Tag Archives: forgiveness

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

Extravagant Hospitality – Sermon on Luke 7:36-8:3

Fourth Sunday after Pentecost C
June 12, 2016

For five long years, my mom was a single parent. As I look back to that period of our family’s history, it seems that those five years were my entire childhood. I was eight years old when my father went to prison. He urged my mom to divorce him and “find those girls a decent father.” I was thirteen when my mother re-married. A lot can happen between the ages of eight and thirteen. Five years can be an eternity.

During those five years, my mom worked her fingers to the bone to keep us fed and clothed and sheltered. She often worked two jobs to try to make ends meet. Mom’s work required her to be on her feet all day, and when she got home from her day shift, we four girls had a routine. Mom would collapse on the living room couch. One of us would bring her a fresh cup of coffee. One of us would brush her hair. And two of us would sit at her feet, remove her shoes, and give her a foot massage. We’d run a warm washcloth over each tired foot, then rub lotion into it, slowly massaging away the aches and pains of the workday. During this daily routine, we’d talk about our experiences of the day and listen to mom’s stories about the factory where she worked.

My mom was faithful to make sure we got to church, that we read our Bibles every day, that we prayed at bedtime and before every meal. But I think it was this holy moment we spent together every workday afternoon that really held our family and our faith together. Rubbing mom’s feet, brushing her hair, bringing her coffee – these were ways we could thank her for the sacrifices she was making for us. But the time it took to do these things was the real gift. This was time spent staying connected to her and to each other. As I pondered today’s gospel lesson about a woman who anoints the feet of Jesus, I couldn’t help thinking about rubbing lotion into my Mom’s tired feet, and what an important lesson of love I learned from that simple act.

This woman we read about today has something in common with the centurion and the woman whose son had died, that we met earlier in the seventh chapter of Luke. She is yet another person whose name we will never know. Some have claimed she was a prostitute, but the Bible never says that about her. Luke uses a different word to talk about prostitution (15:30). Here he only calls her a sinner, and it’s the same word Luke uses to describe Peter (5:8), a tax collector (18:13), and others (Luke 5:30-32; 19:7). We don’t know what her sin is, but it is one known to the rest of the community. She has a reputation. Maybe she eats pork, or has been caught lying or cheating or charging interest on loans. We don’t know. But she knows. And Jesus knows. And Simon the Pharisee does, too.

 

One of the Pharisees asked Jesus to eat with him, and he went into the Pharisee’s house and took his place at the table. And a woman in the city, who was a sinner, having learned that he was eating in the Pharisee’s house, brought an alabaster jar of ointment. She stood behind him at his feet, weeping, and began to bathe his feet with her tears and to dry them with her hair. Then she continued kissing his feet and anointing them with the ointment. Now when the Pharisee who had invited him saw it, he said to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what kind of woman this is who is touching him—that she is a sinner.”  Jesus spoke up and said to him, “Simon, I have something to say to you.” “Teacher,” he replied, “speak.”  “A certain creditor had two debtors; one owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. When they could not pay, he canceled the debts for both of them. Now which of them will love him more?” 

 Simon answered, “I suppose the one for whom he canceled the greater debt.” And Jesus said to him, “You have judged rightly.”

Then turning toward the woman, he said to Simon, “Do you see this woman? I entered your house; you gave me no water for my feet, but she has bathed my feet with her tears and dried them with her hair. You gave me no kiss, but from the time I came in she has not stopped kissing my feet.  You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment. Therefore, I tell you, her sins, which were many, have been forgiven; hence she has shown great love. But the one to whom little is forgiven, loves little.” 

Then he said to her, “Your sins are forgiven.” But those who were at the table with him began to say among themselves, “Who is this who even forgives sins?” And he said to the woman, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.”

Soon afterwards he went on through cities and villages, proclaiming and bringing the good news of the kingdom of God. The twelve were with him, as well as some women who had been cured of evil spirits and infirmities: Mary, called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out, and Joanna, the wife of Herod’s steward Chuza, and Susanna, and many others, who provided for them out of their resources. – Luke 7:36 – 8:3

How would you feel if a woman you didn’t know came up to you, took off your shoes, and started weeping over your feet? The tears would roll down between your toes, as she wiped them with her hair. And then she would suddenly pull out a beautiful jar of salve, and start rubbing the fragrant ointment into your feet, as she continued to weep. Would you be surprised? Uncomfortable? Would you push her away and ask what on earth she thought she was doing?

It’s one thing to rub your mom’s feet in the privacy of your own living room, but what if this happened in someone else’s home, at a dinner party they were giving in your honor? Would you be embarrassed for your host? For yourself? Would you be embarrassed for the woman?

I’m sure that Simon the Pharisee and all his other guests were appalled when this party crasher let down her hair and started kissing Jesus’ feet. Her behavior was scandalous. It was shameful. And I have to wonder what prompted her to behave the way she did. Had she known Jesus before? Had he already shown her mercy that others did not show? Had she already met Jesus, talked with him, expressed a desire to be cleansed of her sin, and been forgiven?

I wonder if she had, because later in this story, when Jesus speaks directly to her, he says “Your sins have been forgiven.” The Greek verb here uses the perfect tense, and that means the action has already been completed in the past, with effects that carry forward into the future. So, what had already happened to her that brought her to this room, carrying a jar of ointment? It must have been something amazing, to have prompted this very public and scandalous display of devotion.

But Jesus doesn’t flinch. Instead of condemning this woman for interrupting a meal to which she had not been invited, Jesus asks the host for permission to speak. “Speak, Teacher,” the Pharisee says. And Jesus launches into a parable.

At first, this story about two debtors seems innocent enough. Which one will have more love for the person who forgives a debt, the one who owed fifty, or the one who owed five hundred? “I suppose the one who owed more,” Simon shrugs. “Right,” Jesus answers. And then he asks the real question:

“Simon, do you see this woman?”

Keep in mind that this woman has entered Simon’s house without permission and has behaved in a scandalous manner from the moment she came into the room. Simon would have to be blind not to see her.

Keep in mind that this woman is a known sinner – whatever her sin, it is public knowledge, and Simon has already judged her, just as he has already judged Jesus for not recognizing her obvious sinfulness. Simon has been thinking, “If this guy were a real prophet, he would know who is touching him, making him unclean right here in my own house!”

Keep in mind that this woman, any woman in that time and culture, would have normally gone politely unnoticed, completely invisible to the men reclining around this table. Yet, Jesus asks:

“Simon, do you see this woman?”

“You did not offer me any of the normal signs of hospitality, but she has gone above and beyond normal. She has shown extravagant hospitality, even anointing my feet. At best, you might have put oil on my head after greeting me with a kiss and giving me water to wash my own feet. But this woman, because her many sins have been forgiven, shows greater love than you do.”

It’s easy for us to look back at Simon and smirk a little bit. “Gotcha!” we might be thinking. We see how Simon the Pharisee thinks he is better than others, how he judges another’s worth only in relation to the value he gives himself. We snicker and think, “Obviously he wasn’t paying attention back in chapter 6, when Jesus was preaching the Sermon on the Plain and spoke these words: “Do not judge, and you will not be judged; do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven.” (Luke 6:37)

But then it hits me. When I judge Simon for judging others, I am no better than Simon. When I look down my nose at someone else’s sin, I am just as guilty as they are, no matter what sin they carry. “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,” Paul writes (Romans 3:23). My sin isn’t any nicer or less offensive to God than the sin of someone who steals, or murders, or commits sexual sin. When I judge others for their sins, I am sinning, too. When you judge others for their sins, you are sinning, too. We are all guilty.

But here is the good news: Guilt does not equal shame. Our guilt may make us feel ashamed for our sins, but Jesus does not shame us, and he asks us not to shame each other. Jesus did not shame this woman, who was behaving in an extremely shameful manner. Instead, Jesus offers forgiveness when we repent, and he asks us to forgive much, and to love much.

Jesus reminds this woman that she has already been forgiven, and that her forgiveness extends through all time. Jesus tells her, “Your faith has made you whole; you are no longer broken. So go in peace.”

And then Jesus leaves. But he doesn’t go alone. Just as he called a dozen men to follow him, he also calls women to be his disciples. This is no less scandalous than the woman kissing his feet and wiping them with her hair. Jesus invites women to travel with him, to be with him. They are women from all walks of life. Some have been cured of diseases, some have been released from demons, some are married to influential men, some have come from the lowest rungs of society. All are like this woman, who has just been sent away in peace after Jesus has made her whole by forgiving all her sins.

Jesus offers you the same forgiveness. No matter what you have done or thought about doing, Jesus is ready to forgive you. No matter how you have judged others or thought yourself better than someone else, Jesus is waiting for you to let him speak into your heart in love, to make what is wrong in you right. No matter what guilt you carry, Jesus is ready to take away your shame, and invite you into his presence. You need no longer live in your brokenness. Christ offers you forgiveness that takes away all the sins of the past, and gives you a new future, a future of wholeness and peace in Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.

Get Up and Go – sermon on Jonah 3:1-5, 10

May 1, 2016 Easter 6C

Did you ever try to run away from home when you were a kid? Do you remember why you wanted to run away? I remember the time I got so angry at my mother that I decided I just had to leave. I think I was about eight years old.

I had some vague notion in my head that people who ran away from home had to tie up all their belongings in a bundle and hang it on the end of a stick. But I didn’t have a stick, and I didn’t know how to make a bundle, so I settled for the next best thing: A plastic doll case. I couldn’t squeeze very much into it, so I took just the essentials: a favorite stuffed toy, some socks, a comb, a small box of raisins in case I got hungry … that was about all that would fit.

As I made my way across the back yard, I ran into our neighbor, Mr. Perry. “Where are you going?” he asked me.

“I’m running away.”

“Oh, well I was hoping maybe you could help me crank the ice cream.”

Mr. Perry made peach ice cream that was to die for. As I turned the crank on the ice cream freezer, we talked. To this day, I do not remember what had made me mad enough that I thought I had to run away from home, but by the time Mr. Perry took the paddle out of the ice cream and handed it to me to lick, I wasn’t mad anymore. I took my plastic doll case back up to my room and unpacked it.

My mother never even knew I’d left the house.

Like my eight year old self, Jonah got so mad, he decided to run away. I really was surprised when I realized that the story of Jonah was missing from our 31-week walk through the Bible. How can you skip Jonah? It’s a universal story. Every known religion has some version of the Jonah story in its mythology. Continue reading

When Dreams Get Real – Sermon on Genesis 45:1-11, 25-28

You can watch the video of this sermon here.

Over the last couple of weeks, we have seen that in the Bible there are two story lines. The upper story is God’s story where God fulfills his purpose and the lower story is the human characters’ story with all the complexities and details of life. Sometimes those details look like God is acting unfairly.

It doesn’t seem fair for God to kick Adam and Eve out of the Garden of Eden, for example. It doesn’t seem fair for God to favor Isaac over his older half-brother Ishmael, either. But God’s purpose is only made known to us when we see things from an “upper story” perspective. God calls us to capture the upper story and its effects on our lives. The story of Joseph is a great example of how the upper and lower story lines come together in the Bible. Help me out here. Tell me when you think something that happens to Joseph is good (thumbs up), and when it’s bad (thumbs down). Then let’s see how God uses the bad to create good through Joseph.

The story starts in Genesis 37, when Joseph is sold into slavery by his jealous brothers. (That’s bad) Joseph is 17 and is “the favorite” of his father Jacob (Rachel’s son). (That’s good) Joseph had dreams of his brothers and parents bowing down to him. This does not make him popular. (That’s bad) Joseph’s brothers sell Joseph to a band of Ishmaelites, and they tell Jacob that Joseph was killed by a ferocious animal. The Ishmaelites take Joseph to Egypt as a slave. (That’s bad)

Joseph is sold as a slave to an Egyptian official named Potiphar and becomes Potiphar’s right hand man. (that’s good) Potiphar’s wife tries to seduce Joseph. (that’s bad) When Joseph refuses her advances, she falsely accuses him of assaulting her, and Joseph ends up in prison. (that’s bad) While in prison Joseph gets a reputation for correctly interpreting dreams. (Baker, cupbearer) (that’s good)

Joseph never plays the victim card, but he stays connected to God.
Over and over, we read that “The LORD was with Joseph” (39:2, 23). (That’s good)

Pharaoh has troubling dreams that none of his wise men and magicians can interpret for him. (that’s bad) But remember the reputation Joseph built in prison for being a good dream interpreter? (this could be good) Joseph is called to Pharaoh and correctly interprets Pharaoh’s dreams and counsels Pharaoh to prepare for what they say about the future. (that’s good)

Dream #1- Egypt will have 7 years of bountiful harvests (that’s good)
Dream #2- Egypt will have 7 years of famine. (that’s bad)

Pharaoh puts Joseph in charge of carrying out a plan to prepare for the years of famine, and this puts Joseph exactly where he needs to be in God’s upper story of redemption. Joseph is promoted to Deputy Pharaoh in Egypt at age 30 (Genesis 41). (that’s good)

The famine hits Canaan, where Jacob and his other sons still live. (that’s bad) Joseph’s brothers come to Egypt to ask for food, and they do bow down to Joseph. (is this good or bad, do you think?) Joseph is now age 39. It’s been  22 years from the time of his initial dream to its fulfillment.

This is the moment we’ve all been waiting for in Joseph’s story. Continue reading