Sunday, September 25, 2011

Authority Issues ~ Matthew 21:23-32 ~ September 25, 2011

When you’re a kid, there’s always stuff that mom & dad say you have to do that you just don’t want to do…  But in time, you learn is how to get the upper hand on your parents—to trick them into thinking you’re doing as you’re told…

Let me give you some examples…

I used to hate that I had to brush my teeth before bed.  Mom & Dad would frequently check my toothbrush to see if it was wet.  So when they weren’t looking, I would run it under the faucet and put it away. And when that didn’t work anymore, I would put a dollop of toothpaste on my tongue so my breath would be minty fresh.

A friend of mine hated vegetables so much he started an indoor composting project—he’d conceal broccoli and Brussels in his pants pockets and bury them in the household plants…

As a kid, one of the biggest thrills you can get is outsmarting your folks.  After all, you have no authority over yourself.  You have to do as you’re told.  So it feels really good to be able to do your own thing and not get punished for it. 

But we really don’t outgrow our authority issues, especially when it comes to God.  That’s what we see in the short parable of the two sons…

A father orders his two sons to work in his vineyard.  The first son disobeys his father and goes his own way—but later changes his mind, and goes to work.  The other son promises to obey, but changes his mind and goes his own way.

Both of the sons have authority issues.  At least the first son was honest.  He didn’t fake his obedience.  But the second son merely told his father what he wanted to hear.   

And the sad truth is that the average Christian resembles this son.  There’s not a Christian out there who would ever say “no” to living a life of discipleship.  No Christian would ever say that other things are more important to them than God.  But it’s not with words that we reject God’s authority…  It’s with our actions; it’s with the way we live…  And that’s not a hard thing to do for two big reasons: we’re all sinners, and rejecting God’s authority is what sinners do.  Sin makes each of us our own gods.  The other problem is that so many other commitments compete for God’s claim on us.  Inevitably, one of those commitments becomes our ultimate concern.  It becomes the authority that dictates all the choices you make in how to spend your time and resources. And if that ultimate concern is anything else other than God, we end up living out our faith if and only if we have the time. 

Earlier this week, I had lunch with a pastor friend.  During our conversation, we both saw how much we’ve been pushing God out of our lives.  We spend hours studying the Bible each day, we are constantly praying with other people, and we hardly ever miss a worship or Bible study or Sunday school class.  That’s all part of our job.  Doing Jesus’ work isn’t the problem.  The problem is living in our relationship with God outside of work.  We aren’t spending time alone with God in prayer or in Scripture.  What this tells us is that something else is most important.  Some other priority is calling the shots.  We’re rejecting God’s authority. 

Today, God’s Word is questioning the state of our commitment to Jesus Christ.  And if we’re going to be totally honest with ourselves—we all have reason to be uncomfortable.  One of the most painful truths for us to admit is that we willfully reject God’s authority over us.  We do it every day.  And most of the time, we don’t even realize it.  It’s just a matter of habit.  We treat discipleship as “paying the rent” with God.  We do only what we believe we have to do to stay in God’s good graces. 

But discipleship isn’t about checking items off a “to-do list.”  Nor is it a hobby.  It’s our whole life.  God’s claim over our lives will either be complete—or completely incomplete. 

Today’s Gospel confronts us with some very painful truths about our relationship with God.  But we need not feel afraid.  Jesus is still our Savior—even when we willfully reject him.  And we are claimed as God’s own—and our bad choices can’t change that.  Jesus is the Savior that we desperately need—and this parable reminds us how desperately we still need him.  We don’t just need him as we lie on our deathbeds; we need him every hour of the day.  We need him to save us from all those things that stand in the way of our knowing him and living in his love. 

Jesus Christ, your Savior, wants also to be your Lord—the ruling authority in your life.  He has claimed you as his disciple—and the life of a disciple is what he has in store for you.  Don’t think of discipleship as just a bunch more things that you have to cram into your already busy lives because that’s not what it is.  A life of discipleship is one in which every moment of every day is spent in the presence of Jesus.  It’s brings you the peace of Jesus; the strength of Jesus; the rest of Jesus; and the hope of Jesus…

But a life of discipleship will also mean change.  God is going to change your heart, making it more like that of Jesus Christ.  And because is your heart is changed, your priorities will change, too.  Things will take on a whole new meaning.  Things that once were important to you may not be important any more.  The old things that were overly burdensome and stood in the way of your faith will give way to new things that draw you closer to God and a day-to-day experience of his amazing grace. 

Change can be a scary thing.  Change can be painful.  It often requires sacrifice.  But it’s change for the better.  It’s a change that will bring with it new life and new beginnings. 

God wants to be your ruling authority and your ultimate concern.  God wants to be your consuming passion and your heart’s desire.  And God has good things in store for you.  If a new heart and a new life sound good to you, the table is set.  You’ll get it right here.  So if you dare to be a disciple, come and eat.  If you dare to live a life that’s ruled by God, come and drink. 

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Surprised by Grace ~ Matthew 20:1-16

It was an awful way to live. 

For the peasant in Jesus’ day, the only way to eke out a living was to go into the marketplace at the crack of dawn and hope that someone would hire them.  Most of the time, the supply of workers far outweighed the demand—so only the strongest, healthiest-looking laborers were hired.   And they weren’t hired for an 8-hour workday.  They would be working from dusk ‘till dawn. 

The standard wage was one denarius—which was basically the minimum wage of the day.  It was barely enough to live on and support a family.  Needless to say, making a living was a day-to-day struggle.  Work—and food—was never a certainty.

So the parable begins at the break of day when the landowner hires some laborers to work in his vineyard.  They agree to work for the standard wage.  And while they’re off in the vineyard toiling in the heat, the landowner keeps going out and hiring more workers—at 9:00 a.m., at noon, at 3:00 p.m., and even at 5:00 p.m.

At the end of the day, the landowner instructs his manager to pay all of the workers one denarius—even the most recent hires are to be paid first.

Would we have expected the workers who toiled in the heat of the day for over twelve hours to react any differently than they did?  The people who worked for only part of the day certainly didn’t deserve a full day’s wage.  They got off easy.  The day-long workers felt cheated—even though they were being paid exactly what they were promised.  They felt like they’d been stabbed in the back.  It wasn’t fair.

But let’s put ourselves in the shoes of those workers who didn’t get hired at the beginning of the day. 

All day long they had been waiting for work.  And as the hours passed, their hopes began to fade.  The grim reality sets in—they and their families may very well go hungry and homeless.  Just imagine their fear.  In my opinion, their situation is far worse than the workers who’ve been working since dawn.  At least the hired workers knew they were going to eat that night.   The same can’t be said for those still waiting around for work…  It wasn’t fair.

Ultimately, the situation is unfair for all of the laborers. It isn’t fair that they spend every day waiting around for someone to hire them for backbreaking work at a wage that barely meets their needs.  It isn’t fair that some workers got hired while others didn’t, for reasons like their age, their size, or their appearance.  And it isn’t fair that they’re in extreme poverty while others in their society live lavishly. 

How often do we find ourselves feeling the same thing?  Crying out that it isn’t fair?

We try with all our might to be faithful Christians.  We come to church, we give to the needy, we pray, and every day we strive to live rightly.  But our doing those things doesn’t result in us living the good life.  We’re always finding ourselves hurting and desperate.  We pray and pray and get no answer and no help.  We wait and we wait for a miracle that never comes. 

All the while, we see other Christians who never seem to have any problems.  They have a faith like iron—and their prayers always seem to get answered.  They have great jobs and marriages.  They’re healthy and always happy.  Their kids do well in school and grow up to live perfect lives.  Life is good for them.  But life is not good for us. 

And all we can really say is that “it isn’t fair…”  And it isn’t.  It isn’t fair that I have to bear this heavy burden and others don’t.  It isn’t fair that I’m walking wounded.  It isn’t fair that God comes through for other people but not for me.

God knows it isn’t fair.  That’s why God is doing something about it… 

This parable is about a God who surprises people when it would seem that all hope is lost.  It’s about God coming through for people when they need it most

When those workers who’d been standing around all day were given work, it was a miracle.  But it was a mega-miracle when they were paid the full day’s wage.  They needed a full day’s wage to support themselves and their families—and that is what they were given. 

And ultimately, none of the laborers were cheated.  There were no losers.  Everyone was given what they needed—not what they necessarily felt they deserved, but what they needed…

This parable is a story of God surprising a hurting and suffering people with grace.  And this is good news if you have been waiting around for weeks, months, or even years for things to turn around.  God is going to surprise you too.  God is going to come to you in times and in ways you’d never expect, to uplift you and strengthen you.  God is going to give you what you need to make it through your worst days. 

God abandons no one to suffer life’s unfairness on their own.  Wait even until the 11th hour and beyond—because God hasn’t forgotten you.  Lift up your weary head and be on the lookout—because your Helper is on the way. 

The Christian life is so very much like the life of these day laborers.  Just as they are dependent on landowners for making a living, we are dependent on God for meeting our daily needs.  We’re dependent on God to help us make it when times are tough.  But we don’t wait with uncertainty.  We wait with hope.  We wait for God who promises to be with us and help us.  We wait for a God who loves to surprise us with grace.

But there is also labor in the Christian life.  God has hired each of us to be laborers in God’s vineyards.  It is an unfair world.  Many are suffering unfairness and injustice in ways we can’t imagine.  Everywhere there are hungry bodies and hungry souls to be fed.  All over the world, God’s children keep waiting for a brighter tomorrow.  God sends us to surprise them.  God is mindful of the pain and suffering of every human being, and God will not rest until their needs are met.   The way God sends us is by lighting fires of compassion in us for those hurting.  And there’s always something we can do for them.  God can turn even the simplest things that we give and we share into miracles of grace.  And you will even be surprised when you see God’s grace at work. 

We are children of a God who loves surprises.  There is no bigger surprise for this world than Jesus giving his life for the salvation of sinners.  And God still has a lot more surprising to do—because life isn’t fair.  Bad things happen.  But grace happens all the more.  It will happen when we wait for it.  It will happen when we serve one another.  God is at work righting all of the wrongs and ending the injustices that God’s children suffer.  So we wait on God with hope—and we serve God with hope—because our God will surprise us. 

Sunday, September 11, 2011

September 11 Memorial Service: Opening Remarks

All of us who were alive on the morning of September 11, 2001 remember where we were and what we were doing that fateful day.

On the tenth anniversary of these horrific tragedies, we gather to remember all of the precious and innocent lives that were lost that day. We gather to stand with all who continue to grieve...

We stand with the first responders who gave their lives so that others might live.

We stand with those who risked their lives to rescue both the living and the dead from the rubble.

We stand with those who answered their nation's call to defend all of us from harm and danger.

We stand with the families of those brave women and men who never made it home.

We stand together as one nation, still bearing the wounds we suffered that day. We come together today for healing; to pray for peace; to be illumined with hope.

As violence, poverty, and injustice continue to plague the world we live in, let us commemorate this day by rededicating ourselves to the selflessness and charity we demonstrated on that horrific day ten years ago. When evildoers attacked us with their hate, we fought back with love. Police, firefighters, and rescue personnel went into the fire to save the lives of people they had never met. Our nation came together as one people, giving of ourselves and our gifts to help those in need.

So in this time of prayer and remembrance, our call is clear: the only way that this nation and this world can be healed is by all of us working together for peace and for justice. Justice happens when we love one another as ourselves. And where there is justice, there is peace.

But God also commands us to forgive those who hurt us so terribly-- which is a very hard thing to do. Even though we can never forget the lives that we're lost that day, We turn our hearts, our minds, and our hands to healing. And by the grace and strength of Almighty God, we can overcome the evil we suffered that day. We can build a better world for our children.

So today we pray for God to heal our nation, knowing that God will use our hands for this purpose.

We also pray for those who continue to risk their lives to protect us and rescue us from danger-- at home and around the world.

We pray for an end to violence and human suffering-- and we look forward with hope to the day when we will beat our swords into plowshares and our spears into pruning hooks; when our world will finally be at peace.

Forgiving...and Never Forgetting ~ Matthew 18:21-35 ~ September 11, 2011

Do we have to forgive Bin Laden and the terrorists who attacked us ten years ago today?

Should we forgive them like the king in Jesus’ parable forgives his servant?

In the parable, the servant owes a debt in the amount of 10,000 talents.  This was debt was so massive it was beyond imagination—like our national debt (!).  In this time of history, a laborer would have had to work every single day for 165,000 years to repay it.  Since the slave obviously couldn’t pay, the king orders that he, his family, and his possessions be sold off as slaves.   When the slave begs for the king’s patience, the king takes pity on him—and forgives the debt. 

Later, this servant finds himself in even bigger trouble with his king because he didn’t forgive the debt of one of his fellow servants; a much smaller debt, equal to about 100 days’ wages. 

In sum, the parable reminds us that God has forgiven us a debt that is greater than anything we could have repaid.  Therefore, we are to forgive others the same way that God has forgiven us.

But there are some big differences between this parable and the situation we face today.  The terrorists are mass murders.  They are undoubtedly some of the most violent and evil human beings to have ever walked this earth.  And they’re certainly not sorry for what they’ve done.  They’re not asking for our forgiveness—so why should we forgive them?

When it comes to the 9/11 victims’ families—or any of us who have suffered violence, hatred, and cruelty at the hands of another human being—it seems like God is asking too much of us.  It’s not fair to have to forgive them.  We don’t owe them anything—so for us to owe them forgiveness makes for an even greater injustice.  Even if they did ask for our forgiveness, there’s no way that we can get back what they took from us.  We’ll never forget what they did to us—so why should we forgive them? 

To start, there are many things that forgiveness is not…

Forgiveness is not forgetting—because it’s impossible to forget when a person takes something or someone away who can’t be replaced. 

Forgiveness is not excusing.  Forgiveness doesn’t change the fact that someone did something wrong.  It is right for the guilty to be punished for their crimes.  Forgiveness means that we see the guilty punished for the sake of justice—not revenge.

And forgiveness is not something that we can do by our own power.  It’s not a natural human response. “Forgiveness is divine.”  Forgiveness is what God does—so you need God’s help to do it.  So we learn forgiveness by receiving God’s forgiveness.  We confess our sins and hear God’s promise of forgiveness.  We feast on the body and blood of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of our sins. 

Ultimately, the Bible doesn’t allow for exceptions to the rule.  We forgive others just as God forgave us.  But we don’t forgive others because we owe it to them—we forgive because we owe it to God.  Forgiving others is fulfilling our obligation to the God who forgives us. 

Because we are forgiven, we don’t have to live in fear of God’s wrath at the magnitude of our sin.  God’s forgiveness of us is unconditional.  In fact, we were forgiven before we ever even thought to confess our sins.  God’s forgiveness heals us when our sin brings us suffering.  And in just the same way, our forgiveness of others heals the hurts that others give us.  Forgiveness doesn’t give us back what was taken away from us—but it does give us a new beginning.

At the same time, I’d be lying if I said that forgiving is easy.  It is un-forgiveness that is easy.  When someone hurts us, it’s easy to think that we have the right to get back at them.  We want to do whatever we can to punish the other person.  Hate, bitterness, and anger become the weapons of our un-forgiveness. 

But in the end, nothing good comes out of un-forgiveness.  It doesn’t heal us—any more than it give back what was taken from us.  So how can we spending our life energy punishing someone bring about our healing?  Not only are we hurting someone else in the process, we’re destroying ourselves.  Un-forgiveness is a poison that makes all of our wounds fatal. 

I love the expression “burying the hatchet,” because that’s what forgiveness is really all about.  We take the hatchet that wounded us and bury it in the ground.  And that is the most defiant thing we can do towards the one who hurt us.  Forgiveness is our outright refusal to allow them—or the wounds they gave us—to rule over us.  Even though we’re still bleeding from the wound they gave us, forgiveness enables us to turn our attention towards our own healing.  We can spend our time praying for God’s healing instead of dwelling on our hurt and anger.  Our minds are freed to meditate on the promises of the Gospel.  Our hands are freed to reach out to all of the people God provides to minister to us.  Our hearts are illuminated with hope because forgiveness banishes away the darkness.

And then we go and put it all into practice.  We start small—forgiving people of their minor debts; the little inconveniences we experience throughout the day that tempt us get angry and lash out at other people.  Forgiveness means being patient with the cashier who overcharges you at the checkout.  Forgiveness means not blasting the horn at the driver who cuts you off in traffic.  You bury the hatchet.  You forgive.  And by doing this, you will be more able to bigger sins and greater debts. 

In time, forgiveness will go from being something that you do to the way in which you live.  And life will be so much better because of it.  We’ll be able to enjoy our relationships to their fullest.  We’ll be able to live in God’s peace.  The hurts won’t get the best of us.  God’s grace will flow through every moment of our days as we receive God’s forgiveness and extend it to others. 

All of us will suffer hurts.  Some will heal, and some will afflict us each and every day.  But forgiveness heals us—because forgiveness is divine.  God’s forgiveness has altered the course of our destiny.  We are claimed by God for eternal life.  And by practicing God’s forgiveness, we can have a little bit of heaven on earth.  God can use even our greatest hurts to do amazing things for us and for others. 

So let this of grieving and remembrance also be a day of forgiveness—so that we can work together to overcome evil with peace, with justice, and with love. 

Sunday, September 4, 2011

How to Face Conflict—and Win Every Time ~ Matthew 18:15-20 ~ September 4, 2011

Jesus says that we are to go and point out each others’ sins.  If the sinners don’t own up to their sin, we’re supposed to get other people involved—possibly the entire church if that’s what it takes to get the sinner to listen. 

Today’s Gospel doesn’t really sound like good news.  It sounds more like a recipe for disaster for our church.  Church people have the unfortunate reputation of being all too eager point out each other’s faults.  We don’t want to come to church and have fingers pointed at us.  We’d think that Jesus want us to focus on loving one other.  All that should concern us is being a community, and relating to one another as brothers and sisters. 

But that’s just it.  We should be concerned about being a community.  This is what Jesus wants for us.  We are to become as brothers and sisters to one another.

But we know a thing or two about brothers and sisters—particularly if we grew up in a family of brothers and sisters.  Siblings don’t always get along.  They hurt each other.  They fight.  Conflict is inevitable.

Wherever there are relationships of any kind—people are going to sin against each other. 

The trouble is that when someone sins against us, we’re tempted to hurt the person like they hurt us.  Most of the time, our words will be our primary weapon.  We take the offense and use it to beat up our offender in any way we can.  We start telling people about the hurtful things they did to us.  Sometimes we confront our offender, and sometimes we don’t—but if we do, we’re all too tempted to give them the piece of our mind we can’t afford to lose.  Sometimes the weapon we use against them is our silence.  We strike back with the silent treatment.  We act as if they’re nobody to us.  And if the offense is severe enough, we take it as occasion for that relationship to end. 

If we give into these temptations, are we any different from the people who hurt us?  We’re just tearing our offender like they tore us down—as if this was going to help us feel better.  But nothing good comes out of it.  We’re still hurt—and now our offender is hurt, too.  Both persons suffer because the relationship is broken. 

In today’s Gospel, Jesus is teaching us that we cannot treat our conflicts as occasions to dispose of our relationships with those people.  God created us to be in relationships with others.  Relationships are vital to our well-being, as human beings and as Christians.  We were made to need each other.  We need each other’s help when times are tough.  We need each other’s help to keep the faith.  We need each other to live Christianly

Since our relationships are so important for our well-being—Jesus is teaching us exactly what we are to do when (not if—when) someone sins against us.  The goal is not revenge, but reconciliation, forgiveness, and healing

The first thing we do is go and talk to that person privately.  (Note that Jesus tells us to do this before we tell other people).  We’re not attacking the other person.  We’re simply telling the other person that they’ve hurt us.  After all, the other person may not have intended to hurt us.  The whole thing could be a misunderstanding.  Either way, we go so that each person can give their side of the story. 

If the first step fails to bring reconciliation, we are to reach out to two or three witnesses.  This isn’t about ganging up on our offender.  We reach out to others so that they can hear our side of the story—and come to their own conclusions about the offense.  The other persons may see the situation differently.  They may conclude that the other person did nothing wrong.  But if they see a legitimate offense, the two or three witnesses become partners in working toward reconciliation. 

And if that fails, we are to reach out to the church to help us be reconciled to the one who hurt us.  Basically, we are to do whatever it takes…

At the same time, we must not forget that we need the forgiveness of other people just as much as other people need it from us.  We must always welcome our accusers.  And it’s never easy to admit that we are wrong—especially when we did not set out to hurt them in the first place.  We must swallow our pride and ask forgiveness—even when we don’t believe we need to.  And we must forgive our offenders even while we’re still hurting from the things they did to us. 

There must be a place for reconciliation in our relationships with one another because we are a people who have been reconciled to God through Jesus Christ.  We are beloved children of God because Jesus made that all possible by laying down his life.  So when you come together with your adversary and work together for reconciliation, Christ is present with you.  Reconciliation is a gateway through which both persons can come into the presence of Christ and experience in real life what it means to be reconciled to God.  Reconciliation is a ministry.  It’s evangelism.  When you, as a Christian, say to someone “I forgive you,” you are speaking the very words of Jesus Christ.  When someone says to you “I forgive you,” you shall experience the power of God’s forgiveness.  In other words, you will experience the weight of your sin being lifted off your shoulders.  Whenever there is reconciliation and forgiveness, Christ is part of that relationship. 

I wish it were as easy to reconcile broken relationships as it is for me to speak these words.  It’s really hard to tell someone they hurt us.  Very often, the people who hurt us will insist they did nothing wrong and tell us that we’re at fault.  Often times it’s easier to carry the hurt rather than risk being made a fool.  Sometimes, our hurts cut so deep that we risk reopening our wounds by attempting reconciliation.  Sometimes we try everything possible to mend a broken relationship and nothing works.  And sometimes there are relationships that must be ended, particularly where there is abuse—and there are no signs that the abuser is going to change.  Human relationships are complicated.  That’s why Jesus tells us to involve others—because others can help us to see the situation clearly.  And Jesus reminds us that reconciliation will not always be possible.  But whatever the case, we must, at the absolute minimum, pray for the ones who hurt us—and forgive.  Our prayer must always be for that person to see the error of their ways and repent of their wrongdoing.  

Among God’s greatest gifts are the people God has placed in our lives—our families, our friends, our neighbors, and our sisters and brothers in Christ.  We need each other to make it through life.  We need each other to keep the faith.  Relationships take work—but they’re worth it, because you cannot know Jesus Christ without knowing his people.  So we learn to forgive.  We learn to love one another in spite of our faults.  And when we do that; we will discover a little piece of heaven on earth.  Reconciliation is the work of Jesus Christ.  Jesus is there to help us make it happen.  And amazing things will happen because Jesus is with you.