Monthly Archives: September 2011

Wilderness Journeys

a sermon on Exodus 17:1-7
preached to the Presbytery of New York City on Saturday, September 24, 2011
and in a very similar version to the First Presbyterian Church of Whitestone on Sunday, September 25, 2011

The journey through the wilderness to the promised land had only just begun, and the Israelites were already getting frustrated. Moses had come back to Egypt to lead the people out of slavery and into freedom, but freedom was harder than anyone had imagined.

The journey kept dragging on and on and on, and the inconveniences kept mounting. For a while it was hard to find food, but God finally provided manna and quail. Then the people started to complain that there wasn’t enough variety on the menu – but there’s only so many ways you can mix up two ingredients! And in today’s reading, the people were complaining that there was no water to drink as they camped.

As you might expect, the people directed their anger, frustration, and complaints at Moses. They even questioned his motives for leading them out of Egypt: “Why did you bring us out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and livestock with thirst?” They were so frustrated that they just wanted to go back home to Egypt, back to the land of suffering and slavery that they knew so well, where they knew what to expect. They’d rather face the perils of life under Pharaoh than take a chance on the uncertainty of a wilderness journey.
 
 

The Israelites aren’t alone – we too know what it’s like to take a wilderness journey to a promised but unknown land. Our world these days has more than its share of uncertainty: How long will our economy keep slumping? How long will it take for our friends and neighbors to find a job? What sort of world will our children and grandchildren receive from us?

As if our world’s uncertainty wasn’t enough, there’s also our church and our presbytery. Will we ever return to the way of life we once knew, where every church had a pastor, where every pastor had a church, where the sanctuaries were full and the nurseries were bustling? How long will it take us to sort through our problems and find some way to live together? Will there be anything left of us when we get to the promised land – if we ever get there at all?

All along the way, we find things to complain about in the church and the world. We question the motives of our leaders. We doubt that we’ll have enough food or water or money or patience to survive the journey. We even quarrel amongst ourselves about how we should or should not be moving forward. Like the Israelites, we too would usually prefer to turn back to the unhappy and difficult ways we have known rather than risk a little bit of uncertainty on our wilderness journey.
 
 

In the midst of all this complaining and quarreling, Moses was nearing his wit’s end, so he turned to God for some advice. “What shall I do with this people? They are almost ready to stone me.” God’s instruction to Moses was clear: “Go on ahead of the people, and take some of the elders of Israel with you… I will be standing there in front of you on the rock at Horeb. Strike the rock, and water will come out of it, so that the people may drink.”

So God got involved in the Israelites’ troubles yet again, not ignoring their complaints but taking action, setting up a way forward that took care of their present needs in hopes of keeping the people focused on the promised land. God made it clear that Moses was not the only one who could move things forward – he had not been alone in leading the people out of Egypt, so he should not be left alone to face the trials and tribulations of the journey through the wilderness to the promised land, either. So God offered to meet Moses and the elders not where they were but a little closer to where they were going.

When they had gone on a little ways, God met them and gave them water from a rock, keeping them focused on the way ahead and helping them to move beyond the memory of Egypt just a little more. Moses made sure that the Israelites did not forget all that they had put him through, though – he named the place Massah and Meribah, or “test” and “argument,” because there they had wondered if the Lord was with them on their wilderness journey.
 
 

Amidst all the complaining and crying of our day and our own wilderness journeys, there are certainly voices that speak up trying to make a difference. Some folks set right out and go looking for the water we need to survive on the journey. Some women and men look for a way to change the system that keeps getting us off track. Some people try their best to take action to address the complaints going on all around. But all too often it seems that the complainers keep on complaining, that the chorus of quarreling and testing goes on and on, the thirst for the water we need unquenched. There are few who step up to lead the people out of the chorus of woe, few who try to lead the people out into what will move us beyond our impasse rather than just maintaining the status quo of complaining.

But even the best leaders can’t fix things on their own – others have to stand up and join in to move ahead of the people’s doubting and quarreling, not just to resolve the immediate complaints but also to help everyone move into something new. In these wilderness days, we need our elders of all sorts – our Presbyterian ruling and teaching elders, for sure, but also the other elders and leaders of our nation and world – to step away from the murmuring and complaining crowds, to join with those who are not afraid to seek God’s guidance for the days ahead, to look at the problems of our church and our world through new eyes and ask new and different kinds of questions, to go on out ahead of the people to meet God a little further out in the wilderness.

When we go together – when we stop looking back to the Egypts of our past and start dreaming of a new and different promised land, when we step out from where we are into something new, when we support one another in our wilderness journey – we might just meet God, stepping in to give us what we need, challenging us to put aside our bickering and complaining and testing, and inviting us to keep our eyes and hearts on the promised land of new life in this world and the next as we go on our wilderness journey.
 
 

And so we take our next steps on this way by meeting here at this table, by glimpsing here even a minuscule vision of the things ahead for all creation, by gathering here with saints and sinners of this time and of all time to set aside as much quarreling and testing as we can, by hoping and praying and expecting that we will meet Jesus here and find everything we need for the wilderness journey ahead. Thanks be to God. Amen.

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In Life and In Death: Remembering the Rev. Charles Brewster

a sermon on Romans 8:26-38
preached September 18, 2011, at the Service of Witness to the Resurrection for the Rev. Charles Brewster

In the six years I’ve been in ministry in New York City, it was one of my greatest joys to get to know Charles. Across the nearly forty years that separated us in age, we found so many other things that connected us: a deep love of Presbyterian polity and theology, concern for our common witness to Jesus Christ through the Presbytery of New York City, care for the people of God through service in our  congregations here in Queens, common interest in our Mac computers, a love of travel and especially travel to Scotland after our trip there two years ago, and of course a good glass of single malt Scotch on that trip or most anytime!

Charles and I shared these and so many things – we were connected at so many levels – and one of them was a deep love of this text. This text from Paul’s letter to the church in Rome stands as a true monument of our faith. Somehow Paul composed these incredible words to a congregation that he did not know in a city he had only dreamed of visiting when he wrote, yet even without these direct connections he found words to embody the fullness of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

First of all, here Paul acknowledges our weakness and God’s strength. When we are so weak that we don’t know even how to pray, that’s when God steps in for us. When we are in greatest need, the Spirit reaches out and makes us whole. Charles knew this as well as anyone. Over the last two years, as his nerves and muscles became less and less able to communicate and he gradually became weaker, Charles asked for help more and more. He recognized his own weakness and God’s strength working through others to care for him with simple and wonderful grace. He was never afraid to ask for help from his brother Fred or anyone else. He never masked his difficulties, never gave up his daily reading of the New York Times and his well-worn Greek New Testament. He never stopped knowing the fullness of God’s love that overcomes all weakness in him and for him and through him.

After these words, Paul moves on to remind us that our connection to God is not something that we control. God calls us according to God’s purpose, sealing us in the family of God through Jesus Christ before we can even know it or begin to understand it. God makes things right for us by no action of our own and glorifies us for life beyond our understanding. These core tenets of our faith – and especially our Presbyterian way of thinking about these things – are so clear in these verses. Our relationship with God happens not because of anything we do but because of God’s own initiative. God’s own relationship with us makes us all part of God’s family, with Jesus Christ the firstborn in it. And the glory that awaits us is not because of our own merit but because of the grand promises of God to make all things new.

Charles made these things so real in his life. He was always confident that God’s own initiative came long before his own. He had a wide understanding of family that included everyone here in this room and countless others around the world because he knew that he was united to all humanity in and through Jesus Christ. And he didn’t worry about the things of this world or the stresses and pain of his life here because he knew that there was yet more glory still to come.

Paul closes this great chapter with a succinct and brilliant statement of the comfort and confidence of the gospel. Even amidst this look at God’s strength in our weakness and God’s initiative in our life of faith, Paul makes it clear that living this way isn’t always easy. He asks the hard questions that centuries of faithful Christians have kept on asking. He wonders aloud how we can say that God is in control when things go wrong. He know that sometimes there are not words to describe our grief and confusion. Sometimes it feels like everyone is set against us. Sometimes it feels like we won’t see any benefit of God’s love. Sometimes it feels like we are charged, condemned, and ready to be led away to the gallows, separated from God’s love forever and ever by the hardships and perils of this world. But in all these things, Paul says, we are victorious through our Lord Jesus Christ. We have nothing to fear because God has done in Christ what only God can do to make us and all creation whole and new.

Paul then pulls all of this together as only he can do:

For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

I’ve known lots of folks who have embodied these words in their life and living and connected their lives to God’s own in Jesus Christ, but few measure up to Charles.

In these days, as we remember that death has not separated Charles from God’s love in Jesus Christ, we can also take comfort that life also did not separate him from God’s love. As much as anyone, Charles didn’t let the things of this world disconnect him from the confidence and hope of living in the life of the risen Christ. He didn’t let anyone or anything get in the way of staying connected to God and God’s people, you and me and everyone he met. He never forgot God’s claim upon him and each one of us. He always remembered the life of Christ that shows God’s strength in the midst of our every weakness.

So on this day when we remember our friend and brother in Christ and we bear witness to the resurrection for him and all the saints, may this be our comfort and our hope, that like Charles we too belong to God here and now, in life and in death, in strength and in weakness, and may God’s faithfulness that Charles mirrored so well show forth in our lives, our communities, and our world until all the world shines in the glory of God’s love and we are united with our brother Charles once and for all time in the wonder of new life through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

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God’s Economics

a sermon on Matthew 20:1-16 for the Twenty-Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time
preached on September 18, 2011, at the First Presbyterian Church of Whitestone

It hardly seems like three years ago that the stock market crashed, the housing bubble burst, and the economy went south, but exactly three years ago today the government began the process of bailing out failing financial institutions. Three years ago, the last time we heard this parable from Matthew in worship, we were just beginning to see the massive confusion and disruption that would occupy our lives for so long. The last time we looked together at these words, I don’t think any of us anticipated that we would still be in this position the next time we read them, yet here we are today, hearing again Jesus’ parable about God’s economics when ours are such a mess.

We’d always like to think that we are working toward the right kind of economic system,setting up everything for the fair and equitable treatment of people, offering opportunities for investment, advancement, safety, and security all along the way, and building something that will work for generations to come. We’d like to think that we are looking at economics God’s way – but something tells me that we probably aren’t.

In the parable we heard this morning from the gospel according to Matthew, Jesus challenges his disciples to think differently about the economics of labor and wages and work. Here a landowner needed day laborers for his vineyard, so he went out in the morning and hired those who were waiting in the market to work for the usual daily wage. He did this several more times over the course of the day, hiring as many people as he could from those who were standing idle in the marketplace. Even just an hour before the day was done, he went out and brought in a few last workers who had not yet been hired.

At the end of the day, the owner told the manager to pay everyone, starting with the last and going to the first. The people who had been hired for only an hour of work were surely startled when they received pay for a full day’s work. Those who had worked all day got excited at this news – they figured that this landowner must be particularly generous with his workers and thought they would be paid more too! But when the next group of workers who had worked longer stepped up to be paid, they too received the usual daily wage. As each group who had worked a few more hours more stepped up, they all received the usual daily wage – the same as those who had been hired at the end of the day and worked only one hour.

The workers – especially those who had worked all day – began to grumble and complain. They said it wasn’t fair to pay people the same for different amounts of work. By their logic, if the landowner wanted to pay those hired last a full day’s wage, he should also pay extra to those who had worked all day. But the landowner rejected their complaints, noting that he had paid everyone the usual daily wage – exactly what he had agreed to pay them. He owed them nothing more, he said, and if he chose to be generous with what was his and pay other workers a full day’s wage for only a partial day’s work, that was his right. If the workers wanted to be envious because he was so generous, that was their problem, not his.

God’s economics seem to work like they do in this parable throughout most of the Bible. In God’s economics, people don’t get what they deserve – everyone gets what they need. Those who have received much are expected to give back with similar generosity. Those with greater need can look to others to help fulfill that need. And those who take more than their share are called to account for their actions.

But in our system, we think about things differently. We insist that people be paid only for exactly what they work – and look for every imaginable way to short them. We seek less and less from people to support others and insist only that everyone be given a fair shake to make it on their own. And half of Americans even think that the Bible tells us that God helps those who help themselves – when in fact it says essentially the reverse, that God helps those who cannot help themselves. We figure if our economy worked like this parable, no work would get done at all – people would just show up for an hour and get paid no matter what. People would be lazy and just milk the system for everything rather than putting any value into the economy. And without the fundamental fairness of equality of pay for the hours worked, we would lose so much productivity that the economy would just stop functioning.

Or would it? Have we ever really tried to operate in this way? Have we ever thought of ourselves as having everything we need rather than worrying about what we do not have? Have we ever moved from the human economics of scarcity to God’s economics of abundance? Sure, there are some real problems with operating like this – some people will take more than they need; some people will skip out on work or show up at the last minute because they know they will get paid anyway; some people will find a way to game the system – but are those problems any worse than our current system?

The last three years have made it all too clear that our current system is broken. The housing market is still a mess, and all indications are that we are a long way from getting everything sorted out. Millions of women and men are still unemployed or underemployed – and many of them have simply stopped looking for work because it is too depressing to continue. The rich keep getting richer, but the poverty rate is higher than ever before. While we may not technically be in a recession, things just don’t feel right for us these days, and another official recession feels like it could only be a matter of days away. No one seems to be willing to take the blame for the problem – or to take the risk of finding a real solution.

So why don’t we try God’s economics, at least in our own lives? Why don’t we approach each day with a mindset of abundance rather than a fear of scarcity? Why don’t we try to be more generous than we are fair? And why don’t we seek out ways to make sure that all people have what they need to be whole and complete? We do a lot of this as a congregation – we pay our staff the fairest wage we can afford, we give away several thousand dollars every year through the Deacons’ Fund and other mission offerings, and we offer the community special events around health and wellness that are less about what we can get out of them and more about what we can offer to others. Yet we can always offer more abundance in our world – there is no such thing as an overabundance of generosity, and that kind of grace can and will change the world.

So we ought to try it more and more, I think. Maybe we’ll find that generosity works as well as anything else we’ve tried to fix our stuck economy. Maybe in three years when we come back to this parable we’ll have a good story to tell. Maybe nothing will change – but maybe our hearts will be opened and broadened anyway.

So may God strengthen us to think about God’s economics for a change, to take generosity seriously and work to make sure that everyone has what they need so that we all can know the fullness of God’s love for others and for ourselves now and always. Amen.

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Forgive and Never Forget

a sermon on Matthew 18:21-35 for the 24th Sunday of Ordinary Time
preached on September 11, 2011, at the First Presbyterian Church of Whitestone 

(Author’s note: An earlier version of this sermon was posted here, and I keep both versions on the blog to expose a bit of my creative process.)

Where were you?

People have been asking that question all week, remembering where we were on that clear and beautiful September morning ten years ago today. But it’s not as if you really could ever forget it – moments like that are things that we cannot forget.

And so for the last ten years, people have been crying out, never forget

never forget the horror of nearly three thousand people dying at the hands of a carefully coordinated terrorist attack on American soil;

never forget the faithful service of thousands of women and men working as police officers, firefighters, paramedics, and other first responders, bringing thousands of others to safety;

never forget the worldwide outrage and lament at these incredible things that somehow managed to unite us in grief as we sought to figure out what to make of this unspeakable tragedy;

never forget the stories of fear and hope from friends and neighbors and acquaintances all around us that made us cry and made us laugh and everything in between.

Our gospel reading this morning from Matthew tells us of another time when Jesus wanted to make it clear that we should never forget – this time, that we should never forget forgiveness. This reading that centers on forgiveness is difficult to stomach on any day, but the memories we bring with us here today certainly don’t make it any easier. Even after ten years, it is really hard to bring up the idea of forgiveness around the horrors of September 11, 2001, for the pain and hurt and terror are still very, very raw for us, and talking about forgiveness seems to deny so much of what we are feeling. Too often, though, I think we’ve twisted our understandings of forgiveness into some part of the trite and easy saying, “Forgive and forget,” but that’s not at all what Jesus says here – in fact, he almost seems to say the exact opposite: “Forgive and never forget.”

Peter starts things off in the story, following up on Jesus’ words that immediately precede this passage, words that we heard last week about how to deal with wrongdoing in the community of faith. Clearly a bit confused and concerned about Jesus’ call to forgive, Peter asks him directly: “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” Jesus, ever the generous interpreter, responds, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.” Now this isn’t a limit on forgiveness that suggests that Peter can add ten extra rows of checkboxes to his spreadsheet as he tracks how often he forgives his friends. No, in suggesting seventy-seven offers of forgiveness, Jesus insists that there is no limit to the kind of forgiveness that he makes possible. As commentator Charles Campbell notes, “…there can be no limit on forgiveness, because it is a never-ending practice that is essential to the life of the church.” (Feasting on the Word, Year A, Volume 4, p. 69)

With this difficult word about forgiving seventy-seven times, Jesus also tells his disciples a parable in hopes that they will not forget his point. A king called in one of his slaves to pay off a debt of ten thousand talents. Now one talent was more than a year’s worth of wages for the average person, so this debt was astoundingly large and truly impossible to pay off. The slave asked the king for more time to make good on what he owed, but the king went a step further than the slave asked and forgave the debt entirely! As the slave made his way out of the king’s chamber, he saw another slave who owed him a small debt, and rather than showing any of the grace that his king had shown him, the slave had the debtor thrown into prison until the debt was paid. The king got word of this and called the slave back in to account for his actions. While the slave had forgotten how the king had treated him when he demanded immediate payment from his debtor, the king had not forgotten. The forgiveness offered the slave was taken back and the debt reinstated immediately – and the slave put into prison until he could pay back the insurmountable amount.

We may say, “Forgive and forget,” but Jesus clearly has something else in mind here. The king in the parable grants forgiveness with great generosity, forgiving a debt that could never be paid, but when the slave forgets and the king remembers, Jesus makes it clear that generosity and grace are never to be forgotten.

Just as we cannot forget the events of September 11, 2001, we cannot forget the gracious and generous forgiveness that Jesus describes and demands here. As we remember the indescribable horror of that day ten years ago, we also must remember that the perpetrators of these things are a tiny minority amidst millions of women and men who share our humanity and our faithfulness even as its expression might look a little different. As we remember the sights and sounds and smells that followed 9/11 – the overwhelming sight of watching two planes crash into two iconic skyscrapers and then those towers collapse to the ground, the sounds of mourning from so many whose loved ones were killed by such violence and evil, the smell of burning tires and unsettled souls, as one writer so aptly put it,  that stuck with you long after you left Lower Manhattan for months after the attacks – we also must remember that Jesus offers us a new and different attitude in the face of unspeakable horror. As we remember the stories of fear and hope shared by our friends and neighbors, we also must remember that hope will triumph over fear and grace will always reign supreme because of the forgiveness of Jesus Christ.

In the light of September 11, 2001, I don’t think it is so important for us to completely forgive those who perpetrated such horror upon our city, our nation, and our world, but I think there is some part of forgiveness that we must offer for our own sake because of who we are in Jesus Christ. As commentator Charlotte Dudley Cleghorn puts it,

Forgiveness means to release, to let go of the other. Forgiveness is not denying our hurt…. Forgiveness is a possibility only when we acknowledge the negative impact of another person’s actions or attitudes in our lives…. (Feasting on the Word, p. 70)

It is time for us – us as individuals, us as New York City, us as the United States of America, us as the world God so loves – to remember some part of this forgiveness again, to begin letting go of the horrors of this day a bit, to start viewing this difficult day through new and different eyes, to sort out how we can live in a way that stops the cycle of violence once and for all.

I think we are ready for this move, and we want it to happen, but somehow our individual readiness never quite translates into real change in the broader society. We are ready to put the cycle of revenge and oneupsmanship behind us, but not at the expense of our own preferences and safety. We are ready to bring an end to the culture of war and violence, but only once our side has won without compromise. We are ready to treat everyone as equals and put an end to abuse and torture, but not if it means that someone doesn’t get the punishment that we think they are due. We are ready to give up the fear that the attacks of 9/11 brought upon us, but not if we have to risk even the slightest minimal threat to our apparent safety.

But even if we are not fully ready for all these things, we can still remember and never forget the horrific events of ten years ago without letting them define us forever, and perhaps that is what we really need. That is what forgiveness is all about.

Charlotte Dudley Cleghorn relates a story told by Rabbi Harold Kushner:

A woman in my congregation comes to see me. She is a single mother, divorced, working to support herself and three young children. She says to me, “Since my husband walked out on us, every month is a struggle to pay our bills. I have to tell my kids we have no money to go to the movies, while he’s living it up with his new wife in another state. How can you tell me to forgive him?”

I answer her, “I’m not asking you to forgive him because what he did was acceptable. It wasn’t; it was mean and selfish. I’m asking you to to forgive because he doesn’t deserve the power to live in your head and turn you into a bitter angry woman. I’d like to see him out of your life emotionally as completely as he is out of it physically, but you keep holding on to him. You’re not hurting him by holding on to that resentment, but you’re hurting yourself.” (“Letting Go of the Role of Victim,” Spirituality and Health, Winter 1999, 34. Quoted in Feasting on the Word, p. 72.)

May the extravagant, endless, incredible forgiving love of God in Jesus Christ inspire us this day and always so that we might be free from all that weighs us down, so that we can be empowered to remember and never forget what we will and should always carry with us, and so that we can live in the fullness of new life we have in Jesus Christ here and in the world to come, forgiving and never forgetting.

Amen.

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Forgive and Never Forget – a draft

Here’s a second draft of tomorrow’s sermon. Any feedback you might have is appreciated in the comments below!

a sermon on Matthew 18:21-35 for the twenty-fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time
to be preached on September 11, 2011, at the First Presbyterian Church of Whitestone

Where were you? Where were you on that clear and beautiful September morning eleven years ago today? September 11, 2001, is one of those days that we cannot forget where we were or what we were doing, especially if we were in or around New York City. Take a moment, as if you have not done it already today, and remember where you were when you first heard or knew about the strange and horrific attacks on the World Trade Center.

Those moments are times that we truly cannot forget. For the last ten years, people have been crying out, “Never forget” – never forget the horror of nearly three thousand people dying at the hands of a carefully coordinated terrorist attack on American soil; never forget the faithful service of thousands of women and men working as police officers, firefighters, paramedics, and other first responders to bring thousands of others to safety; never forget the worldwide sense of outrage at these incredible things that united us as we sought to figure out what to make of this unspeakable tragedy; never forget the stories of fear and hope from friends and neighbors and acquaintances all around us that made us cry and made us laugh and everything in between.

Memory like this stands at the center of our gospel reading today from Matthew. This reading that centers on forgiveness is difficult to stomach on any day, but the memories we bring with us here today don’t make it any easier. Even after ten years, it is really hard to broach the subject of forgiveness around the attacks we remember today, for the pain and hurt and terror are still very, very raw for us. However, while this reading seems to center on forgiveness, I believe it also has something important to say about forgetfulness too – it also says “never forget.” We’ve twisted our understandings of forgiveness into the trite and easy saying, “Forgive and forget,” but that’s not at all what Jesus says here – in fact, he almost seems to to say the exact opposite: “Forgive and never forget.”

Peter starts things off, following up on Jesus’ words that immediately precede this passage, that we heard last week, about how to deal with wrongdoing in the community of faith. Clearly a bit confused and concerned about Jesus’ call to forgive, Peter asks him directly, “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” Jesus, ever the generous interpreter, responds, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times,” not putting a limit on this forgiveness and suggesting that Peter add ten extra row to his spreadsheet that tracks the forgiveness of his friends but instead insisting that there is no limit to the kind of forgiveness that he makes possible and saying nothing whatsoever about the level of forgetfulness that must be involved in forgiveness.

As usual, when the disciples got confused and needed some clarity, Jesus tells them a parable in hopes that they will not forget his point. A king called in one of his slaves to pay off a debt of ten thousand talents. Now a talent was more than a year’s worth of wages for the average person, so this debt was astoundingly large and truly impossible to pay off. The slave asked the king for more time to make good on what he owed, but the king went a step further than even the slave asked – he forgave the debt entirely! As the slave made his way out, though, he saw another slave who owed him a much smaller debt, and rather than showing any of the grace that his king showed him, he had the debtor thrown into prison until the debt was paid. The king got wind of this and called the slave back in to account for his actions. While the slave forgot how the king had treated him when he demanded immediate payment from his debtor, the king had not forgotten. The forgiveness offered the slave was taken back and the debt reinstated immediately – and the slave himself put into prison until he could pay back the insurmountable amount.

We may say, “Forgive and forget,” but Jesus clearly has something else in mind here. The king in the parable grants forgiveness with great generosity, forgiving a debt that could never be paid, but that generosity and grace are never to be forgotten. As commentator Charles Campbell notes, “…there can be no limit on forgiveness, because it is a never-ending practice that is essential to the life of the church.” (Feasting on the Word, p. 69) Just as we cannot forget the events of September 11, 2001, we cannot forget the gracious and generous forgiveness that Jesus describes and demands here. As we remember the indescribable horror of that day ten years ago, we also must remember that the perpetrators of these things are a tiny minority amidst millions of women and men who share our humanity and our faithfulness. As we remember the sights and sounds and smells that followed 9/11, the overwhelming sight of watching a plane crash into an iconic skyscraper, the sounds of mourning of so many whose loved ones were killed by such violence and hurt, the smell of burning tires and unsettled souls, as one writer so aptly put it, that stuck with you long after you left Lower Manhattan for months after the attacks, we also must remember that Jesus offers us a new and different attitude in the face of unspeakable horror. As we remember the stories of fear and hope shared by our friends and neighbors, we also must remember that hope will triumph over fear and that grace will reign supreme always because of the forgiveness of Jesus Christ.

In the light of September 11, 2001, I don’t think we have to completely forgive those who perpetrated such horror upon our city, our nation, and our world, but I think there is some part of forgiveness that we must offer because of who we are in Jesus Christ. As commentator Charlotte Dudley Cleghorn puts it, “Forgiveness means to release, to let go of the other. Forgiveness is not denying our hurt…. Forgiveness is a possibility only when we acknowledge the negative impact of another person’s actions or attitudes in our lives…” (Feasting on the Word, p. 70)

It is time for us – us as individuals, us as New York City, us as the United States of America, us as the world God so loves – to remember some part of this forgiveness again, to begin letting go of the horrors of this day a bit, to start viewing this difficult day through new and different eyes, to sort out how we can live in a way that stops the cycle of violence that emerged from these horrors once and for all. I think we are ready for this move, and we want it to happen, but somehow our individual readiness never quite translates into real change in the broader society.

We are ready to put the cycle of revenge and oneupsmanship behind us, but not at the expense of our own preferences. We are ready to bring an end to the culture of war and violence, but only once our side has won without compromise. We are ready to treat everyone as equals and put an end to abuse and torture, but not if it means that someone doesn’t get the punishment that we think they are due. We are ready to give up the fear that the attacks of 9/11 brought upon us, but not at the expense of risking even the slightest minimal chance of apparent safety. But we can still remember and never forget the horrific events of ten years ago without letting them define us forever, and perhaps that is what we really need.

Charlotte Dudley Cleghorn relates a story told by Rabbi Harold Kushner:

A woman in my congregation comes to see me. She is a single mother, divorced, working to support herself and three young children. She says to me, ‘Since my husband walked out on us, every month is a struggle to pay our bills. I have to tell my kids we have no money to go to the movies, while he’s living it up with his new wife in another state. How can you tell me to forgive him?’ I answer her, ‘I’m not asking you to forgive him because what he did was acceptable. It wasn’t; it was mean and selfish. I’m asking you to to forgive because he doesn’t deserve the power to live in your head and turn you into a bitter angry woman. I’d like to see him out of your life emotionally as completely as he is out of it physically, but you keep holding on to him. You’re not hurting him by holding on to that resentment, but you’re hurting yourself.’ (“Letting Go of the Role of Victim,” Spirituality and Health, Winter 1999, p. 34. Quoted in Feasting on the Word, p. 72.

May the extravagant, endless, incredible forgiving love of God in Jesus Christ inspire us this day and always so that we might be free from all that weighs us down, that we can be empowered to remember and never forget what we will always carry with us, and that we can live in the fullness of new life we have in Jesus Christ here and in the world to come, forgiving and never forgetting. Amen.

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Leaving Out Love?

a sermon on Romans 13:8-14 and Matthew 18:15-20
preached on September 4, 2011, at the First Presbyterian Church of Whitestone

Six years ago last Sunday, I stood in front of a worship service down in Oxford, Mississippi, and answered yes to nine questions before becoming a minister. One of them is incredibly beautiful and almost deceptively simple:

Will you seek to serve the people with energy, intelligence, imagination, and love?

Many of you who have been ordained as elders and deacons here have answered that same question, and I think it really describes the kind of attitude we are to bring to service in the church.

This week, as Lisa and I were working on outlining, writing, and editing a couple of documents that are required by recent changes to the Book of Order, we found a strange variation on this great question. One of the checklists of the things that needed to be included in our new document asked if we were doing whatever task with “energy, intelligence, and imagination” – but not love. Who decided that we could do anything without love? Obviously the authors of this checklist had forgotten the great wisdom of the Beatles:

I’m not sure that the apostle Paul would completely agree with Ringo, George, John, and Paul, but love sure seems to be all we need based on the portion of the letter to the Romans we read this morning. Here Paul brackets many important commandments by summing them up in the single action word “love.”

Owe no one anything, except to love one another.

The one who loves has fulfilled the law.

Love your neighbor as yourself.

Love does no wrong to a neighbor.

Love is the fulfilling of the law.

For Paul, love is the center of the way of life for those who follow Jesus – it shapes each and every day as we try to make our lives more and more like the way of life that God intends, as we set aside the old ways that leave us in darkness and take up a new way that brings us the full way of life and light in Christ. That love is what we signify today as we bring one of our children for the Sacrament of Baptism – the love of God that goes before us, beside us, behind us, in us, and through us to show us the way that God intends so that she might know and grow into the light of new life as the new day nears.

For Paul, love sure seems to be all that we need, but as usual, Jesus gives us a dose of reality. In our other reading this morning from the gospel according to Matthew, Jesus talks about what to do when love isn’t quite so present and people do wrong against one another.

It’s a pretty simple process that he proposes. First, directly confront the person who has done you wrong in private. If that works, great – you’re done. If that doesn’t work, go back and take one or two others with you so that no one is alone. If the other person still refuses to come clean about what he or she did wrong, bring the issue to the gathered community. And if that still doesn’t work, send the offender on his or her way. Jesus even says to treat the unrepentant “as a Gentile and a tax collector” – but he himself was notorious for welcoming Gentiles and tax collectors and sinners of every sort into his presence when no one else would!

Jesus continued by suggesting that the disciples had a great deal of power and authority to bind and loose things on earth as in heaven and to make things happen by simply agreeing with one another. He concludes these instructions with a well-known saying that gets used pretty often around small churches like ours: “For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.”

But the focus here is less on making a small group of the faithful feel comfortable and more on recognizing the importance of community, for throughout this section Jesus makes it clear that we need one another. We need others to correct us in the ways of love when we go astray. We need others so that we can learn from one another’s right actions and mistakes. And we need one another so that we can see Jesus in our midst, for we can’t see Jesus in the mirror, but we can see Jesus in one another. As pastor Jin Kim puts it, “We are not free from each other; we are free in each other.” (Feasting on the Word, Year A, Volume 4, p. 48)

And so when we put it all together it is in one another that we see the love that we so desperately need, the love that is all we need – not just a romantic love that fulfills a deep carnal desire, not just some halfhearted love that takes and takes and does not give anything back, not just a love that will make sense one day – but when we are at our best we see in one another the love that we see in Jesus Christ – a love that does no wrong, a love that offers honest and real and direct confrontation when things go awry, a love that shines light into the darkness of the world, a love that becomes clear whenever and wherever we gather faithfully as the community of those who love and serve and follow Jesus Christ.

We show that love today in the sign and seal of this water. We show that love whenever and wherever two or three or thirty or forty gather. And we show that love each and every day in our lives in the world, living out the love we have seen in Jesus Christ and in one another as we fulfill the law and love our neighbors near and far with energy, intelligence, imagination, and, yes, love.

May God give us all the love we need – and continue to show us all the love we have seen in Jesus Christ in and through one another – so that we might never leave out love until all things are made new.

Lord, come quickly!

Amen.

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