Common Ground

Sunday, September 17, 2017 || Proper 19A || Romans 14:1-12; Matthew 18:21-35

My best friend from seminary is a man named Bret. Back in 2005, Bret and I bonded over our shared love of both Star Trek and Jesus, and our friendship has remained solid all these years. But there’s one thing Bret and I have never agreed on. He’s a high church Anglocatholic, who loves all the smells and bells, all the pomp and circumstance he can stuff into a celebration of the Holy Eucharist. You probably know by now that I am…well…not that. I prefer simpler, unadorned worship.

Now such a difference of opinion could have led us to part ways because Bret could claim I didn’t care about the sacrament of Holy Communion. And I could claim he put so many trappings around the sacrament that its true meaning was lost.* Churches have broken away from each other for far less than this particular difference of opinion. Indeed, a few hundred years ago, people were burned at the stake for espousing one or the other viewpoint. Continue reading “Common Ground”

The Words on Jesus’ Lips

Sermon for Sunday, November 20, 2016 || Christ the King C || Luke 23:33-46

I was at the Annual Convention for the Episcopal Church in CT this Sunday, so a pair of dedicated parishioners delivered these words for me. Thanks, John and Craig.

Today, on this final Sunday of the church’s year, we celebrate the “kingship” of Christ or (put another way) the “reign of Christ.” The eternal “reign of Christ” stretches out from Christ the King and supplants the lesser things that attempt to reign in this world and in our lives. When we turn our attention away from these lesser (yet louder) things – power, money, fame, and the like – we can see and participate in the greater (yet quieter) reality of Christ’s reign.

The territory over which Christ reigns encompasses the whole of Creation, and yet we tend to cede our personal territory to the lesser things that seek to rule because it seems like the normal and acceptable thing to do. But there’s the rub: Jesus never did the normal or the acceptable thing, so, of course, his reign subverts the expectations of the world. Continue reading “The Words on Jesus’ Lips”

10,000 Talents

Sermon for Sunday, September 14, 2014 || Proper 19A || Matthew 18:21-35

10000talentsImagine with me the Apostle Peter in prison in Rome near the end of his life. He is talking to his cellmate, a new convert to the Way of Jesus Christ.

I’ve been thinking about what you said last night – about getting arrested at your first ever gathering of Jesus’ followers, about wishing you had had the chance to talk to your mother before being thrown in this cell with me, about feeling guilty for having lied to her as to where you were going. You seek forgiveness, and you’re not sure you’ll ever have the chance to ask for it. For both your sakes, I hope you do. Son, there’s nothing as precious as forgiveness for making a life worthwhile. I wish I had understood that when I was your age.

I understood so little back in the days when Jesus was with us. I was headstrong and curious, but I was curious about the wrong things. If I had known then what I know now, I would have asked different questions. Instead of asking Jesus about quantities and statistics, I would have asked about values and purpose. I remember this one time, I asked about forgiveness. Well, not about the practice of forgiveness, but about how often I was obligated to forgive my brother or sister. And knowing Jesus to be the generous sort, I shot high. Seven times seemed a bit excessive, but still reasonable. Seven is, after all, a number that, in my culture, evokes completion.

For once Jesus answered the question I asked rather than the one he wished I had asked. And yet, as he always did, he answered it in his own unique, unexpected, and unrelentingly gracious way. I remember him raising his eyebrows and tilting his head to one side. It was his, “Seriously, Peter?” look. Bartholomew used to do a spot on impression of it. “Not seven times,” Jesus said. “Try seventy-seven times.” Now, he could apparently see me doing math in my head, so before I finished my multiplication table, he made his outrageous hyperbole clear.

He told a story about a slave who didn’t understand forgiveness, and this slave owed his master 10,000 talents. You don’t use talents where you’re from? Let’s see: 10,000 talents is equal to…about 150,000 years worth of wages.* You see what I mean about Jesus’ hyperbole. This slave had a debt that neither he, nor the next hundred generations of his family could ever hope to pay off. You wonder how he ever accumulated that much debt, but Jesus never went into that part of the story.

But his master forgives it all. Just waves his hand, and the slave is forgiven. If it were me, I think I’d about float away with such a weight lifted off my chest. But this fellow doesn’t float. No, he sinks. He goes out and demands the 100 denarii another slave owes him. That’s only about three months wages – a laughably tiny amount compared to his own forgiven debt. Makes you wonder about the nerve of some people or their lack of compassion or just plain lack of decency. But don’t be too quick to count yourself out of such a group. I’m in it. We’re all in it some of the time.

This story has stuck with me all these years. It reminds me of the prayer Jesus taught us. You might have said it at the gathering before you were arrested. Do you know the line I’m thinking of? “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” Now what’s the line right before it? “Give us this day our daily bread.”

I prayed Jesus’ prayer for years before I ever saw a connection between these two phrases. I always said them in isolation. I prayed for my daily sustenance. Then I prayed for the capacity to offer and receive forgiveness. It must have been fifteen or more years after Jesus sent his Holy Spirit to guide us when the two lines finally joined for me. There was a big council of the various groups that had sprung up around Jesus. People came from all over. Paul was there – you may have heard of him. I don’t want to bore you with the issues we discussed, but suffice to say tempers got heated. There were arguments, rancor, vitriol spat back and forth. I gave as good as I got, I’m sorry to say. I left the council with the taste of bile in my mouth. And for days and days after, that’s all I could taste. Any food I tried to eat made me so nauseated. I didn’t eat for a long time. I started wasting away.

During those days of unintentional fasting, I continued praying Jesus’ prayer. I had my daily bread, but I couldn’t stomach it. I had been forgiven by our Father in heaven – to the tune of those 10,000 talents in the story. But I had not practiced forgiveness myself. I had not let it flow from my heart, as Jesus taught. Instead, I had relished the anger I had for my opponents at the council. For those first days, the bile I tasted was like a war wound proudly worn.

But as food continued to turn to ash in my mouth, I realized that my stubborn refusal to forgive was the cause. When the desire to forgive finally returned, so did my appetite. And the return of my daily bread gave me the strength to ask for forgiveness from my opponents and grant it, too. From then on, the two lines of Jesus’ prayer have gone together: “Give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those you trespass against us.”

You see, my young friend, forgiveness is not just something we do occasionally. Like our daily bread sustaining us each and every day, forgiveness is a posture that we can employ all the time, an attitude that leads to open, trusting, caring, and fulfilling relationships. Forgiveness is an act of grace, a gift given or received whether or not it is deserved.

That’s why Jesus told me to forgive 77 times. He didn’t mean exactly 77. He didn’t mean for us to take out our accounting ledgers. No. Just look at the number. Two sevens. Two instances of completion. A beginning and an end. A life made complete by the grace-filled act of forgiveness.

So if you ever get out of this cell, my son, I hope you reunite with your mother in order to ask for her forgiveness. But don’t stop with just that one instance. Make your life one in which you never grow accustomed to the angry taste of bile in your mouth. As your daily bread sustains you, remember that offering and receiving forgiveness are parts of your sustenance, as well. And through them you partner with God in nourishing this hollow and starving world. We all have a tendency to sink in the mire, like the wicked slave in the story. But God has already forgiven our 10,000 talent debts. In response, make such outrageous and extravagant forgiveness one of purposes of your life. And instead of sinking, you will float on the wind of grace.

* The calculation about the 10,000 talents comes from this article by Karl Jacobson.

Three Words

 (Sermon for Sunday, November 24, 2013 || Christ the King Year C || Luke 23:33-46)

Today, on this final Sunday of the church’s year, we celebrate the “kingship” of Christ or (put another way) the “reign of Christ.” I prefer this second word because “kingship” conjures up for me images of thrones and jousting and ladies bestowing tokens on knights who catch their eye. Possibly, I’ve read too many novels in the “historical fantasy” genre. But more than that, the word “reign” just feels broader and more energetic. The eternal “reign of Christ” stretches out from Christ the King and supplants the lesser things that attempt to reign in this world and in our lives. When we turn our attention away from these lesser (yet louder) things – power, money, fame, and the like – we can see and participate in the greater (yet quieter) reality of Christ’s reign.

The territory over which Christ reigns encompasses the whole of Creation, and yet we tend to cede our personal territory to the lesser things that seek to rule because it seems like the normal and acceptable thing to do. But there’s the rub: Jesus never did the normal or the acceptable thing, so, of course, his reign subverts the expectations of the world.

Speaking of expectations – show of hands – how many of you expected to hear the story of Jesus’ crucifixion when you came to church this morning? Yeah, I didn’t think so. A little jarring, wasn’t it? We’re about as far from Good Friday as we can get on the calendar, and yet we read this story today. So my question is: why?

RubensCrucifixion Well, the easy answer is that the reading speaks of Jesus being a king and today is Christ the King Sunday. But this sermon has about seven minutes left in it, so I should probably say more than that, right?

While reading this story may seem strange, no other passage of the Gospel sheds more light on Christ’s reign than this one which recounts his torturous crucifixion. On the cross, Jesus was expected to succumb to the agony of the nails driven through his wrists and feet. He was expected to be ashamed of his nakedness. He was expected to cry out for pity’s sake and beg for mercy even as his breath came short and ragged because of the slow asphyxiation the cross delivers.

The normal and acceptable thing to do on the cross was to whimper your way to your last pitiful breath, all for the pleasure of Rome. But remember, Jesus never did the normal or the acceptable thing.

He was expected to show agony and shame and to cry out for mercy to an empire that never showed any. But instead, in the midst of his torture, he spoke three kind, generous words, words that echo through history and come to us and show us what Christ’s reign is really about. The cross magnifies the power of these three words because they stand in stark contrast to what the cross represents. The cross represents domination, separation, and fear. And yet, while nailed to its wood, Jesus spoke words of forgiveness, relationship, and trust. When we live into the reality dreamt by these three words, we cede our personal territory back to the reign of Christ and the lesser things slink off in defeat.

First, forgiveness. The sound of the hammer’s echo is still reverberating when Jesus speaks his first word. He looks down from the cross, sees his captors gambling for his clothing, grubbing over bloody scraps of cloth, and he says, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.” Forgive them: my betrayers, my torturers, my murderers. Forgive them. I have trouble forgiving the guy who cuts me off in traffic, and here’s Jesus choosing to use his last breaths to forgive those who numbered those breaths. What does he know that we forget all the time? What about forgiveness places it squarely in the center of Christ’s reign?

Jesus knows that forgiveness is a much larger concept than mere pardoning of misdeeds. Forgiveness is both an action and a state of being. When we forgive, we choose not to let anger, isolation, and vengeance reign in our lives. Forgiveness allows us to let go of these lesser things that, in the long run, can damage us irreparably. Writer Anne Lamott puts it this way: “Not forgiving is like drinking rat poison and then waiting for the rat to die.” Forgiveness releases us from the damaging power of brooding malice, of getting even. In their place, we find Christ’s reign, and with it the healing of brokenness and the bestowing of generosity of spirit.

Second, relationship. The sound of the thief’s request hangs hopeful in the air. And Jesus says, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.” You will be with me. I can’t think of a more wonderful promise for Jesus to make. With these words, he reminds us that the cross, which dominates the scene, is just a passing thing. The separation it stands for is one of those lesser things that tries to rule, but which will ultimately fail.

Death seems so final, the pinnacle of separation, but in Christ’s reign, death is just another passing thing. In his resurrection, Jesus demonstrates the utter lengths he goes to be with us forever. He proclaims this promise to the thief on the cross and he fulfills this promise in our lives when he claims our personal territory as part of his reign. The thief himself speaks of his just condemnation as a criminal, and yet Jesus doesn’t see this as a barrier to relationship. Rather, Jesus sees the thief’s sin as a reason for relationship. In the reign of Christ, our sin separates us from God; but, in a mysterious cosmic paradox, our sin does not separate God from us. We may cede our personal territory to such a lesser thing as sin, but the territory, in the end, belongs to Christ. He’s not going to let passing things like sin and death defeat his presence and relationship in our lives.

Third, trust. With his last breath, Jesus cries out, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.” Another translation says, “Father, into your hands I entrust my life.” With these words, Jesus once and for all destroyed the power of the cross, which is a symbol for the power of fear. The Romans used this torture device precisely because it struck fear into the hearts of those living under Roman rule. But Jesus knows that trust is the antidote for fear.

The reign of Christ is a place where fear finds no foothold. Fear reduces us to selfish hoarders, whose lives are scarred always by the thought of “never enough.” But trust expands us, makes us generous givers, and vaults us into the reign of Christ, where the “never” of “never enough” falls away. When we trust God, we let go of the fear that grips us. Indeed, the act of simply attempting to trust God is in itself an act of trust. So even when we are bad at trusting, each attempt is a little skirmish that God wins over fear. Trust allows us to see past the deserted island of fear and view the ocean of God’s presence surrounding it. When we step off the island and into the water, we find ourselves floating in God and trusting God to keep us from sinking.

Forgiveness. Relationship. Trust. These are the words on the lips of Jesus as he hangs on the cross. Forgiveness. Relationship. Trust. These are the ways Jesus invites us to participate in his reign. We might be tempted to cede our personal territory to the lesser things that seek to rule us. But in the end that secession is a mere illusion because our personal territory has never been ours to cede. We belong to Christ. We live in his reign. By the standards of the world, Christ’s reign is neither normal nor acceptable. But Jesus never did the normal or the acceptable thing. And nor should we.

Do You See this Woman?

(Sermon for Sunday, June 13, 2010 || Proper 6, Year C, RCL || Luke 7:36—8:3)

Every once in a while in my preaching, I’m going to ask you to imagine that I am a character in the story we’ve just heard. I will speak in the voice of that character and invite you to bring your own imagination to the story. This is an old technique for exploring the scripture going back to the sixteenth century’s St. Ignatius of Loyola and before him to the ancient Jewish Rabbis. So, imagine with me a letter written by Simon the Pharisee the day after his dinner party.

Simon, a servant of the Lord God and Pharisee faithful under the law, to Judith, my dearest sister and confidant: Peace to you and to your house.

I thank God for you every time I write to you since you are one of those rare people whom I know I can trust with my most private affairs. I smile as I write this because you yourself pointed out in your last letter that I only seem to write when I am vexed. And yes, this observation holds true today. I am vexed. I have so many questions, which I’m sure have answers, but I don’t know if I want to hear those answers.

By this point, I’m sure you’ve heard of the teacher from Nazareth who has been making the circuit throughout the region. I invited this Jesus to my house for the evening meal, as is my custom with all the rabbis visiting town. You know I have a soft spot for these provincial teachers who venture out of their backwater villages into the wider world. I enjoy their dusty, local wisdom, and their eyes always grow wide when they see the spread of my table. Never has one spoken words I could not predict. Never has one challenged me. Never has one planted festering questions in my heart.

Until he spoke up last night. I had heard stories about Jesus, but they were the same ludicrously incredible stories I always hear when the gullible discover hope. He forecast a huge catch of fish. He made a leper’s skin clean. He raised a widow’s son from the dead. I tell you, sister, the masses are never satisfied unless they have something sensational to chatter about. You know that I’ve always been good at reading people – but I confess, I misread Jesus from the very beginning. He may be from a provincial backwater, but he spoke with an authority I’ve never heard before. And he said such unnerving things. His voice continues to echo in my mind. But I get ahead of myself.

Here’s what happened. Dinner was progressing nicely. My guests were appropriately appreciative, and I was appropriately modest. But as the steward came around to refill our cups, he very nearly tripped over the prone body of a woman. She lay at Jesus’ feet, a quivering heap of streaming tears and unbound hair. A full minute passed before my shock subsided, and I realized that this trespasser, disguised by her reddened face and tangled curls, was in fact someone I had met several times. She is notorious in the district. Independently wealthy after a string of ancient husbands, she adds to her fortune by lending money at exorbitant rates of interest. Desperate people will take any avenue open to them, God knows – even the road to a predatory usurer.

Such was the kind of woman who walked uninvited into my home, disrupted my gathering, and disgraced everyone in the room with her outrageous display. Everyone that is, except Jesus. He allowed the behavior to continue. He even allowed the usurer to pour expensive ointment on his feet (bought no doubt by means of her immoral practices). “Some prophet,” I said to myself. “If he were who people claim he is, he’d know that the woman touching him is a sinner.”

Just then, as if he had heard my thoughts, Jesus confronted me. “A creditor had two debtors,” he said. Maybe he does know this woman’s sin after all, I thought. “One owed a lot of money and one owed a little,” he continued. “When neither could pay, the creditor canceled both debts. Which do you think will love him more?” The answer was obvious – the one who owed more money. But I couldn’t comprehend why he told the story. Then Jesus gestured to the sinner at his feet. “Do you see this woman?” he asked me.

Did I see her? Of course, I saw her. She was ruining my dinner. She was staining my house with her very presence. But sister, oh, his question does continue to fester. “Do you see this woman?” No. I did not see her. I saw “it.” I saw the spectacle: the weeping, the kissing, the impropriety of it all. I did not see her. I saw her sin – her usury, her taking advantage of the poor and desperate. I saw only her sin wrapped up around her like a costume.

But that is not how Jesus saw this notorious woman. He knew she had many sins, and he forgave them. He touched her face with his hand, looked her right in the eye, and said, “Your sins are forgiven.” An uproar went up around the table at these words, but I had no stomach to generate the appropriate outrage. Jesus’ words continued to echo in my mind, disarming me. And today, as I write you this letter, I find that those words have begun to sink down into my heart and into my gut.

Rather than seeing the woman, I saw only her sin wrapped around her. But Jesus saw her. He saw the person underneath the heavy layers of transgression and immorality. He saw the good creature that God created – before her sin distorted her. And in that act of forgiveness, I think Jesus removed those burdensome layers. Don’t ask me how, but he untwisted the distortion, and the costume fell away. Is it possible that Jesus never even saw the costume? Is it possible that he immediately saw the woman as she was going to be once he forgave her? And in his seeing beyond the distortion, did the costume simply disappear?

Oh sister, these thoughts are too much for my mind to comprehend. This provincial teacher understands forgiveness much better than I. Perhaps…perhaps Jesus has shown me a glimpse of how God sees us. Could it be that God sees beyond our sin from a place of total forgiveness? And because God sees from this place of total forgiveness, does not God grant us this same gift of vision? Could forgiveness allow us to see beyond the masquerade of sin that distorts our reality? If so, then forgiveness allows us to see others as they truly are, not as accumulations of sin, but as broken people in need of love.

Dearest sister, that is my sin: I see the transgression so I don’t have to see the person. I see the costume because I want an excuse to keep the person underneath at a distance. Jesus saw that in me right away. He called me out for my inhospitality. I didn’t wash his feet or welcome him with a kiss or anoint his head with oil. I brought him into my own home simply to stoke my own ego, not to form any kind of relationship.

But do you think he could forgive me like he forgave the woman? Or has he already done so? Yes, I think he has: in his act of forgiveness, I am able to see my own costume now. I see my sin. He must have forgiven me so that I might find the eyes to see myself as God sees me – without the distortion, without the costume. If I can see myself with these eyes, how could I ever again look at those around me and see only their sin?

Dearest sister, I pray for these new eyes. I pray for the capacity to see beyond the costume. I pray that, if Jesus ever again asks me, “Do you see this woman,” I can say without hesitation or equivocation: “Yes, I see her.”