Sermon for the Ordination of Jim Stover

The Nearly Sacramental Ministry of the Mysterious “Who knows?”

Ordination of Jim Stover

September 25, 2011

Esther 4:9-14;  1 Cor. 3:18-4:1

Esther 4:9-14

 9 Hathach went and told Esther what Mordecai had said.  10 Then Esther spoke to Hathach and gave him a message for Mordecai, saying,  11 “All

Jim Stover

the king’s servants and the people of the king’s provinces know that if any man or woman goes to the king inside the inner court without being called, there is but one law—all alike are to be put to death. Only if the king holds out the golden scepter to someone, may that person live. I myself have not been called to come in to the king for thirty days.”  12 When they told Mordecai what Esther had said,  13 Mordecai told them to reply to Esther, “Do not think that in the king’s palace you will escape any more than all the other Jews.  14 For if you keep silence at such a time as this, relief and deliverance will rise for the Jews from another quarter, but you and your father’s family will perish. Who knows? Perhaps you have come to royal dignity for just such a time as this.”

1Cor. 3:18-4:1

18    Do not deceive yourselves. If you think that you are wise in this age, you should become fools so that you may become wise.  19 For the wisdom of this world is foolishness with God. For it is written, “He catches the wise in their craftiness,” 20 and again, “The Lord knows the thoughts of the wise, that they are futile.”  21 So let no one boast about human leaders. For all things are yours,  22 whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death or the present or the future—all belong to you,  23 and you belong to Christ, and Christ belongs to God.    4:1   Think of us in this way, as servants of Christ and stewards of God’s mysteries.

The Nearly Sacramental Ministry of the Mysterious “Who knows?”

Today in 2011 we gather to perform and to witness the ordination of Jim Stover to the ministry of Word and Sacrament.  What are we doing?  According to John Calvin (who must be cited in the first paragraph of a Presbyterian ordination sermon) ordination has all the characteristics of a sacrament, since it is as he says, “a faithful token of spiritual grace.”  The only thing that keeps the laying on of hands from being counted as the third sacrament, according to Calvin, is that it is not common to all believers, but is “a special rite for a particular office” (Institutes 4.19.28).

What we do today is serious and significant for the ministry that lies before Jim.  What will that ministry entail?  To what end this nearly sacramental ceremony?  The answer I take from the words of Mordecai in the book of Esther:  “Who knows?”  Why the quandary?  Mordecai says, because of “such a time as this.”

Those two phrases, “Who knows?” and “such a time as this” have never been more descriptive of the times than today.

“I’m S.B.N.R.”

“Such a time as this” has never happened before in America.  In what respect?  In two respects.  First, according to church historian and author Diana Butler Bass,

“Recent data makes one thing perfectly, undeniably clear:  American religion has changed in remarkable ways in the last decade, revealing an erosion of belief, practice, and identity in nearly every denomination, almost all congregations, and most every religious institution or organization.” (her blog post on 9/21/11) http://www.patheos.com/blogs/dianabutlerbass/2011/09/20/spiritual-but-not-religious-listening-to-their-absence/

This is huge change, and it is no longer merely a “mainline” denomination problem.

The number of people who say that they are “spiritual but not religious” is growing exponentially.  Already it comprises 20 to 30% of Americans, depending on how the survey question is phrased (see the same Butler Bass blog page).  This is part one of the world that has never happened in America before.

Rummage Sale Every 500 Years

Here comes the second way in which this has never happened before; we are now in the time of the Great Emergence, a fundamental change in Christianity.  Jim will walk out of this place today, ordained for ministry of Word and Sacrament in to a world where “who knows” what is next?  This is not the first time the church has experienced major upheavals; in fact it follows a pattern.

Imagine being ordained in the 6th Century, 500 years after Jesus’ physical days on earth.  Gregory the Great was pope.  The last vestiges of  the Roman empire were in ruins.  Illiteracy, poverty and lawlessness in Rome were the rule, not the exception, after successive barbarian invasions brought trade and civic life to a standstill.  Europe was about to enter centuries of “Dark Ages.”  Gregory the Great is credited with laying the foundations of a reconfigured monasticism that would see Christianity through those coming centuries.  Who could have anticipated that direction?

Imagine being ordained 500 years later.  The Great Schism of 1054 occurred and Christianity split between Rome and Constantinople, Latin and Greek, the Catholic and the Orthodox each following their own leader and condemning each other as heretics.  Which way would you take?  Which led to the “Next” church of the future?  How would you decide?  And yet, you would have had to choose.

Imagine being ordained 500 years later, perhaps by John Calvin himself, in Geneva in the days of the Great Reformation.  Popes and councils of the church were no longer considered error-free.  Authority for faith and practice came from “sola scriptura”  the scriptures alone.  Protestantism was born.

Now, here we are, a scant six years away from the 500th anniversary of 1517, the year Martin Luther posted his “95 Theses” onto the door of the castle church in Wittenberg, the traditionally given date for the start of the Great Reformation.

Perhaps you have noticed the regularity of these 500 year “great” people and events.  The rhythm is uncanny.

Continuing the adjective “great,” Phyllis Tickle, in her recent book, The Great Emergence, tells us that it has been observed that

‘about every five hundred years the church feels compelled to hold a giant rummage sale’ and that ‘about every five hundred years the empowered structures of institutionalized Christianity, whatever they may be at the time, become an intolerable [hardened shell] that must be shattered in order that renewal and new growth may occur.’  … we are living in and through one of those five hundred year sales.”  (Phyllis Tickle, The Great Emergence, Baker Books, 2008, p. 16).

In our day, Christianity itself is changing.  One of the leading lights of this Emerging Church movement, Brian McLaren, is writing books with titles like “A New Kind of Christianity,” and It comes down to two questions that have now become unsettled: One, what is human consciousness, and two, what is the relation of all religions to one another? (Great Emergence, p. 73).  Filtered through insights we have from Darwin and Freud to Einstein and Heisenberg,  the question, “who gets to say what is true?” is now urgent in a new way.

In this context, the new Christianity which Tickle calls the “Great Emergence” is really, in essence, a conversation being conducted by people from diverse cultures, points of reference, and widely divergent backgrounds (Great Emergence, p. 104).  In this new conversation, the hierarchies we inherited from the Reformation are now alien and suspect, if not abhorrent.  Networking and crowd-sourcing have replaced structures of centralized control.

How do you prepare to be a leader in such a time as this, when the best way to describe what you are leading is a non-hierarchical, relational, globalized, democratized “conversation”?  “Who knows?”

These Times Between Times

So, we are now living in “such a time as this” at the nexus between these two unprecedented situations: the massive decline of participation in organized religious activity and the emergence of a radical change in Christianity itself.  “Who knows” what kind of ministry we are ordaining Jim for?  Who could possibly know?

Larry Rasmussen in his chapter in “Practicing our Faith” calls this moment “one of those proverbial ‘times between times.’”  Listen to how he describes, the first century AD, the Hellenized Roman world that Christianity was born in, and how much it sounds like a description of “such a time as this”:

“Ours is a ‘Hellenistic’ era- diverse, cosmopolitan, multilingual, multiracial, multicultural, multi-religious, fragmented, eclectic, riddled by extremes of all kinds, and more than a little violent.”

What happens in times like this?  Rasmussen says,

“We often feel dislocated and off-center, just as people did then.  In the world of early Christianity, the solidity of empire was giving way, and new configurations were in the making, many of them bedeviled by chaos and confusion.  Almost everyone worried about moral degradation.  [Some people] sought new, saving communities and ways of life, whereas others simply could not conceive that the Roman Empire would ever come to an end.”  (Practicing our Faith, chapt. 9, edited by Dorothy C. Bass, Jossey-Bass, 1997, 2010)

By the way, Jim, the easiest sermons to preach are ones about how bad the world is getting; don’t ever do that.

Wise Leadership in These Times

How do you lead people in such a time as this?  Rasmussen crediting Ronald Heifetz, suggests a phrase to describe the kind of leadership that is needed now, and that characterized early Christian leadership is: “creative deviance on the front line.” Why creative deviance on the front line?  He says,

“It is deviance because it does not accept standard forms of ordering life as normative, even when they are dominant” [Brueggemann would describe them as “contrived” having the appearance of being “given.”]  “It is creative because it seeks a positive alternative form.  It is on the front line because it lives in the tension between our own time – what the apostle Paul called ‘this present age’ – and another yet to come.”

The leadership we need at such a time as this is indeed “creative deviance on the front line.”

How can anyone have sufficient wisdom to know what it will mean to lead the Great Emerging church with such “creative deviance on the front line” when we do not know much about what that front line will look like?  Well, if Rasmussen is correct to see parallels between the days of the first century and our 21st century, perhaps Paul’s 1st century reflections on leadership in 1 Corinthians 4 are appropriate in a new way to what we are doing in this ordination service here today.  Paul says:

18   Do not deceive yourselves. If you think that you are wise in this age, you should become fools so that you may become wise.  19 For the wisdom of this world is foolishness with God.

Who is wise enough to know the mystery of the future?   “Who knows” what shape the “Great Emergent” form of Christianity will take?  If there is no way to be wise in “such a time as this” then perhaps wisdom is not the essential prerequisite.  Jim, if the question “Who knows?” comes off of your lips more frequently than the statement, “I’ve got it all figured out” then you in good company; you are on the same trajectory that led Calvin to conclude his discussion of theological conundrums with these reflections about the height and the depth of the mystery of God’s ways in the world:

“Now should [someone] come forward to

, I say with Paul, that no account of it can be given, because by its magnitude it far surpasses our understanding…. Would we have the power of God so limited as to be unable to do more than our mind can comprehend?”

Calvin says that we would to well to,

“…embrace the counsel of Augustine [whom he quotes as saying], “…Believing ignorance is better than presumptuous knowledge… Peter denies (Christ), a thief  (on the cross) believes (in him).  O the height!  Do you ask the reason?  I will tremble at the height.  Will you reason? I will wonder; will you dispute? I will believe.  I see the height; I cannot sound the depth” (Augus. de Verb. Apost. Serm. 20 in Institutes Book III, chapt.  22  section 5).”

Calvin concludes his theological investigation in sheer awe at the mystery.  There are no more logical arguments that will help.  He says:

“We shall gain nothing by proceeding farther.”  (Institutes Book III, chapt.  22  section 5)

A Servant of the Mysteries

If our turbulent times are analogous to Paul’s 1st century world, then let us allow him to  take Mordecai’s question “Who knows?” and stand it on its head by asking instead, “who is known?”  Jim, as a “creatively deviant leader on the front line” ordained into “such a time as this” you may not be wise enough to know the unknown future, but you do know to whom you belong.  As Paul says,

 23 you belong to Christ, and Christ belongs to God. 

Is this anything but a mystery?  It is indeed a mystery; and yet this is exactly what you are charged with taking into this unknowable, emergent future world with you.  If you want an adequate frame for your ministry “at such a time as this” let it be to imagine yourself the kind of  deviant, creative, front line leader that Paul describes:

4:1   Think of us in this way, as servants of Christ and stewards of God’s mysteries.

To this you are called and to this ministry you are ordained: to be a “servant of Christ,” a steward of God’s mysteries.  “Who knows” but that you, Jim, have been called to such a stewardship of mysteries for “such a time as this”?

 

Sermon for September 18, 2011, 25th Ordinary A, Pentecost +14, on Matthew 20:1-16 (& Isaiah 5:1-10) “Expecting God”

First, the texts:

“The Song of the Vineyard” from Isaiah 5:1-10 

1    Let me sing for my beloved

my love-song concerning his vineyard:

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My beloved had a vineyard

on a very fertile hill.

2 He dug it and cleared it of stones,

and planted it with choice vines;

he built a watchtower in the midst of it,

and hewed out a wine vat in it;

he expected it to yield grapes,

but it yielded wild grapes.

3    And now, inhabitants of Jerusalem

and people of Judah,

judge between me

and my vineyard.

4 What more was there to do for my vineyard

that I have not done in it?

When I expected it to yield grapes,

why did it yield wild grapes?

5    And now I will tell you

what I will do to my vineyard.

I will remove its hedge,

and it shall be devoured;

I will break down its wall,

and it shall be trampled down.

6 I will make it a waste;

it shall not be pruned or hoed,

and it shall be overgrown with briers and thorns;

I will also command the clouds

that they rain no rain upon it.

7    For the vineyard of the LORD of hosts

is the house of Israel,

and the people of Judah

are his pleasant planting;

he expected justice,

but saw bloodshed;

righteousness,

but heard a cry!

8 Ah, you who join house to house,

who add field to field,

until there is room for no one but you,

and you are left to live alone

in the midst of the land!

9 The LORD of hosts has sworn in my hearing:

Surely many houses shall be desolate,

large and beautiful houses, without inhabitant.

10 For ten acres of vineyard shall yield but one bath,

and a homer of seed shall yield a mere ephah.

 

The Parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard, Matthew 20:1-16

[And Jesus said:] “For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. After agreeing with the laborers

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for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard. When he went out about nine o’clock, he saw others standing idle in the market-place; and he said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ So they went. When he went out again about noon and about three o’clock, he did the same. And about five o’clock he went out and found others standing around; and he said to them, ‘Why are you standing here idle all day?’ They said to him, ‘Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard.’ When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his manager, ‘Call the laborers and give them their pay, beginning with the last and then going to the first.’ When those hired about five o’clock came, each of them received the usual daily wage. Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received the usual daily wage. And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, saying, ‘These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.’ But he replied to one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?’ So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”

 

Expecting God

We spend the first part of our lives learning what to expect, and what is expected of us, and the rest of our lives believing these expectations are true, in spite of everything.

We learn as newborns what to expect when we cry; most of us learned to expect to be nurtured.  We spend the rest of our lives believing that our needs will be met ; that there is such a thing as love in the world.  I wonder if unloved babies ever get over the feeling that there isn’t?

We learn to expect to be rewarded for being good and punished for being bad, at least in general, if not in every case.  In other words, we learn what we can expect from others, and that others have expectations on us.   It works both ways.

But things don’t always go to plan.  We buy property expecting the value to rise, but it falls.  We vote for someone expecting them to be wise, but later learn how much lobbyists paid to influence them.  We expect our judicial system to punish guilty people, and then DNA analysis proves that we have put several hundred people on death row that were not guilty after all.

The texts we have read bring up both sides of the expectation equation: what does God expect from us, and what should we expect from God?  These texts are going  to teach us some urgently needed lessons, precisely about what God expects of us, and what we should expect of God, so let us look at them.

Isaiah’s Song of the Vineyard

First, the prophet Isaiah and his famous poem we call “The Song of the Vineyard”

1  Let me sing for my beloved, my love-song concerning his vineyard: My beloved had a vineyard on a very fertile hill. 2 He dug it and cleared it of stones, and planted it with choice vines; he built a watchtower in the midst of it, and hewed out a wine vat in it; 

Israel is God’s vineyard, as the poem tell us.  God, the landowner does everything possible for the vineyard.  He cares for the vineyard, and he also has expectations for the vineyard.  The poem says:

“he expected it to yield grapes, but it yielded wild grapes.”

Wild grapes are worthless.  So the landowner confronts the people with a question.  He puts them in the role of the jury at a public trial:

3  And now, inhabitants of Jerusalem and people of Judah,

judge between me and my vineyard. 

4 What more was there to do for my vineyard that I have not done in it?

When I expected it to yield grapes, why did it yield wild grapes?

So now, twice we have heard the word “expected” in this poem.  God expected his vineyard to be fruitful, and did everything that could be done to make it flourish.

Expecting Fruitfulness

Here we stop and notice both sides of the equation of expectations.  What does God expect from his people?  That they (that we) would be fruitful, that we would produce good fruit for him.  What can we expect from God?  That he has been working behind the scenes to accomplish his purpose for us.

Right now, God is working in your life to do everything necessary to help you accomplish his purposes.  What he wants most is that you will want the same thing  that he wants; your own flourishing is his purpose, his expectation for you.

That was what he wanted and expected for his original vineyard, the people of Israel, but what happened?  The poem says:

7  he expected justice, but saw bloodshed;

bank closed
bank closed

righteousness, but heard a cry! 

8  Ah, you who join house to house, who add field to field,

until there is room for no one but you,

God is very specific about what flourishing looks like.  He expects the fruit of justice, but he got bloodshed instead.  People who attend Thursday Bible study already know that the “bloodshed” here is not murder, but rather squeezing the life blood out of people through injustice.

In Isaiah’s day, the rich were getting richer and the poor were getting poorer.  The poor were selling their land to survive, and selling themselves into debt-slavery.

The wealthy were “joining house to house,”  gobbling up the land into large estates, leaving landless peasants with the life blood squeezed out of them.  The courts that legalized this process were corrupted by bribery, Isaiah tells us, and God was not happy.

What should people expect from God now?  Well if they thought he was going to keep watering and weeding and getting the wild grapes of injustice, they were wrong.  The expectation equation now has zeros on both sides; neither side got what they expected.  It was not a pretty picture.

Jesus and the “vineyard”

I hope now its obvious that Jesus was intentionally invoking this poem as he told his parable of the vineyard workers and the landowner (Jesus was bursting with concepts and images from the book of Isaiah).  He has some of the same elements from Isaiah’s poem, but he does some new, surprising things with them.

He has a landowner, like Isaiah’s poem, who has a vineyard.  But, unlike Isaiah’s poem, Jesus has workers in the vineyard who become important players in his parable.  The landowner clearly has expectations for his vineyard, and he is doing everything he can to make sure his purpose of fruitfulness is accomplished.

“For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. After agreeing with the laborers for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard.”

In fact he is hiring as much help as he can find, making multiple trips to the labor market throughout the day.

“When he went out about nine o’clock, he saw others standing idle in the market-place; and he said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ So they went. When he went out again about noon and about three o’clock, he did the same. And about five o’clock he went out and found others standing around; and he said to them, ‘Why are you standing here idle all day?’ They said to him, ‘Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard.’”

So far, the expectations of the workers and the expectations of the landowner are perfectly aligned.  The expectation equation balances.  But that will change soon.  The question is, what is going on?  What should we learn from this?

Landless laborers in God’s Vineyard?

First I have to tell you that Jesus has just sneaked into this parable a turn of events that no one would have expected – as he often did in parables – which turns Isaiah’s poem upside down.

Remember, Isaiah criticized the wealthy people of his day for “joining house to house” pushing peasants off their land, calling it “bloodshed.”  In Jesus’ parable, there are a bunch of

landlessness

day-laborers who the landowner hires for his vineyard: where did the day laborers come from?  Why were they in the marketplace, looking for work?

Day laborers are peasants; landless peasants who live at the mercy of those who have “joined house to house” at theirexpense!  How could Jesus tell a story in which God is the landowner and he feels OK with this situation?  Shouldn’t he be on a justice crusade to restore the land to these laborers?

I think that when Jesus’ original audience, probably many of whom were, in reality, day laborers, heard this parable, they were thinking about that very justice issue and wondering about it.  How could God put up with this injustice?  This is not what they expected Jesus to be saying about God; it’s certainly not what they expected from God himself!

Pay-off time: trouble 

If that seems unsettling, it’s about to get worse.  At the end of the day, at sundown, it’s pay-off time.  Day laborers  had to bepaid daily, so that, on the way home, they could afford their “daily bread” (It is not a light matter at all that in the prayer Jesus taught his disciples to pray, right after they pray for daily bread, they pray for their debts to be forgiven!).

At pay-time, the landowner makes sure that what he plans to do is obvious:

“When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his manager, ‘Call the laborers and give them their pay, beginning with the last and then going to the first.’”

The last people hired, who only worked a small fraction of a full day were paid a full day’s wages, the others observed, and naturally assumed that the rates had dramatically increased.  It would only be just and fair to pay everyone the same hourly rate, right?  That’s what they expected.

Expecting Justice from a Generous God

extravagantly generous daily grace

And that is the key to this parable.  The expectation that you get what you deserve from God is exactly the idea that Jesus is subverting in this parable.  The concept known as the “doctrine of retribution” that everybody gets what they deserve, is set on its head by a deeper doctrine: the doctrine of the extravagant generosity of God.

“But Jesus replied to one of them …. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?’”

This parable has subtleties that we have no time to explore, like the fact that God’s extravagant generosity does not mean the landless peasants get their land back.  For Jesus, the Kingdom of God was no longer about Palestinian territory.  In fact it was going to include, in the not too distant future, gentiles!  (Talk about people who get into the pay line at the end of the day!)

God expects us to be fruitful; to produce the fruit of justice, and the fruit of the Spirit, to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the prisoners, and to see the face of Jesus in each of the “least of these.”  His expectations of us are specific and serious.

And yet, on the other hand, we do not enter the kingdom on the basis of the hours we put in laboring in the vineyard.  The pay-off of entering the kingdom is a matter of God’s extravagant generosity which goes way beyond justice and fairness.

Grace: always, only

Christians like us, in the Reformed tradition, are very comfortable with the understanding that we are not saved by our good works, but rather by God’s grace alone.  Even our faith is a gift, as Calvin reminded us, given to us by a gracious God, so that we cannot even claim credit for believing.

But let us be clear about the lesson of this parable.  It is not just our salvation that comes by grace alone; all throughout our lives, every day, we are the recipients of God’s extravagant grace.  Daily we go through the pay-line and get ridiculously more than we deserve.  What do we have that we have not received as a gift?

It is a tragic irony that many people live their lives thinking that the pain and difficulties they experience are God’s retribution, his pay-back for the wrongs that they have done.  Is that what we can expect from God?  Not according to Jesus.

What we can expect, is extravagant grace.  What he can expect from us (as Calvin also reminded us) is extravagant gratitude.  In the end, the fruitfulness that God expects includes both working for justice as Isaiah taught, and as scripture says  “the fruit of lips that praise his name” for his extravagant, generous, daily grace.

10th Anniversary of 9/11, Sept. 11, 2011, 24th Ordinary, Pentecost +13 A, Isaiah 2:2-4; Matthew 18:21-35

10th Anniversary of 9/11, Sept. 11, 2011

Isaiah 2:2-4

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2    In days to come

the mountain of the LORD’S house

shall be established as the highest of the mountains,

and shall be raised above the hills;

all the nations shall stream to it.

3 Many peoples shall come and say,

“Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD,

to the house of the God of Jacob;

that he may teach us his ways

and that we may walk in his paths.”

For out of Zion shall go forth instruction,

and the word of the LORD from Jerusalem.

4 He shall judge between the nations,

and shall arbitrate for many peoples;

they shall beat their swords into plowshares,

and their spears into pruning hooks;

nation shall not lift up sword against nation,

neither shall they learn war any more.

Matthew 18:21-35

21Then Peter came and said to him, “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” 22Jesus said to him, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times. 23“For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves. 24When he began the reckoning, one who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him; 25and, as he could not pay, his lord ordered him to be sold, together with his wife and children and all his possessions, and payment to be made. 26So the slave fell on his knees before him, saying, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ 27And out of pity for him, the lord of that slave released him and forgave him the debt. 28But that same slave, as he went out, came upon one of his fellow slaves who owed him a hundred denarii; and seizing him by the throat, he said, ‘Pay what you owe.’ 29Then his fellow slave fell down and pleaded with him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’ 30But he refused; then he went and threw him into prison until he would pay the debt. 31When his fellow slaves saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their lord all that had taken place. 32Then his lord summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. 33Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?’ 34And in anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he would pay his entire debt. 35So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”

 

“A More Excellent Way”

We gather as the church, on this tenth anniversary of the attacks on 9/11, 2001, as a community of faith, to do what people of faith always do, to cry out to God.

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Israel in Egypt, as slaves, cried out to God, and the Lord heard their cries, and delivered them from the hand of Pharaoh.

Cries to God are prayers.  The book of Psalms is the collected prayers of Israel as she cries out to God, both in praise, and, more often, in lamentation.  In the Psalms we find every human emotion in raw form, unsoftened by Hebrew poetic conventions which had room to say what was really in the heart, even if it was almost unspeakably raw.

Too Raw?

I love the honest prayers of the book of Psalms; I read Psalms every day.  But there are people whom I love and respect who are revolted by the brutality of vengeance often expressed in the Psalms.  They have cause.  The worst example, Psalm 137, is one that starts out so beautifully :

1    By the rivers of Babylon—

there we sat down and there we wept

when we remembered Zion.

2 On the willows there

we hung up our harps.

Israel was in exile, in Babylon; the slaves whom God had redeemed from Egypt so long ago were now exiled from their land, captives once again.  The psalm continues:

3 For there our captors

asked us for songs,

and our tormentors asked for mirth, saying,

“Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”

I suppose it is a kind of psychological torture to be “asked” to sing by your jailor.  The psalmist cannot bring himself to pick up a harp and start plucking a pretty tune; it’s unimaginable.  He continues:

4    How could we sing the LORD’S song

in a foreign land?

Curses: bad to worse

The psalmist writes from a place of suffering.  Anyone who has ever been in deep pain can go there with him.  It feels impossible to imagine happiness and singing ever again.  It feels so bad that the only thing that can roll off the tongue is a curse against the psalmist himself, should he ever betray his homeland.

5 If I forget you, O Jerusalem,

let my right hand wither!

6 Let my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth,

if I do not remember you,

if I do not set Jerusalem

above my highest joy.

Here is where it gets bad.  The psalmist, whose mouth produced a self-curse, now turns to curse his enemies.  The Edomites next door joined in the Babylonian assault, so in absolutely brutal honesty with his emotions, he cries out to the Lord against them:

7    Remember, O LORD, against the Edomites

the day of Jerusalem’s fall,

how they said, “Tear it down! Tear it down!

Down to its foundations!”

His rage must feel good to him – rage always feels good – it’s so justified; he’s so righteously indignant.  From the self-curse, to the curse on Edom, now comes the third and final curse, reserved for Babylon and all her babies:

8 O daughter Babylon, you devastator!

Happy shall they be who pay you back

what you have done to us!

9 Happy shall they be who take your little ones

and dash them against the rock!

It is horrible, it is revolting, and it is why some people turn away in a permanent disgust from the Psalms, if not from the whole Old Testament also.  Who needs more encouragement to embrace the culture of death?

If anything can be said in favor of this poem, it is that it is totally honest.  These are the real feelings of people who have survived brutality.  They want something in

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response.  They call it “justice,” but what they really want is vengeance (there are no new ideas; only newer methods).

What we want on 9/11

On the tenth anniversary of 9/11 we, who gather to cry out to God, must ask ourselves honest questions.  What do we want; justice, or vengeance?  What are the odds of getting either one?  Is there a third option besides justice and vengeance?

Prophetic Imagination

There, in Babylonian exile, along side the psalmist with his poetic curses, is a prophet.   He too has felt the suffering; he too longs for something, but there is something different about him and the psalmist.  They are facing opposite directions.  The cursing psalmist is facing the past, daring himself not to forget.  “Never forget!”  A curse on forgetfulness!

The prophet, however much pain he feels, looks to the future.  Beyond vengeance, even beyond justice, he looks towards redemption and restoration.  He has a prophetic imagination of how things can be, if God is truly God.  He sees a vision of a redeemed, restored city replacing the pile of rubble that the Babylonians had made out of Jerusalem, or as he calls the city, the mountain of the temple, mount Zion (from Isaiah 2):

2    In days to come

the mountain of the LORD’S house

shall be established as the highest of the mountains,

and shall be raised above the hills;

all the nations shall stream to it.

If God is God, then God can be relied upon, trusted, to fulfill his purposes for the world that he made, and every human being made in his image.  Could it be that instead of judgement and vengeance, all of the peoples of the earth, along with Abraham’s children, could find redemption?  He can see it happening:

3 Many peoples shall come and say,

“Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD,

to the house of the God of Jacob;

that he may teach us his ways

and that we may walk in his paths.”

For out of Zion shall go forth Torah (instruction),

and the word of the LORD from Jerusalem.

Nations and peoples are notorious for settling their disputes – and they always have disputes – by the sword, the gun, the bomb, or by the asymmetrical insurgency scalp, or  IED (improvised explosive device) or passenger airplane.  How could the future fail to repeat the violence and vengeance of the past?  It would take an act of God to change the way it has always been.

Well, if God is God, then the prophet is able to see this vision:

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4 He shall judge between the nations,

and shall arbitrate for many peoples;

they shall beat their swords into plowshares,

and their spears into pruning hooks;

nation shall not lift up sword against nation,

neither shall they learn war any more.

Some have a vision of a world which can only picture smoking piles of burned out rubble.  If our enemies embrace that vision, must we also?

Asserting Our Alternative Vision

No!  As people of faith in the God who made the heavens and the earth, we assert, against all odds, an alternative vision, beyond judgment, beyond vengeance; a vision of redemption on a global scale.

So how do you get from the backward looking cursing psalmist with his bloodied landscape to the place in which you can believe in the power of redemption which the prophet looked forward to?

Compiling Evidence

By compiling your own story of the power of redemption.  Every single day, as you write the page of your life story for that day, you compile evidence, detail upon

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detail, of how you have lived into the vision of redemption, through the power of forgiveness.

Some days, because everyone in your life does exactly as you want them to do, you  have little to record.  On other days, your page is filled with 70 X 7 examples of the power of forgiveness to turn away wrath.  On those days, 490 things happened that could have called forth curses, but you believe in an alternative vision, so instead, you offered forgiveness, from your heart.

You refused retaliation, even when you could have justified it (at least to yourself).  You refused to give back in kind, the pain you had been given; you absorbed it.  You refused to add momentum to the spinning cycle of violence; you let it stop with you.

Joining Jesus who would rather die than kill

You believe that God is God and you believe that you live under the mandate of his Son.  You live under the reign of Jesus, who instead of resisting evil, allowed it to exhaust its dark powers on him.  You follow the Master who would rather die than kill.  Who, on the cross, at the point of the greatest justification for calling down curses, said,

Father, forgive them.”

And everyday, you pray the prayer he taught us.  You pray the cry to God from the place of real life and all of its raw emotion.  And in that prayer, you ask the God who hears his people’s prayer, to be forgiven only in the same measure with which you have also forgiven.

 “forgive us our debts” you pray, “as we forgive our debtors.

So that when you finish, and the book of your life says, “the end” you will have written a million times,  “Father, forgive them. Father, forgive them. Father, forgive them.”

On the tenth anniversary of 9/11, we, who gather to cry out to God, do not cry out for the destruction of our enemies, but for their redemption.  Our mouths do not speak a curse against the causes of our pain, but voice a vision of a restored humanity, an army of plowshare bearing, pruning hook-carrying, forward looking people of faith, forgiving, just as we have been forgiven.

 

Big Words like “with” and “as”, Sermon on Matthew 18:5-20 for Ordinary 23, A, Pentecost +12 September 4, 2011

Big Words like “with” and “as”

Matthew 18:15-20

15“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

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have regained that one. 16But 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. 17If 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.18Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. 19Again, truly I tell you, if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. 20For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.”

This week, I could not stop thinking how far we are today from the world in which this text seems possible.  Does that sound severe?  I believe we do need the truth of this text, but that we live behind huge barriers to receiving it.  But, there is hope, and we will get to it, but let’s look at the situation we are in.

The Problem of Our Culture

Cultural habits and customs sometimes are accepted by everybody and yet, helpful to nobody at the same time.  You can study other cultures and see how they are organized, and from a distance, you can see some things that they have worked out really successfully to the benefit of everybody, like the terraced hillsides that make land available for farming or canals that bring water where it’s needed.  But you can also see where customs and cultural habits are unhelpful.

Once, a friend who had studied the history of Europe told me about the customs that had developed for the European kings.  He told me that they would get... married in their mid thirties, and that they typically married very young women in their teens.  This custom created terrible marriages of course; people 15-20 years apart in age probably lived in entirely different mental and emotional worlds.  The whole arrangement was unsuccessful from a domestic point of view, but culturally it was the norm that no one questioned.

Democracy: a double edged cultural value

Our cultural habits and customs sometimes help us live as Christians, and sometimes are obstacles to faithfulness.  For example, we value democracy – everyone gets to participate and everyone gets one vote.  That’s a great way of affirming that we are all members of the body of Christ, and equally valuable.  So far, so good.

Democratic process, however, may become a barrier to seeking God’s will.  If we believe that when there is a motion, a second, and a majority vote, it necessarily constitutes the leading of the Holy Spirit, we may be short-cutting prayer and openness to God’s leading.  Democratic process can become the enemy of the process of spiritual discernment.

Personal Freedom: double edged

There are other aspects of our culture that may help or harm us as Christians.  In our country, we all place a high value on personal freedom and individualism.  “Liberty or death” is a slogan we learn as children.  We hold dear our freedom to gather together, to speak our minds, to worship as we choose, to live and work where we wish, and all our other constitutional freedoms.

But individual freedom is not the only value we hold dear.  We expect that by elementary school, children will know that their own individual freedom is limited by the freedom of other persons.

By middle school they should have learned that their own freedoms are also limited by the needs of the group; the class, the school, the team they are on.

When individual freedom becomes summarized by the slogan, “No one has the right to tell me what to do” then “freedom” has become arrogance and even harmful.  No marriage could survive with that view.  Nor could a country, nor could a church.

Jesus’ Teaching: not easy today

And yet this is what I found so sad, as I reflected on Jesus’ teaching in this text this week.  Our culture has developed along such a path as to make it unlikely that the practice Jesus teaches of confronting a person who is involved in something demonstrably sinful would ever work.

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Choice

Why?  Because, in addition to our independence and freedom, our culture values choice; we love to have alternatives.  We want competition.  Hot and spicy or

mild? – both are on the menu.  Condo or private house with a green lawn? – it’s up to us.  Lutheran, Methodist, or Presbyterian?  Contemporary or Traditional?  Mega-church or intimate community?

“Suits me”

We have become a “suits me” society.  And the moment it stops suiting me, I’m free to go find another place that will suit me better.  Christian discipleship gets crushed under the weight of consumerism.  Find the best services at the lowest  price.  Who sticks around, in this kind of culture, when they are told that something they are doing is sinful?  Who would that suit?

This is not a surface-level problem for our culture; like the kings of Europe, we practice this perspective to our own peril.  Do you think that this “suits me” obsession has nothing to do with our divorce rate, not to mention the infidelities that often precede the rupture?  Our culture treats relationships like cell phone contracts: renewal optional.  Keep shopping.  Surely one will suit me.

Odd place in the story

So it’s odd to hear this teaching of Jesus,  the way it sits like a square peg in our round culture.  But here is the oddest thing about this text from Matthew’s gospel: the odd thing is that it comes at this moment in the story.

You would think that this teaching about how to live together in a community, and what to do when someone is being bad, would have come up way back in chapter 5 or 6, in the Sermon on the Mount.  But instead, Jesus has left this teaching until way late in the story.

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It comes only after Peter has confessed his faith in Jesus as “the Messiah, the son of the living God.”  It comes after Jesus has announced that as Messiah, he is going to suffer and die before being raised to life.  It even comes after the Transfiguration.

This is getting close to the end of the story.  At this moment when the mood is becoming, for the disciples, one of impending doom (remember they never caught onto the concept of resurrection before Easter), as they see deadly opposition increasing on all sides, why stop now and talk about group dynamics?

Community Survival at Stake

Well here comes the point – but again, our culture may make it difficult for us to get it.  Let’s try.  The point is that because Jesus’ visible life on this earth is indeed nearly at an end, because he is leaving soon, there are some survival issues that must be addressed.  This little community of faith, gathered around belief in Jesus as God’s Son, God’s Messiah, is going to need each other.

They are going to need each other at a deep level.  They are going to need each other more than they need consumer-friendly choices.  They are going to need each other more than they need their personal freedom.  They are going to need each other like arms need the heart, like legs need lungs.   If the church that Jesus came to live and die for is going to survive the temptations, the persecutions, the cultural obstacles that will confront them, they must be able to live together in peace.

People Sin: “as”

But people are people; no community is perfect any more than there is a perfect person.  People will sin.  If the community of faith, the church is going to survive, it must find a way to restore back into the fold, someone who has broken faith.  This process that Jesus laid out is a restoration process, first and foremost.   The point is to regain the  one who is getting himself lost.

There are some surprisingly harsh words in this teaching.   Jesus explains that if a person in the church will not respond when confronted, even when confronted by two or three witnesses, or even by the entire community, then, he says the “as” word:

“…let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.”

Missing Essential Pieces

Yes, Gentiles and tax collectors could be converted; but until then, what was true about them?  Gentiles had no concept of living in a covenanted community under the guidance of Torah.  Tax collectors had no sense of ethical obligation to their fellow citizens whom they abused, economically.

People who think that they have the personal freedom to live in either sinful neglect or harmful abuse of each other will kill any community they are a part of.  If that’s how they are, then the church needs to start over with them, reaching out to them, as it reaches out to all Gentiles and tax collectors, with the Good News of the Gospel which clearly they have not yet come to believe.

You see, this is why this teaching is oddly delayed until very near the end of the story.  Jesus cares, from the bottom of his heart, that this group, this little church survive without his physical presence after he is gone.  The odds are stacked against them – they are all sinful people, as Peter himself is going to demonstrate very soon.  They will need each other not to be toxic to each other, but to be reconciled.  So this culturally difficult teaching on restoration comes at this moment.

Hope: One Fact: “with”

But if this little church is to survive, they need more than just a process for dealing with toxicity.  They also need to know one final truth that will make all the difference in the world.  They need to know that when they come together as the church, Jesus, the risen Lord, will be present.  Yes, even when they gather in small groups, hiding out in catacombs for fear of persecution, Jesus gives them (us) this great promise:

20For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.”

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Ultimately, it is the presence of Jesus among us as we gather in his name that gives us hope.  In the end, our survival depends on the word “with”: when we come together in Jesus name, Jesus is indeed with us.  He is with us to comfort us when we grieve.  He is with us to encourage us when we are disillusioned, he is with us to strengthen us in our feeble weakness and with us to restore us after failures of faith.

“With” – at Table

He is most powerfully present with us when we gather around his table.  He promised that we would see him “in the breaking of the bread,” just as those disciples Jesus met on the road to Emmaus on Easter afternoon.   That is why many Christian theologians and pastors, myself included, believe that the Lord’s Supper is appropriate, just as prayer and scripture reading is, in every worship service – but again, our culture, our habits of the past are an obstacle to this community.

This teaching was delayed to this moment in the story because it is crucial.

We need both parts of this instruction: we need each other, and therefore need to be reconciled to each other.

And we need to know that Jesus is here, right now, with us!

Whatever your need is, Jesus is here for you, present, because we have gathered in his name.  Come to the table.