Thursday, December 24, 2020

Christmas and Our Shattered Expectations

Most years on Christmas Eve I have a funny little quip in which I say how great it is to see everyone in our sanctuary for our Christmas Eve Midnight Mass, especially newcomers, and even more especially the folks I haven’t’ seen since Easter!  Truth be told, though, I just wish I could've seen anyone that night!  But my heart has still rejoiced that, while we live in a time in which pestilence and plague continue to keep us physically apart, that wonderfully horrible and horribly wonderful gift of the internet has made it possible for us to still be together, to still pray together, to still ponder Christmas and all that it means.

It is perhaps a strange grace of God for us to mark the occasion of Christ’s birth in this way.  While we have been blessed at Good Shepherd with dedicated Altar and Flower Guild members who have put out our creche, hung our wreaths, and made out space look and feel as much like Christmas as possible, this is not the way it’s supposed to be.  There should have been Christmas parties we attended, cards and presents we exchanged with our church friends when we arrived for worship, and a packed house to sing Silent Night together by candlelight at the end of Midnight Mass.  This is not how Christmas is meant to come, it’s not how any of us expected to be spending Christmas Eve when this year began. But was that night so long ago so different?  Was it really what anyone expected the breaking forth of God’s kingdom into the world to look like?

I believe the writer Madeline L’Engle sums it up nicely in her poem, First Coming.  She writes:

He did not wait till the world was ready,
till men and nations were at peace.
He came when the Heavens were unsteady,
and prisoners cried out for release.
He did not wait for the perfect time.
He came when the need was deep and great.
He dined with sinners in all their grime,
turned water into wine.
He did not wait till hearts were pure.
In joy he came to a tarnished world of sin and doubt.
To a world like ours, of anguished shame
he came, and his Light would not go out.
He came to a world which did not mesh,
to heal its tangles, shield its scorn.
In the mystery of the Word made Flesh
the Maker of the stars was born.
We cannot wait till the world is sane
to raise our songs with joyful voice,
for to share our grief, to touch our pain,
He came with Love: Rejoice! Rejoice!

If Christmas teaches us anything it is that God shows up when we do not expect it and in ways that we often cannot fully comprehend until they have long passed.  Surely the Creator, Redeemer, and Sanctifier of all would come when humanity is at its absolute breaking point or when we at last had achieved world peace and were “ready” to receive such a One.  And surely an arrival would befit the Sovereign of the Universe, with banners unfurled in a great and glorious splendor of royalty.  But as Madeline reminds us, and as Saint Luke in the Gospel reminds us, that’s not what happened at all.  God’s birth was like most of ours, born into a harsh world to a relatively poor family living in a very complicated time, politically and culturally speaking.  It’s not at all what people were expecting.  And perhaps that is the point.  

Perhaps that is what 2020 has shown us.  We expected to celebrate weddings and graduations, and attend concerts and ballgames.  Even when the terrifying reality of a global pandemic began to set in we expected it to last just a few weeks, and then just a few months.  We expected our churches to be places where we could find solace by being together to pray for an end to the virus, or at the very least where we could honor our dead with the full rites of the our faith.  But none of those things have been possible, and every expectation we have had in 2020 seems to have been dashed again and again.  Should Christmas be any different?

What is it that we have come to expect from Christmas?  Being together with family and close friends in times of gift giving and general merriment, sure, but what do we expect FROM Christmas?  Do we expect Christmas itself to change us, to move us, to make us not only more welcoming of the Christ child into our hearts but more eager to follow the path he will go down?  The modern mystic and civil rights activist Howard Thurman, whose book Jesus and the Disinherited our church read over the summer, once wrote in a piece called The Mood of Christmas:

When the song of the angels is stilled,
When the star in the sky is gone,
When the kings and princes are home,
When the shepherds are back with their flock,
The work of Christmas begins:
To find the lost, to heal the broken, to feed the hungry,
To release the prisoner, to rebuild the nations, 
To bring peace among people, to make music in the heart.

We can always count on Christmas to come, but every year it disrupts our expectations.  This year is no different.  The coming of God in the Incarnation blows all the other stuff out of the water, and this year, when all the other stuff isn’t possible, we can at last understand.  When God stepped into the world, held in the arms of a teenage mother named after the sister of Moses, the great liberator, the whole world itself was liberated, every human heart was liberated, from the shackles of fear and the oppression of the self, from the unreasonable expectations of a world more concerned with gaining power than being emptied of it.  Our hearts may ache this Christmas time because the traditions we have come to expect are not possible, but what an amazing gift it is that we can see fully what is truly going on tonight!  The holy child of Bethlehem reaches his hand out to us and invites us not to bring gifts to him but to accept the gift that he offers of a world that is transformed, that is not just healed but renewed.  As that often overlooked verse of O Holy Night says:  truly he taught us to love one another/his law is love and his gospel is peace/chains shall he break/for the slave is our brother/and in his name all oppression shall cease.  

The world wasn’t ready for that invitation.  Perhaps it’s still not.  But every year this Christmas comes, whether we’re in a church or not.  And every year God breaks into the human story again, shattering all of our expectations by not coming to rule over us but to walk with us down the path of transformation, both for ourselves and for our world.  It’s not just about feeling extra holy or making sure we honor the whole season of Christmas for the next 12 days.  It’s not about hanging on until we can get back to the way things used to be.  Christmas as a moment in time, one that is no longer bound to distant years in Palestine, comes to shatter the world’s expectations and invite us to something far beyond anything the world can give us.  Perhaps, in the midst of a pandemic, when all we are used to, and all that we have thought we have known of Christmas get torn away like the curtain that hides the Wizard, perhaps now our hearts can be so prepared to receive the greatest Christmas gift of all.

                                                                              The sanctuary of Good Shepherd, Asheboro ready for Midnight Mass.


Monday, November 30, 2020

Lessons From the (Current) Apocalypse

 'Jesus said, “In those days, after that suffering, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.

Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in clouds’ with great power and glory. Then he will send out the angels, and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven.

“From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that he is near, at the very gates. Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.

“But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come. It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his slaves in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to be on the watch. Therefore, keep awake—for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn, or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly. And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.”'

--Mark 13: 24-27

Happy New Year!  No, I’m not early, it’s a new year, as far as the Church is concerned.  Rather than starting on January 1, the Christian calendar begins in late November and/or early December with the season of Advent, the preparatory time before Jesus’ birth at Christmas.  So, however you responsibly choose to celebrate New Year’s, do so today and say a prayer that the next year is a lot better than the last! 

But we don’t start our New Year with joyful words from Jesus or a story about his mom and dad in the days before his birth, instead we start with language that is, is in a word, apocalyptic.  “In those days,” Jesus says to his disciples just a few days before his death, “the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be failing from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken…then they will see the Son of Man coming in the clouds with power and great glory.”  Not exactly language we would use to express the hope and excitement of a new year, is it?  But while Jesus’ words might not seem very festive in this holiday season, they can help us understand what has been going on in our world this past year and might even offer us some much-needed good news.

The image featured on the 'Apocalypse' entry page on Wikipedia.

I mention that Jesus’ words from our Gospel reading this week are apocalyptic. That’s a word that often conjures up images of pestilence and plague, famine and disaster, warfare and locusts.  Come to think of it, that kind of sounds like what we have been experiencing, doesn’t it:  an actual plague, more natural disasters than ever recorded for a single year, armed conflicts in Armenia and Ethiopia, and the surge in popularity of authoritarianism here in America.  Oh yeah, and actually locusts!   Some have wondered:  has 2020 been the apocalypse?

Well, no, it’s not THE apocalypse, but it is AN apocalypse.  You see, the word apocalypse simply means “revealing,” so in a very real sense, 2020 has been apocalyptic because it has revealed much about who we are, and a good bit of what has been revealed hasn’t been pretty.  Apocalyptic literature, then, is less about telling the future and more about revealing what is going on in the present moment; Jesus himself makes this clear after his own revealing statement about the coming of the Son of Man: “about that day and hour, no one knows, neither the angels, nor the Son, only the Father.”

The revealing that Jesus’ words offered to Mark’s audience the chaos of what life was like for people after the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, which had just happened around the time Mark’s Gospel was written.  People were in a panic, thinking that this was it, this was when God was finally going to break through and end it all.  Jesus’ words, then, remind them that are to stay awake and be ready, but that no one will know when that day of fulfillment, which we also call the eschaton, or the day of resurrection, or the second coming, will actually arrive.  

What about us, though?  Do Jesus’ words reveal something for us during this year that has been, in more ways than one, apocalyptic? I believe so because, to paraphrase one theologian, when properly unpacked apocalyptic texts provide us with a powerful resource for staying grounded in our faith in the midst of social upheaval.  Jesus’ words to his followers to stay awake, or as Preston Epps puts it in his translation of Mark’s Gospel, “to make a practice of staying awake,” is good news for us.  

Consider the notion of staying awake and think about the growing use of the term “woke.”  There was an article written back in 2017 entitled the ‘Six Degrees of Wokeness.’  It’s become sort of cliché in the past year, but with regard to issues pertaining to social justice, especially the fight against racism, we all need to do the hard work of becoming more and more woke; that is, being mindful of the systems of racism that we participate in and then actively working to dismantle them.  Being “woke” isn’t a destination we reach, it’s a practice we develop, much like what Jesus is saying to his followers

What Jesus’ words also offer—and what all apocalyptic literature including the Book of Daniel and the Revelation of John also offer—is the promise of a day when the truth about the world will be fully revealed.  This is what Jesus is speaking of when he describes the coming of the Son of Man—a line lifted word-for-word from the Book of Daniel.  There will come a day, when all will be revealed, when the world will be fully and totally transformed by the power of God’s love and mercy.  Until then, though, until that big apocalypse, that big revealing, we have moments like these, these little apocalypses, if you will.  The term we often use is “already-not yet.”  Jesus has already revealed himself to the world, but the grand revealing has not yet come.  It is this revealing for which we wait.  This season of Advent, then, is not just about waiting for Jesus’ birth, but also waiting for that grand revealing, that big apocalypse.  

We may not know when it’s going to happen, but like Jesus says, we can monitor the signs all around us, and we can learn from them.  We can observe the reality of the plague of COVID and do all in our power to slow the spread by wearing our masks, keeping our distance, and being vigilant in calling others to do the same.  We can have ears to hear the cries for justice and commit to a practice of staying awake, for the purpose of building a society where the freedom and dignity of all people are respected and upheld.  We can read the apocalyptic signs all around us and prepare not only our hearts for Jesus to be born anew, but prepare our whole world for the revealing of God’s love and mercy that is to come.  What better way to start the new year than to learn from the old one and allow God, through all of the little apocalypses that we encounter, to transform ourselves and our world.  Happy New Year, and welcome to Advent!  

Monday, November 16, 2020

Of Those To Whom Much Is Given, Much Is Required

 'Jesus said, “It is as if a man, going on a journey, summoned his slaves and entrusted his property to them; to one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability. Then he went away. The one who had received the five talents went off at once and traded with them, and made five more talents. In the same way, the one who had the two talents made two more talents. But the one who had received the one talent went off and dug a hole in the ground and hid his master’s money. After a long time the master of those slaves came and settled accounts with them. Then the one who had received the five talents came forward, bringing five more talents, saying, ‘Master, you handed over to me five talents; see, I have made five more talents.’ His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.’ And the one with the two talents also came forward, saying, ‘Master, you handed over to me two talents; see, I have made two more talents.’ 

His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.’ Then the one who had received the one talent also came forward, saying, ‘Master, I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed; so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.’ But his master replied, ‘You wicked and lazy slave! You knew, did you, that I reap where I did not sow, and gather where I did not scatter? Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and on my return I would have received what was my own with interest. So take the talent from him, and give it to the one with the ten talents. For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away. As for this worthless slave, throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’”

--Matthew 25: 14-30

Several years ago I went out to lunch with a colleague who would become one of my closest friends when we both went to seminary.  The blessing he gave that day at lunch, which was the one he gave every single time we ate together, stuck with me. He simply said, “Of those to whom much is given, much is required.  Amen.”  Short and to the point.  My friend had a lot of one-liners—many of which I stole—including this blessing.  Of those to whom much is given, much is required.  

The parable that Jesus offers in this week's Gospel, which is one of his last public teachings prior to his arrest and crucifixion, is often called the Parable of the Talents.  Stop me if you’ve heard preachers prop up this parable during stewardship season, encouraging members of their churches to not be like the third servant who “wasted his talent.”  

An eastern icon of the so-called Parable of the Talents.

I’d like to think that the parable could better be described as the Parable of the Third Servant; I know that doesn’t have quite the same ring to it, but the talents piece isn’t really that important; talents here is a currency, and in Luke’s version of the story Jesus instead uses denarii as the currency in the parable.  The talents are only important in so much as a talent was an astronomically large sum of money: one talent equaled anywhere between 15-20 years of wages for a regular laborer.  That amount of money is laughable—which is a technique Jesus regularly employs in his parables because he has a sense of humor; remember that the Gospel is at its heart, hilarious.  

So let’s look at the actions of these three servants.  What is the motivation of the first two?  It’s to mirror the actions of their master, to do what he would do, which is why they take the money he gives them and invest it.  But the third servant is motivated by fear of his master. He sees him as immoral, a taskmaster, and so the master becomes what the servant fears.  This is a parable not meant to instill fear in people’s hearts—don’t waste what God gives you or you’ll be thrown into the darkness—rather it is a parable warning against giving in to fear.  If fear is what we imagine, if that is our motivation, then that is how we will see and experience God; after all, God may have made us in God’s image, but very often the opposite is also true.  

Fear was at the heart of Jesus’ final teachings in the days leading up to his death. It was fear that kept the religious authorities from hearing Jesus: fear of change, fear of self-awareness, fear of losing what they had, especially material wealth and earthly power.  Certainly, the Parable of the Third Servant speaks to material wealth, for those of us in positions of privilege, as those authorities in Jesus’ time were, we must be ready and willing to use what we have;  Dietrich Bonheoffer put it this way, “The sin of respectable people is running away from responsibility.” 

But every person has a responsibility to use what is given to them, whether privileged or not.  This is what the parable is about.  The third servant doesn’t have as much as the other two, but he is still expected to do something with what he has been given. In other words: of those to whom much is given, much is required.  Even those in Jesus’ crowds who heard this parable, most of whom were the poorest of the poor, could understand that this teaching was about more than material possession.  What had God given them? Was it fear?  Or was it grace?  Whichever one they experienced would be the one their lives would reflect.  

One community that experienced fear and had a hard time figuring out what to do with what God had given them was the church in Thessalonica.  This bunch was poor not only in the material sense, but also so much so in the spiritual sense that Saint Paul had to write to them twice!  

We have heard from I Thessalonians for several weeks now, and to sum up what was going on for this early Christian community: everyone was convinced that Jesus was supposed to have come back already—remember this letter was written roughly 20 years after Jesus’ resurrection and ascension.  When Jesus had not come back everyone got super stressed out:  “What are we supposed to do now?” they asked, “What’s the point of any of this stuff?”  and “If he hasn’t returned, even though he said he would, does that mean we were all wrong?”  You can imagine how fearful they must have been.  How does Paul respond?

'Now concerning the times and the seasons, brothers and sisters, you do not need to have anything written to you. For you yourselves know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night. When they say, “There is peace and security,” then sudden destruction will come upon them, as labor pains come upon a pregnant woman, and there will be no escape! But you, beloved, are not in darkness, for that day to surprise you like a thief; for you are all children of light and children of the day; we are not of the night or of darkness. So then let us not fall asleep as others do, but let us keep awake and be sober; for those who sleep sleep at night, and those who are drunk get drunk at night. But since we belong to the day, let us be sober, and put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation. For God has destined us not for wrath but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us, so that whether we are awake or asleep we may live with him. Therefore encourage one another and build up each other, as indeed you are doing.'

--I Thessalonians 5: 1-11

You are not in darkness, Paul says, you belong to the day—this is a reference to the cult of the Greek god Dionysus which was prominent in Thessalonica and often met for their rituals in the middle of the night.  Because you’re not part of this dark, secretive cult, you should encourage one another and build up each other.  Yes, you think Jesus should have been back by now, but he’s not, so now what do you do?  Hold on strong, he tells them! God is still with you, even if God isn’t there the way you think God should be.  Use what God has given you:  each other!  Be the Church together!  As long as you are together, you will face whatever comes.  Rather than living in fear because Jesus hasn’t come yet, live in the grace that Jesus has already given you, and all manner of things will be well. 

Matthew’s Gospel hadn’t even been written yet, but maybe Paul got word of this parable somehow because his point to the church in Thessalonica is the same point Jesus was trying to make in his final teachings:  if you let fear be your motivation, then you will not only be afraid of God but you will die spiritually, but if you trust what God has given to you—whether it’s a bajillion talents or just one another—you’ll make it. 

Brothers and sisters, like the church in Thessalonica, we are certainly anxious and frustrated:  COVID should have been gone by now.  We should have been back in our churches by now.  Every bit of stress and anxiety we have felt as a Church, a country, and a world over the last 10 months should have ended already. Well, COVID is still here.  We still can’t gather together.  And in some ways the stress and anxiety has only gotten worse. 

So now what do we do?  Do we let fear wreck us, holding us tight and keeping us stuck in ourselves?  Or do we heed Paul’s words to the Thessalonians to keep building one another up?  Do we heed Jesus’ words when he urged the people to not let their fears of what God could do prevent them from taking a risk with what God had already given them?  

Will we have eyes to see and ears to hear the good news that is there for us: perhaps not the good news that God will magically wipe away our sufferings, but that God has given us the incredible gift of grace, which, when cultivated, can give us the strength and courage we need to face our sufferings and to endure, knowing that God is with us.

The religious authorities of Jesus’ day and the Thessalonians in Paul’s day forgot—and most of us in our own day still forget—what God has given to humanity:  we focus so much on the material and lose sight of the gifts of God’s everlasting presence of grace and one another.  Yes, the world is a fearful place right now, absolutely, and fear is mighty powerful!  It keeps us from being brave, like it did to the third servant in the parable. It fills us with dread when things don’t work out the way we expected, like the Thessalonians.  Fear is the voice inside that keeps us from blazing a trail because the well-worn path seems safe and so inviting, to paraphrase the playwright Jonathan Larson.

If we hold onto fear then that is all we will see—a God, and a world, meant to be feared. But fear lives in the dark, in the secret places of our souls, and we are not children of the dark but of the day.  The grace of God is sufficient, as it was then, so now, and ever shall be, world without end.  We have all been given that grace, that presence, and we’ve given one another. What happens to the Church, to our country, and to our world, depends on what we do with those gifts.  Of those to whom much is given, much is required.  

Monday, November 2, 2020

For All the Blessed Saints (We Mean To Be One Too!)

'When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:
"Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 
"Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. 
"Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. 
"Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. 
"Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy. 
"Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. 
"Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
"Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 
"Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you."'
--Matthew 5: 1-12

This past Sunday was the Feast of All Saints, one of our high holy days in the life of the Church.  It is one of my favorite celebrations, but with everything going on, it's been hard to celebrate.  All Saints was supposed to be the day that we returned to public worship, with baptism, incense, and physical Eucharist, but the virus had other ideas. 

How can we be joyful while we are still separated, still stuck in our homes, still held in the grip of COVID-19? How can we remember that we are children of God, as John puts it in his first letter, when we lack engagement with the physical community and liturgical rituals that help remind us of that fact? 

I have personally struggled with remembering that over the past several months.  Priests need church community, too, you know!  It’s been hard, and for good reason.  In the most frustrating times I’ve found myself hanging on to anger and fear much more so than I should, but recently I have been working on reframing, finding some small measure of gratitude in those frustrating moments.  

This isn’t about ignoring the anger or fear but instead acknowledging them and then finding, how shall we say, a blessing, in the midst of them. I’ve taken up a gratitude journal to help me reframe my frustrations, and maybe such a practice could help you process what is going on around you and find some grace, some blessing, in the middle of it all.

Reframing whatever situation we are in is a tremendous gift from God, and it is something that Jesus provides in what may seem like an unusual Gospel text for All Saints Day.  The passage for this week is Matthew is part of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, maybe the most famous and misunderstood piece of that Sermon: the Beatitudes.  

An Eastern mosaic of the Sermon on the Mount.

Here we find Jesus preaching to a crowd who are caught in the grip of fear:  they’re fearful of militarized police, of a serious lack of health care, of persecution based on racial, cultural, and gender identities, of corrupt politicians and fanatical religious authorities that are in league with each other, and a host of other daily struggles that are not unfamiliar to us.  The Beatitudes are Jesus’ way of reframing not only their plight but the very concept of what it means to be blessed by God, and in these declarations, I believe we can find what we need right now.  So let’s take a deep dive into the Beatitudes.  

We start with blessed are the poor in spirit.  Who are the poor in spirit?  For Jesus, they are anyone on the margins, anyone struggling with literal poverty and the message being conveyed to them about their lack of worth by a society that only measures worth in power, prestige, and possessions.  Theirs, Jesus says, is the kingdom of heaven.

Blessed are those who mourn, not only personal grief but the deep wails and lamentations of the current state of the world and how far it is from the fullness of God’s kingdom.  Anyone who is brokenhearted will be comforted, Jesus promises.

Blessed are the meek, which does not imply being some kind of sacred doormat, but rather one who is aware of their identity as God’s oppressed people in the world, who have renounced the violent methods of the very ones doing the oppressing.  These will inherit the earth.

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness; that is, those who actively do the will of God and who long for and work for the kingdom to see it come on earth as it is in heaven.  They will be filled.

Blessed are those who are merciful, who show compassion toward others, for when the time comes they will be shown mercy themselves.

Blessed are the pure in heart, which is not in response to being impure, necessarily, but rather pure as in refined and focused and undiluted—a single-minded devotion to God.  Such folks will, in fact, see God.

And blessed are the peacemakers, which is ironic when we consider that the Roman Emperors had the title of peacemaker after having established the pax romana through brute force and domination.  The peacemakers Jesus lifts up are those who know that redemptive violence is a myth, who work through acts of mercy, devotion to God, and the active pursuit of justice and grace.  These are the children of God, to once again echo the words from John’s First Letter.

At first glance, none of these qualities sound worthy of a blessing, at least not by modern standards:  poor, mournful, meek, hungry and thirsty.  But what do we really mean by blessing?  That is the reframing.  The kind of blessing Jesus pronounces is not one that is seen in the size of our bank account or the number of cars in our driveway—the Beatitudes are VERY anti-Prosperity Gospel.  These blessings are not promises that the struggles people currently face will be magically wiped away or that the corruption and violence seen in the world will be overthrown.  What kind of blessing is this, then?  Do I even want it if it means I have to continue to endure?  Yes, brothers and sisters, because it’s the only kind of blessing that makes it possible for us to endure.  Do you find yourself in the Beatitudes, or at least know of someone whom Jesus would count among the so-called blessed today?  

The poor in spirit are fighting to get by on a daily basis, struggling with disease and debt, without any support from those in positions of authority.  We are all mourning right now for the quarter million lives lost in this country to COVID-19.  While some folks are pushing harder and harder to get “back to normal” while the virus rages, wise leaders among us are cultivating a more meek and gentle approach.  Look on tv each night and you’ll see people hungry and thirsty for righteousness as they protest systemic injustice and beg for people to stop killing them.  The merciful are not repaying violence and hatred with more violence and hatred, but are meeting them with compassion and grace.  The pure in heart are actively pursuing God, knowing that even if they can’t have their Sunday morning routines, they can still study, pray, and be formed.  And the peacemakers, in their non-anxious manner, are calling us to remember that we are all in this thing together.  The Beatitudes, it seems, is actually a perfect reading the Feast of All Saints.

For decades we have had the discussion in this country about public displays of the 10 Commandments.  I’d argue we shouldn’t display the 10 Commandments but rather the Beatitudes.  Maybe by doing so we can reframe what blessing looks like. 

In a time of plague, political upheaval, and fear of every kind, where the things that normally bring us comfort and strength through active engagement are unavailable—like our special church services—we need to be reminded that blessing comes not from anyone or anything out here, but it comes from God, who sees us, who knows us, who calls us each a beloved child, and whose blessings are not predicated on anything but that belovedness.  Those we call saints, in front of whose names we put the word ‘blessed,’ are simply those who knew and understood this, who lived their lives grounded in that truth, and we mean to be one too!

Sunday, October 25, 2020

Love God, Love Neighbor, Love Yourself

'When the Pharisees heard that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together, and one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” He said to him, “’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. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”
Now while the Pharisees were gathered together, Jesus asked them this question: “What do you think of the Messiah? Whose son is he?” They said to him, “The son of David.” He said to them, “How is it then that David by the Spirit calls him Lord, saying,
‘The Lord said to my Lord,
“Sit at my right hand, 
until I put your enemies under your feet”’?
If David thus calls him Lord, how can he be his son?” No one was able to give him an answer, nor from that day did anyone dare to ask him any more questions.'
--Matthew 22: 34-46

Hear what our Lord Jesus Christ saith:  ‘Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, with all thy soul, and with all thy mind.  This is the first and great commandment, and the second is like unto it: thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.  On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.’

If those words sound familiar to you then odds are you’re a Rite I or 1928 Prayer Book Episcopalian.  In the Before Time, pre-COVID, our Sunday morning 8:00 service, which uses older, more traditional language, always read those words from Jesus. Collectively, they are often called the Summary of the Law.  When our Prayer Book was updated in 1979 the Summary of the Law was no longer a mandatory part of our worship, which is why, if you've tuned in for any of our recent online Spiritual Communion services, we don't say it. 

Our Gospel text from Matthew doesn’t use the Elizabethan language of our Rite I 8:00 service, but the point is still made.  Jesus is asked—or rather, tested—by a lawyer to offer what he thinks is the greatest commandment, which was not actually unusual for the time; rabbis were often asked their opinion on all 613 commandments of the Torah—and yeah, there are way, way more than just 10!  This may at first seem like a loaded question—like ‘What’s the greatest amendment to the Constitution?’ (I’m sure you’d get a lot of answers to that one!), but it was normal for rabbis to be asked such a question, and Jesus’ response was a standard one, he quotes the Shema, the great declaration of Deuteronomy 6:5, ‘Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength.’  Every child of Israel knows this verse.  

It not only declares God’s oneness but it remains to this day a declaration that our Jewish siblings put in containers called mezuzahs by their doorposts and wear on their heads and wrists little boxes called tefillin or phylacteries.  This first commandment is pretty standard, no surprises from Jesus here. 

That would have likely satisfied this lawyer’s test, but Jesus does him one better.  He adds another; in fact, Jesus says the second commandment is like the first, ‘love your neighbor as yourself.’  If you know your 10 Commandments—and I’m sure you do—you’ll remember that this isn’t actually the second commandment, which is actually "thou shalt not to make or worship any graven image."  

Here Jesus is quoting Leviticus 19: 18; that is, a completely different book of the Hebrew Bible from the first commandment!  In its original context, this commandment comes at the end of a long list of prohibitions to keep Israel from exploiting the weak and the poor.  All of those ‘thou shalt nots’ get summed up in the full statement of that verse:  You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself.”  

It is clear that, for Jesus, these two verses from different sacred texts are inextricably linked. If we look at the 10 Commandments alone we even see that the first four show us how to be in relationship with God, while the latter six show us how to be in relationship to one another. But Jesus was far from the first teacher to make such a connection. 

Rabbi Hillel, who died six years before Jesus was born, was said to have been challenged by a Gentile to recite the whole of Torah while standing on one foot.  Rabbi Hillel lifted his leg and said, ‘What is hurtful to you do not do to your neighbor; this is the whole of Torah, the rest is the explanation; go and learn.’  There is clearly no love of God without there being love of neighbor; the two are one in the same, and as the First Letter of John reminds us, anyone who proclaims the former but doesn’t show the latter is a liar.

Rabbi Hillel's encounter with the Gentile.

Love God, love your neighbor.  It sounds so simple and is so familiar to us that it’s become something of a Christian cliché.  However, it’s anything but simple.  Consider what it really means to love God with all of our heart, mind, soul, and strength.  To do so means to give all of our allegiance to God and God alone, not the powers and principalities of this world that entice us and beg us for their devotion on a daily basis, especially right now.  To love God also means recognizing the presence of God, the Creator of all things, in the very creation around us and in us.  

Throughout the Bible we are told that human beings are not just a collection of chemicals and bones and dust, but we are made in the very image of God.  Again, this may seem like something of a cliché but we are.  All of us!  It is for that reason that we are, in fact, lovable.  Take away that reality, make people think they are not lovable, not made in God's image, and that’s when the worst of humanity shines through; that’s when it becomes impossible to love our neighbor, and by extension, God.  

One of my favorite modern theologians is the Franciscan friar and teacher Richard Rohr, who, taking after the late Trappist Thomas Merton, often speaks about the false self and the true self.  The false self is constantly trying to win the favor of God because it has been fed the lie that it is not, in fact, lovable, while the true self rests in the knowledge of one’s own belovedness, understanding that being in relationship with God doesn’t mean always being perfect, but it does mean not having to be stuck in the false self.  

Many of us get trapped in that false self, believing we could not possibly be lovable, and so we throw all our love toward our neighbor, and yes, even toward God, but we fail to love ourselves.  This may, at first, feel like we are doing something admirable, sacrificing our own needs for the sake of others, but the more we reject our belovedness, the more easily we succumb to shame—which uses every mistake we’ve ever made to “prove” to us that we are unlovable—and the more we stay in the false self, separated from our true self and the knowledge of God’s love for us.  

We cannot actually love God until we love our neighbor, and we cannot love our neighbor until we love ourselves. This is why when you get on an airplane they tell you, in the event of an emergency, to secure your own oxygen mask before someone else’s.  We have to take care of ourselves before we can begin to care for anyone else. The Gospel of Jesus Christ liberates us from all that keeps us locked in our false selves.  

Secure your own mask.

The rigid legalism showcased by the religious authorities is all about the false self, convincing people that if they don’t follow every letter of the law they will be unworthy of God’s love.  Jesus understands how absurd and harmful this approach is, which is why he turns their own rigidity against them and asks them how the Messiah can be both David’s son and Lord.  They don’t have an answer for him because they can’t think of God in any way beyond their own legalistic power structures or their rudimentary understanding of the relationship between a father and son, and so from that moment they never ask him another question.  

I imagine there was never a person on earth who understood what it meant to dwell in the true self better than Jesus Christ, and for good reason.  As Fr. Rohr again puts it, Jesus didn’t so much come to show us what God looked like—although he certain does do that—but he came to show us what being fully human looks like!  

It looks like being in relationship with God, with one another, and with ourselves.  To be fully human is to be grounded in love of God, which begins in our own hearts and extends to each person we meet, whom we can look at and see the beloved image of God.  Often the ones who cause the most pain towards others are those who do not believe their own belovedness.  

Today Jesus not only gives us good news for a deeply polarized culture, calling us to see the imago dei—the image of God—in our neighbor, but he gives us the free gift of grace, of God’s love for us that is not earned and cannot ever be taken away.

Monday, October 12, 2020

When the Lord Is Our Shepherd

' The LORD is my shepherd; *
I shall not be in want.
He makes me lie down in green pastures *
and leads me beside still waters.
 He revives my soul *
and guides me along right pathways for his Name's sake.
Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I shall fear no evil; *
for you are with me;
your rod and your staff, they comfort me.
You spread a table before me in the presence of those who trouble me; *
you have anointed my head with oil,
and my cup is running over.
Surely your goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, *
and I will dwell in the house of the LORD for ever.'
--Psalm 23 (BCP translation)

Throughout this COVID-tide, I, like many of you, I suspect, have been searching for strength and hope.  The place where I tend most often to find those things is in the words of Scripture.  Perhaps there is no greater piece of Scripture for this unusual and often frightening season of our lives, than the 23rd Psalm.

An Orthodox icon of Jesus as the Good Shepherd

This is actually the third time we have read Psalm 23 this year, the first was back on March 22 on the Fourth Sunday in Lent, and the second was on May 3 on the Fourth Sunday of Easter.  I didn’t talk about Psalm 23 on those days, but as we enter our 8th month of COVID-tide it seems like an appropriate Scripture to unpack.  Maybe, once again, it will give us the strength and hope we need right now.

I remember back in my days as a hospice chaplain that no matter what mental or spiritual state folks were in, they always managed to remember one prayer—the Lord’s Prayer—one song—Amazing Grace—and one Scripture—Psalm 23.  There really seems to be power in this Psalm. It is believed to have been composed around 1000 years before the time of Jesus by King David, who wrote it as a hymn of praise to the God who never seemed to abandon him, even when made some pretty terrible decisions or when people were literally trying to kill him.  It is a song of trust on the part of David—or whoever wrote it—and assurance on the part of God.  

It happens in the very first line: “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.”  This has some radical implications when we consider that we live in a culture that teaches us to want everything.  Power, prestige, possessions.  Everywhere we look we are bombarded with messages that tell us what we want, and what we want is just about anything but God. It is particularly revolutionary for us to proclaim that because the Lord is our shepherd, we shall not want; that is, by making this statement we claim that God is the only real necessity of life.  In this time when we have an awful lot of wants—I want to go to a movie theatre, I want to see this church full again, I want to hug my father and sister the next time I see them—it takes a lot of trust to say that the Lord fulfills all my wants. The rest of the Psalm, then, expands upon this statement of trust.

That trust is itself revolutionary when we consider that rulers in the ancient world were known as the shepherds of their people.  Their job was to use the power and resources they had to protect and provide for their subjects, but they very often failed to do so.  For the Psalmist to declare God to be their shepherd also means that “Fill in the blank corrupt ruler in power this moment” isn’t.  For folks in Jesus’ day who prayed this Psalm, it meant Caesar wasn’t their shepherd.  For us, even now, as we pray this Psalm our declaration is the same, that no president, governor, monarch, or ruler of any kind is our shepherd except God.  In this time of partisanship that is so incredibly volatile, this is Good News, which we especially need to hear at a time when public health and basic human need are increasingly politicized.  In contrast to the failure of earthly rulers, God is the one the Psalm declares who will be what a shepherd and ruler should be.  As shepherds convey strength and give courage to their flock, so does our God, and the rest of the Psalm tells us how.  

Verses 2 and 3 show how God provides all that we need.  For sheep, green pastures mean food, and still waters mean drink, and to be in right paths for sheep means that danger is averted and proper shelter is attained; thus, God is the shepherd who provides food, drink, and shelter, the basic necessities of life, to all of God’s flock.  Nobody goes lacking for any of these in a world where the Lord is the Shepherd. 

Verse 4 is both the structural and theological center of the Psalm.  At the moment of greatest threat, and peril, God still provides, even if all God provides is a presence through the valley of the shadow of death.  I suspect this is the verse that tugs most at our hearts, especially now.  Honestly, brothers and sisters, it sure feels like a deep, dark, long valley that we are in right now. Sickness and death lie all around us, and there seems to be little consolation or guidance from those in authority. It is in times like these that we need to be reminded of God’s promise to us reflected in this Psalm.  It isn’t a promise to magically fix our problems, but it is a promise of an abiding, everlasting presence that tells us that, even when we are in the deepest valley, God is there with us. This is absolutely true right now!

Then the Psalmist addresses God directly, reinforcing the closeness and familiarity of God:  YOU are with me, says the Psalmist. The word we translate often as rod also means scepter, connoting God’s majesty and power, again reminding us that where human frailty is lacking, God’s strength abides. Yet even in that strength we find care, as the Psalmist declares “your rod and your staff, they comfort me,” which is odd to say about two objects of authority sometimes used as weapons. We come with our fears and anxiety before God and find them quietened because in God’s strength we find rest. God’s provision is reliable because God is the sovereign we can depend on when all others fail, and not even the darkest, most deadly threat can separate us from God’s presence.  

In the 5th and 6th verses the metaphor shifts from shepherd to a host that brings the Psalmist to a meal in the ever-welcoming house of the Lord.  Perhaps this line tugs at our heartstrings right now because it foreshadows not only Jesus’ ministry around various tables but our own sacred meal of the Holy Eucharist, which many of us have been unable to physically partake in during COVID-tide. Nevertheless, we are still invited, even if it is simply through the meditations of our hearts, to come to the table of the Lord, where we are still fed by God in our hearts by faith.  The earliest followers of Jesus remembered his table ministry and believed that whenever they shared a meal—literally, ANY meal, not just the Eucharist—Jesus was there, that ANY table could, in fact, be the Lord’s table.  Right now you may not be able to gather at your favorite restaurant with your closest friends, but even if you are with your family who are quarantining with you, or even if it is a table for one, the same banquet is still laid out for you, and God still fills you with the very bread of heaven.  And you may not be able to go to your church and get the Eucharist, but that’s why we celebrate Spiritual Communion, even when we can’t share in this meal physically together. What’s more, this Psalm offers us the greatest of hopes, that through the reconciling and transformative power of the love of God, even our enemies will sit with us and share in that holy table fellowship.  In a time of such divisiveness, we need to be reminded of that.

The Psalm concludes with the image of anointing. As David was anointed with oil on his head, we are anointed, physically at our baptism and spiritually each day, with the Holy Spirit.  That anointing gives us power to know the goodness and mercy of God—which the Psalmist says follow us, though a better translation is that they pursue us.  When we pause long enough to take a deep breath from and rest from the insanity of the world, that goodness and mercy catch up to us and remind us of our place in God’s family, of our dwelling forever in the house of the Lord. 

We need this Psalm right now, brothers and sisters.  I pray that, as you face your own valleys, as you look at the state of our country and our world, you will remember who the real shepherd is, who will always provide, always comfort, always give you the gift of an everlasting presence. May this Psalm strengthen your trust in God and provide God’s assurance for you during your most vulnerable times.

Monday, September 28, 2020

I Am Because We Are

'If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. 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,
who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God 
as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave, 
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
he humbled himself 
and became obedient to the point of death-- 
even death on a cross.
Therefore God also highly exalted him
and gave him the name 
that is above every name,
so that at the name of Jesus
every knee should bend, 
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue should confess
that Jesus Christ is Lord, 
to the glory of God the Father.
Therefore, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed me, not only in my presence, but much more now in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.'
--Philippians 2: 1-13

In Star Wars, Episode I: The Phantom Menace—and yes, you read that right—there is an early conflict between the human population of the planet Naboo and the underwater creatures called the Gungans.  When the droid army of the nefarious Trade Federation invades the planet, Jedi Knights Obi-Wan Kenobi and Qui Gon Jinn try to get the Gungans to help the humans above.  When Gungan leader Boss Nass comments that—and I’m quoting here—“We-sa no care-en about da Naboo!”  Obi-Wan reminds him that the two populations form a symbiotic circle:  “What happens to one of you effects the other.  You must understand this," the Jedi tells him. 

Boss Nass isn’t swayed, but later, once those droid armies come for them, the Gungans agree to aid the people of Naboo and drive away the invaders.  It only happens when the two very different populations realize that their existence depends on each other.  It may not be the most popular of the films, but Episode I will still preach.

Boss Nass, Gungan leader, from Star Wars, Episode I

What the Gungans and Naboo finally realize is a concept called in the Zulu language of southern Africa, ubuntu.  Loosely translated, ubuntu means ‘I am because we are.’  The 76th General Convention of the Episcopal Church, back in 2009, used ubuntu as its theme, and several smaller diocesan conventions—including my then home diocese of Southwestern Virginia—used ubuntu as their theme as well.   I am because we are.  

Archbishop Desmond Tutu of Cape Town, South Africa called ubuntu the “essence of being human.” What is at the heart of ubuntu is the truth that nothing on this planet exists in isolation.  We are all connected—humans of every kind of tribe, the birds of the air, the fish of the sea, the trees, the rocks, even the bugs crawling in the corners of our kitchen.  

Humans, though, are the only creattures that can choose whether or not to accept this fact, and so we often push others away.  Sometimes we do this because we believe we have to be strong individuals and must go it alone. Sometimes we do this because our tribal instincts take over and we refuse to accept that someone of another class, another race, another religion, or another tribe could possibly share anything in common with us.  Regardless of the reason, whenever we push others away we go against the spirit of ubuntu, forgetting, as Obi Wan said, what happens to one of us effects all of us.

Nelson Mandala, another South African who, like Archbishop Tutu, fought tirelessly to end the evils of apartheid in his home country, described ubuntu this way:  a traveler through a country might stop in a village, and without even asking for them, receive food and shelter.  He needn’t ask because the villagers understand that this stranger is like them, on a journey.  Ubuntu doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t try to enrich ourselves on our own journey, merely that we must understand that we are all on this journey together.  I am because we are. 

Writing much earlier than Archbishop Tutu or Mr. Mandela, Saint Paul nevertheless understood the principle of ubuntu, which is at the heart of this section of his letter to the church in Phillipi that we read this week. He implores the people of this diverse and somewhat fractured community to be of the same mind and to have the same love, to do nothing from selfish ambition and to look to the interests of others.  To do so, Paul says, is to put on the same mind that was in Christ Jesus.  So what did his mind look like?

Jesus absolutely understood the concept of ubuntu.  His message was good news for the poor, the sick, and the outcast, and a call for the healthy, wealthy, and privileged to understand how connected they all were.  Like the prophets of old, Jesus called those in comfortable positions to remember what he called the poor in spirit—those who were on the margins of society, those who had been forgotten by the elites—and to see them as beloved siblings in the household of God.  That sounds a lot like ubuntu. What does it take, then, for people to live into this idea?  

Paul says that Jesus did not regard his equality with God as something to be exploited, but instead emptied himself.  The word translated as ‘emptied’ is kenosis.  It is a word Paul comes back to a total of five times—here, and then twice in his first Letter to the Corinthians, once in his second letter, and finally in his letter to the Romans.  This emptying employed by Jesus is what Paul invites his listeners to practice. It requires people to first be aware of their own power and privilege; Jesus, after all, was perfectly aware of his divine nature, but he still chose to humble himself so as to lift others us. Jesus didn’t have to live this way, but he chose to, so that we who proclaim him as our Lord may follow; so that we may humble ourselves, empty ourselves, because we know that we cannot succeed unless everyone succeeds.  

This is ubuntu, the recognition of our interconnectedness, and to be Christ-like, to be little Christs ourselves, is to see these connections between me, you, them, everyone and everything.  As Martin Luther King put it in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail, “I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be, and you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be.”  

This invitation to kenosis, to ubuntu, is good news for us right now.  We are splintered and fragmented now more than anytime that most of us can remember.  At the core of this fragmentation, I have come to believe, is our inability to see just how connected we all are, and when we don’t see the connection it becomes a lot easier to not care about each other.  Forgetting our connection leads us to make choices that are based only on our own individual needs and wants, which, at best, leaves others fending for themselves, and at worst, puts them in actual danger.  

Perhaps nowhere do we see this play out better than the conversation around the wearing of masks in public spaces.  When a mandate comes down requiring us to do so I often hear the same response that it infringes on individual rights.  But what would Jesus say about this?  What does his example of kenosis and the African model of ubuntu have to teach us in this moment?  If we empty ourselves, perhaps we could see that to wear our mask is not so much about our own comfort but about the protection of others, since we can easily give off the coronavirus without even having symptoms.  If we remember ubuntu—I am because we are—we might be able to acknowledge that our own wants and desires can only really be met within the context of a greater community—church, city, state, country, and world—and that any freedom we claim to have that does not respect the needs of the whole community is a false freedom and a contradiction of the very life Jesus calls us into.

The first in-person gathering of our parish since March, where everyone was masked and socially distanced.

Paul encourages us to be imitators of Christ, which doesn’t mean being robots or sheeple, totally forgoing any sense of a personal identity.  I suspect to be an imitator of Christ looks like realizing that there is more at stake in this world than my own wants and desires, that our lives are all interconnected.  Accepting such a reality requires surrender, which is hard.  Our society doesn’t much care for surrender when it is so focused on one’s own personal life choices.  

But that’s what it takes: surrendering the self to ubuntu, to the truth that we are in this thing together—not just the pandemic but the activity of living itself.  We are all connected to each other and to our world .  Jesus knew this.  If one of us is in danger, we are all in danger.  If one of us dies, we all mourn.  If the earth cries out as the waters rise and the forests burn, all creation everywhere is affected. We can only really know freedom and life when everyone and everything in our community—church, city, state, country, and world—understands how dependent we are on one another.  What happens to one of us affects all of us.  We must understand this. 

That is what Jesus offers, and when we empty ourselves as he did, when we accept and live into the truth that I only am because we all are, then the same mind will be in us as was in Christ Jesus.

Sunday, September 13, 2020

How Many Times Must We Forgive?

 'Peter came and said to Jesus, “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” Jesus said to him, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.

“For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves. When he began the reckoning, one who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him; and, as he could not pay, his lord ordered him to be sold, together with his wife and children and all his possessions, and payment to be made. So the slave fell on his knees before him, saying, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ And out of pity for him, the lord of that slave released him and forgave him the debt. But that same slave, as he went out, came upon one of his fellow slaves who owed him a hundred denarii; and seizing him by the throat, he said, ‘Pay what you owe.’ Then his fellow slave fell down and pleaded with him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’ But he refused; then he went and threw him into prison until he would pay the debt. When his fellow slaves saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their lord all that had taken place. Then his lord summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?’ And in anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he would pay his entire debt. So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”'

--Matthew 18: 21-35

I don’t know about you, but I’m the kind of person that generally just likes to be told what to do.  It’s easier that way, wouldn’t you agree?  As long as I know the rules, know what I should do, there won’t be any problems.  Ever.  Right? 

But sometimes the rules get muddy.  In the movie Office Space the character of Joanna is required to wear 15 pieces of flair for her job at Chatchki’s Restaurant.  She begrudgingly does what she is told and wears 15 buttons along her suspenders, but then her boss scolds her for not being like Bryan, who wears 37 pieces—we all know a Bryan at work, don’t we?  Why not just make the required number 37?  Why punish her for following the rule—it’s buttons on suspenders, for crying out loud!

Joanna and her flair.

And then there are cases where the spirit of the rule gets lost.  This is what Jesus addresses over and over again in the Gospels.  It is not that he is against the rules prescribed in the Torah and Talmud—far from it—but what Jesus sees again and again is people who follow the rules only because they have to, only doing the bare minimum so as to stay in God’s good graces.


The question presented to Jesus in this reading from Matthew’s Gospel is how many times a person must forgive someone who asks them for forgiveness.  According to the Talmud the answer is seven, and no more.  That is the expectation, which is why Peter asks if that’s correct—likely expecting Jesus to give him a pat on the back for remembering or applauding how merciful he is to forgive that many times.  But what he really wants to know is, “What’s the minimum number of times I can forgive a person and still be right with God?”  Which is why Jesus gives him the answer that he does:  ἕως  ἑβδομηκοντάκις  ἑπτά.   

 The literal translation is “until 70 times seven.”  Our New Revised Standard Version sadly translates this to 77 times, which is a lot, but it misses the point.  The number 7 in Hebrew is the number associated with God, and the number 70 is associated with perfection. 


To forgive 70 times seven does not mean that Jesus is making the minimum number for forgiving a person 490—which is what 70 x 7 is—but it is Jesus’ way of telling Peter that forgiveness is not a commodity to be reckoned on a calculator.  The number of times we should forgive is a number tied directly into the very heart of God, which means it is limitless, and to use the language of numbers when contemplating forgiveness, as if it’s about doing the least amount and still getting rewarded by God, is inappropriate and theologically inaccurate. 


In short, it’s not about 77 times or 490 times.  The number is meant to sound so astronomically high that nobody could ever hope to achieve it.  The use of absurdly high numbers is something Jesus incorporates a lot into his teachings, including in the parable that he offers in response to Peter’s question.  In the parable a servant owes his master 10,000 talents.  To give you some perspective, that is the equivalent of a day’s worth of wages for 150,000 years!  It’s more than the annual budget of the entire Roman province where these folks lived. Let that sink in. 


There is literally no way this man will ever pay off such a debt.  And that is the point.  When he pleads with his master for mercy it is granted.  But when that same servant runs into another who owes him 100 danarii, which was about a day’s wage, he shows no such mercy.  Of course, when the forgiving master finds out what has happened he punishes the servant that was unwilling to forgive his neighbor. 


The Parable of the Unforgiving Debtor in stained glass form

There is a great deal that Jesus has to teach us through this parable. Peter, like many of us, just wants to know what is the rule for forgiveness that he should follow.  But Jesus understands that this kind of mindset can cause us to forget the spirit of such a rule, to be concerned only with doing what is expected of us and nothing more, taking the relational component out of the rule entirely.  The 77 times—or until 70 times seven—is a reflection of God’s unending, boundless forgiveness for us, which is reflected in the astronomical debt that the master forgives in the parable. 


This is how we are to think of forgiveness, not as something quantifiable, but as an invitation into the vulnerable power of God.  Are we willing to let our sense of forgiveness reflect God’s?  Are we actively working to be in relationship with others the way God is in relationship with us? 


This teaching illustrates how relationships often work:  we go to God for forgiveness and God grants it to us—we know this because the priest tells us so each Sunday—but we seldom show the same level of mercy to each other.  There is an intrinsic notion of ‘pay it forward’ when it comes to God’s forgiveness for us, which we rarely reflect because we’re concerned with what is fair or what we or others deserve. But forgiveness is about restoring relationships, both to God and one another. 


Still, we cannot ignore the very real fact that the same ones that remind us of God’s forgiveness often encourage us to keep forgiving those who continuously abuse us. We all know we should forgive others, yes, but what does Jesus’ message mean for the woman who keeps forgiving the spouse who continuously beats her, or the person who keeps coming back to the church community that won’t honor the full expression of their identity?  Well, they should just try to forgive and forget, we often hear, but this places the onus of forgiveness on the victim, which does not affect any real change; in fact, it often aggravates the situation and heaps a load of guilt on those who are already hurting. 


It must be noted here that while the teaching in the Torah and Talmud is that one should forgive a person who has wronged them up to seven times, they are only meant to do so if that person asks for forgiveness and is genuinely contrite about it. Non-apologies, which we often see today?  Not allowed. According to this rule the victim is never expected to flippantly forgive a person who keeps hurting them without remorse.  Jesus understood this; remember last week when we were reminded that if a person shows no remorse then they are to be treated, in Jesus’ words, “as a tax collector or a Gentile,” that is, as someone we are to still love and commit into God’s care, albeit from afar. 

Jesus’ call to us that we are to keep forgiving well beyond seven times is not a condoning of hurtful behavior or an encouragement for people to remain in abusive relationships, and certainly not a condemnation of the original rule.  Instead, Jesus is trying to get us to see that to forgive is to make a conscious choice to release the person who has wounded us from the sentence of our judgment, however justified that judgment may be.  It represents a choice to leave behind our resentment and desire for retribution, however fair such punishment may seem.  The behavior remains condemned and there are still consequences, but forgiveness means the original wound’s power to hold us trapped behind a wall of shame and fear is broken.  We are only ever able to do this because human forgiveness is rooted in divine forgiveness, which is the point of the parable.


This teaching from Jesus does encourage us to keep forgiving the person who comes back to us again and again with a contrite heart, but there is also a lesson here for us to keep coming back and seeking forgiveness ourselves, to do the hard, self-reflective work of seeing how we as both individuals and communities have profited from being unmerciful—just as the first servant in the parable profited off his neighbor. 


It’s not about reaching a magic number, doing the bare minimum just so we can say we’re following the rules, or forgiving and forgetting. It’s about restoring our relationship with God and one another. Right now, brothers and sisters, our country, our world is in need of such restoration.  But restoring relationships is messy, tough work, which takes time and effort, which is why both seeking forgiveness and asking for it is a spiritual practice.  We have to do it day after day.  Our relationships with one another are rooted in our relationship with God, and, as a certain prayer reminds us, it is by seeking forgiveness of our trespasses that we may forgive those who trespass against us.