Archives For Lent

rp_lightstock_70038_small_user_2741517-1024x683.jpgDay 10

Like the time I accidentally saw my Italian great-grandma, who possessed a steel-worker’s mustache, naked, as much as I’d rather not, I can still recall one late morning when I was lifeguarding at my neighborhood pool.

At a quarter to some hour, teenage-me blew my whistle long and low to clear the pool for break. Climbing down off my stand, I noticed a girl, maybe 10 years old, bouncing and splashing around in the middle of the pool, evidently without any urgency or intention of exiting.

A relatively new Christian, I decided to be patient and kind just like I’d read St. Paul suggest in my NIV Study Bible, but after  testing the PH level of the water, I noticed that the little girl was still bouncing around the pool nowhere near a ladder or the steps.

Feeling the Jesus already irritated out of me, I marched the circumference of the deck to the point nearest her and then slowly, with no little drama, placed two exasperated hands on the waistband of my red lifeguard suit.

‘Hey, you, little girl. I’m talkin’ to you’ I said with clipped Travis Bickle affect. ‘I said: CLEAR THE POOL. It’s break time.’

‘I know’ she responded as though the fact that she knew was the most obvious thing in the world.

‘You know, huh? Well then…’ I said, my lifeguard voice now a far cry from 1 Corinthians 13, ‘why are you still in the pool? What are you? Blind or something?’

‘Yes,’ she said simply. ‘I am blind.’

I’m a big believer in odds, and the odds of this happening to me just didn’t seem possible.

‘What?’ I said.

‘I am blind’ she said again without contempt.

Ugh. Gut punch.

‘Shit’ screamed the red I could feel rapidly spreading across my face and through my eyes.

Her lack of malice made me feel all the more awful, so much so I said nothing.

Just to populate the scene for you:

Sitting within earshot of this exchange were 5 Stiffler’s Moms from church tanning themselves in too tiny two pieces, their Liz Claiborne sunglasses now perched on top of their foreheads so they could stare at me and, I assumed in a second, report back to the congregation.

Even then I’d correctly intuited that insensitivity to disability is a graver transgression in the United Methodist Church than any out and out heresy such as, say, not believing in Jesus.

Meanwhile, no more than 12 inches behind me, 6 of my closest friends sat around an umbrellaed picnic table. One of those six I hoped soon to make my girlfriend, a wager I now assumed was about as likely as, well, asking a random girl if she was blind and hitting on ‘Yes’ in reply.

I’d have rather had my swimsuit go slack and suddenly fall around my ankles, exposing my johnson and nether hair for all to see. Even now my cheeks (the other ones) get flushed whenever I think back to noisy gong Jason asking that little girl blind girl if she was blind or something.

What would that other something be, I wonder?

Eventually, in a tone of voice shamed low, I guided her to the ladder where she said ‘Thank you’ and I did not- I should confess- say ‘I’m sorry.’ It was an eternity that last not much more than a few minutes. Still it was one of those awkward-in-the-bowels, nothing can ever undo it moments where everyone within earshot wishes they could hide or die or flux capacitor it back an hour.

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Now-

Picture me as that blind girl, and you have some idea of what it’s like when people find out that I have cancer.

While I’ve remained fairly sequestered since I learned I have a rare blood cancer, I’ve still suffered plenty of those uncomfortable, shit-on-your-shoes moments.

The awkward, cringe-inducing moments usually begin thusly:

‘How are you?’

‘Uh…okay…fine…I’m fine.’

‘Really? You look…thinner? Have you lost weight?’

‘Umm…yeah…maybe a bit…well…the thing is…I have cancer.’

The pregnant pause that follows as reliably as the Earth revolves around the Sun usually gives birth to one or more cliches lying dormant at the mind’s ready:

‘You’re young and healthy. You’ll beat it” better than 3/4 of everybody assures me. Whether they’re attempting to convince me or themselves varies to the person.

‘Healthy except for the tumors squatting all over my body’ I always reply, sometimes silently.

Some respond to the pregnant pause by delivering up, either as an article of faith or something gleaned from 1st or 2nd or usually 3rd hand experience: ‘Well, I believe in the power of prayer.’

Many try to turn the foreboding cloud of cancer inside out by pointing vaguely to the silver lining of ‘advances in medicine and science.’

Some intend either the former, faith, or the latter, science, when they promise me in palliative tones that ‘miracles DO happen’ as though the prognosis I’d prefer to hear is how my full recovery is about likely as feeding an entire hospital with just 6 pieces of Wonder Bread and 2 filets of poorly breaded Tilapia.

I can tell from their faces and from what they toss back at me:

Hitting people unawares with the C-word is like learning that you’ve just been making sarcastic blindness cracks at a little blind girl.

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Nearly everyone stammers and then moves to tell me which Dr. Oz imprimatured books I should read or which cancer-fighting foods I should purchase at Whole Foods for $5 grand a pound.

Those less burdened by propriety or self-conscience immediately ask how often I’m throwing up or, I kid you not, ‘getting it up.’ Still others suggest cancer-themed movies I should watch like Michael Keaton’s forgotten film My Life or Bette Midler’s wish-we-could-forget-it Beaches.

Just yesterday a door-to-door salesmen from Capitol Meats, upon hearing I had cancer (Yes, I was playing the cancer card to avoid buying a gross of ground beef), said: ‘Damn, man…fuck that sucks.’

And then he added: ‘You should watch that movie…what’s it called…’ and then he started to snap his fingers to jog his memory, ‘Ordinary People…yeah, that’s a damn good movie.’

‘It is a good one’ I said, ‘but I’m pretty sure it’s not a cancer movie.’

‘Nah, man,’ the meat man maintained, ‘dude definitely dies of cancer in it.’

Okay, so not every conversation goes down like the blind girl in the pool, but once I’ve blind-sided people with the C-word and they recover enough to respond with the typical cliches, recommendations or curiosities, they then usually ask me:

‘What kind?

‘Of cancer?

And once I tell them Lymphoma, Mantle Cell Lymphoma, unless I’m speaking to a doctor or a nurse, that marks the end of their oncological knowledge; so, inevitably they steer the conversation to the biographical.

‘My _____________ (mother/father/aunt/uncle/coworker/neighbor/cousin…) had lymphoma’ they’ll say as though we’re discussing fellow frat brothers from faraway chapters.

‘Really?’ I’ll feign interest, ‘How did_____________ do with their treatment?’

‘Oh…umm…he/she did…’ and then 9/10 times their voice will trail off in such a way you’re led to only one conclusion.

‘That’s just awesome’ I’ll think to myself.

Before you accuse me of hyperbole:

The Friday before my surgery, the Friday after the night I learned cancer was the most likely culprit behind my troubles, my mom and I sat at the indoor pool watching my boys at swim practice when she breaks our own kind of pregnant pause:

‘You know…my uncle (as in, my Grandma’s flesh and blood brother) had lymphoma too.’

‘What? Really?’ I said, ‘I didn’t know that; I guess I should have checked the cancer box under ‘Family History’ along with ‘Heart Disease’ and ‘Mental Illness.’

‘What happened to him?’ I asked after she didn’t laugh.

‘Oh’ she said, brainstorming how to change the subject. ‘Umm…uhh…errr…yeah, he died.’

‘Great, just great’ I said.

She went on: ‘But he lived a long time…at least until his mid-40’s.’

And then I thought: ‘Mid-40’s?! Mid-40’s!? Geez, mom, that’s some cold shit.’

It’s no hyperbole.

When I spoke to the suit in the United Methodist Pension Office about my medical leave, he told me in a way that defied his bean-counting countenance:

‘I’m sorry to hear about your…uh…situation. I had a college roommate who died of lymphoma.’

‘I’m very sorry to hear that’ I said, suddenly wondering who was supposed to be comforting whom.

‘Yeah, he was such a great guy’ and just then I thought our connection had gone before I realized he was sniffling into the phone. Just before he started weeping.

Likewise did it go with the insurance rep who called to audit my care plan. My lymphoma, though a rarer breed, apparently put her mind to her own mother’s losing bid against blood cancer. You see, not only does the C word provoke people into unwittingly portending my death, it’s also (I’m also) a grim reminder to them of painful mournings of their own.

In other words, now that I have cancer, I rip the scabs off of people’s wounds.

For those without family or friends felled by blood cancer, a surprising number of people, upon hearing my news, turn for reference to America’s family of choice; i.e, celebrities.

‘Oh, did you know Jackie Onassis died of lymphoma?’ the checkout guy told me yesterday.

‘Really? Before I was worried but now that I know Jackie O died of it I think…what’s the big deal?’ I thought to myself before stretching a fake smile across my face and nodding solemnly.

‘I mean, thank God I have blood cancer and not some peasant disease like COPD’ I kept thinking to myself as I punched my debit number into the screen.

Seriously, Jackie O is what the lifeguard checkout guy hit me with when I blind-sided him with the C-word. I can only imagine how many times people with testicular cancer have to hear about Lance Armstrong or how often lepers with dementia have to hear about Senator Ted Cruz.

Like James Greer in Wonder Boys memorizing celebrity suicides, thanks to the offhand comments with which people meet the C-word, I now know that Charles Lindberg, Gene Autry and Joey Ramone of the Ramones all died of the very affliction now doing its damnedest to kill me.

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There’s something about the word CANCER that throws a wrench into most people’s mental gears.

For example:

Just yesterday when I told that same Capitol Meats salesman that I was no longer working, that I was going on disability (because, yes, I was playing the cancer card to get rid of him and his sales pitch) he immediately responded by telling me:

‘Yeah, one of my cousins on my Mama’s side is retarded. He’s real sweet though. You can hardly tell he’s a retard.’

I just nodded along and smiled, which probably only confirmed for him that I too was as disabled as his sweet cousin- which, fortunately, in his mind probably disqualified me from making such a hefty purchase of boneless steaks and pork chops.

There’s something about the C-word that messes with people’s heads. Some people see CANCER as a 2 syllabled body bag, one that’s already zipped up to around my chest port. To their minds, the C-word gives off an air of the inexorable that permits them to confess secrets they’d never reveal otherwise. You know the stuff normally reserved for eulogies:

‘You were my first crush.’

‘I never told you what your friendship meant to me.’

‘I thought you were a real dick in high school but I’m sending you positive energy now.’

‘I thought you were the worst preacher I’d ever heard for about 4 years but now I think you’re awesome.’

One person, upon hearing the news via the social media grapevine, sent me a copy of that poem, ‘Do Not Stand By My Grave and Weep,’ verses not only which I loathe but have only ever heard intoned- against my better judgment- at FUNERALS.

Of all the various and sundry responses the news of my stage serious cancer has elicited, by far the most common responses are:

‘Fight it.’

‘It’s time to do battle.’

‘Kick cancer’s ass.’

From their shoes, I think it’s exactly the right thing to say. It sure as shit beats telling me that Bob Ross died of lymphoma (too).

After all, ‘kick cancer’s ass’ isn’t burdened with any pray-it-away piety or false promises, and it puts the onus on me while positioning the speaker as being behind me, in my corner, rooting for me in the fight of/for my life.

‘Yeah, kick cancer’s ass’ I sometimes nod my head in response.

But here’s the real difficulty:

The ‘it’ in ‘Fight it, Jason’ is Jason.

The ‘it’ is me.

The cancerous cells are mine, only doing something differently (and far more efficiently) than my healthy ones. The chromosomes inverting themselves way down deep in my marrow, which is what gives me Mantle Cell Lymphoma- those are my chromosomes. They’re as much me as my eyes or my fingerprints or the corner of my lips that produces my smile. The tumors riddling my insides- they’re attached to my spleen and my stomach and my lungs and God knows what else, and it’s my lymphatic system that so conveniently delivers those tumorous cells to the rest of my body and possibly my brain (one of the unique perks of Mantle Cell).

What I only realize now that I have cancer is that a PET scan is very different than a battle map. There is no enemy massing outside on the borders of the Republic of Jason’s Body. The masses are in me, a part of me even. Even if I could shrink myself down like Martin Short in Inner Space to go fight ‘it’ in my GI system, I’d just as quickly discover that ‘it’ is also very much me.

Which means, of course, that the only way to kick cancer’s ass is to kick my own.

Normally this time of year, I’m giving up meat or booze or Facebook, but this Lent, though I’ve not chosen it, I’m doing something even more Christ-like, in a way. I’m forsaking myself.

Don’t applaud me. It’s out of necessity not any piety. It’s just the way chemo works.

The only way to kill the cancer in me is to let the doctors get as damn close as they can to killing me.

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I’m learning that there’s an inherent passivity to cancer no matter how proactive and intentional I might want to be against it.

For much of the balance of 2015 I’m literally a prisoner of my own body. On a cellular level my body echoes St. Paul: ‘For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do–this I keep on doing.’

This is precisely why poor bastards with cancer like me so desperately need others- especially doctors and nurses- because no sane person, no matter how sick or scared, would ever willingly do this to themselves. This regimen of chemo-poison.

I appreciate the sentiment behind ‘Kick cancer’s ass’ but already I’ve learned:

The language of fighting doesn’t really work for cancer.

It’s too active; in fact, I don’t believe the active voice really works at all for cancer.

I don’t believe the active voice works for cancer in the same way the active voice doesn’t work for God.

I remember one homiletics class when I was in seminary. This belligerently confident, hyper-evangelical classmate preached his sample sermon before the class. His sermon was frenetic. He clearly thought he was the superior preacher to all of us and, admittedly, his delivery was effective.

However, our professor, Dr Kay, looked restless and irritated through the entirety of the 20 minute sermon. Once the student finished Dr Kay breathed out his exasperation and declared to the preacher:

‘Do you realize not one of your sentences had God as their subject?’

Contrary to all the Strunk and White rules, when it comes to our speech about God the passive voice is most often the best, for it alone conveys the necessity of our trust and dependence upon God.

The active voice makes it sounds like we actually have our shit together.

And just need God to show up sometimes.

But the passive voice better than the active confesses ‘You can do, God, what we cannot.’

The passive voice admits more clearly that when it comes to things that matter, like sin and marriage and parenthood and friendship and truth-telling and compassion and cancer, most often-

my enemy is myself.

The passive voice better points out that in much of life, but particularly with cancer, the path forward looks not like active ass-kicking at all but instead something in between resignation and resistance because that’s the space where God goes.

All of which is to say, as much as I’d like to ‘fight it’ or ‘kick cancer’s ass’ my only real hope is that God will be in me, setting things right, just as scripture promises God was in Christ, reconciling all things to himself.

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Speaking of Christ, by far the best response the news of my cancer has prompted was a JPEG of that charlatan preacher Joel Osteen along with the header ‘Imagine this is cancer when you’re kicking it’s ass.’

The JPEG response still trades on the fight metaphor and about the last thing I want to imagine is Joel Osteen inside me. I doubt his teeth would even fit inside my (now) 28 inch waist and his hair gel would likely spike my cholesterol.

I’ve scored many a point from the pulpit and I’m responsible for much clickbait at Joel O’s expense. No, this isn’t going to be an ‘I was all wrong’ epiphany but an ‘I was so right all along’ double-down.

What I mean is-

You only need to have cancer for about a day before you realize how impoverished is Joel Osteen’s power- of- positive- thinking active voice faith, his genie-in-a lamp-god who will reliably answer any prayer you’re bold enough to proffer.

One of the things you learn when you have cancer, along with how to read your latest lab work, is that only the crucified God, who has shared your fear and suffering and made your pain his own, only the crucified God can help.

 

This past weekend my muse visited my congregation as our guest preacher.

Thomas Lynch, readers of the blog will already know, is a poet and writer who also happens to be an undertaker in Milford, Michigan. His prose has inspired my own, his writing on the funeral trade has informed how I conduct them as a clergyman and his hopeful gallows humor has given me cheer these initial weeks in my struggle with cancer.

Here’s his sermon from the Saturday evening service. It’s worth your time. If you subscribe to the blog by email, you may need to click over for the sermon.

The Seamus Heaney poem Lynch references is ‘Miracle’ based on Jesus’ healing of the paralytic in Mark 2.

Not the one who takes up his bed and walks

But the ones who have known him all alongAnd carry him in –

Their shoulders numb, the ache and stoop deeplockedIn their backs, the stretcher handles

Slippery with sweat. And no let up

Until he’s strapped on tight, made tiltableand raised to the tiled roof, then lowered for healing.

Be mindful of them as they stand and wait

For the burn of the paid out ropes to cool,

Their slight lightheadedness and incredulity

To pass, those ones who had known him all along.

(HUMAN CHAIN, Poems, Seamus Heaney, 2010, FSG)

Day #1: Chemo Sissy

Jason Micheli —  February 23, 2015 — 18 Comments

lightstock_70038_small_user_2741517 First Sunday in Lent

“Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”

Whether the Statue of Liberty’s salutation has ever accurately reflected America’s attitude towards the stranger is debatable; however, as a description of the insides of an oncologist’s waiting room it’s a damn-on dead ringer. Previously accustomed only to the PG blandness of my general practitioner’s office or my children’s trippy, panda-themed pediatrician’s office, I was wholly unprepared for:

  1. The sheer size of the oncologist’s waiting room- so large I half expected to hear a fuzzy intercom announce bus departures from the other side of thick, yellowed plexiglass.
  2. How thick and tangible was the sense of hopelessness that hung in the air.
  3. The diversity embodied by that palpable despair. Sitting along the walls were couples the approximate age of Ali and me, old white-haired geezers, folks in their 50’s, healthy-looking women, obese men, alienesque pale, balding and rail-thin chemo patients and fucking kids.

Man, the fucking kids. I counted 7 of them. School-aged kids during the school day.

Weighting Room seemed a better spelling given the gravity I could feel in my feet as I soon as I stepped inside.

The wall scheme, as if avoiding false promises, was mauve. No color. No toys or play structures for the children.

And, a medical office first for me, no magazines. Not a one.

Their collective absence stood out like an indictment or a more bracing diagnosis than even the doctor could muster.

‘You’re not getting away anywhere with the time you’ve got left’ screamed the bare space where Conde Nast might’ve lay in a different waiting room.

The bare space on the end table next to my chair taunted me: ‘Who are you kidding? You don’t need 25 Sex Tips from Cosmopolitan. Those days are gone- you’re a goner.’

Speaking of sex, my final oncological consult on Friday just before I was to begin my aggressive chemo protocol (read: dire) was not the occasion I had expected to have a conversation about my swimmers.

Sure enough no sooner was I weighed and vital signed than my oncologist knocked on the door, entered the exam room and with the subtlety of someone who is either a life-long bachelor or a non-English major immediately began by asking me:

‘So, you two have children, yes?’

‘Uh, yeah, we have two. Two boys.’

‘I see,’ he said, ‘and do you plan to have more?’

Looking blankly at each other- ‘I dunno. I mean we’ve talked about the possibility, maybe but…’

‘Because if you do want to have more children, you’ll have to make a donation this morning before you start treatment.’

‘Uh, a donation?’

‘Yes, a sperm donation’ he said as though itemizing my taxes.

I don’t know why…I’ve been married to Ali for almost 14 years and we dated since we were 15 years old, but I still found this an intensely awkward conversation to be having in front of her…not to mention the nurse sitting at the computer.

And, as I’m wont to do in embarrassing situations, I resorted to deflective, juvenile humor albeit a classic Woody Allen line from Annie Hall:

‘Look, doc,’ I said, ‘I’ve got nothing against masturbation; its sex with someone with I love.’

The nurse at the computer, the nurse who happened to be wearing a 14.5 inch bleeding Christ crucifix around her neck looked at me with disgust and at Ali with someone like pity.

‘Anyway doc,’ I said, ‘you should’ve brought this up before you let the surgeon cut a giant incision across my waist because (even if you’ve got Cindy Crawford dressed in a nurse’s costume in the next room- I thought to myself) things are still as dormant down there as Omaha on a Saturday night, if you know what I mean.’

Whether he did or didn’t know what I meant he didn’t say, adding only this turd of a caveat:

‘Your protocol probably won’t render you impotent but it will leave you infertile.’

‘Probably?’ I gulped.

I suppose sex and death have been inextricably linked since Genesis 1. I suppose it was ever thus; nonetheless, just as I wasn’t expecting to begin my final oncological consult with talk of ejaculatory donations, the transition out of that subject was even more jarring.

There was another knock at the door, and my other oncologist entered the room. His first name is Ivan and his last name ends in -vich. The closet approximation I can get to the rest of his surname is to say it leaves no consonant behind. Indeed if there are still WMD’s to be found, they’re probably hidden in Dr. Ivan’s labyrinthine last name.

Dr. Ivan is tall and thin and Serbian scary, the land from which he hails. His thin round glasses look party issue. His hair is mussed in the way of someone committed to the cause.

And Dr. Ivan’s accent is such that it’s easy to picture him wearing a drab, olive uniform, smoking a hand-rolled cigarette and standing behind one-way glass while a lieutenant conducts an ‘interrogation.’

In short, he’s everything a scared shitless, cancer-stricken bastard like me could want in an oncologist on the front line.

Describing the next 150 days or so of my regimen, Dr. Ivan opted for martial vocabulary and large St. Crispin’s Day type hand gestures.

‘My first drug,’ he said with a smack of his hands, ‘would OBLITERATE the bulky tumors all over my body.’

‘The other drugs would DEVASTATE THE ENEMY CELLS MULTIPLYING IN BLOOD’ he whispered like it was a sneak attack on unsuspecting Kosovars and then, rising off his stool, promised the cumulative effect would be to FORCE MY BONE MARROW INTO COMPLETE SURRENDER.’

If Dr. Ivan seems like the kind of medical professional you’d come across in the pages of an X-Men comic book, he merely stands in and continues a long line in the study of oncology.

After all, the practice of chemotherapy itself owes its origins to the use of mustard gas in World War I.

True story.

Not only was mustard gas a nasty little way to debilitate your enemy, it was also discovered to be an effective suppressor of blood production. Skip ahead to WWII, after a German air raid on the Italian village of Bari several hundred people were inadvertently exposed to mustard gas the Allies had been storing there to be used on the Germans. Oh happy fault- the survivors were all found to have abnormally low white blood counts. Thus is the beginning of another chapter in the supposedly value-neutral discipline of medical science.

All of which is just to say I can’t be accused of hyperbole when I say I’m now a duly admitted patient at a medical hospital (modernity’s last true cathedral) where doctors and nurses can legally assault me with German-derivated chemical weapons.

The trench warfare history of chemo-‘therapy’ such as it is, I shouldn’t have been surprised at how my first dosage went down.

After pre-scans of my body and pre-hydrations and pre-medications on Friday evening,  around 1:30 AM I was started on my first 6 hour IV drip of Rituxan, a poison normally considered safe only for MCL patients who are ‘young and fit.’

‘Young and fit’ minus the, you know, Stage 4 cancer all over my body.

Not knowing what to anticipate, I lay there in bed, clutching the sheets in the quiet. Nothing.

I was fine. I couldn’t feel or notice a thing.

By 2 AM I’m smiling in the dark. At myself. Thinking Paul Simon’s got it all wrong. The darkness isn’t silent; it’s filled with sound of my awesomeness.

Who are these sissies, I wondered, who complained about how hard chemo was on the body?

I’m like the Charles Bronson of chemo, I (literally) thought to myself.

I’m like Jewels from the lymphoma outtakes of Pulp Fiction. I’m a mushroom cloud laying motherfucker.

I’m like the Taken 1,2 and 3 Liam Neeson of chemo-‘weaponry;’ I have a very particular set of skills and kicking cancer’s ass is it.

I seriously thought to myself.

And then- BAM.

At 3AM, 90 minutes in

With no warning at all, 0-60 in 1 second flat

My whole body started to convulse, violently, head to toe, shaking my bed and every machine attached to it, splitting open my stomach incision and making my insides feel like they were now my outsides.

It was like an epileptic seizure, but one that started not in my brain but in this dry-ice cold deep down inside my bone marrow.

It’s 3AM, chemo battle #1, and what does Liam Neeson do?

That’s right, he shouts- not really shouts because the words won’t really come out of his quaking mouth- gurgles for his mommy, who’s snoring on the pull-out bed in his room.

My mom fetched the nurse who, upon entering, blithely responded with: ‘Oh yes, that’s one of the reactions to the Rituxan’ as she started layering a dozen warmed blankets on me to zero effect.

And I was thinking: ‘Reaction? This isn’t like hives from bad Cabernet or a rash from a bug bite.’

Except actually I wasn’t thinking. At all. I couldn’t think past the pain the convulsions had erupted all over me. I couldn’t have made heads or tails of a Two and a Half Men episode or a Sarah Palin speech so bone-wracking was the pain. It was blinding, consuming. A first for me.

It lasted about an hour.

And if you had offered me in any of those sixty minutes any thing to make it stop, to take it away, to turn back time- to any of my worst pre-cancer moments- then damn the torpedoes I would’ve taken you up on it.

No.

That’s not true.

I love my life. I cherish my wife. And I’m gunning to see my little guys grow up.

I would’ve stuck it out for them no matter what you offered me.

But-

Brass tacks confession time:

If you told me the next 150 days would be exactly like that hour and if you could promise me to make it all go away, then I wouldn’t say yes because of the reasons immediately cited above.

I wouldn’t say yes…I don’t think.

But I’d be tempted. And that means I could say yes.

Whenever we picture Jesus tempted by the devil in the wilderness, we usually imagine it unsubtle comic book lines and hues, with a bad guy readily identifiable as ‘Satan’ and 3 temptations to which Jesus readily gives the correct answers as though he’s been raised by a Galilean Tiger Mom.

The Synoptic Evangelists tell the story with such Hollywood haste the net effect is to turn Jesus of Nazareth into Doogie Howser, a spiritual prodigy who doesn’t struggle or grasp or scratch his head over the best way forward. But not only is such convictional clarity NOT TEMPTATION, it dilutes Jesus into someone less than fully human. It makes Jesus not as human as you or me.

I know the Gospels say Jesus was tempted by the devil in the desert and I believe it.

I just think those temptations came to Jesus in exactly the same sorts of unseen, uncertain, ambiguous- human- ways they come to us.

I mean, it’s a no brainer if you’re posed questions by a guy with horns and a pitchfork. The right answers are obvious, that’s not temptation.

Which is to say, I take it as an article of faith that it was a real, live possibility for Jesus to have answered otherwise when the tempter proffered his questions in the desert. Just take another look, the brevity of the stories aside, Jesus spends 40 days tackling just 3 queries. That’s a baker’s dozen days per temptation. There’s more to the story than the story.

We tend to think of faith as something unchanging, immoveable, we can turn to when times get tough or tempting. ‘He is our Rock’ the praise song repeats ad nauseum. Faith is our North Star, our inner compass, our firm foundation.

But I don’t think so, not so much anymore.

I think Jesus, if he’s at least as human as you or me, then one of the things he takes on in the incarnation is the uncertainty of life. The sheer contingency of life, not knowing what will drop with the next shoe, what crappy news is a day away or what will be the best way to deal with it.

If Jesus is truly incarnate then his humanity is shot through with the very contingency that so often makes our lives seem like a crapshoot.

And that means faith isn’t like a rock or a firm, immoveable foundation.

It means faith is change.

Faith is change because it’s faith lived alongside the life God gives you.

Faith is change because it’s dependent upon the (contingent) life in which it is lived.

And in the same way that love and marriage and children and a career changes you- and thus your faith- so can does pain and dread and fear and despair and temptation change you.

And thus your faith.

For what makes temptation in the face of faith real is the real possibility of losing the faith you had.

Of failing.

If there’s a silver lining in this (and I’m into looking for silver linings these days) it’s that faith is strongest where the possibility of losing it is greatest.

And if that makes me a less impressive Christian, I at least like to think it might make me a more trustworthy pastor.

One day down.

149 or so more to go.

Not that I’m counting but that’s nearly 4x longer than Jesus was stuck in his own wilderness.

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(Jason, pre-hair loss)

This Sunday we continued our Lenten series, 7 Deadlies, with #5: Greed. For the scripture text, I chose a parable (Luke 16.1-9) in which Jesus actually praises cheating, stealing and lying, which forced it to be an atypical sermon on the deadly sins.

You can listen to the sermon here below or in the sidebar widget to the right. You can also download it here in iTunes or download the free mobile app.

 

     “He’ll get what he has coming to him.” 

     When Diane said that to me, she was standing in her Florida-orange kitchen gesturing emphatically with one of those decorative plates you can order from television, the ones with Elvis or Diana or Frank Sinatra on them.

     I was sitting on a barstool in her kitchen because that was the only place to sit.

     Diane’s new house was an unfinished, messy maze of boxes, sheet rock and plastic drop cloths.

Her yard outside wasn’t even unfinished. It was unbegun: no driveway, no grass- just a swampy stretch of mud from the road to the front porch (which was also unfinished).

Their mailbox hung over loosely in the mud like a pickup stick.

The mailbox had a blue and green mountain scape painted on it, along with their names: Tim and Diane.

Tim and Diane were members of the first church I pastored.

Diane was one of the ones who, after my first Sunday there, told me how much better she preferred the previous pastor’s preaching.

Nonetheless, they were good people and good church members, and, in the way of small towns and small churches, they were related to nearly one-third of the names in the church directory.

Many months before that afternoon in her kitchen, against all the laws of common sense and wisdom, Tim and Diane had contracted Pete to build their retirement home on a mountaintop overlook outside of town.

Pete who every Sunday sat with his family in the Amen corner pulpit left of that same church; Pete who was friends with Tim and Diane and whose family comprised yet another third of my tiny congregation; Pete whose wife, Jane, had also been one of the ones to tell me how much more she preferred my predecessor’s preaching.

Diane had missed church for several weeks of Sundays so on one afternoon I decided I’d drive out to their new, unfinished home.

In my pastoral naivete and religious idealism, I’d driven out there to talk high-handedly about forgiveness and reconciliation. Because her front yard was a sea of mud, I’d had to take off my shoes.

Sitting in Diane’s kitchen, I quickly discovered how hard it is to strike an authoritative posture when you’re wearing nothing but socks and when those socks have holes in them and when your exposed feet are dangling above the floor like a toddler’s.

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As she unpacked her decorative plates, Diane told me what I’d read in the local paper: that Pete had taken their money for their home and used it to pay off other debts and business endeavors, and now Tim and Diane’s savings were drained, their retirement postponed, their nerves frayed and their home unfinished.

I said something foolish about needing to hear Pete’s side of the story, and Diane pointed out to her young pastor that she’d been conned, cheated and swindled. There was no “other” side to the story.

If it’s true that contractors have a vocabulary all their own, then it’s axiomatic that those who’ve been cheated by contractors have an even more vivid vocabulary at their disposal.

Diane said a lot of things about Pete, mostly along the lines of what he resembled and where he could go and what he could stick where before he got there.

By way of conclusion she gestured with a Princess Diana plate and said to her pastor: “All I know is, when he meets the Lord, he’ll get what he has coming to him.”

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I said a lot of things about Pete too, mostly boring, predictable preacher things: that Pete needed to make restitution, do penance, seek forgiveness.

I said a lot of things about Pete, but it never occurred to me…it would’ve violated everything I learned in Kindergarten, my Mom would’ve grounded me…

     Diane would’ve cold-cocked me if I’d said something like:

     ‘Sure Diane, I know Pete’s a 2-faced, crooked SOB but just look at how clever he was at draining your nest egg you! You could probably learn a thing or two from him.’

     I never would’ve said something that offensive.

     Of course, that’s just what Jesus does.

In Luke’s Gospel Jesus gets accused of consorting with tax collectors, who were no better than extortionists. Jesus gets accused of hanging out with easy women, and drinking with sinners.

They accuse Jesus of condoning sin by the sinful company he keeps.

     And proving that he would make a terrible Methodist pastor, Jesus responds to the acrimony by inflaming it.

He tells all the good, rule-abiding, religious people that God cares more for one, single sheep too stupid to stay with the shepherd than he cares about those who never wandered far from the flock.

And then Jesus watches his stock drop further when he actually praises lying and cheating and stealing.

With the second-guessing Pharisees looking on, Jesus gathers the disciples together and tells a story just for them:

      An executive at Goldman Sachs gets a memo from his HR Department that one of his managers has been cheating the company. 

     The boss calls him into his office, confronts him, tells him to clean out his desk by the end of the day. 

     As the manager is about to leave the office, the boss adds “And I’ll be coming soon to take a look at your books.”

     Riding back down the elevator, the manager thinks to himself: “I’m too old to start over again. I don’t have any other marketable skills and unemployment won’t cover the family budget.” 

     And before the elevator doors open, the manager has come up with his own severance package. 

     He’s still got the firm’s credit card so he invites some his best clients to a pricey dinner in the district, and over drinks and foie gras he tells them that he’s canceling the balance of what they owe his firm. 

     ‘Just write it off, and we’ll call it even’ he says. 

     He may not have a job but at least when the pink slip comes he’ll have a group of wealthy, grateful people to help him land on his feet instead of on food stamps. 

Jesus tells his huddled disciples this story and he doesn’t end it with a word of warning, a woe. He doesn’t tell them they are to give up their dishonest ways and follow him.

Instead Jesus says:

“And his master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly; for the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light.”

     And all of God’s People say: ‘What the_______________?’

You know, I watched you all while the scripture was read this morning. You all sat there as if this parable made perfect Sunday School sense.

It troubles me that not one of you looked even a little bit tight-sphinctered with the idea of Jesus pointing to the crooked little liar in the police lineup and saying: ‘Way to go! Thumbs up!’

At least in the ancient Church, no one swallowed this parable as calmly as you did.

Even St. Augustine, whose pre-Christian life makes Anthony Wiener seem reserved, drew the line at this parable. Augustine said he refused “to believe this story came from the lips of the Lord.”

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     Julian the Apostate, a 4th century Roman Emperor, used this parable of Christ’s to crusade against Christianity, which Julian argued taught its followers to be liars and thieves.

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      And St. Luke evidently had trouble with this parable because Luke tacks all these other sayings of Jesus to the end of the parable.

      Luke has Jesus say that we can’t love God and money.

True, but beside the point when it comes this parable.

Luke also warns us how the person who is not faithful in a little will not be faithful in much.

Again, it’s true but it’s not faithful to the scandal in Jesus’ parable.

      It’s like Luke’s obfuscating to get Jesus off the hook for violating our moral sensibilities.

And maybe getting Jesus off the hook is what you’re expecting from me.

Maybe you expect me to tell you not to worry, in the original Greek the dishonest manager is more like Robin Hood, ripping off the wicked rich to give the money back to the righteous poor.’

Yeah, not so much.

If someone like St Augustine didn’t figure out a way to short sell this parable then there simply isn’t one.

      What the manager did was to lie, cheat, steal, and lie some more.

      And Jesus points to him and says: ‘Gold star.’

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     “All I know is when he meets the Lord he’ll get what he has coming to him.” 

We all met the next week in the church parlor: Tim and Diane, Pete and Jane and the church lay leader.

The Book of Common Prayer contains an ancient worship service in it called the Reconciliation of a Penitent, and if I’m honest with myself that’s what I envisioned would happen.

With my keen powers of spiritual persuasion, Pete would repent. As a group we would draft steps towards penance. I would urge Tim and Diane to begin the process of forgiveness. It would all end, I thought, without permanent animosity or legal fees. Instead Pete some Sunday would confess his sins before the congregation and without a dry eye in the house we’d end the service singing ‘Amazing Grace that saved a wretch like me.’

And, of course, as the script played out in my imagination my congregation would be considered a paragon of counter-cultural Christian virtue, the sort of church you read about in the religion page of the Washington Post. And I would be the hero, easily elected as the Church’s youngest bishop ever.

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the Doogie Howser of the Episcopacy.

What went down, though, was more Kramer vs Kramer than Doogie Howser.

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     We gathered in the church parlor. Tim and Diane sat in front of a dusty chalk board with half-erased prayer requests written on it.

Pete sat in a rocking chair backed up against a wall. That criminally tacky painting of the Smiling Jesus hung in a frame right above his head.

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I opened with what probably sounded to everyone like a condescending prayer. No one said ‘Amen.’ Instead Tim and Diane exploded with unbridled anger and unleashed a torrent of expletives that could’ve peeled the varnish off the church parlor china cabinet.

And Pete, who’d always been an unimaginative, sedate- even boring- church member, when backed into a corner, became intense and passionate. There was suddenly an urgency to him.

With surprising creativity, Pete had an answer, a story, a reason for every possible charge.

I sat there in the church parlor watching the inspired and genius way Pete tried to save his own neck, and I couldn’t help but to turn to Tim and Diane and say: ‘I know Pete bled you dry and lied to your face and robbed you blind but there’s just something…wonderful…about the way he did it.’

No.

No instead, in the middle of Pete’s self-serving squirming, Tim and Diane threw back their chairs and, jabbing her finger in his direction, Diane screamed at him:

‘It’s like from the get-go you just expected us to forgive you?!‘

Then they stormed out of the church parlor.

And they caused even more commotion when they left the church for good.

Meanwhile Pete just sat there with a blank, guilt-less expression on his face and that offensively tacky picture of Jesus smiling right above him.

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     After an uncomfortable silence, I said to Pete: ‘I guess you’re probably wondering if we’re going to make you leave the church?’

He squinted at me, like I’d just uttered a complete non sequitur: ‘No, why would I be wondering that?’

‘Well, obviously, because of everything you’ve done. Lying and cheating and robbing your neighbors. It’s immoral.

     We’re supposed to be light to the world not just like the world.

     We can’t have someone like you be of the part of the church.’

I said in my best Doogie Howser diagnosis.

And Pete nodded and then leaned forward and started to gesture with his hands, like he was working out the details of another shady business deal.

‘You’re seminary educated right?’ he asked. I nodded.

‘And of course you know you’re bible a lot better than me.’ And I feigned humility and nodded.

‘I could be wrong’ he said, ‘but wouldn’t you say that the people Jesus had the biggest problem with were the scribes and the Pharisees?’

‘Yeah’ I nodded, not liking where this was going.

‘And back then weren’t they the professional clergy?’ Pete asked. ‘You know…like you?’

‘Uh-huh’ I grumbled.

‘And, again you’ve been to seminary and all, but:

Who would you say Jesus would be harsher on?

Someone like me for what I’ve done?

Or someone like you for saying I’m not good enough to belong with Jesus?’

‘You slippery son of a…’ I thought to myself.

I can’t prove it, but I swear Jesus’ smile had grown bigger in that offensively tacky picture on the wall.

Maybe his smile gotten bigger because Pete was smiling too. And I wasn’t.

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     Look-

Stealing is a sin. It’s the 7th Commandment.

Lying is wrong. It’s the next Commandment.

Greed is not good. It’s the last of the Ten Commandments and the 5th Deadliest Sin.

It’s all there in scripture: it’s wrong.

The bible says so. Sometimes Jesus even says so.

So I don’t why Jesus says ‘well done’ to the creep in this parable.

Did Jesus want to puncture our flattering self-images? Maybe.

Did Jesus want to point out out how the energy we expend for him is nothing compared to the lengths we’ll go to save our own skin? Possibly.

Did Jesus want us to notice in the story not the crook’s crookedness but the Master’s mercifulness?

Could be. I don’t know.

Truth is, I can’t answer the question: Why did Jesus tell this offensive story? And I’ve been preaching long enough now that I don’t trust anyone who tells you they can.

I can’t answer the question ‘Why did Jesus tell such an offensive story?’ but the fact that that is always the question we ask when it comes to this parable I think proves that there’s another, better question we should be asking:

‘When Jesus says he’s come to seek and save sinners, why is it that we always imagine Jesus is talking about someone other than us?’

Other than me.

I honestly can’t tell you why Jesus told a story like this.

But if there’s any silver lining to a story like this it’s that Jesus is willing to make someone like you the hero.

 

 

I just love Jesus’ annoying habit of spinning parables so obviously designed to wipe the s#@$-eating grin off our faces.

Example:

In Luke 16, Jesus serves up a story that contradicts all the pious niceties we perpetuate at church, a story in which, despite everything we teach our children in Sunday School, Jesus sides with Gordon Gecko and says in essence: ‘Greed is good.’

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We continue our Lenten sermon series, 7 Deadlies, this weekend by looking at Greed.

The text will be the story of the ‘dishonest manager,’ a parable that, while it does come up in the lectionary, most preachers treat it like was the latest Joel Osteen book.

Here it is:

Then Jesus said to the disciples, ‘There was a rich man who had a manager, and charges were brought to him that this man was squandering his property. So he summoned him and said to him, “What is this that I hear about you? Give me an account of your management, because you cannot be my manager any longer.” Then the manager said to himself, “What will I do, now that my master is taking the position away from me? I am not strong enough to dig, and I am ashamed to beg.I have decided what to do so that, when I am dismissed as manager, people may welcome me into their homes.” So, summoning his master’s debtors one by one, he asked the first, “How much do you owe my master?” He answered, “A hundred jugs of olive oil.” He said to him, “Take your bill, sit down quickly, and make it fifty.” Then he asked another, “And how much do you owe?” He replied, “A hundred containers of wheat.” He said to him, “Take your bill and make it eighty.” And his master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly; for the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light. And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes.  

In case you’re a Methodist and just skipped over the scripture, here it is in a nutshell:

Manager gets fired with cause.

Decides to save his own skin.

Knows he can’t do X, Y or Z so he criminally halves his Boss’ debtors’ debts to win their favor.

Jesus says: ‘Well done.’

Actually Jesus says: ‘Make friends for yourselves through dishonesty.’

And all the church people said: ‘What the_________?’

Jesus praises the bad guy, the cheating little blank, and tells us to mimic him?

Jesus’ point and how it jives with our picture of Jesus has long been the cause of head-scratching for preachers.

Here’s one thing, though, that hit me this week.

The chapter divisions in our bibles weren’t there until the 4th/5th century.

Meaning, in Luke’s original Gospel (the ‘Director’s Cut so to speak) this parable followed immediately after, without division, the Parable of the Prodigal Son.

What changes in the reading of the parable, I wonder, when its read as a companion to the Prodigal Father who had two sons?

This is from Janet LaisCh~
Lent is about reconciling through Christ as seen in the Calling of St. Matthew.

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This Church, San Luigi dei Francesi in Rome, proclaims a message– not from its monochrome façade but rather from the art inside. Cardinal Matteo Contarelli saved money for years to pay for the decoration of a chapel inside this church with scenes from the life of Saint Matthew. Once inside, enter the last chapel just before the high altar and see for yourself how Christ called Matthew to follow him. Jesus never said worship me, but rather he said follow me. Christ initiates reconciliation of us and the world here and now on earth.

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Caravaggio planned three paintings of Saint Matthew, starting with the moment Saint Matthew’s life began as God intended–the moment Matthew understood Christ’s calling. These three images moving left to right represent the Calling of Saint Matthew, the Inspiration of Saint Matthew, and the Martyrdom of Saint Matthew and together they tell a story about the relationship between Christ and all mankind as found in Matthew chapter 9.
“And when Jesus passed on from thence, he saw a man sitting in the custom house, named Matthew; and he said to him: Follow me. And he arose up and followed him.” As Jesus went on from there, he saw a man named Matthew sitting at the tax collector’s booth. “Follow me,” he told him, and Matthew got up and followed him.
10 While Jesus was having dinner at Matthew’s house, many tax collectors and sinners came and ate with him and his disciples. 11 When the Pharisees saw this, they asked his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?”
12 On hearing this, Jesus said, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. 13 But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice. For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.”
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Caravaggio layered oil paints with all the realism and drama true to Baroque art from 1600 AD to involve the viewer and to inspire a spiritual awakening in us. Like a director, Caravaggio constructed meaning through setting, lighting, character, costume, and gesture.  Caravaggio depicted this room and these men as a microcosm for the whole world and us in it–where filth and grime and elaborate outward costumes symbolize sin. Soot and grit cover the walls and even the window appears impenetrable to light of what may be the backroom of a seedy pub.  To some it may seem an unlikely place to meet Christ, but the Bible says that he came for the sick and the broken so any place, any time offers opportunity for Christ’s presence. Light enters the room from the upper right corner, perhaps from an open door, as Christ enters this dark room.  Caravaggio used the technique of tenebrism whereby he painted a stark and sudden contrast between light and dark colors– to communicate Christ’s ultimate power in this room and throughout all the world through reconciliation. Christ’s outstretched arm points gracefully calling Matthew to follow him. Matthew perched as one of five males, like peacocks– suited in lavish velvet, crimillion, leather and feathers– around a wooden table counting their day’s earnings. Armed with swords to defend their greed and vanity, they represent how far man has fallen.
Caravaggio used line to direct our attention to the main idea: Christ is calling Matthew despite his sin. Trace a diagonal line from Christ’s graceful, outstretched hand, to the redhead male pointing to himself.
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Pointing to himself, Matthew (see above) communicates recognition that Christ calls him, and his eyes fill with hope. Despite his sin when Christ arrives, Matthew meets Christ’s gaze, wide eyed, transfixed in a spiritual awakening. Christ sees Matthew for who he is: everything he lacks and everything he will become.

Michelangelo_Merisi_da_Caravaggio_-_The_Calling_of_Saint_Matthew_(detail)_-_WGA04118 The_Inspiration_of_Saint_Matthew_by_Caravaggio

A golden coin rests on Matthew’s hat (see image above) to betray his mind’s obsession with money as a Roman tax collector for Herod. During the Roman occupation, Matthew accumulated wealth by oppressing his own people, paying handsomely himself and the Roman infedels who conquered the Hebrews at Capernaum.  We know from reading the Bible and from looking at the next image in Caravaggio’s Contarelli chapel cycle that Matthew follows Christ without hesitation.  Christ transforms Matthew so that his outward appearance matches his inner faith: Matthews like Christ wears a robe and tunic and a golden halo gleaming divine inspiration (see above) like Christ rather than a coin over his head during his days as a tax collector.

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Two of the five individuals seated at the table do not notice Christ’s call. They instead greedily count their money. As voyeurs of this scene, we know their spiritual blindness prevents them from seeing Christ who has entered their very space.

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Caravaggio painted the old man (image above) with closed eyelids as he adjusts his glasses to symbolize the depth of his spiritual blindness. His near sightedness will only allow him to focus on finite pursuits rather than the infinite gifts offered through Christ.

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The young man’s near sightedness allows him only to see the coins on the table rather than look up to see Christ entering from across the room. The money or debt they count is their own sin; they cannot forgive others or themselves to recognize that Christ has already forgiven them. Counting money prevents them from realizing that reconciliation occurs now here on earth as God does not count our sins against us.
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Caravaggio portrayed the boys faces (see image above) lit up from the divine light. Their expressions and actions connote open minds and hearts as they turn away from the money on the table and gaze up at Christ instead. These two young men act as foils to the two money counters’ spiritual blindness.The boy on the right looks at Christ with his mouth slightly parted; he swings one leg over the bench and leans his body toward Christ as he begins to stand up. Caravaggio painted these boys again in the Martyrdom of Saint Matthew where still dressed in their finery they use their swords to try to defend Saint Matthew from the Roman soldiers who will eventually crucify him. A self portrait of Caravaggio is also included in this image as the story continues. We might see ourselves in these two boys and with our own free will to make a decision regarding our own next step whether or not to follow Christ.

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Christ and Saint Peter look out of place, like time travelers, with bare feet wearing robes and tunics from ancient Rome whereas the tax collectors wear seventeenth century finery. Christ’s entry into this pub imposes radical change on the whole world. A bulky, stalwart Saint Peter acts as an ambassador to Christ, helping Christ gather disciples. He holds a staff to indicate that following Christ won’t be easy and standing next to Christ, we are reminded that Christ will never leave either.

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Up close, we notice that Caravaggio accentuated Christ’s bone structure and humanness using the same technique of tenebrism–stark white paints next to bold blacks hues. The beautiful angle of his high cheekbone, his nose and lips reinforces that Christ became fully human and lived on earth among us. Though Caravaggio depicted Christ differently than the other figures; his movements epitomize grace and a halo glows above his head.  Unlike us, Christ is also fully divine. Christ’s expression and movements capture his decisive nature that unlike us, he does not waver. He knows exactly his ministry, and he calls his disciples to follow.

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Above Christ’s hand, the windowpane forms a cross, reminding us of Christ’s actions for us. Reconciliation is an accomplished fact through this cross and a continuing process here and now on earth. Christ doesn’t just save Matthew for eternal life but also saves Matthew in this life. Christ wants to do the same for all of us.

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Looking at this Creation painting by Michelangelo from the Sistine Chapel, we see that Caravaggio has borrowed the graceful lines of Christ’s arm and hand from another master for great purpose. Caravaggio communicates through line and pose that Christ is the second Adam who redeems man. The transference of reconciliation takes place from God to Jesus to us. Reconciliation takes place now here on earth. Jesus accomplished reconciliation through the cross and continues this work now here on earth through each of us. If we pray to hear the next step, knowing that if only Christ invades our space like he did with Matthew, we would get up and follow…follow absolutely anywhere… without question. Then we must also stop and listen. Only then can we realize that Christ already does.

 

1551602_768095979874489_1306517654_nIs the Cross our means of forgiveness or salvation? Is it some form of cosmic child abuse? Is it just another example of what we do when God gets too close?

While the Cross is at the center of all four Gospels and, very often, at the center of all our sanctuaries, the meaning of the Cross is far from self-evident or obvious. What Jesus accomplishes on the Cross- or rather what God accomplishes through him- is not spelled out in any of the creeds. Jesus gives one answer to what his death means, but Paul gives another answer. The Gospels themselves narrate the events but, like all good dramatists, leave the reasons and results opaque, leaving the audience to chew on it after the story is over.

For Pub Theology next Tuesday: We’ll talk through questions about the Cross.

Here’s how it will (hopefully) work:

YOU submit a question via the Speakpipe.

It’s the little widget icon on the right of your screen that looks like an old timey microphone and says ‘Send Voicemail.’

Click on it.

Don’t worry you won’t get charged anything or receive any porn.

Click it and you can then use your computer/phone’s microphone to submit an audio question. Any sort of question about the Cross, Lent, the Passion, Christ’s Suffering, Sin, Atonement etc is up for grabs.

And let us know who you are and where you’re at too.

Your voice message will be sent via email to my underling, Teer Hardy.

Teer will collect all the voicemail questions, curate them, and then pose them to me next Tuesday for Pub Theology.

I’ll take a blind stab and then we’ll open it up to Q/A and Pushback.

We’ll record it so if you can’t be there you can at least hear your question tackled.

If you haven’t been before this is good, laid-back space to ask honest questions about things that matter. So, if you know someone who’s not into church invite them.

Here’s the details:

Once again, we’re meeting at Forge Brew WorksForgeHeader-258x210-1

You can find them on Facebook too, here.

It’s just off the Fairfax County Parkway on Terminal Road. You can find directions here.

 

 

Fasting with Christ

Jason Micheli —  March 7, 2014 — 2 Comments

By Janet Laisch~

Each Ash Wednesday, I try to prolong the ephemeral cross on my forehead from fading, praying to absorb its meaning before it washes away.

Jesus never said worship me but rather He said follow me.

During Lent, we have 40 days to contemplate his life so that we may incorporate it more wholly into our own being. During Lent in 1308, a grand ceremony processed through the streets carrying Duccio’s Maesta, an altarpiece, to the Siena Cathedral and placed it, all 7 x 13 feet, gleaming in gold and tempera paint, at the crossing square –the very heart of the Cathedral– where the vertical and horizontal axes meet of this cruciform building plan. Entering this Cathedral, and walking to the crossing square, we begin our Lenten journey by looking at images of Christ’s life. 

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Today the Maesta has been dismantled, cut up and sold to the highest bidder. Scenes from Christ’s life that once decorated the back are now housed in museums and private collections, but we can at least view the majority of these scenes at the Siena museum. 
Originally placed in the center of the Cathedral, like sculpture, the believer could walk around it to encounter snapshots from Mary’s life and Christ’s infancy on the front and Christ’s adulthood on the back. Snapshots of the very stories as told in the Gospels.  The Maesta, the Italian word for majesty, shows the Virgin enthroned holding the infant Christ and surrounded by saints. The predella, or stand, on which the altarpiece rests, depicts the Annunciation, Nativity, Adoration of the Magi, and Flight into Egypt, to name a few of the other major events on the front.

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Walking around to view the back of the painting,  it depicts major events of Christ’s adulthood–not a single moment — but instead many acts to observe during Lent.  The Passion is told in thirty-four scenes, beginning on the bottom left with Christ’s Entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. Using gold leaf in each scene, Duccio unified these images of Christ’s life so we can consider them together.

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Drop your eyes to the left side of the predella (image below) where a scene depicts the Temptation of Christ, now at the Frick Musuem in NYC. The scenes that follow show Christ calling his followers, the wedding at Cana, the Transfiguration and the raising of Lazurus to name a few.
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In this Temptation of Christ, Duccio paints the moment when Christ commands Satan away. The space surrounding Christ shows how Christ through fasting becomes vulnerable to the temptations of Satan and also more open to God. The angels stand to Christ’s right ready to direct Christ out of the desert to begin his ministry. It is the perfect image to study at the beginning of Lent as told in the Gospel of Matthew.
“Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. After fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry. The tempter came to him and said, “If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread.”
Jesus answered, “It is written: ‘Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.’
Then the devil took him to the holy city and had him stand on the highest point of the temple. “If you are the Son of God,” he said, “throw yourself down. For it is written:
“‘He will command his angels concerning you,
and they will lift you up in their hands,
so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.
Jesus answered him, “It is also written: ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.
Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor. “All this I will give you,” he said, “if you will bow down and worship me.”
10 Jesus said to him, “Away from me, Satan! For it is written: ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only.
11 Then the devil left him, and angels came and attended him. 
 
Duccio used artistic elements to emphasize Christ’s resolve against sin. Satan first tempted Christ, who had been fasting, to turn the stones surrounding him into bread. Duccio represented these stones as the very rock that supports Christ’s feet in the center of the painting. 
Satan next tempted Christ to test God. Rather than give into sin, Christ stands on a rock that looks more like a hill than a mountain. Duccio used scale to emphasize that Christ conquered sin and could easily step down from the mountain without testing God as the devil commanded.
Lastly, Satan promised Jesus the kingdoms of the world if only Christ would worship him. Duccio manipulated scale to emphasize Christ’s power over this temptation as well; in the foreground, the towns should appear larger than Christ as they are closer to our view; however, the kingdoms in the foreground are just as small as those in the background. Scale then communicates power and here clearly Christ is most powerful as he is largest.  
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 Duccio used line to communicate Christ’s power and resolve against sin. If you were to draw a diagram of this painting, you would draw smooth continuous lines, lines without agitation. 
Christ’s right arm gracefully extends from his body sending Satan away to the shadowy background. The devil in response to Christ raises his hand to communicate that he has given up and then turns and steps away. These graceful, continuous lines do not  depict a battle scene or struggle between the two main characters, but rather Christ has drawn a line to separate himself from sin.
Duccio divided the panel into two halves through color; notice the contrast in color between the background and foreground– Duccio painted the background using browns and grays whereas Duccio painted the foreground using pinks and blues. Christ directs Satan back to darkness whereas Christ inhabits the lit space. Also the artist used color to communicate Christ’s superiority to the devil and all temptations. 
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Our eyes first notice Christ who stands slightly off center because Duccio has painted Christ wearing red, the highest saturation of color anywhere in the painting.
If instead Christ were wearing black like Satan, we would view the scene very differently. We would sense Christ’s struggle. If Duccio reversed the colors, painting Satan red and Christ gray, we would interpret Satan as the dominant figure. Through color choice, Duccio communicates that Christ dominates the scene–a metaphor for Christ’s actual resolve to conquer these temptations.
Duccio juxtaposed Satan and Christ; their bare feet next to each other as well. Duccio depicted Satan as a dark monster with webbed feet, large pointed ears, and  wings; whereas Christ has a beautiful face surrounded by a gold halo. Duccio applies decorative punching around Christ’s face and outlines him in greater attention and detail than Satan. The halo reminds us of Christ’s divinity; He is Lord on earth.
As Lord, Christ humbles himself hence the bare feet. Looking closely at this image, it like so many earlier Byznatine icons, has been touched by human hands. Visible scratch marks cover Satan, as an attempt to mulitate him believeing the image had magic power. 
Despite all of our sins, we are made in Christ’s image not in Satan’s image.
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Throughout Art History, artists have portrayed this story. Artists in Northern Europe depicted The Temptation of Christ less frequently than artists in Greece and Italy. Artists in Greece and Italy also depicted this subject most frequently in early Christian history and during the Renaissance. In Greece, it is more often portrayed as an icon (above), and in Italy, it is more often portrayed as part of a larger sculptural program on doors (above) or painted as one of many scenes on altarpieces like Duccio’s.
When it is painted independently it is rare. 
In modern art, Christ is more typically shown contemplating, alone in the desert rather than tempted by Satan (below).  
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Lent begins Christ’s forty-day fast and temptations in the desert.

As Christians we don’t observe the temptations of Christ from a safe distance. We have been baptized into Christ, and so throughout Lent, we participate in the mysteries of Christ knowing that His Resurrection is a reality as well.

The root of temptation is the same–to work apart from God.  Jesus knew the force of temptation better than we do, because He resisted temptation fully whereas we do not. This artwork with its many images of Christ’s life is a perfect place to start our Lenten journey. It is not what we give up for Lent that is most important, it is whether or not we can become vulnerable to absorb more of Christ into us.

 

Untitled2Today is Ash Wednesday the day when Christians defy every lie sold to us by Madison Avenue and the American healthcare system:

We’re not getting out of this life alive.

Not a one.

Heaven may be but Death definitely is for real.

With dismal colored ashes, today Christians confront the stark, counter-cultural truth:

from אֲדָמָה adamah (‘earth’) we were made and to the adamah we shall with 100% certainty return.

Ash Wednesday is about our mortality and all our finitude, shortcomings and contingencies wrapped up in that time-bound word. Ash Wednesday begins the season of Lent, the Latin word for 40th, recalling Jesus’ 40 days of testing in the wilderness before his ministry led him inexorably to the cross.

Jesus’ own 40 days in the wilderness echo the 40 years Israel was tested in the wilderness after their Exodus from slavery into Egypt. Whereas Jesus squares off against the devil without a hitch (‘man does not live by bread alone’ says the starving Jesus), Israel fared a bit worse (see: calf, golden).

Jesus does what Israel could not do for itself.

Jesus, it seems quite obvious to the Gospel writers, represents all the people of Israel in his own person.

And that’s no small point to note as we begin a season in which many Christians will begin their own ‘testing’ by forsaking chocolate, booze or social media. There’s nothing wrong with fasting and discipline to anticipate the Easter feast. The Church has been doing so for centuries, and, as for myself, I will be giving up both beverages of the fermented variety and furry animals on my dinner plate. And if previous Lenten fasts are any indication, I will probably be successful at this modest undertaking.

But, however good they be, modest Lenten goals that, truthfully, only intrude upon my daily life as ‘annoyances’ miss the larger point of the season:

Jesus does what we cannot do for ourselves.

Jesus represents all of us in his flesh.

It’s true that in Jesus, God became one of us, was every bit as human as each one of us, experienced everything entailed by our humanity.

But it’s also true that while being 100% Human, Jesus remains, simultaneously, 100% God.

Though one of us, Jesus is not just one of us at all.

Quick history lesson:

Beginning in the 18th century, Christians began to take their cues from the Enlightenment. Now, only that which was rationally demonstrable and confirmed by our own private experience was considered ‘true.’ Rather than conforming their definitions of truth to scripture, Christians looked to scripture to confirm their a priori presumptions about what was ‘true.’ Where it did not, scripture was now considered ‘myth.’ 

So, for example, the story of Jesus’ 40 Day testing by Satan in the wilderness is no longer a ‘true’ or realistic story about what Jesus has done. Instead Christians turned to the story of Jesus’ trials in the wilderness and saw in it a parable for their own times of trial and temptation.

Rather than being a unique story about Jesus’ absolutely singular vocation, it became a generalized story about our common human experience. 

If you’re in a church that follows the lectionary, just listen to the sermon tackle Jesus’ wilderness testing.

Is the sermon about how Jesus’ trials are examples of trials that come to all of us in life (cue personal- probably sports- illustration from the pastor).

Or is the sermon about how in the wilderness Jesus begins his work of doing what neither Israel nor we can do for ourselves?

The Gospels tell not the story of generalized human experience found in the person of Jesus; the Gospels tell how God in Christ frees human experience from what binds it.

And because Christians ever since the Enlightenment have been so bad at remembering that perhaps this Lenten season we should forget our modest, achievable fasts and spiritual disciplines.

Instead this Lent maybe we should go balls to the wall and take on a test we know we have no hope of ever keeping. Maybe by choosing a fast we know will end in certain failure we’ll remember the hard but good news with which this season ends:

Jesus does what we cannot do for ourselves.

For us.

I figured this was a better picture than a slab a meat, the other culinary delight we’re forsaking for the wilderness season.

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Pharoah and his army he cast into the sea, they went down, down, down like a stone. By your right hand, by your mighty right hand they were shattered; Lord, you shattered them all. Sing to the Lord; the Lord has won, he has won.  Sing to the Lord; the Lord has won, he has won.

– Exodus 15

Moses is referred to as a servant thirty-six times in the scripture Jesus learned on Mary’s lap.

Only, there’s another understanding of servant that courses through the Hebrew Bible. It’s not a memory of one God has sent to his People. It’s the promise of a servant God will send to rescue his People.

The prophet Isaiah was called after the Chosen People had been invaded, defeated and plundered by Babylon. Israel’s best and brightest were exiled into captivity. Those not exiled had it worse; they had to live among ruins, the promises of God reduced to ash and rubble. images

Isaiah looked for a day when God would restore his People by way of another Servant.

And maybe because of all the violence Isaiah had witnessed, maybe because Isaiah knew firsthand that violence doesn’t always end in victory songs, Isaiah anticipated a servant unlike Moses. Isaiah envisioned a deliverance different than the Exodus.

After Jesus enters Jerusalem, on Monday of Holy Week, Jesus goes to the Temple as though he’d been deputized and it’s his jurisdiction.

     Not content to ‘teach’ he drives them out:

The merchants who’ve set up shop in the narthex.

The money changers, looking to make a buck off atonement. The venders who sold doves to those too poor (like Mary and Joseph) to purchase a proper animal for sacrificing.

Jesus drives them out along with all the thousands of sheep and oxen waiting to be sold to the holiday travelers.

Tradition refers to this as Jesus ‘cleansing’ the Temple, but it’s really a stampede. In a city already filled with 200,000 pilgrims and the 20,000 lambs required for their Passover meals Jesus’ cleansing of the Temple creates chaos in the streets. It leaves the crowds spellbound.

     It puts Jesus firmly in control of events.

If he truly is a Messiah like they expect then his coup d’etat is nearly complete: the Temple’s been taken, the crowds are on his side and the Roman fortress is literally just next door.

But Jesus doesn’t take up arms.

Instead, Matthew says that after he’s driven out the merchants and money changers, Jesus welcomes the blind and the lame and the children to come up to him in the Temple, a place where they were forbidden.

     Jesus’ cleansing of the Temple becomes yet another example of how he’s taught all along.  

As though God had sent this messiah to teach.

     As if deliverance could be accomplished with just words.

     Or with the Word.

 

      Patristic theologians, those theologians in the Church’s first generations, understood the work of atonement primarily in battle imagery.

For them, the Son’s work is a dramatic struggle Jesus wages with Sin and Death. Death in this perspective is a malevolent power, synonymous with Sin, which looms over God’s creation and frustrates God’s intentions for us. Paul, in Colossians 2.15, speaks of the Cross in this way and the effects Jesus’ cross have over the natural world in the Gospels suggest it too: the earthquake, the graves exploding open, the sky darkening, the temple veil torn in two. Jesus in Mark 10.45 speaks of his life being a ransom.

The Palm Sunday allusions to a military parade echo such a battle metaphor too. Jesus rides into Jerusalem just like Pilate, the crowds wave palm leaves, a messianic symbol, and Jesus is tried for claiming to be a rival king and he dies a revolutionary’s death. IMG_0593

For the early Church, Easter- much more so than the Cross- is the day that changes everything and the significance of the Cross is that it’s empty.

In the Gospel narrative, Pilate and the chief priests represent the power of Death and Sin in the world. They represent us, who enamored of ‘power’ such that we cannot recognize or accept that Jesus’ self-giving form of love is the true power that moves the universe.

Jesus saves us by breaking Death’s power, by defeating the lure that Sin has over us and by making possible a life lived in anticipation of God’s New Creation. This metaphor sees atonement has happening primarily through Easter’s Empty Tomb.

The strengths of the Victor theory include its recognition of the reality and power of Sin in the world; Jesus comes to defeat Sin on a cosmic level not simply forgive my personal sin and Jesus does this objectively and decisively.

According to this way of thinking, Sin really was defeated by Jesus once and for all. As Paul says in Ephesians, he has brought down the principalities and powers. All that’s left in our world, all the sin and evil we see in our world, is just the last gasp of an enemy that’s already been defeated.

Think of the Ring of Power in the Lord of the Rings and how it exercises power and evil long after Sauron had been defeated. It was, in fact, this model of the atonement that informed Tolkien.

Another attribute of the theory is how it understands that God works liberation and reconciliation not through violence but by letting Sin do its worst to him and thus demonstrating its ultimate finitude and weakness.

The Cross, then, shows God exhausting Sin’s power.

There’s literally nothing else Sin can do to him and its still not enough to destroy God’s condescending love. 

The Victor metaphor also pays due attention to Jesus’ life. The content of Jesus’ life, his teaching, is the same power that defeats Sin at the end of the story. His teaching isn’t extraneous or optional for us. It’s Jesus training us to do battle in the world today.

Christians committed to the efficacy of Jesus’ teaching aren’t being naive or idealistic, as critics often charge; in fact, they are being more realistic than anyone else.

Sin has been defeated by Jesus.

We shouldn’t act as though Christians must resort to non-Christians means to do battle. Sin should be taken seriously but the only way to defeat it is through Christ’s way of life.

It may even kill us as it killed him but ultimately Easter shows it to be the only winning strategy.

 

IMG_0593     The biblical concept of ‘salvation’ spans past, present and future.

     Salvation isn’t just what Jesus did; it’s what God does.

When it comes to Christ specifically, salvation, meaning ‘healing’ or ‘rescue,’ is a word that functions with two complementary but different meanings.

Understood against a large canvas, ‘salvation’ refers to what Jesus does (or did) through his life, death and resurrection. More particularly, ‘salvation’ also refers to what God does today to heal us of Sin; that is, ‘salvation’ refers to how God extends the benefits of Christ’s work to us in the present.

I would argue the only way to avoid such confusion is construing salvation as a work, not of God or Jesus in isolation from one another, of the entire Trinity.

     As Trinity, God worked salvation for us through incarnation, cross and resurrection.

     As Trinity, God works salvation (healing, rescue) for us through the Holy Spirit. 

 

Put in trinitarian terms, salvation is both past and present. It’s a work of both the Son and the Spirit.

As a work of the Son, salvation can be defined in terms of Christ’s act of atonement and refers to the way in which Jesus‘ birth, life, death and resurrection reconciles a sinful humanity to God.

While this work of the Son properly encompasses the breadth of Jesus‘ story, oftentimes atonement more narrowly refers exclusively to the Cross.

When Christians say ‘Jesus saves,‘ for instance, they usually mean ‘Jesus atoned.‘

Atonement is a sacrificial term owing to the Levitical holiness codes in the Old Testament. In Christian terms, it denotes the way in which Jesus (his life or death or both) is an expiation, an expungement, for humanity’s sin. As I tell the confirmation students each year, atonement refers to how Jesus makes us ‘at-one‘ with God, a God we’d estranged through our sin.

Christ achieves this at-onement irrespective of the rest of the course of human history. As the darkening skies, the torn temple veil and the quaking earth in the Gospels‘ Good Friday scenes suggest, there is an objective status to Christ’s work on the Cross. In some real way, the obedience and faithfulness of Jesus all the way to the Cross determines how God henceforth regards humanity.

     That the penalty of humanity’s sin is reconciled, however, does not mean that humanity is fully restored to the life God originally intended.

     It may be the 1 Cross + 3 Nails = 4-giveness

but that does not mean you are a transformed person.

Forgiveness alone does not make you who God made you to be. Forgiveness instead makes it possible- it frees you- for the work of the Spirit (grace) to restore you so that, over time, you may resemble Christ.

The work of the Son is objective, true, and perfect. It is continued and perfected in us by the work of the Spirit. The Spirit makes available in the present the work of the Son in the past.

You can see this Trinitarian flow in the chronology of the Gospels themselves. After Good Friday and Easter, the Risen Christ appears to the disciples (to whom all is clearly forgiven) and breathes his Spirit upon them.

Soon, having received the Spirit, the disciples, heretofore dim-witted, sinful and cowardly, bear a striking resemblance to Jesus himself.

Having been reconciled they’ve been restored to lead Jesus‘ life for themselves.

As a present work of the Spirit, salvation can be defined in the very terms Jesus used the word: as healing, rescue, restoration from sin. This is the way Jesus speaks in Luke 19 when Christ invites himself to Zaccheus‘ house. Jesus‘ hospitality and welcome of a dreaded tax collector and Roman collaborator changes Zaccheus‘ heart such that Zaccheus willingly gives up his ill-gotten fortune. In response, Jesus declares ‘salvation has come to this house today.‘ In other words, Zaccheus right then and there has experienced healing.

Salvation as a work of the Son refers to what Jesus says ‘is accomplished’ on his cross. It’s the work that is true regardless of my own belief or faith. Salvation as a work of the Spirit refers to how I access and appropriate the Son’s work in my present life. If the work of the Son is what is objective about salvation then the work of the Spirit is that part of salvation that requires my response.

 Already you may be asking: If the work of the Son (on the Cross) is definitive, perfect and objective once for all, then what of those who don’t believe? Who never come to the faith or who do not take it with sincerity?

That specific question is best answered later but understanding salvation as a work of the Spirit allows you to answer part of the question now.

Namely, if one does not appropriate salvation in their present life then- no matter the question of how God will ultimately judge them- they are living an impoverished life. They are living (settling for) a life less than what God desires for them.

 

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This weekend for my sermon I answered questions people submitted about the Cross, the Atonement and the Passion Story.

I pulled the questions at random from a bingo tumbler and answered as many as possible.

Dennis Perry, my assistant pastor, joined me at 3 of the services and a friend and divinity student, Andrew DiAntonio joined me at 2 of the services. 

You can listen and/or download them by clicking here or going to ‘Tamed Cynic’ in the iTunes store.

I will add them to the ‘Listen’ widget on this blog by the end of this week.

Shudder – to tremble with a sudden convulsive movement, as from horror, fear, or cold. 

That moment when you want to find the nearest cave and just stay there awhile – or maybe longer….

counterfeit-gods-timothy-keller1Do you ever have those moments when realizations hit you like a brick and send a chill through your body?

Not a good kind of chill – a shudder.

That horror.  That fear.

That recognition that leaves you cold.

That moment when it feels like nothing will ever be ok again.

Oprah helped bring the watered down version into our vocabulary – the AHA moment.  But I’m talking about the shudder moment.

Isaiah talks about it:

 “The arrogance of man will be brought low and the pride of man humbled; the Lord alone will be exalted in that day, and the idols will totally disappear.  Men will flee to caves in the rocks and to holes in the ground from dread of the LORD…In that day men will throw away to the rodents and bats their idols of silver and idols of gold, which they made to worship.  They will flee to caverns in the rocks and to the overhanging crags from dread of the LORD”

James talks about it:

“You do not have because you do not ask God.  When you ask, you do not recieve, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures.  You adulterous people, don’t you know that a friendship with the world is hatred toward God?”

It is spiritual adultery when we worship anything or anyone other than God.  James has a way of putting things doesn’t he?

Too often I have felt that shudder to my very core when the Holy Spirit helps me uncover some hidden agenda, fear, pattern or habit in my life that is totally missing the Christian mark.  I mean way off!

Then the realization hits me about just how much time I have wasted or how many people I have hurt in the meantime.

The wreckage that needs to be dealt with as well as the sin.

I have told myself what I have wanted to hear too many times so I could keep safe in my little life.  So I wouldn’t have to go through the agony of the shudder moment that has to change everything for me.  Too many things that I have served keep me from being the woman that God created me to be.

The thing is, that once I feel it, name it, deal with it, and ask for forgiveness I must give it over to the cross.

It isn’t easy to give up the regret or shame that those moments can bring.

I fee like if I don’t carry it around for months or years then I am somehow diminishing the suffering that I must feel because of it.

Christ suffered for that sin as well.

If His forgiveness is not for me – then it isn’t for you – and I know it is.

 

 

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I hate Palm-Passion Sunday sermons. Hate. Them.

I know most everyone will never come to Holy Thursday or Good Friday so I feel this pressure to condense a week’s worth of holy week time and what is an easy third of the Gospel into one sermon, which is recipe for bad writing, which I know, which eventuates in bad writing. Argh.

Here’s a Palm Sunday sermon, “The Recipe for Peace,” from 2 years ago. It’s not terribly awful.

Scot McKnight has it posted it over at his Jesus Creed blog.

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At the same time I was finishing up seminary, my best friend was winding up his studies at law school. When I was starting out at my first church, he was beginning his law career.

After clerking for an appeals court judge for a year, he got chosen to clerk for the Supreme Court, for Justice Scalia, a job which first required he to pass an extensive FBI background check.

Because I was his best friend and because we’d been roommates together at UVA and because we’d known each other a long while, the FBI needed to interview me about his character.

So one spring afternoon during Holy Week a fifty-something FBI agent came to my church to interview me about my friend.

He was tall and balding and was wearing a dark wrinkled suit. When my secretary showed him into my office, the first thing he said to me was “you don’t look much like a reverend.” Whether he was talking about my age or appearance wasn’t clear, but the contempt was crystal. I decided right then and there that I didn’t like him.

He offered me his business card but not his hand and sat down across from my desk. He glanced around my office looking amused. Then, with a dismissive tone of voice, he said: “So, why are you doing this?” 

He meant ministry. Why are you doing ministry.

It wasn’t really the sort of question I was expecting to have to answer from him. ‘Well,’ I said, ‘I believe God’s called me to this.’ 

And he chuckled.

Like there must be some angle, like I’d just given him a throwaway line I couldn’t possibly believe.

He nodded towards my diplomas on the wall by the stained glass window and said: ‘You didn’t really have to go to school for this did you?’ 

Looking back, I’d have to say it was right about then that I became cranky.

He opened up a leather portfolio, took out a pen from his pocket, and said: ‘Let’s get to it.’ 

I’m sure he had all the answers already, but he asked me how I knew my friend, how long I’d known him, how well I knew him. Those sorts of questions, verifying dates and addresses.

Then he asked me if I knew whether or not he belonged to any international organizations whose beliefs or interests might conflict with those of the United States government.

And because I’d already decided I didn’t much care for this agent and because I was feeling kind of cranky, a question like that was just too good to pass up.

So I responded by saying: ‘Yes, yes of course.’ 

He stopped writing and looked up from his pad. ‘Care to explain that?’ he mumbled.

And with my voice oozing sincerity I said:

‘Well, he’s a committed Christian. He belongs to a Church- that’s an ancient, international organization that demands complete and primary allegiance and can be quite critical of the government.’ 

The agent sighed as if to wonder what he’d done to deserve having to listen to a crazy person like me. He scribbled something in his notepad- religious nut-job, probably- and muttered: ‘But Christianity’s personal not political. It’s just spiritual stuff.’ 

And because he’d rubbed me the wrong way, and because sarcasm is my particular cross to bear, I decided to mess with him a bit more. I put a concerned look on my face and in my best conspiratorial tone of voice I whispered to him: ‘The problem is that Christians don’t see a difference between the two.’

I noted with delight his bald scalp starting to flush red.

‘Everything in the Gospels is about personal transformation,’ I whispered, ‘but everything in the Gospels is also a dangerous political statement.’ 

He set his pen down. He looked really irritated with me and I was loving every moment of it.

‘Alright,’ he said, ‘what do you mean exactly?’ 

Again with mock sincerity I said:

‘Think about it. As soon as Jesus is born the government tries to kill him. When he’s fasting in the wilderness he implies the governments of the world already belong to the devil. For his first sermon, he advocates across the board forgiveness of debts, redistribution of wealth to the poor and convicts to be set free. He never gives a straight answer about whether his followers should be paying taxes to the empire or not. When he enters Jerusalem the week before he dies he does so by mocking military parades with donkeys, coats and palm leaves.” 

And then I lowered my voice to a whisper and said: ‘even though he refuses to resort to violence he’s killed by the empire as an enemy of the State, as a revolutionary. And we call him King.’ 

When I finished, he waited a moment, not saying anything, trying, I think, to get a read on me. Then he narrowed his eyes at me and said: ‘You think you’re pretty smart don’t you?’ 

And I feigned innocence and replied: ‘And just think- I didn’t even have to go to school.’ 

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Every year during Passover week Jerusalem would be filled with approximately 200,000 Jewish pilgrims. Nearly all of them, like Jesus’ friends and family, would’ve been poor.

Throughout that Holy Week these thousands of pilgrims would remember how they’d once suffered under a different empire and how God had heard their cries and sent someone to save them.

So every year at the beginning of Passover week, Pontius Pilate would journey from his seaport home in the west to Jerusalem, escorted by a military triumph: a parade of horses and chariots and armed troops and bound prisoners, all led by imperial banners that declared ‘Caesar is Lord.’ 

     A gaudy but unmistakeable display of power.       

     At the beginning of that same week Jesus comes from the east.

His ‘parade’ starts at the Mt of Olives, 2 miles outside the city, the place where the prophet Zechariah had promised God’s Messiah would one day usher in a victory of God’s People over their enemies.

     And establish peace.

     The procession begins at the Mt of Olives, but Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem began all the way back in Luke 9.

For ten chapters Jesus has journeyed from one town to another, teaching his way to Jerusalem.

From Luke 9 to Luke 19, as Jesus has made his way to Jerusalem, it’s all been about teaching, his teaching, teaching about the Kingdom.

It hasn’t been healing after healing after healing. It hasn’t been miracle after miracle after miracle. Jesus has taught his way to Jerusalem, taught about the Kingdom here and now, and our lives in it.

But when they get to the Mt of Olives, this place that’s charged with prophetic meaning, it’s not his teaching they want to acclaim.

It’s his deeds.

The mighty deeds.

The deeds of the power.

The healings and the miracles.

As if to say: if Jesus can do that just imagine what he can do to our enemies.

 

There are no palm branches in Luke’s Palm Sunday scene, no shouts of ‘Hosanna.’ Not even any crowds.

It’s just the disciples and some naysaying Pharisees and this King who’s riding a colt instead of a chariot.

The disciples lay their clothes on the road in front him.

They sing about ‘peace’ just as the angels had at his birth.

And then they proclaim excitedly about his mighty deeds.

And just as the disciples begin voicing their expectations and the city comes into view, Jesus falls down and weeps: ‘If you, even you, had only recognized the things that make for peace.’ 

He’s looking at the city but he’s speaking to his disciples.

And he’s talking about the Kingdom, his teaching about the Kingdom.

He’s talking about:

Good news being brought to the poor and the hungry being filled

Embracing society’s untouchables

Eating and drinking with outcasts

Loving enemies and turning the other cheek and doing good to those who hate you and refusing to judge lest you be judge and forgiving trespasses so you might be forgiven

Greatness redefined as service to the least

Love of God expressed as love of Neighbor

Hospitality so extravagant it’s like a Father who’s always ready to welcome a wayward home

A community of the called who are committed to being like light and salt and seed to the world

     He’s talking about the Kingdom.

 

Our life in the Kingdom in the here and now.

 

With the city in view and excited shouts of mighty deeds ringing in the air, Jesus falls down and he cries.

He weeps.

Because after every sermon, every beatitude and parable and teaching moment his disciples still don’t get it.

 

They still don’t see how his teaching about the Kingdom and how he will save them are one and the same.

 

‘Enough with the Sunday School lesson,’ the agent said. His bald head was a deep shade of red and I was gleeful for it.

‘You don’t have any reason to believe ___________ has subversive ideas about the government do you?’ 

Did I mention I was feeling cranky?

Well  I was. So I replied: ‘Like I said, he’s a Christian. I should hope he as some subversive ideas.’ 

The agent threw up his arms and pointed his finger at me: ‘This is about your friend’s job,’ he said, ‘so tell me straight what you’re saying.’ 

I nodded my head in concession.

‘Christians,” I said, “we don’t believe governments or empires or militaries really have the power to change the world. Christians have a different definition of Power. We believe its Jesus, his way of life, that makes for peace.’ 

That’s not the way the world works’ he said, the disrespect creeping back into his voice.

     ‘That’s what I was trying to tell you.’  

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     In all four of the Gospels, there’s only two places where Jesus weeps.

     The first is over the grave of his friend Lazarus.

     The second time Jesus weeps it’s over us.

It’s like he knew.  It’s like Jesus knew we’d never get it, never grasp that it’s our living his Kingdom here and now that makes for peace.

And yet he doesn’t stop the Palm Sunday parade. He doesn’t get down off the colt. He doesn’t tell the Passover crowd to pick up their palm leaves. He doesn’t turn around and head back to Galilee.

He goes up.

To Jerusalem.

Knowing right then and there that we had no idea what he’d been trying to teach us, Jesus still goes up into Jerusalem.

As if the only way to show us, once and for all, would be-

for him to forgive those who trespass against him

and for him to turn the other cheek

and for him to bless those who curse him

and for him to give his robe to those who take his cloak

and for him to love his enemies

all the way to a Cross

just so we might finally see

the things that make for peace.

 

The Cross isn’t just a grim reminder that you’re a sinner and Jesus suffered and died in your place.

The Cross is proof that, no matter how we think the world works, his is a way and a truth and a life not even death can defeat.

IMG_0593This weekend is Palm-Passion Sunday and, with it, the beginning of Holy Week. We’re following Jesus to the Cross.

The following is an anecdote I used to begin a sermon on the atonement a few years ago:

It probably tells you something about my life that I’ve known two different people named ‘Frog.’ The first was a bully in middle school who sat in front of me on the bus. That was the Frog on whom I one day unleashed my inner Taxi Driver, but that’s a story for another place.  

     The other Frog was a retired man who worked for the funeral home in the town where I once ministered. This Frog- I have no idea what his actual name was; it actually said ‘Frog’ on the somber nametag he wore for the funeral home- was tall and skinny and bald. His head was small and his Adam’s apple was large and stuck out further than his nose. 

     Once, I was sitting in the hearse with Frog. I had my robe on and my worship book in my lap. We’d left a funeral service at my church and we were leading a processional of cars to the cemetery for the burial. I’d ridden with Frog before. Frog was a lay leader at his church- a deacon I think is what they call them. His church was Pentecostal Holiness, one of approximately fifty-three in town. 

     As we led the procession through town and up the winding road to the graveyard, Frog told me that he and his church had that previous weekend baptized sixteen youth in the Jordan River. 

     ‘Excuse me?’ I said. ‘In the Jordan River?’ I asked.  

     And he said: ‘Yeah, the Jordan River…at Holy Land, USA.’ 

     Holy Land, USA was a- I don’t know what you call it- theme park a short drive away in Bedford, Virginia. The Jordan River in question was actually more of a stream that eventually found its way to the James River. I had driven past Holy Land, USA before. 

     It is a not- quite- to- scale recreation of the Holy Land complete with State Park-like wooden signs explaining in irregularly painted words what you’re looking at. The Garden of Gethsemane, for example.  

     It all has a certain charm to it, and I suppose if you can ignore the thickly forested mountains, the waste baskets and park benches, then it’s just like the Holy Land. It’s on the same tourist route as Foam-Henge, the Natural Bridge Wax Museum and the miniature toy museum. 

     This is the hallowed, sacred site where Frog had proudly helped baptize sixteen of his church’s youth. 

     ‘That’s…interesting’ I said. When he didn’t say anything in reply, I was afraid I had offended him. But we had arrived at the cemetery and he was instead looking in his mirrors to check that the procession was lining up behind him properly. 

     ‘It’s a waste of land’ he said to me absently. And I thought he was talking about the graveyard. 

‘At Holy Land, USA they have I don’t know how many acres. You can walk Jesus’ whole life.

But if Jesus just came to suffer for our sins, it’s an awful waste of land.’ 

     Then he got out of the hearse. 

     By that same reasoning you could argue that the Gospel texts themselves are a waste of ink and pages. Filler. Unnecessary prologue on the way to the Passion and to Paul.

Frog is hardly the only person to harbor that perspective.

     When the purpose of Jesus’ life is defined exclusively in terms of his death, then the content of his life seems superfluous. Indeed (and this may be one reason why the substitutionary perspective has such mass appeal) the ethical imperatives preached by Jesus in his life no longer carry much urgency.

     You only need the cross for salvation. 

     Not the sermon on the mount. 

     Jesus came to die for me. 

     Not to form me as part of a particular community.

     What’s demanded by this understanding of the atonement is my belief in it and not my           participation in or continuation of Jesus’ Kingdom community.

What’s more, if Jesus’ death is the point of it all then Easter seems little more than a happy surprise at the end of the story, a pleasant but not necessary epilogue, an example only of the eternal life we too will one day enjoy.

But here’s the real kicker:

Why is it that no one seems to notice that the most common ways we have of talking about the Cross and what Jesus accomplishes (and why) appear no where on the actual lips of Jesus?

How do we get away with narrating the Cross in a manner that the Gospel writers chose not to narrate it?

This weekend for our Counterfeit Gods sermon series we’re tackling the idol of politics. Sigh.  I can already imagine what my inbox will be like on Monday morning. 121101065950-red-blue-state-jesus-custom-1

As a pastor, I frequently hear from Christians:

‘I think Christianity is private, personal. Politics should be kept out of the Church.’

I certainly get the fatigue behind the question. Fatigue over our hyper partisan culture and how the Church has dirt all over its hands by participating and encouraging that culture.

And yet when someone makes a statement like that I often ask, in love:

‘Just what bible are you reading?

Because you’ve obviously never read the Old Testament prophets.

Or the Exodus story.

Or any of the Gospels.

Or the Book of James.

Or Revelation.’ 

Like Judaism before it, Christianity has always been a public faith. The first Christians were called an “ekklessia,” meaning they were ‘God’s called-out people.’ Christians, it was believed, lived their faith publicly with very public consequences. Questioners in the gospels asked Jesus about everything from adultery and divorce to poverty, taxes, war and patriotism. St. Paul, on the other hand, wrote most of his letters to churches to help new Christians with the difficulties that came with balancing their faith and their worldly commitments.

Christianity is not, and never has been,

simply an interior faith.

It is not limited to my own inner spirituality or my own personal relationship with God. Nor are the concerns of Christianity limited to the Church sanctuary. Christianity places expectations on its followers that follow them from worship to the church parking lot on Sunday morning and, from there, all through the week.

The way of Jesus offers a particular way for us to be in and view the world, and that the Christian tradition has a needful witness to help us make sense of our lives and the issues that confront us.

Claiming Jesus is Lord meant for the first Christians that Caesar was not. It was a big, bold confession that had implications on every part of their lives.

Even if we don’t like it, confessing the Lordship of Christ should still impact every square inch of our lives too.

But before we can figure out those implications, we need to learn what the first Christians didn’t have to learn; they had the benefit of a unity brought on by mutual suffering under the Empire.

In America, we are, for all intents and purposes, the Empire. In America, Christians first need to learn how to get along.

And listen.

Episcopal priest and author Barbara Brown Taylor says:

People who are shouting at each other are constitutionally incapable of seeing the image of God in someone else.

 

Our culture is characterized by much shouting. Given the divisive nature of our contemporary culture, how we talk about politics, as Christians, is nearly as important as the conclusions that we draw.

 

counterfeit-gods-timothy-keller1I feel a little bit like Esau – betrayed and with a score to settle.

I know she didn’t mean to do it, but my sister pulled a Jacob.

A very difficult family situation feels like a tragedy and a tragedy for me can become an idol.

I am in the middle of it right now, and I know how I need to act, but I don’t want to!

I want to act like Veruca Salt from Willy Wonka and stomp my feet and scream “I want it now daddy!  I want it now!”  

But I can’t.  I am a Christian.  That epic realization trumps it all.  It just does.

I have to do it; sooner rather than later, because it is impossible for me to live this way.   As Keller puts it, it is a bloodthirsty deity and hard to appease.  Unforgiveness is a vice-grip that changes how I see everything every day.   I’m still not there yet though.  I woke up with the vice grip around my heart.

She is my only sister.  There are hundreds of reasons and ways in which I can justify my anger and never forgive her.  The only one on the other side of the tally sheet is that I am called to forgive without her even asking; To forgive because I am forgiven.

I am naturally inclined to want justice instead – to make sure that it is fair before I can move to forgive.  Several years ago I recall hearing someone on television talking about how they had been able to forgive the drunk driver that killed their child.  All those around her and even I were shocked and amazed that she would even want to let alone find the path.  It seems like forgiveness on that scale is seen as weakness not strength from the Divine.

Then during my walk Max Lucado spoke to me this morning on the radio.  He reminded me

“relationships do not survive because the guilty are punished but because the innocent are merciful.” 

I’m not all high and mighty sitting up here on my throne of innocence, I’m still trying to figure my part out, but until I forgive and get past this, nothing else is possible.

I feel betrayed by her.  I feel like she destroyed a dream I have had for many, many years.  I believed that God was granting me one of the “desires or my heart.”  I believed that God was bringing the desire of my heart and his will for me together.

I remember when Dennis preached about that and how sweet it is when those two worlds collide.  By her actions she took it away from me.  I wanted it so much. 

Maybe that was the idol – the wanting?

I just know that I must forfeit this idol.

I know that I can do all things through Christ.  I know because God tells me and if it were not so, he would not have told me.  It is the Word of God.  I have faith that He will be there every step of the way with me as I work through this.  I know this because He has accompanied me on this journey before.

My Savior is not unfamiliar with betrayal.

  “Be kind and compassionate to one another. Forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.” Ephesians 4:32. 

If I do not, I dishonor Him and I can’t bear to do that again.

 

 

 

 

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.

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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.