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Sunday, September 28, 2014

Questions, Questions, all we have are Questions

 Matthew 21:23-32
          I’ve performed a few weddings in recent months, and I have to tell you that I get a little squeamish over them. Don’t get me wrong. I don’t mind performing the ceremony. I enjoy getting to know the couple, hearing their hopes and dreams for a life together, listening to the story of what brought them to this point. I am happy to be the one to speak a word of God on the blissful day, and remind the couple of the perfect example of love that Christ gives us.
          It’s not the sermon that really gets me, nor dealing with nervous and sometimes frantic brides or bridegrooms, or teary-eyed parents; neither is it calming frayed nerves, or reassuring the couple that even if the flower girl and ring bearer should both stumble and fall, the day will still be magical and in the end, they will still be married.
Rather, what really gives me the shivers comes when I hear myself saying, “By the authority vested in me, I now pronounce you man and wife” – or words to that effect. I get squeamish because – really? By the authority vested in me? Whose bright idea was that? If I answer “the state” I have to question their authority to grant me authority! They don’t even know who I am! If I answer the church, then I wonder how and why the church has granted me this power. Is performing a wedding a civil action or a religious one? Is the simple act of blessing a marriage authoritative enough to make it stick?  “Authority” feels like too great a word for me.
          The word “authority” conveys different things to different people but generally connotes power, right or ability. And today’s gospel text begins with this question posed to Jesus about authority. While the chief priests and scribes question where Jesus’ power comes from, Jesus know their question is misplaced. Jesus has authority because of who he is, not where he’s from.
          For Christians, the words authority and Jesus go together. We confess that we believe Jesus is the Word of God made flesh, and as such has all the power and authority of God. We believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of Man. We trust that God, in Jesus, has redeemed the world and we have faith that God’s judgment for the world rests on the cross of Christ. God, the creator and giver of all things, the one to whom everything in heaven and earth and under the earth belongs, gives Jesus authority. Authority about which Jesus is never squeamish. Jesus is the authority of God incarnate, and has come to take away the sins of the world in God’s merciful act of salvation. To us, Jesus’ authority is obvious. Or is it?
          Do we sometimes question if what the scriptures tell us is true is, in fact, true? They can sometimes be confusing. Do we view the scriptures as the authoritative Word of God or do they simply convey with authority, the character and desire of God? We hope that our trust, our faith, and our believing in Christ is not in vain. We hope that Jesus’ words of forgiveness and redemption are authoritative and absolute. But sometimes, just sometimes, don’t we doubt? What if we’ve got it all wrong?
          It is doubt that reigns whenever we try to take our ultimate redemption into our own hands. It is doubt working when we think through our own understanding and works we might earn our salvation, that if we think the right things and do enough good that we’ll be okay with God.
          There are times when we all wonder if the world might have a point, that it is ridiculous to believe in a virgin birth, and preposterous to think that God would be born as a human baby conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit. We fumble around when we try to explain how God could allow his own Son to die a despicable death on the cross.
          Yes, doubt is a part of our experience, and there are times when we confess with our lips belief in Jesus Christ and his power to save while we still harbor doubt in our hearts that this grace is a reality.
          The chief priests and the scribes of the temple don’t find the authority of Jesus to be obvious. Although Jesus invites them to believe in him, they don’t get it. They don’t understand who Jesus really is, and they don’t understand where he has come from or believe that what he promises is true.
          They try to trip him up by asking Jesus questions, because they don’t trust his word, his authority, or the power he seems to have. Have you ever noticed though, that although Jesus actually gets asked a lot of questions throughout the gospel narratives, Jesus doesn’t give many answers? As is often the case, in the text for today, Jesus answers the religious leaders’ question with a question of his own – and then follows with a parable.
          It helps if we put this story in context.  In the preceding verses of this chapter of the gospel of Matthew, Jesus’ has just made his triumphal entry into Jerusalem while crowds went ahead of him shouting, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!” The text tells us, “when he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was in turmoil asking, ‘Who is this?’”
Not long after, Jesus goes to the temple and drives out all who are selling and buying, and turning this holy place of prayer into what he refers to as a “den of robbers.” The blind and the lame come to him there and are cured and children continue to cry out, “Hosanna to the Son of David.” And the chief priests and the elders of the temple became angry. The leaders of the Jewish community and the Roman officials all became afraid. And who could blame them? Jesus came in and made quite a stir.
The next day, Jesus curses a fig tree and then Jesus speaks to his disciples of the power of faith in his name. The conversation conveyed in the gospel passage today occurs in the time between Jesus’ triumphal entry and his death on the cross.
Jesus has gone to the temple to teach. Here he is approached by these angry temple leaders, who are determined to get rid of him. As I said, Jesus doesn’t just anger them, he frightens them. The rising, significant tension between Jesus and the Jerusalem leadership is coming to a head.
What the leaders don’t understand is that Jesus’ authority is based in who he is, rather than who or what he can prove himself to be. Robert Farrar Capon writes, “This is not something he can justify to their satisfaction. He is asking them to believe in him; they, at best, are trying to decide whether they can find room for him in their minds. And because Jesus knows there is no way of ending such a standoff, he simply contents himself with parrying their thrusts. In the face of their questions, he continually frustrates them by being what he always was, a fox, a rebel, a bad boy who refuses to answer except with questions of his own.” And by so doing, he puts them in a bind.”
There is no good way out of the fix the leadership find themselves in if they answer the question Jesus poses about John the Baptist and they know it, so they say, “We do not know.” And Jesus being Jesus, then tells a parable. Once again, while Jesus doesn’t directly answer any of their questions through the telling of this parable, he does give glimpses of what the kingdom of God is like and how God, and king and ruler of the kingdom, operates.
We have this story of the two sons and as usual, it is not as clear cut as it might at first seem. After describing how the two sons respond to their father when we sends them out into the vineyard, Jesus poses the question about which one did the will of the father. The response he then gives to the leaders’ answer is perplexing at first glance. But as he frequently does through these parables, Jesus gives us much to reflect on regarding God’s salvific love and life in the kingdom of God.
The fact of the matter is that both sons have done something right and both have done something wrong. Both in a sense, have shamed the father, in a culture that is heavily bound by honor and shame. The first son seemed amiable and respectful enough in his first response to his father’s request, but then shamed the father by not keeping his word and not doing what his father asked. The second son said “no” to his father and with that response shamed his father out of the gate. Later, however, he had a change of heart, and did the work asked of him.
Both sons have made the father angry. Both sons need a change of heart. Yet the father still loves them both. The father still reaches out to both. Is either beyond the reach and scope of the father’s love? How does the father judge either son? 
             We hear this text as a parable about judgment. But we see in it that the bad decisions of neither son was able to keep him from his father’s love. As a parable about the Kingdom of God, Jesus promises us here that none of our wrong or right decisions determine our ultimate outcome. God’s grace causes God’s judgment to be borne out on the cross, in Jesus, who takes on all our sin and shame, and promises life to all who believe. Jesus tells the temple leaders “even the tax collectors and prostitutes will enter the kingdom of God ahead of you.” Here again we see the reversals that God in Jesus brings: the first shall be last and the last, first.
          Through our baptism, we are each welcomed in God’s grace. By Christ’s authority we are transformed from sinner to saint, from poor to rich and from beggar to honored guest at the feast of God’s delight.
          We are given the grace to believe, as endless life begins in this kingdom of God, life which cannot be taken away. We are given gifts to work on behalf of the kingdom, but it is never these actions, no matter how noble, that earn us God’s love and mercy. God has already made that determination on behalf of the world. Our doubts don’t condemn us, and our works don’t save us. All who believe have the power to become the children of God, and God, the gracious merciful father has already forgiven us and assured us a place at the table. That, my friends, is very good news indeed.


Monday, September 22, 2014

Scrambled, Over-easy, or Poached?

Matthew 20:1-16 and Jonah 3:10 - 4:11

Our God is indeed gracious and merciful. Our God is slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. Those familiar words and words like them form prayers we repeat throughout our worship, are contained in the texts of the hymns we sing and even frame our liturgy. We lift them up because, aren’t these the things we love about God, the things in our relationship with God for which offer our thanks and praise? Isn’t this the gospel that we yearn to and need to hear – that God is full of mercy; that God loves us; and that God’s grace is bountiful and big enough to forgive all our sins?
While all of that is true, God is all of these things and more, as our scripture texts illustrate this morning, one thing that our God is not, is fair. And somehow, despite all those things that I just listed and all the other attributes of God we could name, deep down inside we want a God who is fair. More to the point, we want a God who is fair as we judge fairness.
            The concept of fairness is important to us. Very early in life we begin to make judgments about what is fair and what is not. And very early in life we begin to push back when the treatment we observe or experience, or when life itself does not meet our expectations and demands of fairness.
I was reminded of this recently. When I visit my son and his family which includes our grandson in Pennsylvania, I usually spend a lot of my time, most of it, in fact, playing with 4 year old Alex. We play all sorts of games. While the other adults are talking, preparing a meal or otherwise engaged, I become this child’s favored playmate – a role I really enjoy.
While I was on a trip up north on business not long ago, however, I decided to stop by to say hi and to load up my car with some things I needed to bring to Easton. I didn’t get to play with Alex that day, despite his repeated requests (which are really more like demands, truth be told) of, “will you play with me now?” My repeated answer was, “I’m afraid not this time, Buddy. Next time I come, we’ll play together again.”
How to explain to a four year old the very real demands of adulthood and limitations of time? As I was preparing to leave, I found Alex sitting on the couch next to his mother. He wasn’t in the mood for a hug or a kiss or a tickle. As I turned and walked away, I heard the lament in his voice as he quietly told his mother, “It’s not fair. It’s just not fair!” Alex was disappointed. He expected Grandma to behave in the way she had always done – as his playmate. I had disappointed his expectations. I had scrambled the usual order of things. We can all probably relate, and empathize with Alex and join his lament at times.
Back in the day when John McEnroe was a big name in the tennis world, I used to love to watch him play, less, to be honest, because of the tennis being played, and more for the entertainment value of those matches. John was known for his firey temper and bad behavior. It was not unusual for fist and voice to raise, feet to stomp, and expletives and tennis rackets to fly when John was displeased. And what set John off the most was what he felt were unfair calls on the part of the umpire or line judge.
As I think about it, what probably attracted my attention and held my interest in these performances was that even though I thought John’s reactions to perceived unfair calls and plays, and his frequent misbehaviors were outrageous, infantile, and even downright shameful, I got it. I understood what it was like to want to flail around protesting what was unfair.
John was only doing, on the public stage, what the inner child in me wants to do when I feel disadvantaged, disillusioned, and frustrated because things don’t go my way and injustice reigns. John’s fury mirrored what I feel deep down inside when someone else gets what should be my rewards, or their rewards are simply out of balance with who they are and what they have done.
When I watched those matches and rooted for John McEnroe, maybe what I was really doing was living out my own protest to the injustices and unfairness in my own life vicariously through John’s antics. “It’s not fair. It’s just not fair!”
Both the story of Jonah and his reaction to God’s mercy toward the city of Nineveh, and again in the gospel text today, we read echoes of this same indignant response to God’s mercy which seems unbalanced and unfair. We see echoes of the gut-level response we might feel when undeserved mercy and grace are shown to those we deem unworthy. And the stories and indignation resonate with us.
In Jonah’s case, God’s grace was dispensed to the city of Nineveh, the capital city of Assyria, detested enemy of the people of Israel. These are not the favored people of God, as Jonah’s people are. These are not decent, peaceful neighbors of the Israelites. Ninevites don’t follow the Law as received and shared by Moses. They are not worthy of God’s notice let alone God’s grace.
Yet, God has chosen to show this city mercy. When they heard God’s word, spoken through Jonah, they repented and mended their evil ways.  Jonah’s reaction was to become angry and morose. It’s bad enough that God issued this merciful reprieve to the city, but the fact that God used Jonah as the vessel through which God’s word was delivered and the city saved is more than Jonah can bear. He would rather die than see this great city of the enemy nation be saved. It’s not fair, LORD. It’s just not fair!
In the gospel lesson, we are confronted with more seemingly unjustifiable mercy. When we read this parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard, our “fairness meter” just goes flat. The story doesn’t seem right. It doesn’t play out the way it is supposed to. The laborers who have worked all day get paid the same wage as those who have worked only an hour? It doesn’t matter that they got paid the wage they agreed to, which they thought sufficient and fair when they were hired. The laborers deem the landowner’s generosity frivolous, and unjust. They should get more! It’s not fair, LORD. It’s just not fair!
Deep down inside we know that this story is consistent with the kingdom of heaven as Jesus has been illustrating it throughout his parables and indeed, throughout his ministry. We should know by now that the generosity of God, which knows no bounds, doesn’t operate in the same way as the world around us. In this parable once again, Jesus is scrambling the usual order of things, and challenging the usual assumptions about who is in and who is out, who is first and who is last, who receives mercy and who does not, who is valued and loved and who is not. In the kingdom of God all who believe are welcome, all are forgiven, all receive grace upon grace. The lesson Jesus imparts may be a tough pill to swallow – unless you hear with a renewed heart and mind.
Eric Barreto, professor at Luther Seminary, says that we hear this text through the lens of our 21st century Western culture, and we interpret it as a parable about fairness in the kingdom of God.
We live in a culture where we are taught from the cradle that hard work will yield just rewards. You have to work hard for what you want. Nothing comes easy. Conversely, the spoken and unspoken lesson that we learn well is that the “have nots” are in dire straights because they have just not tried hard enough, not worked hard enough, not lived well enough to deserve the same kinds of rewards as those of us who have slaved away to earn what we see as our just reward.
Conversely, Barreto says, people of two thirds of the world that is undeveloped, people who live in lands where survival is a struggle, people who live on the fringes, hear in this parable a word of promise and grace. For them, this story is the story of a God who loves so much, whose mercy is so large, whose desire for relationship with the creation is so intense, that it turns the world upside down. For people who are open to receive it, this parable is not about what is fair and not fair. Instead, this parable is a story about a love so strong that it pushes through boundaries and grants the gift of grace to the least, the last, the lost, the little and the lifeless.
God is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love – for all. In baptism we each receive the grace of God that is freely given to all. The truth is, that as Martin Luther wrote, in the presence of God’s mercy, we are all beggars.
Indeed, in the presence of God’s mercy, we are all a mess. God doesn’t give any of us what we deserve. Rather, God gives us what we need. We need God’s grace. We get offended by God’s divine distribution of grace because, my friends, we forget who we are. We forget that we are beggars. We forget that while some of us may clean up better than others and some of us may be better at hiding our sin than others, we are all like the Ninevites, and the last-minute laborers. We all fall short of that to which we are called. We all mess up. We all disobey. We all are utterly dependent on God’s mercy and grace.
But God’s generous gift of grace scrambles our expectations, scrambles the status quo, and scrambles our sense of fairness and justice. God’s gift of grace redeems us all. God’s grace makes forgiveness and reconciliation possible. God’s grace means there is room at the table for each of us, time and time again, no matter where we’ve wandered, no matter who we are.  
          And that, my brothers and sisters in Christ, is a game-changer, because the truth and the good news of this gospel is that God is not fair. Thanks be to God!

Monday, September 15, 2014


John 3:13-17 

          Anyone who has visited my office will see the many crosses that adorn the walls there. They come in an assortment of sizes and styles. Many of them have been given to me as gifts; I have picked others up in my travels. More of my collection are displayed in my home. While I acknowledge that they are decorative, these crosses also hold a particular meaning for me. They come from different places around the world and among other things, remind me of how God unites us through the cross of Christ, in faith, with people of many tongues and races and cultures.
          Most days when I lead worship, I wear a large cross around my neck. In fact, today I am wearing two crosses; this one that you see, and another, smaller one, that I am wearing over my blouse, under this alb. These crosses, too, hold meaning for me. They are a constant reminder of God’s love, poured out for the salvation of the world. In my mind, they mark me as a Christian. They remind me that I am called and claimed by God.
          I wonder how many of you are wearing a cross this morning? How many may not be wearing one now, but own such a cross? How many display this religious symbol somewhere in your homes?
          While many of us do in fact own, display, or wear the cross, we also acknowledge that the cross has become a fairly ubiquitous symbol in our culture. It is used by many in the public domain, where it may be in vogue but seemingly holds little meaning. How do we reconcile this dichotomy?
For those who believe in Christ, the heart of the Christian message is found in the cross…but as Paul points out, the message proclaimed in the cross makes no sense to those of this world.
          For Paul, “the world” refers to the power of sin and death; for Paul, “the world” hates and persecutes the followers of Jesus; “the world” is unable to receive the Spirit of truth; “the world” does not know the Father. “The world” can’t comprehend how this symbol of torture and death could possibly announce victory for our God.
           Yet, God chose this instrument, that which is seen as foolish, to shame those who think they are wise. God chose weakness displayed by a body beaten and broken and left to die on this instrument of torture, to shame the strong. God uses the cross to undermine the powers that be; the powers that enslave the poor, the lowly, the disenfranchised, and the voiceless. God uses this symbol, this cross, to illustrate that human power, riches, wisdom, strength, and glory are not how God reveals himself to the world. Through this cross, God reminds us that life with God is not a story of promised triumphs and victories but a story instead of failure and sin and God’s compassionate forgiveness of our iniquity. This cross is God’s indictment of the world but also God’s ultimate word of redemption, where Christ meets us in our suffering. We, my friends, are people of the cross.
          Why so much talk today about the cross? Why is it important to note that we are people of the cross? Because today, September 14th, is the date on which the Christian church has, since the year 335, celebrated the “Triumph of the Cross.” For it was on this day in 335 that the Church of the Holy Sepulcher was dedicated where tradition holds that Christ actually died. Today is the festival day on which the church exalts, venerates, and celebrates the life-giving cross of Christ through which God defeated the powers of evil and death. It is a day on which we acknowledge the complex combination of darkness and light, violence and peace, death and life that are held in tension on this cross, and we proclaim that in the end, it is Christ’s triumph over sin and death, and his glorious resurrection and ascension that has the last word.
Ultimately, what gives the cross special meaning is not what I think, or what you think or what the church has to say about the cross. What gives the cross meaning, what gives it power as a symbol of our faith, is that God speaks loudly and clearly from the cross, and moves in solidarity with those who suffer, by meeting us on the crossed wooden beams that bore the body of Our Lord, Jesus Christ on Good Friday, giving life to the lifeless, and hope to the hopeless.        
          In our gospel text this morning, we heard words that are usually reserved for Lent, when we are in the midst of our contemplation of the passion of Christ. Yet on this festive day, these words undergird our celebration that the powers of death and the grave give way to life; and not just life, but eternal life. Unending life, given by God at our baptism that beckons to us to live a certain way - the way of the cross, having the same mind as Christ, drawn to God through a love so powerful that its effect is everlasting.
          Verse 16 of the gospel passage is one that many of us know. Perhaps in Sunday school you were even made to memorize it. Perhaps you even learned it in the beautiful language of the King James translation: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.”
          The love described here is not simply an emotional feeling, a quirk of the heart as we often co-opt that word, “love.” Rather, God’s love is a pouring out of compassion. It finds its completeness in the forgiveness of sin. It bestows unending life that has begun through the incarnational love of God; it calls us to living water, it shines with the light of the world, it is demonstrated through the merciful shepherd who tends his sheep, and it is based in the most trusting of covenantal relationships. Remember, my friends that God is all about relationship. We hear those words all of the time. And in the text this morning, we hear that belief is tied to this relationship with God.
In John’s gospel, there is a lot of talk about belief and believing. In fact, some form of that word is repeated 84 times throughout the gospel written by John. For the evangelist, it is paramount that we understand that belief is not only significant, but essential in the life of a follower of Jesus. Belief is not simply an intellectual exercise or way of knowing Christ... it’s a way of being that colors everything we do, a way of being that is relational at its core.
Believing in Christ means being attentive to the fact that God’s will and agency are not made known primarily through glory or success or “blessedness” as the world defines it; God’s will and solidarity in human life is not revealed primarily in the high moments of life. Rather, God’s will and union with all of creation are made known in suffering.
We live true to God’s will when we, in response to God’s compassion and mercy don’t simply “have” love for one another, but “do” love to one another in the same way God has “done” love to us.
God’s active love to us results in unending life, begun in belief and leading to deep, abiding, meaningful relationship with God built on the foundation of the cross. God actively pursues us in love when, in the push and pull of daily life and in our suffering, Christ meets us, lifts us up and holds us close. This is how and why believing in Christ makes a difference in our lives.
Many of us have known the brokenness of failed relationship, addiction, and the reality of all kinds of failure. Many of us have lost or are in the process of losing loved ones. We have known pain, illness and disappointment. We have concerns about our survival, our finances, our mortality. Through the media, we have observed human suffering on a scale that is truly horrifying.
The cross of Christ makes a difference for all of us who, through the challenges of human existence are assured that eternal life as known through the unending presence of God is real. To have eternal life is to be given life as a child of God, as people of the cross, as those who have been sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked with the cross of Christ forever.
It is my hope that when you see or contemplate the cross, you will be reminded of God’s will and agency for a world in need of God’s unending love and mercy. I hope you will endeavor, as Martin Luther advocated, to regularly make the sign of the cross upon your body as a reminder of the one who has claimed and blessed you for a life of faith and love. I hope that when we gather around the table today, you will remember that the body and blood of our Lord, broken and poured out for the forgiveness of sin unites us in relationship with God, with one another, and with the whole world. And I pray that today you remember that such a love transforms us for life defined by God through the victorious cross of Christ. Amen.


Wednesday, September 10, 2014

They'll Know We Are Christians

Matthew 18:15-20
          There is an Irish saying that pertains to relationships of all kinds, and, in the endearing way that such Irish sayings do, cuts to the chase and honestly articulates how we may feel about those who have offended us. Perhaps you’ve heard it before. It goes like this:

May those who love us love us,
and those who do not love us,
may God turn their hearts,
and if He cannot turn their hearts
may He turn their ankles
that we may know them by their limping.
~Irish Prayer 

I think that most of us here today can probably understand that sentiment better than the one that come to us out of the scriptures, that would have us love our enemies, and bless those who curse us. The Irish saying describes the very human reaction and desire that we often have when another person hurts us, and when that person is unrepentant. We simply want the one who offends to receive their “just desserts”, right?
But Jesus’ way is different, as we see in this text. Jesus calls for a response to sin that involves loving the person while still holding individuals and communities of faith responsible for their actions. Jesus offers practical advice to his disciples and by extension, the church, for how we as individuals and as church, should proceed when relationships break down and misconduct results.
First and foremost, Jesus advocates for our speaking with one another rather than to each other, because God is all about relationship. In Jesus’ advice there is room for conversation, compassion, and restoration.
In fact, those are the goals of Jesus’ instruction, for in our gospel text this morning, Jesus’ words give us a picture of one person relating to another with respect, love, and clarity. Matthew writes that if someone sins against us – does something to hurt us, breaks the law as it applies to human relationships – here is what to do:
First, approach that person, and go off by yourselves. Speak with the person in question, in private. Point out what they have done. Whatever the situation, if this approach works and an understanding is reached, and restoration to healthy relationship is achieved, great! You each go on your way. Problem solved. Way to go!
However, if the person resists your attempt to rectify the situation, it is time to call for back-up. So, take another member or two with you. Have the conversation. The witnesses may help bolster your argument, or they may help set you straight if you are in error with what you are saying. Hopefully, together, you will reach an understanding and again, the problem will be solved.
If it is not, hoever, and you follow step three and raise the issue up to the membership of the church and they also demand repentance but the offender does not comply, Jesus says, “let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.” That doesn’t sound good, does it? Gentiles and tax collectors were marginalized – they were outcasts – they were not accepted in the community, they didn’t eat with the members of the community, they were, in a word, shunned. That sounds pretty severe, pretty serious, doesn’t it? It sounds an awful lot like “tough love.”
          Back in 1968, a book entitled “Tough Love” was published. It was written by Bill Milliken who coined the term “tough love” and the concept and phrase have been co-opted by many authors, therapists and others in the years since. Generally speaking, there is an assumption of genuine love or affection toward the one on whom seemingly harsh or “tough” love is employed. Generally speaking, this type of discipline was and is used for individuals who have persistently acted in unwise, dangerous, and irrevocably “sinful” ways – ways that result in the breakdown of trust and relationship, that disregard the well-being of the community or relationships that exist, and demonstrates willful disregard for “the rules”. Tough love is intended for times when other attempts at discipline or bringing the offending individual back into the fold have failed.
But we know that “tough love” has been misused and misappropriated at times, resulting not in loving correction but in abusive situations. For instance while some so-called “boot camps” for troubled teens, appropriately use reward and punishment to achieve positive results, others have used methods to correct their “campers” that have been judged criminal. In some cases, they have even resulted in the death of their subjects. At the very least some have heaped emotionally devastating abuse on vulnerable children and teens.
Frankly, the problem I have with this text, is that we know it too, has been misused both by individuals and in some communities of faith. It, too, has the ability to be used to inflict punishment and pain on individuals rather than restore relationship. Yet we know the God is all about relationship. God desires relationship so much that God became vulnerable for the sake of love. The same God who sent is Son to die on a cross, does not give up on us.
In this chapter and throughout scripture, God relentlessly insists upon forgiveness because God knows who we are, and God knows we need it, that without God’s brand of justice, community is lost. Biblical commentator Thomas Long writes, “Matthew has no romantic illusions about the church He knows that the church is not all sweet thoughts, endlessly patient saints, and cloudless skies. In Matthew’s church, people—no matter how committed, are still people, and stormy weather is always a possible forecast.”
God knows that God’s children are finite human beings, and that we mess things up. We make mistakes. We act in ways that hurt ourselves. We say and do things that hurt other people. Occasionally, our sinfulness disrupts and even destroys community. But restoration to the fold is a primary focus of this chapter and of Jesus’ words.
The same Jesus who advocated forgiving seventy times seven, and who goes off in search of one measly lost sheep, leaving ninety-nine behind to do so cares about each individual, and does not let go of those whom he has claimed as his own. So, while we might focus on and get stuck on the part of this text that deals with apparent banishment, Jesus focuses on loving, on constantly seeking another way to heal broken relationships and forge pathways of reconciliation and restoration. Isn’t that the way of our God?
God is intimately involved and cares about each individual story and our collective story so much that God reaches out, sending forth his son into our human history in such a way so as to bring salvation, healing, and reconciliation. This kind of love is so high, and broad, and deep, that it covers the height of our dreams and our joys; the width and breadth of our experiences; and it reaches into the depths of our discouragement, despair, and even our death. It impacts all our relationships, especially in this community of the Body of Christ.
My brothers and sisters, try as we might, we know that our love is imperfect. We know that we can hold onto resentments forever; sometimes we desire revenge or payback, like knowing our adversaries by their limp! We often withhold forgiveness, and occasionally we even withhold our love from those who hurt us. We often find it easier to talk about someone we have conflict with, rather than with that person. We know that sometimes, even our best attempts to make amends, to set things right, to do the right thing, to be forgiving or loving will fall short. We know that we will fail to be humble in our relationships as Christ is humble.
Friends, may we also know that through Christ we are strengthened and restored to God’s grace, not because of who we are but because of who God is. Our gracious Lord Jesus accompanies us on this journey. In this passage, for the one who resists attempts at restoration, Jesus says, “let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.”
Yet, if you remember the gospel in its entirety, then you know the loving character of God as well. Because didn’t Jesus eat with tax collectors? Didn’t he forgive sinners and heal Gentiles along the way? Didn’t Jesus love even those who rejected him, didn’t he look out for the outcast, the marginalized? Didn’t Jesus in every way seek reconciliation, restoration and redemption – didn’t he always leave the door open for the return of the lost? Didn’t he in fact, seek them out?
God, as Trinity, is always in relationship with us; Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are poised to accompany us as we live out God’s grace and mercy in our relationships, in community.
My friends, may this unfathomable grace of God free us to love fully, remembering and sharing in the promise of God’s grace with and for one another. Let the grace and mercy of Christ wash over us each day as on the day of our baptism, freeing us to let go of resentments, and anger, and hurt. May God’s grace free you to be in the driver’s seat, seeing each other with new eyes, and restoring you to relationships shaped by mercy and love.  

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

How Many Cooks Does It Take?

Romans 12: 9-21
My husband and I love to cook. We love to create recipes and we love to experiment with ingredients, spices and flavors. The results can be – let us say – interesting at times.

When our children were small, we welcomed them in the kitchen, and we would invite them to do what they were developmentally able to do. Early on, that meant they got to squish the cookie dough between their little fingers to get the ingredients mixed in really well, or stirred whatever was in the mixing bowl. Later, they were able to pour in the spices and flour we had pre-measured for them. Later still, they were assigned the task of measuring ingredients themselves before they were added. Ultimately, they learned how to read – and follow, recipes.
In those early days, we taught them how to measure out ingredients, about the difference between a tablespoon and a teaspoon, about how the clear glass measuring cups, the kind with spouts, work best with liquids, and leveling cups work best with dry ingredients. We taught them that when you are baking bread, you had best stick precisely to the recipe. They learned that before “improvising” they really should learn how a perfectly followed recipe should go. They needed to understand certain principals of cooking, baking, roasting or food preparation before they could go do their own thing in the kitchen.
As they grew older, they each developed their own style and preferences when it comes to the art of cooking. And, they too, like to improvise and create. This leads to some pretty comical confrontations in the kitchen when we are all together and each of us is trying to make our contributions to a meal, each, of course, with our own ideas of how things should go.
I’ve learned to steer clear of our youngest son, Patrick, for instance, if I don’t want a dash of the hottest hot sauce available included in my dish. The eldest, Bill, knows that I will add onions and garlic to almost anything, so he, not a fan of onions, keeps certain dishes as far as possible away from me. Our world-traveler Victoria has perhaps the broadest palate of the three due to the various cuisines she has encountered, so she is likely to bring what the rest of us consider strange and exotic ingredients into the mix. Jim likes to surreptitiously add various contributions of spices to any dish; gotta watch out for him!
As I read the text from Paul’s epistle to the Romans this week, I found that this text reads like a recipe. It is a recipe written for a church that was most likely comprised of some primarily Jewish and other primarily Gentile congregations, with some mixed congregations as well; with people who are bringing their own ideas and traditions to the table, in other words; ideas of what this Christian church should look like, how it should function, what it should teach. This church in Rome was one of the earliest Christian churches that formed, and one it seems, Paul has never visited.
From what we are able to glean from Paul’s writing, there were the kinds of tensions, debates, and disagreements about the church’s theology and its mission in Rome you might expect of such a mixed community. And while Paul may have been hoping to visit this church on his journey to spread the gospel message to the west, there is growing, dangerous opposition to the Christian message in the east – in Corinth and Judea. So, he’s not sure he’ll ever make it there. Therefore, he wants to record a thorough exposition of the gospel message as possible for this church, that it might become united as one body, the Body of Christ in Rome.
As we have seen in our brief sojourn through Romans the past couple of months, Paul writes passionately of the grand story of salvation and redemption, and the new life that comes from God through Jesus Christ. He confesses throughout these pages, who Christ is, how through Christ the grace of God is revealed, and that through the cross of Christ new life transforms all believers, no matter who they are or where they are from. The foundation of this new life is love. Love is at the core of all that God has done for humankind. Earlier, in Romans 5:8, Paul notes that “God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” Later, in Romans 8:35-39, Paul reassures readers that “nothing in all creation can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (39)
Life in Christ is marked by love, and Christ-like love points us to specific behaviors, understandings and way of being that set Christians apart from “the world” – “the world” being Paul’s way of naming the forces of sin and evil. In fact, in the verses just before those we read today, Paul speaks of this reality. He writes, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God.” In those verses, Paul then invites the community to see and treat one another as equals – each with specific gifts – that together make up the Body of Christ – one body with many members, though individually members of “one another.”
And so, in our text today, Paul offers up a recipe for living in loving community and in this new life, begun in Jesus Christ.
First, in equal measure combine these things without substitution; heartfelt love; hatred of evil; love of good; mutual affection; eagerness to show one another honor;  passionate Spiritedness; service to the Lord.
Add to these, rejoicing in hope; patience in suffering; devotion in prayer; participation in the needs of the saints; hospitality to strangers.
Finally comes the instruction for how to use and combine these ingredients: Bless those who persecute you, rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another.
Sift in ample wisdom in how you present yourselves. Stir in relationships that are marked by peace; promote peace by your actions. Give of your own resources for the material needs of the poor, like food, clothing, and shelter, and finally, feed, give drink and care for your enemies. Avoid being overcome by evil, but instead overcome evil with good.
In Paul’s letter, as he lists these things, he employs the imperative voice some 30 times. Good gravy, he’s bossy! The imperative voice is the voice of command. In other words, he is saying, “in order to live this new life in Christ, Christians must do these things.”
Yet these aren’t quite the top-down orders that they might seem to be. Because the truth is, as John writes in 1 John 4:19, “We love because he first loved us.” The truth is that, transformed by the love of God we are compelled by new life in Christ to do these things. This new life frees us to love as Christ loved. Being loved by God compels us to seek the good of our brother and sister, compels us to seek peaceful resolution to conflict in all our relationships, compels us to live life in community that is patterned after the life of the crucified and risen Christ.
We can see these words of Paul’s to the Romans as a window into what life in Christ looks like in community, in real time. It is recipe that can guide us in the principles and foundation of behavior for community that lives out its mission in Christian witness. As God shapes the shared life of the saints, that life is characterized by genuine, heartfelt love.
Yet, we know that following this recipe is not always easy. We are broken in ways that influence our choices and interactions. We have our own ideas of how to be in relationship, ideas of how to react when we are hurt, we have developed our own patterns of behavior that guide interactions with strangers, with those we see as being against us, with those whose ideas don’t gel with ours.
What happens in community when relationships break down? When my way of doing things conflicts with yours? When feelings get hurt, when disagreements threaten the common good? And what do we do when evil wends its way into community and destroys peace, as evil will do?
Paul tells us, go back to the basics found in this recipe. Love what is good. Overcome evil with good. Never avenge yourselves but leave room for the wrath of God. The honest struggle we have with parts of this text is, frankly, part of the journey of discipleship, requiring sometimes that we die to ourselves and our own understanding of what is “good” and let God be God. Freed from the need to seek retribution or give payback for slights or prove that our way of cooking is the right way of cooking, we can get back to the business of showing one another honor, promoting peace, and living in harmony with one another.
Through baptism, the Spirit invites us into community that is both life giving and life affirming, whose generosity extends beyond the immediate community to others, both saints and strangers. Finding a way of peace means bearing the cross of Christ, and giving up our need for control. It doesn’t endorse playing along with abuses that arise in dysfunctional relationships or playing nicely with those who do evil. What is does call us to do is to pattern our lives after Christ.
Like the creativity and improvisation that meets each engagement in the kitchen of my family, we each have things to share to spice up this recipe called church. We may not always agree with the other cooks in this kitchen, but in love and care for the community, we create space for other people. We follow the principles laid out for us by Jesus. The foundational ingredients still stand. Love, patience, generosity, humility, forgiveness, hope, prayer, and hospitality.
That’s what God, in Christ, calls and empowers us to do.