us to remember that the root of this word is the same as the word “sacred.” Instead of thinking of a sacrifice as something we have to give up, or give away, or kill, Paul invites us to recognize that true sacrifice means setting apart something as sacred or holy. The thing we are to make holy is ourselves, our whole selves.

This week, we’re finishing up the series on Intersections: Where Faith Meets Life. We’ve wrestled with God, we’ve explored doubt and how science and scripture inform each other. Now it’s time to get down to the real nitty-gritty.

How can we, as devoted followers of Jesus Christ, live sacred, set apart lives, while still staying connected to the world in which we live? How do we live in the world without being assimilated by the world? How can the way we live our lives be so full of joy and peace, so different from worldly living, that our lives attract others to Jesus? Continue reading