Monday, September 18, 2017

Seventy Times Seven

Matthew 18 21-35
September 17, 2017

So Peter asks, “How many times should we forgive someone?
Seven times?
He probably thought he was being generous with that.
But Jesus says No, a lot more than that.
Try seventy and seven times.

Now these numbers were not just picked out of the air.
Their linked to an important reference in Genesis.
After Cain kills Abel, Cain is banished from his home and
sent to wander around the earth. He tells God that
he can’t live with that punishment, and
someone will surely kill him. So God protects him
with a seven times vengeance against anyone who does.

Then Cain’s great, great grandson Lamech,
brags to his wives saying,
“I killed a man for wounding me,
 And even killed a kid when he hit me.
If Cain is avenged seven fold,
then anyone who hurts me
will be avenged seventy-seven fold.”

Which I’m sure made him sound honorable then,
but now, it kind of just makes him seem sad.

It important to remember that in Jesus time
and before, revenge was a way of life.
Forgive Thy NeighborScott Erickson
If someone did something 
to you or your family,
you didn’t just brood over it, 
and internalize it
and stopped talking to the person or leave the neighborhood,
you got back at them. 
It was your right and obligation.
If you didn’t, you and your family’s 
honor was at stake.
In Leviticus 24, 
it’s spelled out and kind of tried to temper it,
“an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth”
You hurt me, then you owe me.

Jesus says that the call of the Christian 
is not seventy-seven fold vengeance, but seventy-seven fold forgiveness.
Jesus is calling for his disciples 
to undo the curse of Cain
and the vengeance of Lamech 
that has trapped their
people in endless cycles of hate, 
vengeance, and violence,
over the generations.

In this system, it wasn’t just willy-nilly wild west violence,
although there was some of that.
The promise of vengeance was kind of the legal system
at the time, you knew if you did something,
someone would get back at you for it.
And like anything, counting another’s sins against you
and retribution owed to you had been turned
into a commodity. The ones who could tally
up the most sins were the most powerful,
and the ones with the most sins tallied up
against them were losers, or if you were a loser,
that was the assumption anyway.

So now knowing some of that, we can look at Jesus parable.

In the parable, A slave owes a king a ton of money.
Remember, exaggeration is one method of parables.
And 10,000 talents was a lot.
One talent was 15 years wages, this was 10,000 times that.
Basically It’s a lot of money. More money than can be repaid.
This means that king had a lot of power over his subjects.
He could do almost anything he wanted.
And if he held onto that debt, he could leverage it
over this man and his whole family not just now, 
but for years to come.
And what does he do?
He releases the slave of the obligation of the debt.
Not just some of it, all of it. That must have sounded ridiculous.
And scandalous and radical.
Holding onto debts and grudges maintained power,
the caste system, a pecking order.
If the king started just forgiving people it would be
mass hysteria, dogs and cats living together,
you wouldn’t know who was who, slave or free,
man or woman, Jew or Greek.
This would be a new world, new freedom, new life.
Jesus meant to overturn a basic system of society.

For this now former slave, it could have been
a new morning, a new day, a new life for everyone.
He could have passed the Kings forgiveness on
and created a new reality in his community.
But as soon as he left that meeting with the king,
the slave forgot the new world he was given.
He went out into the world and forgot the forgiveness he was given,
and resumed the old way. The counting every debt,
the demand, the violence and the torture.

Now Matthew’s Jesus is always taking it over the top
in God’s justice department, but this old way
of accounting sins is torture –
 for the counted and for the counter.

Have you ever been in a position of not being able to forgive someone
for something they’ve done, whether it’s a large or small offense?
Of grumbling every time their name comes up
and relishing every bad thing that happens to them?
Of course you have, just like I have. Everyone has.
It’s human nature. And I can tell you it’s not good for you.
You think about it, you relive it, you imagine you’re offense over and over again. 
The one who’s done it has probably moved on and doesn’t
think much about it. But you can be held by the offense for years.

A society that is build around revenge and getting even cannot move on.
It cannot sustain itself, it will eventually blow itself up
with depression, or addiction, or guns, or nuclear bombs.
Jesus wants to overthrow this system with our forgiveness and love.
Now a days, we’re more sophisticated than they were in Jesus time,
we like our retribution for sins taken care of by our institutions,
we like our justice departments, we like our revenge meted
out by solitary confinement and the death penalty,
we like our debts counted by credit agencies and payday loan companies,
we still like the church to divide us
into holy and not holy, sinful and righteous.
We’re comfortable with the caste system
created by sin and debt and we are reluctant to give it up
but still and all, it’s torture for everyone.
It cannot survive.
And that is why Jesus made forgiveness front and center of his ministry.
And that’s why God’s forgiveness comes first
and sets us free so we can pass it on and
create a new reality in our community.

Here’s an example.
So the parents of the victims of Sandy Hook,
the school shooting where 20 first graders were killed in 2012,
They have a foundation who’s purpose it is to curb school shootings.

Their foundation works on reasonable gun control
and all of those safety precautions.
But their main focus is mental health reform,
getting young people, like the one who shot their children,
help they need before they reach a crisis.

They’re also working on an effort to make sure that
all children have friends, they started a program called
“No Child Eats Alone”, which encourages students and staff
to go and eat with children who are eating alone.
And “Know Me Know My Name” an effort for every staff teacher and administrative person to know every child’s name and use it regularly.
Now they could have easily gone to work on tougher sentences,
or more security in schools. Or they could have done nothing
and walked around bitter and scarred from this tragedy.
They have every reason not to be sympathetic,
to hold on to a grudge, to be angry and not forgiving.
I met a couple of them two years ago,
and they still missed their children,
you could still feel their pain.

And they hated what the young man did to them
and to their children,
but they didn’t call him a monster they didn’t dehumanize him.
They realized that he was troubled,
that he fell through the system,
and should have had help, he should have had a friend.
They went to a place of compassion for the man who offended them.

And I don’t know what their religious background is,
or whether they’re Christian, but this, I think,
is a profound example of forgiveness,
Even thought they didn’t call it that.

Forgiveness is such an important part of our faith.
But from bible studies and discussions, I still think
we’re unsure about what that means.
So I made a list of some thought that I’ve had,
maybe you have more.

Forgiveness doesn’t mean that people who have
committed crimes and hurt people should be free and prisons emptied.
But it does mean that as Christians we should demand that
prison be centers of rehabilitation and not punishment and torture.

Forgiveness does not mean that we shouldn’t  demand justice
And speaking the truth to power.
We can forgive and still try to correct systems and people that
use their privilege to take advantage of others
It doesn’t mean stopping to demand that things change.

Forgiveness doesn’t mean that we should continue to take abuse.
too often this parable has been used to give abusers a free ride
and to return people –usually women and children –
back into situations of sexual and domestic abuse.
Forgiveness doesn’t always mean reconciliation, that takes both people.
Forgiveness can only happen after the abuse is over.

Forgiveness doesn’t always mean telling someone they’re forgiven. Sometimes the person doesn’t need to know,
sometimes it’s too dangerous and sometimes the person is dead,
Sometimes we forgive people who aren’t even sorry.

Forgiveness isn’t only for the offender. It is for us.
It releases us. Some have said its, disempowering the past,
It’s not letting bitterness and anger to eat away at us.
It’s stopping the torture in our own brains.

Sometimes forgiveness doesn’t come to us.
That is where we need to rely on God’s power
and grace and love to help us.
Forgiveness isn’t easy,
 Jesus asks us to do a lot of things that aren’t easy.

And finally, forgiveness starts with remembering we are forgiven.
In Jesus parable, the first thing that happens is that the
king forgives the servant everything. He is released and freed.
He was able to start a new day and a new life.
But the servant forgot that, and that’s where the trouble began.

We have been forgiven by God through the grace of Jesus Christ.
We have been loosed, released from the bonds,
 set free, free to live and new day and a new life.
And that is where our own forgiveness of others starts.

And that is why we have a rite of confession and forgiveness in our worship.
So I ask you right now to stand, and remember you are forgiven.

If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. But God who is faithful and just will forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.

Most merciful God,
we confess that we are in bondage to sin and cannot free ourselves. We have sinned against you in thought, word, and deed, by what we have done and by what we have left undone. We have not loved you with our whole heart; we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves. For the sake of your Son, Jesus Christ, have mercy on us. Forgive us, renew us, and lead us, so that we may delight in your will and walk in your ways, to the glory of your holy name. Amen

In the mercy of almighty God, Jesus Christ was given to die for us, and for his sake God forgives us all our sins. As a called and ordained minister of the church of Christ, and by his authority, I therefore declare to you the entire forgiveness of all your sins, in the name of the Creator, Christ, and Holy Spirit.


Monday, September 11, 2017

What A Mess!

Matthew 18:15-20     
September 10, 2017

We’re in Matthew 18 this week.
Only two chapters ago, in Matthew 16, the concept of the church
was brought up for the first time when Jesus told Peter
he was going to build his church around his confession.
And here, just two chapters later,
Jesus has to talk about church conflict. That was fast.

As bible passages go, Matthew 18 is probably
the most directly applicable one we’ve got.
Most parables and stories take some interpretation before
we can figure out how to apply them and then we’re never sure.
But in this one, Jesus lays it out for us:
If someone sins, or does something that hurts you,
The first step is to talk to the other person directly. Alone.
There’s more, but to be honest, most people don’t get past this step.

If you’ve ever had one of these conversations,
you know that they can be very uncomfortable.
It can be uncomfortable to tell someone that they’ve hurt you.
You can hear things in response that can be uncomfortable.
You can hear about your own sin and wrongdoing.
And you can end up with a broken relationship
or being closer to a person than you really intended.
When Jesus is asking for this kind of stuff,
Church can get very very messy.

Generally just don’t do this.
We’d rather not have that awkward conversation, 
we’d rather complain about someone to other people,
or yell about them on social media, or just roll our eyes,
call them hopeless, and never talk to them again.

In Jesus time, people needed the community to survive.
Now we can easily live without community.
We have a greater temptation now to cut others off.

We are told now, that our world is politically polarized,
and we know that’s true, but the problem is not
is not disagreement, we’ve always had those.
The problem is that we cut off those we disagree with.
Of course we need to stay away from a person who is abusive
But it seems like a wrong opinion, or an offhand comment are
a justifiable reason to not ever talk, or listen to another person.

It’s easier to feud, fight, hold grudges, break off, run away,
cut off contact, and curse someone from afar.
It’s easier for people just to be around a select group,
to not be around people that annoy them,
and to just be detached.

Lots of people now, when they go to church they go
go to big mega-churches where they can
just come in on Sunday morning, have a good worship,
remain anonymous and leave without being engaged further.
I think that is a by-product of this need to be detached.

But Jesus has more expectations for communities that bear his name. 
Jesus wants us to take the more difficult road.
Not the path of being right and comfortable, but of being reconciled.
And that path has to go through disagreement, 
through hurt feelings, through anger, through sin, 
and to forgiveness, and to reconciliation.
And people usually would rather not take that path.

Pastor named Lillian Daniel wrote a funny little article
a few years ago called “Spiritual But not religious? Stop boring me.”
She complains about the people that she meets on planes
when they find she’s a minister,
they tell her that they’re “spiritual but not religious”.
We hear that a lot these days.

She writes when a person tells her they are
“spiritual but not religious”:

“Such a person will always share this
as if it is some kind of daring insight, unique to him, 
bold in its rebellion against the religious status quo.

Next thing you know, he's telling me that he finds God in the sunsets.
These people always find God in the sunsets.
And in walks on the beach.
Sometimes I think these people never leave the beach
or the mountains, what with all the communing with
God they do on hilltops, hiking trails and . . .
did I mention the beach at sunset yet?

Like people who go to church don't see God in the sunset!”

What she goes on basically to say 
is that being spiritual by yourself with nature is easy.
Sunsets don’t have their own opinions, They don’t talk back,
they don’t change their mind, have a bad day.
Spirituality in nature is lovely once in a while,
but it’s also unchallenging, and boring, it’s safe.

The big problem with church is there are people.
People are messy. Lots of people who are different are
really messy. People have different thoughts, goals, ideas.
People say the wrong thing, change their
minds have bad hair days. People sin.
Religion is just people organized around their faith.
People are the problem. But people are also the joy.

Jesus said “Where two or three are gathered I’ll be there.”
we can’t be disciples alone.

I say people like us who are willing to get in and get messy
with each other are the daring ones.
Those who experience one another’s sin on a regular basis.
Those who have a vague sense of annoyance at someone,
those who have been hurt by other believers and lived through it,
we’re the brave ones. Religion is for the brave.

Relationships beyond our chosen friends and family are challenging.
The church community that Matthew outlines
is not for the faint of heart.
It’s not just a pretty sunset.

This week I went to a press conference at the church
of a friend here in Clintonville, Columbus Mennonite.
The congregation had decided to open their church up to
a woman who was being threatened to be deported.
Her children have been here most of their lives
and she has been living here for more than a decade.
She was not a criminal of any kind and didn’t break any laws
but INS was going to deport her.

Columbus Mennonite discussed it and opted to
keep her in sanctuary, that is live in their church
and not leave until a legal remedy was found
and she was able to stay in the US.

Now the church could have faced legal troubles
the pastor and leadership could have been charged legally.

As I was standing there listening in the press conference,
as a pastor, I couldn’t help but think: What a mess for that congregation.
There’s the legal problems, but then
then there’s the personal issue of having
a stranger live in their church building
for an indefinite amount of time.­­­­
 What kind of difficult discussions were had?
What kind of disagreements? What could go wrong here?
It has the potential to separate the church,
but it also has the potential to bring it together stronger.
And at the same time, I couldn't help but feel a little jealous
because in that potential for a big mess, is where we find real joy.

Luckily, the INS caved after the first day and
Edith Espinal and her son
outside Columbus Mennonite Church
she was granted a temporary stay.
So she was able to go home. 
But depending on
what happens with her, 
they could be in the situation again.

No matter what you might 
think of their decision,
and lots of Christians 
have lots of thoughts on this,
They were willing to do the hard work
and face the messy situation and take the risk as a community.

This is what it means 
to be Christ’s Church.
To be willing to get into trouble together
and see where God takes us.

At Gethsemane, we strive to be a community of messiness.
We sing God’s good news of course,
but we also welcome all people,
we care for each other,
and we serve those in need.
That’s where it can get difficult.
That’s where it can get messy.
And that’s where we really know God.

What a mess, and what a joy.
That is God’s kingdom on earth.

Sunday, September 3, 2017

Take Up Your Cross, Deny Yourself

Matthew 16: 21-28
September 3, 2017

On Facebook I have an acquaintance from high school,
who is a very outspoken Christian,
always putting things about prayer and Jesus up.
And a while back, she put a meme up,
 a little image with words that said,
“Hurt my kids and I’ll bury you where they won’t find the body”.
I’m sure this was kind of a joke, but kind of not.

The most disturbing though, were the comments that followed
in almost in some sort of “Christian honor and zeal”
they were affirming her in that, and trying to top it with
the more violent reaction they would have
if someone “messed” with their kids.
It was almost as if violence was the only honorable Christian reaction.
Anything less proved you didn’t love your kids as much.

There is an innate human reaction to defend what is mine.
Whether its family or things. It’s MINE.
Mine is the first word many children use with regularity.
MINE.  It’s so visceral and human .

I think we can point to a lot of the tension in this
country today to that feeling that someone is taking
away what is MINE.

White supremacists walked through the streets
with torches saying, “Jews will not replace us”
If you can get over the outrageousness of that statement,
behind it, there’s a fear that something is being taken
away and it must be defended.
In response to taking away statues that
most people probably hadn’t noticed, the response was
“They will not take away our heritage”
Defending what is MINE.
Whether its my dignity, or my house, or my life,
or my land, or my family, or my country, or my heritage,
or my way of life, or my leader, or the hearts of the people.
There is a feeling -- almost an obligation that we
need to defend what is MINE and use with force against
anyone who tries to take it away.

I think our country’s fascination with guns and 
especially assault weapons comes under this banner of “self-defense” –
There is an abstract “they” who are always coming to get us.
They are a threat to my stuff and it must be defended
“What if THEY come to take what is MINE away from me?”
We need to feel ready to defend what is ours at any moment.

But where has this gotten us?
We’re not safer, that’s for sure.
The big problem is this cycle has no end.
I take what is mine and you take it back,
the ones with the biggest weapons wins.
Everyone defending what is theirs and
we get stuck in a repetition of violence.

We’ve seen it play out personally and internationally
It starts out small, but sometimes it grows
into violence, war, and even genocide.
Where does it end?

Jesus tells us today.
He says, “this ends with you, my followers.”

Last week, we remember,
Peter confessed rightly that Jesus was the Messiah.
They were all happy about that for a while.
Jesus said that God gave Peter that information
and he would build his church on it.

Peter may have gotten that right,
but it’s pretty clear that Peter was fundamentally mistaken
about how Jesus would go about being the Messiah
and saving the people.

Jesus makes it clear that he will not be defending
their rights with violence or by turning over the government,
or by claiming a piece of land,
or avenging the deaths of his people.
He will not be taking his place as emperor or king.

Actually, what will happen is that he will suffer.
He will be arrested by the authorities and he will be killed.
The powers that have taken so much from
all of them will end unjustly convicting him and taking his life.

Now his disciples knew him most,
 they knew he was innocent of any crime.
And the suffering that Jesus experienced would be unjust,
would be unfair, would be wrong.

And yet Jesus didn’t say,
“disciples, I need you need to get back at them for this.”
“Revenge my unjust death.”
Take back what is rightfully MINE.

Jesus said, if any would be my follower,
deny yourself, deny your ego,
Deny your own rage, your need for revenge,
deny that inclination you have to add more violence to the world
lay down your power and take up God’s power.
Take up your cross and follow me.

No wonder Peter didn’t like that idea at all.
No wonder he scolded Jesus and told him that can’t happen.
The natural inclination Peter and in us
is to defend, to fight, to keep.
To take back what is MINE.

No wonder Peter was uncomfortable with the prospect.
And no wonder Jesus rebuked him and invoked Satan.
This is Satan’s temptation to the whole world.
To take back what is MINE.
Satan says “The best offense is a good defense.”
But Jesus is says, “the best offense is no defense.”

When faced with violence,
Step out of the cycle of defense and violence.
Put the world’s senseless violence on display.
Trick the devil at his own game.
Take up your cross and follow me.
Not saying it’s easy, but it’s what Jesus is saying.

Most scholars agree that the apostle Paul
never heard any of Jesus’ parables or sayings.
The gospels were written down and shared after his death.
He never uses Jesus words in his letters,
even when it would serve his purpose well.

From Paul’s writings, it is apparent that
Paul only knows Jesus from
his own encounters with Jesus Spirit,
about Jesus death and resurrection,
from the fellow believers who traveled with him.

But still, Paul picks up on this important tenet of Christianity
without the benefit of knowing Jesus sayings,
Paul, tells the Romans in his letter:
Do not repay anyone evil for evil”

He quotes this often forgotten section
from Proverbs in the Hebrew scriptures saying,
if your enemies are hungry, feed them;
if they are thirsty, give them something to drink;
for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.”
And he says,
Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”

With Paul, there is no MINE.
Everything about us - our whole lives - belong to God.
So then, even our revenge and anger aren’t ours.
The wrongs we suffer, we don’t own them,
we don’t hold onto them.
They are not ours to keep. They belong to God too.
Paul says, turn them over, let God take care of it.

If any want to be my followers deny themselves
and take up their own cross.
Do not be overcome by evil.
Overcome evil with good.

This is one of the main practices of our faith.
This is what should set us apart as Christians.
Not Christian pride and honor and violence.
Burying bodies where no one can find them.
It’s putting our self aside for others. Even our enemies.

This week as we watched another environmental crisis
unfold in our country, this time in Texas.
We saw a situation that could 
have gone horribly wrong
over and above the flooding.
Houston is a giant city with 
people mixed together,
rich and poor, educated and uneducated,
immigrants and people of color,
and as a former resident of Houston, 
I can tell you
and there’s also a lot out and proud racism.

Especially with the heightened 
tensions in our country
with the scarcity of food and water,
it could have been an 
emotional powder keg.
With people defending what is MINE.

But that hasn’t happened.
 I think we saw many people:
Christian and atheist and Muslim 
and otherwise,
deny themselves and take down their defenses
and take up their crosses and follow the way of Christ.

Regular people put their lives in danger to save strangers,
people who lost all their possessions, going back and giving more.
People who didn’t lose anything giving it away to others,
and putting themselves in the middle of the crisis.

I’m sure, for now, after this is over,
things will not always be harmonious in Houston,
People will start claiming a stake
for what is yours and what is mine.
But for a while everyone got a glimpse of the kingdom.

It’s almost like without anything to defend,
people were free to love.
It’s funny how 24 trillion gallons of water can
wash away our divisions.

And it’s funny how losing everything
can help us find our true selves,
can help us gain the whole world.

A vision of the kingdom in the midst of tragedy.
Absolute vulnerability giving us absolute power.

That is the cross.