Monday, September 15, 2014

The Kingdom of God is like an accountant who spills coffee all over his ledger…a sermon on Matthew 18:21-35

A.Hanson, Estes Park, CO 2014
A sermon preached at House for All Sinners and Saints on Sunday, September 14, 2014. 

When I looked at the Gospel text for this week, I have to admit that I was not at all thrilled.  “Forgiveness” is not one of my favorite topics. If I actually get honest with myself, my own standards of forgiveness are even more rigid than Peter’s.  While Peter asks Jesus if he should forgive up to seven times, the same is not true for me.  I might offer a second chance if I am feeling exceptionally generous, but very rarely am I willing to forgive any more than that, once I have been wounded. Because I REALLY like to hold onto my resentments.  Sometimes it feels really good to let that righteous indignation fester.   Author Ann Lamott describes holding onto resentments as eating rat poison and hoping the rat dies. It’s not good for us, but that doesn’t stop us from doing it anyway.  Because these resentments help us to build a wall that might prevent us from being hurt in the future, because living among other humans sucks sometimes.
In this text, Peter is asking Jesus for a sort of prescription for how to live in community.  For as long as humans have existed in proximity to one another, we have been hurting each other. Peter wants to know if there is a limit on the granting of forgiveness.  Kind of like a “seven strikes and you’re out” rule.  Jesus answers that the disciples are called to forgive seventy-seven times, which in the original Greek is shorthand for something like “infinity.” 
Yeah…no thanks, Jesus. I’m good.
Forgiveness is REALLY, REALLY hard. It makes us vulnerable, both in the asking and in the receiving.  When we are the ones asking for forgiveness we have to admit that we are jerks and we screwed up.  When we have been asked by another for forgiveness, we have to admit that we have been hurt. Forgiveness can indeed be a tool for repairing relationships.  My friends Peter and Kate are working on this with their three year old son.  When he hurts someone he is supposed to say, “I am sorry.  Will you forgive me?”  While we could probably all take a lesson from this preschool forthrightness and humility, Jesus’ command to forgive doesn’t always come that easily. And while asking for and receiving forgiveness help us to live together with a bit more harmony, forgiveness does not imply relational obligation. And beyond the everyday slights for which we nurture righteous anger, are those things that hurt us so deeply that we cannot ever imagine being able to forgive. 
In a world where domestic violence, abuses of power, racism, and homophobia are tragically common, calls from Christians to “forgive those who wronged you seventy-seven times” perpetuate a sickening sort of victim-blaming. Forgiveness is a bit more complex than this interaction between Jesus and Peter would have us believe. 
Forgiveness is not about absolving someone of their wrongdoing.  It’s not about helping someone clear their conscience.  Forgiveness absolutely does not mean embracing the violence perpetuated against us. Sometimes forgiveness is about your own heart becoming free. Sometimes forgiveness is not about repair, but rather about letting go.
My friend Katherine was murdered by a stranger seven years ago.  I thought my anger at this horrific act of random violence would never go away.  Hating the man who needlessly took her life felt good.  Until it didn’t anymore… The weight of this pain was crushing. This is not how God would have me live.  This is not how God would have any of us live. Forgiveness in this case is not about repairing a relationship that was broken.  It is about repairing my own broken heart. Forgiveness meant placing a burden of pain and grief that was too much for me to bear into the hands of God. We all have these sorts of situations in our lives.  Relationships where we have been hurt or deeply hurt someone else.  Situations where we have been oppressed by unjust systems of power.  And maybe the hardest person to forgive is ourselves. God wants us to be free, but we can’t do this alone. So now what?
The parable that Jesus tells the disciples is intended to shine some light on this command to forgive, but like most of the parables that Jesus tells, leaves us more confused than enlightened. Let’s attempt to break this down.  A king is attempting to settle debts with his slaves.  One of those slaves cannot pay his debt, which is astronomical, and is going to be sold, along with his family.  He begs for mercy and he is granted it.  Then the newly forgiven slave goes out to a fellow slave who owes him money and “seizes him by the throat” and has him thrown into prison. When word gets back to the master that this is taken place, the first slave is handed over to be tortured until he can repay his debt, which may never happen because it is so large. Then follows a bit of oh-so-helpful commentary, “So my heavenly father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”
It is tempting to turn this parable into an allegory, to dissect it to find the hidden meaning. And that is a favorite thing to do among Christians everywhere.  To cast God as the king, and to see ourselves and our neighbors as slaves owing this God something. And if we don’t do that thing, we will be tortured for all eternity. God is not some heavenly accountant, tracking our sins against a savings account of good deeds.
Beloved people of God, the kingdom of God is NOT like a king who wishes to settle accounts with his slaves.  The Kingdom of God is a bit more like an accountant who spills coffee all over his ledger and decides to throw it away because he can’t read it anymore. The cross is God’s final statement that puts to death all our earthly accounting systems.  We don’t start our relationship with God from a place of having our debts paid off through our own actions, and hoping to keep a positive balance by forgiving those who sin against us and managing to avoid hurting anyone else.  That’s an exhausting race that we will never win. Rather, we start from a place of love.  God so loved the whole world and the people in it, that despite their myriad imperfections, came to live among us and die for our sake on a cross.
Jesus knows that we will hurt each other.  That’s part of what it means to be human. We are not commanded to forgive because it makes us better people.  We are not commanded to forgive because it’s eternal fire insurance.  No…we are commanded to forgive because we have first been forgiven by a merciful God who wants nothing more than to love us.  We start our relationship with God as fully forgiven people, there is no debt to pay.  With that knowledge, we live to care for and forgive our neighbor for their sake, not because we are trying to satisfy a debt to God.  So go live boldly in the knowledge that you are loved, forgiven and freed.  Thanks be to God.

Saturday, August 09, 2014

Highlighting the Bible, Part XX, Reflections on highlighting the revised common lectionary

A. Hanson, Minneapolis 2014
Over the last two and a half months I have been "highlighting the Bible".  I have been looking through the revised common lectionary readings and physically highlighting the passages that appear as assigned readings.  Then I have been making posts with what does not appear in these assigned readings, or if there is very little assigned, just making notes of what actually appears.

The Gospels attempt to tell the story of Jesus' life in a more or less consistent way each year.  The readings selected from the epistles (Letters) tend to support these re-tellings based on the year.  The Hebrew Bible readings are more sporadic.  Readings selected from these books tend to foretell the coming of Jesus or point to God's faithfulness in the midst of suffering.

One thing that has long bothered me is the use of Hebrew scriptures only to prove Christian belief.  In the course of this summer project (and several classes in my theological formation), I have come to believe that this part of the canon is rich and full and has stories to tell on its own.  As Christians, we profess that Jesus is Lord and the salvation of the whole world, and God's son.  So the God of the Hebrew scriptures is also our God, not some outdated figure that belongs to another people of another time and place. The Hebrew scriptures are tough to read at times, but they are definitely worth wrestling with.

As I prepare for my next adventure, a Chaplain residency at a Level I Trauma Center, I will be spending lots of time wondering about the presence and activity of God in the midst of suffering, pain, grief, and death.  So my next blog series will likely explore this, and I believe that the Hebrew scriptures are the place to begin.

Highlighting the Bible, Part XIX, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi

A.Hanson, Montana 2008
This final group of the Hebrew Bible Prophets tells the story of the Israelites.  The prophet Micah warns both kingdoms of God's coming judgment and offers words of hope for those without power who remained faithful to the covenant. The prophet Nahum writes of the destruction of Ninevah, the Assyrian capital, and how this fall of a powerful city was God's judgment against the oppressive Assyrian superpower. The prophet Habakkuk lived in Judah, stuck between Babylon and Egypt. He cries out for God to rescue God's faithful people.  Habakkuk questions God for allowing so much suffering to last for so long. The prophet Zephaniah writes during the rule of a King, and makes the case for the people to trust in God instead of in earthly powers. The prophet Haggai writes of the return of the Israelites from Exile and the slow rebuilding of the temple.  Zechariah was a contemporary of Haggai, and also writes of the restoration of the temple.

A. The following passages from the book of Micah appear in the lectionary:

Micah 3:5-13 (judgment against wicked rulers and prophets)

Micah 5:2-5 (the ruler from Bethlehem)

Micah 6:1-8 (God challenges Israel; What God requires)

B. No passages from the book of Nahum appear in the lectionary

C. The following passages from the book of Habakkuk appear in the lectionary:

Hab 1:1-4 (The prophet's complaint)

Hab 2:1-4 (God's reply to the prophet's complaint)

D. The following passages from the book of Zephaniah appear in the lectionary:

Zeph 1:7, 12-18 (the coming judgment on Judah; the great day of the Lord)

Zeph 3:14-20 (A song of Joy)

E. No passages from the book of Haggai appear in the lectionary

F. The following passages of the book of Zechariah appear in the lectionary:

Zech 9:9-12 (the coming ruler of God's people)

G. The following passages from the book of Malachi appear in the lectionary:

Mal 3:1-4 (The coming messenger)

Mal 4:1-2b (The great day of the LORD)

Highlighting the Bible, part XVIII, Daniel, Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah and Jonah

A.Hanson, Minneapolis, 2010
Daniel, Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah and Jonah are other prophetic books that are read at times in the revised common lectionary.

Daniel focuses specifically on three people, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego and their interactions with kings.  The book is a commentary on the rule of kings and how they interact with God's people. Hosea also is writing during the time of the ruling of the kings and includes harsh accusations of the people of God.  The prophet Joel writes of God using power in the natural world and God acting in the world on behalf of God's people.  The prophet Amos urged the divided kingdoms of the north and the south to return to union with one another and also writes of God's concern for justice.  The prophet Obadiah is concerned with hope and justice, and he writes to the country of Edom.  Finally, the book of Jonah is one that is fairly well-known.  It is not quite a prophecy, but rather a short story.  The message of this book is that the love and mercy of God are available not only to the Israelites, but to others as well.

A. The following passages from the book of Daniel appear in the lectionary:

Dan 7:1-4 (Visions of the four beasts)

Dan 7:9-10, 13-14 (Judgment before the ancient one)

Dan 7:15-18 (Daniel's visions interpreted)

Dan 10:10-14 (An angel speaks to Daniel)

Dan 12:1-3 (The resurrection of the dead)

B. No passages from the book of Hosea appear in the lectionary

C. The following passages from the book of Joel appear in the lectionary:

Joel 2:1-2, 12-17 ("blow the trumpet in Zion, sound the alarm on my holy mountain!…Return to me with all your heart") This is a text read on Ash Wednesday

Joel 2:21-27 ("do not fear, O Soil…be glad and rejoice for the Lord has done great things!)

D. The following passages from the book of Amos appear in the lectionary:

Amos 5:6-7, 10-25 (Seek the Lord and live…Seek good and not evil, that you may live.")

Amos 5:18-24 (The day of the LORD a Dark Day)

Amos 6:1, 4-7 (Complacent self-indulgence will be punished)

Amos 7:7-15 (the plumb line; Amaziah complains to the King)

Amos 8:4-7 ("hear this, you that trample on the needy and bring to ruin the poor of the land…Surely I will never forget any of their deeds")

E. No passages from the book of Obadiah appear in the lectionary

F. The following passages from the book of Jonah appear in the lectionary:

Jonah 3:1-5 (the conversion of Ninevah)

Jonah 3:10-4:1-11 (Jonah's anger; Jonah is reproved)

Highlighting the Bible, Part XVII, Jeremiah, Lamentations, and Ezekiel

A.Hanson, Taize 2009
The book of Jeremiah is set in a time of disaster and uncertainty.  This prophet spoke of God's destruction on the world because of the unfaithfulness of the people of Judah.  This makes it hard to read at times, particularly given the metaphors the that the prophet chooses to use.  But Jeremiah points continually again and again to the activity of God.

The Book of Lamentations is a series of five poems mourning the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians in 586 BCE.

The Book of Ezekiel is also a prophetic telling of the events leading up to the exile, promises of restoration and a vision for healing and hope in the future.  Ezekiel is a wild and rich book full of fantastic imagery and is quite fun to read.

Because these three books are not used frequently in the lectionary, it suits the purposes of this series to cite what actually appears in the lectionary.

A. The following texts from the book of Jeremiah appear in the lectionary:

Jer 1:4-10 (Jeremiah's call and commission)

Jer 11:18-20 (Jeremiah's life threatened)

Jer 14:7-10 (The Great Drought)

Jer 14:19-22 (The people plead for mercy)

Jer 15:15-21 (Jeremiah complains again and is reassured)

Jer 20:7-13 (Jeremiah denounces his persecutors)

Jer 23:1-6 (restoration after Exile; the righteous branch of David)

Jer 23:23-29 ("Am I a God nearby?…Who can hide in secret places that I cannot see them?")

Jer 29:5-9 (Jeremiah's letter of hope to the exiles in Babylon)

Jer 31:1-14 (The joyful return of the exiles)

Jer 31:31-34 (A new covenant)

Jer 33:14-16 (The righteous branch and the covenant with David)

B. The following passages from the book of Lamentations appear in the lectionary:

Lam 3:22-33 ("The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases")

C. The following passages from the book of Ezekiel appear in the lectionary:

Eze 2:1-5 (The vision of the scroll)

Eze 17:22-24 (Israel exalted at last)

Eze 18:1-4 (Individual retribution)

Eze 18:25-32 ("Hear now, O House of Israel: Is my way unfair?")

Eze 33:7-11 (God's justice and mercy)

Eze 34:11-16, 20-24 (God, the True Shepherd)

Eze 37:1-14 (The Valley of the Dry Bones)