September 28, 2014 is Pentecost 16A – Humility

Exodus 17:1-7 – The people quarrel with Moses: Why did you bring us out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and livestock with thirst?” Moses strikes the rock for water.
OR
Ezekiel 18:1-4, 25-32 – You will no longer say, “The parents have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge.” Cast away all your transgressions, and get yourselves a new heart and a new spirit! Turn, then, and live.

Psalm 78:1-4, 12-16 – God divided the sea and let them pass through it, and made the waters stand like a heap. In the daytime he led them with a cloud, and all night long with a fiery light. He split rocks open in the wilderness, and gave them drink abundantly as from the deep. He made streams come out of the rock, and caused waters to flow down like rivers.
OR
Psalm 25:1-9 - Do not remember the sins of my youth or my transgressions; according to your steadfast love remember me, for your goodness’ sake, O Lord!

Philippians 2:1-13 – Paul’s Christ Hymn: Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave.

Matthew 21:23-32 – Jesus’ authority questioned and the Parable of the Two Sons (not Prodigal Son, but the one who says he’ll work but doesn’t, and one who says he won’t, but does)

Prayer of the Day
God of love, giver of life, you know our frailties and failings. Give us your grace to overcome them, keep us from those things that harm us, and guide us in the way of salvation, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.

Gospel Acclamation
Alleluia. My sheep hear my voice, | says the Lord; I know them and they | follow me. Alleluia. (John 10:27)

St. Michael and All Angels – September 29, September 29, 2011

  • Daniel 10:10-14; 12:1-3 – Michael, one of the chief princes, helps Daniel. Michael arises and many who sleep in the dust of the earth awake.
  • Psalm 103:1-5, 20-22 – Bless the Lord, you his angels, you mighty ones who do his bidding.
  • Revelation 12:7-12 – Michael and his angels fight against the dragon as war breaks out in heaven.
  • Luke 10:17-20 – The seventy return. Jesus says, “I saw Satan fall from heaven like lightning.”

Humility
This Sunday is September 28, Pentecost 16A unless you want to use the texts for St. Michael and All Angels (September 29).

The epistle text is the second of four from Philippians:

  • September 21: Philippians 1:21-30
  • September 28: Philippians 2:1-13
  • October 5: Philippians 3:4b-14
  • October 12: Philippians 4:1-9

Philippians 2 is the Christ Hymn. It is worthy of many sermons. I have treated this vitally important text on self-emptying and the theology of the cross extensively here. Commentary on Philippians begins about half way down the post.

If the September 7 was about conflict, September 14 was about forgiveness, and September 21 was about grace, then September 28 is about humility.

For the rest of our year in Matthew, Jesus is in constant controversy with the scribes and the Pharisees. They are critical of him for hanging out with sinners and even eating with them. They criticize him for healing on the Sabbath, and because his disciples don’t fast and follow other laws and traditions.

Jesus, in turn, is critical of the scribes and Pharisees for their legalism. They “strain out a gnat, but swallow a camel.” They follow the letter of the law, even tithing their herbs (mint, dill and cumin), but they neglect “the weightier matters of the law”: justice, compassion.

By the time we get to this point in Matthew’s gospel (chapter 21) the tension has reached a boiling point. My eye naturally rests on the most poignant, edgy thing Jesus has to say in this gospel text:

Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you. (Mt. 21:31)

Imagine starting your sermon like this. It would make a great attention getter. Let it hang. Then, if you’re really ready for a new call, change prostitutes to a bawdier synonym and tax collectors to some other group to whom that your audience considers themselves morally superior. Don’t mention that this idea came from me.

Perhaps we should all memorize this passage. The next time someone uses the word “pastoral” as a synonym for “polite” or “Christian” as a synonym for “nice,” quietly rehearse the passage in your head. This is, of course, not an encouragement to be impolite or unkind. That would be no virtue. It is, however, a reminder that a theologian of the cross calls a thing what it is (Luther in the Heidelberg Disputation), that the first responsibility of a leader is to define reality (Max DePree, Leadership Jazz), and that systems stay stuck until someone names the truth of the situation (Ed Friedman, A Failure of Nerve).

It’s hard to imagine anything more antagonistic for Jesus to say to these religious leaders, who pride themselves in their righteousness – keeping the law to the nth degree. But it is precisely that pride of their own righteousness that is the problem. The Son of God comes to earth dressed in the garb of our humanity, and is surprised to find prostitutes and tax collectors who have more faith than the scribes and Pharisees. Jesus also finds faith in a Syro-Phoenician woman and a Roman soldier. Jesus finds faith in unexpected places, and a surprising lack of faith in places where one would most expect to find it. To suggest that a Tax Collector has more faith than a Pharisee? Heresy.

To make his point, Jesus one time told a story of a Pharisee and a Tax Collector going to the temple to pray (Luke 18). The Pharisee prayed, “I’m so glad I’m not like others: thieves, evildoers, fornicators, or like this tax collector. I fast. I tithe.” The tax collector’s prayer was a bit different. He stood at a distance and would not even look into heaven. “God, be merciful to me, for I am a sinner.”

What a different prayer! These two have completely different prayer lives. One is a prayer of pride, and the other a prayer of humility. Jesus follows up this story with a few words on humility. God tends to bring down the haughty, and lift up the lowly. God fills those who are empty, and empties those who are full of only themselves.

Let it not be lost on the reader that the authorship of this gospel is attributed to Matthew, who was… a tax collector. The author has a personal stake in this narrative.

For Jesus, the most dangerous sin is self-righteousness. Of whom is Jesus most critical in the gospels, and why? The Pharisees, because of their self-righteousness. Humble people know they are broken. The humble of heart are not deluded that their own self-righteousness can save them from the power of sin. They understand that the most powerful forces for true righteousness are love and forgiveness. Telling a child she is a horrible person will not inspire or empower them to become. Telling them they are loved with an everlasting love, in spite of their failings will free them to live anew, in spite of past and present failings.

An interpretation we can take from this parable of the Two Sons is this: The first son, who says he will not work in the field, but then does, represents tax collectors and other sinners, who are initially disobedient, but who care about God’s justice. The son who says he’ll go work but doesn’t represents scribes and Pharisees, who talk a good line and are showy in their faith. However, when the chips are down, they are more interested in the letter of the law, than in the bigger issues of justice and compassion.

This story of these two sons is the counterpart to Luke’s story of two sons (The Prodigal Son, Luke 15). In both stories, one son represents scribes and Pharisees, while the other son represents prostitutes, tax collectors and other “sinners.” One appears to be the better son, but isn’t. The other appears to be disinherited, but isn’t.

There’s nothing wrong with the law. We need it to show us our need of God. But the law cannot save. It has no transformational power. Like the erstwhile song:

Do this and live the law commands
   But gives me neither feet nor hands
A better way thy grace, doth bring
   It bids me fly, and gives me wings 

If this is so, then a defining mark of the follower of Christ is humility, not arrogance or judgment. Given Jesus’ critique of the Pharisees, one might even say self-righteousness is anti-Christian. Sadly, too many consider “Christian” to be synonymous with “judgmental.”

Richard Rohr writes:

Christianity worldwide has come to have an often negative public image. The Christian religion no longer naturally connotes people who serve the world, people who care about others, other nations or religions, poverty and injustice, or even people who are very happy. In fact, our common image is often exactly the opposite. How did we get to this impossible place, after placing ourselves in the following of Jesus who described himself as “gentle and humble of heart…”

How far we have come from “by this shall all people know you are my disciples, if you love one another.” They’ll know we are Christians by our love, not our Victorian moral ethics or superior ability to appear appropriate by societal definitions of what is proper, status quo and upstanding.

Paul plays this theme big in the epistle lesson, Philippians 2.

Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. 

Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave… 

He humbled himself and became obedient… even death on a cross.

To follow Christ’s way is to walk in the way of one humbled. This does not mean becoming a doormat, but rather a joyful servant of Christ in the world. This does not mean we do what anyone tells us, for we are servants of the Servant. Rather, we act in selfless love for the world that God loves. With love for all and malice toward none, we recognize we have our own sin to deal with, so we have little time to point the finger, unless we are protecting those we love. We are under no illusions that self-righteousness is salvific. We are not perfect, only forgiven. Loved in spite of ourselves, we are free to announce God’s grace for all, leaving the sword to God and Caesar.

The word of grace here is that God loves every child, the rebellious and the obedient. The word of challenge here is that we are called to be witnesses to God’s love by reflecting the humility of Christ, by having this mind not to exploit power, but instead to empty ourselves of all that is not of God.

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September 21, 2014 is Pentecost 15A

Exodus 16: 2-15 – The Israelites complain against Moses. They receive manna and quail.
OR
Jonah 3:10 – 4:11 – Ninevah reprents and God changes his mind. Jonah gets angry.

Psalm 105: 106, 37-45 – A song celebrating delivery from Egypt and quails in the wilderness.
OR
Psalm 145: 1-8 – God’s providence. The eyes of all look to you, and you give them their food in due season. You open your hand, satisfying the desire of every living thing.

Philippians 1: 21-30 – For me, to live is Christ and to die is gain. Live your life in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ.

Matthew 20: 1-16 – Grace: Parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard.

Prayer of the Day
Almighty and eternal God, you show perpetual loving kindness to us your servants. Because we cannot rely on our own abilities, grant us your merciful judgment, and train us to embody the generosity of your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.

Gospel Acclamation
Alleluia. Open our | hearts, O Lord, to give heed to what is said | by your Son, Alleluia.

Grace
Believe it or not, there are only 10 weeks left in our year of walk through Matthew’s gospel, Year A. We will cover major portions of Matthew 20-25, the last of five major sections that make up Matthew’s gospel. Matthew presents Jesus as the new Moses, so Matthew’s Gospel is organized into five sections just like the Books of Moses (Genesis-Deuteronomy).

In the early 20th century a guy named B. W. Bacon noticed that Matthew used the phrase, “When Jesus finished saying these things…” five times, at the end of five long discourses, or sermons (Mt. 7:28, 11:1, 13:53, 19:1, 26:1). He pointed out the five-fold narrative/discourse structure. One could organize Matthew’s gospel as follows:

  • Introduction: Matthew 1
    • Section 1
      • Narrative: Matthew 2-4.
      • Discourse: Matthew 5-7 (Sermon on the Mount)
    • Section 2
      • Narrative: Matthew 8-9.
      • Discourse: Matthew 10 (Missionary Discourse)
    • Section 3
      • Narrative: Matthew 11-12.
      • Discourse: Matthew 13 (Parables of the Kingdom)
    • Section 4
      • Narrative: Matthew 14-17.
      • Discourse: Matthew 18 (Living in Community)
    • Section 5
      • Narrative: Matthew 19-22.
      • Discourse: Matthew 23-25 (Olivet Discourse)
    • Conclusion: 26-28 (Death and Resurrection)

Our gospels through the end of the year look like this:

  • September 21, 2014- Pentecost 15A: Matthew 20:1-16 – The parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard
  • September 28, 2014 – Pentecost 16A: Matthew 21:23-32 – Jesus’ authority questioned and the Parable of the Two Sons (not Prodigal Son, but the one who says he’ll work but doesn’t, and one who says he won’t, but does)
  • October 5, 2014 – Pentecost 16A: Matthew 21:33-46 – The parable of the Wicked Tenants
  • October 12, 2014 – Pentecost 17A: Matthew 22:1-14 – The parable of the Wedding Banquet
  • October 19, 2014 – Pentecost 18A: Matthew 22:15-22 – The question about paying taxes
  • October 26, 2014 – Pentecost 19A: Matthew 22:34-46 – The Great Commandment and the question about David’s son, OR Reformation Sunday: John 8:31-36 – True disciples continue in my word. If the Son makes you free, you are free indeed.
  • November 2, 2014 – All Saints: Matthew 5:1-12 – The Beatitudes from the Sermon on the Mount
  • November 9, 2014 – Pentecost 22A: Matthew 25:1-13 – The Parable of the Virgins
  • November 16, 2014 – Pentecost 23A: Matthew 25:14-30 – The Parable of the Talents
  • November 23, 2011 – Christ the King, Last Sunday after Pentecost: Matthew 25:31-46 – The parable of the Sheep and the Goats

Prior to this week’s gospel in Matthew 20, we have the Scribes and Pharisees giving Jesus a hard time for eating with sinners and not keeping the letter of the law. He has responded with stories about lost things: lost sheep, lost coins and a lost son. The message seems to be that God cares about those who are lost, much more than keeping score. In Matthew 19 we had the parable of the unforgiving servant. Forgiveness is not optional. Then Matthew 20 begins with the parable of the Workers in the Vineyard, which might also be called The Parable of the Day Laborers.

This is a great story, but it drives people nuts. The justice of God does not seem just.

A landowner goes looking for workers to help with the harvest. At 6 a.m. he finds some people to work and agrees to pay them a fair daily wage. Then he finds more workers at 9 a.m. Then again at noon, 3 p.m., and 5 p.m. These are the times that the workers are deployed. Each time the landowner looks for people who are standing idle to work in the vineyard.

Here’s the kicker. At the end of the day (6 p.m.), the landowner pays everyone the same amount (the fair daily wage he had negotiated with the 6 a.m. folks). “That’s socialism!” – I can hear it now. In fact, that practically is what the 6 a.m. folks say.

Imagine the daily wage is $15/hour, for a 12-hour day. That’s $180 for the day. We can assume a 12-hour day because at the end of the parable, the folks that arrived at 6 a.m. complain that the folks who arrived at 5 p.m. “only worked one hour.” So, 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. $180. Everyone agrees and shakes on it.

When it comes time to collect their pay at the end of the day, the 5 p.m. folks are paid first. Lo, and behold, they get $180. The 5 p.m. folks rejoice. $180 for one hour of work. The 6 a.m. folks also rejoice, thinking, “Yee haw! $180 per hour!” Robert Farrar Capon has an excellent treatment of this story in his book Parables of Grace. He says we’re all inveterate accountants/score-keepers. The 6 a.m. folks immediately begin calculating. (C’mon, we’ve all done it.) 12 hours at $180/hour is, well, let’s see, over $2,000.

The 3 p.m. people step up. $180. The noon folks: $180. 9 a.m. folks: $180. When the 6 a.m. folks step up, they are angry to find out that they too receive only $180. “This is not fair!”

Before we get to the landowner’s response, let’s stop for a moment and ask: Why is Jesus telling this story? How might the Scribes and Pharisees be hearing this story? Why would Matthew choose to retell this story? (This parable is peculiar to Matthew. Mark and Luke only have some version of this phrase: “The last will be first and the first last.”) Could they all be measuring their status before God? Their righteousness? Their place in heaven? Are the Scribes imagining themselves as 6 a.m. folks, and the Gentiles, tax collectors and sinners as 5 p.m. Johnny-come-latelies! Who is more righteous? Who will God reward the most? Who will be greatest in the kingdom of God?

When the early birds get upset, the landowner’s response is classic. He says, “Friend, I am doing you no wrong.” Capon suggests that this word for friend (Ἑταῖρε, hetaire) is edgier than the usual (φίλοs, philos). Herzog (Parables as Subversive Speech) agrees that this is a condescending form of the word “friend”. It’s an interesting thesis. If he’s right the sense is more like, “Listen pal…” or perhaps “Look buddy…” This is my vineyard. You agreed to work for $180, right? (Marlin Brando voice.) I’m sorry. Do you believe I have I been unfair with you? Perhaps you wish to lodge a complaint? Do you really want to mess with me, pal? Take the money we agreed upon and skedaddle. Or are you going to make trouble because I choose to be graceful?

I remember a small group at my home congregation discussing this passage. The group discussed how difficult it was to find reliable hard workers. One businesswoman said she didn’t pay all her workers the same amount. Some jobs are harder than others. Some people work harder than others. But she’s the boss. It’s her business. They can take it or leave it. She pays what she agreed to pay. Period.

This story is similar, but different. In this story everyone is paid the same, even though they didn’t work the same amount. Not even close. Some worked 12 hours throughout the heat of the day. That’s a pretty tough sell here in triple-digit Texas. Some worked only one hour. This story makes no sense to the bean-counters of religious purity. It only makes sense in light of a gracious God.

“Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me?” the landowner says, “Or are you envious because I’m generous?” Perhaps those on the score-keeping plan, who are “winning” (in their own eyes), don’t want a gracious God. It’s like the frontrunner of the marathon being told everyone is a winner. What?! But I worked so hard!

The phrase “Are you envious because I am generous,” literally says, “Is your eye evil, because I am good?” (ἢ ὁ ὀφθαλμός σου πονηρός ἐστιν ὅτι ἐγὼ ἀγαθός εἰμι;). This “evil eye” phrase is loaded. The evil eye has a long history. Translators don’t render it literally, because most modern readers won’t recognize the image. There is more here than can be dealt with in this short reflection. Look it up: (especially evil eye in Judaism). In particular, one with an evil eye is so envious, so covetous that they are distressed when others prosper, and wish to do them harm. When your neighbor gets a raise and prospers in any way does it upset you, or do you celebrate over their advantage?

Clearly, those who come last are on equal pay as those who came in first. The first are last and the last first. Those who think they should enter the kingdom first because of their righteousness, moral superiority or religious heritage are in for a surprise. This seems to be a shot across the bow to the religious leaders. It’s a distressing parable for score-keepers.

To make matters worse, in case they missed the point, in next week’s gospel Jesus will really pour gas on the fire by saying to the chief priests and elders: “Truly I tell you, the tax-collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you.”

I like this story. I really like it. It shows a loving God who is like hopeless parents that love all their children, underachievers and overachievers, those who score and those who struggle. This is a fun story to read with groups. Don’t miss the opportunity.

Here’s an idea: invite some actual day laborers to join the conversation.  Pay them (quite fairly – a day’s wage, perhaps) to be with you for the morning of study and worship. You might hear a different story. They would tell stories of being underpaid, not paid at all, verbally abused, and treated as trash. We might gain a fuller understanding of the text if we listened to reflections of actual day laborers.

Some have suggested this story subtly illustrates Jesus’ solidarity with the poor, and his awareness of the vulnerability of the poorest day laborers in the barter economy of his day. Today we see the same problems. The laborer really has little choice in the matter of payment. The subsistence-level laborer is utterly dependent on the generosity of the exploitative urban elite. Jesus becomes the model of the broker between the rich and poor. He symbolizes the coming of a new economy, an economy of the kingdom, where all are equal in the eyes of God. Jesus truly embodies the prophetic vision of “good news for the poor.”

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Lutherhill!

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September 14, 2014 is Pentecost 14A

Exodus 14:19-31 – The Israelites are delivered from the Egyptians, through the Red Sea.
OR
Genesis 50:15-21 – Joseph forgives his brothers. “Even though you intended it for evil,, God intended it for good…”

Psalm 114 – When Israel went out from Egypt, the house of Jacob from a people of strange language, Judah became God’s sanctuary, Israel his dominion.
OR
Exodus 15:1b-11, 20-21 – Moses’ song. “I will sing unto The Lord for he has triumphed gloriously…”
OR
Psalm 103:(1-7), 8-13 – The Lord is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. He will not always accuse, nor will he keep his anger forever.

Romans 14:1-12 - Welcome those who are weak in faith, but not for the purpose of quarreling over opinions… Who are you to pass judgment on servants of another?… Why do you pass judgment on your brother or sister? Or you, why do you despise your brother or sister? For we will all stand before the judgment seat of God.

Matthew 18:21-35 – Peter: How many times must I forgive? The Parable of the Unforgiving Slave.

Prayer of the Day
O Lord God, merciful judge, you are the inexhaustible fountain of forgiveness. Replace our hearts of stone with hearts that love and adore you, that we may delight in doing your will, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.

Gospel Acclamation
Alleluia. We have an advocate, Jesus | Christ the righteous; your sins are forgiven on account | of his name. Alleluia. (1 John 2:1, 12)

It is ironic and perhaps difficult that the theme of forgiveness comes up around 9/11. This might be a good Sunday to remember the victims of 9/11 in your prayers.

Our first option for the Hebrew Bible reading (Exodus 14) is the Israelites crossing the Red Sea. The Psalm picks up this theme, either by using the Song of Moses in Exodus 15 or Psalm 114. The theme is God’s deliverance from oppression. This is not a story of revolution – people rising up and overthrowing an evil empire by their own might. It is a story of escape. God delivers them and they walk away.

The other option for the Hebrew Bible reading might be a better choice if you are going to use the theme of forgiveness from the Gospel reading. Joseph forgives his brothers. Then Psalm 113 emphasizes this forgiveness: “The Lord is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. He will not always accuse, nor will he keep his anger forever.”

This coming Sunday’s epistle brings to an end our marching through portions of Romans. Though Romans has 16 chapters, we end this run in chapter 14. A portion of chapter 15 appears in Advent 2A, when Paul quotes Isaiah saying a root of Jesse will come. A portion of chapter 16 (the last three verses of Romans) appears in Advent 4B: Paul says the mystery hidden for the ages is now disclosed, and made known to all the Gentiles through the prophets. Next week we begin four weeks in Philippians:

  • September 21: Philippians 1:21-30
  • September 28: Philippians 2:1-13
  • October 5: Philippians 3:4b-14
  • October 12: Philippians 4:1-9

Romans 14 is one of Paul’s treatises on bound conscience. It gives us insight into his thinking, ethics and ecclesiology. “Welcome the weak, but not just to quarrel.” Some eat only meat, while others are vegetarians. The vegetarians believe it inappropriate to eat meat sacrificed to pagan idols. Since this comprises most of the meat in the Roman markets, some believe it is more appropriate and faithful (kosher?) to abstain. Paul’s take is that idols are nonexistent anyway, so eat up. He also clearly believes human religious traditions to be ineffective for justification. They can, in fact, work against one’s salvation by puffing one up.

Clearly Paul considers those who abstain from eating meat to be weaker in faith, and the omnivorous stronger. He is not without an opinion on the matter. And yet, his admonishment to them is to accept one another’s differences. “Who are you to pass judgment on servants of another?” Shades of Matthew 7:1-5, Sermon on the Mount.

Paul then says, whatever you do, wherever you fall on this issue, make up your mind and be confident, while respectful of others. The point he emphasizes toward the end of this passage is that we’re all going to stand before God on judgment day. People are accountable to God, not to you, so don’t worry about it. Let God be God. Jesus would add, work on the log in your own eye. You’ve got more than you can handle dealing with your own stuff.

Mark Reasoner tells an amusing story to make the point:

A story about Ruth Graham, wife of the famous evangelist, illustrates how differences can threaten our unity. Mrs. Graham, dressed and made up as would seem fitting for any American woman in the 1970’s, attended a luncheon with wives of conservative pastors in Germany. These German Christians had more conservative ideas regarding how women should look. They did not believe that married Christian women should wear makeup or clothing that made them look too much like the world. As a result, a German pastor’s wife, sitting across from Ruth Graham, became very upset. She thought it was shameful that the wife of this famous evangelist looked so worldly. Why, Ruth Graham was even wearing mascara! The German pastor’s wife became so angry that she started crying right into her beer. Meanwhile Ruth Graham couldn’t understand why the woman was crying, although it bothered her that a self-respecting pastor’s wife was drinking beer at a meeting to prepare for an evangelistic crusade where Christians come together as the unified body of Christ.

Matthew 18:21-35 is a classic text on forgiveness. Jesus’ shocking storytelling style drives the point home with power. Jesus makes it clear: We are to forgive. Especially when preaching close to 9/11, we should be very clear about what forgiveness is and what it isn’t.

A parishioner once told me this passage made her stay in an abusive marriage too long. Another said his childhood abuser wanted to “friend” him on Facebook. Forgiveness does not mean we allow destructive things to happen or continue. It does not mean discarding healthy boundaries. Forgiveness does not mean we are going to be best friends. Forgiving an abusive ex doesn’t mean you have to marry him or her again. Forgiving an abusive person does not mean you keep putting yourself in the dysfunctional arena in which the abuse takes place.

Forgiveness does not mean restoration to a position of trust. An example: your treasurer embezzles $50,000. Do you forgive him? Yes. Do you make him treasurer again? No. Restoration to a position of trust would be unkind to the people of the organization and to former treasurer, who clearly has a weakness. The preacher needs to take care not to proclaim too shallow a vision of forgiveness.

If forgiveness doesn’t mean these things, what does it mean? Forgiveness means I am not going to let the wrong or abuse define me. I am not going to let it keep me from living into a hopeful and joy-filled future. I choose not to carry around the heavy anchors of anger, bitterness, resentment or hate. I choose to live into the future, in spite of the scars of the past. I forgive because Christ has forgiven me. Ephesians 4:32.

Lewis Smedes said forgiveness is relinquishing my right to get even. It is giving up my right to hurt you for hurting me. Frederick Buechner reminds us that forgiveness is an act of radical self-interest. We punish ourselves by carrying around our grief and anger when we do not forgive others.

Forgiveness is not easy, but is something the Bible talks about a lot. Jesus says we are even to love our enemies. Paul says if your enemy is hungry give them food. If he is thirsty give him something to drink.

The preacher has to be able to tell a story of forgiveness that makes a difference, either from the saints or from his or her personal life, to connect with the congregation.

I will close with some thoughts from C.S. Lewis:

Everyone says forgiveness is a lovely idea, until they have something to forgive, as we had during the war. And then, to mention the subject at all is to be greeted with howls of anger. It is not that people think this too high and difficult a virtue: it is that they think it hateful and contemptible. ‘That sort of talk makes them sick,’ they say. And half of you already want to ask me, ‘I wonder how you’d feel about forgiving the Gestapo if you were a Pole or a Jew?’ 

So do I. I wonder very much. Just as when Christianity tells me that I must not deny my religion even to save myself from death by torture, I wonder very much what I should do when it came to the point. I am not trying to tell you in this book what I could do – I can do precious little – I am telling you what Christianity is. I did not invent it. And there, right in the middle of it, I find ‘Forgive us our sins as we forgive those that sin against us.’ There is no slightest suggestion that we are offered forgiveness on any other terms. It is made perfectly clear that if we do not forgive we shall not be forgiven. There are no two ways about it. What are we to do?

- C.S. Lewis, “Mere Christianity,” Book 3, Chapter 7 

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Israel and Gaza in HuffPo

http://m.huffpost.com/us/entry/5727198

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Muhammad Ali: Why I became a Muslim

http://youtu.be/yfa5EP4D0eo

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September 7, 2014 is Pentecost 13A

Exodus 12:1-14 – The commandment to observe Passover.
OR
Ezekiel 33:7-11 – As I live, says the Lord God, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from their ways and live.

Psalm 149 – Sing to The Lord a new song… Let them praise his name with dancing, making melody to him with tambourine and lyre.
OR
Psalm 119:33-40 – Lead me in the path of your commandments, for I delight in it. Turn my heart to your decrees, and not to selfish gain.

Romans 13:8-14 – Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. The Ten Commandments… are summed up in this word, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.

Matthew 18:15-20 – If another member of the church sins against you… How to manage conflict.

Prayer of the Day
O Lord God, enliven and preserve your church with your perpetual mercy. Without your help, we mortals will fail; remove far from us everything that is harmful, and lead us toward all that gives life and salvation, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.

Gospel Acclamation
Alleluia. In Christ God was reconciling the world | to himself, entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. Alleluia. (2 Cor. 5:19)

Let me begin by saying thank you to Pastor Don Carlson for continuing these lectionary notes during my sabbatical. His insights, coming at the end of his group In Search of Paul, to Turkey and Greece, were insightful and thought-provoking.

I must also thank the good people of the Texas-Louisiana Gulf Coast Synod, for a delightful sabbatical. It is a wonderful gift, being able, for the first time in twenty years of ministry, to take an extended leave of absence for study, rest, and renewal. It is our synod’s policy that rostered leaders are offered a three-month sabbatical after seven years at a ministry site, and every five weeks thereafter. The practice is borrowed from academia, and has found its way into the business world, as this Fortune article shows.

I am deeply grateful. I will prepare some reflections on my sabbatical for the September meeting of the Synod Council. If you wish to receive a copy let me know.

September and October our texts are from Matthew 18-22. There are teachings and parables that are instructive to the church. Life in Christian community. Here’s an overview:

  • September 7: Matthew 18:15-20 – Conflict
  • September 14: Matthew 18:21-35 – Forgiveness (The Unforgiving Slave)
  • September 21: Matthew 20:1-16 – Grace (Vineyard Laborers)
  • September 28: Matthew 21:23-32 – Humility (Two Sons)
  • October 5: Matthew 21:33-46 – Fruit (Wicked Tenants)
  • October 12: Matthew 22:1-14 – Expectation (Wedding Banquet)
  • October 19: Matthew 22:15-22 – Taxes (Render unto Caesar)
  • October 26: Reformation – John 8:31-36 (The truth will set you free.)

On to the texts. Our Hebrew Bible texts are Exodus and Ezekiel. The Exodus text is the commandment to observe Passover. The Ezekiel text is God’s call to Ezekiel, asking him to tell the house of Israel to repent, for God does not wish the death of sinners, but that they turn and live.

The Romans text embodies the theology of love that Jesus espouses when asked the greatest commandment. He says it is to love God and neighbor. It is the theology of 1 John 4:7-8. “Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love.” Paul’s clearest exposition of this theology is in 1 Corinthians 13, where love, for Paul, transcends eloquence, ecstatic speech, prophecy and even faith. Here in Romans 13 he boils it down three times. “Whoever loves has fulfilled the law.” (13:8) “The Ten Commandments are summed up in a single saying, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.'” (13:9) “Love is the fulfillment of the law.” (13:10) ” This passage from Romans 13 is the passage that famously caused Augustine to convert to Christianity.

The gospel text for this Sunday is one that absolutely must be studied and understood by anyone living in community. It is almost as if Jesus told this story for every church I ever served. As we take a look at this text, it is well for us to keep Paul’s words about love from Romans 13 in our heads.

It is likely that Matthew, writing in AD 80 or so, included this story because of stuff going on in his church. The Gospel of Matthew is the church’s manual, after all. Mark, Luke and John must not know this story, because if they did they would most certainly have included it. Wherever there is human community, there is conflict. Jesus had to deal with conflict even among his disciples. We can expect no less. There is nothing unchristian about conflict. But there are Christ-like ways to deal with conflict.

This passage on dealing with conflict outlines a way to keep community healthy. If we respond to conflict without love, we have missed the point. In fact, some have pointed out even this procedure could be misappropriated as a tool to wield power over someone else. Any process can be abused. To use it in this way would be to miss the point.

So let’s look at it. Matt 18:

“If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one. But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.”

So we have a 4-step process.

  1. If a member sins again you, go and talk to that person privately.
  2. If you aren’t listened to, take one or two others along.
  3. If that doesn’t work, take it to the church.
  4. Gentile/Tax collector

Every pastor should preach this text every time it comes up in the lectionary (only once every three years). Perhaps this should be an annual sermon. Boundaries and leadership are the immune system of a healthy organization.

Friends, this is not how most communities function. This is why you have to teach this. It’s counter-cultural. When someone sins against them, most people tell everyone except the person that offended them. “Do you know what so-and-so did to me/said to me? Well let me tell you. It’s so awful. I am never speaking to her again…” And we create a triangle. What was a one-on-one conflict now involves others, who are brought into the anger. We spread our conflict throughout the whole community. Anger is like an infection. Communities that function like this constantly throb with conflict. It will be hard to get a vibrant sense of well-being and health in a community that doesn’t know how to handle conflict in healthy ways.

Some churches are made up of extended families. We have one congregation where 2/3 of the members are part of one of or two families. In this situation, methods of managing conflict (avoidance, blaming, computing, distracting, placating…) are deeply ingrained in generations of family systems. One pastor is not likely to change this, but it should not stop us from proclaiming it and living it. Engaging the council in a study and discussion of this text will certainly have some impact. If leaders set the example, the culture begins to shift.

Jesus says the first step is to go to the person privately. When this happens most of the time reasonable people who love will be able to work through things. Equally important, the community has not been dragged through the drama.

Notice whose responsibility it is to initiate the conversation: It says, “If a member of the church sins against you…” The person who is wronged is to initiate the action. This is because sometimes the offender does not even know that he or she has offended. Jesus seems to understand that left unchecked, resentment can turn into anger and anger can harden into hatred.

Here’s what St. Augustine had to say about it:

Our Lord warns us not to neglect one another’s sins, not by searching out what to find fault with, but by looking out for what to amend. For He said that his eye is sharp to cast out a mote out of his brother’s eye, who has not a beam in his own eye. Now what this means, I will briefly convey to you, Beloved. A mote in the eye is anger; a beam in the eye is hatred. When therefore one who has hatred finds fault with one who is angry, he wishes to take a mote out of his brother’s eye, but is hindered by the beam which he carries in his own eye. A mote is the beginning of a beam. For a beam in the course of its growth, is first a mote. By watering the mote, you bring it to a beam; by nourishing anger with evil suspicions, you bring it on to hatred. (Sermon XXXII)

Augustine points out something important. We are not to go around looking for people to offend us. But when something happens that we can’t let go of, it’s time to act.

If anger and anxiety are infections in the community, the leaders are the immune system. Leaders model conflict resolution, one way or the other. They can convey a sense of well-being in the community. If they do, many will follow suit. The pastor, the staff and the church council/board are the most important people in setting the tone of how we are going to be in community together.

Jesus says, “If the member listens to you, you have gained that person back.” The goal of the conversation is reconciliation. The Christian life is about forgiveness, compassion and reconciliation. We interact not to humiliate, but to heal. That is why Jesus says to talk alone. Think about it, when confronted by a group, most people will put up their walls and get defensive, but one-on-one softens the heart. The meeting can end with an embrace.

But not always. Sometimes people can’t or won’t hear. There are some out there, like me, who are hard-headed Germans, and we have to hear things a couple of times before they sink in. In those cases, Jesus says, don’t give up! Try again. This time take someone along with you.

When someone comes to me and starts complaining about another person, my first response is “Have you spoken to him about this?” Leaders teach people to talk to one another directly. Quite often they’ll say, “Not yet.” Perhaps that would be a good starting place. Sometimes they say, “I’m afraid.” Other times they’ll say, “I’ve tried.” In those cases a caring response is, “Would you like me to come along with you?” Some people need moral support. The Scriptures say there is much wisdom in many counselors. And Jesus points out, having witnesses means there can be no he-said/she-said. Every word can be confirmed. If most people respond to the one-on-one, many of the rest are going to respond to a caring, conversation with a couple of people.

But not always. There are some situations that need extra care. To these Jesus says, “Take it to the church.” Keep in mind that in Matthew’s day (AD 80) churches were small. They met in homes. This is a small group only a bit bigger than the group that you used in step two. And, Matthew may mean the leaders of the church. This system protects the leaders from having to arbitrate every conflict. Deal with it one-on-one, and if that doesn’t work then in a group of two or three caring people. It only comes to the leaders of the church if those first two steps don’t work. If the conflict reaches the leaders, they will often be able to take care of it.

But not always. The first three steps are going to get most folks. There are, however, some conflicts so deeply entrenched and some people so unwilling to bend that they cannot be resolved. There are some people who simply cannot let go of bitterness. It may even come from a former conflict that has nothing to do with the current situation. If that person won’t listen to the leaders of the church, then he or she is to be treated “as a Gentile or tax collector.” (By the way, this is a clue that Matthew is writing to a Jewish-Christian community, unlike the Gentile-Christian communities with whom Paul worked.)

One way to interpret this is that Jesus is suggesting that after all these efforts have been expended, it is okay to ostracize that person completely from the community. This is a form of excommunication. We know that orthodox Jews were not to speak to Gentiles or tax collectors, touch them or even make eye contact.

But there is another interpretation.

How did Jesus treat Gentiles and tax collectors? It just so happens we have quite a few stories of such encounters. As it turns out, Jesus interacted freely with Gentiles, tax collectors and sinners. In fact, it got him into a bit of hot water with the Pharisees and Sadducees. They complain in Luke 15 that he even eats with them. Good heavens! And isn’t it interesting that this gospel is named after a tax collector who was one of Jesus’ disciples?

Could it be that when Jesus says to treat someone as a tax collector or Gentile he means to treat them with compassion? To see them as a target for mission and conversion? I’ll leave it to you to think this through.

This process of conflict management is so important to the life of the Christian community that it is included in the ELCA model constitution for congregations, chapter 15 on discipline of members of the church.

Chapter 15. DISCIPLINE OF MEMBERS AND ADJUDICATION

*C15.01.
Denial of the Christian faith as described in this constitution, conduct grossly unbecoming a member of the Church of Christ, or persistent trouble-making in this congregation are sufficient cause for discipline of a member. Prior to disciplinary action, reconciliation will be attempted following Matthew 18:15-17, proceeding through these successive steps: a) private admonition by the pastor, b) admonition by the pastor in the presence of two or three witnesses, and c) citation to appear before the Congregation Council.

I have been asked if I would suggest this method for international global conflict. It is doubtful that Jesus or Matthew, who conveys the story, were suggesting strategies for international diplomacy. They could hardly have pictured modern nation-states. But would these be bad strategies? Are they not in fact what actually often happens? A president calls a president. Advisors and ambassadors are brought in. Sometimes parliaments have to get involved. I’m not suggesting this is the way to operate every time, but if we are to take Jesus’ injunction to love our enemies seriously, it might be worth consideration.

I wouldn’t miss an opportunity to preach on this text in a second. The last time we heard it was in 2011. If the average congregation has at 10% turnover per year in people who move, die or leave, then at least 30% of your congregation may not have heard this important message yet. It might be about time for the congregation to hear these important words again. For they call us to love one another, to take sin seriously, to not let hurts fester and get infected. They call us to be a community of reconciliation and peace.

Where love rules, there is no will to power, and where power predominates, love is lacking.The one is the shadow of the other.

Carl Jung, “On the Psychology of the Unconsciousness”, 1917, Swiss psychologist (1875-1961)

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