Forgive them their debts – a sermon

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


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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

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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.

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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.

[Against you]

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My friend and colleague Evan Garner wrote this morning about the importance of reading lectionary passages within their larger context.  This is an important rule for preachers, and one that I often, in haste, ignore.  Reading his post this morning inspired me to look around within the context of Matthew 18 to see what Jesus is up to that would bring about this teaching on discipline within the Church.  (For those following along, this is that third usage of this word in Matthew, but the Greek actually lacks ekklesia here.  The NRSV’s commitment to inclusive language created the situation in which the Greek word for “brother” is translated as “a member of the church.”)  This lesson follows on the heels of the Parable of the lost sheep. There Jesus shows just how ridiculous and extravagant God’s desire for reconciliation really is.

“If a shepherd has a hundred sheep, and one of them has gone astray, does he not leave the ninety-nine on the mountains and go in search of the one that went astray?”  Well, actually no, Jesus, that seems like a really good way to lose 100 sheep instead of one.  And yet, this is what the Kingdom of God is like.  God desires the restoration of every human being into right relationship that in Christ, God set forth to find every stray soul wandering the countryside.  Immediately after this parable, Jesus begins our lesson for Sunday.  It is helpful, as Evan points out, to note that this story about disciple comes withing a larger context of forgiveness.

It is also helpful to take note of content as well.  Many Christians are familiar with this text, especially the first line, “If another member of the church sins against you,” but how many of us pay attention to the footnotes?  In my HarperCollins Study Bible, footnote n comes right after the word you and reads, “Other ancient authorities lack against you.”  Isn’t that interesting?  Perhaps this isn’t a lesson in how to deal with one-to-one interactions, but a more general rule about how the church should handle sin.  Digging deeper, I pulled out Bruce Metzger’s A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament 2nd ed. and found that the United Bible Society, as it put together its fourth edition of a Greek New Testament, chose to put the Greek words translated as “against you” in brackets, denoting that they are unsure of their place in the original text.

So what? You might rightfully ask, and I’m glad you did.  This lesson has long been used in unhelpful ways, usually as the result of the words “against you.”  Rather than being a tool for one church member to take issue with another, this lesson, when it lacks “against you” becomes a call to the whole church to a) be honest about sin, b) name it when we see it, but yet c) to offer grace continually.  Recalling that Matthew was a tax collector, who was invited by Jesus into his inner circle, those who followed in his tradition and finally put this Gospel to parchment would have taken note that the culmination of Jesus teaching on church discipline was to treat the unrepentant sinner like a Gentile and a tax collector.  The call here isn’t to harsh excommunication of one who has sinned against you, but a loving invitation to repentance for all who continue to live in sin.  Thanks be to God that we are treated as Gentiles and tax collectors in need of forgiveness and lost sheep in need of being found.

Customizable Temptation – a sermon

You can listen to this sermon on the Christ Church website, or read it here.


One of the great joys of living in 21st century America is that we live in a world that is increasingly customizable. For roughly the last half century, advertisers have been helping us move from the “one size fits all” world that came out of the industrial revolution to a world where anyone can have it “your way, right away.”  Believe it or not, it has been 43 years since Burger King introduced “Have it your way” as their slogan.  According to Wikipedia, the source of all wisdom, there were 1,024 ways to order a Whopper in the early 1960s, but now you can get it any one of 221,184 different ways![1]  In 2014, there were at least 80,000 different ways to order a cup of coffee at Starbucks.[2]  Think about that.  It wasn’t that long ago that your choices were black, cream, and/or sugar.  Domino’s Pizza advertises that their menu allows you to choose from any of 34 million possible pizza combinations!  34 Million!  Madison Avenue has long since figured out that the best way to get us to buy their widget is to make sure their widget can meet our specific and varied tastes no matter what our whim might be at any given moment.

Before I say what I’m going to say next, I want to be clear that I am not suggesting that all marketers are evil. What I am willing to suggest is that the art and science of marketing has at its root the Tempter who has been working on humanity since the very beginning.  The contemporary shift toward a fully customizable world is built upon a foundation of customizable temptation.   That is to say, the Tempter has been using various approaches to tempt human beings toward sin since the very beginning.  I can say that with some confidence seeing as we just heard the story of that first temptation in our Old Testament lesson this morning.  Our lesson opens with God giving Adam the only rule of the Garden.  “You may eat freely of every tree, but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, you shall not eat, for on that day you eat of it you shall die.”

With the first rule comes the first opportunity for temptation, and the Tempter had his first goal: get Adam to eat from that tree.  The Tempter was hard at work long before the conversation between the serpent and Eve.  We can tell this is true because the serpent finds the first couple standing close to the forbidden tree.  Like telling a child not to eat a piece of candy, the only thing Adam and Even seem to be able to think about is that tree.  What beautiful fruit it has.  What would it be like to know the difference between good and evil?  Why would God hold this back from us? The Tempter had these questions swirling around in their minds as the serpent made his next move: twisting the words of God. “Did God really say, ‘You shall not eat from any tree in the garden?”

She might not yet know the difference between good and evil, but Eve knows that the Tempter is wrong.  He gives Eve her first opportunity to stretch her discernment wings.  She corrects the serpent, and boy did that feel good.  He presses further, “You will not die; for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God.”  That’s what that feeling was?  To be like God is to feel the power of correction and reproof?  The Tempter had found the right combination, and Adam and Eve ate.  His customizable approach to temptation had produced its first fruit.

Generation after generation, the Tempter continued to seek out ways to tempt God’s children away from right relationship.  For Noah, it was wine.  For Abraham and Sarah, it was impatience.  For Moses, it was frustration.  For David, it was lust.  For Solomon it was idolatry.  For Samson it was pride.  Again and again, the Tempter found the perfect way to turn the attention of Israel away from God, until finally, God had had enough, and he sent his Son to restore all of humanity to right relationship.

The Tempter did not give up with the birth of Jesus, of course.  In fact, just like in that moment when God first said, “you may not eat,” the Tempter saw his big chance come at the baptism of Jesus when the voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”  God knew what was to happen next.  God was familiar with the Tempter’s work and knew that he would immediately begin to sow the seeds of sin, so without any hesitation, the Spirit took Jesus out into the wilderness to allow the Devil to try his best, and try he did.

“If you are the Son of God…”  The Tempter was in for a challenge with Jesus, and so he went dirty right from the start – pushing Jesus to question the identity that had just been spoken so clearly in his baptism.  “Are you really the Son of God?  Because if you are, then you shouldn’t have to be out here starving to death in the desert.  God’s Son should be treated better than that.  In fact, you have all the power you need to make bread from these stones.”  Jesus is not swayed by the Devil’s tactics, “One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.”

“If you are the Son of God…” The Tempter tries a different approach.  Still calling into question Jesus’ primary identity, now he turns his focus to just how strong that relationship really is.  “If you’re so dependent on God, why don’t you take it a step further?  You trust God to feed you.  Do you trust God to keep you safe?  Prove it by throwing yourself down.  God has promised in scripture that ‘He will command his angels concerning you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’  By jumping, you’ll simply be demonstrating your total confidence in your Father’s promise.”[3]  Jesus again stands firm.  He won’t allow the Tempter to twist God’s words: quoting instead a passage from Deuteronomy, “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.”

After two failed attempts, the Tempter changes tact one more time.   Rather than trying to get Jesus to question his identity, the Devil goes after his patience.  It will take years and an agonizing death on the cross for Jesus to be given all authority on heaven and earth.  Why wait?  “For the low, low price of worshipping me,” the Tempter offers, “all that you can see will be yours.  All the kingdoms, riches, and power on earth will be yours.”  Here again, Jesus withstands a third uniquely customized temptation.

The Tempter left, but not for long.  Again and again during his lifetime, Jesus came face to face with Temptation, and he resisted it each and every time.  This is because the Devil isn’t the only one who knows the power of customization.  As we prayed in our Collect for Today, God knows the weaknesses of each of us, and stands ready to help us stand firm.  Again and again in our lives, we will find ourselves in the Tempter’s snare.  Like Adam and Eve, we won’t always be successful at avoiding his wiles.  We will forget to turn to God for help.  We will allow our fears to be used against us, our pride to make us foolish, or our envy to bring us down.  But the Good News is that God is always ready to overcome our temptations and forgive our sins.  The Devil is tricky, and uses any means necessary to drag us into sin, but God is all the more crafty: knowing the weakness of each of us, God has a fully customized plan so that every one of us might find God mighty to save.  Save us from the time of trial, dear Lord, and deliver us from evil.  Amen.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Whopper

[2] http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/03/04/starbucks_n_4890735.html

[3] http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1973

Life is all about choices

There is an inherent flaw in the version of Christianity that is focused entirely on grace.  Well, there are probably multiple inherent flaws in it, but the one I am thinking of this morning comes out of Sunday’s Old Testament lesson in which Moses is clear that even for God’s chosen people, those whom God had rescued from slavery in Egypt and to whom God had promised a land of prosperity through their ancestor Abraham, life was still about choices.

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Despite the hard line often taken by strongly reformed traditions on whichever sin they’ve decided God cares more about than anything else, in a theological worldview that is only concerned with the grace of God, there is actually little, if any, room for consequences.  The same sort of theology that created sola gratis underlies Your Best Life Now.  It assumes that because one has been washed clean in the blood, there is no room for sin, even though everybody knows that can’t possibly be true.

Moses lays before the Hebrews a choice between life and death, blessing and curses, and God continues to do the same for each of us; especially those of us who claim to follow Jesus.  As committed disciples, the assumption shouldn’t be that we can “sin boldly” or “go on sinning” as people have been trying to argue from the very beginning (see James, the Letter of and Romans, the Letter to), but instead that we are called to live by an even higher standard.  Our lives are testimony of the Gospel of Christ, and when we make bad choices, we bring curses upon ourselves and the entire body of Christ.  Alternatively, when we choose love: of neighbor, of creation, of enemy, we bring blessing upon ourselves and the entire body of Christ.

Grace forgives us our sins, but it doesn’t excuse our bad behavior.  As Lent rapidly approaches, it might behoove us to give some thought to how our lives reflect the Gospel of love.  The benefit of grace is that we have one more opportunity, in a long life of opportunities, to repent of our misdeeds, to acknowledge the times we have chosen curses over blessings, and to once again choose blessing and life.

Jesus does more than save you

Sunday’s Gospel lesson is probably better suited for a Bible Study or academic lecture than it is a sermon.  As John is wont to do, the language that makes up this two day interaction between Jesus and John the Baptist and his disciples is careful, studied, and layered in meaning.  One could take 45 minutes to unpack the verb meno which is translated as “stay.”  A whole class could be devoted to the word Jesus uses for “looking” when he asks the two men “What are you looking for?”  But what struck me late yesterday afternoon as I perused my go-to sermon prep resources occurs much earlier in the story.

As the scene opens, it is some time after the baptism of Jesus.  We don’t actually get that story in John’s Gospel, just JBap’s interpretation of it.  We can’t be sure how long it has been since that momentous day.  It isn’t clear if this story happens before or after Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness, but we do know that the experience left a lasting impression on John.  As he sees Jesus once again approaching the River, John says to anyone who will lesson, “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!”  Again, you could spend an entire Bible Study trying to discern what it means to call Jesus “Lamb of God” (a phrase that only occurs in John 1), but what I have found fascinating is the word that gets translated as “world,” cosmos.

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Cosmos not Cosmo

Translating cosmos as world is already a step to point out the broadness of Jesus’ salvific activity.  To say that he came to take away the sin of the world would already be contrary to the prevailing wisdom of the Judaism which thought that God’s grace was given to the Jews exclusively.  To say that God’s grace extended to the whole world means that God’s love is poured out upon Gentiles, heathens, and depending on your political persuasion, Republicans or Democrats.  <Gasp>  But here’s the thing, cosmos carries a much broarder meaning than simply “world.”  What Jesus did wasn’t simply take away the sin, that is offer salvation to, the world, Jesus came to set right the entire universe that God created.

This may not seem that important to you, and I’m not arguing for life on other planets, in case you were wondering (though I wouldn’t rule it out).  What this really means, at least in my interpretation, is that God really is in control of everything God has made.  It isn’t just that humanity messed up the earth through sin, but that through sin, everything was put out of whack.  In Christ, God sets the whole thing right again.  In Christ, the vision of Eden is restored.  In Christ, the harmony in which the Triune God made everything is restored.  Now, it may not seem like this is true.  There is still plenty that is out of whack – plenty of sin to go around – but the promise, spoken by the last Old Testament Prophet, John the Baptist, is that in Christ, all shall be set right again.

Thank God I’m not like those people

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If ever the Christians in this country needed to hear a parable from Jesus it is the Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector during the waning days of the 2016 Presidential Election.  While it seems clear to me that one candidate is clearly more qualified to run this country for the next four years, both candidates, their parties, and their supporters have engaged in a form of dehumanizing rhetoric about which we as a nation should be ashamed.

Whether it is Facebook, Twitter, the 24 hour news cycle, or even my Junior High Youth Group this afternoon, it is impossible to find a safe place, free from anger, fear, and a whole lot of Pharisees praying about themselves, “Thank you Lord that I’m not like those people.”  Here’s the thing, as soon as we start to think that about someone else, we’ve been sucked in to sin.  As soon as we look down at another human being whether it be over their opinion on gun rights, their opinion on double predestination, or their opinion on mild or spicy chicken at Popeye’s, we are no better than the “deplorables” who rabidly attack “Crooked Hillary” or “Racist Donald.”

As we butter our popcorn, ready our bingo cards, and open our Crown Royal bottles in preparation for tonight’s “dumpster fire” of a Presidential Debate, we should pause for a moment and take stock of where we have allowed ourselves to be taken as the body of Christ in the United States of America.  Maybe we’d be better off turning off the TV, pulling out a rosary, and saying the Jesus Prayer five hundred or a thousand times.

“Lord Jesus, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”

This prayer, which is not unlike the prayer of the tax collector, has worked to calm the minds and hearts of Christians for more than 1,400 years.  It reminds us of our dependence on God alone.  It focuses us not on the other who stands outside of us, but the Lord Jesus who makes his home deep in our hearts.  Most of all, it brings to mind the one fact that every human has in common: all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God; all of us are in need of forgiveness; and it is God’s desire to restore us all to right relationship with him and with one another.  Resist the temptation to be like the Pharisee tonight and for the next three weeks and instead, focus on God who takes delight in our prayers, who longs to be at the center of our lives, and causes those who exalt themselves to be humbled and those who humble themselves to be exalted.