How’d we get here?

“By what authority are you doing these things?”  That’s the question the chief priests and elders have for Jesus as he enters the Temple on Monday morning.  We’ll have to deal with that question tomorrow as there is obviously more to this story than meets the eye.  Here is another one of those times where the lectionary doesn’t help us much by taking a story completely out of context.  We’ve jumped from the Parable of the Generous Landowner in Proper 20 to Monday in Holy Week in Proper 21.  Here’s a glimpse of what happened in between.

Western European Jesus in picture 2 will be offset by a Palm Sunday in Africa image here.

Rabbi Jesus came to town, riding on a donkey.  Stuck a palm branch in his hair, and they called him “Son of David.”  He then proceeded to enter the Temple, flip over the money changers’ tables, chase them all out with whips (in John’s account at least), and then he heals the blind the lame who come to him.  As the people shouted, “Hosanna to the Son of David,” the chief priests and scribes became incensed and asked him, “Do you hear what they are saying?”  Sunday ended with Jesus leaving them Temple Court in ruins as the religious powers-that-be scratched their heads and plotted against him.

Our Gospel lesson opens the next morning as Jesus and his disciples return to the Temple and once again encounter the chief priests and scribes.  The Temple Council had probably been up all night trying to figure out what to do with Jesus, all the while assuming that they’d probably never see him again.  They plotted and schemed and planned and when, to their surprise, he does show up, they’re ready with a question to trap him in blasphemy.  “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?”  As the ruling voice of religion in Israel, they know that they didn’t give Jesus the authority, and so just about any answer he gives will lead them right into their trap.

What they didn’t expect was that Jesus would answer with a question of his own.

Lives Worthy of the Gospel – a sermon

Yesterday’s sermon is now available on the Saint Paul’s Website, or you can read it below.

I love everything about baptism Sundays.  I think the white hangings we have here at Saint Paul’s are particularly beautiful.  I love this baptismal stole that was given to me by my friends at Saint James’ in Potomac, Maryland, where I worked while I was in seminary.  I love cute babies in frilly white dresses and parents and grandparents beaming with pride. I especially love those rare times when we’re baptizing an older child or an adult who has recently come to realize the power of God in their lives.  I love the pageantry of the ancient rite.  I love the hymns.  I really love it all, but if I were forced to pick my favorite part of baptism Sunday it would have to be the baptismal covenant.  A covenant is a special kind of contract that is designed to create an ongoing relationship between two people or groups.  The terms of the contract are important, but it is the relationship that really matters. We talk about marriage as being a covenant.  A bride and a groom make vows to one another and become a husband and a wife, creating a new thing called a family.

In the baptism service, a relationship is established between the newly baptized person and the family of God.  The five  promises of the Baptismal Covenant mark the special starting place in our relationship with God and with his Church.  As a reminder of our membership in the family, on baptism Sundays we all join in and renew our own Baptismal Covenant.  Even though we are only baptizing little Webb Davis at the nine o’clock service this morning, every one of us has the chance today to be reminded of the what it means to be a part of the family of God.

Sometimes I forget how much I love the baptismal covenant.  This week, amidst all of the stuff I was trying to get done, I almost forgot it completely.  It wasn’t until Thursday morning, as I sat at my desk asking God to give me something, anything, to preach about today, that I remembered the Baptismal Covenant at all.  It came to me in a very unexpected sort of way.  I had planned to preach on Jesus’ Parable of the Generous Landowner.  I was going to talk about how God loves all of us.  Whether we are baptized at 5 hours, 5 days, 5 months, 5 years, or 105 years old, God welcomes us into the family with open arms and a loving embrace.

What got me on Thursday morning, however, were the words of Paul to the Church in Philippi, a church that was very young.  The Philippian church was struggling to understand how to be Christians without Paul there to teach them.  Paul, writing from prison, encourages the new Christians with a deceptively simple sentence, “Live your life in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ.”  It got me thinking, “How do we live our lives in way that is worthy of the gospel?”  I came up with at least three different answers.

The first answer I thought of was that a life worthy of the Gospel means living a life that is as far removed from the “things of this world” as possible. I grew up in Amish Country, complete with horse and buggies, straight pins instead of buttons on their clothing, and no power lines running to their homes.  The Amish have decided that a life worthy of the gospel means choosing the technology of the 18th century and eschewing new advancements such as 120 volt electricity as being too worldly.  Of course, they are an extreme example, but they are certainly not alone.  Some Southern Baptists have attempted to remove themselves from the things of this world by choosing to abstain from alcohol, card playing, and even dancing.  Some Episcopalians have tried to remove themselves from the things of this world by stubbornly maintaining a preference for vestments, gothic architecture, and organ music.  Since the definition of “things of this world” is so broad, I’m not convinced this is actually what Paul had in mind.

Then I thought that maybe a life worthy of the Gospel might mean a life wholly devoted to prayer.  The Church has a long tradition of special people called “ascetics” who have taken this way of living a life worthy of the Gospel very seriously.  Some have lived in caves in the desert, some have stood atop a pole for years and years, many sold all they had and gave it to the poor, while still others took to living in communities of prayer and service to the poor.  I admire the ascetics and monastics of our tradition, but if we were all to live that way, the church would have died out pretty quickly. At least a few Christians have to be engaged in society in order to share the Good News and propagate the faith.  I suspect that Paul might have had this extreme form of discipleship in mind for some, but probably not most of the Christians in Philippi.  There has to be a way for the regular Jane to live a life worthy of the Gospel.

Eventually, I began to think that maybe a life worthy of the Gospel means living a life that follows the teachings of Jesus and becoming “Red Letter Christians” by following the words of Jesus that were often printed in red in older translations of the Bible.  Jesus summed up how we should live our lives with two commandments.  Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself.  In The Episcopal Church, we’ve been so bold as to try to spell out what that looks like in the Baptismal Covenant in which we promise, with God’s help, to do our best to “keep God’s holy will and commandments” (1662 BCP).

In just a minute, we will all stand and once again promise that with God’s help, we’ll take our part as members of the family of God through study, prayer, and fellowship.  With God’s help, we’ll work to stay away from those things we shouldn’t be doing, and when we fall into sin, we’ll do our best to find our way back to God.  With God’s help, we’ll tell and show people about God’s love for them.  With God’s help, we’ll serve those in need in our neighborhoods, in our city, and in the wider world.  With God’s help, we’ll look at everyone we meet as a child of God who is worthy of God’s love and our love.

It is through the living out of the promises made in the Baptismal Covenant that we are able to pattern our lives after the Gospel, to work to establish the kingdom of heaven on earth, and to fulfill Jesus’ commandments to love God and love our neighbor.  And it is through our example that little Webb and the children of God of all ages will learn how to be disciples of Jesus.  I love baptism Sundays because they remind me that no matter how old we are and no matter how long we’ve been at it, following Jesus isn’t easy and we shouldn’t try to go it alone.  Living our lives in a manner worthy of the Gospel is all but impossible, but with God’s help, and the support of our church family, anything and everything is possible.  Amen.

A Life Worthy of the Gospel

In yesterday’s post, I argued that judging others, that is, looking upon others with an evil eye, is not in keeping with the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  This morning, as I reread the lessons, I was drawn to Paul’s words to the Philippians that they should live their lives in “a manner worthy of Gospel.”  As with any admonition in the Pauline corpus, there are several different ways to read this.

A life worthy of the Gospel may mean a life removed from the things of this world.  The Amish have sort of done this by arbitrarily choosing the technology of the 18th century as ordained by God and new advancements such as 120 volt electricity as too worldly.  Some Southern Baptists have done this by choosing to abstain from alcohol, dancing, pre-marital sex, and card playing.  Some Episcopalians have done this by maintaining a preference for Anglican Chant and organ music while abstaining from extemporaneous prayers.  Since the definitions of “things of this world” are so vague, I’m not convinced this is what Paul had in mind.

Ice Machines and F-250s are a bit worldly for me.

A life worthy of the Gospel might mean a life wholly devoted to prayer.  The Church has a long tradition of ascetics who have taken this understanding very seriously.  Some lived in caves in the desert, some stood atop a pole for decades, some sold all they had and gave it to the poor, some were tithed by their parents to a monastery at a young age.  I admire the ascetics and mystics of our tradition, but if we were all to live that way, the church would died out pretty quickly since Christian loins need to produce Christian children and/or Christians must be engaged in society and share the Good News in order to propagate the faith.

It is hard to share the Gospel when you keep adding height to your tower to avoid the people who have come to see you.

A life worthy of the Gospel might mean living a life that follows the teachings of Jesus, or as Tony Campolo might say, being a “Red Letter Christian” by following the words of Jesus (often printed in red in older translations).  Jesus summed it up by saying that we should love God and love our neighbors as ourselves.  In The Episcopal Church, we’ve been so bold as to expand upon that in the Baptismal Covenant in which we promise to do our best to “keep God’s holy will and commandments” with God’s help (1662 BCP).  It is through the living out of the virtues listed in the Baptismal Covenant that we pattern our lives after the Gospel and work to establish the kingdom of heaven on earth.  That, to me, is how we live our lives in a manner worthy of the Gospel.

Celebrant      Will you continue in the apostles’ teaching and
fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the
prayers?

People          I will, with God’s help.

Celebrant      Will you persevere in resisting evil, and, whenever
you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord?

People          I will, with God’s help.

Celebrant     Will you proclaim by word and example the Good
News of God in Christ?

People          I will, with God’s help.

Celebrant      Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving
your neighbor as yourself?

People          I will, with God’s help.

Celebrant      Will you strive for justice and peace among all
people, and respect the dignity of every human
being?

People          I will, with God’s help.

Evil Eye

There is perhaps no better evil eye than that of the Janitor from Scrubs.

I raise this, partly because SHW and I have been working our way through the whole series on dvd as of late, but mostly because of this Sunday’s Gospel lesson wherein our faithful translators have attempted to capture the meaning of a Greek figure of speech that English probably wasn’t meant to capture.

Toward the end of the parable, as the landowner is confronting the grumbling laborers, he says to them, “Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?”  If we can be honest with each other for just a moment, this is probably the end of Jesus’ dealing with this matter and the whole “So the last will be first, and the first will be last.” part is probably a Matthean addition to created the bookend he’s looking for rhetorically.  If this is the end of the lesson from Jesus, it really does end with an interesting challenge, “Are you envious because I am generous?”  I dealt with that yesterday.

What I find even more interesting is what the Greek has Jesus actually saying, “Is your eye evil because I am good?”  John R. Donahue, SJ picks up on this little gem in his The Gospel in Parable, noting that for Matthew, the eye bit is something of a recurring theme.  “The final words of the owner, “Is your eye evil because I am good?” underscores the defect in these servants.  Since in Matthew “the eye is the lamp of the body” (6:22) and “if your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out” (5:29), these servants allow their attitude to “darken” their whole way of viewing the world.  What began as an act of goodness to them and unfolded as an act of generosity to others blinded them to the goodness of the owner and the good fortune of others” (82-83).

When we begin to make judgements about what we think others deserve, we look upon them with an evil eye.  That evil eye doesn’t really have any negative effect on the other, but rather, it permeates our own hearts with the darkness of envy.  Remember that Jesus has told this parable in response to Peter’s question about what kind of reward the disciples were going to get for having given up everything to follow Jesus.  Remember that Peter asks that question in response to Jesus’ assertion that though it is harder for a rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven than for a camel to enter the eye of a needle.  Remember that Jesus says that because the rich young man walks away sad rather than becoming a disciple.  And remember that the rich young man walks away sad because Jesus told him to sell everything and give it to the poor.  Got all that?

Peter didn’t want there to be any chance that that rich young man, who refused to give up his opulence, could get in to the kingdom of heaven.  And on the off chance he did, since everything is possible for God, Peter wanted to be sure that the disciples would end up better of than that guy.  Peter’s eye had become evil, and Jesus let him know about it.  He saved him the indignity of cutting it out, and instead told a parable inviting Peter to look upon the kingdom of heaven in a new way.  There are no winners and losers, no firsts and last, just beloved children who have been graciously received in through the generosity of the Father.

Hildegard of Bingen – a homily

Today the Church remembers Hildegard of Bingen, a nun, a theologian, a composer, a playwright, a healer, and one of the preeminent mystics in Christian history.  Conveniently for me, we will also be discussing Hildegard at Draughting Theology this evening, so I only have to study one saint this week, and I’m glad for that because Hildegard’s life would take a lifetime comprehend.  Faithful to her homework, Barbara G. asked me on Monday night about this term, mystic.  She said she had tried to look up its meaning, but was left more confused than when she started.  She’s not alone.  Evelyn Underhill, arguably the greatest scholar of mysticism ever, wrote in her book Practical Mysticism that when she is asked “What is mysticism?” she’ll often point people to “the writings of the mystics themselves, and to other works in which this question appears to be answered and they reply that such books are wholly incomprehensible to them.”[1]  She also notes that there are plenty of “self-appointed apostles who are eager to answer this question in many strange and inconsistent ways, calculated to increase rather than resolve the obscurity… The asker will learn that mysticism is a philosophy, an illusion, a kind of religion, a disease; that it means having vision, performing conjuring tricks, leading idle, dreamy, and selfish life, neglecting one’s business, wallowing in vague spiritual emotions, and being ‘in tune with the infinite.’  He will discover that it emancipates him from all dogmas –sometimes from all morality – and at the same time that it is very superstitious.”[2]  Finally, she does her best to define mysticism as “the art of union with Reality [capital R].”[3]  I was pretty unsatisfied with that definition until I went back to the lessons appointed for the Feast of Hildegard and realized that perhaps John 3:16 and 17 makes it all make sense.

At first blush, “union with Reality [capital R]” is about as ethereal a definition there is, but it is, in some way like the fascination with John 3:16.  “For God so love the world that he gave his only begotten Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life.”  Microsoft Word tells me that that’s not even a sentence.  This fragment starts with a conjunction and ends with eternal life, and spends all of its time up in the clouds.  We love the idea of God sending his Son.  We think eternal life is pretty great.   But we honestly have no idea what it means.  Kind of like seeking “union with Reality [capital R].”

And yet, as we learn more about the life of Hildegard of Bingen, we realize that while she was prone to visions and spent almost all of her 81 years living in a Monastery, she was, in reality [lowercase r] not a head in the clouds sort of person.  Hildegard was very much interested in the nitty gritty of everyday life.  She wrote two books on the pharmacology of plants.  She studied natural science.  She wrote music and plays and helped women deal with women’s health issues.  She was as interested in the dirt of the earth as she was with the clouds of heaven.  For all the whispyness of John 3:16, true mysticism always couples it with verse 17.  After all, Reality (capital R) is about those things that are really real.  “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”  Mysticism isn’t about removal from the earth, but about Reality [capital R] that is the kingdom of heaven here on earth.

Some of you may be mystics.  I know that I am not, but I’m thankful for the witness of Hildegard of Bingen who reminds me that faith in Jesus Christ isn’t just about the great beyond, but it calls us to live abundant lives here in the nitty gritty of the everyday.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.

[1] P. 5

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

When God’s Grace Disappoints Us

Jonah is pissed off.  After all, he knew this was going to happen.  He knew God was gracious and full of compassion.  How he knew that the fish slapping people of Nineveh were going to repent and change their ways, I don’t know, but he knew it.  He knew that all of his effort to travel to Nineveh to see these people get smote by a rain of fire was going to be for naught.  He tried to avoid it, but God wouldn’t let him off the hook.  And now, after storms and fish bellies and long a really long walk in the desert, here he sits, overlooking the city of Nineveh, which is very much not being destroyed by the angry hand of God, and Jonah is pissed off.

Of course, Jonah isn’t alone.  He is perhaps the archetype of human interaction with God.  At one time or another in our lives, God’s grace is going to disappoint us.  We’ll be disappointed in other ways, no doubt.  Our favorite sports team won’t win the big game.  Our friends’ marriage will crash and burn.  The child we prayed for will die of cancer.  The parish church of our ancestry will close.  We’ll be disappointed in those ways often, but they tend to not make us quite as angry as when God’s grace overflows upon those who we’ve determined should be on the outside looking in.

This is, of course, the whole premise behind Jesus’ Parable of the Prodigal Landowner.  “Are you envious because I am generous?” or more literally “Is your eye evil because I am good?” or more to the point of this post “Are you ticked because of my graciousness?”  If we’re honest with ourselves, each of us can name plenty of people who we hope are outside of God’s redeeming grace.  I don’t want to share heaven with Mark Driscoll or Joel Osteen any more than they want to share it with me, but alas, God loves them even in their bad theology as much as he loves me in mine.

Our disappointment in God’s grace assumes that we deserve it while other don’t, which is, of course, not true.  Jonah didn’t deserve God’s grace, he ran and hid instead of following God’s will.  The workers hired at 6am didn’t deserve God’s grace, they moaned and groaned at the landowner’s generosity.  I don’t deserve God’s grace because I name people who I don’t want to share heaven with in blog posts.  And yet, God extends his grace to each of us sinners while also being merciful to the people of Ninveh, the workers hired at 5pm, and any number of people who I cold squabble with theologically.  Our disappointment in God’s grace is a reminder that God loves even us.  Which, when it comes right down to it, is just as shocking as his decision to spare the people of Nineveh.

Why The Episcopal Church? – An #Acts8 BLOGFORCE Challenge

This post will serve as the second and final of what should have been a three-part Acts 8 BLOGFORCE Challenge on “Why the Church?”  I wrote several weeks ago on that very question.  I was too busy two weeks ago to answer the “Why Anglicanism?” question, nut you can read smart people answer it better than I ever could on the Acts 8 Roundup.  This week the final question as we move from 30,000 feet to a nice smooth landing on the center aisle of the National Cathedral is “Why The Episcopal Church?”  I assume the BLOGFORCE powers-that-be would like something more substantial than my Elevator Pitch from back in March, so here goes.

It is the happenstance of history that The Church of England in American carries the name The Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States of American, or more commonly, The Episcopal Church.  Back in the days following the American Revolution, when the Church of England in America was all but dead, leaders in ‘the Diocese of Maryland,” familiar with being the non-established underdog, began to develop plans by which they would keep the embers burning.  This first iteration of a Task Force to Re-imagine The Episcopal Church (actually, Church of England in America, but bear with me) realized that the first thing they had to do was get rid of the words Church of England.  According to Church History Guru, the Rev. Dr. Bob Prichard, the chose the name Protestant Episcopal Church by combining “the word Protestant, which differentiated the church from the Roman Catholic Church in Maryland, with Episcopal, the name for the 17th century English church party that favored the retention of the episcopacy” (A History, p. 83) and voila, we were born.

Of course, that’s probably not what the intent of this “Why The Episcopal Church” question, but we’re getting there.  What the folks in Maryland did next is what’s really important.  “They planned a state convention what would exercise the authority of the church, and drafted a charter that the legislature approved in August 1783, granting them title to church property and a government by a synod of laity and clergy.  The legislature also recognized the independence of the church from any foreign power and the importance of episcopal ordination [thank you Roman Catholic Maryland]” (ibid.)

By now you’re thinking I’ve lost my mind, but here’s the deal, I love The Episcopal Church and think it is worth working to keep alive because of those things affirmed by the Maryland legislature in 1783.  In fact, in my upcoming Doctor of Ministry Thesis, I’ll argue that The Episcopal Church isn’t just worth keeping alive for its own sake, but because the things affirmed in Maryland in 1783 help make us best suited to meet the needs of our rapidly changing world.  Here’s why.

  1. Governance by a synod of laity and clergy.  The calling card of Anglicanism is that we strive to be the via media, the middle way between Rome and Geneva; Roman Catholicism and Reformed Protestantism.  In the former, the clergy rule.  In the latter, the laity rule.  In The Episcopal Church, we do it together.  Ideally, the clergy, by virtue of their training and experience, lead with wisdom for the sake of the tradition, while the laity, by virtue of their place in society, lead the church into the trenches for the sake of humanity.  Together, we have checks and balances which allow us to build the Kingdom together, raising the ability of both beyond their normal capabilities: the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.
  2. Independence from any foreign power.  Due to the unpleasantness in the late 18th century, it was necessary that The Episcopal Church, for a time, sever all ties with the Church of England.  Though several candidates for ordination grew old trying to figure out how to be ordained while not pledging loyalty to the crown, others back in the state were figuring out how to live faithfully here in the states.  Over time, this brief historical anomaly has allowed The Episcopal Church to develop as an inculturated entity.  Though there are branches in other parts of the world, we are, for all intents and purposes, an American Church.  Our system of governance grew up with the American Republic, our Pension Fund was created by those who developed Social Security, our Prayer Books have been altered to meet the needs of American society.  We are, as William Reed Huntington argued so long ago, the fledgling of an American Catholic Church.
  3. The importance of episcopal ordination.  Apostolic succession is more than a chain of hands back through history, it is the sign and symbol of the apostolic witness that remains with us today.  The Bishops of our church, that thing that makes us Episcopalians, are the carriers of that tradition.  They call us to move forward with caution.  They invite us into shared ministry in the spread of the Gospel.  When they lay hands upon a new Bishop, Priest, Deacon, or Confirmed lay person, they make the sacramental sign of that apostolic ministry and send us forth to build the Kingdom of God.  I’m not saying that other traditions lack that apostolicity, but that the symbol of episcopal ordination helps me better understand it in my life and work.

I’m an Episcopalian because it makes sense to me.  Our system of governance, our inculturation into the American way of life, and most importantly our sacramental and apostolic witness to the risen Christ seem to suit me well, and I should think that others might find a home here also, if we could get past all our bickering and partisanship and find a better way to share our story.

Jesus and Nickelodeon’s “Kid’s Court”

As a child of the late 80s/early 90s, I have vivid memories of the early days of Nickelodeon.  You remember the “You Can’t Do That on Television” era, don’t you?  Though I grew up in The Episcopal Church, may parents weren’t the new age hippies you might expect them to be.  Rather, there were very strict television rules in our house: No “YCDToTV” or “Ren and Stimpy” and certainly no MTV.  One of the shows I could watch was “Kid’s Court,” which was, as you might have guessed, a play on the perennially popular “People’s Court.”  Each episode featured a couple of “cases” in which children would write in seeking to settle a dispute with parents, siblings, etc.  The case would be “decided” by a very unruly courtroom audience which would scream for the side of the argument they thought should win.

Kid’s Court existed before the Internet, so you’re lucky that this screen grab is even available.

What I remember most vividly however, was at the end of each episode when the host would run around the audience getting kids to offer a brief complaint about life in their households.

“My mom always makes me wash the dishes while my brother plays Nintendo.”

“My dad never lets me help fix the car other than holding the flashlight.”

My parents went on a cruise and left me with my grandparents who smell like moth balls.”

Afterwards, the host would shout “Fair or Unfair?” and the audience would shout back their vote.  Obviously, all three of the above named complaints are “Unfair!”  I can’t help but read the story of the Prodigal Landowner without thinking about Kid’s Court.  “He payed everyone the same wage: Fair or Unfair?”

UNFAIR!!!!!!

In this parable, Jesus invites us to reconsider our understanding of fairness in light of the Kingdom of Heaven.  Reflecting back on last week’s lesson, if I’ve been forgiven a debt of 150,000 lifetimes, what right do I have to complain that another has been forgiven 1,500,000 lifetimes?  Or what right does someone who has been forgiven 15,000 lifetimes have to complain about me.  The promise of God is eternal life through his Son.  Whether we start that life at age 8 or 88, it doesn’t really matter.  Whether we “sin boldly” or live piously, it doesn’t really matter.  Whether we are first and last or last and first, it doesn’t really matter. Whether we think it is unfair or not, it doesn’t really matter.

The Kingdom of Heaven is the Kingdom of Heaven precisely because it is unfair.  Unfair enough to include me, and unfair enough to include you, too.

You want me to forgive how many times? – a sermon

Today’s sermon is now on the Saint Paul’s Website or you can read it below.

Peter is often impetuous.  He jumped out of a boat in the middle of a stormy sea to walk toward someone he wasn’t sure was actually Jesus.  On the night Jesus was arrested, Peter pulled out a sword and cut off the ear of one of the High Priest’s slaves.  When the crowds rushed in to see what was happening on that first Pentecost Day, Peter stood up and preached the Church’s first sermon.  When Jesus asked, “Who do you say that I am?” Peter shouted, “You are the Messiah!”  And when Jesus told him that being the Messiah meant dying at the hands of Rome, Peter was just as quick to shout, “God forbid it!”  Here, in the middle of Jesus’ teaching on what life is going to be like after he’s gone, Peter wants to be absolutely clear that Jesus is saying what he thinks Jesus is saying.  And so he asks, “Lord, how often do I have to forgive?”

Our Gospel lesson this week follows immediately after last week’s story.  Jesus has just finished laying out for his disciples how they should handle the inevitable conflicts that come when people gather together.  He has told them, “Treat that one as a Gentile and a tax collector,” and Peter thinks Jesus just commanded them to love even the unrepentant sinner.   Not being shy about confronting Jesus, he looks at his Rabbi and with all the chutzpah he can muster, says what the rest of the disciples were probably thinking: grace is easy to accept and really hard to give.  “Let me get this straight, Jesus.  You’re suggesting that we offer grace to those who have offended us, that we continue to love them and continue to seek reconciliation with them, even, or maybe especially when they won’t listen?  Lord, how often should we forgive?  … Seven times?”

I imagine a long and painful silence between “how often should we forgive” and Peter’s hypothetical suggestion of “seven times” as he racked his brain for a wildly irrational number. “Second chances?  OK.  Maybe even a third, but seven chances for the same person?  Not even Jesus could expect that from us.”  Unfortunately for Peter, and for us, Jesus wouldn’t let him off the hook that easily.  “Not seven times, but seventy-seven times” Or, as other versions suggest, “seventy times seven – four hundred ninety times.”  Peter is often impetuous.  It takes an awful lot to render him speechless, but Jesus has done it here by suggesting that mercy isn’t about keeping a forgiveness ledger for everyone in your life.  With only a blank stare looking back at him, Jesus goes on to explain what mercy really looks like by way of a parable.  Mercy is about forgiving because the debt that has been forgiven of us is beyond even our wildest imagination.

The main character in this parable is a slave who owes his king a considerable sum of money.  I mean a lot of money.  Ten thousand anything would be a lot for a slave to pay back, but ten thousand talents is like owing the king the Powerball.  One talent was roughly equal to three thousand seven hundred fifty denarii or fifteen years’ wages for the average laborer.  This slave owed the king ten thousand fifteen years.  That’s one hundred fifty thousand years’ worth of wages.  To put that in perspective, the average general laborer in Foley makes about twenty five thousand dollars a year.[1]  To match that debt, they would have to owe someone three hundred seventy five million dollars.  That’s a lot of money that this man owes and that the king, out of sheer pity, forgave him entirely.  Jesus says that’s what the Kingdom of Heaven is like.

If I owed a penny for every sin I’ve committed in my life, I might be close to three hundred seventy five million dollars by now.  Out of sheer pity on my human frailty, God has forgiven that debt.  In response, you’d think I’d be ecstatic – that I might go around everywhere forgiving everyone, but alas, I’m still a human.  We’re all still human.  So the story continues and this now totally forgiven slave runs across a man who owes him 100 denarii.  40% of an annual salary is not chump change, to be sure, but it is only twenty seven hundred thousandths of a percent (.00027%) of what the slave owed the king.  Do you think he’s going to forgive the man’s debt?  Of course not.  No, he is still human and so he has him thrown into debtors’ prison until the debt is paid.  Jesus says the Kingdom of Heaven is not like that.  Instead, those who claim to be of the Kingdom but do not forgive their neighbor from their heart, they will be cast out into the darkness where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.  Or worse.

As the parable comes to an end, Jesus has moved from suggesting we forgive seventy-seven or even four hundred ninety times to three hundred seventy five million times.  Which is to say, forgive until you can’t forgive anymore and then do it again.  Let’s be clear, Jesus is not calling his disciples to be doormats.  There are consequences to our hurtful actions.  Being treated as a Gentile or tax collector means being loved, but it also means being removed from the community.  Tragically, this text has been used to tell abused women to forgive their abusers and stay in their marriages.  Forgiving and staying are two very different things.  Jesus commands the one, but certainly not the other.

Still, Jesus does call on us to forgive those who have hurt us, and as a culture we are really not very good forgiveness.  Just a quick gloss of the news this week reminds of this.  Lord, do we really have to forgive Ray Rice?  Do we really have to forgive the Baltimore Ravens, Roger Goodell and the NFL?  Do we really have to forgive Osama Bin Laden, al-queda and the men who attacked us thirteen years ago?  Do we really have to forgive ISIS and Boko Haram? Yes, yes, three hundred seventy five million times, yes.

To forgive another doesn’t mean to excuse their behavior.  It doesn’t mean to let them off the hook for the harm they’ve committed.  It doesn’t mean to forget.  Forgiveness means to refuse the right to hold on to bitterness and anger.[2]  Forgiveness means refusing to allow the hurt to continue to hurt you again and again.  Forgiving your enemy, to borrow from our Romans lesson a few weeks ago, is removing the burning coals from your heart and heaping them upon their head, which if we’re honest with ourselves, is a really nice side effect because the reality is that forgiveness is really, really hard.

Which is why, most every Sunday, we do two things: confess our sins and pray the Lord’s Prayer.  We confess ours sins to God, making known the times which we have refused to forgive our spouses, our parents, our children, our friends and neighbors, our politicians, our celebrities, and our enemies.  We ask God to forgive us those times that we have failed to forgive.  And then, just before we receive our reminder of God’s love and forgiveness in the body and blood of our Lord, we pray in the words our Savior taught us, asking God to help us forgive as we have been forgiven.

Peter never lost his impetuousness, but in time, Peter learned what it felt like to be forgiven.  In time, Peter learned how to forgive without reservation.  In time, Peter learned to live in the Kingdom of Heaven even while still on earth.  And we can too.  As forgiven and beloved children of God, we are specially equipped to do the work of forgiving those who have trespassed against us: seven, seventy, seventy times seven, even three hundred seventy five million times. Amen.

[1] http://swz.salary.com/SalaryWizard/General-Laborer-Salary-Details-36535.aspx

[2] http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2165

The Lord is full of compassion… and we are not.

Steve Pankey:

On the 10th anniversary of 9/11. I had the privilege of preaching about forgiveness. As we once again remember the events and lives lost on that most tragic day, my mind can’t help but recall that God’s compassion is incomprehensible.

Originally posted on Draughting Theology:

Here is the unedited text of today’s sermon. The audio will be up tomorrow. The text is Matthew 18:21-35 and my life experience in the 10 years since 9/11. The LORD is full of compassion and mercy, slow to anger, and of great kindness… So began our reading of a selected portion of Psalm 103. Truth be told, the Lectionary allows the option to read all of Psalm 103 on the 19th Sunday after Pentecost, but it seems to me, that on this day, we should echo the prayer of David by giving particular attention to this ancient creedal statement, The LORD is full of compassion and mercy, slow to anger, and of great kindness. And we should probably rightly finish it by adding, “and we are not.” The LORD is full of compassion and mercy, slow to anger, and of great kindness… and we are not. Which is, for…

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