Saying, Doing, and the Difference it Makes

Saying, Doing,  and the Difference it Makes

Sermon on Matthew 21:23-32 for Pentecost +16 A,  Sept. 28, 2014

Matthew 21:23-32

When he entered the temple, the chief priests and the elders of the people came to him as he was teaching, and said, “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?” Jesus said to them, “I will also ask you one question; if you tell me the answer, then I will also tell you by what authority I do these things. Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?” And they argued with one another, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will say to us, ‘Why then did you not believe him?’ But if we say, ‘Of human origin’, we are afraid of the crowd; for all regard John as a prophet.” So they answered Jesus, “We do not know.” And he said to them, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things.Screen Shot 2014-09-27 at 12.23.54 PM

“What do you think? A man had two sons; he went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work in the vineyard today.’ He answered, ‘I will not’; but later he changed his mind and went. The father went to the second and said the same; and he answered, ‘I go, sir’; but he did not go. Which of the two did the will of his father?” They said, “The first.” Jesus said to them, “Truly I tell you, the tax-collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you. For John came to you in the way of righteousness and you did not believe him, but the tax-collectors and the prostitutes believed him; and even after you saw it, you did not change your minds and believe him.”

Saying, Doing and the Difference it Makes

Like the man in the parable Jesus told, I have two grown sons. I am an “empty nester” now, but  I have to admit that compared to many others, I had it really easy.  They are both good lads; we never had knock-down, drag-out fights.  I tried to make my demands on them reasonable, and for their part, they were helpful and compliant.  Screen Shot 2014-09-27 at 12.33.21 PM

But there was one trick that they used that frustrated me on, let’s say, more than one occasion.  That was the “yes, but not immediately” response.   “Please cut the grass,” I would say, and then hear “Okay, but can I do it tomorrow, because I have some really pressing urgent thing I need to do now?”

They could be very convincing.  So, often (this is confessional) I would acquiesce and agree to the delay.  Of course, the next day, they would “not remember” my request, and we would start over.

Saying “yes,” but doing “no” got to be an issue.

Honor-Shame Cultures

This was not nearly so big a deal to me, in our Western culture, as it would be in Middle-Eastern cultures.  We look at “right and wrong” a bit differently.  We, in the West, think in terms of guilt and innocence: if the job eventually gets done, it’s done; that’s fine.

But in the Middle East, today, and in the days of the bible, honor and shame were even more important moral categories than guilt and innocence. (see comments in Feasting on the Gospels, Matthew, Vol. 2, by Cynthia Jarvis)Screen Shot 2014-09-27 at 12.38.10 PM

So a son who publicly said “no” to his father’s request would have shamed his father’s honor.  The son who said “yes” honored his father, as he was supposed to do.

God’s honor is a big topic in the Hebrew Bible.  The prophet Malachi based his whole critique of Israel’s sin on the basis that they were dishonoring God.

A son honors his father, and servants their master. If then I am a father, where is the honor due me? And if I am a master, where is the respect due me? says the LORD of hosts” Mal. 1:6

In those days, Malachi accused the temple priests of offering second-rate sacrificial animals; worship on the cheap.  Dishonoring to God, the Father, the Master of us all.

Honoring God

Jesus was deeply aware of the need to honor God as God.  In the Lord’s Prayer he taught us to say, “Our Father in heaven, hallowed be thy name” – may your name be holy – may you be honored.

How are we supposed to honor God?  The prayer answers the question.  We are to pray, “Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.”  We ask God to help us resist the impulse to do succumb to temptation to do evil, but to follow his lead instead, and do good.  Jesus links together honor and faithful obedience.  Obedience honors God.

So, people who live in such a way as to appear as though they are saying a big “no” to God by disobeying every day, clearly do not honor God.  Roman-collaborating tax collectors and obviously people like prostitutes are God-dishonoring kinds of people, right?

On the other hand, the people Jesus is talking to in this scene, the “chief priests” who conduct the sacred services at the temple and the “elders of the people,” with their perfect teeth and Italian suits, say their honorific “yes” to God early, often, and right out there in public.  This is obvious to nearly everyone. Except to Jesus.

Where we are in the story

Let us take just a moment to recall where we are in Matthew’s story of Jesus.  This is near the end.  After spending most of his ministry in Galilee, Jesus has made the journey to the capital, the center of power.  He mocked Pilate’s army parade with his donkey ride into Jerusalem, and he has just cleared the money-changers out of the temple, temporarily shutting the whole thing down.

People are angry with him – people with something to loose, that is – like “the chief priests and elders of the people.”  They demand to know by what authority this non-priest from a no-name family out in the sticks thinks he is doing these things?

Jesus evades their question with a clever one of his own – but notice this: he brings up John the baptist.  He says he will Screen Shot 2014-09-27 at 12.42.50 PManswer their authority-question only after they answer his authority-question: by whose authority did John call people for baptismal repentance:  God’s, or his own?

This is doubly significant.  On the surface level, it is significant because the “unwashed masses” of people believed John was a prophet, authorized by God.  But these shiny men in power did not go out to get baptized.  They sat that one out.  To publicly admit what they cynically believed in private would turn the people away from them, destroying their power-base.  So they are stumped into silence.

John the baptist’s demanding message

Below the surface, there is something going on at another significant level.  What did John call the people to do?  Why get baptized for repentance?  Repentance from what?  What was it that made the powerful gentry stay away?

Luke is the only one of the four gospel writers who has preserved John’s message for us, beyond the general call to repent because the kingdom was coming.  Listen to John’s central message:

the crowds asked him, “What then should we do?”  In reply he (John) said to them, “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.”  Even tax collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, “Teacher, what should we do?”  He said to them, “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.”  Soldiers also asked him, “And we, what should we do?” He said to them, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.”  (Luke 3)

John’s message was clear and demanding.  John called people to repent from lives of selfishness and oppression, and to live lives oriented toward the common good.  Screen Shot 2014-09-27 at 12.23.54 PM

Soldiers who had the power to extort whatever they wanted had to stop their extortion.  Tax farmers who enriched themselves by economic strangulation had to change their ways.  And anyone who had something to share had to share with others in need, from coats to food, if you had it, you had to share it.

This was the message that the powerful and the wealthy of Jerusalem did not go out to hear.  This was the last thing they wanted to hear. They had something to loose.

But other people behaved differently.  Tax collectors and prostitutes did go out to hear John’s message and responded with a repentant “yes.”  Tax collectors like Matthew himself were ready to join Jesus, and when they did, they not only stopped gouging, they showed their “yes” of obedience by making amends.

Jesus and The Common Good

Jesus consciously took up John’s message.  Jesus called his followers to lives of honoring God by means of obedience, shown by their commitment to working for the common good.

We are just moments away, in the story, from Jesus’ parable of the separation of the sheep and the goats.  The sheep are recognized, the king at the end of the age will say, because they lived for the common good.  The king in the story says to them,

for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me,  I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’”  (Matt. 25)

What is that parable, if not a serious call to living for the common good?  This is how to honor God; by lives lived attentive to suffering, with eyes open to need, with acts of compassion and justice.

Jesus reserved his harshest criticism for the apparently honorable people of his day who had positions of power and respect.  He told them directly:

John came to you in the way of righteousness [or, justice] and you did not believe him, but the tax-collectors and the prostitutes believed him; and even after you saw it, you did not change your minds and believe him.”

Values Voting: the Jesus TestScreen Shot 2014-09-27 at 12.48.59 PM

We are getting close to the midterm elections.  Politicians today know how to dress nicely, look good and speak well.  They all look like honorable people in their press photos.  Most of them claim at least a moderate amount of religious interest.  Some are actually embarrassingly public about their religious commitments.

But the test, for me, when I go into the voting booth, is not how honorable they look on the outside.  The test I use is the Jesus-test: are they working for the common good?  Do they even believe there is such a thing as the common good?

Are they working for the vineyard – which we saw last week is a symbol of the nation as a whole?  Are they more like the son, in Jesus’ parable, who made a show of honoring his father with his public “yes” but who failed to follow through?  Or are they like the son who had a change of heart and, in the end, got the job done?

You can make a list of the things people today are saying are issues that should concern voters.  In fact that is a good idea.  Then go through the list and ask yourself: did Jesus ever mention this?   It is surprising to consider the issues that seem so important today that Jesus was silent about.

Then make another list of the issues Jesus cared about.  Look at the way he lived his life, what he did, and what he said.  Then ask, for each of the potential candidates, “Is she or he talking about this?  Are the issues that were important to Jesus important to her or him?”

Then pray for guidance.  We are not herd animals who blindly follow the pack.  We are Christians who are committed to honoring God by following Jesus.  This is our core value that effects everything: our personal relationships, our regular spiritual practices, and our public lives as citizens of this country and of the world.  May God give us the grace to be faithful sons and daughters, to say yes, and to honor God by our actions.

The Extravagant Generosity of God

Sermon on Matthew 20:1-16 for Pentecost +15 A, Sept. 21, 2014

Matthew 20:1-16

[And Jesus said:] “For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning Screen Shot 2014-09-19 at 9.18.31 PMto hire laborers for his vineyard. After agreeing with the laborers 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.”

If this parable story were a true story, and if the story continued, it would go like this: “That was day one.  On day two, no one showed up for work until 5:00 in the afternoon.”  This kind of arrangement of paying everyone exactly the same wages no matter how long they work could only happen once.  After day one, the workers would wise up.  Who wants to work all day if you can get paid the same for an hour?

So, obviously this parable is not about economics, let alone economic justice, right?  Something much deeper is going on.

There is a lot of realism here.  In Jesus’ day, in Palestine, there were large estates, we might even call them plantations.  And there were many landless peasants who hired themselves out as day laborers.  At harvest time, in good years, there was plenty of work for everyone.  At other times of the year, and in lean years, you would be lucky to make enough to buy a daily bread for the family supper.

This is a parable that is probably set during harvest time in the vineyard when the pressure is on to bring in the grapes.  We could even imagine that bad weather was coming, so the urgency was great.

The Vineyard and the People Screen Shot 2014-09-19 at 9.27.40 PM

But if we are meant to look below the surface, what are we supposed to see?  The most obvious place to start is the vineyard.  A vineyard is a famous biblical symbol for the nation of Israel.  Israel is God’s vineyard.  The bible says God brought out a vine from Egypt, and transplanted the vine in a good and fertile land.  He cultivated it, and cared for it, and expected good fruit.  We all know that story: he ended up with  wild grapes and finally, the whole thing was overrun and ruined.

So a story about a vineyard, its hired hands, and how they are paid by the owner, must be about the people of Israel and how God treats them.  How would a story about that go?  A  fitting story could be told about an vineyard-owner giving fair wages and treating everyone with dignity and respect.  Presumably it would be a nice place to work, good relationships all around.

But this is not what we get.  Instead, we get a story in which God treats people in ways that get them upset.  There is jealousy in the end (people literally give each other “the evil eye” – which, I’m told, is still a big deal in the middle East).

Fairness seems to be the issue – but in a complicated way.  The owner of the vineyard agreed to pay a fair wage to the workers he hired early in the morning, and they agreed.  Fair is fair; they received what they had agreed to work for.  Screen Shot 2014-09-19 at 9.32.46 PM

But don’t we all kind-of sympathize with the early bird workers at the end of the day, when the slouches who only put in an hour, after the hottest part of the day was over, got paid the same?  Is that really fair?  As I said, even though they had agreed on the wages as fair, nobody would show up early the next day – neither you nor I.  The economics do not make any sense.

A Different Measure of Value

And that is the key to this parable.  It is indeed about how God, the owner treats the people who work in his vineyard.  He does not treat them by the measure of fairness that they treat each other with.  He does not treat them on the basis of their productivity.  They are neither paid by the piece nor the hour; God uses a completely different measure of value.

So what, then, is the measure God uses to value people?  The complete lack of detail here leaves us with only one option: that they are people.  Period.  Every person is provided for.

Cause for Celebration Screen Shot 2014-09-19 at 9.36.33 PM

This is why this story is such a source of hope and joy for us all.  God loves us simply as we are.  God values us because we are human beings whom God has made.  The most basic fact we can announce is “for God so loved the world.”  There are no exceptions.

We can and we should take this very personally.  God’s love for us is unconditional and inexhaustible.  We are not on a performance basis with God.  God does not love us because we are particularly good.  God does not love us because we worship and pray, or even because we give of ourselves in service.

Jesus Demonstrates God

This is what Jesus demonstrated by his lifestyle too.  He welcomed everyone.  He hung out with  disreputable people; even got a bad reputation for it.  He didn’t even withhold his care and compassion from non-Israelites.  There were no untouchables to him.  There were no distinctions that kept his love in check.  In fact, he seemed to go out of his way to extend God’s love across conventional boundaries like gender and purity.

Guilt and shame are often topics that religion brings up.  But Jesus never shamed anyone and never made people feel guilty.  Just the opposite.  With the possible exception, that is, of  the man in the story we call “the rich young ruler,” who heard Jesus’ mandate to help the poor and decided against it – that one may have left feeling baldly – though not because Jesus wanted that outcome for him.

This story of the owner who paid his workers the same wage is a cause for celebration.  God is good.  Good to all of us, and to everyone.  As Jesus told us, God sends rain on both “the righteous and the unrighteous.”

I do not know what is going on in your head when you think of God.   Ultimately, there are mysteries that our finite minds do not comprehend.  But our Christian theology makes one thing clear: God has to be as good as Jesus.  So any picture of God as a mean, vengeful, hostile person must have gone wrong.  This is a great cause of peace and joy for us.  God is for us, not against us.  And he is not waiting for us to earn or deserve favor.   This is cause for celebration.

Imitation follows Celebration

Celebration is quickly followed by imitation.  When we we comprehend that we are loved by God, just for being humans, then we understand what we are to do in this world: imitate God.

And this is one reason I am so thankful for this congregation.  We have, for all of the years of our existence, been active in sharing God’s love to this community, and even beyond.  We have fed hungry people, we have built homes, we have comforted the grieving, and we have provided places for recovery for many.  Screen Shot 2014-09-19 at 9.41.47 PM

We have been in mission to the children at the Presbyterian Children’s Home, and we have year after year, responded to special needs by supporting Presbyterian Disaster Assistance, the Self Development of People, and a host of other programs.   We have known God’s extravagant generosity towards us, and it motivates us to imitate God in generosity to others.

This is what the people of God do: we imitate God who loves people, just because they are people.  We love and respond without asking any questions: “how many hours did you work in the vineyard today?”  “What religion are you?”  “What is your political affiliation?”  We simply imitate God’s unconditional love.

Love is Practical

Love cannot be simply a psychological feeling.  That would not help anyone.  It must be practical.  The workers in the parable did not receive a hug and a thank you, they got paid real wages. The one question we do ask is the one that must have been in the mind of the owner of the vineyard:  how much is needed by each one today?  Screen Shot 2014-09-19 at 9.49.48 PM

How much do these day-workers need to take home today in order to put supper on the table and adequately care for their families?  Apparently a person needed, as it says literally, a denarius, the usual daily wage.

A denarius was not the bare minimum for survival.  Scholars estimate that the price of a loaf of bread in Jesus’ day was about one twelfth of a denarius (source: Jeremias, Jaochim, Jerusalem in the Time of Jesus, Philadelphia, Fortress Press, 1969, cited by Josh Brown.)

So, a fair day’s wage of one denarius was adequate compensation, not starvation-wages.  And everyone needed that amount.  Everyone got that amount.

When human beings are the subject, then the question of “how much is adequate?” must be asked.  The concerns of the market, the invisible hand, as Adam Smith called free market forces that respond coldly to supply and demand without consideration of the human question is simply not enough.  The question is, what is adequate to ensure a decent life?   The answer has to include food, housing, medical care, and eduction; basic human needs.

The people who are able to celebrate God’s extravagant generosity become people who imitate God by asking the “people question,” and keep asking it.  In fact, it is our faith that gives us reasons to think beyond where the secular mind thinks, simply about market economics.  We do not look at people as commodities and we do not ever agree to be labeled as consumers.

So we value people who are too old to work, or too sick or injured to be productive.  We value people who have mental disabilities, believing that they are as worthy of an adequate life, as the guys who were smart enough to invent mortgage-backed securities and credit default swaps that turned out to be so helpful to us all, right?   We value the people checking us out at Walmart as much as the ones who own the company.  We believe that all of them deserve a living wage and a decent life.

So, a story about an absurd economy that would collapse after two days, ends up being a story about God and people.  And it ends up with implications that touch all the areas of life that concern people, including compassionate care and economic justice.

These are values issues that come directly from faith commitments.  This may not be how the secular world looks at things, but as the first line of the parable says, this is what the kingdom is like.  This is the vision we live into; people celebrating the goodness and extravagant generosity of God, by living lives of imitation of his  practical love for all people.

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Walls and a Way Out

Sermon on Exodus 14:10-13, 19-31Matthew 18:21-35 for Pentecost +14 A, Sept. 14, 2014

Matthew 18:21-35

Then 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?” Jesus said to him, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times. Screen Shot 2014-09-12 at 7.55.47 PM
     “For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves. When he began the reckoning, one who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him; and, 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. So the slave fell on his knees before him, saying, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ And out of pity for him, the lord of that slave released him and forgave him the debt. But 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.’ Then his fellow-slave fell down and pleaded with him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’ But he refused; then he went and threw him into prison until he should pay the debt. When his fellow-slaves saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their lord all that had taken place. Then his lord summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. Should you not have had mercy on your fellow-slave, as I had mercy on you?’ And in anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he should pay his entire debt. So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”

On the surface it may not appear that there is much in common between the story of the exodus of the Israelites from Egypt across the Red Sea, and the story Jesus told about the forgiving king and his unforgiving servant.  I believe, however, that at a deep level, the two tell one story; they are both about bondage and liberation.  God desires liberation for people in bondage.  And we are all in bondage; not to the Egyptians, but to something as strong and as dangerous.

There is great hope in these texts because God is constantly at work, providing a way out of our bondage.  But God has trouble here.  There are obstacles in the way.  There are enemies, strong ones, that seek to keep us enslaved and miserable.  God is able to overcome these enemies, as surely as God overcame Pharaoh and his army in the Exodus story.  But the final obstacle is the one that gives God the most trouble, and it is us, ourselves.  We are the ones who make the walls that confine us.

If we do not understand the nature of our own bondage, then perhaps we will not seek freedom.  If we do not trust God’s way out, then perhaps we will not take it.  If we turn back out of fear, we may miss out on the liberation God wants for us.

Preferring Graves in EgyptScreen Shot 2014-09-12 at 8.01.09 PM

The Israelites almost missed it.  As the story is told, on the verge of the great miracle they experienced, they begged to go back to being slaves.  Listen again to the way the bible describes their situation:

“As Pharaoh drew near, the Israelites looked back, and there were the Egyptians advancing on them. In great fear the Israelites cried out to the LORD.  They said to Moses, “Was it because there were no graves in Egypt that you have taken us away to die in the wilderness? …it would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the wilderness.”  (Exodus 14:10-12)

Fear makes self-preservation at any cost seem preferable to the risk of trusting God’s way out.  This is a deeply human reality.  The enemies seem too great, too powerful, and too close.  And the truth is that many people would prefer to die in Egypt as slaves than to take the risk of trusting God’s way out.

It must be said, in their defense, that God’s way out of bondage does seem dangerous and counter-intuitive.  For the Israelites, the sea they faced ahead, and the pounding of approaching hoofbeats behind, were the undeniable “facts on the ground.”  It was neither likely nor even easy to imagine a way out.

But there was a way out because God desires liberation for people in bondage.  This is the greatest theme of the Jewish story.  It is the theme of Jesus’ message.  God has always been at work to set his people free.

Un-forgiveness is Bondage; Forgiveness is Hard

It is time to be clear about what I mean (and this is the link between the two texts we read).  Insofar as we are unable to forgive, to that degree, we are in bondage.  This is why the final enemy that keeps us in bondage is so powerful; the enemy is ourselves.  This is what gives God the biggest problem: God does not force our hands.  God offers a way out; only our sense of self-protection and fear keep us from taking it.

Forgiveness, is hard.  It feels like lowering the sword in your hands just when your opponent is swinging his.  It makes you feel vulnerable.  Nobody wants to be the rug that people wipe their feet on.  Nobody wants to be the one that gets taken advantage of.  We want to be the kind of people that others take seriously and respect.  Forgiveness seems to undermine all of that.  We think forgiving makes us look weak.  It leaves us open to being hurt again.

That was exactly the kind of thinking that provoked Peter’s question to Jesus:

“Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?”

Jesus’ Absurd StoryScreen Shot 2014-09-12 at 8.08.44 PM

So, Jesus answered with the story of the forgiving king and the unforgiving servant.  It is a famous story, we know it well.  In typical Jesus-fashion, it is filled with wild exaggeration to make the point.  The servant owes the king a fortune.  The king hears his plea for an installment payment arrangement, and unexpectedly  forgives all of the enormous debt at once.  Grace is scandalously extravagant.

That servant, however, finds a colleague who owes him a trivially small amount, hears him make the same plea for mercy he had just made to the king, but refuses to forgive.  It is as if the guy who won the lottery has you arrested for owing him a beer.  The comparison is intentionally ridiculous.

The point is plain: we have all been forgiven everything; how could we possibly withhold similar forgiveness?

And yet, we do.  We get hurt, so we become resentful.  We mentally replay events, conversations, and conflicts, reliving the pain each time.  So we hold grudges, act passively aggressive with silent treatments and sarcasm, and seek out vengeance.

At least, that is what we do when we are living under the bondage to the illusion that we are between the chariots of Pharaoh and the deep blue sea (or Red Sea) without a third option.

The Way Out 

But there is a third option.  We need to hear what Moses said to the fearful Israelites who wanted to return to slavery, just before the great crossing miracle:

“But Moses said to the people, “Do not be afraid, stand firm, and see the deliverance that the LORD will accomplish for you today; …The LORD will fight for you, and you have only to keep still.”

Jesus told us a story about how absurd it is not to forgive, but did not give us any how-to advice.  Moses did.  When the enemy is looming down on you and seeking to keep you in the bondage of resentment, bitterness and vengeance, there is a way out; there is hope.  Did you hear it?  Moses said,

“The LORD will fight for you, and you have only to keep still.” 

StillnessScreen Shot 2014-09-12 at 8.14.30 PM

Keeping still is the key.  Keeping still is the exact opposite of the ruminating mind that keeps narrating the hurt and the offense to us, jabbering away in our minds about how justified we are and how deserving of “justice.”

Keeping still is what contemplative prayer-meditation is all about.  It is a powerful key to silencing the voices of vengeance in our heads and setting us free to be forgivers.  I love what Richard Rohr said:

“Contemplation is the key to unlocking the attachments and addictions of the mind so that we can see clearly. …some form of contemplative practice is necessary to be able to detach from your own agenda, your own anger, your own ego, and your own fear” (from the CD “Hierarchy of Truths: Jesus Use of Scripture”)

When we sit down and keep silent as a regular practice, we bring a stop to the chatter of our own minds.  Rohr continues,

We need some form of contemplative practice that touches our unconscious conditioning, where all our wounds lie, where all our defense mechanisms are operative secretly. Once these are not taken so seriously, there is finally room for the inrushing of God and grace!

That is liberation from bondage.  The “inrushing of God and grace” is like flinging the windows and doors open onto a dim, dank, smoke-filled room.  Suddenly it is bright and fresh.

Now, mercy and forgiveness can replace bitterness and resentment.  Practicing contemplative silence allows us to live as our true selves, as we are, not as our tender, vulnerable egos, but as children of a loving, liberating God.

The Jesus-Life of Forgiveness Screen Shot 2014-09-12 at 8.16.09 PM

This is exactly the kind of life Jesus lived. Jesus practiced frequent silent spirituality, and he practiced the ability to forgive enemies, all the way to the point of death.

Jesus modeled for us the life of complete trust in a caring Heavenly Father who can be relied upon to meet our needs.  In the end, he did not take up the sword in his own defense.  Jesus practiced forgiveness, taught forgiveness, and we can say, requires his followers to be forgiving people.

So the question for all of us is: where are we still in bondage, needing release?  Who are the people in our lives that we are keeping an open tab on?  Who are we unwilling to forgive?

Forgiveness does not mean that we force ourselves to believe that the wrongs we have suffered were okay.  It simply means that we stop seeking or fantasizing revenge.  We leave it up to God.  When we remember the ones who wronged us, we wish for their redemption instead of for retribution.  We pray for their healing rather than for more suffering.  Forgiveness cuts the cycle from spinning around again.

We pray, as Jesus taught us to pray, “forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.”   That is, we pray to be forgiven exactly as much as, as often as, and as completely as we forgive our debtors.  This is true freedom.  This is the transformation we all desire.

It is never too late to begin the daily discipline of silent contemplative prayer.  In fact, it is the one thing we will always be able to do, right up until we breath our last.  And it is the one thing that will let us reach that point without regret.

Peter asked, how many times should we forgive?  How do we manage to forgive even once?  The answer is here:

The LORD will fight for you, and you have only to keep still.”