Archives For Forgiveness

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(The Harrowing of Hell)

Here’s the sermon from this weekend based on the lectionary epistle from Colossians 2.6-15.

If you’re receiving this by email, you can find the audio by clicking here.

 

Today’s passage begins the heart of the apostle Paul’s argument in his letter to the Colossians, and it’s a passage that begs an obvious and inescapable question.

Not- “Why are there so few praise songs about circumcision?”

That’s not the question.

     It’s this one: If you’re already forgiven, then why bother following?

If you’re already forgiven by Christ of every sin you’ve done, every sin you’re sinning this very instant in your little head, every sin you will commit next week or next year- if you’re already and for always forgiven by Christ, then why would you bother following him?

If you’ve no reason to fear fire and brimstone, then what reason do you have to follow?

Because you don’t, you know- have any reason to fear. Fear God or fear for your salvation.

That’s the lie, the empty deceit, the false teaching, Paul admonishes the Colossians against in verse 8 where Paul warns them against any practices or philosophy that lure them into forgetting that Christ is Lord and in Christ God has defeated the power of Sin with a capital S and cancelled out the stain of all your little s sins.

You are forgiven.

You have no reason to fear.

Because the whole reality of God (without remainder), dwells in Christ Jesus and, by your baptism, you’ve been incorporated in to Christ fully and so you are fully restored to God. You have fullness with God through Christ in whom God fully dwells.

Fully is Paul’s key boldfaced word- there is no lack in your relationship with God.

At least, from God’s side there’s not.

And for Paul-

Your incorporation in Christ, your restoration by Christ to God, it’s objective not subjective. It’s fact not foreshadowing. It’s an announcement not an invitation.

Christ’s incorporation of us has happened- literally- over our dead bodies, our sin-dead bodies.

And it’s happened perfectly. As in, once. For all. It’s not conditional. It’s not an if/then proposition. It’s not if you believe/have faith/roll up your sleeves and serve the poor/give more money/stop your stupid sinning THEN and ONLY THEN will God forgive you.

No, it’s not future tense. It’s past perfect tense.

It’s passive even. You have been reconciled by Christ without qualification. It’s a finished deed and no deeds you do can add to it or- or– subtract from it.

From Paul’s perspective, “What must I do to be saved?” is the wrong question to ask this side of the cross because you were saved- already- in 33 AD and Christ’s cross never stops paying it forward into the future for you.

It’s as obvious as an empty tomb: God forever rejects our rejection of him.

What circumcision was to Israel, Christ is to us. He’s made us his Family, and, just as it is with your biological one, as much as you might like to you can’t undo family.

You once were lost, dead (to sin), but he has made you alive in Christ, raised you up right along with him; so that, you can say he’s forgiven all your trespasses. Your debt of sin that you never could’ve paid, it’s like a credit card Christ has cut up and nailed to the cross.

And it’s not just your little s sins he’s obliterated, it’s the Power of Sin with a capital S. He’s defeated it forever. He’s brought down the Principalities and Powers, Paul says.

He’s thrown the dragon down, as St. John puts it. He’s plundered Satan’s lair, as St. Peter puts; he’s descended all the way into Hell to liberate the condemned and on his way up he hung a condemned sign on the devil’s doors. Out of business. God literally does not give a damn anymore.

Your sin. Our alienation and guilt and separation from God. Humanity’s hostility and divisions. God’s wrath and judgment. All of it, every bit of it, the fullness of it-it’s just like he said it was. It is finished.

But, that begs the question:

If you’re already forgiven, once for always and all

If you’re a sinner in the hands of a loving God

If you’ve no fire and brimstone to fear

Then, why bother following?

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     If you have no reason to fear God, then why would you upend your life, complicate your conscience, career, and keeping-up-with-the-Jones? Why would you invert the values the culture gives you and compromise your American dream by following the God who meets us in Jesus Christ?

If Christ has handed you a “Get Out of Hell Free” card, then what’s the incentive to follow Christ? Why would you bother? Why would you forgive that person in your life, who knows exactly what they do to you, as many as 70 x 7 times? Why would you do that if you know you’ve already been forgiven for not doing it?

Why bother giving water to the stranger (who is Christ) when he’s thirsty or food when he’s hungry, why bother visiting Christ when he’s locked away in prison or clothing Christ when he’s naked or sheltering Christ when he’s homeless?

Why go to all that trouble if Christ is only going to say to you what he says to the woman caught in sin: I do not condemn you?

You know as well as I do-

It feels better to leave the log in your own eye and point out the speck in your neighbor’s eye instead. It feels better.

It feels almost as good as not walking a mile in another’s shoes, nearly as good as not giving them the shirt off your back, as comfortable as not giving up everything and giving it away to the poor.

And none of that feels as right and good as it does to withhold celebration when a prodigal comes creeping back into your life expecting forgiveness they don’t deserve.

So why would you bother doing all of what Jesus commands if you’re already forgiven for not doing it any of it?

Jesus says his yoke is easy and his burden is light.

Easy and light my log-jammed eye.

Not when he says the way to be blessed is to wage peace and to show mercy and swallow every insult that comes your way because you hunger and thirst for justice.

Easy and light- have you been following the news lately? You could starve to death hungering and thirsting for God’s justice.

So why? What’s the point? What’s the benefit to you? If you’ve no reason to fear Christ, if you’re already forgiven by Christ, then why bother following the peculiar path laid out by Christ?

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  I don’t have cable on my TV. Instead I have this HBO Now app on my iPhone. So anywhere, anytime, whenever I want, on my 6 Plus screen I can watch Rape of Thrones. Or, if I’m in the mood for something less violent, I can watch old episodes of the Sopranos right there on my phone.

     Or, if I want to see more of Matthew Mcconaughey than I need to see I can rebinge season one of True Detective. Right there on my iPhone, I can thumb through all of HBO’s titles; it’s like a rolodex of violence and profanity, sex and secularism.

     Earlier this week, I opened the HBO Now app on my phone, and I wasn’t in the mood for another brother-sister funeral wake make-out session on Game of Thrones. Because I wasn’t in the mood for my usual purient interests, I happened upon this little documentary film from 2011 about Delores Hart.

Delores Hart was an actress in the 1950’s and 60’s. Her father was a poor man’s Clark Gable and had starred in Forever Amber. She grew up a Hollywood brat until her parents split at which time she went to live with her grandpa, who was a movie theater projectionist in Chicago.

Delores would sit in the dark alcove of her grandpa’s movie house watching film after film and dreaming tinseltown dreams.

After high school and college, Delores Hart landed a role as Elvis Presley’s love interest in the 1956 film Loving You, a role that featured a provocative 15 second kiss with Elvis. She starred with Elvis again in 1958 in King Creole.

She followed that up with an award-winning turn on Broadway in the Pleasure of His Company. In 1960 she starred in the cult-hit, spring break flick Where the Boys Are, which led to the lead in the golden-globe winning film The Inspector in 1961.

Delores Hart was the toast of Hollywood. She was compared to Grace Kelley. She was pursued by Elvis Presley and Paul Newman. Her childhood dreams were coming true. She was engaged to a famous L.A. architect.

But then-

In 1963 she was in New York promoting her new movie Come Fly with Me when something compelled her- called her- to take a one-way cab ride to the Benedictine abbey, Regina Laudis, in Bethlehem, Connecticut for a retreat.

After the retreat, she returned to her red carpet Hollywood life and society pages engagement but she was overwhelmed by an ache, a sensation of absence. Emptiness.

So, she quit her acting gigs, got rid of all her baubles, and broke off her engagement- renounced all of her former dreams- and joined that Benedictine convent where she is the head prioress today.

What’s more remarkable than her story is the documentary filmmakers’ reaction to it, their appropriation of it. This is HBO remember, the flagship station for everything postmodern, postChristian, purient and radically secular.

Here’s this odd story of a woman giving up her red carpet dreams and giving her life to God, and the filmmakers aren’t just respectful of her story; they’re drawn to it.

They’re not just interested in her life; they’re captivated by her life.

Even though it’s clear in the film that her motivation is a mystery to them, you can tell from the way they film her story that they think, even though she wears a habit and has no husband or family or ordinary aspirations, she is somehow more human than most of us.

You can tell that they think her life is beautiful, that believing she is God’s beloved and living fully into that belief has made her life beautiful.

————————

     That’s why-

Why we follow even though there’s no fire and brimstone to fear, even though we’re already and always forgiven.

Because if Jesus is the image of the invisible God, as Paul says here in Colossians, then what it means for us to be made in God’s image is for us to resemble Jesus, to look and live like Jesus.

If the fullness of God dwells in Jesus Christ, if Jesus is what God looks like when God puts on skin and becomes fully human- totally, completely, authentically human- then we follow Jesus not because we hope to get into heaven but because we hope to become human.

We follow Jesus not because we hope to get into heaven but because we hope to become human too.

Fully human.

The reason Christ’s yoke does not feel easy nor his burden light, the reason we prefer our log-jammed eyes, the reason we’re daunted by forgiving 70 x 7 and intimidated by a love that washes feet is that we’re not yet. Human. Fully human. As human as God.

It’s not that God doesn’t understand what it is to live a human life; it’s that we don’t. We’re the only creatures who don’t know how to be the creatures we were created to be.

We get it backwards: it’s not that Jesus presents to us an impossible human life; it’s that Jesus presents to us the prototype for every human life. For a fully human life.

So we follow not to avoid brimstone in the afterlife but to become beautiful in this one.

———————-

     That’s the why, so what about the how?

How we become as fully human? How do we become beautiful?

If Jesus is the prototype, then it begins for us the same way it begins for Jesus.

And for Jesus, according to the oldest of the Gospels, Mark- the story of Jesus’ fully human life begins not with his birth but with his baptism:

With Jesus coming up out of the water and God declaring like it was the first week of creation: ‘This is my Beloved in whom I delight.’

Jesus’ baptism is not the first time in scripture that God says to someone: ‘You are my Beloved. In you I delight.’

It’s not the first time in scripture that God says that to someone, but it is the first time in scripture that someone actually believes it and lives his life all the way to a cross believing it.

What sets Jesus apart is not the miracles he performed. It’s not his teaching or his preaching. Or, even, that he died on a cross.

No, what sets Jesus apart is his deep and abiding belief that he was God’s beloved.

Jesus was like us in every way. Tempted like us. Flesh and blood like us. Born and died like us. In every way he was like every one of us who’s ever been since Adam.

Except one way.

Jesus never forgot who he was. He never doubted that he was Beloved, a delight to God.

And knowing, all the way down, that he was beloved, set him free to live a life whose beauty renewed the whole world as a new and different creation.

When Delores Hart took her finals vows as a Benedictine nun, 7 years later, she wore the wedding dress she’d bought for her red carpet Hollywood wedding.

She thought it was the perfect thing to wear because the most profound love in our lives isn’t the one that sends couples down the aisle to altar. It’s the love that God declares to all of us from the altar.

If Jesus is the prototype, then you and I becoming fully, beautifully human, it begins not with believing in Jesus and not with believing certain things about Jesus.

If Jesus is God’s prototype, then you and I becoming fully, beautifully human begins with believing like Jesus.

Believing like Jesus believed. Believing what Jesus believed.

You are God’s Beloved. In you, in you, God delights.

 

 

 

 

 

 

officer-involved-shooting1I’m not preaching today. It’s the last day of my vacation.

It’s probably a good thing I’m not preaching today. In light of Philander Castile and Alton Sterling and the Dallas murders and Micah Xavier Johnson’s rage, it would be hard to stick with the biblical text. I’d be torn. I’ve always admired the way Karl Barth preached in Germany throughout the rise of Nazism and then in Basel throughout WWII without nary a mention of either in his sermons.

I agree with Barth that to comment too much on current events in the sermon risks making the event at hand seem more determinative to our lives than the gospel event.

It risks luring us into amnesia, forgetting that, no matter how grim the world appears, it’s not our calling to save the world. Rather, the Church is called to witness to the news that it’s already been saved in Jesus Christ through cross and resurrection.

My admiration and agreement with Barth’s homiletic notwithstanding it was difficult for me to notice this Sunday’s assigned lectionary readings and not grasp at the convicting connections.

In the Gospel lection from Luke, Jesus tells the almost hackneyed parable about the ‘Good’ Samaritan.

Here’s the point about the parable that gets missed in most sermons on it: Jesus told this story to Jews.

When Jesus tells a story about a priest who comes across a man lying naked and maybe dead in a ditch, when Jesus says that that priest passed him on by, none of Jesus’ listeners would’ve batted an eye. NO ONE in Jesus’ audience would’ve reacted with anything like ‘That’s outrageous!’ EVERYONE in Jesus’ audience would’ve been thinking ‘Ok, what’s your point? Of course he passed by on the other side. That’s what a priest must do.’ Ditto the Levite. They had had no choice- for the greater good.

According to the Law, to touch the man in the ditch would ritually defile the priest. Under the Law, such defilement would require at least a week of purification rituals during which time the priest would be forbidden from collecting tithes. The tithes are for alms, which means that for a week or more the distribution of charity to the poor would cease.

And if the priest ritually defiled himself and did not perform the purification obligation, if he ignored the Law and tried to get away with it and got caught then, according to the Mishna, the priest would be taken out to the Temple Court and beaten in the head with clubs.

Now, of course, that strikes us as archaic and contrary to everything we know of God. But the point of Jesus’ parable passes us by when we forget the fact that none of Jesus’ listeners would’ve felt that way. As soon as they see a priest and a Levite step onto the stage, they would not have expected either to do anything but what Jesus says they did.

If Jesus’ listeners wouldn’t expect the priest or Levite to do anything, then what the Samaritan does isn’t the point of the parable.

In Jesus’ own day a group of Samaritans had traveled to Jerusalem, which they didn’t recognize as the holy city of David, and at night they broke in to the Temple, which they didn’t believe held the presence of Yahweh, and they looted it. And then they littered it with the remains of human corpses- bodies they dug up and bodies killed.

So, in Jesus’ day, Samaritans weren’t just despised or ostracized. They were a lot more than heretics. They were Other. Less than human.

Just a chapter before this parable, an entire village of Samaritans had refused to offer any hospitality to Jesus and his disciples. In Jesus’ day there was no such thing as a Good Samaritan.

That’s why when the parable’s finished and Jesus asks his final question, the lawyer can’t even stomach to say the word ‘Samaritan.’ The shock of Jesus’ story isn’t that the priest and Levite fail to do anything positive for the man in the ditch. The shock is that Jesus does anything positive with the Samaritan in the story. The offense of the story is that Jesus has anything positive to say about someone like a Samaritan.

It’s not that Jesus uses the Samaritan to teach us how to be a neighbor to the man in need. It’s that Jesus uses the man in need to teach us that the Samaritan is our neighbor.  So when Jesus says ‘Go and do likewise’ he’s not telling us we have to rescue every needy person we encounter. I wish. Unfortunately, he’s telling us to go and do something much worse.

Jesus is saying that even those we regard as Other care for those in need; therefore, they are our neighbors.

No, even more so, Jesus is inviting us to see ourselves as the one in the ditch and to imagine our salvation coming to us in the Other.

And if they are potentially the bearers of our salvation, then we have no recourse but to love them at least as much as we love our more proximate neighbors.

Like you, all week long I’ve watched Americans choose the hashtag that most represents their tribe and communicates their worldview. I’ve read the social media shaming accusing those who are silent about these complex issues as being no better than the perpetrators. I’ve seen white friends post pictures of cops being ‘nice’ to kids in their community (as though that nullifies systemic racism and does anything but inflame those angry at our ignoring it) and I’ve read exhausted, rage-filled posts from black friends. I’ve noticed the NRA being slow to defend 2nd Amendment rights when a concealed-carry permit carries a black man’s name on it and I’ve listened to (white) opinion writers naively wonder what is happening in America that so many black men are gunned down by police- as though it’s the occurrence of such violence and not the videoing of it that is the new development and as though such violence was unrelated to the scores more black men wasting away in our prisons.

My point is that all of us- white, black, and blue, left and right, pro-gun and pro-gun control- have a propensity to see others as Other.

This propensity is what scripture calls Sin and it is what Paul, in today’s other lectionary reading from Colossians, refers to as the “darkness” from which Christ has transferred us but to which we are all still stubbornly inclined.

Speaking of Sin, it wouldn’t have been lost on Jesus’ listeners that when it came to #jewishlivesmatter and #samaritanlivesmatter neither party was without sin. All had done something to contribute to or exacerbate the antagonisms between them.

All were sinners because all are sinners.

Into our tribalism of hashtags and talking past points, Jesus tells a story where we’re forced to imagine our salvation coming to us from one who is absolutely Other from us, from one we would more likely see as less than human. Jesus would have the Black Lives Matter protester imagine their salvation coming to them in the form of a card-carrying NRA Member. Jesus would invite the white cop to envision Alton Sterling as the one coming to his rescue and the finger-wagging liberal to see salvation coming to them from someone wearing a Make America Great Again cap.

Jesus tells this parable about people like us to people like us and if he were telling it to us after this week,  I wonder if instead a general ‘Go and do likewise’ he would challenge us to go out into our local communities, seek out someone who is Other, and learn their freaking first name. For as long as the Other remains a general, generic category to us these issues of racism and violence and ideologies will persist. We need to take this story and make it for us the “Parable of the Good Samaritan named __________”

Such concreteness of relationship- of listening, of naming sin as sin, of repenting and reconciling- is the only thing that will lead to peace precisely because it is the way of the One who has already brought peace by his cross and resurrection.

Most Popular Posts of 2015

Jason Micheli —  January 6, 2016 — 1 Comment

10917296_10205661027787221_3674691722071054151_n2015 was a big year for the blog. I got hacked by ISIS cyber terrorists, and then I got cancer.

Tamed Cynic grew to about 25K discrete readers per month and attracted subscribers in over 189 countries with Val Gass being the most active reader (yes, I can tell…Google Analytics are creepy).

More importantly, I was blessed (and if you know me you know I don’t use that word lightly) to have readers I’ve never met provide not only thoughtful feedback and stories of their own but counsel and care during my battle with MCL this year.

Here’s the most popular post from 2015– by a lot- which is surprising given that it was only available for a day before cyber terrorists took over my blog and erased it. Ironically, the 2nd most popular post in 2015 was my response to the Islamic Cyber Terrorists who hacked my blog. You can read that post here. Number 3 was the letter I wrote to my congregation after I learned I had a rare form of stage 4 cancer. You can find that here.

To the Church about to Baptize My Baby:

Be warned.

It’s all cuteness and lace now, but in no time at all, my little baby boy- after a brief sojourn in childhood- will hit adolescence. His hormones will kick in and quickly conspire to undo all the good you’ve done in him.

These will be the years that he’ll push you, Church.

He’ll suddenly wonder how Jonah could survive that dark trip in the whale’s belly. He’ll argue that David may have bested Goliath but that he’s no match for Tom Brady and, besides, David’s hardly the unblemished hero his SundaySchool teachers made him out to be. Proud of himself, he’ll point out that Noah never would have had to build the ark had God not decided to flood everything and everyone in the world.

He’ll push you, and if you’re not up to the challenge he’ll be tempted conclude that everything you’ve taught him and everything you teach is, at best, a fairy tale and, at worst, a lie.

And this might be the first time someone he knows or loves dies.

When that happens, Church, you better not resort to clichés. You better be prepared to show him resurrection-of-the-body hope at work among you.

You might as well get ready now, Church, because when those years arrive you will have to struggle just to have your voice heard above all the callings that claim his attention and tempt his loyalty.  Just when time seems to race by for his parents, tomorrow will seem forever away to him. Everything, from the face he sees in the morning mirror to the fickle loyalties of his friends, will change almost every day.

And whether he knows it or not, Church, what he will need from you all is a community of constancy. He will need a people who refuse to let go of him, who refuse to let go of what they know to be true and enduring, who refuse to let him slip away before he learns to describe his world with the language you speak.

And he’ll never admit it to you Church, but what he’ll need in those years is a place where he need not wear a mask, a place where vulnerability isn’t a dirty word, a place where a life of mercy and love and gratitude is a viable and even compelling alternative.

And then he’ll start high school. You’ll only have four years of Sundays left with him. Be warned: it will be harder for you to get his attention because he’ll no longer be listening to your words.

He’ll be looking at your life.

I know, scary right?

When he worships with you, he’ll wonder if you’re as friendly as you think you are. He’ll wonder if you ever experience awe and mystery or whether you’re just ticking off your weekly obligation and hoping it won’t be too boring. He’ll wonder if you’re loose and free enough to allow the Spirit to enter your worship.

And your lives.

He’ll look at your life, Church, and he’ll question whether you conform your views and values to the God of Jesus Christ or whether you’ve sketched an idol in your own unthreatening image. He probably won’t put it in those words, Church, or any words at all for that matter, but trust me he’ll be thinking it.

In these years, his BS Radar will be acute so you better not patronize him, Church. You have a tendency to do that when a young person puts you on your heels by asking questions. You better learn how to treat him as a member of the Body of the Christ.

This may be the last time you have his attention. So, for his sake, I hope you lead a life that leads to the Gospel.

And I pray that, just when he’s being pressured and pushed to get ahead, to pursue his future, to achieve success, and to grab after his dreams, by then you will have taught him that servant-hood is the only path that leads to treasure.

A place where he’ll find the Lamb of God in your flesh. A place where he’ll discover the coming Kingdom previewed in your lives. A place where he’ll learn that God is to be found among the lame and the poor and the outcast- not because you tell him but because you, Church, invite him to come and see for himself.

When my baby boy becomes an old man, when his waist is slightly thicker and his hair a little thinner- when he has a whole new set of questions, new hopes and different struggles ahead- I hope he will be able to remember his baptism and be thankful.

There’ll come a time- there always does- when my boy will look desperately for where the living God can be found. When that time does come, Church, I hope he will have a community who won’t just shrug their shoulders, who won’t refer him to the pastor, who won’t quote the Bible at him or try to prove anything to him.

Don’t you dare do that to him, Church.

Instead you better be able, because of the integrity of your life, to say to him: ‘Come and See.’

Church, that’s the sort of Church I would want to give my life so I’m willing to bet he’d give his life to it too.

In closing, Church-

Before the water hits my baby’s head, I hope the irony will have hit you upside yours: my boy will never be able to live out his baptism if you, Church, don’t live out yours.

Sincerely,

A Concerned Parent

9781587433603

‘The first hour of heaven is like an endless room filled with 2-top coffee tables…’

So says my friend Scot McKnight, author of the Jesus Creed blog and book, who preached for us this weekend. In advance of his upcoming book, A Kingdom Conspiracy, Scot preached on the church as a kingdom community of forgiveness and reconciliation.

We should be about the work of forgiving the people in our lives, Scot argues, because we’ll have to do the first hour in heaven any way.

His text was the parable of the unforgiving servant in Matthew 18.

You can listen to his sermon here below, in the sidebar to the right, or download it in iTunes here.

 

 

image001This weekend both in a blog post and in my sermon I emphasized the ancient doctrine of God’s immutability:

Immutability = God doesn’t change.

Far from being a deficiency in God, I’m increasingly convinced that retrieving the ancient conception of God is vitally necessary in a post-Christian culture. Too often the god I hear young people reject is a god but not the God of Genesis 1, John 1, Colossians 1 or even Thomas Aquinas.

St Thomas AquinasSpeaking of Aquinas, my comments this weekend channeled the theologian Herbert McCabe who himself spent his lifetime channeling the ‘dumb ox.’

About God’s immutability, McCabe writes:

“It is very odd that people should think that when we do good God will reward us and when we do evil he will punish us. I mean it is very odd that Christians should think this; that God deals out to us what we deserve. … I don’t believe in God if that’s what he is, and it is very odd that any Christian should, since there is so much in the gospels to tell us differently. You could say that the main theme of the preaching of Jesus is that God isn’t like that at all.

Look at the parable of the prodigal son. The younger son takes his inheritance and squanders it in a far country. Eventually he finds himself impoverished and hungry. In despair he acknowledges how his sin has altered his relationship to his father: “I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me as one of your hired servants.”

But what precisely has changed?

Has the father ceased to love his son?

Has he become the angry patriarch the son now fears him to be?

On the contrary, the father has been waiting for his son to return, and upon seeing him in the distance, he jubilantly rushes to greet and welcome him home.

No, what has changed is the son. Because of his sin, the prodigal is no longer capable of seeing the father as he really is.”

McCabe continues: images

“Sin is something that changes God into a projection of our guilt, so that we don’t see the real God at all; all we see is some kind of judge. God (the whole meaning and purpose and point of our existence) has become a condemnation of us. God has been turned into Satan, the accuser of man, the paymaster, the one who weighs our deeds and condemns us.

The father does not need to be persuaded to forgive and welcome his son. He does not need to change his mind. He loves his son. That is his truth. All the son needs to do is to see his sin for what it is. He recognizes himself as a sinner, and at that moment he ceases to be one. His contrition is forgiveness. All the rest is celebration and feasting: “This is all the real God ever does, because God, the real God, is just helplessly and hopelessly in love with us. He is unconditionally in love with us.”

God doesn’t change his mind about us, McCabe declares;

“God changes our mind about him—again and again and again.”

That, in sum, is the point of everything McCabe ever wrote.

Next, McCabe hides the dense, nuanced theology of Aquinas behind his simple, spare prose:

“God is not a being within the universe; he is not a part of the world. He is the infinite mystery who utterly transcends the world he has made. The world makes no literal difference to God. This is what we mean when we say that God created the world ex nihilo, out of nothing. He did not have to create the universe, and if he had chosen not to, his glory and being would not have been diminished one iota.

God plus the world is not greater than God alone. The world does not add anything to God; it does not change or affect God. Ultimately it does not make a difference to God. God is God, in infinite glory, majesty, and love.”

Crucial to the ancient Christians’ view of God’s immutability is Genesis 1 where we are told that God created the universe from no-thing. In stark contrast to the pagan worldview, scripture conceives of God as totally transcendent of contingent creation.

This distinction between Creator and the creature, therefore, qualifies all our speech about God. We must use language if we are to proclaim the gospel, yet, as Thomas Aquinas noted, the metaphorical nature of these stories must be affirmed, if the Christian distinction between Creator and creature is to be respected.

UnknownOne such problem of language is forgiveness.

Christians talk about the forgiveness of God;

but what exactly do we mean when we say God forgives us?

McCabe elaborates:

“God, of course, is not injured or insulted or threatened by our sin. So, when we speak of him forgiving, we are using the word “forgiving” in a rather stretched way, a rather far-fetched way. We speak of God forgiving not because he is really offended but agrees to overlook the insult. What God is doing is like forgiveness not because of anything that happens in God, but because of what happens in us, because of the re- creative and redemptive side of forgiveness.

All the insult and injury we do in sinning is to ourselves alone, not to God.

We speak of God forgiving us because he comes to us to save us from ourselves, to restore us after we have injured ourselves, to redeem and re-create us.

God’s forgiveness just means the change he brings about in the sinner, the sorrow and repentance he gives to the sinner. God’s forgiveness does not mean that God changes from being vengeful to being forgiving, God’s forgiveness does not mean any change whatever in God. It just means the change in the sinner that God’s unwavering and eternal love brings about. … Our repentance is God’s forgiveness of us.”

Now, I know the pushback that will come at this point. The language of scripture IS filled with conflicting images of God—the image of the wrathful God who hates our sin, who requires propitiation; the image of the God who endures our sins, who is jealous, who is righteously angry at injustice.

While it’s true scripture speaks this way, it is also necessary, says McCabe, for us to think clearly:

“The initiative is always with God. When God forgives our sin, he is not changing his mind about us; he is changing our mind about him. He does not change; his mind is never anything but loving; he is love. The forgiveness of God is God’s creative and re-creative love making the desert bloom again, bringing us back from dry sterility to the rich luxuriant life bursting out all over the place. When God changes your mind in this way, when he pours out on you his Spirit of new life, it is exhilarating, but it is also fairly painful. There is a trauma of rebirth as perhaps there is of birth. The exhilaration and the pain that belong to being reborn is what we call contrition, and this is the forgiveness of sin. Contrition is not anxious guilt about sin; it is the continual recognition in hope that the Spirit has come to me as healing my sin.

So it is not literally true that because we are sorry God decides to forgive us. That is a perfectly good story, but it is only a story. The literal truth is that we are sorry because God forgives us. Our sorrow for sin just is the forgiveness of God working within us. Contrition and forgiveness are just two names for the same thing, they are the gift of the Holy Spirit; the re-creative transforming act of God in us. God does not forgive us because of anything he finds in us; he forgives us out of his sheer delight, his exuberant joy in making the desert bloom.”

God is not a god.

Nor is God the Jekyll and Hyde of so much Calvinism, the god so many people rightly reject, fear or secretly loathe.

God is not a god we need to appease. God is not a god we need to persuade in order for him to forgive.

God is not a god who puts conditions on his mercy and care.

God is the God who comes to us in love, only in love, relentlessly and passionately in love.

 

imagesDeadly Sins and Atonement Theories are both on my mind and on the preaching docket this Lent.

This weekend I’ll have limited preaching time due to our Worship Through Service event, but I hope to give a few minutes to reflecting on how Wrath plays into our understanding of God and ourselves.

Spoiler: Jesus’ (the True Human) Wrath is most usually directed at mistreatment of the poor and marginalized.

I blame it on Dennis Perry, who gave me Aquinas to read as soon as I came to faith as a teenager, but I’ve always been troubled, theologically and intellectually, by the notion that salvation’s balance requires Jesus’ death to be paid to God.

Such a transaction- and that’s exactly the language used by proponents- posits a change in God’s disposition towards us because of Jesus’ suffering and death.

I’ve always found this problematic and partial because God, by (ancient) definition is immune to change.

God is not a god.

The God of ex nihilo fame is not a being within the universe. God is pure Essence. Perfect. Changeless. Eternal.

God, as John says, just is…LOVE.

God isn’t loving; God is LOVE with no potentiality. No room for any addition of anything. No cause, as the FIRST CAUSE, to be affected by anything.

God, for good and for ill, is not affected by us at all.

God just loves. Us. God’s creatures. Gratis. Just as we were created. Gratis. The gift never ceases to be given.

Which begs the question:

How is it possible that God is ‘offended’ by our Sin?

How is God’s mind, disposition or will changed by anything we do or don’t do?

The Bible speaks of God in the masculine, which we all recognize is an anthropomorphism made for communication’s sake.

Is it possible God’s anger, wrath, jealousy is also a necessary anthropomorphism made for very urgent, compelling reasons within the life of God’s People? To narrate their experience of the world and with God?

I understand the above will strike many as overly metaphysical, the oft-repeated if ill-informed indictment that metaphysics represents a Hellenization of the Biblical God. Understanding such a disagreement, I nonetheless assert that mine isn’t a solitary perspective but is one with at least half of Christian history behind it.

UnknownGiving articulation to that ancient Thomistic perspective is Herbert McCabe:

God, of course, is not injured or insulted or threatened by our sin.

So, when we speak of him forgiving, we are using the word “forgiving” in a rather stretched way, a rather far-fetched way. We speak of God forgiving not because he is really offended but accepts our apology or agrees to overlook the insult.

What God is doing is like forgiveness not because of anything that happens in God, but because of what happens in us, because of the re-creative and redemptive side of forgiveness.

All the insult and injury we do in sinning is to ourselves alone, not to God. We speak of God forgiving us because he comes to us to save us from ourselves, to restore us after we have injured ourselves, to redeem and re-create us.

We can forgive enemies even though they do not apologize and are not contrite. But such forgiveness … does not help them, does not re-create them. In such forgiveness we are changed, we change from being vengeful to being forgiving, but our enemy does not change.

When it comes to God, however, it would make no sense to say he forgives the sinner without the sinner being contrite.For God’s forgiveness just means the change he brings about in the sinner, the sorrow and repentance he gives to the sinner.

God’s forgiveness does not mean that God changes from being vengeful to being forgiving, God’s forgiveness does not mean any change whatever in God.

It just means the change in the sinner that God’s unwavering and eternal love brings about. … Our repentance is God’s forgiveness of us.

lightstock_70152_small_user_2741517For our winter sermon series on marriage and relationships, I’ve decided to blog my way through the Bible’s erogenous zone: The Song of Songs.

1.6 Do not gaze at me because I am dark,
because the sun has gazed on me.
My mother’s sons were angry with me;
they made me keeper of the vineyards,
but my own vineyard I have not kept! 


7 Tell me, you whom my soul loves,
where you pasture your flock,
where you make it lie down at noon;
for why should I be like one who is veiled
beside the flocks of your companions? 


8 If you do not know,
O fairest among women,
follow the tracks of the flock,
and pasture your kids
beside the shepherds’ tents. 

     My mother’s sons were angry with me/they made me keeper of the vineyards/but my own vineyard I have not kept! 

     This poem shouldn’t continue.

It shouldn’t go on.

Were Dr James Dobson the author and ‘family values’ his muse, then you can be sure the poem wouldn’t persist past verse 6.

Or, at the very least, the poem would conclude with a cautionary, moralizing coda to young women about the dangers of not protecting their “vineyard,” about the mandate to keep their vineyard pure and wait for God to send them their foreordained vintner.

Something tells me Dr. Dobson isn’t sufficiently subtle for poetry but if he were then Song of Songs 1.6 might be followed by allusions to the permissiveness of modern culture and its anything goes media.

But the Song of Songs doesn’t with Hester Prynne finger-wagging. It doesn’t end at all. No poetis interruptus here. Instead the Song continues on for 7+ chapters of soft-core poetry that would make Skinemax proud.

And that’s remarkable.

That this Song continues at all is gospel.

Good news.

It’s grace.

An unmerited, unexpected gift.

Because, we’re left to conclude, this unfaithful young woman (my own vineyard I have not kept!) has been forgiven by her betrothed.

He loves her still.

His love is steadfast.

Read simply as an exchange between two mortal lovers then this poem might only conjure the worst type of Jerry Springer, Ike & Tina melodrama.

Read- as it is- as a piece of the biblical canon and thus as a piece of poetry that witnesses to God and God’s relationship with God’s People, then this poem sings with a U2-like, stadium-show volume.

The forgiveness implied within here is enough to make Easter deja vu all over again.

 Because the betrothed’s off-stage forgiveness of his fiancee parallels God’s own forgiveness of his unfaithful people.

What’s more, the physical reminder of the young woman’s sin (her dark skin which resulted from the labor imposed for her infidelity) now has become a mark of greatest beauty and pride.

Like Peter who after Easter could weave the blemish of his 3-fold denial of Christ into a beautiful declaration of God’s forgiveness, this young woman’s lover’s forgiveness allows her to rhapsodize (dark skin) that which would otherwise remain repulsive (in an ancient context).

A lover’s forgiveness makes it possible for sin and shame to become instead a part of a larger, more redemptive story.

Lovers possess the power to turn their relationship’s greatest tragedy into their greatest triumph.

Of course, the caution with the Song of Songs should always be against making poetry do the work reserved for prose alone. Nonetheless I think there’s a reminder here.

Over the course of ministry I’ve encountered a number of couples who share this Song’s couple’s struggle if not their youth; that is, I’ve encountered a number of couples encountering what could/should be a marriage ending betrayal.

Be it with another’s body or with a bottle or _________________.

The challenge in encountering such problems is also the opportunity:

To not let your partner’s sin be the end of your story.

To work- to do the work of forgiveness and then to work- towards making a partner’s sin into a larger story of mercy and love.

To work for that day when your partner’s ‘dark skin’ can be seen not as the blemish it originally was but as a cause for beauty.

In other words, to work…so that you can say ‘X happened to us, he/she did Y to our marriage but we’ve overcome it and have discovered a life even more delightful.

Certainly it’s easier to end the poem at v.6.

To go on requires…

faith?

It’s easier to end the poem at v.6, but, take Easter as your evidence, sometimes the alternative leads to a far more interesting story.

This isn’t to say every partner’s sin should follow unremittingly with the other’s forgiveness. The Song allegorizes God’s forgiving love of our unfaithful love.

It would be idolatrous to think we’re capable of God’s frequency of forgiveness.

This Song, then, doesn’t mandate our forgiveness in every instance. Rather, it points out the possibility of forgiveness in ever instance.

It points out the reality that when we forgive- when we invite forgiveness with those magic words ‘I’m sorry’- we’re participating in the very life of God.

Clay Jars

Jason Micheli —  May 29, 2013 — 2 Comments

clay-jarsLast week I posted a reflection on the passing of a member of my congregation. The post struck a chord with a number of people despite many not knowing the deceased. You can read it here.

In light of that resonance, I thought I’d post the homily I wrote for his funeral service.

Clay Jars – Jeremiah 18 & 2 Corinthians 4

Afflicted in every way, but not crushed. Perplexed, but not driven to despair. Persecuted, but not forsaken. Struck down, but not destroyed.

Les Norton, as he himself told me during his many “constructive criticism” visits to my office these past 8 years, read every word of his bible several times over and then some.

Les loved scripture.

In fact, in his later years, whenever Les would wake up confused or disoriented, he would recite the Psalms to himself. The scripture he’d read so many times during his long life came to calm and ground him as his life came to an end.

Les loved scripture, and I learned it straight from Les’ lips that he harbored a particular affinity for St Paul, the one formerly known as Saul, the one who formerly made it his business to stick his nose in the business of the Church.

Indeed, during one of his frequent visits to my office, I once suggested to Les- in love- that his affinity for the Apostle Paul must due to his sharing a similar personality to the former Pharisee.

And because Les loved scripture and had read every word of it, Les knew enough to not know whether I had just commended him or insulted him.

I remember he just squinted at me for a few moments and then changed the subject by calling me ‘young fella.’

Les loved scripture. While we never talked specifically about 2 Corinthians 4, I’d wager that Les would give his stubborn, grudging approval to today’s passage.

After all, Les loved St Paul and this text is one of Paul’s greatest hits. Paul’s rhetoric here in 2 Corinthians 4 nearly reaches off the page and stops you in your tracks, and burrows deep into your memory.

Paul’s rhetoric here in 2 Corinthians 4- it’s like a great line of a famous speech, like “the only thing we have to fear, is fear itself.” I know from Les’ own lips that that line, like the Psalms, was a constant companion to Les when he served deep in the belly of  the Massachusetts during World War II.

And so I think Les would approve of this scripture text in which St Paul uses high altitude rhetoric and soaring description to describe the life of faith as you and I carrying treasure.

Inside clay jars.

I think Les would give his stubborn, grudging approval to this scripture text. He might even smile and point his finger at me and say ‘you got me there, young fella.’

I think Les would approve because Les, who loved and read his bible, would notice St Paul uses high rhetoric and soaring description to distract you and me from the fact that he just called us ‘clay jars.’

Vessels made of clay.

Not exactly an unambiguous comment.

After all, things made of clay can be beautiful but they can be brittle too- all at the same time.

Things made of clay come with rough spots as well as smooth, polished spots. Things made of clay always contain imperfections, some visible and some unseen. Yet when it comes to things made of clay, it’s those very imperfections- the ratio of rough to smooth spots, beauty to brittle- that make each and every clay jar unique.

And it’s those imperfections, that uniqueness, which proves that each and every clay jar was made by hand.

Was created.

By an Artist.

Who had exactly that clay jar in mind.

And intended to be a gift to someone in the world.

I can’t think of a better metaphor for who Les was than the metaphor Paul gives us in 2 Corinthians 4.

Les was a clay jar. Unique. A gift both to those who loved him, a devoted father and a doting grandfather. The kind of father who still said your boyhood bedtime prayers with you when you came home from college, and the kind of grandfather who asked me about his girls in one of the last sentences he shared with me.

Les was a clay jar. He was a gift to the many whom he served without ever seeking credit for himself, logging countless hours volunteering in all kinds of ways and places.

Les was a clay jar.

Capable of beauty. Capable of being a vessel of grace, and, at the same time, like any handmade art, Les had his stubborn, rough spots that could make you want to shake him or throw him against the wall.

Just ask Dean or Jay- the reason they have no hair is because Les made them pull it all out.

I mean Les was so stubborn that when given the chance to be one of the first Americans on Japanese soil at the end of the war, absolutely refused to go because his commanders couldn’t tell him exactly where he’d be spending the night. That’s stubborn.

Les was a clay jar with both rough spots and beautiful spots.

And though St Paul doesn’t say so, sometimes the beautiful parts take on a deeper beauty because of the rough parts.

And Les and I, as most of you know, had our rough parts.

I’ve been here at Aldersgate for eight years, and for the first five years I ended any mention of Les’ name with the passive-aggressive Southern epilogue ‘…bless his heart.’

For years, Les seemed to me a clay jar with no finish. Just all coarse, rough spots. He was a thorn in my side. He personified ‘church politics.’ He was convinced I didn’t know what I was doing, couldn’t preach my out of a paper-bag and would be the ruination of his church.

I remember my first Sunday at Aldersgate when I was introduced to the congregation. After worship, out in the Narthex, Les came up to me and, without introducing himself, gave me one of his death grip handshakes and then motioned over to Dennis and warned me not to let Dennis teach anything.

And so I replied: ‘Are you kidding? I taught him everything he knows.’

As I’ve shared with some of you, Les has the distinction of being the only parishioner in my twelve years of ministry ever to challenge me to an actual, honest-to-God fist fight.

Showing my own rough, clayjarness, I leaned in close and told Les that if he was going to critique my preaching he first needed to be able to hear my preaching.

And Les responded with another death grip handshake and then challenged me to a fist fight. And it says something about our relationship that my first impulse to this provocation from an 88 year old was ‘let’s go.’

 

Despite our self-images, despite the pretenses we try to project, despite our best efforts- each of us, we’re little more than clay jars.

Creations with unique flaws and imperfections and rough spots right there along with the beauty the Maker gave to each of them.

And yet when it comes to 2 Corinthians 4, Paul’s poetry about clay jars can overshadow his point.

Paul’s poetry can tempt us into placing too much emphasis on our clay jar-ness.

Because what is very clear when you take an honest look at any Christian, is our brokenness and imperfection. You don’t really have to say much more.

Our clayjarness is obvious to any who takes a good look.

But what is far too easy to miss or gloss over or forget all together in these verses is “the treasure” Paul speaks of in 2 Corinthians 4.

This treasure. We have this treasure in clay jars, Paul says.

Instead of ‘Clay Jars’ the sermon title should be ‘This Treasure.’

This treasure that despite all our imperfections and flaws, despite our clayjarness, we contain and can pass on to others.

Les is no exception, the clayjarness of any of us is a given. This treasure, not the clayjarness, is Paul’s main point.

And the treasure is what Paul describes in the very next chapter of 2 Corinthians: that in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself and that Christ has given us this same ministry of reconciliation.

You and I, despite being clay jars, we’re vessels of Christ’s continuing reconciling ministry to the world.

That’s the treasure inside each of us, says Paul.

Maybe you don’t believe that, but more than anything I want you to know that Les believed it.

Most of you know about Les’ clayjarness.

But many of you don’t know about the treasure, what he did with this treasure inside his imperfect self.

For example, almost none of you know that a couple of years ago I was doing a burial for someone in the community. Not many were gathered in attendance, but Les was there. I had my head bowed and was praying for the departed, but Les must not have realized I was praying. After all, he wouldn’t have heard a plane landing right behind him.

So thinking we were all standing there in silence, Les interrupted my prayer and began an impromptu, heartfelt, gospel-based reflection on death and resurrection and the life of the deceased. Where so many come to church every Sunday but are embarrassed to talk about their faith, Les’ words were worthy of any minister.

Like treasure from a clay jar.

I’ll give you another example.

Many of you know that we raised about $40,000.00 for the sanitation project in Guatemala this Lent. Almost none of you know that 1/4 of that total was given by Les, more than any other donor before he had any reason to believe he didn’t have much time left.

When I told him he should be proud of the good his gift will make happen, he responded that he felt it was his obligation.

And then Les, ever the clay jar, requested that I carry his gift down to Guatemala myself in cash.

When I asked if this was to insure 100% of his gift went where it was needed or if he was merely trying to get me cavity-searched at the airport, Les responded with trademark chuckle and a ‘we’ll just see.’

Treasure in a clay jar.

But here’s the real ‘treasure’ I want you to know.

A week before he died I went to visit Les in the hospital. He was weak, emaciated and slightly disoriented. He smiled when he saw me. Even though he was dying, he still had his death grip handshake. He grabbed my hand and tried to hug me.

The first thing he mentioned was how he’d woken up the previous day to discover Dennis sitting by his bedside.

‘I guess he did teach you a thing or two’ Les spoke no louder than whisper.

I leaned in close to his ear and I said: ‘I told you…I’m the one who taught him everything he knows.’

But Les didn’t laugh. No trademark chuckle. He was very serious with something to say.

He pulled me towards him and with dehydrated lips he said:

‘Can you forgive me for the ugliness I showed you in the past? I reckon I was in the wrong…’

I smiled and said: ‘Ditto.’

‘I still could’ve taken you in a fight,’ he said mouthed hoarsely.

‘Try it old man’ I replied loudly into his ear. His smile quickly became another cough.

And then I prayed for him.

And even though I was the one who traced the sign of the cross on his forehead, he was the minister in that moment.

He was the clay jar, rough in places and beautiful in places, unique with flaws that bore the fingerprints of his maker.

He was the clay jar who knew what treasure he’d been made to be a vessel of.

He was the clay jar taking up the ministry of reconciliation, Christ’s ministry, for himself.

He was the one that knew what truly matters when all is said and done isn’t our flaws and imperfections because we’re all just clay jars.

What matters is what we finally do with this treasure with which we’ve been entrusted.

And that’s the thing about working with clay…clay can be willful to work with, clay can act stubborn in the Maker’s hands.

Sometimes with clay it’s not until the very end of its making that you can finally see the shape its been taking this whole time.

 

 

14I realize Kim Kardashian’s bathing suit pics are a juicer story, but somehow this story slipped me by.

Admittedly, this is a sensitive issue, but I wonder what people think about so many funeral homes, cemeteries and communities refusing to bury Tamerlan Tsarnaev, the Boston Marathon bomber.

From a Christian perspective at least, one would think ‘love of enemy’ extends even necessarily to people like Tsarnaev and does so in death as much as life.

I also can’t help thinking one’s view should be tempered by the fact that our Lord died a shameful criminal’s death and was buried properly in a grave only because two Jews’ generosity and compassion claimed his body when no one else would for the risk and shame involved with being associated with him.

Christians too easily forget:

To be condemned to death on the cross was always also the condemnation to be left upon the cross as carrion.

The shame of the cross wasn’t primarily the pain involved. It was the shame. To be exposed, naked and abandoned. And then to be left there as scraps and trash.

If the sins of the father should not be counted towards the son then neither should the sons’ sins be reckoned upon their entire family by denying a base dignity such as burial.

The Worcester police chief puts it less theological:

“We are not barbarians. We bury the dead.”

If you’re inclined to disagree, then here’s my question/pushback:

Imagine what a powerful witness it would have been had a Christian community stood up and, assuming the risks involved, offered to bury the criminal out of obedience to Christ.

03-30-13_amish_originalSix years later and the Nickel Mines story, in which an entire Christian community forgave their children’s killer, remains what it was then, rare.

This is from the Huffington Post:

WORCESTER, Mass. — The body of Boston Marathon bombing suspect Tamerlan Tsarnaev was entombed in an unknown gravesite Thursday after police said an anonymous person stepped forward to help arrange the secret burial.

The burial ended a weeklong search for a place willing to take Tsarnaev’s body out of Worcester, where his remains had been stored at a funeral home amid protests. In that time, the cities where Tsarnaev lived and died and his mother’s country all refused the remains.

Amid the frustration, Worcester’s police chief urged an end to the quandary. “We are not barbarians,” he said. “We bury the dead.”

By Thursday, police announced: “As a result of our public appeal for help, a courageous and compassionate individual came forward to provide the assistance needed to properly bury the deceased.”

Police in Worcester, about 50 miles west of Boston, didn’t say where the body was taken, only that it was no longer in the city.

The director of Graham Putnam & Mahoney Funeral Parlors, Peter Stefan, also refused to say where the body was buried or to speak to media gathered outside the funeral home.

Tsarnaev’s burial place is expected to become known with the release of his death certificate.

Tamerlan and his brother, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, are accused of setting off two shrapnel-packed pressure-cooker bombs April 15 near the marathon finish line in an attack that killed three people and injured more than 260.

Days later, the brothers engaged in a firefight in which Tamerlan Tsarnaev, 26, was shot by police and then run over by his fleeing brother. A wounded Dzhokar Tsarnaev, 19, ditched the car and was later found hiding in a boat parked in a Watertown backyard.

Tamerlan Tsarnaev was pronounced dead at a hospital in Boston, where he could have been buried under state law, because the city was his place of death. But Boston officials said they wouldn’t take the body because Tsarnaev lived in Cambridge, and Cambridge also refused.

The mother of the brothers, ethnic Chechens from southern Russia who lived in Massachusetts, said officials in Russia, where she lives, also wouldn’t accept the body.

In addition, Stefan said scores of individual offers fell through because cemeteries in their communities wouldn’t take the corpse.

On Thursday, Gov. Deval Patrick called the weeklong drama to find a burial site a circus, but said he doesn’t know where the site is. Patrick said he hopes attention can now return to caring for the victims of the bombing.

The family of the youngest of the three killed, 8-year-old Martin Richard, said Richard’s 7-year-old sister has undergone a “milestone” 11th operation on her left leg, which she lost below the knee.

The surgery performed Wednesday on Jane Richard at Boston Children’s Hospital closed the wound and will allow for the eventual fitting of a prosthesis, the family said in a statement Thursday.

The family said that because of the surgeries, infections and other complication, the girl was unable to communicate with her parents and doctors for two weeks, so she did not know at first that her brother was dead.

“There are not words to describe how hard sharing this heartbreaking news was on all of us,” said the family, which was within feet of the second blast.

In Washington, Boston Police Commissioner Edward Davis told Congress on Thursday that the FBI did not initially share with Boston police the warnings from Russia’s security service in 2011 about Tamerlan Tsarnaev. At the time, four city police representatives were on a federal terrorism task force.

Davis’ testimony at the hearing on the government’s response to the attack revealed a gap in information-sharing between federal and local officials.

The FBI closed its assessment of Tsarnaev after a cursory investigation, and Davis said that police might not have uncovered or disrupted the plot even if they had fully investigated Tsarnaev’s family.

“I can’t say that I would have come to a different conclusion based upon the information that was known at that particular time,” he said.

 

imagesForgive them- that sounds like Jesus, alright.

But: ʻThey donʼt know what theyʼre doing?ʼ Really?
Itʼs not like Jesus to get something so wrong.

Maybe it would help it all go down a bit easier. Maybe it would help us hear Lukeʼs Gospel with a little less dis-ease.

Asking ʻwhere am I in the story?ʼ would be a lot less incriminating if we could just say:

ʻThey didnʼt know.ʼ
ʻThey didnʼt know what they were doing.ʼ

But they knew exactly what they were doing.

Judas knew.
He was selling a friend out for money.
For thirty pieces of silver.
You canʼt get more straightforward than that. He waited to do it. He bided his time.

He chose the day and the time to walk out on the people whoʼd been his family.

And betray the person he loved.
Donʼt tell me he didnʼt know what he was doing.

Peter knew.
He was afraid.
So he turned his back on all the promises heʼd ever made.
Maybe he didnʼt mean it the first time.
But it wasnʼt just the first time.
It was three times: ʻJesus? Whoʼs that? I donʼt know him.ʼ
Maybe it adds insult to injury, Jesus. Maybe it hurts you to think so, but Peter knew. He knew what he was doing. He was saving himself.

You canʼt tell me the religious leaders- the scribes and the elders and the Pharisees and the chief priests- didnʼt know.

Didnʼt know they were smearing another for their own gain.
Theyʼd been after him since he first sat down at the wrong dinner table. Since he first touched the wrong kind of person.

Since he first spoke to the wrong kind of woman.
Since he first healed on the wrong day of the week.
Theyʼd plotted for just this sort of thing. This is what they wanted. Theyʼd orchestrated the entire event.
They contrived the indictments against him.
They whipped the crowd into a lynch mob.
Surely, of all people, Jesus knows that.
Knows that they know what theyʼre doing, that they have no alibi and no excuses.
No right to forgiveness.

 

The soldiers knew.
They canʼt hide behind their uniform.
They canʼt say ʻwe were just following orders.ʼ
No one ordered them to blindfold him and punch him and tease: ʻYouʼre a prophet, guess who just hit you?ʼ
No one ordered them to put a Kingʼs robe on him and mock him.
No one told them to take the time to fashion a crown of thorns for his head, or

to roll dice for his bloodied clothes, or to carve and nail a contemptuously ironic sign above his head that said ʻKing of the Jews.ʼ

 

They just did it for laughs.
They knew what they were doing.

And certainly Pilate knew.
He was choosing expediency over responsibility.
He even washed his hands of the whole sordid matter.
Literally.
Jesusʼ crucifixion was just a matter of course for him.
Jesus, for him, was just another peasant to make an example of.
His cross just one of hundreds that stood along the roadsides of Jerusalem. As a warning.
A deterrent.
He knew.

And so did the crowds gathered there that day to listen to his trial and watch him die.

Of all those gathered at his Cross only Mary and Mary and 1/12 of his disciples are weeping.

Everyone else is there to exult in his suffering.

To stare at the wreckage and feel a bit better about their own lives when compared to his fate.

Thereʼs no other reason for them to be there except that they know exactly what theyʼre doing.

Do you still want forgiveness for them, Jesus?

Everything Iʼve ever done, I knew what I was doing.
Every lie and half-truth ever told.
Every betrayal.
Every time Iʼve compromised my convictions just because that was the easier

thing to do.
Every person Iʼve hurt.
Every word spoken in anger.
Every good Iʼve taken for granted.
Every grudge Iʼve clung to and every decision Iʼve made based solely on

whatʼs best for me. Sure I knew.

Maybe I didnʼt always know what the outcome would be. Maybe I didnʼt always understand the consequences. Maybe I didnʼt always intend the damage done.

But I still knew what I was doing.

And yet-
Jesus says to the Father: ʻ…forgive them, they donʼt know what theyʼre doing.ʼ

Last summer I spent a week with a group of Aldersgateʼs college students at a monastery in the French countryside. The monastery weekly welcomes thousands of Christians from around the world.

In many ways, the monastery is just what youʼd expect: monks in oatmeal- colored robes, chanting, simplicity and silence. We worshipped four times a day at the monastery, and most of the services were nearly identical in structure.

Except on Friday night, every week of every year, the monks celebrate Good Friday, the day of Jesusʼ death on the Cross.

Worship at the monastery is different in that the brothers donʼt explain or introduce anything- at best theyʼll flash a digitized song number on the wall.

Itʼs not like Christmas or Easter at Aldersgate where our instructions for communion take longer than the sacrament itself. The brothers just expect you to stumble along until you eventually fall into the rhythm of their worship.

That was true of their Good Friday service as well.

Most of the service was the same as all the others that week. We chanted songs like ʻIn the Lord Iʼll be Ever Thankfulʼ and ʻCome and Fill Our Hearts with Your Peace.ʼ There was 20-30 minutes of absolute, unguided silence.

But on Friday near the end of the service, as we were singing, the monks all stood up off their knees and shuffled down the aisle, stepping over all the people who were sitting on the floor. And for moment or two the brothers disappeared into a little room near the front of the sanctuary.

Just as everyone began to sing ʻJesus Remember Meʼ in French, the brothers reentered the sanctuary carrying a large cross on their shoulders. The cross was flat, about 6 feet tall and painted like a Medieval icon.

Because there were so many people crowded into the church and because we were sitting on the floor, I couldnʼt really see what they were doing with the cross. I saw them carry it into the middle of the sanctuary but then they dropped from my line of sight.

We kept singing ʻJesus Remember Meʼ over and over; the chanting was a constant ebb and flow, like the sanctuary itself was breathing in and out. After a few minutes I could see groups of people near the front of the sanctuary getting up off their knees and walking towards the middle of the room and forming a line.

It went on like that for a while. We must have sung 3 or 4 songs while a steady stream of people stood up and lined up, and still I didnʼt know and I couldnʼt see what it was they were doing.

Eventually the people around us started getting up and stepping over towards the line and so our group did too. I was only standing in line for a minute when everyone in line in front of me dropped down to their knees.

I still couldnʼt see what was going on. The aisle was twice as long as the one here at Aldersgate, and there were hundreds of people in front of me, all on their knees, inching forward on their knees every half-minute or so.

We were singing ʻWith God There is Fullness, Fullness and Joyʼ but we were singing it in German and I was tripping over the awkward melody and my knees were starting to ache and my back was cramping up and then after a very long time I could see.

The brothers had laid the cross flat on top of four terra cotta blocks so that it was about a foot off the floor. A dozen or so people were kneeling around the cross, bent over it with their foreheads pressed down against it. They were praying.

I crawled up to the cross when it was my turn.

I fit my shoulders in between two other people and I leaned over and I laid my forehead down on the cross, just about on the spot where Jesusʼ wounded side wouldʼve been.

The woman next me was praying ʻFather, Father Fatherʼ in desperate, pleading German.

A teenage boy on my left was sniffing and whispering ʻIʼm sorryʼ over and over in Spanish, and, with my shoulders touching his, I could feel his back heaving as he cried.

Everything Iʼve ever done, I knew what I was doing.

You know what I thought about that night, with my forehead pressed down against the cross? You know what hit me like a wound somewhere deep inside me?

That every lie Iʼd ever told, every insult or injury Iʼd ever done to someone I loved, every resentment, every angry word, every sin…that I hadnʼt just done it to the people I love, the people in my life…Iʼd done it to Him too. To God.

That every time I make a mess of my life, the person I hurt the most is the One who gave me that life.

And suffered for it.

Maybe it sounds strange for a pastor to confess, but I donʼt often think that way.

ʻForgive them,ʼ Jesus prays.
ʻThey donʼt know what theyʼre doing.ʼ
No, they know, but they donʼt GRASP what it is theyʼre doing.
Judas doesnʼt grasp that itʼs not just a friend heʼs betraying. Itʼs God. In the lesh.
Peter doesnʼt grasp thatʼs itʼs not just his rabbi heʼs denying. Itʼs his Lord. Pilate doesnʼt grasp that in the lowly criminal heʼs condemning all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell. Every one of them.
They know.

But they donʼt grasp-

That all the lies weʼre willing to tell.
All the betrayals weʼre willing to make.
All the promises weʼre willing to forget.
All the hypocrisy and violence and shame and cruelty weʼre willing to tolerate. That, when all is said and done, our true victim is God.

And heʼs the One praying for our forgiveness.

The woman at my right was pleading ʻFather, Father, Fatherʼ and the boy on my left was praying ʻIʼm sorry.ʼ

Meanwhile the words that came to me were Davidʼs words: ʻAgainst you, you only only Lord, have I sinned.ʼ

Words we pray on Ash Wednesday.

Words I donʼt think I ever really understood until I said them on my knees with my head pressed against Godʼs wounded side.

And the feelings those words conjured in me: Smallness. Shame. Guilt

But you know- when I got up off my knees, not one of those feelings came with me.

They stayed there. At the cross.

And I think thatʼs the paradox of the cross that only Christians can truly understand: that as much as the cross is confirmation of the very worst about us, itʼs that much more a sign of the goodness of God.

When I left the cross and found my place back on the sanctuary floor, the monks and the weekʼs pilgrims were all singing ʻWithin Our Darkest Night You Kindle a Fire that Never Dies.ʼ

And I can tell you- if I hadnʼt been a Christian already, I wouldʼve become one that night.

 

70X7

This past weekend as part of our Lenten Sermon Series on Idolatry, Counterfeit Gods, I taught from Matthew 18. That’s the chapter where you’ll find Jesus’ double-dog dare command that we should forgive not once, not twice, not even seven times but just shy of 500 times.

Which is Jesus’ Jewish way of saying: forgive all the time. 

The sermon’s subject elicited several dozen questions from folks who heard it or who’ve since read it online.

Questions about forgiveness.

Here’s one question I got:

‘I know Christians are supposed to forgive. I know Jesus wants us to ‘put the ledger down’ as you said on Sunday. What I never hear, have never heard, in church is exactly HOW I’m supposed to do it. How do you go about forgiving someone who’s wronged you?’

That is a very, very good question.

Greg Jones, in Forgiving as We’ve Been Forgiven, outlines six steps in the process of forgiveness. He likens them to a dance where each step is integrally related to the next,  inseparable from what came before it. Forgiveness, like dancing, takes grace.

1. Truth-Telling

We become willing to speak truthfully and patiently about the conflicts that have arisen. 

Appropriately, this is the lead in to Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 18. Jesus’ prescription of 70×7 forgiveness and his parable of the unmerciful servant are prompted by questions of confronting someone who’s wronged you.

 2. Acknowledging Anger

Both people must acknowledge the existence of anger and bitterness as well as a desire to overcome them. 

3. Concern for the Other

We summon up a concern for the well-being of the other as a child of God. 

4. Recognizing, Remembering and Repenting

We truthfully acknowledge our own complicity in the conflict, remember that we have been forgiven in the past and take the step to repentance. 

5. Commitment to Change

We make a commitment to work to change whatever caused and continues to perpetuate our conflicts. 

6. Hope for the Future

We confess our yearning for the possibility of complete reconciliation. 

 

Of course, these steps reveal how, like dancing, forgiveness doesn’t just take grace.

It takes two people.

You only get but so far in the Jones’ six steps if your partner prefers to remain a wallflower. 

 

 

70X7This past weekend as part of our Lenten Sermon Series on Idolatry, Counterfeit Gods, I taught from Matthew 18. That’s the chapter where you’ll find Jesus’ double-dog dare command that we should forgive not once, not twice, not even seven times but just shy of 500 times.

Which is Jesus’ Jewish way of saying: Forgive all the time. 

And, because he’s the Christ of the perpetual offense, Jesus follows up that turd of a teaching with this parable, in which a servant- who’s obviously meant to be our doppleganger- receives grace and forgiveness from the King (ie, God, in case you’re terrible at reading stories).

Because the forgiven servant can’t extend forgiveness to to others, he’s thrown in Hell to be tortured for a debt whose math works out to about 64 million days.

Nice.

Of course, we did kill Jesus for telling stories like this.

Unexpectedly, the sermon’s subject elicited several dozen questions from folks who heard it or who’ve since read it online.

Questions about forgiveness.

I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised. We all live life, to some degree or another, with other people. Bumping into people. Rubbing and getting rubbed the wrong way. Like milk and bread in a snow storm, conflict and forgiveness are just staples of weathering life with other people.

I’ll try to answer some of the questions in posts this week.

Here’s one question I got:

‘Does forgiveness mean that we have to stay friends with people or is it enough to let go of our anger/resentment and decide to no longer keep a score/ledger of their transgression?

Short answer: no. 

Forgiveness doesn’t mean you have to remain friends, and forgiveness doesn’t mean you have to restore a broken relationship.

I think we can all probably name people and situations where to do so would be naive, at best, and dangerous, at worst. Forgiveness doesn’t mean you have to stay married to someone who repeatedly breaks their vows. Forgiveness doesn’t mean someone should continue to suffer at the hands of an abuser. And forgiveness doesn’t mean you’re obligated to play the fool to a friend who’s shown they’re not actually a friend.

So if the answer’s no, then exactly what are Christians talking about when we talk about forgiveness?

I hate it when people pedantically cite Webster’s dictionary definitions but that’s exactly what I’m going to do. The clarity is helpful in this case:

Forgiveness = the action or process of remitting a debt

While I think some people overemphasize debt language as it pertains to the cross, the imagery can be helpful in thinking about our own relationships.

Forgiveness is forgoing what another person owes you. It’s declaring a pardon. It’s eating the cost of what was done to you rather than making the other person pay. Forgiveness is sacrificing what you deserve for the sake of the other. Forgiveness is you no longer needing what the other person has coming to them to come to them. It’s letting go of the (righteous) anger, and putting down the score card.

Forgiveness can be a form of suffering. It usually is, but it’s the only way to stop the cycle of retribution.  

Now, all that is different than:

Reconciliation = the action of process of restoring a broken relationship

Though we often merge them together so they become incoherent, forgiveness and reconciliation are two related, but distinct, terms. Forgiveness and reconciliation name two different poles in the process of healing. Reconciliation is the fruit of which forgiveness is a necessary first seed.

You can’t have a reconciled relationship without forgiveness. 

But, in a fallen world, you can have forgiveness- and sometimes you must- without reconciliation. 

Think of the servant in Jesus’ parable.

He’s been forgiven. His debt to the King was canceled. But the rest of the story shows that he was not in a reconciled relationship with the King because his heart remain unchanged.

Think of us.

Jesus declares us pardoned from the cross. We’re forgiven. The debt, for all time, has been paid. But that does not mean every person- or even every Christian- enjoys a reconciled relationship with God.

To answer the question behind the question:

The hard, scary work of humility, I think, comes in discerning whether you refuse to seek reconciliation with your former friend/spouse/whatever because to do so would be unwise (ie, they’ve hurt you too many times) or if instead you refuse the possibility of reconciliation because you haven’t truly let go of the debt.

You’ve forgiven them in name only. 

Which means you haven’t really forgiven at all. 

And that, Jesus says, has scary stakes. 

 

 

 

 

By the Book

Jason Micheli —  March 11, 2013 — 8 Comments

Here’s my sermon on ‘Forgiveness’ for our Lenten Series on Idolatry, Counterfeit Gods. You can listen to the sermon in the ‘Listen’ widget on this page or download for free in the iTunes Library, under Tamed Cynic.

70X7

This isn’t the sermon I thought I was going to preach when my week began.

I started out on Monday writing a sermon about the prophet Elisha and a leper named Namaan, but then, because of a decision I made weeks ago, I had an encounter this week that provoked a much different sermon.

If you read my blog, then you know that a few weeks ago I made a Lenten commitment that once or twice a week I would strap a clergy collar around my neck, which I usually only wear to weddings and graveside burials.

I made a commitment that I’d strap a collar on and go to some public space, like a coffee shop or pub or cafe, and just see what conversations came my way by exposing my faith and vocation in plain sight.

 

Since then I’ve worn it to Starbucks a couple of times.

Last week, I went to Barnes and Noble.

This past week I went to Whole Foods to eat lunch in the cafe and sketch what I had planned on being a very different sermon.

I sat down in a booth with my food and a few books about the prophet Elisha. And aside from the check-out guy asking me who I was going to vote for- for Pope- it was an uneventful day.

And I was about to call it a day, when a woman pushing a grocery cart crept up to my booth and said:

‘Um, excuse me Father….could I?’ 

 

     She gestured to the empty seat across from me.

 

‘Well, I’m not exactly a Fa______’ I started to say but she just looked confused.

 

‘Never mind’ I said. ‘Sit down.’ 

 

She looked to be somewhere in her 40’s. She had long, dark hair and hip, horn-rimmed glasses and pale skin that had started to blush red.

 

No sooner had she sat down than she started having second thoughts.

 

‘Maybe this is a mistake. I feel ridiculous and I just interrupted you. I just saw you over here and I haven’t been to church in years…’ 

 

She fussed with the zipper on her coat while she rambled, embarrassed.

 

     ‘It’s just….I’ve been carrying this around for years and I can’t put it down.’ 

 

‘Put what down?’ I asked.

 

‘Where do I start? You don’t even know me, which is probably why I’m sitting here in the first place.’ She laughed and wiped the corner of her eye.

 

‘Beginning at the beginning usually works’ I said.

 

‘Yeah,’ she said absent-minded, she was already rehearsing her story in her head.

 

And then she told it to me. She confessed.

 

About her husband and their marriage.

About his drinking, the years of it.

About his lies, the years of it.

About her making every effort to help him, to stick by him, to do whatever it

took to keep their marriage together.

She told me about how he’s sober now.

And then she told me about how now the addiction in their family is her anger and resentment over how she’ll never get back what she gave out, how she’ll never receive what she spent.

 

Then she bit her lip and paused- like she was mentally censoring a part of it.

 

And so I asked her: ‘Are you asking me if you’re supposed to forgive him?’ 

 

‘No, I know I’m supposed to forgive him’ she said. ‘My priest told me that years ago- that’s when I stopped going to church. I know I’m supposed to forgive.’ 

 

‘What’s your question then?’ I asked.

 

‘I’ve sacrificed enough. He’s the one who owes me. Why does forgiving him just make me feel like a victim all over again?’

 

     ‘Why can’t I just wipe this from my ledger….and move on?’ 

 

And when she said that, I knew I had to write a different sermon.

When Peter asks Jesus about forgiveness, when Peter asks Jesus if forgiving someone 7 times is sufficient, Peter must’ve thought it was a good answer. Peter’s a brown-noser, a butt-kisser. Peter wouldn’t have raised his hand and volunteered if he thought it was the wrong answer.

After all Moses had said an eye for an eye, do in turn what was done to you but no more. So 7 times must have struck Peter as a generous, Jesusy amount of forgiveness.

I mean, think about that. Imagine someone sins against you. Say, a church member gossips about you behind your back. I’m not suggesting anyone in this church would do that, just take it as an illustration.

Imagine someone gossips about you. And you confront them about it. 

     1. And they say: ‘I’m sorry.’ So you say to them: ‘I forgive you.’ 

     2. And then they do it again. And you forgive them. 

     3. And then they do it again. And you forgive them. 

     4. And then they do it again. And you forgive them. 

     5. And then they do it again. And you forgive them. 

     6. And then they do it again for sixth time. And you forgive them. 

 

     I mean…fool me once shame on you. Fool 2,3,4,5,6 times…how many times does it take until its shame on me?

 

     It’s got to stop somewhere, right? 

 

And Peter suggests drawing the line at 7 times.

7 is a good, biblical number and, whether we’re talking about gossip or anger or adultery, 7 is a whole lot of forgiveness.

So Peter must’ve thought it was a good answer; Peter must’ve expected a pat on the back, gold star from Jesus. But he doesn’t get one.

 

     Instead Jesus says: ‘You’re off by about 483.’ Not 7 times but 70 times 7. 

 

     490 times. And- it’s even worse than it sounds.

     490 was a Jewish way of expressing perfection. Infinity.

 

So Jesus is saying there is no limit to forgiveness, that forgiving someone is something we never get done with. It’s something that goes on forever.

That forgiveness is not a favor we offer 490 times but when we finally get to 491 we can stop.

     No, Jesus is saying that forgiveness is a way of life that never ends.

 

And as he likes to do, Jesus goes straight from answer to illustration and tells a story that starts with grace and ends with hell.

 

‘And oh, by the way,’ Jesus tacks on, ‘that’s exactly what God will do with you unless you forgive in your heart.’ 

 

On the surface that’s a really crappy story. 

     You must forgive or else. You must forgive or else your heavenly father will lock you in hell and throw away the key? You must forgive…out of fear? 

     That doesn’t sound like Jesus- at all. 

     So, there’s got to be more going on in this story than you can hear the first time through. 

     In fact, what we need is a couple more takes to notice what’s going on in Jesus’ parable. 

So what I need is a few volunteers…

The story revolves around 3 main characters: a King, a servant and a fellow servant.

     Take One: Re-narrate Matthew 18.23-35

    So in the beginning, the king opens his ledger to settle accounts, and he finds a servant who owes him 10,000 talents.

The amount of the debt is key to the whole logic of Jesus’ story. In case you’re rusty on your biblical exchange rates:

1 Denarius = 1 Day’s Wages

6,000 Denarii = 1 Talent 

     This servant owes the king 10,000 talents. When you do the math and carry the one- that comes out to roughly 60 million days’ wages or 164 years and 3 months of labor. 

So when Jesus tells the story, Peter and the other disciples would’ve known instantly that this man owes a debt he could never possibly repay. It’s not just a large debt; its an un-repayable debt.

But no sooner is the man forgiven his debt and set free than he encounters a fellow servant who owes him, about 3 months wages. No small amount but small potatoes compared to the debt he owed the king.

So even though he’s been forgiven and set free he grabs the man, chokes him, demands what’s owed him and sends the man to prison, ignoring the very same plea he’d pled: ‘be patient with me…’

And when the king finds out he has failed to extend the same mercy he had received,  the King has him thrown in jail to be tortured until all his debt is repaid, to be tortured.

To be tortured for 10,000 talents worth of time. 60 million days.

     Take Two: Re-narrate Matthew 18.23-35

     Here’s a question:

Why does the king cancel the debt?

Because of the servant’s plea? Because he promises to pay back everything he owes? 60 million days worth of wages?

He can’t ever pay that back.

So if the king forgives the servant because the servant promises to make it up to him, then the king is stupid.

The king just forgives him. Gratuitously. The king offers him grace.

And how does the servant respond?

Immediately he leaves the king and then turns to a fellow servant and demands from his peer what he has coming to him.

Somehow this servant has managed to receive the king’s forgiveness yet he’s remained completely unchanged by it. 

     He’s been forgiven something he could never repay. 

     He’s been spared a punishment that should have been his. 

    He’s been offered grace and somehow its not converted his heart or his character. 

     He’s still the same person he was before. 

     The king’s grace has not made him a person of grace. 

     Take Three: Re-narrate Matthew 18.23-35

     Here’s another question: what happens to the debt? In the story?

The king examines his ledger and sees what’s owed him. But when he forgives the servant, what happens to the debt?

Where does that debt go? What’s the king do with his ledger?

Because the debt doesn’t just disappear. Someone has to pay the debt- that’s the way the world works, that’s the way accounting works.

And this servant can never pay what is owed. So who eats the debt?

The king.

     The king pays the debt.

     The king will have to suffer the cost of this un-payable debt because forgiveness always costs someone something.

But notice, it’s not just that the king pays the debt.

Because the king can’t forgive the servant without in some way tossing the ledger book aside once and for all.

Because there’s nothing this servant can ever do to bring his relationship with the king back in the black.

So when the king forgives the servant, the king also sacrifices the ledger.

Keeping tally of what’s been earned and what’s still owed goes by the wayside for good.

The whole system of settling accounts, of keeping score, of positive and negative, of + and -, of red and black, of credits and debits, of giving and receiving exactly what is owed- the king DIES to that way of life.

He gets rid of the ledger, so that a servant can have new life.

But notice.

After the king gets rid of his ledger, who’s still got one? 

     Who’s still keeping score? Who’s still keeping track of what people owe him? Who’s still recording what he’s earned? Who’s still tallying what he deserves from others but still hasn’t gotten?

     You see, the king throws his ledger away. Gone for good.

     But the servant clings to his ledger. 

     And he takes his ledger with him, willingly, all the way to hell. 

     In other words, Jesus says, if you insist on treating other people by the book then God will give you exactly what you want. And treat you by the book. 

‘Why can’t I just wipe the ledger clean and move on? Why does forgiving him make me feel like a victim all over again?’ the woman at WF asked me.

I sipped the last of my coffee.

And I said: ‘That’s kinda the way it’s supposed to feel.’ 

I could tell from her face she didn’t follow.

So I tried to explain:

‘The way we forgive is just a small-scale version of how God forgives. There’s no way to reconciliation that doesn’t first go through pain and suffering. Jesus is the pattern. Forgiveness means you bear the cost instead of making the other person pay what they owe you.’

‘That’s a sucky answer’ she said.

‘Sure it sucks’ I said. ‘It sucked for Jesus too, remember.’ 

‘Do you talk like this in church?’ she asked. ‘No, never.’ 

‘Look, the debt your husband owes you is real, but forgiveness means you absorb that debt. And, yes, it’s painful and, sure, it’s hard, but that’s the only way to resurrection.’ 

‘Like I said,’ she said, ‘it’d be a lot better if I could just wipe the ledger clean and move on.’ 

     ‘Yeah, but if you wipe that part of it clean it won’t be long before some other part of it shows red. It’s not about wiping the ledger clean. It’s about getting rid of the ledger altogether.’ 

 

Pay Attention:

No more pretending. That woman at Whole Foods, and that servant in the story, they’re not the only ones clinging to their ledger.

Let’s not kid ourselves.

Some of you carry around a ledger filled with lists of names:

Names of people who’ve hurt you.

Names of people who’ve taken something from you.

Names of people who’ve wronged you.

People who’ve cheated you or cheated on you.

Who’ve lied to you or who’ve lied about you.

People who refuse to listen to you, or to understand you, or to accept you.

People who’ve betrayed you, who’ve rubbed you the wrong the way, or who’ve just let you down one too many times.

And in many of your ledgers, you have a whole other list of names, people that no matter what they do, there’s nothing they can do to change their name from the red to the black in your book.

Some of you cling to ledgers filled with balance sheets, keeping score of exactly how much you’ve done for the people in your life compared to how little they’ve done for you.

Some of you cling to marriage ledgers, tallying the precise daily cash flow of what each person brings to the marriage, which person is costing the marriage more and which person is sacrificing more, working more, contributing more. To the marriage.

And some of you cling to ledgers that look more like a list of accomplishments:

How much you’ve done for others.

How much you’ve given to your church.

How much you attend worship.

All the reasons why you think, assume, God should love you.

While others of you can’t let of go.

Can’t let go of ledgers that list all the sinful things you’ve ever done. All the things you’re ashamed of. All the things you wish you could change about yourself. All the things you wish you could take back.

Ledgers filled with all the reasons why you’re secretly convinced God can never love you.

This sanctuary should not be a place where we lie: there are as many ledgers in this room as there are people.

And, hell, I have my own.

But Jesus wants us to know that we’ve got to put them down. 

     To get rid of them. Toss them aside. Die to that whole way of living. 

     Because clinging to this (the ledger) makes an idol out of that (the cross). Because if you’re still holding on to this, that’s just a symbol from a story that happened once upon a time to someone else. 

I mean, let’s be honest. Some of you have gone to church your whole lives and you’re no different than you were before. The grace of the King has not made you a grace-filled person.

And it’s because you’re still holding on to this.

     When it comes to you, you want the King to throw the book away. But when it comes to everyone else in your life, you insist on going by the book.

But clinging to this, going through your life going by the book, needing to keep score, needing to tally and balance the accounts, it makes that (the cross) an idol. 

      It makes it nothing more than an object– because you’re worshipping the object and not its meaning and power. 

Because the good news of the cross is that you’re more sinful than you’ll ever admit but you’re more loved than you could ever imagine.

The good news of the cross is that there is nothing, nothing, nothing, you can do to earn God’s love.

And there’s nothing you can do to lose it.

God doesn’t keep score. God doesn’t go by the book.

Because the King has tossed his ledger in the trash.

And despite the cost, he’s paid every debt. Every debt. And that includes, by the way, the debts that everyone in your life owe to you.

     So put the ledger down. Put it down. Get rid of it. Die to it.

And instead tit-for-tat, instead of quid pro quo, instead 1 for 1, you do this and I’ll do that, eye for an eye, try 70 x 7.

Show mercy.

Every time.

Just as the King has shown mercy to you.

 

alain_de_botton_melbourne_7-620x349Alain de Botton, author of The Consolations of Philosophy, has this list of virtues or ‘commandments’ for those who can’t believe in the God of the more famous 10 commandments. This is a good list; in fact, in several ways this list seems a bit more practical and everyday than the list Moses brought down with him.

But de Botton’s list suffers from the same mistake as though who wish to post the Mosaic Commandments in public spaces: it’s a list of virtues stripped of any guiding narrative or interpretative community. Just as it’s not self-evident what it means to refrain from covetousness (in the case of scripture), it’s not self-evident what the practice of empathy entails. One person’s version of empathy will differ markedly from another person’s definition based upon the narrative around which they orient their lives. For Christians, after all, any definition of empathy, hope, forgiveness etc is determined and shaped by the Christ story. Because that’s our narrative we’re stuck with a 70X7, turn the other cheek notion of forgiveness.

It’s not a question of whether we will be shaped by a guiding narrative but which one we will allow to shape us. The very notion that we don’t need a controlling narrative to our lives is in fact the narrative of modernity; it’s its own story.

  • Resilience: Keeping going even when things are looking dark.
  • Empathy: The capacity to connect imaginatively with the sufferings and unique experiences of another person.
  • Patience: We should grow calmer and more forgiving by being more realistic about how things actually happen.
  • Sacrifice: We won’t ever manage to raise a family, love someone else or save the planet if we don’t keep up with the art of sacrifice.
  • Politeness: Politeness is closely linked to tolerance, -the capacity to live alongside people whom one will never agree with, but at the same time, cannot avoid.
  • Humour: Like anger, humour springs from disappointment, but it is disappointment optimally channelled.
  • Self-awareness: To know oneself is to try not to blame others for one’s troubles and moods; to have a sense of what’s going on inside oneself, and what actually belongs to the world.
  • Forgiveness: It’s recognising that living with others is not possible without excusing errors.
  • Hope: Pessimism is not necessarily deep, nor optimism shallow.
  • Confidence: Confidence is not arrogance – rather, it is based on a constant awareness of how short life is and how little we will ultimately lose from risking everything.

The Jawbone of an A%$

Jason Micheli —  August 17, 2012 — 2 Comments

We’re doing a sermon series this August on ‘Stories They Never Taught You in Sunday School.’ As part of the series, I’m posting some old sermons on random, bizarre stories of the bible. Here’s one from Judges 15. Turns out, Samson’s not the savory character we make him out to be when teaching his story to children. 

Judges 15

“With the jawbone of a donkey, heaps upon heaps (of bodies), with the jawbone of a donkey I have slain a thousand men.”

     This is the Word of the Lord?

 

Samson said to them, “If this is what you do, I swear I will not stop until I have taken revenge on you.”

This is God’s Word?

 

As I’ve confessed before, I’m a closet Calvinist. So I know the First Article of the Second Helvetic Confession of 1563 states: ‘The preaching of the Word of God is the Word of God.”

 

That is, when scripture is proclaimed faithfully and faithfully received by its listeners, it ceases to be an historical word and becomes a Living Word from God.

 

In other words, when I preach scripture faithfully and you hear scripture faithfully its no longer something God spoke long ago, it’s something God speaks, to us, today.

 

And most of the time I believe that.

But today I wonder.

I wonder about scripture like:

Samson said: when I do evil to the Philistines, I will be without blame…

So he struck them down hip and thigh with great slaughter.”

I wonder how this is (or ever was) God’s Word?

The Book of Judges could be the book of the bible people have in mind when they say dismissive things like: ‘The Old Testament- it’s so bloody and violent.” 

 

It’s in the Book of Judges that the tribe of Judah- the People of God- kill ten thousand Canaanites and then celebrate their victory by cutting off the thumbs and toes of the Canaanite leader.

 

The Judge Gideon is well-known for the 300 trumpets that give God’s People a surprising victory over the Midianites. Not as well known is that Gideon later slaughters a whole city of his own people out of rage.

 

It’s in the Book of Judges that Abimelech, Gideon’s son, executes all seventy of his brothers on the same altar stone.

 

It’s in the Book of Judges that Jephthah burns his daughter, his only child, alive to honor a victory God gave him over the Ammonites.

 

That’s all in the Book of Judges, God’s Word.

 

And it’s in the Book of Judges that Samson, the hero of children’s stories, first kills 30 after losing a wedding feast bet; then kills even more for the death of his wife and father-in-law; then kills 1,000 of the Philistines who try to capture him; and finally kills over 3,000 in a dying act of revenge.

 

I don’t know what they told you in Sunday School, but Samson is like Arnold Schwarzenegger, Elliot Spitzer, Anthony Wiener and Tony Soprano rolled into one.

 

Samson’s story is blood-soaked and sordid, it’s seedy and salacious. Samson’s sinful and selfish and, ultimately, a failure.

 

But that’s not how his story was supposed to go.

 

His birth announcement came by way of angelic annunciation. When the angel gives his mother the good news, the angels tells her that her son is to be set apart- just as God wants his People to be set apart from the idolatrous peoples around them.

 

So, her son is to drink no wine, to touch nothing unclean and to cut not a hair from his head. Her son is to deliver Israel from the Philistines who rule over them. That’s what it meant to be a judge.

 

After Samson grows, the Spirit of the Lord stirs in him; the Spirit of the Lord blesses him; the Spirt of the Lord gifts him with great strength.

 

But being blessed by God and fulfilling God’s will for your life are not the same thing.

 

Rather than being set apart, Samson sets his sights after a Philistine woman that catches his eye.

And when she’s given to another man, it sets off a spiral of vengeance that consumes him.

Samson sets fire to the city’s grain and crops and vineyards and olive groves. He ruins their whole economy, and they determine to ruin him. The Philistines retaliate by setting fire to the woman and her father.

 

For the two lives they take, Samson takes a great many more lives until, finally, blinded and shorn of his hair and bound in chains, Samson kills himself and takes 3,000 others with him.

 

‘So those Samson killed at his death were more than those he had killed during his life.’

     That’s how Samson’s story ends.

This is the Word of God for the People of God.

How?

What are we supposed to do with this scripture? What are we meant to learn from this scripture? How are we to believe God can speak through this scripture?

 

     Perhaps, notes one biblical scholar, Samson’s story is meant to be a cautionary one. According to this biblical scholar, Samson illustrates “the challenges of God’s People remaining faithful in a hostile culture.”

Thus Samson is consecrated to not drink a drop of wine and instead he drinks himself into a violent rage.

Thus Samson is consecrated to never touch anything that is ritually unclean and instead he cannot keep his hands off of Philistine women.

Thus Samson is consecrated to deliver the Israelites from the Philistines, but the Israelites prefer the Philistines and they betray Samson into the enemy’s hands.

So perhaps the Word God wants us to hear in this story is a word of caution about living in a culture that doesn’t share our values. Perhaps.

But then what lesson are we to draw from the fact that Samson all but annihilates that culture with his final act of revenge?

Or maybe, argues another biblical commentator, God gives us Samson’s story to function like an allegory.

According to this biblical commentator, Samson signifies all of Israel. And so Samson’s promiscuity with the Philistine woman from Timnah, and after her with a Philistine prostitute, and after her with Delia- Samson’s promiscuity symbolizes Israel’s religious infidelity.

And the way God’s Spirit comes to Samson again and again and again when he least deserves it is a metaphor for how God can’t help but be faithful to God’s People.

So it’s kind of like Amazing Grace but with a much higher body count.

In his commentary on the Book of Judges, John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist movement, said we should see Samson as a Christ-figure.

There’s the fact that his birth is announced by an angel to an unlikely mother-to-be- just like Jesus.

There’s the fact that from the day of his birth he’s set apart to bring deliverance to his people- just like Jesus.

There’s the fact that the Spirit of the Lord comes upon him and anoints him for God’s purpose- just like Jesus.

And he’s betrayed by his own people- just like Jesus.

He’s bound and handed over to his enemies- just like Jesus.

He’s tortured- just like Jesus.

He dies with his arms outstretched- just like Jesus.

And with the jawbone of a donkey he slays a thousand men- just like…no, wait.

Far be it from me to critique John Wesley, but he doesn’t answer the question any better than the biblical scholars do.

How is this God’s Word for us?

 

     On October 2, 2006 Charles Carl Roberts carried his guns and his rage into an Amish schoolhouse near Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania and shot ten children, killing five and then killing himself. The Amish community’s display of forgiveness, in the aftermath, became an international story.

Not as well-known is that eight days before the school shooting, in a neighboring Amish community in Georgetown, Pennsylvania, twelve-year-old Emmanuel King left his home around 5:30, as he did most mornings, to help a neighboring Amish family milk their cows.

He rode his scooter out his family’s mile-long farm lane and turned right onto Georgetown Road. As he rounded a slight turn, an oncoming pickup truck crossed the center line, struck little Emmanuel and threw him to the far side of the road.

The truck hit a fence post and sped away.

The next day, a reporter covering the hit-and-run accident went to Emmanuel’s home, but what the reporter found was not what he had expected- a gracious spirit toward the woman whom police considered and later confirmed to be the hit-and-run suspect.

Emmanuel’s mother was grief-stricken but nevertheless wanted to convey a message to the woman: “She should come here. We would like to see her,” she told the reporter. “We hold nothing against her. We would like to tell her we forgive her.”

When the driver read the newspaper headline, ‘A Boy’s Death, a Family’s Forgiveness,’ she did a surprising thing: she went to the King family home to receive their words of forgiveness. She returned again for Emmanuel’s viewing and again for his funeral. Over the next several weeks she came back three more times and, later, she bought a new scooter for the children on what would have been Emmanuel’s thirteenth birthday.

When a reporter asked a family member why they would forgive the woman who killed their son and left him dead in the ditch, the reporter was told: “Because when you forgive, you’re the one set free.”

 

When you forgive, you are the one who is set free.

That’s it.

Even though Samson can break any bonds they bind him with; even though he can pull down the pillars of a palace; even though he can shake off any shackles they snap on him- Samson’s never really free.

He’s never really free because he never stops being a prisoner to the wrong that was done to him. He never stops being captive to thinking he’s without blame. He never escapes the urge to ‘do to them as they did to me.’

He’s never really free because Samson was a Judge for twenty years, yet when he dies, even after his eye-for-an-eye ways have left him blind, he dies praying vengeance for a wrong that by then is twenty years old.

 

Over the past few weeks, I’ve solicited your religious questions to help shape our fall sermon series. And many of your questions have been just what I would expect.

There have been questions about heaven and hell, salvation and people of other religions, faith and science, and homosexuality.

But what’s surprised me is that more so than any other question, you all have asked me questions about forgiveness:

What exactly is forgiveness?

How do I forgive?

How do I know if I’ve really forgiven my ex-husband?

If I tell my mom I forgive her for her drinking do the words mean forgiveness has happened or is something else required?

Do I have to forgive the person who abused me?

My brother hasn’t apologized for what he’s done to our family. Is it possible to forgive someone who doesn’t apologize?

How can I forgive God for my child’s cancer?

Are there conditions for forgiveness?

Is it ever too late to forgive?

 

Maybe God gives us this scripture because Samson hits closer to home than we think.

Sure, Samson torches the tails of foxes, but plenty of you know what its like to set off land mines in your marriages.

Sure, Samson sets fire to vineyards and olive groves, but plenty of you know what its like to burn and smolder with anger.

Samson slays with a jawbone, but plenty of you know what its like to grab after any word you can find to hurt someone who hurt you.

You know what its like to be convinced you’re the one without blame.

You know what its like to say they did it to me first, they have it coming, they deserve what they get.

Sure, Samson pulls down the pillars of a palace, but he’s not the only one who’s nursed a resentment for twenty years.

He’s not the only one whose life got derailed, whose gifts from God got wasted, whose purpose in life went unfulfilled because of a wrong that went unforgiven.

Samson hits close to home.

So I want you to know-

Even though he can tear a lion in half with his bare hands; even though he can slay one thousand men with a jawbone, even though he can shrug off chains like they were melted wax- Samson’s actually incredibly weak.

Even though he had the strength to bring down the walls of a castle- Samson never had the strength to forgive.

Because with his dying breath, Samson prays for revenge.

But with his dying breath before he gives up his Spirit, Jesus Christ prays ‘Father, forgive them for they know not  what they do.’ 

     If you think Samson is stronger then you haven’t lived.

Because:

To bear the cost yourself of a wrong done to you takes strength.

To refuse to make someone pay for what they did to you takes strength.

To refrain from lashing out at someone when that’s all you want to do takes strength.

It takes strength because that kind of forgiveness hurts.

It takes strength because that kind of forgiveness can feel like agony.

It takes incredible strength because that sort of forgiveness will only add to your suffering.

To give up all the anger, to sacrifice every justification you’re entitled to, to absorb the pain done to you rather than pass it on, that is suffering.

But with Jesus Christ as my witness, it’s the only suffering that leads to Resurrection.

Because when you forgive, you’re the one who’s set free.

This is the Word of the Lord.

Amen.