Tag: Romans

Forgive – don’t forget

Matthew 18:21-35

Margaret Adams Parker Reconciliation
“Reconciliation” by Margaret Adams Parker

Romans 14:1-12

“The Bible says you should forgive and forget.”

How often I have been told that!

I wonder, was Jesus ever told that? What about Paul? Or Moses? Or God? Because none of them preach forgive and forget! Actually, they taught the exact opposite… to forgive, and don’t forget.

I get told to forgive and forget when someone does me a wrong. As a teen, it was me saying “I’m so angry SoAndSo stole from my purse! I should confront them!”

And I was told, “Now, now, it’s better to forgive and forget. Let it be.”

As an adult, I’ve had people tell me of their spouse beating them, and then the victim says, “But if I hold my love’s violence against them, then I’m not forgiving them. So I choose to forgive and forget. I know in their heart they didn’t mean it.”

Good Christians – don’t forgive and forget. You are NOT floor mats, to be stomped on, ripped and torn, and hurt. You don’t have to be a victim to be Christian. You don’t have to forget who and how others hurt you. You are not called to abuse.

“However, if by “forgive and forget” one means, “I will act as if the sin had never occurred and live as if I don’t remember it,” then we can run into trouble. For example, a rape victim can choose to forgive the rapist, but that does not mean she should act as if that sin had never happened. To spend time alone with the rapist, especially if he is unrepentant, is not what Scripture teaches. Forgiveness involves not holding a sin against a person any longer, but forgiveness is different from trust. It is wise to take precautions, and sometimes the dynamics of a relationship will have to change. “Being cautious doesn’t mean we haven’t forgiven.” ((https://www.gotquestions.org/forgive-forget.html))

Listen to our scripture today:

Peter asks Jesus “how many times should I forgive a brother?” and offers the generous 7 times. Then, just as now, we say something like fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me. Or, 3 strikes you’re out. Seven times is an awful lot of “second” chances.

But Jesus says no – forgive your brother an unlimited amount… and then he tells a parable to explain what he means.

In this parable, a king has loaned an absurd amount of money to his servant. The king called this guy in and said it is time to pay back what you borrowed — but the man didn’t have an absurd amount of money to return. So the king said – well, then, we’ll sell you and your wife and kids and home and all you own into slavery.

The guy in insane debt fell on his knees and begged for forgiveness. He promised to make all things right if given time. He begged for mercy.

The king had pity. Instead of saying – okay, I’ll give you another year. Or, okay, I’ll sell only you and not your family into slavery. Instead, the king said — I forgive you of this 300 million dollars. You don’t have to pay me back. The indebted man got so much more than what he asked for.

Note – the king did this when the servant asked for forgiveness from his heart. Additionally, the king did it out of pity — you can only have pity on someone or something from a position of power. Otherwise, you commiserate. The king looks down on this guy, and out of his power over the man, chooses to forgive everything when the weak one asks.

This isn’t a situation of an abused person forgiving their abuser. That would be the weak forgiving the powerful. This is a case like your bank choosing to forgive your house mortgage entirely because you wrote to them about how you can’t pay the mortgage right now and you’d like more time before they foreclose.

So the deeply forgiven man heads out. He passes someone else who owes him some cash and he says – hey! Pay up!

Just like the forgiven man had done, this guy also falls on his knees and pleas – give me some more time! I’ll pay you everything back!

But the forgiven man doesn’t forgive this guy or give this guy more time. Instead, he throws the man in prison.

Sorta like your bank forgives your whole mortgage, but then you sue your cousin because he missed a payment on the car you cosigned for him.

So word gets back to the king about what the forgiven man has done. The king summons the man back, and says – hey! What’s the deal? You pleaded with me for more time, and I gave you way, way more than more time. Your coworker pleaded for more time from you, and you didn’t forgive his debt like I did yours, or even give him the time. Instead, you chose to throw him in jail. I guess that’s the way you want to be treated too. So, into jail with you until you pay the absurd amount you borrowed from me — just like you did to your brother.

Jesus then concludes his story by saying God treats us the same way – if we forgive, we are forgiven. If we demand payment, God will demand payment.

Now… did anyone FORGET in this story?

Absolutely not. Actually, remembering is a major part of the forgiveness. The forgiven guy is supposed to remember how much mercy — unwarranted gifts — he has been given. He is supposed to remember the kindness he has been shown. And then he is supposed to give that mercy and kindness to others when they are in the same situation he was in.

The king remembers too. He remembered the forgiven guy wronged him, but that the guy had asked for more time to make it right. The king remembers he gave the slave great generosity. And he remembers that the slave chose to respond to this generosity not with love and gratitude, but with greediness.

If someone you forgive uses your mercy as a blank check to do more and more wrong… don’t forget. Take that mercy back.

Forgiveness is never supposed to be power to do harm. It is supposed to be a balm to bring people back together into right relationships.

Forgiveness is not something to do and forget.

And the Bible says no where that it is easy.

We’re told about forgiveness in the Bible from the perspective of the person who forgives, the person who asks for mercy, and the people who witness it. Everywhere, scripture notes… forgiveness is hard.

The prodigal son must reach utter rock bottom before he is willing to admit he has done wrong. He is so stubborn! When he comes back, he comes back about crawling on his belly. He is deeply ashamed. He intends to beg his father to take him in as a slave – not as a son. This year, scientists looked at our brains and our bodies when we are proven wrong. They found that it PHYSICALLY hurts — hurts like being slapped — when we know we’re in the wrong. People avoid admitting their wrongs not just out of pride, but out of fear of the pain, and fear of rejection, and the dual punishment the wronged person and their own bodies will do. When someone actually admits their wrong to you, and asks for forgiveness, they have already suffered and are suffering.

Now you have the power. The upper hand. This person has admitted they are in the wrong. You are in the right. What will you do? The law and common sense says you can take all the revenge and should take all that you’re owed. Sue them for every penny. Burn the relationship to the ground. Tell everyone what a mess up they are. It is your right.

And the Bible says that we are permitted to loosen and bind what we will. You can choose punishment in this situation for the wronged person. You can also choose mercy. You can choose love. You can choose to walk away even without an answer.

The power and right is in your hands. What will you do with it?

Giving it away, forgive- forgo- to give away – means giving up your right to extract vengeance for the wrong committed to you. This is just as hard as asking for forgiveness. This is acting against our nature, and acting against our culture. It is purposefully stepping out of the patterns of the world around us and forging a new way.

Who wants to give up power? Who wants to lower themselves and say – we are equals? Who wants to admit someone did them a horrible wrong, and then say ‘but I am choosing not to get my pound of flesh from them.’

Forgiving, and asking forgiveness, is very hard.

So, too, is witnessing it. Remember that brother of the prodigal son is furious. And often people who watch Jesus forgive sins are incensed. How can he do this? It isn’t just! It is against the balance books! It isn’t fair.

Forgiving isn’t fair. It is mercy. It is unearned favor.

Forgiving is not how the world works.

Forgiving is choosing to live into God’s realm.

Remember, part two of Jesus’ story says rules we apply to others, God will apply to us. What we do on Earth is reflected in heaven. If we demand every penny be paid back to us, God will demand we pay back every penny we owe others – and owe God.

Jesus suggests our debt to others and God is so absurdly large, that we can never pay it back. Instead, we need forgiveness and mercy. Therefore, we should practice forgiveness and mercy.

Because forgiveness is not an easy task, not easily given.

Remembering is what makes forgiveness worth so much.

No where does Jesus say forget – just forgive.

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A Living Sacrifice

Matthew 16:13-20 polyp_cartoon_rat_race
Romans 12:1-8

I am a consumer. I am told that every day. It’s my identity given to me. It means I am defined as one who consumes. Who uses. Who devours.

So I am defined as one who spends, who is not satisfied, who is always hungry for more.

I literally buy into this idea.

Therefore, I go into debt. I pretty much have to, to survive. I don’t have $100,000 lying around for a house, let alone the cash for a car. Some of us don’t have the cash lying around just for normal bills like electricity and water. On the cards it goes, and sign the dotted line.

I often feel we are defined as worth only what we can spend. Worthy people are those who have  steady income, some savings, and therefore also get prime rates, their checks cashed for free, and are offered more and more loan money. Unworthy are all of us under employed, unemployed, or living hand to mouth and are rewarded with high interest rates, are charged to cash checks, and get stuck in pawn and payday loan schemes.

Can you spend a lot? Then you may eat healthy food, and wear clothes that fit, and sleep in secure neighborhoods. Can you spend a little? Then you may eat only highly processed food, wear ill-fitting clothes, and sleep in dangerous neighborhoods… maybe in a house, maybe just under a bridge. If you can spend a lot – you’re worth more – and preventative health care is available. If you can’t spend a lot… prepare for crowded ER visits.

My worth is so calculated, that I actually get a “credit score” to tell me what my value is. Low value? No company wants to deal with me. High value? Everyone wants to deal with me.

I am a consumer and I am told it is my patriotic duty to consume. If I save, I’m told I’m hurting the economy. After 9-11, there honestly were billboards telling people these very words. Eat Out – Support America.

But guilt over my “duty” to my country isn’t the only way I am trapped in my definition of an ever unhappy, insatiable, consumer.

My world also tells me the source of my problems are what I have chosen to consume. Consuming alone isn’t enough. I have to consume continuously to keep up with the Joneses and to prevent my life from being a catastrophe.

For instance, I know my husband and children are arguing with me because I am a bad cook. Luckily, I can order out. Advertisements promise me that if I just order out dinner, all my problems are solved.

Want a happy family? Easy. Throw money at them.

The world also tells me my friends secretly hate me and think I am fat. If I lose weight with name-brand shakes, I’ll be popular. Not only will I get friends – I’ll get my dream guy, dream job, dream house, and dream life – all because I shed 20 lbs in 2 weeks! Send in the cash.

What’s more, my world tells me if I don’t splurge for the highest cost cat food, I am a terrible pet owner. My cat is slowing down in her old age because once, when she was 2 year old, I bought the second most expensive cat food. If I just got the higher brand her whole life… she’d never age.

So says the world, if I really want a vacation in Hawaii where no one is around for miles and I get all the vistas to myself with perfect weather… all I need is a new car.

I also know: every man loves powertools, ties, and sports cars.
Every woman loves fashion, home goods, and bath supplies.
Every boy wears blue.
Every girl wears pink.

The best gifts are bought, new, from the store, never regifted, never handmade, never received from thriftstores or yardsales, and a gift or theme or purchase is needed for some holiday every month.

Christmas, Father’s Day, Mother’s Day, Easter, Halloween, Thanksgiving, Valentine’s Day, Saint Patrick’s Day, Cinco de Mayo, President’s Day, Labor Day, Independence Day – all of them turned into a commercial masterpiece designed to cater to the consumer.

And we are those consumers. So the world, the culture of the United States of America, tells us. And we’re told to make fun of those who cannot, or will not, participate in the consumer culture. Just as in the story we read today in our kid’s chat, (My Princess Boy) we get trained to laugh and point at the different person.

I think we’d laugh and point at Jesus.

For who was Jesus? Who is Jesus?

A consumer?

Absolutely not.

When Jesus found sellers and consumers in the temple, he took a whip, ran them out, and tipped over the tables.

Jesus didn’t ask Tabitha’s parents how much their daughter was worth to them – were they willing to give their house to Jesus? He just went and healed her. Jesus didn’t ask to see cash before he healed anyone.

Instead, Jesus actively went and told people – you are precious. Beyond worth. You are a beloved child of God.

He also told us that “the heavens are witnesses of the people and things that we imprison and the people and things that we set free.” (Rev. Dr. Mitzi J. Smith) When we reduce others to their pocketbooks, or credit scores, or purchasing power, or conformity to world norms… and when we fall into those traps… heaven knows and is also impacted.

Scripture tells us over and over again – when you throw a feast, invite those who can’t afford a feast. When you find you have time, knowledge, or money– share.

Jesus told his disciples not to tell others Jesus is the Messiah. Don’t preach with words. Preach with your lives. Tell people who Jesus is by the way you live your life. Fill the world and heaven with the love of Christ by living lives of love.

When the world pressures you to be a consumer, live your life as a child of God.

When the world promises products to make all your woes go away – whether in the form of lotto tickets, new vitamins, gadgets, or diets – know the world is lying. And live your life as a living sacrifice.

At one time, food and drink were burned on an altar for God as an act of worship. Paul is referencing this moment. He tells us – be a living sacrifice. Let your life, your daily life, be an act of worship.

A living sacrifice means being aware we are defined by who made us: God. Who is remaking us: God. Who redeems us: God.

It means being aware that in the beginning, God made our bodies and called them good.

Made our minds and called them good.

Made our souls and called them good.

God calls us very good… each of us, as individuals, with different talents, each very good… and not a one better or worse than another.

Flesh and blood — our normal minds – won’t understand. But wisdom from God understands. The world won’t understand we belong to the Messiah. But we understand.

For Paul, worship is full-bodied. It happens in community as we live out our faith by serving one another to build up the body of Christ. The quality of our worship is not measured by what happens on only Sunday mornings, but by what happens when we are together Monday through Saturday.

A living sacrifice is a living a Godly life that resists the world’s pressures to think in dollars and cents, stereotypes and static roles. Resists the world’s pressure to dehumanize and demean others. A living sacrifice accepts others just as they are, and welcomes each part of the body as a valued member of the community.

A living sacrifice means living a life of worship – one focused on God and others, rather than items and appearances. One that knows these good bodies God has gifted us with are meant to be used assisting and loving one another.

In no way will our world suddenly stop calling and considering you and I consumers. We are numbers, dollars and cents, to many others.

But we ought never to view each other as such.

Rather, may we strive to always see each other as the diverse children of God.

Amen.

Bring Out the Treasure

Romans 8:26-39lk19_11
Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52

In today’s readings, I hear people asking, “What is the Kingdom like, Jesus? Tell us!”

And he thinks about this… and decides to take the old treasure of their daily lives, and the old treasure of their sacred scripture, and polish it up to be the new treasure for their present and futures.

Jesus says: The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field. It is like a weed someone purposefully planted. It is the smallest of seeds, but nothing can kill that weed off. You’ve heard in the Torah of the cedars of Lebanon and how the birds make their nests in the temple? I tell you birds bless weeds with their nests.

All you who have considered yourself a weed? God blesses you. All you who feel excluded from fine places and fine company? God seeks you out. The kingdom belongs not to the elite, but to everyone.

And the kingdom of heaven is like yeast. You’ve heard in the Torah how it is morally impure, morally questionable. Like mold. Like sinners. The kingdom is like yeast a woman takes and mixes it all through her flour. And the flour is leavened. It rises.

All you who the world says are sinners, outcasts, and impure – God needs you. You are what is going to bring life, bring growth, to all the world. The kingdom of God is made of sinners.

And the kingdom of God is like treasure hidden in a field. Which someone accidentally finds. They never were looking at all! With joy, that someone goes and sells everything they have – their house, their home, their wealth, their ties – to buy that field where the treasure is hidden.

All you who accidentally find God, in a time of trial or in a time of peace, at home or at war, a relationship with God is worth changing all your plans over. You never meant to become Christian, never meant to be one of those faith types… but now that you’ve had a taste, it’s okay to risk more. With joy, God won’t let you down.

And the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls. An educated business person, who knows just what they are seeking. They have a system, they have a plan, and they work diligently. Upon finding a pearl of great value, that merchant sells everything and buys the pearl.

All you who purposefully find God, studying texts and attending church – a relationship with God is worth all your work and troubles. You, too, can risk all you have built up to build a relationship with God and will not be let down.

Indeed, the kingdom of heaven is like a net that is thrown into the sea and catches up fish of every kind. Good fish. Bad fish. Fish who just need a little tender loving care and fish who refuse to be gathered in by Love even when every chance is given. And only at the end of the age are they separated. Until then, they’re all welcomed in and gathered.

Indeed, the kingdom of heaven is thrown wide to everyone and anyone. Those who have led good lives and those who have led bad lives. Those who repent and those who refuse. Only after all are gathered in will the righteous -those who wish to live in love with each other and with God- and the evil -those who wish to live at odds with God and hate each other- be separated. Then there will be peace.

So do you understand?

If so, then you are commissioned to bring out the new treasure out of these old words.

Do you get what the kingdom of God is like?

If so, you should be able to take your own old treasure, polish it up, and bring it out anew.

If so, you should be able to think of your own parables to explain what the kingdom of heaven is like for you.

A parable doesn’t perfectly fit. It is LIKE something. So an orange is not an apple, but it is LIKE an apple. It is a fruit, it is round, it grows on a tree. But they are not the same.

The kingdom of heaven isn’t a net or merchant or weed. But it is LIKE these things in some way. Or like how these things relate to other things.

So, how would you explain what heaven is like to others now-a-days?

Maybe…

The kingdom of heaven is like a line with no order. This is how Meredith (Vosburg) Bazzoli of Chicago explains what the kingdom is like for her. She witnessed a line all out of order, with this family mingling into that one, and people just milling about with no line. They were all Hispanic, and standing near a church with a sign that said, “los pasaportes.” Passport help was being given out here. No one grumbled as people moved in and out of the group; no police kept the line carefully in a row. There was no rope, no tickets, no different reward for those who came early or those who came late. Everyone got the same help. And they waited with joy. She writes, “The kingdom of God is like this, a line with no rules, a line that offends the righteous, those who’ve been in line for a while doing the right thing.” ((https://abbynorman.net/2015/10/09/the-kingdom-of-god-is-like-a-line-with-no-order/))

Or maybe the kingdom is like a squeaky hamster wheel. Author Addie Zierman thinks so. Before you get upset – she doesn’t mean futile – as in going no where. That is the limits of parables! They’re not literal, and not perfect. They’re examples to try to get at something unspoken.

So go with Zierman and me with a moment… Have you, or any of your kids or grandkids had a hamster? The wheel squeaks, and squeaks, and squeaks as they run on it all the time. Dinner time the squeak begins. Bed time it continues. Midnight potty and guess what you hear — two in the morning and you roll over and you hear… squeak! Squeak! Squeak! She writes, “The hamster wheel squeak, squeak, squeaks, and it occurs to me that the Kingdom of God has been at work all this time — that when I am asleep, when I am distracted, when I am unaware, it is still turning, turning, turning — God at work, always, in the world he created… That we wake into a Kingdom that is always already happening.” God, and God’s in breaking into our world, never stops. Whether waking or sleeping, God is aware and present. ((https://abbynorman.net/2015/10/15/the-kingdom-of-god-is-like-a-squeaky-hamster-wheel/))

Organists Gayl Wright says the kingdom of God, for her, is like an unexpected polka. One Sunday while she was playing the new church organ, her finger slipped on the buttons during the prayers. She thought she had the organ set back to a proper classical piano… but instead, when she pressed the first chord, the piano began to play a polka beat and rattle off drums with each press of a key. She writes, “In our church services we pray the same prayers and sing the same responses every week. If we are not careful in that routine, we might just go through the motions not even thinking about what we are saying. Sometimes we need a wake up call, like a blast of the unfamiliar.” ((https://abbynorman.net/2015/10/29/the-kingdom-of-god-is-like-a-surprise-during-church/))

And, sometimes, we need the unexpected polka to remind us God’s love is not based on perfection. If only perfect people make it to heaven, heaven is an empty place.

For Paul, the kingdom of heaven is a deep sigh. A holy, sacred sigh – the kind that we do when we don’t even know how to begin to pray. The kind we do when our dearest loves have deep pains and we wish we could alleviate them. The deep sigh we have, internally, when we ache head to toe and there is not enough time. Or too much time. That deep sigh when we know we need God, but have no idea in what way. The Spirit prays.

And when we are sleeping, the Spirit prays. And when we are distracted, the Spirit prays. And when we are spoken against, charged with crimes we did or didn’t commit, condemned, know hardship, peril, distress, persecution, poverty, war, sickness – when anything and when everything tries to break our faith in God…

That deep sigh and whisper inside of us keeps praying. The Spirit keeps us tightly. “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

The kingdom is an internal and eternal sigh, breath, whisper, connecting us with God forever.

So bring out the treasure of your hearts, of your sacred stories, of your experiences – polish it up – and present it anew to one another! Tell each other – where do you see the kingdom of heaven? What is it like for you?

Amen.

Jacob’s Ladder

Genesis 28:10-19ahandful-of-dust
Romans 8:12-25

Jacob is running from Esau. Remember? We read last week that he tricked Esau out of Esau’s blessing and portion of the family’s inheritance for a bowl of soup, and then by preying on their blind father. Now the twin brother intends to get the blessing and inheritance back… via murder.

It’s honestly a rare funeral where there is no argument over inheritance. A rare funeral where this sibling or that cousin hasn’t swindled their relatives, lied to the deceased, or outright stolen. Jacob and Esau, and their parents Isaac and Rebecca, have a family just like ours.

And like our own, the peacekeeper just wants everyone to get along. With Isaac passed away from old age, Rebecca wants her two sons to just love each other… even though she helped their bitter rivalry along by favoring and aiding one boy in his tricks. Now in her old age, she doesn’t want to lose all her family. So she warns Jacob about Esau, and tells Jacob to go to her brother’s house and live there until Esau calms down.

I mean, he can’t keep a grudge forever, right? She figures her sons will feud a few months, and then it will all be over and the family will be reunited.

Sadly, it takes years and years… and Rebecca passes away before she ever sees Jacob come home again.

Our reading today finds Jacob on the run from his home to his uncle’s house. He’s in the middle of no where, no man’s land, and stops to sleep out under the stars. He has nothing but the clothes on his back and his walking stick. So he uses a rock as a pillow.

And as we read, he has a vivid dream.

In his dream, Jacob sees a ziggurat, a steeped pyramid, a ladder, or a staircase connecting heaven and earth. Angels go up and down it from heaven and to earth and back again. But God stands BESIDE Jacob. This is the first time Jacob has had any sort of religious experience. And God tells him I am the Lord of your father, and your grandfather. And I am the Lord of you. All the families of the earth will be blessed through you and your offspring. Blessings, scattered all over the earth like how dust gets everywhere. Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go… I will not leave you until I have done what I promise.”

And Jacob wakes up – and proclaims – surely the Lord is in this place! This is Bethel, which means, House of God. And he puts a stone there, and consecrates it, and it becomes a place of worship.

The silly young man. Jacob thinks the PLACE is important. God says the person is. Jacob only focused on the ladder. But God was BESIDE Jacob. And God said, I will go with you wherever you go. Surely God was in that place, just as God is here, but God is with us everywhere too. Still, we like to think of God in one place. Back then, in Jacob’s time, this idea that gods are tied to the land was so ingrained it was believed that if you left your city… your god didn’t go with you. Your god was stuck in the city. So God proclaiming to Jacob that God isn’t limited by boundary lines is pretty radical. But we still, today, have a hard time remembering God isn’t just in the House of God, isn’t just in church… but everywhere.

There are no godless places.

I’ve heard people say they don’t need to go to church because they can feel God in beautiful sunrises and in the peaceful croak of bullfrogs. They see God in the smile of strangers and the laughter of children.

I don’t think any church-go-er doesn’t know God in these situations, also. We all know and remember God in such beauty.

It’s those places we like to call godless where we need help. It’s in those internal woes and deep sorrows where its hard to find God. If God is everywhere, then where is God when things aren’t great?

Our second reading tells us the world is in pain. This we know. Paul says you and I are called to address that pain and be blessings. Creation awaits for God’s Children to show, to reveal, God. Creation has been told God is everywhere — in the beautiful and in the ugly — but it’s our job to help creation see how God doesn’t abandon us.

Like dust, we are blown everywhere. Like dust, sticking to everything. Like dust, covering all people without preference. Like dust, a scattering of blessings and reminder of God’s love for us in all situations.

God will not leave us, no matter where we wander. No matter where we’re forced to go. God is with us. Even homeless, even on the run because we’ve cheated family, and using a rock for a pillow…. God still seeks us out.

It’s… just so hard to remember.

And that’s where Bethel comes into play. When so many need churches. When communities are needed most. We seek these places out where others have felt God to try to feel God’s presence ourselves. We need these holy places not because God isn’t everywhere, but because we need to feel God, need a sanctuary, a place of rest, a place where the dusting of blessing is apparent.

Chapels in hospitals. Churches in cities and rural roads. Places where we have set a stone and invited people to remember… God is beside us.

Paul writes that as we groan and seek relief, we can rest in these places and with each other in hope. We are people of hope. People who live into God’s promises. And one of those promises is to turn our first fruits into huge harvests of goodness.

First fruits – the first part of a harvest – is not always the best veggies. I know the first tomato of the year I really look forward to… but it usually is a tiny little thing. The second or third tomato is proper for a sandwich. And the first egg my pullet lays is a tiny little misshapen thing. And our first attempts to go out of our comfort zones and be kind to others might be horribly awkward.

But God is taking these. Taking every little offering of kindness, and turning that kindness into miracles.

I think of it a bit like Jacob’s ladder. No one climbs a ladder in one leap. It is rather one little step at a time. So, too, none of us can change the world over night. We take little steps. But those little steps build and build and build.

Then when we gather back in after a week of little steps, we take pause here at church and look at how far we’ve come. We take hope. What looked like drops of goodness in to an impossibly thirsty and hopeless world has actually been a shower of blessings. When we felt like we were just a single mote of dust, we have actually been a part of God’s lavish garden.

When we felt all alone, we actually walked with God and with other people the whole time. you might think you can only affect your own little life, but what you do spreads everywhere. Every little deed counts.

Surely God is in this place. Surely God is everywhere. Surely God is in heaven and on earth and everywhere in between and right beside us. Surely God will not leave us and shall fulfill all of God’s promises. Surely we are beloved children of God, called to bring blessings to all the Earth.

Amen.

Dead to Sin, Alive to God

Genesis 21:8-21diseased-or-dead-tree-1
Romans 6:1b-11

In our first reading, Sarah sins and is cruel to Hagar and Ishmael. Abraham weeps, but complies with his wife and sends Hagar and her baby into the wilderness desert with a bit of water. When their water runs out in the desert, Hagar places her baby under a bush and goes away – she can’t bear to watch her son die of thirst. A bow shot away, she cries out to God.

And God hears.

Ishmael, the name of the child, literally means: God Hears. God hears Ishmael’s weeping, and Hagar’s weeping, and gives them a whole well of water. The boy grows up to be a great bowman of the wilderness.

The sins inflicted on Hagar and Ishmael hurt, but God won’t abandon them. God gives them new life. Where the world gave them just a single skin, a thermos, of water – God gives them an entire well. The world hoped they would die, forsaken, in the desert. God made them the start of a great nation.

God brings us to waters in deserts. God brings us to peace where the world thought we’d know only woe. God grants us new life when death surrounds us.

Paul writes about this death and life in our second reading. I hear it sort of like… I have two apple trees at my house. I can cut a branch off of either. Now if I cut a branch off of the East one, the tree keeps a wound where the branch was, but it heals over. A year or two, and you’d never know. It will fill in the hole and produce lots of good fruit. The tree keeps flourishing and growing. It is full of life.

However, if I cut a branch off the West one, the tree not only keeps the wound… it never recovers. It cannot grow a new branch in the place of the old. A year or two, and that absent branch will still be apparent. And there will still be no fruit. This second tree is dead.

This is how I understand what Paul is writing about when he tells us that through baptism we die with Christ and are risen with Christ; we remain dead to sin and alive to God. You see, he is arguing about the worth of baptism. If baptism saves us from sin, or reunites us with God, and we can only be baptized once… what good is baptism? Should we save it until the very end of our lives hoping to reduce the amount of time we have to potentially sin? Or should we be baptized, and then keep on living a life of sin because we’re confident our sins don’t count? Neither, says Paul. Rather – live for Christ.

Whether or not we’re baptized, we’re going to sin. Both of my apple trees are going to lose a branch. Sin – things that separate us, do damage, to ourselves, those around us, or God – just happens whether we intend it or not.

The difference, argues Paul, is whether we are dead or alive.

The dead don’t recover from their sins. They spurn God’s assistance and sit in bitterness, not producing any good fruit. Each sin separates, destroys, more of themselves.

The living recover from their sins. God is there, encouraging new life, new growth, and good fruit. Each sin hurts, but they recover, regrow, and flourish with God.

The baptism we all share is our death to sins’ permanent effect and our birth into the eternal, rejuvenating, life God offers through Christ.

It is our sign and seal, our promise from God, that the strength of sin is broken.

We are always alive in God!

Amen.

Rest on Grace

John 3:1-17jesus_nicodemus_2
Romans 4:1-5, 13-17

Paul’s writings are thick, complex, and wrote in a style of rhetoric, argument, that we don’t use much anymore. So let’s break him down into little bits today. First, let’s replace Abraham in our scripture with George Washington. Think: What then are we to say was gained by George Washington, our ancestor according to the flesh? Or rather, why do some people brag George Washington is their great-great-grandpappy? Does that make them more American than those not related to George Washington? In other words, it’s great to have grandpappies who did great stuff… but God doesn’t care who your grandpappy is… just like your American Citizen status doesn’t rely on being related to George Washington.

Next, Paul argues Abraham didn’t work for God, and God didn’t pay Abraham his due. This wasn’t an employee and store owner relationship. Instead, God -granted- -reckoned- -gifted- Abraham righteousness in return for Abraham’s trust. Paul even calls Abraham ungodly. God gifts grace to people who haven’t even turned their lives around towards living faithful lives. Faithful lives doesn’t win you God’s grace. God gives it freely. So, God doesn’t care who your grandpappy is… and God doesn’t require living a sinless life to receive God’s love.

If we’re going to use our American analogy, it would be that your citizenship to America doesn’t depend on being related to George Washington… and, it doesn’t depend on you speaking English, dressing in jeans and a tshirt, and being Christian. You can be American and speak Spanish, or wear a hijab, or pray at a Synagoge.

Why is this important to Paul? Because he’s writing to ancient Jews who had always been taught that their literal ancestor – Abraham – is what made them Jewish, and made them God’s people. These new converts to The Way of Jesus (seen as form of Judaism at the time) are NOT biologically related to Abraham. How can they, too, be God’s children?

Sorta like… many say that to be an American citizen, you have to have been born here. Raised here. OR act, look, speak and pray like you were raised here. But what about people born abroad to American parents, but due to the military, are raised in a foreign country and speak a foreign language and hold dual citizenship? Are they Americans? People who immigrate here – are they Americans? What about the Amish – are they Americans? We’ve got a lot of people who don’t wear tshirts, jeans, and speak Midwestern English. So what is the criteria for being an American?

Paul’s churches are asking – what is the criteria for being Christian?

He argues if being a child of God means being a literal descendant of Abraham… we have no reason to follow God. None. Born Jewish? Bam! You hit the jackpot. Automatic inclusion. Born Greek? Chinese? Sorry. You’re not loved, and even if you convert, you still are excluded. This way of thinking doesn’t promote faith. It doesn’t even promote living a good life style. It just promotes keeping a strict genealogy record so you can prove you’re related to Abraham, and so got your golden genetic ticket to God.

Instead, Paul argues that Abraham existed before there was really a Jewish people or Jewish faith. There wasn’t even a Torah, a Bible, at the time. So… being Jewish or following the Torah doesn’t include or exclude people from God’s children. Abraham was loved before the Torah and before Judaism. Instead, God’s children, Abraham’s heirs, are all of those who follow his faith. All of those people who trust God. And all those people – regardless of their biological ancestor, or their depth of knowledge of religion, or how little or how often they sin — none of this makes or breaks your relationship with God. Instead – you’re a child of God – just as you are, who you are – because God loves you.

What do you call this? It’s called grace. Unmerited favor. God loves you because God loves you. There’s nothing you can do to gain more love or to lose that love. To be Christian is to accept that love as reality with faith. With the belief in things unseen, not wholly proven, but chosen to be accepted. Paul writes, “God gives life to the dead, and calls into existence the things that do not exist.”

Biologically, you’re likely not related to Abraham… but you are his descendant through things that don’t exist. Living faith flows from him to you. You are Abraham’s heir. You are God’s child, too.

In our American analogy, you’re likely not related to George Washington, but you are his political heir. The spirit of democracy, freedom to speak, freedom to worship in your own way, freedom to influence your government is known to you. You’re an American child too, regardless of where you were born or what language you speak or how you worship.

Spiritual heirs are what Jesus and Nicodemus are talking about.

Nicodemus is walking a faith like our own, and like many of those whom Paul wrote to. In John’s gospel, light and dark, day and night, mean a lot more than just how much illumination there is. It also means whether or not someone is understanding Jesus, or if they’re misunderstanding Jesus. So Nicodemus comes literally at night and figuratively in misunderstanding. He thinks he knows who Jesus is: a great rabbi from God. Jesus tells him, “Bingo… and more. But to see more, one has to be born again or born from above.” The word used here in scripture means both — both again and from above.

Nicodemus is in the dark. He misunderstands and takes the literal translation — born again. He gets caught up in the literal – and starts picturing himself trying to get into a womb to be born again. SO not possible.

For our American analogy, it would be like saying Americans are those who are born American. But what about all the immigrants? Even if they get their greencards and are full citizens, are they still not Americans? They can’t be literally born again here. People don’t have two births.

Jesus explains – spiritual birth. The Spirit of God moves here and there, people here and there are reborn with it.

In our analogy, some people are spiritually born as Americans and come here with that spirit, that love, of liberty from wherever they were biologically born.

You just can’t predict who is going to faithfully vote and faithfully attend church based on their birth certificates. There are people born in America who never vote and there are people born with Christian parents who never attend church. Just as there are people born in Middle Eastern countries who move here and never miss voting, and there are people who have atheist parents who never miss time to pray.

Biological birth is not the same as spiritual birth.

Nicodemus, like many of us, still can’t get his head around it. He wants a clear checklist of what it means to follow Jesus. Sorta like we want a clear checklist of what it means to be American. But Jesus won’t give it to him. Grace isn’t earned. Grace — God’s love — is just given. Faith isn’t something to testify and be good for all time. Faith is lived. It is a verb.

Nicodemus asks for more help. He’s a scholar, he knows his religion, he’s affluent and educated and clearly devoted to understanding and practiving his faith. Jesus replies look – you disbelieve me about these earthly things. You know I’m doing miracles, but you still question. I told you God’s love is for more than Abraham’s biological children, but you didn’t believe. How am I to explain heavenly things to you? God loves you. God is saving the world through God’s son. God is giving new life — full life — life to the depressed, the lonley, the outcast, the foresaken, the poor, the ignored, the hopeless. God is welcoming in the “huddled masses” and “wretches refuse” and “temptest tossed.” God isn’t condemning them, isn’t condemning the world, but opening the door of welcome wide to all.

Have you ever pictured yourself back in ancient Israel? Like, say you woke up one day and you’re back there — 2030 years ago — and you actually meet Jesus in the flesh. I’ve always thought I’d instantly recognize him. I’d not be like Nicodemus and be sneaking in the dark. I wouldn’t be the religious leaders and spit on Jesus. I would know my Lord and drop everything to follow him.

Professor Karoline Lewis posed these questions that made me pause: “Do we really think that we could have understood Jesus any better than [Nicodemus?] this well-versed, well-educated Pharisee? And if we do, what makes us think so? What makes us so sure? Because we have two thousand years of Christianity under our belts? Because we have more theological insight? Because we have more faith?”

Nicodemus has more than two thousand years of Judism education under his belt. He’s literally speaking with Jesus in the flesh before him. He’s risking his reputation, his job, maybe even his life to speak with Jesus. Do we have more faith than that? And yet – here he is, misunderstanding because he is carrying so many expectations of who Jesus is and what God is doing.

… I might be carrying those too and stuck to my misconceptions more than God’s reality.

Jesus’ words are that whoever does good to the most wretched has done good to him. Whoever has spat on others has spat on him. Where did I see you Lord?

I don’t need to time travel back to ancient Israel to see Jesus in the flesh. Jesus is attempting to get his kids to school around Immigration Customs Enforcement agents. Jesus is sitting in a 103 tent watching her son slowly starve to death and praying the money comes through to get him help and out of this refugee camp. Jesus is the last survivor of a capsized boat in the Mediterranean.

In reality, I am Nicodemus. I get stuck in the literal. I get stuck thinking I’d recognize Jesus in the flesh 2000 years ago when I don’t even recognize him in the flesh today.

I try to follow Jesus. I try to understand, but I often look at the world with literal eyes and ignore the spiritual. Nicodemus shows up twice more in our gospel. He defends Jesus before his peers… and he helps bury Jesus. Nicodemus walks a faith life that goes into periods of darkness and light. Periods when he is attuned to the way God views the world, and Nicodemus does much good. And periods when he is confounded by God, and Nicodemus flounders, messes up.

That is why Paul’s argument and Jesus’ argument is so important to us during Lent: being a child of God, being loved by God, is God’s gift to us. We don’t earn it. We don’t lose it. We choose to respond to it.

We do wrongs individually, and collectively. We hurt others intentionally and unintentially. We miss seeing Jesus in others. We choose not to see Jesus in others. But God still loves us… even as we hurt God. Even as we take God’s child and shame him, torture him, murder him… God still loves us. Today, we still take God’s children of all backgrounds and shame them, torture them, murder them often by just ignoring them. But God still loves us.

And from that love, offers forgiveness. Offers us to begin again. Offers us a new life where we live more Christ-like and extend not condemnation, but salvation, to others. Out of God’s love for the whole world — not just Americans, not just Christians, not just Abrahamic faiths, but the WHOLE WORLD, Out of God’s love for the WHOLE WORLD, Jesus is given. Forgiveness is offered. We are given a new chance at peace, embracing each other, and living in harmony.

Amen.

One Lord, One Faith, One Baptism

Jeremiah 1:4-10
Ephesians 4:1-16

What is stronger? Rock, or water?

Rock seems stronger than water. Rocks keep water back, such as with dams. A rock goes through a window a whole lot easier than a rain drop. People build solid foundations out of rocks – not on sinking watery ground.

But let’s consider water: with enough time, water seems stronger than rocks. It finds cracks in that dam and slowly erodes the rock away. With enough time, it carves solid rocks and makes holes as gigantic and as deep as the Grand Canyon. A rock shatters with a big impact against it. Water, however, splashes, moves, around the rock that hits it and keeps on moving – unchanged.

In the short term, rock may be stronger.

But in the long term, water is more enduring. Water is stronger.

Perhaps this is why the Bible speaks of hearts that get hardened, that get turned into stone. Pharaoh’s hardened heart ignored the plight of the Israelites and turned Moses away. Hardened, cold, stony hearts made Jesus sad and angry. People who owned these hearts were more concerned about the proper way of doing things, about propriety, than simply helping others whenever the opportunity arose.

Jesus asks his disciples if they have hard hearts when they argued about how to share a single loaf of bread among them. Jesus reminded them that they had just seen him feed thousands of people with a few loaves – do they not understand?

A single loaf can feed many people.

But only if their hearts are not hard, but rather: are strong.

Hearts of stone never think there is enough to go around. Hard, solid, stony hearts are a dam, a defensive wall, that shuts out others and shuts out God. Isolated and alone inside that dark, cold, chamber, we huddle fearful of the outside world. Scared that our single loaf of bread will run out, and scared to share it too.

Soft hearts, strong hearts, hearts drenched in holy waters, are like river stones. These hearts are porous, full of holes. Gently, baptismal waters have carved space into these hearts. Space for the Holy Spirit to flow. Space for Christ. Space for others. These holey hearts, full of holes and God’s love, know we have more than enough resources when we all share. These kinds of hearts have windows to let the world in, and the graces given to us by God out.

You see, when we are baptized, we baptize with water and the Holy Spirit. The water cleanses away what is old – washes off the dirt, sins, and fear. We die with Christ in Baptism, and we arise with Christ in Baptism. So as the Spirit fills us, we become full of new life – a purpose – full of gifts to share for the community.

These gifts are graces, gifts from God, and never meant to be hidden away.

Like the children’s song ‘This Little Light of Mine,’ these gifts, these lights, are supposed to shine.

In us, from Baptism, the light of Christ burns. It is our own little candle. Our candle to shine out of our porous hearts to guide others towards love, towards Christ, towards God. This holy light we carry with us, wherever we go, as a beacon of the strength of water.

The world tells us to be harsh, to be cold, to be rock hard.

But our God tells us to be patient, to be kind, to be loving.

In the short term, a person can get ahead by playing by the world’s rules.

But in the long term, water is stronger. God is stronger.

For as Paul wrote us, “I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other created thing, will be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Romans 8:38-39

That long term, permanent love – that love that breaks holes into even the toughest of hearts – that love that is patient enough to work for decades eroding away a spot to plant the light of Christ – that love of God is stronger than all else.

We, today, are privileged to witness an act of that love.

We, today, are witnesses to God and Ella Grace communing in a way beyond words.

We, today, are the eyes, the ears, the memories, the hands, the mouths, that will remind this little girl as she grows up of this moment. We will tell her we were present for this holy moment when the Spirit alighted upon her. We will pledge, during her baptism, to guide her and her family, aide and assist, pray and support, them as Ella grows. Part of that will be telling her that she is a beloved child of God, a child who has God’s ever lasting love, a child who has been washed with baptismal waters and the Spirit, a child who carries Christ’s light within her.

And when she is five, fifteen or a hundred and fifteen, these truths will not have changed.

Let us, we the people of one faith, one Lord, one baptism – the people who are children and yet gifted the Words of God – let us now prepare ourselves for this holy, once-in-a-life-time rite of Ella’s that we are privileged to be a part of.