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Tuesday, September 26 2017
Vicar David Sivecz
Matthew 20:1-16 “Praise God for Unfairness”
One of my favorite television shows is the “Big Bang Theory”. Even though it’s been on for years I didn’t know much about this show until four years ago while I was interning at the Georgia Tech United Methodist Campus Ministry in Atlanta. Let me share with you that students who go to Georgia Tech primarily become Engineers, Mathematicians, and other Scientists. In other words, the university is made up of a bunch of geniuses. So, when I asked them if they’ve seen the “Big Band Theory” I will never forget what happened. They all looked at me with blank stares on their faces, and then one of them said, “It’s kind of like part of our freshmen orientation.”
So, if you’ve never heard of the show it is primarily centered on seven characters living in Pasadena, California. The two main characters Leonard and Sheldon are roommates and physicists at Caltech University. They have two similarly geeky and socially awkward friends and co-workers; an aerospace engineer named Howard and an astrophysicist named Raj.
Over time, two more highly intellectual characters make their appearances. The first was a microbiologist named Bernadette, who became Howard's wife. The second was a neuroscientist named Amy Farrah Fowler, who became Sheldon’s girlfriend. Lastly, there’s Penny. She’s not an intellectual; rather she’s a waitress and an aspiring actress who just so happened to live across the hall from Leonard and Sheldon. Combining the geekiness and intellect of the six intellectuals with Penny's social skills and common sense makes for a comedic effect.
Throughout the series there is a running joke that the most eccentric character, Sheldon, and his idiosyncrasies dictated the lives of the other characters. For seasons the rest of them put up with him determining what food they would eat on what day, dealing was his brash criticisms, and his constant reminders not to sit in his “spot”. His idiosyncrasies are so bad that when he wants to see Penny, he knocks on her door three times.
In one episode Penny and the three guys decide to throw Leonard a birthday party. Of course, as one might suspect, Sheldon wasn’t too thrilled. Then they proceeded to explain to Sheldon that he needed to buy Leonard a gift. This just irked Sheldon in the wrong way.
So, he went on one of his rants, which I find logically sound. As he explained, “The entire institution of gift giving makes no sense. Let's say that I go out, and I spent 50 dollars on you, it's a laborious activity because I have to imagine what you need, whereas you know what you need. Now I could simplify things, just give you the 50 dollars directly, and you could give me 50 dollars on my birthday, and so on, until one of us dies, leaving the other one old and 50 dollars richer. And I ask, is it worth it?”
Is it worth it? Is gift giving really worth it? I’m sure when we think of “gift giving” we often believe we are being generous. We are generous with our money. We are generous with our time. We are generous in thinking about the other person. To be generous means that we come from a sense of love.
Yet in reality, whether we realize it or not, how often do we follow Sheldon Cooper’s train of thought? Instead of being generous, how often do we view gift giving as an act of currency exchange or record keeping. We set a dollar amount that’s appropriate for giving a gift, then make exchanges. Or, if we give a gift we expect at minimum a thank you note. There’s always some form of expected reciprocation.
But our ability to keep records just doesn’t stop at gift giving. Think about how often we count every slighted or injury someone has done to us? Or, how many times do we keep track of every time our children or parent disappoints us? Or, how often do we hold onto the opportunities lost at work? It’s our innate nature to tally, or to log, every hurt we’ve experienced at the hands of those around us. We do this so we can keep a record of our grievances and expect reparations. We do this so we can even the playing field. We do this so everything comes out to be fair.
We live by the understanding that everything should be fair. Although most of us, if not all of us, have been told life is not fair, we still live by this belief or system. We expect fairness when it comes to exchanging gifts or opportunities. We especially expect fairness when it comes to money. It’s only fair to get educated, work hard, and be successful.
Perhaps we want everything to be fair because we are so concerned with our own wants and needs. Even in Jesus’ day people wanted everything to be as fair as possible. They also wanted to know their needs and wants were taken care of first.
Before the parable, we would hear Jesus encounter a man who asked what he had to do to have life. In other words, he was asking if he was being treated fairly. So, Jesus asked him if he kept the commandments and the man said yes. Then Jesus told him to sell everything he had, give the money to the poor, and follow him. The man left grieving because he had many possessions and it was unfair that he had to give everything away.
When Peter heard this he was disturbed. He even told Jesus that he left everything to follow him. He had done everything that Jesus asked him but still had difficulty understanding how unfair Jesus was being.
That’s what Jesus was trying to do in the parable he shared. That’s why parables can be so frustrating. They completely change our assumptions about the way God sees what’s fair. Parables upset us, especially this one, because it pushes us away from focusing on our own understanding of fairness, challenges how we understand the fairness of God’s love.
We forget that those laborers who were hired last were also searching for work. People didn’t have contracts. Instead, they searched for work every day. Each person who went out to be hired was just looking for enough to feed their family. In modern day terms, it’s as though they were living paycheck to paycheck. At the end of their shift, they would get paid and then do the same thing the next day.
Sometimes they didn’t get hired and would go home empty-handed. Let’s not forget there wasn’t any social security or welfare. So to be hired at the end of the day, even if it was for an hour, imagine just the profound joy the laborers would’ve experienced. They presumed that they would get paid what was fair. It might not have been for a whole day but it was something.
As we heard at the end of the parable when it came time for the landowner to pay everyone he started with the last. He could’ve easily started with the first. If he did they wouldn’t have known how much the others were paid, but he didn’t. When the people who were hired first heard how much those who were hired last were paid they assumed they would get paid what was fair. They did more work so they would get paid more. It makes sense to us. They were probably overjoyed on how much they would make.
But, soon their expectations were turned upside down when their assumption didn’t happen. Then they began to start to compare themselves to the rest of the laborers. They started to get insecure. How often do we become insecure when we compare ourselves to others?
Think about how we might be content in our relationships but wonder if the couple just down the street is happier. Or, we feel good about our grades until we hear about the classmate who has aced all his or her classes. Or, we might enjoy the car we drive until we see a neighbor with a nicer or newer one. There are plenty of places where we compare ourselves to other people.
I’m not any different when it comes to comparing myself to others, especially with people who are in a similar life stage. I’ve seen how classmates of mine are being called to congregations. It only took them four years of seminary training, while I’m going into my ninth year. Instead of looking at all the experiences I’ve had, the relationships I’ve made, the education I’ve received, I end up comparing myself to someone else.
That’s one of the reasons I don’t really use social media anymore. It’s been about a decade since I last had a Facebook profile. Now, I have to explicitly state I’m not trying to discredit social media. It’s a way to connect with long lost friends and family that are across the country and inform people about events. Many of us use it more than making a phone call, text, or even email. It can be a helpful tool.
However, over the course of the last few months, I’ve read articles about how social media can be a cause for anxiety and depression. Since we’ve become more connected through Facebook, Snapchat, or Instagram, it’s easier to compare ourselves to others than ever before. When many of us look at other people’s posts we might feel like our life isn’t together. We don’t have similar accomplishments or our lives aren’t as exciting. I once told four friends that social media is, “A place where people can post to boast.” Three of the four them said it wasn’t funny. The other person understood the sentiment and realized that what I meant was it’s a way for us to compare ourselves to others.
Unfortunately, when we become insecure and compare ourselves to others we focus on what we don’t have. We focus and operate out of scarcity. When we act out of scarcity we focus on how unfair we are being treated. We focus on only ourselves. It goes back to that unholy trinity of “Me, Myself, and I.”
Although I try to eliminate areas where I might compare myself to others there are times where I can’t avoid it. One time I discovered something that was truly painful. As I normally do, I reached out to some close friends for support. Each of them said they were sorry for my pain. Except for a mentor/friend of mine. What he said was like adding fuel to fire. All he said was, “Nice.” I was flabbergasted. How could he say such a thing? I’m in such pain yet he was happy.
So I asked him why he said that. He said that I should be happy that the other person gets to experience that joy. I was so wrapped up in my own pain, my own comparison, that I didn’t want to hear what he said. I was so into myself that it hurt to think about rejoicing for the other person. Yet the more I thought about the other person the more it hurt. That, by definition, was literally “hell on earth.” I couldn’t be grateful for the people who listened. I couldn’t be grateful for being home. I couldn’t be grateful that someone else was happy. All I was doing was reacting out of what I didn’t have, or out of scarcity.
You see, God, like the landowner, doesn’t operate out of scarcity; rather God operates out of an abundance. Not an abundance of money but an abundance of love. This is so counter to our culture. Let’s face it, our culture, our standards, are based on self-interest. Our scarcity creates a hierarchy in which some people are better than others. Our standards, our understanding of fairness, doesn’t take into consideration God’s gracious will.
Because if God was truly fair, according to our standard, we would endure the pain of our sins, of our broken relationships, of being separated from God and one another. We, who have sinned, have been selfish, have acted out of self-interest, would pay the price for everything. Fortunately, the way God see’s what’s fair and righteous is different from how we see what’s fair and righteous.
As a result, God’s abundant gracious love surpasses and transcends our standards. So, we can be grateful for the blessings that we’ve received. It means we get to be joyful for what God has given us. It even means that we get to rejoice that others receive blessings from God. I know it not easy. It’s difficult to rejoice when we feel we’ve been treated unfairly. But, that unfairness is the same unfairness God chose for us to mend our relationships on the cross. That unfairness is the same unfairness God chose to bring us everlasting abundant life. For that, we should praise God for being unfair.
Monday, September 18 2017
Pastor John Ortberg tells a humorous story about an umpire in a softball league in Colorado. One day, during the off season, this unfortunate umpire got stopped by a police officer for speeding. He pleaded for mercy. He explained to the policeman that he was a good driver and told why this particular day he had to be in a hurry.
The officer didn’t buy his argument. “Tell it to the judge,” he said.
When softball season rolled around, the umpire was umping his first game. Guess who was the first batter to the plate? It was the same police officer who ticketed the umpire for speeding. They recognized each other. It was awkward for the officer.
“So, how did the thing with the ticket go?” the officer asked as he prepared to swing at the first pitch.
With a menacing look on his face the umpire replied, “You better swing at everything.”
You’ve heard it said that revenge can be sweet? Well, it sounds like that umpire was all set to get his revenge, by calling every pitch a strike! You’ve also heard it said that those who laugh last laugh best. Boy, I cringe when I hear people say that. Another saying that I cringe when I hear is this, “I don’t get mad, I get even.”
Hey! Any one of those can be responses to someone who has hurt us, or done us wrong. Those certainly are choices we can make. But are they the right choices? Will they really make us feel better? Maybe. But not likely.
I’m going to cut to the chase and tell you that these choices – getting revenge – getting even – holding a grudge –they don’t really satisfy at all. There’s only one choice that works – and that is the choice that we by nature – most often – turn to last. And that choice is – forgiveness.
Now, you already knew that I was going to say that. Since this is church, and I am a pastor – you already knew that. But sometimes, it’s so hard to do. We’d rather hold a grudge. We’d rather get even.
And that feels good, doesn’t it! Yeah – maybe! But let me tell you – in the long run – it doesn’t work.
So – how do you forgive someone who has hurt you? How do you overcome the pain and the hurt – and reconcile with someone who has done you wrong? That is what our lesson for today is about. How DO we go about forgiving – when forgiving can be so very hard to do?
Let me tell you how. First it’s a choice. Then it’s a process. First it’s a choice. Then it’s a process.
I have to confess that I used to think that if we are to forgive, we must also forget. I have come to change my mind about that. No. I would say that forgiveness does not mean forgetting. So forgiveness does not mean, “Ah, forget it. No big deal.” Well, yeah, maybe it was a big deal! Neither does forgiveness mean, “Hey! It’s okay man. It’s okay.” No.
Forgiveness says, “I’m okay. I don’t know if you’re okay or not with what you said or what you did. I’m going to leave that between you and the Lord. But I’m no longer holding a grudge, nor do I want to get even.”
That’s not easy to do. So when we do forgive – or when we are in the process of forgiving – just where does that ability – that desire – that power to forgive come from? Let me suggest that it comes from God. Would you agree with me with that? The power to forgive comes from God.
Think about it. How else do you explain the forgiveness that the Amish community showed to the killer of five of their schoolchildren back in 2006? Do you remember that? Or more recently – the shooting at Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina. The families of the victims openly declared their forgiveness of the man who killed their loved ones. Amazing! Where did – where does – the strength and the courage – AND the love – come from that enabled these grieving family members to forgive? The power to forgive comes from God.
Let me tell you something about this God who gives us the power to forgive. One of the chief characteristics of the God whom we serve and worship is that He is a God who forgives. In fact God wants to forgive – He is anxious to forgive your sins. AND He wants you to know that your sins are forgiven. And that’s why every weekend – at the beginning of every worship service – you hear me or Vicar Dave say to you – on behalf of God – that your sins are forgiven.
AND remember that YOUR forgiveness comes at a cost. It’s not just a waving of the hand, and God saying, “Ah, forget it.” No. YOUR forgiveness cost God something. It cost God the life of His Son Jesus. Forgiveness is something that we want. It is something that we need. It is something that we gladly accept. But please realize, that your forgiveness has come at great cost.
Now here’s the problem. Today’s reading tells us what the problem is in the parable about the unforgiving servant. Here’s a man who had been forgiven a ridiculously large debt by his master – who then refuses to forgive a fellow servant who owed him not so much. And because of the servant’s unwillingness to forgive after he himself had been forgiven much – well – it doesn’t end up well for that servant. The clear meaning is that God has forgiven you much – in fact, God forgives you everything. And the implied therefore is this. Therefore – since God has forgiven you everything – God’s great desire is that we learn to forgive a brother or a sister from the heart – the same way that God has already forgiven us.
Or – as we pray in the Lord’s prayer – “Forgive us our trespasses – our sins – as we forgive those who trespass – or sin – against us.” Last year when we had the sermon series on the Lord’s Prayer, you heard me say this. In fact, you hear me say this quite often. The Lord’s Prayer is a dangerous prayer to pray. Are you ready to pray that prayer? To ask God to forgive you the same way you forgive others?
Having said that, let me repeat that I know that forgiveness is not always easy. But it is the best choice to make among the others that focus on revenge, or holding a grudge for the rest of your life. So first it is a choice, and then it is a process. Sometimes – quite often in fact – it takes time – maybe even years. When Jesus told Peter to forgive 77 times – and some translations suggest Jesus said 70 X 7, or 490 times – either way – Jesus did not mean literally 77 or even 490 times. Listen! Jesus isn’t standing there counting. “1,2,3,4,5,6,7…77…490. Ok. Now you’re done.” No. What he’s telling us is this. “You are forgiven. Now, you also must forgive. No matter how many times it takes. No matter how long it takes.” First you make the choice. Then you turn it into a process.
Let me tell you something. Even though forgiveness sometimes with some people seems to be an impossible thing to do, I want you to know that it is still possible. Even when it takes a long time.
And I know that some of you are struggling with a situation where someone’s done you wrong – or hurt someone you love – and you’ve not yet been able to forgive them – YET! Well, if that’s where you’re at today – let me tell you something else. Not only is forgiveness possible, it is highly desirable. And let me tell you why.
You see, here’s the problem. Who are you hurting when you refuse to forgive? You know the answer to that, don’t you! You’re hurting yourself. What happens when you say you can’t forgive? You’re rehearsing – you’re reliving – that pain, that hurt, that resentment over and over again. And you certainly are NOT hurting the one who hurt you when you don’t forgive – or darn it – when you absolutely REFUSE to forgive. You’re only hurting yourself. And unless you are a person who likes to torture yourself like that – then let it go. It’s over. Let it go. Why do you want to relive those feelings of resentment and anger – over and over again?
So you see what Jesus is saying? Jesus recommends forgiveness because forgiveness is good – for you! Not just for the person who needs to be forgiven, but for you.
Listen! Study after study after study show that there is a link between forgiveness and better health. How about that! Better health through forgiving!
- When we hold a grudge – or refuse to forgive – bitterness and resentment build up like toxins – like poisons – in your body. So you get a physical benefit to your health when you forgive by letting go of those toxic feelings.
- There is a psychological benefit. People with angry, bitter thoughts – become angry, bitter people. If that’s the kind of person you want to be – if you’re happy being bitter and angry – then by all means. Go for it. Refuse to forgive.
- Listen! Forgiveness is the only power which can stop those recurring, painful memories.
- And quite frankly – when we forgive from the heart – there is a real good chance that the relationship that has been broken will be restored. Good chance of that happening.
I don’t know if four out of five doctors recommend this or not. Probably five out of five. Anyway, I am here to tell you that forgiveness is a key to a healthy mind and heart, as well as for the relationship you have with that other person. Forgive someone who has done you wrong and maybe you’ll sleep better at night. Forgive yourself and maybe you’ll sleep better at night. Forgiveness is the best thing you can do for your body and your soul. Now – you just think about that for a while.
The key to understanding what it means to forgive is to remember that God in Jesus Christ has already forgiven you.
So you’ve been forgiven. By God – you’ve been forgiven! And you probably even know what it’s like to be forgiven by somebody else! It’s what we all need.
I want you to know that you are forgiven. By the grace of God – you are forgiven. The most powerful recognition that we have been touched by the presence and the power of God’s grace – God’s undeserved love and favor in our lives – is the ability – the power – the desire – the choice – to forgive others.
How do we forgive? First it’s a choice. Then it’s a process. So – try praying for that person who has hurt you. After all – you hear me say this all the time – after all, you cannot stay mad at someone for long for whom you are praying. Well – as long as you’re praying the right way.
That’s forgiveness. First it’s a choice. Then it’s a process – a process that includes giving to that other person the same grace that God has already given you.
Wednesday, September 13 2017
Vicar David Sivecz
Matthew 18:15-20 “Renewed in Reconciled Relationships”
There were so many people. We were there to witness this glorious moment. As family, friends, and church members waited in the sanctuary, the choir, acolytes, twenty pastors and two bishops lined up in the hallway ready to proceed in. I could feel the presence of Christ as everyone just waited with anticipation. After we did the confession and forgiveness, it began - the opening hymn.
Now, I’ve heard from some people say that Lutherans are not the most expressive people during worship. We don’t raise our hands. We don’t clap. We don’t shout “Amen”. I’m happy to see a smile or hear a laugh. But if those same people were there their minds would’ve been changed.
From the top of everyone’s lungs, the whole congregation sang. Not a single person held back as they sang in melody. With each verse, the song got louder and louder. No one could resist singing with such joy. It sounded like a choir of angels. It sounded like the gates of heaven were opening. If there was ever a moment when a person could feel the presence of Christ - it was then. It wasn’t manufactured. It wasn’t fake. It was authentic.
That’s what I got to experience last Saturday when I was in Chattanooga, Tennessee. I saw my friend, Chris, finally become ordained in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. After years of preparation, studying, and training he finally became a pastor. It’s one of those moments a pastor doesn’t forget. They get to feel the presence of Christ.
Nothing went wrong. In that moment the church, the community of believers, was everything Christ wanted. One couldn’t help but feel the joy and excitement especially when it came to the sermon. The visiting pastor shared my friend's incredible journey. Then, right in the middle, he said something that shocked everyone. He looked at my friend and said, “Chris, you will be a great pastor… except when you’re not.”
In the middle of this joyous day, it was a bit of a cold water treatment. It brought all of us back to reality. It reminded us that being a pastor, being a Christian, being the church is not always perfect. As a matter of fact, conflicts arise, disagreements occur, furthermore people - both outside and even inside the church - hurt each other.
For as much as we don’t like it, or want to deny it, conflicts happen. Jesus, in Matthew’s Gospel, knew it. He anticipated it. He expected conflicts among the disciples. So, we hear Jesus offer some instructions. However, these instructions really bother me. Perhaps it bothers some of you.
First, I hate being wrong. Those are strong words. But I can’t stand it. Being wrong means I’m either incompetent, ignorant, or inexperienced. I feel this brings into question my character, integrity, and knowledge. So, I will do everything in my power to make sure I learn everything, which isn’t possible.
Second, the reason why this Gospel bothers me is that it’s often taken as a neat little formula for confronting someone who is wrong. The only thing I dislike more than being wrong is when someone points it out. Sometimes others do this for my sake. They care enough to point out a mistake, misinformation, or miseducation. Regardless, I feel humiliated when someone approaches and tells me. Just to save face, I will listen as best I can, then go do research to prove the other person wrong. It’s as though the unholy Trinity comes out. It’s all about “me, myself, and I.”
Other times others will use this formula as a legalistic way to keep people, such as myself, in line. It’s pretty simple. If someone offends you, confront them. If that doesn’t work, try an intervention. If that fails, cut them off and kick them out. Perhaps this has happened to you or someone you know.
I will admit this is what happened to me when I was part of an intentional community long ago. An intentional community is where a group of people, anywhere from five to fifteen, live together in a house or apartment. We ate together, prayed together, worshipped together, served together and confided in each other. As part of our convent, or contract, this passage was brought in as a way to resolve a conflict.
It might sound great in theory, but there is one important variable we missed - the people. People come from different experiences, backgrounds, and cultures. In other words, when people are involved we have to deal with relationships. That’s what Jesus was getting to in Matthew’s Gospel. Jesus wasn’t giving us a simple set of instructions to deal with problems; rather he was giving us a guide to building relationships.
Relationships aren’t like other aspects of our lives. We can’t simply control them like our money, our school work, our jobs, or our homes. Although we can establish rules and regulations for those areas, we can’t in our relationships. Instead, our relationships involve giving of one’s time, being attentive, and focused. This is so counter to our culture. Often we might say that we don’t have the time, or we are just too busy. Basically, it means that our relationships aren’t a priority or important.
That’s third reason why this Scripture passage bothers me. It’s so much easier to blame someone else for our mistakes rather than meet face-to-face. It’s easier to air out our grievances on social media, than to ask for help resolving a conflict. It’s easier to tell everyone else about our disputes and pass judgments than to have a discussion. I will confess that I’ve taken the easy way out at times.
It’s a more difficult path because that means we are giving up power. But we can’t forget that the power isn’t in our hands. As Matthew writes, “Wherever two or more are gathered in (Christ’s) name (he is) present.” So, the power is actually in Christ’s hands. Christ is also there guiding, helping, and healing us; instead of trying to pressure or control others. Christ is there to give us the strength to reconcile, or restore, the relationship that we or someone else has broken.
You're probably wondering, “That’s all great Vicar David, but what do we do when we’ve done everything possible to mend the relationship.” “What do we do when the other person is stubborn and refuses to listen to us?” “Or, what if the impartial third party or group help can’t help mend the brokenness?” “Or, what do we do when all options are exhausted?”
The very last option, “Is to go back to square one.” If all else fails, that last option is to part ways. We continue to be open, welcoming, and listen to the way we would with people we don’t know. We continue to reach out, as Jesus said, to the tax collectors and Gentiles. This might be the healthiest option. We part ways and trust that God will restore us or the other person in another community.
Just because we part ways doesn’t mean we wish the other person ill will or pain. We can continue to pray, think about it, and be reconciled to others from afar. It might be with that distance when we or the other person has had time and space to reflect. Sometimes it’s within another community where we, or they, will receive impartial insight. This is only capable because Christ is with us. It’s only capable to restore broken relationships because Christ is present. But how far are we willing to go to bring about reconciliation?
This is what Ian experienced one day when he was walking down the street. Ian, a young college student, saw in a glistening window a sign that read, “The Church of the Second Chance.” He almost kept walking, but the music he heard stopped him.
He quietly entered the church, and slipped into a back pew, hoping not to draw too much attention to himself. After the service was over, the pastor, Pastor Emmett, saw him and introduced himself to Ian. As they talked, all the emotions Ian had been holding inside the past few weeks flooded to the surface. He began to confess to Pastor Emmett.
“What’s wrong, Ian,” Pastor Emmett asked? “Everything has happened so quickly,” Ian said. “It started when I told my brother his wife was cheating on him. And then later that night…he drove into a wall. Then a few days later his wife overdosed on sleeping pills. I helped cause that too. I guess I shouldn’t have told him. But I was really mad. I was babysitting for them and they made me miss a really important date with my girlfriend.”
“Now I’m not even sure she was cheating on him. It looks as if my parents are going to have to raise the children. My sister’s busy with her own kids and I’m away at college most of the time. I don’t think they're up to it. I don’t think anyone will ever be the same after this. I’ve prayed to God for forgiveness. I believe it worked although I didn’t get an answer in plain English. The problem is I just don’t feel forgiven.”
“Ian,” Pastor Emmett said, “You can’t just say, ‘I’m sorry, God.” “Why anyone could do that much. You have to offer reparation. Jesus helps us do what we can’t undo. I know you won’t be able to speak to your brother and his wife, but you, for instance, could begin by raising the children.”
“What?! Raise the children,” Ian exclaimed, “But I’m only a freshman and at college? “Perhaps you should drop out.” “Drop out? Is this some kind of test?” “Ian, I know it’s not that simple. But God does want to know how far you’ll go to undo the harm you’ve done.
“Wait! That’s crazy to give up my education and take on a bunch of kids! I’m nineteen years old! What kind of religion is this,” Ian yell?! It’s the religion of forgiveness and reconciliation.
After this Ian went to his parents and explained what he planned to do. They were skeptical, they didn’t want him to drop out of college, and more importantly, they believed he was an upstanding person.
“Look, I’m not doing this to you! It’s something I have to do for myself… to show I’m forgiven to restore my relationship with my brother and his wife.”
Ian had thought there would be questions. But they just sat silently, starring at him. After a while Ian rose awkwardly and left the table. So, to support his new family, Ian became a cabinetmaker. Theologian Stanley Hauerwas, who mentioned this story, reminds us that this career choice is no coincidence. Forgiveness and reconciliation are just like cabinetmaking — they are practices that must be learned slowly and take time.
Being in relationships is difficult. They are learned slowly and take time. It’s hard work to build relationships with our classmates, spouses, friends, or co-workers. We are surrounded by so many challenges in our lives; whether it’s hurricanes to displays of hate, from injustice to intolerance. It’s inevitable that we miss the mark, break our relationships, or sin.
But relationships are worth it. It’s within those relationships where we can share our needs, pain, and hurt. It’s within those relationships where we are able to rely upon each other. This what we as the church can be for the world. This what our communities, our country, our world need. Our society needs reconcilers, menders, or bridge builders. Our world is in need of not us picking sides but to work for the good of all people.
Most importantly, we are not alone in taking on this difficult task. God equips us and is with us. God gives us courage to approach our neighbor face to face. God opens our eyes to their needs. God provides us with the patience and strength when we grow weary.
The only reason we are able to do this is because God intimately gets involved in our lives by coming to us in the flesh through Jesus Christ. Even when we break the relationship; God doesn’t void it. It’s God who loves us so much that God reconcile God’s self to us. That’s the relationship that God, through Jesus Christ, has with all of us.
This is where we get to experience the presence of Christ Jesus. Christ isn’t just in the fanfare of joyous moments and good times. God is with us in the flesh when relationships are reconciled or mended. God is with us in challenges. God is with us as we continually attempt to mend brokenness. And God is with us from now until the end of the age.
Wednesday, September 06 2017
Matthew 16:21-28; Romans 12:9-21
Our reading today from Matthew’s gospel is probably not on anyone’s top ten list of favorite Bible passages. Although – maybe it should be. Not because we like it necessarily. Quite frankly – I don’t think we really do. It’s not a message we necessarily like to hear.
I mean, think about it. Suppose I were to come up to you – and let’s pretend that you had never heard about Zion Lutheran Church, but you were curious to learn more about that red brick church at the corner of Clarence Center Road and Elm.
You might say to me, “Hey! You’re that pastor at the Lutheran church in Clarence Center, aren’t you?”
“Yes, that’s me.”
“Well, I’ve heard that you’ve been there since, like, forever.”
“Well, yes, I’ve been there…”
“Hey, what can you tell me about your church?”
And then I would start telling you about worship – and the wonderful musicians we have – and the preaching’s not too bad either – and our Sunday School and youth ministries – and the great staff – oh, and the people who are here – just wonderful people – and our coffee house – state of the art coffee house – and just what a wonderful place Zion is. Eventually I would follow up with, “Come check us out sometime. I think you’ll like it here.”
Well, that sounds like a pretty good sales pitch, don’t you think? And yet, if that’s all I had to say – I would be leaving out one very important thing.
Edward F. Markquart says, “…information about a congregation is presented in such a way as to persuade people to join our congregation. … All the while, no one seems to talk about the fine print as to what this will cost. No, I am not referring to offerings to pay the bills, but what it means to be a Christian, to be a follower of Jesus Christ - what's it going to COST to follow Jesus?”
What do you think? What if I were to tell the truth. What if I were to throw in something like this, “Come and visit us at Zion, and we’ll show you how to live a life of self-denial.”
“Yeah, come worship with us awhile, and we’ll show you what it means to deny yourself, and carry a cross and follow Jesus.”
Would you want to attend – or even join – church like that?
Silence. Come on. Would you?
And yet – this is exactly what Jesus is calling us to. I told you today’s gospel reading is not anyone’s favorite. It’s not one that we would choose to focus on if we had a choice.
Let me tell you – it’s tough to preach on this too. And let me tell you why. Our American society discourages this kind of thinking. Self-denial? You gotta be kidding. It’s all about me, bro! We live in a “Me first,” society, wouldn’t you agree? It’s all about me! Maybe you know some people who – although they may not say this about themselves – but by their words and actions – live their lives as though it is all about them.
It’s all about me explains why road rage happens. It explains why some people will fight over a parking space. I’ve gotta have my way. I’ve gotta win. I’ve gotta be right.
Hey, listen! The sooner we get over that I’ve gotta win, or I’ve gotta be right attitude – the happier you will be. Need proof? Early in my marriage to Nancy – we played that “I gotta be right – I gotta win game.” We didn’t know that that’s the game we were playing. But, as time went by, I realized I was doing less of that – and so was Nancy. And you know what happened? Our marriage – which has always been good except for a few bumps in the road here and there – got even better. Of course – it really got better once the last of our kids left the house. But once I realized – once we both realized – that this marriage wasn’t about me – it wasn’t about Nancy – well – it was a real eye opener. And when couples come to me wanting to get married – I make sure to tell them, “the sooner you get over the need to win and the need to be right, the better your marriage will be.”
Why? And this is entirely counter intuitive – I know – but it’s because you are no longer making everything all about you. It’s not easy. I’m not saying it is. We still have a tendency to look out for our own interests. But the happiest people I know are those who have learned – and people who are STILL learning – to put others needs ahead of their own. It’s true I marriage. It’s true in whatever relationship you find yourself in. It’s even true when it comes to strangers.
It’s what the Apostle Paul is telling us in Philippians chapter 2. Again, this is a picture of what self-denial looks like. Listen!
“Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.”
This attitude, I suggest, is what Jesus is also talking about when he says, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” Floyd Sykes – [back there in the corner] a wise 90+ year old disciple here at Zion, reminds me – and I’ve told you this before – Floyd reminds me where real JOY comes from. Take the letters in joy –J-O-Y- to stand for Jesus – Others – You. As disciples of Jesus Christ – as disciples who are learning what self-denial means – it’s Jesus first. Others second. Yourself last. That’s where real joy comes from. Jesus. Others. You. In that order. Self-denial.
Now – would you want to join a church that started out by telling you, “Come worship with us, and we’ll teach you – we’ll show you – how to live a life of self-denial”? Doesn’t sound all that appealing – until you come to understand that that is exactly what Jesus has done for us. Emptied himself. Became like one of us. Gave his life for us – so that we might have the abundant life in the here and now – and eternal life with God forever. It wasn’t easy for Jesus. It isn’t easy for us.
But self-denial is exactly what our Lord expects from us. And he’s not going to love us any less if we don’t get it quite right. And let me be clear – it is something that we might never get quite right. But I have learned that being a disciple of Jesus Christ is a process. It’s constantly learning what it means to be a disciple. And therefore – speaking for myself – I will tell you that I am not a perfect disciple – but I will say that I am always trying to be a disciple.
Self-denial. Well, just what might that look like? Well, we’ve seen all sorts of heroism, I guess you could say, this past week watching the news that’s coming to us from Houston. Hurricane Harvey has done its worst. And I would say that this kind of storm has brought out the best – and the worst – in people. I hope it brings out the best in us. If you want to help people recover from this disaster, you can join me in making a contribution today or over the next weeks, through Lutheran Disaster Response. How to do so can be found on the front page of your Mission Minutes today.
But you know, sometimes, when disasters like Hurricane Harvey strike, there are me-first people who take advantage of the situation. Fake relief agencies. Scam artists. One story I heard about involved people dressed as emergency volunteers – going door to door telling people they needed to evacuate. Now. And when they did – these scoundrels – these me-first people – would go into the homes and steal anything they could find of value. These people are blatant examples – maybe I should say that they are perfect examples – of the worst that me-first people can be. They are perfect examples of what it means to make life all about me.
But mostly – we’ve seen examples of rescues – sometimes heroic rescues – made by first responders – yes – but many times by ordinary people – people like you and me – who look into the eye of the TV cameras and say that this is just the right thing to do. Neighbors caring for neighbors. Strangers helping strangers. Blacks helping whites, and whites helping blacks. Just people – caring for people. That’s self-denial.
Disciples of Jesus Christ are people who realize that the world doesn’t revolve around us – and our needs – and our desires. Disciples are always learning to say, “It’s not about me.”
You’ve heard me say this before – you’ve heard me say this lots of times. Being a Christian is more than just going to church on [Saturday evening] [Sunday]. It’s a lifestyle. It’s a way of life. It’s a way of being. And it is a joy. I can’t think of a better way of life. I can’t think of a better way of living.
You know that I am always telling you that we are Romans 12 Christians living in an Acts 2 church. Well, someone just a few weeks ago told me that they don’t know what I meant when I talk about being a Romans 12 Christian. I am so glad someone told me that! AND I am so glad that Romans 12:9-21 is a part of our readings for this weekend.
Romans 12:9-21 is an excellent example of what self-denial looks like. If you’re trying to get over having to be right – or having to win – or you’re really trying NOT to make life all about you – then Romans 12 is the place to turn. Well – so is Philippians 2 that I read earlier. And so is I Corinthians 13. But I want to focus on Romans 12. There is a half-sheet of paper in your bulletin. I’ve asked you to tape this to your bathroom mirror so you can see it every day. I will tell you that I finally did that this past week, and I suspect that very few is any have taken me seriously on this. So I made copies so you can do that. You don’t have to – but this might make it easier to already have a copy. Here again are some of the things you’re going to find there:
Do not be conformed to this world. Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another... serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering,...persevere in prayer...Extend hospitality. Bless those who persecute you;...Live in harmony with one another;...Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
That’s what I mean when I say that we are Romans 12 Christians. What Paul is saying – and what Jesus is saying – is, “Be this.” Be this. If you want to be a disciple of Jesus – if you want to learn what self-denial looks like – then learn to be this.
Now, having said all that – I don’t want you to get the idea that following Jesus is a system of do’s and don’ts – you know – this is what a Christian does – or this is what a Christian doesn’t do. I have never held to that conviction. I want to move beyond that to say that being a follower of Jesus Christ – taking up one’s cross to follow him – is a way of life – it’s a way of being – and sometimes that may take a lifetime to develop.
Jesus did not say “Take up your cross and follow me to church on Sunday morning, then you can do whatever you like the rest of the week.” But having said that – for goodness sake – don’t be afraid to live your life! Jesus did not come into the world to ruin your weekend – especially this weekend here in Clarence Center – or the rest of your week for that matter. No.
My friends, let me invite you to confess Jesus to be Lord and Savior – for that is who he is. He is the One who saves us from sin, death and the devil. He is the Lord – he is the leader of my life. Since this is who Jesus is – and since this is what Jesus has done for me – therefore I can say – this is who I am, and who I am meant to be. And the life I now live, I live for Him. And therefore I will say, “I am doing my best to be a disciple of Jesus Christ. It’s not about me.”