Sunday, September 28, 2008

Proper 21 Year A September 28 2008

Matthew 21:23-32

When Jesus entered the temple, the chief priests and the elders of the people came to him as he was teaching, and said, "By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?" Jesus said to them, "I will also ask you one question; if you tell me the answer, then I will also tell you by what authority I do these things. Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?" And they argued with one another, "If we say, `From heaven,' he will say to us, `Why then did you not believe him?' But if we say, `Of human origin,' we are afraid of the crowd; for all regard John as a prophet." So they answered Jesus, "We do not know." And he said to them, "Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things.

"What do you think? A man had two sons; he went to the first and said, `Son, go and work in the vineyard today.' He answered, `I will not'; but later he changed his mind and went. The father went to the second and said the same; and he answered, `I go, sir'; but he did not go. Which of the two did the will of his father?" They said, "The first." Jesus said to them, "Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you. For John came to you in the way of righteousness and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes believed him; and even after you saw it, you did not change your minds and believe him."


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In music, ironically enough, it’s called “soul”. You can have all the chops, licks, and technical skill in the worlds, but if you ain’t got soul, your music will sound flat. If you were asked to define what soul is, you might say, “I can’t tell you what it is, but I know it when I hear it.” Soul is the indefinable ability to transcend the rules of music and inject emotion and feeling into it. People who stick to the rules, playing each note exactly when they should play it in rigid time, can’t achieve soul. They will only ever be proficient players, without making anything that we can listen to with pleasure, without making music that will touch our emotions. They hold something back of themselves, relying on the skill of their hands to create music, but never achieving the true aim of music.

In today’s gospel reading, Jesus is talking about something very similar. He provides an illustration of two brothers, one who refused to go work in the vineyard as requested by his father, but later relented and went and another brother who agreed to go, but didn’t. It was an illustration of the difference between true faith and religion. The Pharisees followed all the rules, but never opened themselves up to be truly changed by their relationship with God. They felt that if they could just live each day, following along the course that had been laid out by other Pharisees, that they would please God. But it doesn’t work that way.

As Christians, we also have a set of rules that we follow. We have liturgy and ways of doing things that go back hundreds, if not thousands, of years. And we can get very hung up on following those rules. Like all humans, we love rules and traditions. They allow us to feel comfortable and safe in a world that can be anything but. Our problems come when we start leaning on the rules, instead of leaning on God. We become the son that agreed to go work, yet did not.

The 19th-century Danish theologian Soren Kierkegaard described two kinds of religion—Religion A and Religion B. The first is “faith” in name only as described by Paul in his second letter to Timothy: “having a form of godliness but denying its power.” It’s the practice of attending church without having genuine faith.

Religion B, on the other hand, is a life-transforming experience. It’s a firm commitment Jesus Christ, which creates a permanent relationship between ourselves and a gracious and forgiving God.

For many years British author C. S. Lewis had great difficulty in becoming a Christian, which can be attributed to the difference between the two religions. Religion A had blinded him to Religion B. His brother Warren wrote that his conversion was “no sudden plunge into a new life, but rather a slow, steady convalescence from a deep-seated spiritual illness—an illness that had its origins in our childhood, in the dry husks of religion offered by the semi-political churchgoing of Ulster, and the similar dull emptiness of compulsory church during our school days.”

God wants relationship. He wants us to let down our guard and let Him in. He wants to change us, to heal us, not lock us into the same place we were when we found Him.

We resist the change that God wants to make in us because it’s not safe, because it’s not comfortable. We like to feel safe, we like our rules. How can we get past being a religious rule follower and break free to become all that God wants us to be?

Throwing out all the rules is not the answer. Linda Brown Holt, an independent scholar in the field of comparative religious literature, said this:

Ideally, spirituality emanates from religion, religion creates a safe, encouraging environment in which spirituality emerges and grows. Religion is form: tradition, doctrine, rites and rituals. Spirituality is content: communion with the divine, seeing the holy in all creatures and objects. In reality, this is not always the case. Religion gone bad results in the triumph of form over content resulting in rituals without meaning and the exaltation of dogma. Spirituality at its worst is mindless drivel, the egotism of the individual believer, even madness.

Clearly, we need a place where people can feel safe to explore their developing relationship with God. Our forms of worship can provide that safe place. But we are not meant to stay safe. We are meant to change.

David Roher provides this illustration about change:

The motor home has allowed us to put all the conveniences of home on wheels. A camper no longer needs to contend with sleeping in a sleeping bag, cooking over a fire, or hauling water from a stream. Now he can park a fully equipped home on a cement slab in the midst of a few pine trees and hook up to a water line, a sewer line and electricity. One motor home I saw recently had a satellite dish attached on top. No more bother with dirt, no more smoke from the fire, no more drudgery of walking to the stream. Now it is possible to go camping and never have to go outside.

We buy a motor home with the hope of seeing new places, of getting out into the world. Yet we deck it out with the same furnishings as in our living room. Thus nothing really changes. We may drive to a new place, set ourselves in new surrounding, but the newness goes unnoticed, for we’ve only carried along our old setting.

The adventure of new life in Christ begins when the comfortable patterns of the old life are left behind.

Is your faith like the motor home, allowing you to stay safe and comfortable? Or has it changed you, challenging you to become more than you are, greater than the sum of your parts, more like Christ? How can we tell if we are?

Our primary measuring tool for spiritual transformation is this: has our faith brought us more joy? Has it enabled us to be kinder to those around us? Have we found peace despite our struggle with the burdens that weigh us down? Can we praise God, even in the midst of all the bad things that happen to us? If we can’t say yes to these questions, we probably haven’t grown much as Christians.

So how do we go about putting “soul” into our religion? Just as in studying music we train ourselves by playing scales and arpeggios, we have to train ourselves in the sorts of spiritual disciplines that allow us to overcome the sins that is our primary obstacles in the process of our transformation. How do we do that?

Dallas Willard wrote in The Spirit of the Disciplines (Word, 1988) that spiritual disciplines can be divided into two corresponding categories: disciplines of engagement, like worship or study or prayer; and disciplines of abstinence, like fasting or solitude or silence.

Sins of commission, such as gossip, need a discipline of abstinence like silence. Sins of omission, such as not making an effort to find the joy that God meant each of us to have, require the discipline of worship. By praising God daily for all that he has provided for us, we can find that joy.

I’m sure that we all know what the sins that we each need to work on, those areas that give us that uncomfortable twinge in our conscience, the ways we have grieved God “by we have done and by what we have left undone”. Sound familiar?

There is an interested story called the “Musgrave Ritual” by Arthur Conan Doyle, which was one of the stories he wrote featuring his famous character, Sherlock Holmes. The story was about a missing butler, who had been very interested in a family ritual of his employers that had been handed down from father to son for hundreds of years. The family faithfully taught this ritual to the oldest son to be repeated when he inherited. This was how it went:

"'Whose was it?'
"'His who is gone.'
"'Who shall have it?'
"'He who will come.'
"'Where was the sun?'
"'Over the oak.'
"'Where was the shadow?'
"'Under the elm.'
"How was it stepped?'
"'North by ten and by ten, east by five and by five, south by two and by two, west by one and by one, and so under.'
"'What shall we give for it?'
"'All that is ours.'
"'Why should we give it?'
"'For the sake of the trust.'

The family had repeated this ritual faithfully for many years, even though they no longer knew what it meant. Sherlock Holmes, with his superior powers of deduction, was able to figure out, as the butler had, that this cryptic message was meant to keep the memory of where the royal crown of Charles I had been hidden on the family property when that monarch was fleeing from the armies of Oliver Cromwell.

Like the Musgrave Ritual, the words of our liturgy hold the keys to the treasure we seek. The danger we face is in investing too much into the ritual of repeating them, without really getting to the reason why we say them to begin with. By really listening to those words as we say them, by allowing the Holy Spirit to invest them with meaning and reality, and then by moving that reality out of the church building and into our daily lives, we can train ourselves to build up our spiritual “muscle”. And instead of a cage that traps us, our liturgy becomes a cocoon that nurtures the spiritual life growing within us, so that it eventually emerges as the butterfly that God meant it to be: changed, free, beautiful.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Proper 19 Year A September 14 2008

Matthew 18:21-35

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

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

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God designed our bodies in miraculous ways. Not only did he give us the capacity to remember the hurts we experience in every day life, he also gave us the capacity to forget.

It’s easy to take this capacity for granted. I am reading a book right now called, “The Woman Who Can’t Forget” by Jill Price. Ms. Price’s memory is unique. She has exact literal recall of every day of her life since the age of 14, and exact recall of most or many days of her life from the age of 2. She not only remembers what happened on any given day, she can tell you what day of the week any particular date fell, what she was doing on that day and any significant events she may have heard of on the news that day. But not only that, she remembers how she felt about what was happening to her. All of it. For her, memory is like rerunning the movie of her life and reliving it. She remembers exactly how she felt when someone hurt her. It is as fresh in her memory as if it had just happened. Think about that. Imagine what that must be like.

Ms. Price describes it as hell and wonders what her life would be like if she would be able to forget things. She finds the idea both tremendously appealing yet also very horrifying. She doesn’t want to be able to forget, yet she longs to forget. Her happy memories are havens for her, allowing her to live the best moments of her life over again. Yet the memories of times that brought her pain and sadness are impossible to remove. One of the features of her memory is that she cannot control the flow of memories into her conscious thinking. So she simply cannot avoid remembering every slight, hurt, and argument she’s ever had. It makes it even harder for her to forgive.

According to the latest medical and psychological research, forgiving is good for our souls—and our bodies. People who forgive:

  • benefit from better immune functioning and lower blood pressure.
  • have better mental health than people who do not forgive.
  • feel better physically.
  • have lower amounts of anger and fewer symptoms of anxiety and depression.
  • maintain more satisfying and long-lasting relationships.

“When we allow ourselves to feel like victims or sit around dreaming up how to retaliate against people who have hurt us, these thought patterns take a toll on our minds and bodies,’ says Michael McCullough, director of research for the National Institute for Healthcare Research and a co-author of To Forgive is Human: How to Put Your Past in the Past (IVP, 1997).

Jill. Price volunteered her time to physicians who spend their time researching how memory works and in the process learned a lot about memory herself. She relates how one of the mechanisms of memory is persistence: that is the tendency of some folks to replay negative memories over and over again. It is a major mechanism in post-traumatic stress disorder. People who spend their time replaying negative memories are called “ruminators”. This mechanism can be extremely damaging to our emotional health. People who are depressive tend to be ruminators. Ms. Price writes: “A horrible irony about this finding is that ruminators often think that their intense attention to whatever bad experience they’re dwelling on will help them gain some valuable insights, when in fact, rumination tends to undermine critical thinking of that sort.”

Because we are able to forget, it is clear that God designed us to be able to forgive. But that can be so hard to do!

When I first became a Christian, God made me aware of my list: that is, my list of people that I had to forgive. Some of you may have a similar list. It wasn’t a very long list, thankfully, because as a “baby” Christian, a long list would have been overwhelming and would have seemed impossible to even start, much less finish.

However, it was a list of about five people that I had had a hard time forgiving. I ruminated over the wrongs they had done me. In the cases where I was still in relationship with these people, my constant replaying of the memories of how they had hurt me damaged my relationship with them. Even if they weren’t aware of how I resented their actions, the small things I did to exact revenge on them must have been apparent in a subconscious way. God made it clear that if I wanted to be a Christian, I had to stop doing that, that it hurt my relationships with those people.

For people that I was no longer in contact with, the work of forgiving was even harder. I found myself amplifying and magnifying the wrong that was done by them to me, because I had nothing new to replace it with, no subsequent good feelings about them to water down the poison of my unforgiveness. Forgiving these people was hard work, sometimes I had to go through the process of forgiving them over and over again. Corrie Ten Boom, the author of “The Hiding Place”, once related a story about how she was not able to forget a wrong that had been done to her. She had forgiven, but she kept reliving the incident in her mind. Corrie cried out to God for relief from her rumination over the incident. She wrote:

“His help came in the form of a kindly Lutheran pastor,” Corrie wrote, “to whom I confessed my failure after two sleepless weeks.” “Up in the church tower,” he said, nodding out the window, “is a bell which is rung by pulling on a rope. But you know what? After the sexton lets go of the rope, the bell keeps on swinging. First ding, then dong. Slower and slower until there’s a final dong and it stops. I believe the same thing is true of forgiveness. When we forgive, we take our hand off the rope. But if we’ve been tugging at our grievances for a long time, we mustn’t be surprised if the old angry thoughts keep coming for a while. They’re just the ding-dongs of the old bell slowing down.”

“And so it proved to be. There were a few more midnight reverberations, a couple of dings when the subject came up in my conversations, but the force—which was my willingness in the matter—had gone out of them. They came less and less often and at the last stopped altogether: we can trust God not only above our emotions, but also above our thoughts.”

I found this to be true when dealing with my list. I could choose to forgive, but completing the process took asking God for help. Over time, my rumination over the wrong that those people on my list had done to me ceased. I was able to let go of the wrongs that had been done to me. And in the process I discovered something amazing.

The amazing thing I discovered was that the wrong that had been done to me was sometimes caused by something wrong I had done myself. Isn’t that amazing? By dwelling on the wrong that had been done to me, I had lost perspective about what I had done to cause that wrong.

Of course, there are people who do wrong to us despite the fact that we never wronged them. Perhaps these people are the hardest to forgive. But we still must forgive. Because holding onto the wrong, the hurt, only damages us. It does not damage the person we do not forgive nearly as much, if at all. Often people who make a habit of hurting others are oblivious to the fact that they have done something wrong. Holding on to the hurt and pain they have caused does not cause them any pain whatsoever. The only people it hurts is ourselves.

And there are also people in our lives whom we endeavor to forgive, but we have to keep forgiving over and over, because they keep on doing the same hurtful things over and over. That’s why, in our gospel reading today, Peter wanted a limit, a place to draw the line. And Jesus answered, “Not seven times, but seventy times seven.”

Seventy times seven, or 490 seems to be a finite number to us, but in reality, for the Jewish people of the time, it represented infinity. It had a historical link to the Babylonian exile, as seen in the book of Daniel:

Dan 9:20 While I was still speaking and praying, confessing my sin and the sin of my people Israel and presenting my request before the LORD my God concerning his holy mountain —
21 yes, while I was still praying, the man Gabriel, whom I had seen previously in a vision, was approaching me in my state of extreme weariness, around the time of the evening offering.
22 He spoke with me, instructing me as follows: "Daniel, I have now come to impart understanding to you. 23 At the beginning of your requests a message went out, and I have come to convey it to you, for you are of great value in God's sight. Therefore consider the message and understand the vision:24 "Seventy weeks have been determined concerning your people and your holy city to put an end to rebellion, to bring sin to completion, to atone for iniquity, to bring in perpetual righteousness, to seal up the prophetic vision, and to anoint a most holy place.

During the period of exile, once a year the High Priest would offer an atonement to God for the forgiveness of Israel’s sin. God forgave them every time. Every time. If the exile had lasted longer, God still would have forgiven them every single time.

So when you ask, “Where can I cut the forgiveness short? When can I stop doing all this work, which clearly isn’t doing any good because they keep on doing what they are doing, Lord? “the answer is we can’t stop. We have to keep forgiving, because that’s what God keeps doing for us.

We’re supposed to be more like him. So we have to forgive…like him. We have to love…like him. Because we were designed to forgive, we were designed to love.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Proper 17 Year A August 31 2008

Matthew 16:21-28

Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, "God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you." But he turned and said to Peter, "Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things."

Then Jesus told his disciples, "If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life?

"For the Son of Man is to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay everyone for what has been done. Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom."

Sermon

It’s a famous experiment conducted in the 1960’s: a group of four year olds are given a marshmallow and told that if they can delay eating it for 20 minutes, they will get a second one.

Some of the four year olds could wait to eat the marshmallow…others could not. The researchers then followed these children for some years and were able to demonstrate that those who were able to wait fared better in many ways, including when they took their SAT’s. They had demonstrated something psychologists call “delayed or deferred gratification”, that is, the ability to wait to obtain something one wants. People who have this ability are more successful than those who don’t. It is an ability that increases as we get older, though some people never get much better at it than the four year olds in the study.

In our gospel reading today, Jesus gives us the ultimate chance at showing how good we are at practicing delayed gratification. Those who are successful at denying themselves, taking up their cross and following Jesus will find their life. Those who wish to save their lives; that is, the pleasures and safety of their lives as they exist without Christ, those people will lose their lives.

One of the problems that we all have with this is that we have a hard time imagining the goal which we are all working towards: eternal life with our Father in heaven. It’s so hard for us because, for the most part, we don’t know what it will be like, since those who get there don’t come back to tell us about it, at least, not usually. We have to imagine it. The four year olds in the experiment had the example right in front of them: the marshmallow. They could see it, smell it and touch it. Probably almost all of them had eaten a marshmallow before, so they knew what it would taste like when they got it.

But as for us, we have only a vague concept of what heaven might be like: streets paved with gold, heavenly choirs signing praises to God…stuff like that. Some of us have been told stories when we were children about getting white robes, halos and harps.

Quite a few people I know find this idea tremendously boring and frankly, if that was all that heaven would hold for us, it would be. But luckily, this scenario is pretty unscriptural. Yet if we don’t know what heaven will be like, how will we willingly chose our cross, take it up and follow Him?

It seems to me to be vital for Christians to KNOW as much about the hope that God promises us, the hope of eternal life with Him. If you do not know what it is you are delaying gratification for, you will have a hard time delaying it. By studying scripture, we can glean much information about heaven: it will not be so much a place, but a person: God. We will be in his presence always. There will be no pain, no death or dying, nor sorrow or suffering. We will know for the first time the answers to questions we could never answer ourselves. We will be doing the things that we spend our time doing in church now: worshiping, learning, and serving. And these things will not be a burden, but a joy.

This is a book that I have bought more than once: 90 Minutes in Heaven by Don Piper. I have bought it more than once because I end up giving it to people who I think would get comfort from it. In it, Mr. Piper, a Baptist preacher, tells the story about the car accident that almost took his life. He was, indeed, pronounced dead on the scene and amazingly, revived 90 minutes later. He tells about his experience of going to heaven for those brief 90 minutes, describes meeting those loved ones who had gone before him, the sound of the music outside the gates. He writes: "I felt loved--more loved than ever before in my life. They didn't say they loved me. I don't remember what words they spoke. When they gazed at me, I knew what the Bible means by perfect love. It emanated from every person who surrounded me.

"I stared at them, and as I did I felt as if I absorbed their love for me. At some point, I looked around and the sight overwhelmed me. Everything was brilliantly intense. Coming out from the gate--a short distance ahead--was a brilliance that was brighter than the light that surrounded us, utterly luminous. As soon as I stopped gazing at the people's faces, I realized that everything around me glowed with a dzzling intensity. In trying to describe the scene, words are totally inadequate, because human words can't express the feelings of awe and wonder at what I beheld."

This is the hope that God holds out to us. It is going to be more awesome than we can imagine. So when Jesus tells us to pick up our cross and follow him, we have to “keep our eye on the prize” as the old spiritual says. Are you willing to delay gratification for the ultimate reward? Are you going to choose your cross over your life?

Because it is always a choice; God does not compel. He does not violate the gift of free will He gave us in the beginning. God allows us to make the choice to pick up that cross. We are free to refuse. But by refusing, we will lose that hope he holds out to us: that death need hold no fear for us, that something better awaits us.

What is your cross? Is it turning away from fame? From riches? From comfort and ease? Is it learning to overcome your fear, your dislike of some people, your shyness? Probably it is all of these things and more. Because a cross, I will remind you, is not made of one piece of wood: it is composed of several pieces, large and small, wood, nails and maybe some rope. Your cross will probably not be just one thing, but all the things that get in the way of your being what God wants you to be.

Even Don Piper, having been shown a glimpse of heaven, found it hard to pick up his cross. The book is not just about the sweet, brief glimpse of heaven he had, but goes on to detail his struggle with the pain of his injuries, the depression which weighed him down, the agony of learning to walk again. His life did not become easier because of that brief glimpse: in fact, in many ways it became harder. Having glimpsed what awaited him beyond death, it was hard for Mr. Piper to return to this life, so full of pain and suffering, having experienced just a taste of what heaven will be like.

Yet he did take up that cross, as must we all. Just as Mr. Piper’s experience, written and shared in this book, has inspired and encouraged those of us who are Christians and perhaps even brought new people to Christ, our own experience may be an inspiration and encouragement to those who witness it. We may never know in this life who we have helped by bearing our cross, but we will surely be greeted by them outside the gates of heaven.

So pick up that cross. It’s heavy, it’s rough and it’s going to make us use muscles we didn’t even know we had. We’re going to get some splinters in our hands. We will get tired and we will have sweat running in our eyes. We will stumble as we drag it along and sometimes we will fall to our knees. But if we keep our eyes on the prize, it will all be worth it.