Welcome Text Week Readers

I am honored to have earned a spot on the regular roster of The Text This Week resources.  If you’ve landed here from there, thank you for clicking over.  My goal is to blog Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday, so if you’re here early in the week, check back.  Be sure to comment if you have thoughts, and sign up for email updates.

–The Rev. Steve Pankey

Advertisements

Jonah is all of us

Proper 20, Year A always takes me back to my senior year of high school.  Every Friday morning, about a dozen of us who made up the core group of my Young Life club would gather at the Fletcher home for Bible study and monkey bread.  Occasionally, we would spend the night there Thursday night, though the older I get, the more I can’t imagine how our parents let this happen.  Anyway, on those Thursday evenings, we would hang out with Fletch and Julie’s kids (who are now way too old for my liking) and watch Veggie Tales videos.  Mostly, we’d enjoy the Silly Songs with Larry best-ofs, but every once in a while, we would watch a real episode.  Proper 20, Year A takes me there not because of any of the VHS tapes we watched then, but because of the 2002 release of the Veggie Tales Jonah movie, but you, dear blog reader, are used to reading long, useless intros by now.

My favorite part of both the movie and the Biblical book from which it based is the ending.  Without so much as a spoiler alert, Sunday’s Track 2 lesson takes us right to the very end of the story.  To recap, Jonah tried to escape God’s call to prophecy in Nineveh by jumping a ship to Tarshish on the other side of the known world.  A storm comes up, presumably because of God’s indignation over Jonah’s failure, and eventually Jonah is thrown overboard where a fish (not a whale) swallows him alive and vomits him out three days later.  A contrite and probably disgusting Jonah makes his way to Nineveh where he prophecies against their sins and retreats to a high place to watch God’s destruction.

5ae16654b297141649fd5f45cec388ef

Remarkably, the people repent of their evil (fish slapping, in the movie version) ways and in our lesson for Sunday, we hear that God decides to forego his wrath, which ticks Jonah off to no end.  It is there, under the shade of a tree he did not plant, stewing over God’s grace freely offered, that I realize that Jonah is me.  Jonah is all of us.  It may not be so obvious as grumbling about the eleventh hour conversion of another, but each of us has a place where God’s grace catches us short, where God’s unending love seems wildly unfair to us.  How often do we recognize God’s grace in our own lives while being unwilling to comprehend how that same grace might be made manifest in the life of another?  Like Jonah, it can make us angry to witness God’s grace poured out abundantly on those whom we deem unworthy – angry enough to die – and in those moments, though we fail to recognize it, God pours out his grace on us, even in our undeserving.  This week, I’m grateful for the reminder of fun times in high school, for silly videos, and most especially, for God’s never failing grace that is poured out upon me, even in my most undeserving moments.

The Challenge of a 1st Century Sacred Text

I have always struggled with Philippians 1:21.  Paul write this letter from prison, nearly a decade after his first visit to Philippi.  He is, perhaps here more than anywhere else, aware that his life and ministry could soon be coming to an end.  Like any human being, what is on Paul’s mind tends to reoccur in his writings.  As he ponders the reality of his death, he addresses it three times in his letter to the Philippians, the first of which we encounter in the New Testament lesson for Sunday, which begins with that passage that has always puzzled me.

“To me,” Paul writes in 1:21, “living is Christ and dying is gain.”  The second half of this sentence seems self-explanatory.  Realizing that his date with his savior might be coming sooner rather than later, Paul takes comfort in his faith that life beyond this mortal body will be better than anything he has experienced on earth.  Life in paradise, heaven, the bosom of Abraham, or however a first century Jew turned Apostle of Jesus might describe is was ultimately what Paul longed for.  Not that he disliked the life he had.  Not that he was eager to give up preaching the Gospel.  Not that he was sad about the life he had lived.  Rather, Paul knew, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that life in the fullness of God’s love would be beyond his wildest imagination.

Where I get caught short is this odd turn of phrase, “living is Christ.”  What does that mean?  Is there an idiomatic expression that I am missing?  I went looking for other translations, to very little avail.

  • For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain. (NIV)
  • You see, for me to live means the Messiah; to die means to make a profit. – N.T. Wright (Paul for Everyone, The Prison Letters, p. 90)
  • For to me, living is for Christ, and dying is even better. (NLT)

The best rendering I could find comes from the CEV, which reads “If I live, it will be for Christ, and if I die, I will gain even more,” but it wasn’t until I opened my old standby The New Daily Study Bible by William Barclay that I found something that made it make sense.  “If Christ were to be taken out of life, for Paul there would be nothing left.” (p. 32)  I commend to you the entire paragraph on this phrase on page 32, but I won’t reprint it here for copyright concerns.

511wctczfrl-_sx336_bo1204203200_

All this to say just a few things.  First, sometimes, dealing with a first century sacred text is difficult.  Taking the time to do a bit of research on what it is the original author was trying to say is never a waste of time.  Second, when we do that digging on this passage, it reveals to us that for Paul, and presumably for all who follow Jesus, the life we live should be defined entirely on our relationship with Christ.  Literally, “to live is Christ,” such that we know no other existence but that which has been made real in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.  Every moment brings another opportunity to choose life in Christ, and we won’t always be successful, but at its heart, following Jesus is handing our lives, our whole lives, over to him.

Allowed? Yes. Wise? Well…

While in seminary, I brought in some extra income by working with the maintenance crew at the seminary.  I learned all sorts of interesting things: how to run a backhoe, how to thread pipe, how to test for a gas leak, how to epoxy a basement floor, how to rebuild a Sloan flush valve, and how to stretch your breaks for as long as possible without getting in trouble.  Part of stretching your breaks was learning how to make trips to the store last.  Always drive the speed limit.  Stop to pick up donuts for the rest of the crew.  Be very specific about which stores you will go to.  On trips to the Home Depot, I also learned a theological lesson about the parable of the laborers in the vineyard.

dl1

Day laborers were a big thing in the DC metro area.  There were spots all around town where (usually) young Latino men would congregate waiting for work.   One popular spot was near an apartment complex on Route 7.  As the day went on, the crowd would dwindle, but like in the parable, there were some who, desperate for any work to feed themselves and their families, would wait all day, hoping to get hired.  In the parking lot of the Home Depot, it was a whole different story.  Here the competition was fierce.  Men who were ready, willing, and able to work would all but open your van door and jump in.  If you had an open bed on your pickup, the situation was made even more interesting.  These men were dying to work, and by stopping at the stop sign in the parking lot, you were inviting them to join your crew.

As I think about the parable of the laborers, I can’t help but think of those guys and how much they wanted/needed to work.  I wonder what the end of the day might have been like if the situation Jesus described took place.  Would some have grumbled that those who worked one hour got paid the same as those who worked all day?  Sure, that’s human nature.  Is it the prerogative of the landowner to pay whatever he chooses?  Absolutely, the landowner is allowed to do whatever she or he pleases.  Is is wise to operate that way?  The Invisible-Hand-Capitalist in me says no way.  This system would mean that the next day, nobody will be in the parking lot looking for work until 5pm.

Of course, Jesus isn’t suggesting an economic model in this parable, which is where the theological lesson comes in.  The Kingdom-of-God-Theologian in my says that this is a brilliant model upon which to build God’s reign.  Sure, there are some who might wait until the eleventh hour to come on board, but for so many of us, the sheer delight of working alongside God as the Kingdom is being unveiled is worth more than any day’s wage.  Maybe it wasn’t that the men in the Home Depot lot needed the money so much as they found delight in being useful.  To take our part in the building of something larger than ourselves can be a source of true joy.  Each morning, God invites us to take join in the work of building the Kingdom.  The payment, eternal life, is good, but the satisfaction that comes from the work itself, is inestimable.

Forgive them their debts – a sermon

The audio of this sermon is available on the Christ Church website.


o-forgiveness-facebook

I have a theory.  As you get to know me over the years, you will learn that I have many theories, most of which are useless.  Nevertheless, I have a theory that is relevant to our Gospel lesson today.  My theory is that much of the stress we feel in our lives is the result of frustrated forgiveness.  When was the last time you apologized to someone?  What was their response?  When was the last time someone apologized to you?  What was your response?  Did you say, “It’s ok”? Or “No problem”? Or “Don’t worry about it”?  If so, you short-circuited the forgiveness process.  If it really was ok, if there really was no problem, if it really was something not worth worrying about, then there would have been no need to offer an apology in the first place.  Instead, things were not ok.  There was a problem.  Something was worth worrying about, and because of that, forgiveness needs to happen.

In a world that seems to be addicted to conflict, it feels ironic to say this, but on a personal level, most of us are so conflict averse that even when a wrong has been committed for which forgiveness is required, we refuse to recognize it; choosing instead to brush it off, as if it didn’t matter.  Yet, it does matter.  Researchers at Johns Hopkins tell us that a unforgiveness can be bad for our health.  A lack of forgiveness leads to an increased risk for heart attacks, higher cholesterol levels and blood pressure, less sleep, and higher incidents of depression, anxiety, and stress.  The research is clear, unless we “forgive deeply,” we can suffer ongoing health consequences.  In order to forgive deeply, it can’t be offered begrudgingly, simply because Jesus told us to.  According to Dr. Karen Shwartz, director of the Mood Disorders Adult Consultation Clinic at Johns Hopkins, our forgiveness must be an active, “conscious decision to let go of negative feelings whether the person deserves it or not.”[1]

Jesus knew this reality two-thousand years ago.  In the second half of Matthew eighteen, Jesus teaches his disciples all about forgiveness.  He begins by teaching them how to handle sin in the community.  When someone sins, don’t be afraid to name it.  If they refuse to hear it, then take a few others to talk it out.  If they still refuse to listen, bring it before the whole church.  If even then they won’t repent and seek forgiveness, then Jesus says, “let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.”  Wouldn’t you know it, but Matthew is a tax collector, and Matthew’s church included many Gentiles.  Even when the other won’t seek forgiveness, it appears we are called to forgive.  Or, at least, that’s what Peter seems to have heard Jesus saying.

As our Gospel lesson begins, we find Peter seeking some clarification on this whole forgiveness thing.  “Let’s get real for a minute, Jesus.  How many times do I have to forgive someone when they sin against me?  Would seven times be enough?”  Peter thinks he’s really going out on a limb here.  The Rabbis taught that God would forgive three times for the same sin.  Since we are nowhere near as good as God at forgiveness, three times would have seemed next to impossible, but Peter’s been hanging out with Jesus for a while now.  He knows that Jesus always goes a step further, so Peter doubles that number and adds one for good measure.  Forgiving someone seven times is downright absurd, and yet Jesus responds by saying, “you aren’t even close.”  Depending on how you translate the Greek, it could mean seventy-seven times, or, more likely, seventy times seven.  Perhaps the best translation is the one Mark gave us last week, “forgive them for as long as it takes.”

There must have been a look in Peter’s eye that made Jesus realize that he didn’t quite get it.  He went on to explain by way of a fairly straightforward parable.  Well, it was certainly clear to Peter, but I wonder how clear all that talk of talents and denarii are to us today.  This story hinges on a servant who is deeply indebted to a king.  His debt was ten thousand talents.  A talent was a unit of measure, weighing about 130 pounds and, in this case, refers to silver.  A talent was roughly the equivalent of 15 years of wages for a common laborer.  This man owed the king 150,000 years wages.  In modern terms, if the average construction laborer in Bowling Green makes $30,000 a year, this servant owed the king 4.5 billion dollars.[2]   That’s a fairly insurmountable debt for man making thirty-grand a year.  Yet, the king forgave him the debt, free and clear.  Can you imagine the joy that slave must have felt in that moment?  I’m eleven months away from being down to one car note, and I’m already pretty excited about it.  There must have been tears and hugs and thanks flowing like a river as he left the king’s presence, but it didn’t last long.

The parable goes on to tell of the newly debt free slave seeing another servant who owed him a hundred denarii.  A denarius was a single silver coin, nearly four thousand denarii made up a talent.  It was worth about a day’s wage.  Returning to our friendly average construction laborer in Bowling Green, he or she would make roughly $115 a day, so this debt, a hundred days’ worth of wages was about $11,500.  This certainly isn’t a minor debt, but it is nothing compared to the $4.5 billion debt he had just been forgiven.  Rather than sharing his joy with this fellow slave and forgiving his debt as well, the forgiven slave had him thrown in jail until he could pay it off.  Obviously, the king didn’t take too kindly to his slave’s lack of forgiveness and the parable ends with him being tortured until he could pay the original debt.  That is, he would be tortured forever.  “So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”

From this teaching, we learn a profound truth.  Forgiving one another is a universal command for all who follow Jesus.  At least every Sunday, and hopefully multiple times each day, you pray the prayer Jesus taught his disciples.  In it, we pray “forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.”  Our willingness to forgive one another flows directly out of the forgiveness we have received from God.  As the Johns Hopkins study suggests, the necessity of forgiveness is hard wired into us.  Whether the other deserves it or not, whether they ask for it or not, when we fail to forgive, it is bad for our health both physically and spiritually.

Let me pause for a moment and draw a distinction between forgiveness and reconciliation.  Forgiveness is the conscious choice to let go of past hurts.  Reconciliation is the return to right relationship.  Forgiveness is a choice the offended can make without the offender.  Reconciliation requires both sides to be present to the forgiveness process.  Despite the universal Christian commandment to forgive, reconciliation is not always possible and in some cases, shouldn’t even be attempted.  The Church has not always been good at this, and we should be ashamed of the result.  Too many victims of abuse have been sent back to their abusers by clergy who have misunderstood what it means to forgive.  Sometimes, treating another like a Gentile or a tax collector means forgiving them, even as we remain in broken relationship with them.

As followers of Jesus, we should forgive whether forgiveness is sought or not.  When one who has sinned against us comes to offer an apology, we ought not short-circuit forgiveness by shrugging it off, but rather, we should do the challenging work of confronting the wrong directly by accepting the apology. We do so, not just because a lack of forgiveness is bad for our health, but because we have been forgiven so great a debt that the joy of forgiveness should overflow.  So, forgive them their trespasses, their debts, and their sins, for in the Kingdom of God, forgiveness never ends.  Amen.

[1] Healthy Connections, “Forgiveness: Your Health Depends on It” http://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/health/healthy_aging/healthy_connections/forgiveness-your-health-depends-on-it (accessed 9/16/2017).

[2] https://www.bls.gov/oes/current/oes_14540.htm#47-0000

The New TEC Website is an Unpleasing Front Door

outside church in color

There was a time, not all that long ago, when the red doors of an Episcopal Church served as its initial point of entry. Americans lived, by and large, in the neighborhoods of their youth. Churches served those neighborhoods and new members came either from Episcopal parents or the rare new family that came to town. There was brand loyalty back then, so if you did find yourself in a new place, you found the red doors at 10am on Sunday, and you went in. Over time, the front door has had different iterations. As Americans became more mobile and technology advanced, the point of entry moved away from the red doors to the Yellow Pages, newspaper ads, and the occasional place mat at the local diner. Today, without question the first point of contact for someone looking for an Episcopal church is its webpage.  Whether a simple WordPress site, a Facebook page, or an elaborate web presence, the vast majority of visitors to your church will find you because of a Google search and subsequent review of your website.

Recently, The Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society of the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States unveiled a new front door.  Design decisions are always a matter of taste, so I won’t waste much of your time discussing them, other than to say that the bar was so low after the Dreary Stained Glass Window era that anything would be an improvement.  That’s not to say I like the choices they’ve made, but simply that they aren’t resolutely awful.   The new website is very mobile friendly, and since more than 50% of internet users access the web via mobile device, this is a very good thing.  It has a nice modern look, with good photography and clean lines.  Overall, it is very pleasing to the eye, and I applaud the Communications Department for that.  And, for what its worth, the giant drop down menus are a neat throw back to when the under construction gif was a thing.

underconstruction-72327f17c652569bab9a33536622841bf905d145ee673a3e9d065fae9cabfe4f

Ah, the good old days

My main issue with the new Episcopal Church website is that for our front door to the world, there is very little about it that makes me certain that my denomination is a Christian Church rather than the newest gym in town.  Yes, there is the ubiquitous reference to the Jesus Movement, the Presiding Bishop’s ongoing refrain, but beyond that, what do we see that proves us to be a Christian denomination that lives out its theology by way of common prayer?  This Sunday, in the Collect for Proper 19, we will acknowledge before God that without God, nothing we do is pleasing to God.  It seems to me, that by and large, this new front door is rather unpleasing.

A quick scroll down the page brings us to an opportunity to give money toward hurricane relief, which is good and necessary, but not any different than the websites of the United Way, CNN, or even Coca-Cola.  Moving further down the page, we come to the section titled “New to the Church?  Here’s what we value.”  In case you don’t believe what I’m going to write next, here’s a screen shot.

Screenshot 2017-09-13 08.28.02

There are three enormous flaws in this section.

First and foremost, there is an amazing lack of Jesus in our list of values.  In fact, if you look closely, you won’t see the name of our Lord anywhere in our values.  The Episcopal Church is indeed a spiritual home, but it is a spiritual home because we believe that Jesus invites us to be members of the Kingdom of Heaven.  Evangelism is a priority, but not in the “preach the gospel at all times, when necessary use words,” kind of way.  Evangelism, at least according to our Presiding Bishop, is actually telling people about Jesus, about the difference following Jesus makes in our lives, and then inviting other to become disciples.  We are committed to things like racial reconciliation and environmental stewardship because of our faith in Christ.  Our faith in Jesus is what sets us apart from the Rotary or Bowling Green Women’s Club.  Our faith in Jesus should be our core value, and without it, we are lost.

The second flaw comes immediately below the heading.  There we find something that looks a lot like a mission statement for the Episcopal Church.  You’ll note that Jesus is not a part of our mission, at least according to this particular statement.  I pay pretty close attention to what’s happening in the wider church, and like the ill fated scheme to re-brand ourselves as The Missionary Society, this new mission statement caught me by surprise.  I’ve seen no press release through ENS.  I’ve not noticed the Presiding Bishop mentioning it in any video or publication.  I’ve not read about its approval at an Executive Council meeting.  Instead, it seems that whoever was assigned the role of revamping the website took it upon themselves to describe the Episcopal Church as “a spiritual home free of judgment and inclusive to all,” and who ever approved its launch didn’t spend a whole lot of time poring over the copy.

2017-09-12 20.27.26

Despite what you may have read between the lines in my post on Monday, I am firmly believe that judgment has a place in the church.  Paul’s admonition that we ought not pass judgment upon our brothers and sisters doesn’t mean that the church should be a judgment free zone.  Instead, Paul argues that we should avoid casting judgement upon one another, only because we all stand in judgment under Christ. The Church, on behalf of and because of Jesus, must be clear in her judgment of sin, both individual and corporate.  Our Prayer Book, modeling nearly two centuries of baptismal practice, makes us live this out by requiring three renunciations of evil from baptismal candidates.  I know that our Presiding Bishop believes in judgment.  He has preached on the evils of racism, xenophobia, and fear-mongering.  He is willing to offer a prophetic voice (a term I use intentionally, and rarely) to call the Church and individual Christians into action against the powers and principalities which threaten to corrupt us.  The Episcopal Church is not Planet Fitness.  There must be judgment here.

My last main issue with the section on our values is the ever-growing list of priorities.  Following General Convention, it was clear that two things would occupy our attention during the triennium: Racial Reconciliation and Evangelism.  I was on the floor of Convention for every day of legislation.  I remember the budget amendment that brought an extra $2.8 million dollars for evangelism.  I remember making unequivocal statements against the evils of racism be it by flying the Confederate Flag or committing violence in Emanuel AME Church, and calling for study and prayer that would develop into “Becoming Beloved Community.”  At some point in the last two years, Environmental Stewardship was added to create the kind of three-legged stool of priorities that Anglicans adore.  I’m honestly not sure how this happened, but I know it didn’t come out of General Convention as a budget or thematic priority.  Environmental Stewardship is important, which is why no one has really balked at its ex nihilo addition to the priority list, but like so many other things in the church, it would have been nice if someone had talked about it.

The same goes for Inclusivity, which is apparently the fourth wall in the now also Anglican-friendly quadrilateral of priorities.  Again, I’m not going to argue against inclusivity, but I don’t actually believe the Episcopal Church to be “inclusive for all.”  I would argue that the story we have told ourselves for too long – the story of our political power as the church of the elite – precludes access to many who would see themselves as something other than a privileged, upper-middle class, white person.  I have also personally witnessed the exclusion of people who have prayerfully considered any number of political and theological issues and come down somewhere other than the platform of the Democratic Party.  Yes, love will win, as the website borrowed from Rob Bell, but let’s not pretend that love has already won, and that Episcopalians have perfected loving our neighbors as ourselves.

The Episcopal Church has much to offer the world.  We have an important voice in sharing the Gospel of Jesus Christ in a way that can be heard just a little bit differently than other interpretations of it.  I believe this to be true such that I wrote my DMin thesis about it.  I wish, however, that we would be more careful in how we define ourselves.  Rather than focusing so hard on not being like some other group that we see as judgmental or exclusive, let’s focus on what we have to offer to the honor and glory of God.  We must not be ashamed to be disciples of Jesus Christ, who lived, died, and rose again to save us from our sin, and who will come again to judge the living and the dead.  Let’s make sure our front door is an adequate and appropriate representation of who we are, never forgetting that without God, nothing we have to offer, not even a website, will be pleasing to the Lord.

Comfortable Words

It may seem morbid or a sign of the slow decay of Episcopal relevance, but I am of the opinion that the Burial Office is the best thing the Episcopal Church has to offer the world.    Its language is beautiful, though I think those who find the pronoun usage in the various anthems to be troublesome have a salient argument.  It balances well the tendency to err too far to one side or the other between “this should only be about Jesus” and “this should only be about the deceased.”  Even the rubrics, which yes, we should read and abide by, help make an Episcopal burial service an opportunity for reflection, prayer, and celebration.  For example, the requirement that the coffin “be covered with a pall or other suitable covering” ensures that whether prince of pauper, every soul buried from the church is brought in under the cover of their baptismal gown.  As and aside, for which I am well known, I have seen, on occasion, the use of the Episcopal or American flag as “other suitable covering”  I can understand the impetus for this, but would argue against so as to expand beyond “prince and pauper” to include “priest and solider” as well.  All are the same in death, for, as Paul writes to the Christians in Rome, “whether we live or, therefore, or die, we are the Lord’s.”

news-012417c-lg

Astronaut Gene Cernan’s burial at St. Martin’s Church, Houston, TX. Note the pall covering his coffin

If you were reading Sunday’s New Testament lesson and the middle portion sounded familiar to you, it is probably because you have attended an Episcopal Burial service sometime since 1979.  Romans 14:7-8 is an option among four anthems in both the Rite I and Rite II services.  Often strung together as one long anthem, said in procession, these words at the opening of the Burial Office set the tone for the rest of the service to follow.  These are words of comfort.  These are words of hope.  These are words of resurrection.  These are, in the parlance of our Rite I Eucharist, “Comfortable Words” meant to place the hearts and minds of the bereaved in the hands of the resurrected Lord through whom we all have access to the Kingdom.

In a world that seems to be disintegrating around us, these words might come just at the right time this Sunday.  With a major earthquake in Mexico, the 16th anniversary  of 9/11, Charlottesville, and Hurricanes Harvey and Irma weighing heavy on our hearts, it seems prudent that we hear these words from Paul and have the Burial Office brought to mind.  In the same way that, in death, all of us come to the altar under the garment of baptism, so too, in life, we are all here on earth because of the gift and grace of God.  As Fitzmeyer puts it in his Anchor Bible Commentary, “This passage implies the service of God in all things, and it is the basis of life in the true Christian sense.  In life and in death, the Christ exists to Kyrio, i.e. to praise, honor, and serve God” (p. 691).  So, whether we feast or fast, whether we keep the Kalendar or honor everyday as a Feria from God, our lives are to be lived under the banner of our baptism, to the honor and glory of God.

Making ourselves gods

Last year, I had the pleasure of leading a real-life Draughting Theology study of Paul’s letter to the Romans.  I had read it several times.  I had walked Romans road.  I felt like I knew the lessons embedded in Paul’s letter pretty well, but until one spends time really digging into a text, commentaries in hand, with the goal of being able to teach it, one can not even begin to fully comprehend the complexities of a Biblical book like Romans.  One of the key lessons that I learned early in my study came from Jay Sidebotham’s commentary on Romans from the Conversations with Scripture series.  The thesis, or at least one of them, of Sidebotham’s commentary is that, for Paul, the core sin of humanity is the sin of idolatry.  There are a myriad of ways in which we offer worship to something other than God, but more often than not, the focus of that attention isn’t work, money, sex, or power, but ourselves.  The most common idol that distracts our attention from God is the idol of self.

This sin is no more evident than when we judge one another.  When we judge our neighbor, we put ourselves in the place of God.  This is why, in Sunday’s Old Testament lesson, when Joseph’s brothers come to Egypt, hoping to escape a famine and full of lies, Joseph essentially cannot treat them harshly.  Instead, he makes it clear that judgement is not the purview of a faithful human.  “Am I in the place of God?”  This theme shows up in the New Testament lesson as well.  The lesson is from Romans 14 (hence the introductory paragraph to this post), and in it, Paul’s seems to wonder aloud why it is that human beings, all of whom stand under the judgment of God, work so hard at passing judgment on one another.

giphy

This all leads to Peter’s question to Jesus in Sunday’s Gospel lesson, “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive?”  Jesus’ answer, which he expounds by way of a parable about an unforgiving slave, seems to broaden the expectation that we forgive rather than pass judgment beyond members of the church to all, who like us, are slaves, either of God’s grace or of the power of sin.  Forgiveness is the antithesis of judgmental idolatry because to forgive is to obey the command of God.  We don’t make the choice to forgive, which means we are not trying to control our own surroundings.  Instead, we obey by forgiving, allowing God to be God.

It seems that every year on or around the 11th of September, these lessons come back around.  Some sixteen years after the day on which terrorists attacked America, it is still tempting to put ourselves in the place of God and make judgments, not just on the men who planned and carried out these attacks, but on the entire religious system which these men perverted for their own selfish ambition.  It is hard to talk of forgiveness on September 11th, which is precisely why leaders of the Christian faith must do so.  We must warn our people of the temptation to make our country or our way of life the idol of our worship.  We must caution them against the more insidious sin in which we act as judge, thereby making ourselves as gods.  We must repeat the refrain that because we have been forgiven so much, we too must forgive, for it is not our choice to make, but the commandment of God that we humble ourselves and offer forgiveness to all who have sinned against us.