Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Taking Out the Trash - October 5, 2014

Text: Philippians 3:4b-14

This morning we continue our look at Paul’s letter to the Philippians.  We’re doing four chapters in four weeks.  We are not dwelling on every possible theme – we could spend a few months if we wanted to do that – but looking at a key idea from each chapter.  Paul is writing from prison, and in chapter 1, he says, “I am in prison, but I am not the church.  Whether I am released or whether I receive a death sentence, either way I am going to be OK.  Either way, I have Christ.  But it is not about me.  We are all the Church, and Christ is with us all.  What I want to say to you is, ‘Let the way that you live be worthy of the gospel of Christ.’”

Then In chapter 2, Paul talked about a different way of operating, a way of life that is not about succeeding and winning and achieving and looking out for one’s own self, but a way of humility, of regarding others’ needs and concerns.  We are to have the same mind as Christ, who set aside his rightful place of power and became a servant. 

So now, we come to the third chapter of this letter.  And one of the key ideas of the third chapter of Paul’s letter to the Philippians is, “Take out the trash.”  Seriously.  That’s it.  Take out the trash.

At our house, taking out the trash is mostly my job.  Trash pickup is on Tuesday mornings.  So on Monday, sometimes late Monday night because I have put it off or got involved in a football game or maybe just forgotten, I empty the waste baskets, clean out the litter box, and take our trash can out to the curb.  It’s a chore, it’s not very glamorous, but it has to be done.

Of course, there are times when cleaning gets ramped up a bit.  There are times when the trash can is a little heavier.  Zoe moved to Indiana for graduate school in August.  She took some of our furniture, we had a garage sale in the middle of all the chaos, and we went through boxes of stuff.  We have boxes in our basement that have hardly been open since we moved here.  There are clothes that haven’t been worn in some time.  There are mementos from college, from high school, that are stored in boxes, and if I am not needing that stuff now I can’t see needing it 10 or 20 years from now.  But still, it is hard to throw it out.

I have a box with some cassettes and even a few 8-track tapes, and seeing that I got rid of my last 8-track player 25 years ago, I probably don’t need them.  There are board games we haven’t played in years.  There are things we hold on to for sentimental reasons, things that belonged to our parents or grandparents.  There is stuff we hold on to out of frugalness – we might need it some day and it would be a waste to just throw it away.  I might need those scrap 2 x 4’s.

After our garage sale, we took some stuff to Goodwill, we took a lot of stuff to the new thrift store, and I set a couple of desks out by the curb.  They were both very usable desks, perfect for students.  Nobody wanted to pay $5 or $10 for them at the garage sale but I set them by the curb and they were almost instantly gone.

It felt good to get rid of things, to clear out some of the accumulation.  If Susan and Zoe had not been around, I could have got rid of a lot more stuff.  And I know that if I had not been around, there are some things of mine that they would not be upset to see disappear.

It is easier for some of us to throw things out than it is for others.  We had a work day here at church in the spring and there were differing opinions on what to throw out vs. what to try to give away.  But we all have those things that we want to hold on to.

We throw out things that are used up, broken, outdated, unneeded.  But there are those times when we willingly throw away things that are valuable.  It doesn’t happen often, but it happens.  A man sees a child drowning and jumps in the water in an expensive suit.  He can’t swim with the suit on, so he removes the jacket and tosses it in order to rescue the child.  It may be a really nice suit, but compared to the child it’s no contest.

In doing genealogy I found that my great-great-great-great grandfather, John Taylor, is buried in Iowa near Bloomfield, south of our Forest Lake Camp in Ottumwa.  This surprised me because everybody in my family for several generations, on both sides, was either born Illinois or landed there.  John was born in South Carolina and was one of the earlier settlers in Illinois, but he was buried in Iowa.  He and his wife Susannah had 8 children and then she died, still a young woman.  He married again, this time to Susan – people in my family apparently are attracted to Susans – and they had 9 more children.  Later in life, he and Susan moved with one of his children and their family to southeast Iowa.

I bring this up to mention his grandson, Isaac Taylor.  Isaac lived near Springfield, Illinois and was a medical doctor.  He was also the clerk of the Christian Church near Springfield where Jacob Donner and his family were members.  Isaac wrote letters for the settlers to take with them to recommend them to a church they would join in California.  If you are a student of history, you know that the journey of the Donner Party did not go well.

The troubles of the Donner Party were far worse but not unlike those that a lot of pioneers experienced.  Your wagon becomes a liability when trying to get through steep mountain passes.  Wagon wheels become mired in the mud.  Horses and oxen strain to pull the wagons, and they can go no further.  And so the leader says, “We’re going to have to unburden the wagons of cargo.”  Crying children and women carrying babies have to get out and walk.  The piano has to be left behind.  Furniture and chests of precious possessions are thrown in the ravine.  These are good things, wonderful things, even prized things, but they have to go because there is something more important.

This kind of thing does not happen much nowadays.  We pay the movers.  We rent a storage unit.  As college students we may leave old couches out by the curb, but we do not jettison precious treasures.  We don’t throw out heirlooms or valuable, much-loved possessions.  So while it may never happen to you, I do want to share another story of someone who threw out what was extremely valuable.

And of course, that man is Paul.  He wrote to his friends in what is today northern Greece in the town of Philippi.  The town was named for King Philip II of Macedonia, a great ruler, father of Alexander the Great.

Paul writes his friends in the church in Philippi and says, Look, I have a tremendous resume.  My identity, my family tree, my genealogy, my connections, my standing in the community, my record of religious service, it is all in the 99th percentile.  I am from the tribe of Benjamin, the smallest tribe of Israel – but you know, the first King of Israel, King Saul, was a Benjaminite.  I am named for him, and I’m proud of that.  As far as denomination, I am a Pharisee.  What that means is – we believe the Bible and we follow the Bible.  We don’t just play around with religion.  I know the scriptures backwards and forwards.  Ask my family, ask my friends.  I have lived by the scriptures and kept true to God’s teachings.

I take this very seriously.  When somebody distorts God’s teachings, tries to weaken the faith of our ancestors, I get upset.  I have stood up for God’s truth like nobody else.  I follow the Law, I love the scriptures, and to be honest, when it comes to all of this – my standing, my family, my character, my achievements - I could beat anybody in a bragging contest.

And yet, Paul says, I count this all as garbage.  I have set it out by the curb.  I’m throwing it all out.

Paul is clearly not a man who regrets his past, who is racked with guilt over what he has done.  This is not like a new Christian who is being asked to give up terrible habits.  “If you are going to be a Christian, you’re going to have to give up lying and cheating and stealing and boozing it up.  You’re going to have to lay those down and come to Jesus.”  That can be true for some people, but with Paul, there is only good stuff.  Faithfulness and commitment and doing the right thing.

And yet, Paul says that he is going to take this past of faithfulness and achievement and just throw it out.  “I count all of this as rubbish,” he says.

“Rubbish” is an OK way of rendering the Greek word Paul used – OK because “rubbish” is at least family-friendly.  The word skubula really means “dung,” only it is a less-polite way of saying that.  I bring this up to say that the flowery language we find in the Bible is not necessarily the way the Biblical writers put things – scripture can be very down-to-earth. But I also mention this because it underscores how strongly Paul is trying to make his point. 

His past, his achievements, his successes, his pedigree, his education, his record, his good name, his character – all of these pale next to Christ.  The basis of his hope, the basis of his faith, was not in himself or anything he had accomplished – it was in Jesus Christ and the power of his resurrection.

We can sometimes have a hard time prioritizing.  Life is busy.  We have all kinds of commitments and involvements.  We are good multi-taskers.  Many of us juggle numerous tasks and roles.  We are family members - parents, grandparents, children, spouses.  We are students.  We have work lives.  We have friendships.  We are involved in the community.  We are church members.

All of these are important facets of who we are, important pieces of our identity.  But even if it does not come through quite as strongly in our English translation of the Bible, Paul is saying that all of this is worth nothing compared to knowing Jesus Christ.  Paul sets the order of priority pretty clearly: before anything else, he is a child of God, a servant of Jesus Christ.  Before he pursues anything else, he attends to his relationship with Christ.

Today is World Communion Sunday, and Christians around the world will share today at God’s table.  We have been following the lectionary readings through Philippians and I had planned to continue in Philippians this morning but thought that it really didn’t have much to do with World Communion Sunday.  But on reflection, I think it actually does.  Our denomination, our nationality, the style of our worship, whether we meet in a colonial style church in Ames, Iowa, a modernist church building in Osaka, Japan, a great cathedral in Strasbourg, France or a tent in rural Nigeria – none of that really matters.  What matters is that we come to God’s table as brothers and sisters in Christ.  The rest pales in significance.

Now, Paul had the idea that if you are going to be a Christian, then you should be like Jesus.  I know, it’s a crazy concept, but that is what he thought.  And so, he says, you load up your pride, your agenda, your personal preferences, you load up all of your degrees and diplomas and awards, you load all of this up and take it out with the trash so that you can be like Jesus.  All of that is in the past, behind us; he is pressing forward toward what lies ahead.

But then Paul says, “I don’t mean to imply that I have arrived.  I don’t want you to think that I have it all figured out, that I have somehow achieved perfection in all of this.  I am still pressing on toward the goal.  I am still working at it. I am still striving to be like Jesus, who came from glory but set it all aside to be a servant.”

Well, Paul is a little unusual.  You may never meet anyone who takes Jesus as seriously as Paul did.  If Paul has not arrived, then we for sure have not arrived.  But still – there is that goal, that prize – the call of God in Christ Jesus.  It stands before us.  And maybe we could stand to take out the trash too.  Amen.


I drew inspiration for this sermon from Fred Craddock’s sermon, “Throwing Away the Good Stuff.”

Friday, September 19, 2014

Living, Dying, Politics, and the Gospel - September 21, 2014

Text: Philippians 1:21-30



Do you remember Match Game?  It has had more recent incarnations and is probably still on the Game Show Network or some such cable channel, but I remember the Match Game with host Gene Rayburn and assorted stars (maybe a lowercase “s” on “stars” such as Charles Nelson Reilly, Fanny Flagg and Patty Deutsch.)  Anyway, the idea was that you fill in the blank on a sentence and try to match the celebrities’ answers. 

We’re going to start with a little Match Game this morning with the sentence: _____ is really living.

What is involved in really living?  There was a beer commercial some time ago with some guys sitting around a campfire somewhere in the Rockies.  They lift their beer (I don’t remember what brand), and one of them says, “Now this is living.”

In the middle of January, there is a foot of snow on the ground and the temperature is 14 degrees below zero.  You get on a plane, and a few short hours later you are on a sandy beach in Florida, soaking in the sun, enjoying the waves and the beautiful view.  And you say, “Now this is living.”

A couple of weeks ago I had a chance to go to the ISU football game and sit in a skybox.  There is a bunch of free food, it is climate controlled, you have a comfortable seat, you enjoy all of the amenities that the great unwashed masses can only dream of, and you start to think, “I could get used to this.”  The Cyclones were ahead 14-0 and UNI was also beating Iowa, and I thought, “This is the life.”

A pastor told about going to visit a wealthy parishioner.  A seminary student went along.  They drove through this posh neighborhood and passed an incredibly large home with a huge, beautifully landscaped yard and a five car garage.  There was a BMW and Jaguar in front of two of the doors and a huge RV in front of a third.  The last two garage doors were closed because they don’t like exposing their Rolls-Royce to public view.  “Now these people really know how to live!” the student exclaimed.

If you are scoring at home in Match Game, the answers are:

A campfire and beer is really living.
A beach is really living.
A skybox at the game is really living.
A Rolls Royce and a humongous house is really living.


Cars, boats, beautiful homes, fabulous food, wonderful vacations, big bank accounts, you could add other items to the list of what life is really about.  But deep down, we know that all of these answers are pretty shallow.  These are not what life is really about.  A phone call from the doctor’s office with unwanted news can change our idea of what really matters in an instant.

What does it mean to live?  To really live?  While there is this sentiment out there that if one is able to enjoy the finest life has to offer and have awesome experiences - that is truly living.  While most of us wouldn’t mind those things, we know better.  We could name a bunch of things that are more important.  Family, friendships, relationships, loving and being loved, fulfilling and meaningful work, truly making a difference in another’s life. 

The Apostle Paul deals with this issue of really living.  He writes from prison.  We are not sure where he is in prison – traditionally it was thought to be in Rome, but more recently scholars have argued convincingly for Caesarea or Ephesus or perhaps even Corinth.  He writes a letter to the church he had started in Philippi, and it is the most upbeat of all his letters – never mind the fact he writes from prison.  The church in Corinth was plagued by scandal and dissension.  He writes to the Galatians, apparently dense folks, and at one point actually says, “You stupid Galatians.”  But the church in Philippi was his pride and joy, and he writes with obvious affection.

When Paul was arrested, the news traveled fast.  It was all that anybody could talk about – the preacher is in jail.  When the church had heard about it, they sent Epaphroditus to see how Paul was and what they could do to help.  But Epaphroditus became ill, deathly ill; in fact, he almost died.  When he was well enough to travel, Paul said, “I really appreciate you coming to see me, but I don’t need a sick deacon around here,” and sent him back to Philippi.

So, one Sunday everybody gathered for worship and lo and behold, Epaphroditus shows up.  “What are you doing here?”  “I have a letter from Paul.  He wants it to be read in church today.”  The letter was not posted on the bulletin board; they didn’t just publish it in the Spire or forward emails to everybody.  Many of those in the church probably could not read and even if they could, internet service was spotty at best in the ancient world.

So the letter is read in worship.  Not just a few verses, the whole thing.  There are greetings and preliminary remarks, Paul says how much he loves and appreciates the church, and then he launches into a report about his current circumstances. 

And he says, “For me, to live is Christ.”  For Paul, this is what living is all about.   It is a very countercultural understanding because as opposed to all of those Match Game answers, Paul is saying that my life is not all about me.  What matters most are relationships, beginning with the relationship we have in Christ.

Those who have children may remember bringing a child home from the hospital, and the overwhelming sense of responsibility – the sense that there must be some mistake, you mean they are actually entrusting this tiny, fragile, beautiful human life to me?  And if it hasn’t already hit you, it does then: my life is not just about me.

Through our work, through our family life, through friendships, through this church, we share our life with others, we make the joys and the pain of others our own, and hopefully we come to understand that life simply lived for yourself is not really much of a life.  For Paul, it all centers on his life in Christ: to live is Christ.

But then he makes an odd statement: to die is gain.  To live is Christ – and then to die is even better than that?  And then he launches into this soliloquy about whether it is better to live or die.

Without the context, it seems very strange and pretty morbid.  But here is the deal: life in a first century prison is awful.  And Paul has been through a lot already; he is not what you would call the picture of health to start with.  He knows that a death sentence is a possible outcome, maybe the likely outcome.  He speaks as though he is trying to decide whether to live or die, as though the choice is his: to live means fruitful work, he says; to die means to be with Christ, which is better – I’m not sure which I prefer but finally he says, I think that for me to remain in the flesh with you is more necessary – so I am convinced I will continue here on this earth and come and see you again.

Paul wrote to his friends in Philippi, “To live is Christ and to die is gain.”  He wrote out of a deep conviction that both in life and in death, God was with him.  In Romans he wrote, “Nothing in all creation, not even death, can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus.”  Sitting in a prison cell, looking at a possible death sentence, you contemplate such things.  But he realizes that he has more to do and believes that he will be released from prison.

And so he says to the church in Philippi, “Whether I come to see you in person or whether I just hear about you, I want you to stand firm in Christ.”  Christian faith was very much a minority religion.  There was persecution and threats and dangers.



Paul speaks of the privilege of suffering for Christ.  This past week I’ve been watching the Ken Burns series on the Roosevelts.  It has been fascinating and I have learned a lot about Teddy and Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt.  During WWII, Eleanor went to visit the troops and inspect field hospitals in the Pacific.  She got a lot flak for this in the press.  The Commanding Officer of the group she traveled with thought it was a ridiculous political stunt.  But he changed his mind 180 degrees on the first day.



She visited troops, attended rallies, and lifted morale.  She inspected a lot of hospitals.  But that did not mean just chatting with the CO and having a photo op.  She visited every single patient.  She took time to ask how they were doing, ask about home, ask if there was anything she could do.  And letter she wrote the parents of every soldier, sailor, and Marine she visited.



But here’s the thing: she was completely unprepared for what she saw.  There were gruesome and grizzly injuries.  She said that she never forgot the smells of the burn unit.  She made herself go on but that first night she felt totally unraveled by the experience.  But then she got up the next day and did it again, and again.  She made a huge difference; one general said that she gave the boys something they had not seen for over a year: an American mother.



We tend to hear something like “the privilege of suffering for Christ” and think about persecution or suffering that is inflicted on us  and that is certainly part of it.  But maybe more, it means choosing to do those things that are hard and which may bring suffering upon ourselves, but we nevertheless choose for the sake of Christ and the sake of others.



So Paul writes to his friends in Philippi.  He says that suffering for Christ is a privilege.  And then he says, “Get your mind off of me.  I am not the church.  If you are worried about me, I’ll be fine. Whether I live or die, I am just fine.

He turns to his hopes for the church.  Epaphroditus, or whoever is reading the letter on that Sunday morning, reads on, “Let your manner of living be worthy of the gospel of Christ.”

This is a really interesting verse.  The Greek word that is translated “manner of living,” or “the way you live your life,” is politeuesthe.  It is from the root from which we get the word “politics.”  It would not be incorrect to translate this verse as, “Let your politics be worthy of the gospel of Christ.” 

(Now it might be said here, with all of the campaign ads that we are having to endure, that these words of Paul may deserve a little more attention.  There is an awful lot in the political world that is not worthy of the gospel of Christ.)

But the sense of the word Paul uses here is more than simply one’s involvement in the political system.  Of course, those in the Roman Empire did not have the opportunity to vote or run for office, and they certainly did not have the opportunity to protest or demonstrate about Roman policies, or to write a critical letter to the editor.  Well, I guess you could do that, but probably only once.

Politics is literally the way one lives among the citizens or in the city, the polis, and it has to do with our involvement in the community.  Paul is talking about the way we live our lives in the public sphere – the things we do and the way we carry ourselves that affect the community and that others in the community may notice.  In some ways it reminds me of Jesus’ words, “Let your light so shine before others that they will see your good works and glorify your Father who is in heaven.”

In a difficult environment, the church at Philippi was striving to live out its faith in its community.  In their first-century way, they did what we strive to do today.  For us, it is seen in things like helping to provide affordable housing through Ames Ecumenical Housing and Habitat for Humanity and a small project our church supports called Home For Awhile.  It is seen in our involvement in the CROP Walk or in helping MICA and the Emergency Residence Project.  Living lives worthy of the gospel also happens when we sing our hearts out on a Sunday morning and when we learn to trust our lives to God.  Our living is worthy of the gospel of Christ when we are able to forgive one another.  Our living is worthy of the gospel of Christ when we live lives of generosity and gratitude, day by day.  Our living is worthy of the gospel of Christ when we our lives show peace, patience, kindness, and goodness.  Our living is worthy of the gospel of Christ when we see needs around us and do our best to meet them.  

Fred Craddock told about going to speak at a conference at Clemson University in South Carolina.  He was a keynote speaker but before he spoke, a young woman began the program with a devotional.  She walked up to the podium with a yellow legal pad and Craddock though, “Oh great, we’re going to be here for a while.”

Her voice was low and quiet, but she said something and Craddock was sure it was in another language.  And then another.  And another.  She was making the same statement in language after language.  Craddock didn’t keep count, but he said it was probably 60 or 70 statements in 60 or 70 languages.  He thought he knew what she was saying when she spoke German and was pretty sure he knew when she got to French.  And then she ended by reading in English.  “Mommy, I’m hungry.”

He said that he thought about what she said all the way home.  He got to the north edge of Atlanta and saw a billboard – “All you can eat $5.99.”  But all he could think about was, “Mommy, I’m hungry.”

Paul said to the church, “Don’t worry about me.  Whether I live or die, I’ll be just fine.  Now you have Christ and you have all of these human needs around you.  Go and be the church.  Make me proud.  Let the way that you live be worthy of the gospel.”  Amen.

Friday, September 12, 2014

The Hard Work of Forgiveness - September 14, 2014

Texts: Genesis 50:15-21, Matthew 18:21-35

We are always on the lookout for ways to make life easier.  And it has always been that way.  There is a reason the wheel caught on.  There is a reason that farmers use tractors instead of horses.  There is a reason we have microwave ovens.  There is a reason we carry cell phones.  There is a reason we like indoor plumbing and air conditioning and drive-through lanes.  It’s nice to sit in a recliners – or better yet, a power recliner.  We want life to be easy.

But some things just refuse to cooperate.  There are those things in life that are just plain hard.  Our scriptures today deal with one of the hardest things around: forgiveness.  Forgiveness is never easy.

Our Old Testament scripture is from the last chapter of Genesis, near the conclusion of the story of Joseph and his brothers, the children of Jacob.   

A few weeks ago, we looked at an overview of Joseph’s life.  Joseph was the favorite son, showered with gifts by his father and resented by the other brothers.  They had finally sold him as a slave into Egypt and told their father that Joseph had been killed by a wild animal.  In Egypt, Joseph is very much alive but languishing in a prison cell, accused and convicted of a crime he did not commit.

But that was then.  Now Joseph was the one holding all the cards.  Now he was powerful – as powerful as anyone in all of Egypt, save for Pharoah himself.  In a time of famine, his family had come to Egypt searching for food, and Joseph himself was in charge of all the stores of grain.  He had in fact toyed with his brothers – he had his own silver cup placed in youngest brother Benjamin’s grain sack and then accused him of theft.  He had power of life and death over them – and they did not even know he was their brother. 

In the end Joseph broke down and wept and embraced his brothers.  He sent for his father and brought his whole family to Egypt, to a place of plenty, a place of safety and security.

But now Jacob was dead.  The patriarch was gone.  If Joseph had been biding his time until Jacob was gone, now was his chance for retribution.  He had the opportunity and the power to avenge himself.  And what’s more, he had the right.  There was nothing to stop him.  His brothers knew it.  They expected it.  They deserved it.  And they came before Joseph in fear, begging for mercy. 

But Joseph said to them that what they had meant for harm, God had used for good.  And he forgave them and embraced them.

We all know folks who have been estranged from family members.  We are all acquainted with families that cannot get along, where family members have been badly hurt, where deep grudges are held.  This may happen in our own families.  The hurt can be so deep, so painful when caused by someone in our own family.  And we all know of situations where reconciliation seems completely out of the question.

But imagine a family where brothers sell one of their own into slavery in a foreign land, a place where this brother sits in prison.  How could there possibly be any hope for such a family?  Forgiveness can be exceedingly difficult.

And then we have Peter.   Jesus had just talked to his disciples about how to deal with conflict in the church, and perhaps this spurred Peter’s question, “How much should we forgive?  As many as seven times?”  Peter thought he was being pretty magnanimous.  Once you’ve been burned a couple of times, you learn.  Forgiving two or three times is pretty impressive.  But Peter asks, how about seven times?  After forgiving seven times, then can I stop forgiving?  I’m trying to be generous, Jesus, but we have to draw the line somewhere. 

Jesus says, no, not seven, but seventy-seven.  Some manuscripts have this as “seventy times seven.”  But it doesn’t matter.  Jesus’ point is that there is no line.  There is no limit.  We are to just keep on forgiving.

And then to reinforce what he was saying, Jesus tells this story.  A king was settling accounts with his servants, and one person was found to owe ten thousand talents.  It is a huge amount, equal to many years’ worth of wages. 

How he accumulated such debt we do not know, but this is clearly beyond his ability to repay.  He begs and pleads with the king and promises to repay everything - which he certainly cannot do - and the king mercifully decides that he will forgive the debt.  An enormous amount, just written off as bad debt.  It is an incredible act of grace.

What a relief to this servant!  How thankful he must have been!  Except that, he runs into a colleague who owes him money - 100 denarii.  This was not an inconsequential amount of money, except that compared to his own debt that had just been canceled, it was a mere drop in the bucket.  But the one who had just been forgiven a million dollars refuses to pass on the forgiveness and demands his thousand bucks right then and there.  He ignores the pleas for patience and has the man thrown into debtor’s prison.

Reading this story, I am aghast at this man’s lack of mercy.  What really galls us is the hypocrisy of it all.  How could someone forgiven so much not be generous?  How could he not forgive someone else?  We want this guy to get what he deserves, and he does: the king has him thrown in prison to be tortured until he can pay his debt, which of course he never will. 

Did you notice what has happened?  The forgiveness of the king was short-lived, and we have all been roped into being unforgiving as well.  At first, we were on the side of the servant who owed the great amount, but as soon as he turned out to be a jerk, we wanted the forgiveness rescinded, and we were glad when he was punished. 

We are left with these terrifying words that Matthew attributes to Jesus: “So my heavenly father will do to every one of you if you do not forgive in your heart.”

That’s enough to make the most ardent biblical literalist do some tap dancing, because we know that forgiveness is no small thing.  And really, this is not at all in the character of Jesus – who lived a life of grace and offers us forgiveness.  Threats of torture for not being forgiving really don’t seem Jesus’ style.  I mean, so much for seventy-seven times, let alone 70 times 7.

Matthew interprets this story as an allegory – the king represents God.  And looking at it this way, we are certainly impressed with how important forgiveness is.  But is God really like this king?

I think that we are better off thinking of the story as a parable – a story for us to chew on.  And the point is not so much about God but rather about our shocking lack of forgiveness.  We, who have been forgiven so much, are slow to forgive others.

Well, as I said, it is hard.  Really hard.  Why?  Well, we have to put aside our need for power – the power of being right, the power of punishing for pain afflicted, the power of revenge.  Forgiving another means setting these aside and being vulnerable.  And forgiveness is hard because it is unnatural.  It goes against our human instinct.  It goes against our every emotional impulse.

Forgiveness is hard because we have so few models of real forgiveness.  In our daily lives, where do we see it?  Where do we see it at work or at school?  Where do we see forgiveness in public discourse?  Where do we see it in our families?  We can think of a few examples – but not many.

Tom Long told about a preaching class he taught.  He announced that there was going to be a test.  The class looked at him apprehensively – they had not been expecting this.  There would not be a grade on the test, he told them, but it was an important test nonetheless.  It involved being given a list of theological words and students writing about how they had experienced these concepts in a personal way.  If preaching means making such ideas real and understandable, Long told the class, then students needed to be able to articulate what these things meant to them.

The first word was hope.  They wrote away about hoping for a baby to be born, they wrote about high hopes for their children, about standing at a bedside and praying hopefully for healing, about standing at a graveside and hoping for joy to rise from sorrow.  They knew about hope.

The next word was faith.  Again, the pens got to writing.  They had chosen a life of ministry, after all.  Many had left careers to come to seminary.  They had trusted God’s voice and followed.  They knew about faith.

The next word was forgiveness.  Long said that the pens stopped writing.  When students did write, it was about fairly trivial things.  A mother forgiving a child over a broken vase, a high school teacher not holding a bad test score against a student, things like that.  They were preparing to preach a gospel rooted in forgiveness, but they did not have a lot of concrete examples of forgiveness in real life. They had not experienced much of it for themselves.

To be honest, deep forgiveness is not so common.  Now, failing to forgive may be human.  Holding on to the hurt may be natural.  But in refusing to forgive, in holding on to the pain, we are only hurting ourselves.  Anne LaMotte wrote that refusing to forgive is like “drinking rat poison, and then waiting for the rat to die.”

Barbara Brockoff told about a neighbor who had a sign in his front yard for many years.  The sign sat on a pile of dark, ugly sheets of aluminum.  The sign was lighted at night and could be read from a distance.  It read, “This Alcoa aluminum with a 30-year guarantee is no good.”

The house was newly painted, the lawn was mowed, there were beautiful flowers in bloom.  It was an otherwise lovely home, but its beauty was marred by this ugly sign.  Apparently, the owner had a bad experience and used this sign to get even.  But who was really being hurt by this grudge?

Forgiveness is hard.  Even when we become victims of our own lack of forgiveness, it is still hard.  And sometimes the person we have the hardest time forgiving is ourselves.  Sometimes we are willing to offer grace to others, but cannot forgive ourselves.   

Forgiveness may be more than just hard.  There is a sense in which it is downright impossible.

Nearly every Sunday we pray to God, “Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.”  As if we can forgive the way God forgives.  As if we are even in the same league.

“Forgive one another,” we are told, as if by a sheer act of will we can get past the deep pain we have experienced, as though we can just change our heart by a decision of our mind.  I’m sorry, but it doesn’t work that way.

The Bible frequently asks us to do things that we really can’t do.  Love your enemies.  Bless those who persecute you.  Be perfect as your Father in heaven is perfect.  Pray without ceasing.  Forgive one another as I have forgiven you.

To forgive another – to truly, deeply, completely forgive – can be an impossible task.  But maybe we need to look at forgiveness in another way.

Timothy Haut, a pastor colleague in Connecticut, wrote:

Forgiveness is something we cannot just do as a technique to make us better than we were, to heal an old hurt, or to free us from a corrupting power that diminishes us.  Of course, forgiveness helps us in all those ways.  But forgiveness seems to mean that I willingly dip my heart into the fountain of God's love so that I may be a channel of that love, and if I am observant and patient, I see miracles.  Grace, joy, wonder, healing--all these things start to happen in me and in the other, too.
Forgiveness then is not simply something we decide to do, but it is a process that grows out of our own experience of God’s love.  It is not so much our decision but a gift from God.  It’s not so much that we grant forgiveness but we participate in God’s forgiveness.  Forgiveness in the New Testament sense is not a quick or superficial event.  It is about a deep healing, a repair of broken relationships, a removal of the poison that destroys love and community, a restoration of wholeness and trust – and this can come only from God.  It is beyond our power.

You probably recall the terrible shooting at an Amish schoolhouse in Pennsylvania several years ago.  Several school children were killed and the shooter then took his own life.  What was most amazing was the response of the Amish community.  They forgave the troubled young man who had committed this horrible crime.  Members of the Amish community attended his funeral.  Money that came in was shared with the family of the shooter.  They understood that his family had suffered loss just as they had.

It was a powerful witness to their faith.  But you have to wonder: can you really have instant forgiveness for a loss so deep?  Can you really forgive someone on the same day that he killed your child?  I don’t think you can.  You can’t really forgive when you haven’t even experienced the pain yet, and this is a pain they will always have with them.  I don’t think you can really, truly forgive just like that.  But what they did was to align themselves on the side of forgiveness.  We cannot ourselves create forgiveness, but we can participate in God’s forgiveness.

Tom Long wrote,

Genuine forgiveness takes time; indeed, it takes more time than we have.  There are not enough days in a human life for all the pain to be healed; there are not enough years in history for all the wrongs to be righted.  Only in God who is eternal, only in Jesus Christ who is “the same yesterday and today and forever,” is there enough time.  God has time for human restoration; God takes time to make peace with humanity.  In God’s eternal time, all the wounds have been healed and all of the restless, vengeful spite of human harm has been transformed into reconciliation and peace.
Forgiveness is required of us.  And true forgiveness is impossible for us.  But thankfully, with God, all things are possible.  Amen. 

Friday, September 5, 2014

“For Real” - September 7, 2014

Text: Romans 12:9-21
 

(Worship Under the Trees service)

I have asked a number of people - kindergartners, grade school students, undergrads, graduate students, elementary teachers, college professors, principals - if they were glad to be back in school.  The answers fell into three categories: yes, no, and then the majority said kind of/sort of.  For most, there were mixed feelings, both pros and cons.

On the plus side, students get to see friends, school can be fun, it is something to do, parents are glad to get the kids out of their hair and back in school.  The social aspects of education can be pretty important.  Beyond that, I have talked with students who really like their classes and enjoy what they are learning. 

Then there is the negative side.  You have to take notes.  There are tests.  You have to study.  You have to plan.  You have to write papers.  And that is just what I heard from the professors.  It’s no picnic for the students, either.

I’d like for us for a moment to think about our scripture today as though it were a lecture heard in class.  This is not an especially long passage; it is fairly short and concise.  But there is a great deal packed into these verses.  In our text today there are 30 injunctions, 30 instructions to follow.  If you heard this in a lecture, you would be scribbling furiously to get it all down.

I have heard homiletics professors say that the structure of the text should be a cue for the structure of the sermon.  If the text is a story, the sermon will probably flow differently from a sermon based on a Psalm.  If the text is a theological argument, the sermon would likely be structured differently than if our scripture were a parable.

Well, a scripture that contains 30 different instructions poses some unique possibilities.  We could go with a 30-point sermon.  It would be a kind of macho approach.  “Yeah, I preached a 30-point sermon.”  But it might be kind of choppy - that is a lot of transitions – and I finally decided that if the sermon was like one of those lectures that just goes on and on, we might not have very many people back next week. 


I did think of a possible modification.  I could give a pop quiz.  I could read the 30 different instructions - Do not lag in zeal, be patient in suffering, extend hospitality to strangers, and so on.  You would tally 1 point for each of these that you practice most of the time, and if you get 20 points, then you get in line for lunch.  The rest of you would have to sit through a 30 point sermon.  But that seemed to violate the spirit of the text itself – it might knock a few points off of my score.


It can come across as a lot of instructions to follow, a lot of stuff we are supposed to do, but Paul is really not giving us 30 different instructions, 30 points for the class to remember for the test.  Rather, Paul is describing the characteristics of Christian living – the marks of true Christian faith.  The entire passage is a way of further defining and describing what we find in the very first verse: “Let your love be genuine.”  All that follows – the 29 other injunctions - are descriptions of what genuine love looks like.

If you had to choose one passage of the Bible and try to live your life based on that one passage, you could do a lot worse than to live your life on these words.

“Let your love be genuine.”  Literally, this reads “love un-hypocritical.”  Love that is for real - not fake or put on or show-offy – here is what it looks like. 

An interesting idea Paul shares has to do with competition.  “Outdo each other,” he says.  We know about outdoing each other.  We live in a very competitive society—we compete at all kinds of thing.  Sports, grades, houses, jobs, clothing, cars.  We compete with friends and strangers alike in games we play games on our phones.  And it can happen with churches as well.  We can be very competitive. 

I have a couple of good friends from my hometown in Indiana who are serious bowlers.  Randy is the one who is really into it – he competes in a lot of pro bowlers tour events.  When he turned 50, he thought, now I am going to really make a splash because now I can join the senior tour.  I can win against the old guys.  But as it turns out, it doesn’t work that way.  It would be like me turning 50 and thinking I could really excel in senior league basketball but then Michael Jordan and Larry Bird and Magic Johnson and Dr. J show up at the gym.

Well anyway, my friends Randy and Kevin were in a Senior PBA tournament in Iowa a month or two back.  I met them and we all went to see Field of Dreams – they are big baseball fans and had never been there.  Another guy had traveled with them for the tournament and he went along as well.  I have known Randy and Kevin for years but had never met Jeff.  So we are in the car driving up to Field of Dreams and Jeff, this guy I had never met, hears that I am a pastor.  And what is the first thing he asked?  What do you think?  “How big is your church?”  Very first question.  Apparently he goes to some kind of massive church.  “How big is your church?”

I told him a little about First Baptist, but what I really wanted to ask him was, “How awesome is your church?”  But I didn’t.

We can be competitive about a lot of things.  And Paul urges us to be competitive - with a twist.  He says, “Outdo each other in showing honor.”  Outdo each other in the care and respect and help and encouragement that you show.  This doesn’t mean rubbing it in someone’s face that you are more loving than they are – that would be kind of a self-defeating action, wouldn’t it? – but it means having the kind of enthusiasm and drive and commitment to being loving and compassionate and to doing good that we so often see in our various competitive activities.

Paul says that as a community, we are to have a mutual affection – a deep, shared concern.  An AP story reported on Mark Lowery, a 7th grader at a Lutheran school in Yorkville, Illinois.  He was diagnosed with leukemia and the other students learned that Mark would soon be undergoing chemo treatments and lose his hair.  By the end of that week, 14 of the 16 boys seventh and eighth grade boys in the school had shaved their heads.  Two of the 16 were not bald.  One was waiting to have his clipped that weekend.  The other was Mark, who had undergone a treatment but still had his hair.  Genuine love within the community means sharing our lives with one another.  Paul writes, “Rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep.”  Those seventh and eighth grade boys knew something about love.

But the genuine, un-hypocritical, “for real” love Paul writes about is not simply for those who are within the community of faith.  We are not called just to care for each other within the church; we are called to action in the world, to care for those in need whomever and wherever they may be. 

The two go together.  It is the love – the care, the encouragement, the acceptance, the support that we gather from the community that enables us to go out and serve boldly in the world.

Tom Ehrich, an ordained Episcopal priest and a writer and church consultant, wrote last week about the importance of churches being safe places – where members feel acceptance, dignity, and respect and are treated as people of value.  This is something a lot of people don’t experience in their day-to-day lives and too few people experience even in church.  He wrote, “(Such) a congregation would equip us with the faith, self-confidence, courage and tools to go forth into a dangerous world and be God’s agent for hope and healing, diversity and justice.”  Writing about the fighting that can sometimes go on in churches, he argues that going forth from God’s community into God’s world will never happen if the basic faith enterprise itself is not experienced as a safe and loving place.

But he went on to say, “Let’s devote less energy inside the walls but instead draw strength there for devoting energy outside.  We expend too much effort trying to perfect church -- to perfect the people around us, to perfect our worship and internal ministries, to perfect our surroundings.  God needs us working out there, not fussing in here.”

Paul’s description of love that is “for real” in Romans 12 mirrors what Ehrich is talking about.  It includes both love experienced within the community of faith as well as love that we express outside the walls of the church.

I always enjoy this service that we hold outside each year, just as I have really enjoyed our services at Brookside Park in the summer.  It’s fun, it’s more casual, it’s different, I don’t have to wear a suit and tie, we always have a good meal - there are a lot of reasons to like this service.  But I also think it is really helpful to worship outside the walls of the church if for no other reason than to remember that we are part of a larger community, a bigger world.  We have neighbors all around us with various gifts and concerns and needs and frustrations.  We don’t live in a vacuum; we live in the real world.  Cars and passersby and traffic noise might be distractions, but we might also think of them as reminders.

This year our church joined AMOS, a group that does this work of reaching out to make a difference in our community by changing structures, by engaging the principalities and powers, as the Bible puts it, to be more fair and just for everyone.  In the next few weeks, our church and the other 26 AMOS institutions will hold house meetings.  In these meetings, small groups will gather and basically share about where they feel pressure in life – where life is hard.  Out of the concerns that are shared, AMOS will come up with the issues that it will research and address in the coming year or two.  This is not just for church members – friends and neighbors, anyone is welcome.  The more community members who participate, the better.

A few years ago, a woman attended an AMOS house meeting and told her story.  She had no health insurance.  An expectant mother, there was nowhere in Story County where she could get pre-natal care.  The time came, she went into labor and drove to the hospital in Marshalltown.  They told her that she had not dilated enough and to come back when she was farther along.  So she went to the parking lot and sat in her car, with two young children, in freezing February weather, to wait until her labor was far enough along that she could be admitted to the hospital.

She told her story, and something came out of that.  Through several partnerships, a free pre-natal clinic was started and is held in a mobile clinic at Bethesda Lutheran Church twice a month, staffed with a doctor from Broadlawns who volunteers his time.  This has all led to a new community health clinic that opened this year in Ames. 

The whole story – and the work of AMOS – is an example of love expressed by the people of God beyond the walls of the church.

Paul writes, “Contribute to the needs of the saints.  Extend hospitality to strangers.  Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly.” 

Genuine love, as Paul describes it, cares for others, cares for the world, and in fact extends even to those who are our enemies.  He writes, “If your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink.”

Martin Niemoller, the famous German pastor and theologian, put it this way: “It took me a long time to learn that God isn’t the enemy of my enemies.  God isn’t even the enemy of God’s enemies.”

Now like many of you, I am struck at how unjust, how unfair, how difficult, how plain mean our world can be.  The news can be so depressing.  In a world of terrorism, in a world of violence, in a world of such deep differences, in a world of such animosity and hatred, loving our enemies sounds so out of touch.  Oh, it might sound nice and spiritual, but it just seems terribly na├»ve and unrealistic.  If you really try to love an enemy in this world, it might get you killed.

From a certain perspective, this is true.  Loving others doesn’t work.  But there is another perspective, and that is the perspective of Jesus.  What if Jesus had said, “Loving my enemies isn’t realistic.  Loving my enemies will never work.”

It is true that loving one’s enemies can be dangerous.  Look what it did for Jesus.  Jesus knew what it would lead to, and yet he said to his followers, “you must love one another.”  And not only that, but “Love your enemies.”  Jesus came to show us what love is--genuine love, love that is for real.  And he showed us how dangerous living that way can be.  Jesus died on the cross for all of humanity, for those who love him, and for those who do not. 

We have the example of Jesus, but still, the question is there.  Is the love that we read about this morning - a love for each other, a love for our world, a love that extends even to enemies – is it realistic?  Is it worth it?

Maybe we should ask a different question.  In a world filled with so much pain, can we as Christians do anything less than love?  Outdoing each other in goodness, weeping together and celebrating together, helping those in need, even loving our enemies.  This is what God has called us to do.  And in the end, this may be the only thing that makes sense.

We don’t have to memorize thirty rules about Christian behavior.  We don’t need a 30-point sermon (although if I’m flooded with requests, I may consider it.)  It is all wrapped up in one word.  Love.  Love that is for real.  Amen.