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).

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when…then…

a 4th of July epigrammatic poetic meditation

Statue of Liberty

when Martin’s misty dream crosses the as yet insuperable obstruction

from the ethereal theory of virtuous ambition to righteous action,

from the hallowed declaration of a half-century plus four past[1] to the corporeal reality of daily realization,

and character, not color becomes the fairest, truest measure of human perception…

 

and when gender remains an aspect of human identification,

yet no longer a veiled, vile justification for subjugation…

 

and when this land’s loathsome chronicle of injuries unto others

(the venal seeds of prejudice yielding the poisoned fruit of injustice) –

because of

color and gender,

race and culture,

lineage Native or immigrant or slave –

is read aloud by public penitent voices within the hearing of a moral heaven,

and, in acknowledging the sin, repenting, promising, “never again!”,

 

then the American experiment will become the American experience…

 

then America will “be America again –

The land that never has been yet –

And yet must be – the land where every one is free.”[2]

 

Footnotes:

[1] A reference to the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr’s speech, I Have A Dream, August 23, 1963

[2] From Let America Be America Again (1935), a poem by Langston Hughes (1902-1967); altered (one substituted for man)

restless ease, a poem

thinking

Prologue: I am one, from my time in this world as far back as I can reckon unto this very day, given to untempered and unfettered swings of mood from highest jollity and raucous laughter to nadir-depths of sadness, deep discordant sighs my only song; the shift, sometimes sudden, spurred by life’s griefs, yes, mine own, yet largely those of others, some whom I know, most I do not, for I, provoked, I believe, by the Spirit, embrace – not always willingly, but nonetheless unavoidably – creation’s pain, which clings irremovably to my heart’s hands. As a follower of Jesus, I pray, I trust that in his life and ministry, death and resurrection, he hath broken – and hath made possible the bearing of – the curse of care. In that faith, amid another, the latest of these anguished spells, during the small hours of this morn, the following words were given to me…

+

In my days, a weighted, unbreakable chain of restless ease

decrying the world’s ceaseless woe,

advancing, retreating to sleepless nights of supplication endless

my mind and heart, soul and spirit tossing hither, then yon,

I lean on the love of Jesus,

the One who lived and died for us

forsaking safety from the storms of human sin

seeking alway to enter in

our very blood and breath,

our pain of flesh,

our experience of life to share;

His heart to care,

His body to bear

the cross of our indignities

that One dare die to set us free.

we (yes, we!) are apostles

a sermon, based on John 20.19-23, preached with the people of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, on the Day of Pentecost, June 4, 2017

Pentecost. The word means “fiftieth”. For Christians,[1] the fiftieth day after Easter Day on which we commemorate the fulfillment of Jesus’ promise to send the Holy Spirit upon his disciples,[2] those he called to follow him to learn from him so to become apostles sent out by him to preach and teach his gospel, his good news of God’s unconditional, redeeming love.

Today, as we reflect on the nature and work of the Holy Spirit, rather than focus on the stirring, spellbinding scene in Acts with its sudden, violent heaven-sent wind, tongues of fire, disciples filled with the Spirit proclaiming in manifold languages God’s deeds of power,[3] I bid we take the proverbial “road less traveled” and look at John’s gospel.

It is the evening of the first Easter Day.[4] The disciples, grieving the death of Jesus and fearing for their lives, are in hiding. The resurrected Jesus appears…

The Appearance of Christ at the Cenacle (upper room) (Apparition du Christ au cénacle) (1886-1894), James Tissot (1836-1902)

He proclaims peace; not freedom from tribulation (for this is the peace of One who was crucified; thus, if nothing else, bearing bloody witness that life in this world is not free from trial!), but rather that greatest comfort of eternal union with him.

He entrusts them with his mission: “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”

Knowing they need power to fulfill that mission, he breathes on them: “Receive the Holy Spirit.”

Then he defines their mission, and, by extension, ours: “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven. If you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”

What? Who among us, including the first disciples, as human and honestly confessing our subjection to the temptation of the abuse of authority, would want to wield that kind of power over anyone (or anyone over us!)? Not I? As a priest, when I pronounce the absolution of sin, thank goodness, it is neither on my merit, which there is little, nor in my name, which is wholly lacking, that I proclaim it, but alway only by the grace and mercy of God! Now, I will concede that sometimes I have difficulty forgiving those who hurt me. And I do not believe I’m alone! So, it seems that we humans, at some visceral level, like the notion of releasing and retaining the sins of others!

Nevertheless, God forbid, I don’t think Jesus aims to appoint us as judges of humanity. Rather, we are to do something else in relation to sin.

(In over forty years as a daily Bible student, what I am about to share never has occurred to me, thus, as it hath come to me, for whatever reasons beyond my knowing, I consider it a Spirit-given revelation!)

By “sin”, I do not mean our human, innate moral frailty and failure of virtue leading us into temptation. Nor our acts of commission and omission in disobedience to God’s commandments. Yes, these are definitions of sin, yet, in John’s gospel, the chiefest sin is unbelief; not believing in God as revealed in Jesus.[5]

Therefore, for a disciple of Jesus to retain the sins of any is to refuse to be an apostle, to refuse to share with others the good news of Jesus. To forgive the sins of any is to strive to liberate others from their unbelief by witnessing to the gospel of Jesus.

Therefore, this Day of Pentecost, to commemorate the coming of the Holy Spirit upon the first disciples and to celebrate the coming of the Holy Spirit upon us is, in the words of the hymn, to “claim the high calling angels cannot share – to young and old the Gospel gladness bear!”[6]

Jesus breathes on us, saying, “Receive the Holy Spirit,” commissioning us as apostles sent out to share with others, through the words of our lips and the deeds of our lives, his good news of God’s unconditional, redeeming love.

 

Illustration: The Appearance of Christ at the Cenacle (upper room) (Apparition du Christ au cénacle) (1886-1894), James Tissot (1836-1902). Note: Tissot portrays the resurrected Christ appearing to his followers in the upper room where they had shared the Last Supper exposing his glowing wounds as the disciples, in the foreground, and the servants, in the background, look on in wonder.

Footnotes:

[1] Pentecost first was and is a Jewish harvest festival, Shavuot; referred to as the Festival of Weeks (Exodus 34.22 and Deuteronomy 16.10), the Festival of Harvest (Exodus 23.16), and the Day of First Fruits (Numbers 28.26). As Shavuot is the fiftieth day after the Day of Passover (the annual celebration of the emancipation of the Hebrew captives from bondage in Egypt and their journey to the Promised Land, and, according to Jewish tradition, commemorating God’s giving of the 10 Commandments on Mount Sinai as a sign of new, liberated life), Hellenistic Jews called it Pentecost. This historical Jewish antecedent of Passover-Pentecost enlightens Christian understanding. God’s gift of the Holy Spirit is the signification of resurrected life in Jesus freed from captivity to sin and death so to journey to the Promised Land of eternal life.

[2] See John 14.15-17, 25

[3] See the Book of Acts 2.1-21

[4] The New Testament witness of the coming of the Holy Spirit gives evidence of more than one tradition, for, according to the Book of Acts, the event is located on the Day of Pentecost and, via the Gospel of John, on Easter Day evening. To explain the latter, for John the evangelist, the fulfillment of Jesus’ promise of the gift of the Holy Spirit (John 14.15-17, 26) is tied to his glorification (his crucifixion, death, and resurrection).

[5] I arrive at this view given my interpretation of Jesus’ prayerful definition of eternal life: “This is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent” (John 17.3). In a recent sermon, Easter People (May 28, 2017), I said, in part: “Our knowing is more than our intellectual assent to the idea of God, more than our cognitive awareness of something, Someone greater than we, more than our understanding of the ways and workings of God. To know God and Jesus is to be in relationship with God as Jesus makes God known to us.” Believing this to be true, I define “sin” (that spiritual and existential state of separation or estrangement from God), from a Johannine point of view, as an active non-knowing of (an active not being in relationship with) God.

I think, too, of Jesus’ healing of the man born blind (John 9.1-41), especially his scathing critique of those who, though beholding his saving work, were what I term “the sighted blind”, for they refused to believe that was the Messiah: Jesus said, “I came into this world for judgment so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind.” Some of the Pharisees near him heard this and said to him, “Surely we are not blind, are we?” Jesus said to them, “If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, ‘We see’, your sin remains” (John 9.39-41).

Further, I think of Jesus’ testimony to his disciples prior to his departure from them about the work of the Holy Spirit, one aspect of which is in regard to the indelible linkage between sin and unbelief: “Now I am going to him who sent me; yet none of you asks me, “Where are you going?” But because I have said these things to you, sorrow has filled your hearts. Nevertheless, I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Advocate will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you. And when he comes, he will prove the world wrong about sin and righteousness and judgement: about sin, because they do not believe in me; about righteousness, because I am going to the Father and you will see me no longer; about judgment, because the ruler of this world has been condemned” (John 16.5-11; my emphases). Note: The phrase “prove the world wrong” (John 16.8) also can be translated from the Greek “convict the world of”, which is to say that the Holy Spirit corrects the world’s viewpoint, say, of the nature and substance of sin, thus clarifying what it is, that is, unbelief.

[6] From the hymn, Come, labor on; words by Jane Laurie Borthwick (1813-1897)

a-Lenten-prayer-a-day, day 28, Saturday, April 1, 2017

my-hands-2-27-17Note: As a personal, spiritual discipline, I write a prayer for each of the forty days of Lent; each petition focusing on a theme, truly, relating to a care or concern weighing on my mind and heart, at times, vexing my soul and spirit…

On beholding the Image of God’s new creation: O Lord, all that is, yea, too, humankind is fashioned in Your Image, even more, redeemed by Your Son, still more, through Your Spirit, made a new creation.[1]

Yet, for the longest time, at least for me and at least much of the time, I found it hard to see Your Countenance in the faces of others, verily, too, in the face I beheld in my mirror…

confess - regret

For, despite Your creating, saving, sanctifying work, I, oft trusting more (most? only?) in my observation and opinion, continued to regard others and myself from a human point of view of judgment as alway failing, falling short of Your will.[2]

Today, I, in my being entire – my mind and heart, soul and spirit – am convicted of my sin of denying Your goodness and grace.

In my repentance, I give You thanks for being granted new eyes to see others and myself as You see us.

In this, I also need praise You for Your merciful, infinite patience with me. Amen.

Footnotes:

[1] See 2 Corinthians 5.17-18a: (The Apostle Paul writes) So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ.

[2] See 2 Corinthians 5.14-16a (my emphasis): For the love of Christ urges us on, because we are convinced that one has died for all; therefore all have died. And he died for all, so that those who live might live no longer for themselves, but for him who died and was raised for them. From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view. Note: The Greek, kata sarka, here, translated “human point of view”, literally means “according to flesh”, which, in light of the Apostle Paul’s theology, as I interpret it, connotes more than human perception, but rather the inherent opposition of sinful flesh to God’s work in and through the Spirit. Thus, to view others, indeed, myself, as I write in my prayer “from a human point of view of judgment” is to perceive all things and everyone “as alway failing, falling short of (God’s) will.” So, again, I thank God for being given new eyes to see life and creation, others and myself no longer (not only) from “a human point of view” of judgment, but rather, as God sees, with mercy and grace!

a-Lenten-prayer-a-day, day 5, Monday, March 6, 2017

my-hands-2-27-17Note: As a personal, spiritual discipline, I write a prayer for each of the forty days of Lent; each petition focusing on a theme, truly, relating to a care or concern weighing on my mind and heart, at times, vexing my soul and spirit…

On sin and absolution: O merciful God, in Your Love, hold not my sin against me, lest I, dwelling now and, worse, dying eternally, in the wrong I have done, forego the wonder of Your Presence. Yet, I beseech You, by Your same Love, hold me against my sin, lest I, for sake of my egoistic ease, forget it; that in my deserved discomfort, I, today and alway, learn only to delight in the unfathomable depth of Your pardon. Amen.

what are you thinking?

ash-wednesday a sermon, based on Isaiah 58.1-12, preached with the people of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, on Ash Wednesday, March 1, 2017

“Is this the fast that I choose?”[1] The prophet Isaiah speaks to the people, declaring God’s word, really, God’s question.

For nearly seventy years, the Israelites were held captive in Babylon. Now, with the fall of the Babylonian Empire to the Persian army, the people, their liberation finally come, their hated exile over, return home. But their suffering in poverty and powerlessness continues. Their land, in ruins. Basic necessities, lacking. Neighboring nations, poised to strike.

israelites-return-to-their-homeland-1670-domenico-gargiulo-1609-1675The people, literally hungering and thirsting for God’s favor, fast – abstaining from food and drink, donning coarse sackcloth, smearing their faces with dust and ash; ancient, ritual signs of sorrow meant to get God’s attention.

But no relief comes. Because, Isaiah says, their fast, an external display of humility, is a mask for hypocritical, unchanged, selfish hearts. Even in poverty, some, less poor than others, seek to maintain whatever privilege they possess, which the poorer among them would wrest from their hands.

“Is this,” God, through the mouth of Isaiah, asks, truly, demands, “the fast that I choose?” Do you really believe that outward, ritual display without deeds of mercy, without common acts of common assistance to address common need satisfies My hunger for righteousness? Do you really believe that superficial religiosity, artificial piety reflects My kingdom, My community of love and justice? What are you thinking?

God’s people have sinned, “missing the mark”,[2] failing to fulfill God’s calling. However, this prophetic chastisement isn’t a negative job evaluation or a poor performance review. For the issue is not about doing, but being. Not about duty, but identity. The people have misunderstood not what they are to do, but who they are. They don’t have a mission to do God’s love and justice. Rather the God of love and justice has a people in whom that mission takes flesh, thus lives and labors.

So, Isaiah declares that an acceptable fast is deeds of mercy, which, when done, do not, will not, cannot gain the reward of God’s blessing, but rather are the signs that the people already are blessed by God, verily, are God’s blessing for others. Deeds of mercy do not, will not, cannot win salvation, but rather reflect that salvation already has come, verily, that the spirit of salvation, healing, wholeness “lives and moves and has its being”[3] among the people.

Thus, it does no violence to the text, indeed, it is to unearth its truth to change the word “then” to “when.”

Is not this the fast I choose?

To loose the bonds of injustice,

To undo the thongs of the yoke,

To let the oppressed go free,

To break every yoke?

To share bread with the hungry

To bring the homeless poor into the house

To cover the naked

To hide not from our sisters and brothers in need.

Again, not “then,” not if we do these things, this will be the result, but rather “when” we do these things it is a sign that already:

Our light breaks forth like the dawn,

Our healing arises speedily

God answers even before we call…

This is a biblical way of saying that we already have embraced, embodied the love and justice of God’s very nature.

So, this Lent, let us not do deeds of self-sacrifice, even self-denial. Rather let us be acts of mercy, particularly for those who are “other” than we.

Thus when God saith, “Is not this the fast that I choose?” verily, “Are not you the fast that I choose?” we will be able to answer, “Yes!”

 

Illustration: Israelites return to their homeland (1670), Domenico Gargiulo (1609-1675)

Footnotes:

[1] Isaiah 58.5a (emphasis mine). The Hebrew scripture appointed for the day is Isaiah 58.1-12.

[2] The word sin is derived from the Greek, ‘amartia, literally meaning “to miss the mark.” The image may be conceived as that of an archer whose arrows (symbolic of one’s life’s intentions, indeed, aims) land all places except the center of the target (of life, Who is God).

[3] Words from A Collect for Guidance, The Book of Common Prayer, page 100 (based on Acts 17.28)