the kingdom of heaven may be compared to…except when it can’t!

preaching, 1-22-17a sermon, based on Matthew 18.21-35, preached with the people of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, on the 15th Sunday after Pentecost, September 17, 2017

To be human is to live in relationships. To live in relationships is to know the joys of love and acceptance and the sorrows of disagreement and disappointment, hurt and anger with others and with one’s self. To know sorrow is to face, at times, to fight with the need for forgiveness of others and of one’s self.

Peter raises (unbeknownst to him, on our behalf!) this life-essential issue of forgiveness with Jesus. He proposes a limit of seven times; a magnanimous act, doubling an ancient standard of three, adding one for good measure! Jesus, as we’ve grown to expect, takes the matter to another, supernatural level, expanding the economy of forgiveness beyond the bounds of human imagination: “Not seven times, but seventy-seven” (meaning infinite) “times.”

I visualize Peter’s face, perhaps ours, too, frozen in shock as he and we struggle to comprehend limitless forgiveness. Quickly we might object: “Jesus, are you crazy? The world, yours then and ours now, doesn’t work this way! Our relationships are built and balanced on scales of give and take and our judgments of right and wrong, and, frankly Jesus, some things are terrible and can’t be forgiven and, if so, only after a long time!” But before we can stammer out our protest, Jesus holds up a calming hand, saying, “For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to…”

Jesus tells a parable of a king who forgives a pleading servant unable to pay a massive debt. That servant then condemns a fellow servant who owes, in comparison, a pittance. Other servants report this ingratitude to the king, who furiously reverses his decree of amnesty, sending that unmerciful servant to his doom.

Parable of the Unmerciful Servant (1556), Jan Sanders van Hemessen (1500-1579), University of Michigan Museum of Art

A traditional Christian interpretation considers this parable a symbol of God’s grace. The king represents God who, in the life and ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus, has forgiven our sinful debt of disobedience that we could not pay. Therefore, we are to share the kindness of God’s forgiveness with our fellow human beings, whose wrongs, no matter how great in human terms, from heaven’s standpoint, cannot compare.

However, there are problems with this view…

Chief among them, the king, in revoking his pardon of the unmerciful servant, implies that there are limits on God’s illimitable forgiveness, which, at best, is a conundrum and, at worst, a contradiction…

And even if we view the torture of the unmerciful servant through a psycho-existential lens, perceiving it as the ill of bitterness that we inflict on ourselves when we refuse to forgive (though I believe that’s true!), it remains a penalty initiated by the king, who, again, represents God…

And the parable is built on a foundation of earthly inequality of authority and power between the king and servant and between servant and servant…

And, from there, the parable progresses on a worldly arc of the injustice of servant to servant and the vengeance of the fellow servants, desiring punishment, reporting the misdeed to the king who, again, revokes his pardon, therefore, imitating the cruelty of the unmerciful servant.

Limited forgiveness, inequality, injustice, vengeance. No, no, no, no! This is not, cannot be a depiction of the God Jesus reveals. This is not an image of love. Therefore, as I believe the kingdom of heaven may not be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his servants, this parable is a correction, verily, a condemnation of a world, our world where we humans limit forgiveness and worse, when hurt and angry, oft fall prey to the temptation to make God in our image as one whose judgments are like ours, thus not set on a scale of gracious and merciful love. (How many times has someone done another wrong and the offended party or a sympathizer said words to the effect: “God has a day of reckoning in store for that person!” or more bluntly, “God’s going to get that person!”)

Yes, some things in this life are terrible. And when terrible things, especially when wrought by human hands, happen to others and to ourselves, we would do violence to the souls of others and ourselves to demand that forgiveness, theirs and ours, be swift and absolute. Sometimes forgiveness takes time. Yet forgiveness alway is our calling that we, as God, may live in unlimited liberty, unfettered by the bonds of bitterness.

 

Illustration: Parable of the Unmerciful Servant (1556), Jan Sanders van Hemessen (1500-1579), University of Michigan Museum of Art. Note: The painting depicts the moment in the parable when the king (on the left, pointing, his countenance creased in anger) scolds the unmerciful servant (on the right, gazing at the king, his brow furrowed, his hands clasped in a pleading gesture, his mouth partially open as if speaking, seeking to make his case): “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?” (Matthew 18.32b-33). The two other figures in van Hemessen’s portrayal of the parable are the king’s record keepers; one counting coins piled on the table and the other, with pen in hand, looking to the king for direction. In the background, a man is being dragged into an underground chamber by soldiers, representing the soon to come fate of the unmerciful servant: In anger his lord handed him over to be tortured… (Matthew 18.34).

Advertisements

relatively speaking

preaching, 1-22-17a sermon, based on Matthew 16.21-28, preached with the people of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, on the 13th Sunday after Pentecost, September 3, 2017

Our God, whom we address as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, as a trinity dwells in eternal ontological, relational union. And we, created in God’s image, are physically formed and psychically, spiritually wired to be in relationship with others.

Relationships are an important, perhaps most important aspect of our lives. To use theologian Paul Tillich’s[1] descriptive phrase for God, I liken our relationships to “the ground of our being.” Our relationships are a lens through which we can perceive and know ourselves; the ground from whence we come, our histories and memories, and the ground on which we stand, our daily experience of thought and feeling, intention and action. Though, as the Apostle Paul says, “we see in a mirror, dimly,”[2] unable to know ourselves fully, it is our willingness to look that matters. And this life-long self-examination in search of ourselves, seeking to know ourselves is for the purpose of giving ourselves away in relationships with others, therefore, imitating how God is with us.

Now, here’s the challenge. Relationships are hard. For, again, it’s hard, truly impossible to know ourselves completely. And, given our self-interest, it’s hard, also impossible to give ourselves completely to others. And it’s hard to see and know clearly what others are showing and giving to us. And even when we do see and know clearly what others are showing and giving to us, it may contradict who we believe they are and conflict with who we believe we are.

All this, the rewards and risks of relationships runs through this intense encounter between Jesus and Peter.

Jesus called disciples to follow him, to be in relationship with him. At a critical moment, he asks, “Who do you say I am?”[3] (Do you see and know me?) Peter answers, “You are the Messiah, the son of the living God.”[4] Jesus replies, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah![5] (You do see and know me. Now, let me tell you what kind of Messiah I am.) “I must go to Jerusalem, suffer and die…” Peter doesn’t like, hates what he hears. Who Peter thinks Jesus is as Messiah is not who Jesus is. Though using the same language, they mean different things.

In one sterling moment of recognition, they had drawn so close. In the next shattering instant, they fall far apart. For Jesus, Peter, his chief disciple, upon whose confession of his messianic identity he would build his church,[6] becomes “a stumbling block”, so great an impediment to Jesus doing God’s will that he calls him “Satan.” And Peter has to question who Jesus is and why he has given up everything to follow him, and, if Jesus’ predictions of his suffering and death come true, then what will happen to him; must he suffer and die, too?

Get Thee Behind Me, Satan (Rétire-toi, Satan) (1886-1896), James Tissot (1836-1902)

How easy it would have been for them to part company: Jesus casting Peter aside, Peter walking, running away. But they didn’t. They remained in relationship and experienced everything that Jesus prophesied; his suffering, his dying, and (as he also foretold) his rising on the third day (but, I believe, prefaced by the predication of suffering and dying, Peter missed that part!). And all this leading to a relationship, a life without end.

So, too, for us as we continue to follow Jesus in our living and, yes, our suffering and our dying, whenever and however it comes, and then, yes, thank you, Jesus, our rising.

 

Illustration: Get Thee Behind Me, Satan (Rétire-toi, Satan) (1886-1896), James Tissot (1836-1902)

Footnotes:

[1] Paul Johannes Tillich (1886-1965), German American Christian existentialist philosopher and theologian

[2] 1 Corinthians 13.12

[3] Matthew 16.15

[4] Matthew 16.16

[5] Matthew 16.17a

[6] Matthew 16.18

what do you say?

me preaching 1-22-17a sermon, based on Matthew 16.13-20, preached with the people of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, on the 12th Sunday after Pentecost, August 27, 2017

“Who do you say I am?” This question has divided the world. Christian from non-Christian and Christian from Christian.

The division occurs not simply given how you answer, whether you say Jesus is the Son of God, verily, God, an esteemed prophet, a wise teacher, a wondrous miracle-worker, or merely the founder of a religion, but also given how important you think the question is. A matter of life or death? A matter of existential significance, your very response a declaration of who you say you are? Or is it of lesser import, like an intriguing intellectual exercise suitable for a relaxing late summer evening with friends over a good meal and a fine glass of wine?

For if you think the question is important, worth pondering, a matter of personal interest and experience, then that sets you apart from someone who considers it a casual matter or not worth thinking about at all.

And here’s the irony. If the question is important to you, then fairly soon, I think, you may discover that it doesn’t matter how you answer. For Christianity is less about orthodoxy, right belief, than orthopraxy, right practice. Or, more…most truly, Christianity is about the connection between belief and practice. Before Christians were called “Christians”,[1] they were known as followers of “the Way.”[2] For following Jesus was, is not primarily a method of thinking or even believing, but a manner of living and behaving, particularly in regard to others; loving your neighbor, especially the poor, as yourself.[3]

To put this another way, Christianity is not merely about what you believe about Jesus, who you say he is, but also about what values you associate with that belief and how faithfully you practice them and how you deal with others and yourself when you don’t.

My Christianity is about love and justice; unconditional compassion and fairness for others. All others. Those whom I like and don’t like, those with whom I agree and disagree, those who share and don’t share my values. My Christianity also is about how loving and just I am or can be given the limitations of my personal history and experience, insight and understanding, preferences and prejudices, which is why my Christianity calls, commands me always to turn to God, trusting in God’s grace and mercy to strengthen me to be and to do love and justice and to forgive me not if, but when I fail.

What is Christianity for you?

That’s my primary point. You decide. You get to decide. It’s for you to decide. No matter how you put it, it’s your call. Your choice.

I think Jesus meant what he said. Who do you say I am? Not what do others say, even if “the other” is the church with its two millennia old and counting proclamation of doctrine based on that first century answer to the question, as reflected in Peter’s reply, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”  No. What do you say?

A penultimate word, for now… Today or any day, after you answer, tomorrow or any next day, given new experiences and circumstances and your reflections upon them, you may find yourself answering Jesus’ question differently or, though using the same words, understanding them differently. The point is to remain open, honest, and transparent with yourself in your continuing, deepening walk with Jesus.

A final word, for now… At the end and beginning and middle of any day, however you answer the question of who Jesus is for you, remember that your truth is the truth only for you.[4]

 

Footnotes:

[1] See Acts 11.26.

[2] See Acts 9.2.

[3] Matthew 19.19. See also Matthew 25.31-46, the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats.

[4] By way of an apologia or explanation, it was some time ago when, through a gradual process (as most life processes are) of experience and examination of that (those) experience(s), I came to this truth; that is, what I discern to be true can be related to some universal truth (however conceptualized), but, in humility and honesty, I cannot, I dare not claim my truth as that universal truth, thus, true for all people. To state this point another way, there always is a difference between what I declare is my truth and the Truth, and even my truth and your truth. This perspective has allowed and encouraged me to remain in encounter and conversation with others whose views differ, whether marginally or greatly, from mine with an aim of understanding others, learning from others, and expanding my boundaries of the nature and definition of truth.

saving faith

a sermon, based on Matthew 14.22-33, preached with the people of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, on the 10th Sunday after Pentecost, August 13, 2017

Jesus saving Peter from sinking, Caspar Luyken (1672-1708)

Peter sinking beneath the waves is us. For who among us has not known of a time and, as we live, again will know times when we, at the cruel hand of whate’er the cause, are immersed in onrushing waves of anxiety or fear? And who among us, at such grave moments, as Peter, has not cried out, with whate’er the words that burst from our burdened breasts, “Lord, save me!”?

For me, at this very instant, I am stricken, sickened by what has transpired in Charlottesville, Virginia, and all that it says, screams to me about our unresolved American problem about racial superiority and, the truth be more widely told, our American problem about human supremacy of any kind that in its alway deadly ways demeans “the other” as a lesser form of humanity, and, therefore, as all this exists, insidiously, virulently, and brazenly out in the open, our American phobia about the universal equality of all people.

And all this painfully, tragically reminding us that in this life, though, yes, comforted by the joys of sunlit days and starry nights in the blessed fellowship of family and friends with strength of purpose and goodly labor at hand, sorrow is an ever-equal companion; perhaps more than the equal of joy for those among us who daily wrestle with generational cultural, racial, socio-economic deprivations difficult, perhaps impossible to overcome. And, in either case, for them or for us, when immersed in the waves, how many of us most of the time or even once had Peter’s experience of a savior walking across the water, lifting us, saving us from the peril of drowning?

If we haven’t or don’t know of anyone who has, then what more do we make, can we make of this story than a fanciful, ghostly tale? At best, it is a metaphor, a symbol of a common human, though oft vain hope for supernatural rescue from worldly trial and tribulation. Therefore, even at best, it is hardly a worthy foundation for our faith, which is the subject at the heart of the story.

And here’s the irony. Jesus, the miracle-worker, yes, made the blind see, the deaf hear, the lame walk, the dead rise. Yet, before inaugurating his ministry, Jesus spurned the temptation of the devil to leap from the pinnacle of the temple to prove that he was the Son of God, saying, “Do not put the Lord your God to the test”,[1] therefore, rejecting miracles as the basis of faith. Rather faith – assurance, confidence, trust – in the presence and benevolence of God, oft in the face of life’s contrary evidence, is the miracle.

This is the faith, however small, unformed and unfocused, that led Peter to test himself: “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” And Jesus, as I imagine him, delighted, thrilled that one of his disciples would dare risk a bold, uninhibited literal leap of faith, said, “Come.” Yet, straightway, Peter, the salt spray spattering his face, the wind tearing through his hair, took his eyes off Jesus. Beginning to sink, he cried, “Lord, save me!” Jesus reached out and rescued him.

An olden hymn comes to mind:

O love that wilt not let me go,

I rest my weary soul in thee;

I give thee back the life I owe,

that in thine ocean depths its flow

may richer, fuller be.[2]

These words mirror this story. Jesus does not promise nor does our faith in Jesus profess that the storms of life, whether in Charlottesville or anywhere else, will not threaten us, for they do and will; that trial and tribulation will not darken our door, for they do and will; that death to this life in this world will not befall us, for it will. Jesus, in taking our flesh and in his life, death, and resurrection, does promise and our faith does profess that he who is greater than the winds and the waves, greater than trial and tribulation, greater than our anxiety and fear, greater than death reaches out and holds us forever in his saving hands.

 

Illustration: Jesus saving Peter from sinking, Caspar Luyken (1672-1708)

Footnotes:

[1] Matthew 4.5-7

[2] From the hymn, verse 1, O love that wilt not let me go (1882); words by George Matheson (1842-1906), Scottish minister, poet, and hymn writer.