The late bishop of the Diocese of Massachusetts, The Right Rev. Thomas Shaw, posted a series of videos on YouTube called “A Monk in the Midst.” He was a brother of the Society of St. John the Evangelist as well as being an Episcopal bishop. He spoke in one of these videos about an encounter he had with a man named Fred and his 6 year old son Sam about what they were going to do on Christmas. The father explained that they would get up and open their presents on Christmas morning and then go to church. The son replied, “Church?! On Christmas? We’re going to go to church on Christmas?” Fred patiently explained, “Of course, that’s what Christmas is all about. It’s about Jesus’ birth and God coming to us.” Sam said, “I know, I know, I know! But Christmas! Church wrecks everything!” The church wrecks everything. Yes, yes it does and tonight we come here to encounter not only the church that wrecks everything, but the child who was born to wreck everything.
I know that may sound a bit odd in the face of our culture’s approach to Christmas. It’s easy to be lulled by the sentimentality of it all, isn’t it? I confess even our own hymnody conspires to tame this feast day into something more palatable and … dare I say … nice. I mean “O little town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie?” Really? I’m not sure that Bethlehem has ever been that peaceful … ever. And “The cattle are lowing, the baby awakes, but little Lord Jesus no crying he makes?” No crying? We’d call that a zero on the Apgar score and would start resuscitation! Seriously, those images aren’t helping. Neither are the emotional expectations of the holidays … you know those happy family get togethers that really don’t turn out so great or the longing for an estranged relationship to magically get better and be resolved in some kind of Christmas miracle? Then there’s the cultural pressure to over consume – whether it’s going overboard in buying presents and dreading the credit card bill in January or over eating and drinking and dreading what the scale will tell you in January. Yes, we’ve made Christmas quite something, haven’t we?
But the reality is we come together this night to pay honor to the one who came to wreck all of that. Yes … to wreck everything! This child’s birth was the plan of a subversive God who snuck into the back door of history on a mission to wreck everything. Coming as one of us – vulnerable, poor, and powerless – he came to upend the world as we have constructed it. He came to wreck our selfishness and narcissism so that we might be able to love and know the love of God and of others too. He came to wreck the political systems that choose winners and losers so that all of his children would be included in the kingdom. He came to break down our tendency of tribalism pitting one group against another. Oh yes, we still organize ourselves into tribes – we just call them political parties, faith traditions or denominations now. He came to tell us about a different kind of economy – one based on valuing the eternal rather than things which pass away. He came to break down our ideas of family to embrace a wider vision of God’s family which includes all people … not just the ones like us. Yes … he came to wreck every structure we try to build which put me first at the expense of everyone else. As he would later tell his followers, he came not to be served but to serve … and he calls us to follow in his path.
This is no small thing and for 2000 plus years people have come together to mark the birth of Christ as God’s subversive way of dwelling among us and wrecking everything for the sake of bringing about something greater than we could ask for or imagine – a vision of the kingdom of God unfolding right here in our midst. May this holy child, this holy one man wrecking crew, disrupt your life this season to plant the grace of God in your heart that you may come to know Christ’s love.
Well, we’ve all emerged from the “turkey coma,” plenty of football, the Macy’s Day Parade, the arrival of Santa, malls all decked out in glitter and glow, “ho, ho, ho and mistletoe and lots of presents for pretty girls,” … and then you come to church and hear about the end of all time! What a buzzkill, right? Seriously, if there is one thing the first Sunday of Advent does, it’s to jerk you by the collar back into reality with the sun darkened, the moon failing to give its light, stars falling from the heavens, the elect being gathered from earth and heaven … whoa! Christianity is so counter-cultural. We live not according to the pace of the world outside, but according to a different pace set by the heartbeat of God.
Last week was Christ the King Sunday where we heard the parable of the sheep and goats from Matthew’s gospel – the last teaching Jesus gives before entering Jerusalem. Today we begin Year B with readings from the Gospel of Mark and this is a teaching where Jesus has just entered Jerusalem and we are in Holy Week. So you can see that the end of the last liturgical year carries through to this one. Just as Jesus’ teaching last week was about the last judgment, today’s is a continuation speaking in apocalyptic language about the end of all time. We profess in our faith that every end signals a new beginning and every beginning is connected to an ending.
Apocalyptic language gives Episcopalians the yips because it so easy and so often misinterpreted. St. John the Divine did not sit in that cave on Patmos and wonder what he was going to say to the people of Brunswick Maryland in 2014. He was using highly symbolic language to speak to the people of his own day. So too was the prophet Daniel as well as Isaiah, from whom we heard this morning. Jesus’ words need to be understood in the context of how Mark is telling the story to his own community. Mark is often called the Gospel of persecution because of its emphasis on suffering and healing. It is believed Mark was written between 66 and 70 AD – during the time of the Jewish Revolt which resulted in the utter destruction of the Jerusalem temple in 70 AD and the annihilation of thousands of Jews. For those living in Jerusalem, witnessing the fearful and awesome power of Rome crush this rebellion and destroy the temple must have seemed like the end of all things. Jesus’ words “this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place” is best understood within the context of Mark’s audience. They witnessed this destruction.
But when we read these passages, they are a reminder that there will be an end to all things and in that grand cosmic scale, we are very small indeed. We become mindful of how small we are and the distance between ourselves and God. This distance brings to mind our sinful state. This is what Isaiah is referring to in the reading we heard today: “We all fade like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away.” This state of Sin is one of the twin powers Paul speaks of in so many of his writings: the Powers of Sin and Death. These are not just the small failings of our everyday lives, these are powers beyond us which hold us in chains and hold our will in bondage. This is heavy stuff indeed! But the fact that we live in bondage to Sin and Death is not Gospel – it’s what I call “a page out of the Book of Duh!” It is what it is, but it reminds us that we have no power within ourselves to save ourselves. This is where the Gospel enters the story.
Dame Julian of Norwich said it best in her writings. Dame Julian was a 14th century mystic who lived in a small room attached to the cathedral in Norwich, England. She had two windows out of this small room: one which looked into the cathedral where she could contemplate the Blessed Sacrament and the other looked out into the town square so she could give counsel to all who came seeking spiritual guidance. Kings, noblemen and women, bishops, priests, laborers and farmers – many people from all over would come seeking her guidance. We know little about her life, but she left a beautiful legacy. She left us a book called “Showings of Divine Love” which was the very first book published in the English language. Now mind you, this was Middle English and for any of you who have read Beowulf, you know what Middle English is like! There are modern translations of Julians’ book. But in it she shares the visions she had from Christ himself telling her that everything of God was about love. She was shown that our sins are not counted against us but are the “stars in our crown.” She wrote that our sins are “behovely” – which is a Middle English word meaning necessary, advantageous and useful. That probably sounds strange to you especially in light of our Calvinistic and moralistic society. But it makes sense when she goes on to say they are behovely because Sin was the precise reason Christ came to us in human form. If we were not in bondage to Sin, there would have been no need for Christ at all! God could have stayed distant from the created order … but God did not do that. Rather, God humbled himself to become real flesh and blood in the person of Jesus. And this is gospel – because God in Jesus Christ could do for us what we could not do for ourselves … save us from the powers of Sin and Death.
And so, you see, in spite of the surface appearance of doom and gloom in today’s readings, they remind us our bondage to Sin and Death does not get the last word. We always have a way to turn back and return home to Christ’s heart. Advent prepares us not only to celebrate and remember that first Christmas over 2,000 years ago, but also to remember we are living into the Second Advent awaiting Christ’s coming again. It also reminds us that Christ is being birthed each and every day in this community of faith – right in our own hearts – as we seek to serve each other in his name. Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again … thanks be to God.
Poet John Milton, most famous for writing Paradise Lost, was afflicted with total blindness when he was only 35 years old. For one whose livelihood depended on seeing, this was a devastating blow to his sense of purpose. He wrote these words about it:
When I consider how my light is spent
Ere half my days in this dark world and wide,
And that one Talent which is death to hide
Lodged with me useless, though my soul more bent
To serve therewith my Maker, and present
My true account, lest He returning chide,
"Doth God exact day-labour, light denied?"
I fondly ask. But Patience, to prevent
That murmur, soon replies, "God doth not need
Either man's work or his own gifts. Who best
Bear his mild yoke, they serve him best. His state
Is kingly: thousands at his bidding speed,
And post o'er land and ocean without rest;
They also serve who only stand and wait."
Today marks the end of the Church Year. It is Christ the King Sunday and is kind of like a liturgical New Year’s Eve. Next Sunday is the beginning of Advent and we begin our pilgrimage once again as Christians on a pilgrimage of faith. Today we hear the last parable told by Jesus before he would enter Jerusalem and face the cross. This parable is commonly known as the parable of the sheep and the goats. It speaks to the reality of there being a final judgment where the sifting of good from evil will happen before the throne of God. At first read, there is an admonition that what we do to the “least of these” sisters and brothers is what we do to the King of Kings. It reminds us that Christ comes to us in unexpected ways and through the people the world would rather ignore or throw away. We are bidden to attend to their needs as in doing so, we attend to Christ himself.
But there is a troublesome twist in this story. We can get become obsessed with the aspect of what we “do to the least of these.” We live in a culture which values doing over being and our first impression of this parable could leave us thinking the emphasis is on being those who are “doers” of ministry. When we do that, we separate ourselves from ever being “the least of these.” There is a sense that the “least of these” is always someone else and not us.
A few weeks ago, we gathered to discuss our youth and adult formation programs. In so doing, Kathy Brown talked about the ebb and flow of our lives and the need for balance. Too much flow and we burn out. Too much ebb and we withdraw. This is the description of the balance between doing and being. Unfortunately, the values of our culture emphasize the doing over the being – and we end up over-stressed, under-rested, and over-caffeinated. This is not what God intends for us.
While there is merit in the surface reading of this parable and we are called to reach out to the “least of these” – those whom we and the world would rather ignore – we are also called to recognize when we ourselves are the “least of these.” In truth, we would rather not be the “least of these,” would we? We hate to ask for help or depend on others – this makes us vulnerable and we hate it! I hate it too. But all of us, in various times and places, are the “least of these” in some way. And the question is how do we respond to our own vulnerability? Do we graciously accept the help and care of others or do we lash out in anger and drive them away? One of the most common things I heard from my patients when I was a hospice chaplain was they felt useless and without a sense of purpose. I had to remind them that they still had a purpose – to teach their families how to die well and gracefully accept the ministrations of their loved ones. I would ask them, “If you cannot accept the ministrations and gifts of others now, how will you ever be ready to receive the grace and glory God has prepared for you in the life to come?”
As we think about the words of Jesus, we need to remember that for every one of those who are doing the clothing, feeding, and visiting, there is a recipient of that ministry who is being clothed, fed and visited. It takes both the doer and the receiver for the relationship to blossom and the love of Christ to be fully expressed. As Milton expressed, there is grace in being the one who "stands and waits" when one does so in the context of relationship and allows others to minister to their needs. I truly believe that the ones who will face the harshest judgment in the final analysis are those who cut themselves off from others – those who believe they do not need to be doers or receivers. Those who isolate and refuse to give to others or refuse to receive from others will relegate themselves to live in a hell of their own making.
We are all sheep … and we are all goats. We all have times when we are the doers ministering to others and times when we need to be on the receiving end of other’s ministrations. It is when we engage in the relationships of feeding, clothing, visiting, welcoming, and caring for each other that Christ enters into the space between us and the Kingdom of God gets a little more real and just a little bit closer.
Welcome to “Baptisma-Palooza … part 2!” We had seven baptisms on the Feast of the Baptism of Jesus and today, for All Saints Sunday, we have another five! What a glorious day and what an amazing witness to what the Spirit is doing here at Grace Church! But you know, there is something I have to tell you. Today, we will bring you into the family of Christ through baptism and tomorrow you will go out into the world and it will be … pretty much the same as it is today. That’s right. We will still be in a conflicted world where bad things happen to people (as well as good things), people will get sick, that kid at school who really bugs you will probably still bug you, we’ll still squabble with our siblings and Mom and Dad will still make you pick up your toys and put your dirty laundry in the hamper. So what gives? What’s the point in getting baptized if I’m going out into that same world? And if today’s Gospel reading, known as the Beatitudes, gives us any hints, we’ll see we are blessed when people revile us and persecute us for being Christians? Well that sounds like a buzz kill, doesn’t it? So what gives?
I wrote a three part article a few years ago entitles “So I’m a Christian … now what??!” addressing just that question. The truth is, the world isn’t going to change but if you take your baptismal vows seriously, you will change … and when you change, the world can change. My premise is that if we take our baptismal vows seriously, three major changes occur. First, we become Ministers of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. That’s right – each and every one of us becomes a Minister of the Gospel. Sometimes people think I’m the only minister here because I was ordained and wear a black shirt and a plastic collar, but that’s not true. When I was ordained a deacon, my mother gave me a card and in it was a linen cloth with the words “Clairemont Lutheran Church” embroidered on it. It was the towel that wiped my head at baptism. She told me, “I want you to remember your first ordination!” We are ordained as Ministers of the Gospel because we are baptized. That means, when you go out those doors and you reach out to people in need, it isn’t because you are a volunteer anymore – you are a Minister of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. I’ve been working to strike the “V-word” … you know, “volunteer” from our vocabulary at Grace Church because you are not volunteers. When we volunteer, the locus of decision making is on us. Volunteering is also optional – we can do it … or not. And remember, even atheists can volunteer! But, when we are baptized, our reaching out to others is part of our ministry. Once baptized it isn’t a question of whether or not you will be a minister, it is “where and how will I exercise my ministry?” and “what ministry is God calling me to do?”
The second thing that happens when you take your baptismal vows seriously is you become an Evangelist. Now I know that word gets a bad reputation from guys wearing Nehru jackets and who carry floppy Bibles on TV, but that’s not what evangelism is. The word evangelist come from the Greek word meaning “one who tells good news.” And what is that good news? It’s the good news of God’s love for absolutely everyone as we know it in the life, ministry, teachings, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. And that’s radical stuff! Because what it means is that nobody gets left out of God’s love. We live in a world where there are winners and losers and at some point, every one of us will find ourselves in the “loser” category. To quote Norm Peterson from the old TV show Cheers, “It’s a dog eat dog world out there and I’m wearing MilkBone underwear.” Maybe it’s because we aren’t good at sports, or we’re clumsy, or we have a disability, or we’re different and others pick on us … there are a lot of reasons. But the good news of God’s love is that it doesn’t matter if you’re a geek, nerd, dork, dweeb, hodad, or poser … you are never excluded from the love of God. St. Columba of Iona said it this way: “The nature of God is a circle whose center is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere.” And that’s the good news you get to tell!
Finally, the third thing that happens when we take our baptismal vows seriously is we become a Steward of God’s creation instead of consumers. That’s another shift in how we think. We live in a consumer culture – one driven through buying more and more stuff … even when we don’t need it. Stewards, on the other hand, recognize that all things come from God and that we have a responsibility to care for the earth and all that is in it for the benefit of all God’s creatures, not just to satisfy our own selfish whims. That has wide reaching ramifications! It impacts decisions on what I buy and how I can do with less to have a lighter footprint on the planet. Being a steward means I will also recognize that my own physical body is on loan and that I have a responsibility to take care of it by eating the right foods, exercising, and getting medical treatments I need (like that flu shot). That’s all stewardship and our baptismal vows teach us this by calling us to place God first and at the center of all of these decisions.
So when we take these vows you make today seriously, you will be called to change and we are not always people who like change. Sometimes, people will tell me, “Jesus loves me and meets me right where I am.” Well, that is true – Christ loves us enough to meet us right where we are just as he did with tax collectors, prostitutes, lepers and a whole host of other people who were outcasts. But just because he met them where they were and just because he meets us where we are, it doesn’t mean he is content to leave us there! Not at all! Christ calls us into a lifetime of transformational change so that we can become more and more like him. It’s a great adventure and today we have five people beginning that journey. Christ is calling each of you to change the world by becoming Ministers of the Gospel, Evangelists and Stewards … this is big stuff and thankfully, we don’t do it alone. We have this whole congregation at Grace Church and our sisters and brothers who belong to other traditions and congregations with whom we can work to change the world. So keep your heart open and listen for where Christ is calling you to live out your baptism!
The subtitle of today’s gospel might be “Here endeth the pop quizzes.” We’ve heard the authorities grilling Jesus over the readings of the past few weeks with all kinds of trick question … now they dared not ask him anything else. Today the final quiz question: “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” Jesus’ response was both typical and not. He begins his response in a predictable way: “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment.” He begins by quoting the Shema from Deuteronomy 6 – “Hear, O Israel: The LORD is our God, the LORD alone. You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.” But then he says there is a second commandment – to love your neighbor as you love yourself. Here, Jesus paraphrases Leviticus 19 which in its entirety states: “You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the LORD.” He then tells the Pharisees everything, the law and the prophets, depends upon these two commandments.
Jesus’ juxtaposition of Leviticus 19 and the Shema is profound. The Pharisees who heard the Leviticus portion in that moment would have known the entire passage, not just the portion Jesus quoted. Our Rite 1 liturgy includes the Summary of the Law, yet most of us fail to realize what precedes “love your neighbor as you love yourself” – “You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people.” Jesus’ teaching on prayer echoes this: “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.”
In Sister Joan Chittister’s book The Rule of Benedict: A Spirituality for the 21st Century, she offers a daily reading of the Rule of St. Benedict and her commentary on it. Benedict of Nursia lived in the late 5th century in Italy and set down a rule for living in community in the last days of the Roman Empire. We Anglicans have a close connection with St. Benedict. Benedictine monastic communities were very influential in pre-Reformation England and their influence continues even today. St. Benedict was very clear that our spiritual life was to be lived out in community – we were not to flee to the desert or hole up somewhere. We are to live in community and to worship God through communal prayer (which influenced the development of our Book of Common Prayer), scripture recitation (as most people could not read back then), and the sacramental life.
Part of Benedict’s rule was the idea that the monastery you entered would be the monastery in which you died and to always keep death before you as a solemn reminder of the importance of forgiveness and reconciliation. Benedict knew that living in community is hard – disagreements are bound to happen, other people will annoy you and you will annoy other people. Benedict, in his wisdom, knew that if you had a disagreement someone, our human tendency is to “cut and run” – to leave the community or relationship and find another one. Benedict, with no modern knowledge of family systems or psychology, knew if you left the monastery without having reconciled with your fellow monks or nuns, invariably you would go to another monastery and … lo and behold … have another disagreement with a monk or nun there … usually over similar issues which drove you from the prior monastery! History repeats itself, behavior replicates itself and there is no reconciliation or opportunity for spiritual growth when we run away. Running away does not produce spiritual depth – it keeps you spiritually stunted and immature. We can act pious and holy all we want, but unless we do the hard work of reconciliation then our faith is a sham. And reconciliation is hard work involving contrition (genuinely understanding the damage you have done and feeling sorry for your actions), confession (admitting your wrongdoing), repentance (taking action to turn away from what you have done) and amendment of life (making the changes necessary so that you don’t repeat the harm done to others). Christianity is a demanding faith! Merely acting pious isn’t what our faith is about. As Sister Joan writes: “It is so comforting to multiply the practices of the church in our life and so inconvenient to have to meet the responsibilities of the communities in which we live.”
Living in community with other people is hard. It’s easy to say we love our neighbors in the abstract – it is much harder to put it into practice. In fact, I think Jesus’ command to love our enemies is often easier. We often push enemies away and keep them out of our lives. It’s easy to love in the abstract at arm’s length. It is much harder to love up close where we hurt each other in real and tangible ways. Loving our neighbor – our next door neighbor (whose dog barks incessantly and who won’t do anything about it), or members of our congregation (who don’t see things my way or just bug me), or community leaders (who don’t listen to my concerns), or your priest (who just doesn’t get it) … it’s hard, isn’t it? In each case what makes it hard is the pride of our own small egos which seek the self rather than the good of the other. Letting go of the ego is the way of the cross.
As Episcopalians, we inherit this Anglican/Benedictine way of being in community. Being in community means loving God and neighbor – which by extension means letting go of the need for right fighting, vengeance and holding grudges. It is a way of spiritual transformation which calls us into becoming more Christ-like – into becoming spiritual adults. As Sr. Joan states, “Adulthood is not a matter of becoming completely independent of the people who lay claim to our lives. Adulthood is a matter of being completely open to the insights that come to us from our superiors and our spouses, our children and our friends, so that we can become more than we can even begin to imagine for ourselves.” This is the transforming power of God – and it comes to us through our neighbors who are up close and in our face.
But are there neighbors with whom being in a relationship is not possible? What about those who threaten or abuse us? What about those who threaten the community? Well, neither Jesus nor Benedict would have condoned any behavior for the sake of loving your neighbor. Loving your neighbor is not the same as indulging your neighbor’s abuse. There are behaviors people inflict on us as individuals and the community which go beyond annoyances and simple grievances. Abuse, violence and threats are behaviors which cannot be tolerated for the sake of maintaining relationship. While we can reject specific behaviors and call those who threaten and abuse to repentance, they may not respond to that call. This does not mean we cannot love them – but we may need to do so from a safe distance unless and until they can do the hard work of amending their lives and actively seeking reconciliation with us.
“You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself …” Holding and bearing grudges prevents us from being the loving people God has shaped us to be. We cannot love God and harbor hatred for the people God loves. We cannot presume that our dislike or even hatred of another person is how God feels about them. Loving God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength only comes with the spiritual gift of humility to love the very people God loves too. Remember, while there are people you know who seem very unlovable … there are people who feel the same way about you. None of us is lovable all the time.
It is into this reality where grace enters. As St. Paul reminds us in Romans 5:8: “God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us.” When we are at our worst and most unlovable, God comes to us. That radical, undeserved, unmerited love has the power to move our hearts to love our neighbors … even the ones hardest to love. This isn’t easy work – Jesus knew that, Benedict knew that and you know it too. But we undertake it, quite imperfectly to be sure, because in doing so we experience grace, mercy and healing in action not abstraction. Laying down our egos, our long nurtured grudges, self-righteous anger and resentments, and seeking the way of love is the way of the cross through which we find fullness of life in Christ.
The plot thickens! Matthew’s gospel opens today with ominous words: “The Pharisees went and plotted to entrap Jesus in what he said.” Can’t you just feel the hostility? And don’t you just love the flattery that opens this up: “Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and teach the way of God in accordance with truth, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality.” Last week, our vestry had a mutual ministry survey with Dan Webster and we watched a video of Rabbi Edwin Friedman. He was talking about self-differentiated leadership and having a non-anxious presence. In that context, he spoke about sabotage. He said it comes in two forms: passive-aggressive attacks or seduction. Seems the Pharisees and Herodians are taking the second approach here.
What we often lose in the translation of time and culture is that the Pharisees and the Herodians really hated each other. The Herodians were the extended members of King Herod’s family whom the Pharisees and observant Jews likened to traitors. They were Jewish converts and were skilled at playing both sides of the field – loyalty to Rome when it suited them and loyalty to the Torah when necessary. The Pharisees, in their quest for purity, preferred to avoid the Herodians at all costs. But … politics and religion have always made strange bedfellows!
So these two camps, generally representing Rome and the Jewish people, are now out to ensnare Jesus in one of the most controversial issues of the day: is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor or not? Again, in our current culture and context we just cannot wrap our heads around why this is such a big deal. Nobody likes paying their taxes … but you do it right? Well, of course you do; however, in ancient Rome paying taxes was more than just paying for the roads and the aqueducts. It had a deep religious significance that we don’t normally associate with taxes. The Roman emperor was thought to be an incarnate god and so was to be worshipped among the pantheon of gods. In the eyes of a Jew, to pay taxes to Rome was to support a false religion in violation of the first commandment to have no other gods before the God of Israel. Having coins with Caesar’s image on them was a violation of the second commandment prohibiting graven images. Framing this question as to whether it is “lawful” brings the forces of Torah law to bear. Answer “yes” and you’ve violated Torah so the Pharisees have you on blasphemy. Answer “no” and the Herodians have you on treason. This is the ultimate loaded question!
Jesus, with the crowd around him, sees this sabotage by seduction ploy for what it is! He calls them out as hypocrites and asks for a coin. You can imagine just a bit of irony here when he gets the denarius and examines it closely. “So, whose face is this?” “The emperor’s.” “OK … give it back to him … and give to God what is God’s.” I can imagine the crowd snickering at the elites and religious guys getting their comeuppance.
When we hear the phrase, “render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things which are God’s” it is tempting to start parsing out what belongs to Caesar versus God. The problem with that is we miss that Jesus is actually using a false dichotomy to flip the question of the Pharisees and the Herodians on its head. He’s really addressing their hypocrisy in this response, not making a statement on where our money should be directed … and here’s why. As a Jew, Jesus believes in the sovereignty of the God of Israel and that there is no distinction between what is of this world and what is of God. After all, God created the world and all that is in it, right? And God, the God of Israel, even created the emperor … right? So what exactly belongs to Caesar and not to God? That’s right … nothing! Absolutely nothing!! It all belongs to God no exceptions.
With this in mind, there are implications for our own stewardship. What if we really lived like absolutely everything belonged to God? Not just our money or possessions, but our bodies, our thoughts, our creative energies and impulses – absolutely everything belonging to God and what has been given is on loan to us temporarily. How would that concept change you? Let me give you a practical example. From time to time, we have to buy a car. Not my favorite activity, I confess, and there are a myriad of options out there. While I can go into debt and purchase a fancy car with all kinds of “bells and whistles.” If I forget that all things belong to God first, I could get caught up in the idea that I can purchase whatever I want just because I want to. This is the mentality of a consumer rather than one centered on God. But when I acknowledge that everything, absolutely everything, comes from God and is only on loan to me, then my duty is to make as light a footprint on the planet and on my finances as I can. No question this will influence my purchase decision.
Stewardship also has implications on our own bodies. If they are on loan from God, how should we take care of them? If my intellect is on loan from God, how do I use it to build up the Body of Christ? If I am engaging in habits that hurt my body or mind, how does this grieve God and how can I commit to change? How do I use my time and where am I giving it to God’s mission – both in the Church and in the world?
Keeping our focus on the reality that God is the source and author of all that we have and all that we are reminds us to place our commitment to God first. This doesn’t mean we don’t “render unto Caesar” … but it does call us to question all the “Caesars” which try to claim our time, energy, and money. If we think about it, we live in a society where there are a myriad of activities and causes which can fill our schedules and cause us to forget our commitment to God. Busyness is a temptation which will present many “Caesars” which will try to claim us. But when we keep our eye on God first and commit to that relationship before all others, it puts us in a position to evaluate all other commitments and prioritize them so they don’t become tyrants which enslave us.
In baptism, we are claimed as Christ’s own forever. Our gratitude for this new life can transform us into people who put God first and, in so doing, find the joy of a life centered in God. Render unto God … first and foremost … and Caesar will take care of itself.
I have a confession on behalf of my clergy colleagues to make. Most of us really don’t like doing weddings very much. Now there are exceptions, and I’m really looking forward to Nancy Smith & Dale Hughes’ upcoming wedding in November … and I’m not saying that to suck up either. The reason I’m looking forward to that one while many others invoke dread, is because Nancy and Dale are both grounded in what it means to be married in an Episcopal Church where Christ is the central focus of the nuptial liturgy. The same was true for the solemnization service I presided over for Mike & Michael last year in their home. When people who have a strong root in the Christian faith come to the Church seeking its blessing for their marriage, there is a totally different dynamic from those who have no faith grounding and who for mostly sentimental reasons feel they have to get married in a church. The latter often do not understand that getting married in a church is not about living out the “prince and princess of the day” fantasy … which often comes into conflict with the church’s theology of marriage as an incarnation of Christ’s love made known in the world. These brides and grooms (and often their parents) want to do things their way and really have no intention of having God play much, if any, role in the matter whatsoever. So this presents a particular challenge for me as a priest because while we are warm, welcoming and hospitable, that doesn’t mean “anything goes” in the Church.
Today’s gospel reading is set within the context of a wedding banquet and admittedly is a difficult reading full of judgment – and some annihilation, death and burning of a city. But I will submit to you that it is a story full of grace – even though it doesn’t sound like one. It is a story about a king who wants to throw an awesome party … and it is an illustration of how grace is offered and also what it demands of us. This parable follows on last week’s and is still directed at the Pharisees during Holy Week. Its parallel is in the Gospel of Luke, but unlike Luke whose telling of this has a much more grace filled tone, Matthew’s rendering has ominous warnings of judgment and violence along with the grace. There is again a temptation to allegorize this as a story of Israel being the invited guests who blow off the king’s invitation and the Gentiles as the “great unwashed masses” who are brought into the party and accept the invitation. But that is a narrow view which limits the parable’s meaning to some kind of Gentile/Jewish conflict which robs it of its power for our day and time.
In his book Kingdom, Grace and Judgment, the late Robert Farrar Capon, Episcopal priest and author, invites us to see this parable as a reflection of the final marriage supper of the Lamb which John writes about in Revelation and in so doing it begins with the premise that all are invited to the banquet. That’s right … all are invited to the party. The question is whether or not we will say “yes” to the gracious host. The first group invited are the “A listers” – the beautiful people who can essentially take it or leave it … and who, well, choose the latter. Not only do they completely rebuff the king’s invitation to an awesome party, they have really lame excuses for rejecting the king’s hospitality. And notice they get more than one chance to accept the invitation – there are two rounds of slaves come as messengers. With the second round of invites, those invited become violent – beating and killing the slaves. Admittedly, this is a pretty harsh reaction to a party invitation, but this is a story and it is a continuation of the “kill the messenger” motif we saw in last week’s story.
As I reflected on the reaction of these “A-lister” invited to the party, I recalled meeting Pastor Mike Albro in Frederick a few years ago when I was a member at All Saints. Last I heard, he is still running the Second & Hope Celebrate Recovery group at Centennial United Methodist Church. When I met him, he was with the Rescue Mission working with those suffering from drug and alcohol addiction. But I knew of Mike Albro many years before that. I knew of Mike back in 1986 when I was involved in the Race Across America bicycle race. Back then, Mike was the executive director of ABC’s Wide World of Sports who was covering the race. Mike was one of those “A-listers” – a guy with a Hollywood job and a seven figure salary. But one night, in a hotel room in Nashville, he had a conversion and call to serve Christ – like St. Paul being knocked off his horse on the Damascus road. He left that very lucrative position to follow God’s call to ministry … and of all ministries, to those suffering from addiction. In his own addiction to wealth, fame and power, he saw his connection to those who suffered under the addictions of drugs and alcohol. When he spoke at All Saints, he said something that really got my attention. He said, “You all have a much harder job of sharing the good news of Jesus Christ than I do. You see, I work with people who have nothing left but Jesus. They have lost everything – family, home, jobs, health … they’ve lost it all and all they have left is Jesus. They know they need Jesus in order to life a sober life. They have no illusions that they are sober because of anything they did – they know they can’t do it without God. But you have a much harder job sharing the gospel in your lives with your neighbors. You have to try and share the good news with people who live in big houses, with two or three cars in the garage, big screen TVs and all the comforts of life, and good paying jobs. Those people think all those blessings only came from their own personal efforts – what do they need Jesus for? Your job is much harder than mine.” And he’s right … our job is much harder. Many of us bear a strong resemblance to those “A-listers” … those who think they really don’t need the king’s invitation to grace. Under the hashtag of #firstworldproblems, we can fall under the presumption that all that we are and all that we have comes from us and not from God. We fail to see that all of what we are and have, including our intellect and talents, are gracious gifts from God who is the king and ultimate party thrower. So we too can be like the A-listers who just don’t see any real reason to accept the king’s invitation into relationship and a great party. We are tempted to blow the whole thing off too.
Sometimes we blow off the invitation by killing the messengers (which happens in today’s parable). I don’t want to be bothered, leave me alone, get out of my face. Whether we physically kill them or do it emotionally through our words and actions matters not. In the parable, this is an outrage the king will not bear – so he sends in the SWAT team to wipe the A-listers off the map (think Chuck Norris meets Dirty Harry meets napalm … and a small nuclear strike thrown in for good measure). Seems a pretty harsh reaction, doesn’t it? Again, let’s see this as a metaphor of cutting off relationship completely with those who blow off the invitation and go so far as to kill the messengers. The king is severing ties with them, not because he is a ruthless punishing king, but as a reaction and consequence to the abusive actions already taken against him. You know this reaction … it’s the “You’re dead to me!” one. And in essence, the “A-listers” do kill themselves by their own choice to say “no” to grace.
So now the king has a problem. There’s a lot of food and drink, a party waiting to happen, and nobody’s coming! The king orders his slaves to go out and invite everyone they can and fill the banquet hall. So the slaves do this … and they invite both the good and the bad. Wait! Hold on! They invited both the “good and the bad?” Absolutely! The slaves as messengers were not tasked with asking for the pedigree of anyone they invited, they aren’t checking id’s at the door, they aren’t running background checks. Their job is to fill the banquet hall. Just as in other parables like the wheat and the weeds, Jesus makes it clear that good and bad will be living together and walking side by side for some time. It isn’t up to us to do the sorting – that’s God’s job. We just have to say “yes” to the invitation to the party.
But this is where our “yes” response to grace meets with an obligation … the obligation to accept the grace on the king’s terms and not our own. The story takes an ominous twist: the king notices a man without a wedding garment. Now in this short story, we might begin to argue with Jesus about the necessity of a wedding garment and 1,001 reasons why this poor fellow doesn’t have one. Let’s suffice it to say that this guy stuck out … and all the guests were in the same position. Everyone else, presumably, had their wedding garments, on … except this one guy. Somehow I picture him as the guy who shows up with a bunch of piercings, Goth make up, grommets in the ears, Doc Martens boots … among those in their “Sunday best.” Of course … it could be the other way around too! Let’s just say he sticks out like a sore thumb. Essentially, he said “yes” to showing up but the king asks for more than just showing up. I submit to you that the man without the appropriate attire lacked the humility to submit to the terms of the king’s party – show up, but show up on my terms not yours.
When we say “yes” to God’s invitation for relationship, one thing which must die for an authentic faith is our pride. Part of our pride is demanding that we live life on our terms and our terms alone. Doing that leads to selfish, destructive behavior which doesn’t make room for authentic relationships – with God or with any other human being. Grace is always offered, but a “yes” response doesn’t mean we get to continue to live life on our terms – we are called to more than that. We are called into a transforming, life giving, love relationship. God loves us where we are (that’s the grace), but God will not be satisfied to leave us there. Christ loves us enough to want more from us than to just stand still … and demands the relinquishment of our pride and demand for having our way instead of God’s way. The fact this person without a wedding garment was silent in the face of the king’s question says much – he didn’t want a relationship with the king. He gives the king the “silent treatment.” And so our parable ends with the king ordering him to be bound “hand and foot” and cast into the darkness with wailing and gnashing of teeth. While this sounds like a punishment from the king, I suggest this is merely the king allowing this person, who wants life on his own terms, to go back to the life they came from. It is a consequence of refusing to let go of pride.
So this parable is about the offering of grace and how we accept it … or not. Here at Grace Church, we welcome all people to come to the feast every Sunday: to be with God’s people and receive the Body and Blood of Christ at this altar which is a foretaste of the heavenly banquet in this parable. But although we welcome people into this community, it does not mean we do not set appropriate boundaries with respect to behaviors. The offer of grace comes with the expectation that those who come will not stay where they are, but say “yes” to both the grace and the ongoing conversion of heart which draws us to become more loving and Christ-like. When those who come want only the grace but refuse the transformation God expects, they are seeking cheap grace. And, when behaviors which threaten the peace of Christ in this community happen, those people who want cheap grace without transformation will be choosing by their refusal of the call to conversion of heart to walk apart from this community. German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer reminds us that grace is never cheap – it is always costly. The cost of grace is the relinquishment of pride and ego so that we may enjoy the party … now and forever.
“Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom.” Hardly sounds like good news, does it? Harsh words today in today’s Gospel reading – a troubling text which has a very dark history in Christianity. It follows on the reading from last week where the Pharisees are questioning Jesus’ authority and it is a continuation of his dialog with them. It’s a story that has sadly often been spun as an anti-Jewish polemic over the centuries – one where the temptation is to allegorize the wicked tenants as the Jewish people and the Christians as those to whom the landowner will give the vineyard where the vineyard is the inheritance of Israel. Nice neat package … good guys and bad guys, right? Well … not so fast.
It’s been an interesting week to ponder this story in light of what has been unfolding at the Episcopal Church’s oldest seminary – General Theological Seminary in New York City. For those of you who don’t monitor the Episcopal Church’s “insider baseball,” eight of the ten faculty walked off the job this week in protest against the current dean and president, The Very Rev. Kurt Dunkle. They have leveled allegations of his being overbearing and authoritarian in his leadership, bullying students and faculty who disagree with him and making racist, sexist and homophobic statements. In fairness to Dean Dunkle, many of the things which the faculty demanded of him and the Board of Directors were unprecedented and an overstepping of their roles as professors but which came after many months of requesting mediation and being rebuffed. In the end, Bishop Sisk of New York and the Board of General Seminary chose to interpret the actions of the professors as a mass resignation of the faculty. Now it’s all up to the lawyers…
I confess I really don’t have a dog in this fight. I went to the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Gettysburg and frankly it would be easier for me to blow off this kerfuffle and wait for the dust to settle and move on. You know, “Not my circus. Not my monkeys.” But the truth is that the scuffle at General is only bringing to light deeper problems and the shadow of what we hate to admit – that at various times, we ourselves are the wicked tenants in the vineyard!
One of the issues underlying this conflict at General is what authority looks like in a Christian context. This question of authority featured prominently in last week’s Gospel and raised the question of to whom do we give authority and why. Clearly, the dean and president of the seminary has authority conferred from the Bishop and Board to accept this position; however, it appears on the surface at least that Dean Dunkle forgot the other source of authority – that of the faculty and students. If the allegations of his unprofessional conduct regarding racist, sexist and homophobic statements are true, he could be tried in Ecclesiastical Court under Title IV of the Constitution and Canons for misconduct – for conduct unbecoming a cleric. If the allegations are true this could be why he has not earned the trust of the faculty and students. Without trust, there is no basis for authority. The alleged statements are not only unacceptable, but they fly in the face of the Baptismal Covenant where we promise to “seek and serve Christ is all persons” and “respect the dignity of every human being.”
From the words flying around social media, it seems that Dean Dunkle has perceived the resistance to his leadership in a very different way than the students and faculty have. It appears he interprets this resistance as a sign of his decisive leadership. After all, decisive leaders are going to be on the receiving end of push back and sabotage – so resistance is a sign he is doing something right … right? Well … maybe … and maybe not. It may just be a sign you are a jerk too. The line between jerk and decisive leader can, admittedly, get kind of cloudy and it’s easy to end up being a decisive jerk. The difference is whether you possess the spiritual gift of humility which will allow you to listen to the dissenting voices and the prophets God may be sending your way to help you see your own functioning more clearly than you can all by yourself.
What has been born out of all this conflict is the raising of old and deep wounds the Church itself has inflicted on its members – in this case, its own leadership. We can sit around and gloat when a megachurch pastor like Mark Driscoll gets taken down over his sexist and homophobic statements … but now that one of our own has now had some pretty damning allegations leveled at him for the same behavior, what are we to make of that?
Laurie Brock, a priest in Louisville KY who blogs at Dirty Sexy Ministry wrote a post entitled “I am not the exception” regarding the longstanding toleration of abusive racist, homophobic and misogynistic behaviors in the Church:
“When I wrote of my experience of institutional abuse in the church, I hoped, likely foolishly, that my experience was rare.
From the hundreds of emails, stories told in hallways with tears, and letters received from women and men in the church who have experienced degrading behavior and harassment, often by superiors, I can tell you I am not the exception.
I am not the exception to being offended when a male superior discussed my breasts or my vagina and, when expressing my offense, being told I was ‘too sensitive.’
I am not the exception to being encapsulated in an atmosphere where sexual orientation, ethnicity, income level, or any other differentiating facet was fodder for jokes, and any conversation as to why those words or phrases may be offensive was disregarded.
I am not the exception for expressing my discomfort and distress to those in authority, only to have my concerns be ignored, dismissed, excused, or turned back on me.
I am not the exception to feeling so weary, so exhausted, so emotionally beaten that when I finally said, ‘Enough,’ I realized I was the one who would slip out the back door with my scars, and the ones whose actions caused the wounds would never be held accountable.”
So what happens when we become the wicked tenants ourselves?
Don’t get me wrong … I love the Episcopal Church and in it I see the promise of refuge for many who have been beaten down in other places. But if we deny and ignore our own darkness and tendency to want to control and dominate, just like the wicked tenants in the parable who want to dominate and control the vineyard and its fruit, then we are culpable of perpetuating a cycle of violence and degradation which flies in the face of Christ’s call to humble service and generosity of spirit.
At varying times, we have all taken the path of protecting our egos and, rather than listening to those who may tell us things we don’t want to hear we kill the messenger. But what if the ones who challenge us, the ones who get under our skin, are being Christ to us? Remember, Jesus often encountered resistance when he put his finger on the spiritual and emotional diseases of others. Who in your life has touched a place of brokenness in you – not as an enemy who is trying to hurt you, but as a friend trying to offer you feedback? Are you open to hearing what they say? Or is killing the messenger to protect your ego, your false self, what happens?
The parable ends with the Pharisees condemning themselves by saying the landowner will put the “miserable wretches to death” and find more worthy tenants. While I don’t subscribe to a God who metes out punishment as is the human tendency, I do see consequences for the wicked tenants … even when they are us. When we fall into the trap of killing the messengers who may very well be bearing Christ’s presence and light to us when we don’t want to hear them, we die. We die at least spiritually and emotionally, if not physically. God doesn’t have to put us to death … instead we kill ourselves and in so doing, we deny the inheritance of the fullness of life offered in Christ in favor of our small, puny egos that demand control.
So what if we give up … give up the need to control and defend these small selves we carry? What if we stop killing the messengers God is sending to us and let them in to help us grow? Yes, it will be hard and yes it will feel like death … it always does when the ego gets stripped down to nothing. But maybe, just maybe, Christ is calling us to risk becoming something more than who we think we are … because underneath every wicked tenant is a beloved child of God aching to be born anew.
In a case of life echoing Bible, I found myself at the gas pump yesterday getting grilled on the same question that Jesus faces in today’s Gospel: “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?” As a woman priest, there is not a day that goes by where someone doesn’t throw up this challenge to me. Sometimes it is not actually directed at me personally but at women in general, like a blog post from someone whose scriptural interpretation is more literal than mine. But there are times when it is personal … like yesterday at the gas station. I received a call that one of our parishioners was rushed to the emergency room and I had to stop for gas and a big cup of coffee (yeah, it was one of those days!). As I was pumping the gas into my car, a man younger than me was at the next pump and, looking over and seeing me in my clerical collar, he said, “Excuse me … are you … uh … a … uh … minister?” I answered, “Yes. I am an Episcopal priest.” He said, “I have a question for you, if you don’t mind.” I told him I didn’t mind and to go ahead. He said, “What exactly do you make of 1st Timothy 2:12? I mean, as a priest and all, what do you make of that? I’m not trying to troll you or anything, I just want to know.” My first hint of trouble was that he was trying too hard to convince me he wasn’t trying to troll me! Now for those of you not familiar with 1st Timothy 2:12, it reads: “I do not permit a woman to teach or have authority over men. They are to keep silent.”
I explained that the Bible was written 2,000 years ago in the Roman Empire and my approach to Scripture is that of an historical critical hermeneutic (or lens) which calls me to read it in light of the culture in which it was written and, through communal prayer, discern its application for today. He conceded that we don’t interpret the Scripture passage about slavery the same as we once did … but then went right back to what appeared to be his literal interpretation of 1st Timothy 2:12. It was clear he had his mind made up – who was I to think I should be ordained? By what authority did I dare do this?? When someone comes at us with this kind of question, it might be because we’ve overstepped our bounds but more likely it is meant as a challenge or an attempt to undermine our authority in a given situation.
Chronologically, this reading happens after Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem … it is Holy Week and Jesus is on the way to the cross. It is the perfect setting for the questioning of his authority and its origins. This question asked by the Pharisees reminds us of the nature of authority and why it is different from power. Although we often speak of them interchangeably, they are not the same thing. Power is the sheer ability to force something to be done. Authority, on the other hand, is power which is given, directed and limited to achieve certain goals. We might think of authority as power which is granted by others and rightly directed for mutual benefit.
Authority is always given and it comes from two different sources. Those of us who have any kind of credentials know this. As we honor our first responders today, your uniform is a sign and symbol of a particular authority granted you by your local jurisdiction to use your power in a limited, directed way for the benefit of our communities. But your real authority doesn’t lie in the uniform or the badge. Your real authority also comes from the people you serve – the trust of the community for you to act on their behalf. The same is true for me as clergy. I may have the Masters of Divinity degree and be ordained by a bishop in apostolic succession, but if the congregation here doesn’t also grant me authority, then my ability to lead the mission and ministry here is non-existent. Authority, then, comes both from the “powers on high” above us and wells up from below.
This leads us to the question of to whom do you give authority and why? Sometimes the answer is obvious. There are people to whom we must grant authority, that limited, directed power to influence us for a particular reason in order to function well in society. However, in many if not most cases, we have a choice to grant authority to another person and sometimes we give authority to people who don’t deserve it! Consider this example: how many of us have told someone in our lives that they made us mad? Yeah, we’ve all done that, right? But think of it this way, when I tell another person they are responsible for my emotional process, I am giving them authority over my emotions instead of taking responsibility for them myself. As a priest, let me tell you there are a lot of people who want to make me responsible for their emotions! This doesn’t mean that we cannot be angry with or hurt by people when they wound us by their actions. What is within our capacity to decide is how we regard this person and their actions over time. If we hold onto those feelings of anger and hurt for so long that they turn into grudges and resentments, then we have given the other person the authority to hold our life hostage. We are giving them the authority to dominate and control our lives and our futures.
This background sets the stage for a deceptively simple yet simultaneously complex parable. A man has two sons and tells them to go work in the vineyard. The second son says he’ll do it and doesn’t – what parent cannot sympathize with that? The first son, who is the focus of the parable, says he will not go and then changes his mind and goes. It doesn’t really matter what his motivations were in refusing to do what his father told him to do. What matters is that he didn’t have to be tied to his original decision – he had the freedom to change his mind and, in so doing, he changed his course of action to be in alignment with his father’s desires. He didn’t let the bad choice of saying “no” to his father’s request hold him back from doing the right thing and in so doing he chooses a different future. In other words, his past action does not determine his future outcome!
This is the nature of the argument with the Pharisees in this moment. The Pharisees are mired in their past – their traditions, Scriptural interpretations, temple worship – which has given them authority. Instead of being bound by their past, Jesus is inviting them into a future which opens the possibilities of life, grace and healing. The Pharisees don’t want to accept this invitation – they have a great investment in the status quo and the systems which conferred their authority. But Jesus knows that the religious and political systems are not working to redeem all of God’s people – especially the down and out who are personified by the reference to tax collectors and prostitutes. Those whom the system has failed are the ones like the first son who do the will of the father precisely because they are not held hostage to a past which has excluded them.
Jesus makes this very same promise to us today. No matter what has happened to us or what we have done, we always have the ability to make the choice to step into a future that is aligned with God’s life giving redemptive love. We are more than the sum total of what has happened to us or what we have done. We need not submit to the authority of those people and situations from our past that are dealing in death and holding us back from a full life and a free future. Letting go of the past, taking back that authority and walking into a free and unknown future is scary … really scary. We often drag our dysfunctional pasts with us precisely because they are familiar. Letting these things go, taking away their authority to tyrannize your future away is a kind of spiritual and emotional death – the death of a dead past and the death of part of your identity. It will take you to the cross just as breaking with the past took Jesus to one too; however, the promise of that open future is the resurrected life beyond the cross.
So I ask you this day to look at your life. Where are you harboring past resentments and why do those people still claim authority over you? Who or what is holding you back from the open future Christ promises you? What do you most regret about what you have done and have not yet released? Is it time to strip all of these things of the authority you’ve given them so that you can walk into an open future in confidence that you are beloved of God no matter what? Lay these down, put them away, give them over to God and trust in the grace and mercy poured out for you at this time, in this place, at this altar. Give them over as your offering and accept the invitation of Christ in Bread and Wine, his Body and Blood, as a pledge and promise for your future … now and always.
A Sufi saint, on pilgrimage to Mecca, having completed the prescribed religious practices, knelt down and touched his forehead to the ground and prayed: “Allah! I have only one desire in life. Give me the grace of never offending you again.” When the All-Merciful heard this he laughed aloud and said, “That's what they all ask for. But if I granted everyone this grace, tell me, who would I forgive?”
“Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive?” Peter’s question comes on the heels of Jesus’ teaching from last week which gave a directive about conflict resolution. In it, he told his disciples that if a member of the church sins against you, you should speak to them in private about the matter to settle it. If they acknowledge their fault and you can reconcile well and good, but if they don’t, you are to go with two or three so that you will have witnesses and attempt to resolve the conflict. If that doesn’t work, you take it to the church … and if even that does not work, you are to treat the person as if they are a Gentile and a tax collector – in essence, treat them as utter strangers and walk away. Today we hear the follow up question related to conflict – what is the role of forgiveness?
The problem with Peter’s question is in his approach. Peter has bound up his understanding of forgiveness in terms of legalism, framing the question as a way to find out what he legally must do to cover his bases: “How often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” You know it’s, “Come on Jesus, just give me a number, tell me the rules, what hoops I need to jump through and I’m in the game.” Jesus’s ridiculous answer of “seventy-seven,” other translations say “seventy times seven,” tells us Peter isn’t asking the right question because forgiveness isn’t about quantity – it is a matter of quality. It’s not “how much?” but “how well?”
The parable that follows goes on to illustrate what Jesus means. He tells the story of a king settling debts with his slaves. One slave owed him 10,000 talents. One talent was equivalent to 15 years of a day laborer’s wages. This means he owed the king 150,000 years of labor – clearly an impossible debt to settle! The second slave mentioned owed the first 100 denarii – about 100 day’s wages. Now this is still no small debt, but one which could reasonably be paid down. So how could this slave, who had been released from an impossible debt turn around and be unforgiving of a relatively small one?
I think the reason is found in our very human penchant for legalism and keeping score – especially of the wrongs done to us. Ever notice how we don’t seem to keep track of the good things done for us but instead we keep a meticulous ledger balance of the hurts and wounds inflicted by others? Some of this is natural – it is our survival instinct. When we are hurt we naturally don’t want to repeat that experience, do we? But our memories often go long beyond the wrong done to us and often turn into seething resentments which are toxic and can spill over into other relationships far beyond the one in which the grievance took place. Left to our own devices, our ledger books become heavy with entries because when we are wronged, we want to get even and punish. This is grounded in our love of legalism.
The law is necessary because it sets the metes and bounds for how to relate to others. But there is something the law cannot do: it cannot require us to love each other. I can follow the letter of the law in relating to another and still hate them with all my heart. The law can never command us to love.
Our Lord’s answer to Peter makes it clear that bean-counting and score keeping isn’t what forgiveness is about because forgiveness is the fruit of love. It is, in fact, the brutally hard work of love. You wouldn’t ask “How many times must I love?” would you? Of course not, because love isn’t about quantity – it is about quality. The question isn’t “how many times must I love?” but “how well can I love?” The same is true of forgiveness. The question isn’t “how many times must I forgive?” but rather “how well and how completely can I forgive?”
This isn’t to say there is no place for boundaries and law when it comes to being in right relationship. Forgiveness does not mean you must be a doormat and allow others to walk all over you committing wrong after wrong, abusively beating you down and robbing you of your human dignity. No! In those cases, you may need to both forgive and simultaneously leave the relationship. This doesn’t mean you stop loving the other person – but it does mean you love from a safe distance. In fact, sometimes the most loving and forgiving thing you can do is to walk away and stop the abusive behavior.
There are always two dimensions of our lives. One is the dimension of law which gives us limits and accountability. The other is the dimension of our being – how we regard ourselves and others as worthy of dignity and love as children of God. This brings us to the rather harsh ending of this parable where the king hands his servant over to be tortured until the debt is paid. I don’t believe this is a punishment from the king. Instead, I believe the king is merely allowing the slave to live in the hell of his own score keeping game until the end of time … or until he can forgive.
Forgiveness is a decision we make about the past. It is both an acknowledgement that we cannot change the past but also that the past will not hold our future in captivity to the rancor and bitterness of resentment. When you forgive, you release your past and are able to face the future in freedom. When you do not forgive, you hold your future in captivity until the end of time. But make no mistake, this doesn’t mean forgiveness can be forced or compelled. Forgiveness, like love, is a gift. We can pray for it and for the ability to forgive – especially for those from whom we are estranged or who have died – so that we may face an open and free future of a resurrected life in Christ.
All of us struggle to forgive and each of us has at least one person we find it hard, even impossible, to forgive. Of our own power, we cannot do it – it is a gift of the Spirit, just as love is a gift. And it isn’t a question of “how much?” or “how many?” but rather “how well?”