upper room daily devotions

Sunday, June 16, 2013

(Don't Just) Do the Right Thing - A Sermon on Forgiveness Luke 7:36-8:3

Every week when we gather in worship, we pray "forgive us our
trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us." Depending
upon what Christian tradition you grew up in, if you did grow up in a
church, you may have also prayed "forgive us our sins" or "forgive us our
debts." All three - trespasses, sins, and debts - reveal the depth of the
power of this prayer. Trespasses - the way we trod on others in unlawful
and uninvited ways. Sins - the ways in which we miss the mark, the goal
that God has set for us. Debts - what we owe. Each word, a good
translation on its own, shades our prayer in a slightly different way.
Perhaps, instead of always praying using the word "trespass," we should
be more expansive and from time to time say "sins" or "debts." Years
ago, a woman came up to me and asked that we not pray the Lord's Prayer
every week; it loses its "specialness" to do so, she said. I thought to myself that this
woman must be much more holy than I am. I trespass, sin, and fall into
debt on a regular basis! I need to pray this prayer with every breath, not
just once a week, and certainly not once a month.

Forgiveness is both an act and a state of being. It is the concern of the
heart and it affects every manner in which we live in the world. Both our
ability to receive and extend forgiveness are the bedrock transactions of
Christianity. And, holy cow, forgiveness is hard to practice in disposition,
that is, in the recesses of our hearts, and in deed.

On to our story.

The story in Luke is a kingdom story; it is an invitation into life lived in the
presence of God, and it moves us into the kingdom by way of a path made of forgiveness.

A man invited Jesus to dinner. Like most dinner parties, I suspect they
talked about all kinds of interesting things. That's what happens around
a table. We share stories, debate politics, and that sort of thing. And, in
the midst of talking about life, real life interrupts - in the form of a woman. And
what a woman she is. We are told that she stands there weeping. What an image. What
vulnerability. She seems to present herself in the midst of her tears.
Tears of poverty. She also brings an alabaster jar of oil and she anoints
Jesus. Oil of extravagance. She is immediately declared a
sinner by the men in the room, which prompts Jesus to tell a story about
two men forgiven debts, one a little and one much, and he ends with a
question. "Now which of them will love him more?" The one forgiven a
little or the one forgiven much? Simon "supposes" (we are told) that the
man forgiven much. Supposes? Simon is hedging. Of course the one
forgiven much will love more in return. Jesus turns to the woman and
forgives her sins. He says it twice. He really means it. And, for those of
us who have sinned much, we need to hear words of forgiveness a lot
because it is difficult to believe, in our hearts, that forgiveness is not only
possible, but extended so freely to us.

In an article called "Forgiveness and Gratitude," David Lose asks, "But is forgiveness really
everything? Can it possibly be worth that much? Consider: forgiveness
at heart is the restoration of relationship. It is releasing any claim on
someone else for some past injury or offense. That’s why the analogy to
a debt works so well. Forgiveness cancels relational debt and opens up
the future. Which is why it’s so important, so valuable.
But it’s also something more. Forgiveness also gives you back yourself.
You see, after a while, being indebted, owing others, knowing yourself
first and foremost as a sinner -- these realities come to dominate and
define you. You are no more and no less than what you’ve done, the
mistakes you’ve made, the debt you owe. When you are forgiven, all
those limitations disappear and you are restored, renewed, set free.
So, yes, forgiveness is everything."

But this story does not concern itself wholly with the receipt of
forgiveness, it reveals the how the hardness of heart closes us from the
liberating power of the gospel. Simon, a man who should understand the
law, sees only a sinner before him. He is irritated that this woman would
interrupt the party with her disruptions. He had a well laid plan for the
evening - of mannered discussion among learned men and this
wandering rabbi that people were talking so much about. And here this
woman comes and messes everything up. The hardness of his heart
closed him off from the miracle of that moment. Inasmuch as we are in
need of forgiveness like the woman, we are like Simon, too - hard
pressed to be graceful in the face of others needing forgiveness. A man
so sure of his place in the world, Simon suffered from what many of us
suffer from - complacency. Comfort. These are insidious diseases that
infect our soul. They make us not only comfortable with ourselves but
intolerant to the wounds, sins, debts, and trespasses of others. A
kingdom moment for the woman is a conflict moment for Simon. So
closed from the power of forgiveness and the transformative power of
grace that he only "supposes" that the indebted man will love more in

As much as this story is told to us individually, this is also a story for the
church as a whole. It is a missional story. Who are we as followers of
Christ? What implication does this story have on our mission and
ministry in the world and in our lives shared with one another?
Absolutely everything.

On a large scale, Christians easily embroil ourselves in conflicts about
doctrine and right thought. And right in the local church or among
intimate relationships, we can become enmeshed in petty
disagreements, too. It's normal. It's natural. That's what flawed human
beings do. We take missteps and we focus on the wrong things, much
like Simon. This story drags us back to our core identity - a people in
need of forgiveness and a people challenged to extend forgiveness. In a
world of broken relationships, people need to hear that trespasses can
be mended. In a world of growing debt - real financial debt - people
yearn to hear a word of debt forgiveness. In a world in which making the
mark is so hard, we need to hear that sins can be forgiven. And, right
here among us - not out in the big world in some abstract way - right
here in this room between you and me, you and the person next to you -
brokenness stands there weeping, crying out for restoration. For us to
believe the best in one another, not for our hearts to be hardened by low
expectations or the expectation of hurtful behavior.

The Christian life is not one that does the right thing, for we will
inevitably fall short. We will, despite our best efforts, not always do the
right thing. And others around us will also fall short. That's part of being
human. The Christian life is a life open to restoration. The Way of Christ
is plotted through a path built of forgiveness - extended and received.
Love, grace, healing. These all arise from forgiveness. Forgiveness
embedded in our hearts. Forgiveness asked for through tears.
Forgiveness lavishly extended to the other like anointment from an
alabaster jar.

The great theological gift in Christianity is grace. Forgiveness is grace
found in relationship. Luke sets this story around a table for a reason.
Our communion table is a physical manifestation of God's grace found in
and through forgiveness. When we come to the table, we come as a
woman weeping, our sins laid bare before our Christ. When we serve
Communion, we serve as a little Christ (which is what "Christian" means,
or an ambassador of Christ, as Paul puts it). We offer to others the grace
and forgiveness offered to us. It is not our grace. It is not our
forgiveness. It is Christ's just as the table is Christ's.

Today God extends to us an invitation to restoration through forgiveness.
When you pray the Lord's Prayer, pray with a heart weeping and honest.
When you take the bread, be assured that you take the healing
presence of Christ into your body. It will circulate through your whole
being working miracles of healing. When you leave this worship go into
the world - not just to do the right thing - but to live whole lives aware of
brokenness and ready for forgiveness. This is the gospel of our Lord.

Sunday, June 09, 2013

My God Is...(Another list)

I am currently taking a week off from work, which means a week not leading worship. Instead of going to morning worship today, I will be in worship this evening, either for evensong or compline. I am taking some time this morning to say a few things about what it means for me to be Christian.

Via Negativa - what God is not.
1. God does not "live" in the sky. Well, God does not "live" in that God is not organic - at least, God exists in and out of the organic.
2. God is not gendered.
3. God is not a person.
4. God does not think.
5. God does not choose.
6. God is not omnipotent (more on that later).
7. God is not Christian.
8. God is not a noun and therefore the modifiers "a" and "the" make no sense.
9. If God is not a noun (which is my premise), then God is not. (Because of this, I do not identify as a theist or a deist - I am a "non-theistic" Christian.")
10. "God" is not a name.

On to something a little more constructive. What God is.
1. "God" is what people have used as a place holder for the ineffable. It points to something as close as our breath and as incomprehensible as, well, something incomprehensible.
2. In my working definition of "God," that word - "God" - points to the force and the movement that bend toward compassion and justice. That's God.
3. God is not omnipotent in that God is relational. Relationship implies serving as both actor and the acted upon. We affect God. That means that God can be changed. In fact, to me, changing and "godding" are quite interlinked.
4. "Godding" - We usually say "God," which is a noun and has definition - edges. But the divine is bigger than that - undefinable. Literally. There are no edges to God. Nouns, by their very existence, have beginnings and ends. For the sake of grammatical convenience, I talk about God a lot. But, in my heart, I know that there is no "god" - there is "godding." God is an active verb. God is a doing.
5. Since God is not a noun or a person (much less gendered), God does not act as we act. God does not have a divine brain that "thinks," "chooses," or "decides." But God does indeed act in particular ways, those ways that move toward wholeness, compassion, and justice.
6. Since God is without beginning and end, God existed before Christianity and God exists outside of Christianity. Claiming exclusive rights to God is idolatrous.
7. God is mystery.

What does all of this mean?
Even if God is ineffable, we live in a world of speech. This is one of the reasons that the creation story has so much truth in it. We speak our worlds. Language creates. It totally shapes how we understand and experience life. So, we have to come up with the best language that we can.

The struggle for how to think about and put language to God is a very old struggle. St. Anselm once used an a priori argument that included this supposition, that God is "a being than which no greater being can be conceived.” Of course, I don't think God is a being, but Anselm is grappling with the ineffability of God just as I am...just as we all are.

So, I use the language that we have, the metaphors of our world, and the reductionistic thoughts that make talking about God easier. I also use the very powerful tool of story.

We are storied people. If a person is asked who he or she is, a story comes to mind. Given the circumstance, that story will change. If a boss asks, an employment and education story comes to mind. If a new friend, a different story will come to mind. A new dating partner, yet another one. Things that typically build our stories include geography, parents, ancestry, religion, passions, wounds, and so forth. These things make up our stories. But, we are also part of those stories. For example, coming from the South is part of my story, but my life is also part of the ongoing Southern narrative even though I no longer live there. I am Southern. Always. Whenever Southerners do crazy things, I feel a little embarrassment. Why should that be? I don't live there. I did not do that action. I had no hand in that. Whenever we discuss the difficulty history of the South, I cringe inside. Why? Again, I was not there. I did not own slaves or create Jim Crow laws, although I benefited from that unjust legacy. And, the opposite is also true. Whenever a great Southern author is discussed, I feel some pride. Why? I did not write that book. I never met that author. However, the South is part of me and I a part of it. Always. And forever. I am in relationship with that story. Sometimes that relationship is easy and wonderful. Other times it is a relationship fraught with conflict and resistance.

Christianity is my story. I was born into it. The rhythm of my culture moved around the Christian calendar. At school, we took Christmas and Easter breaks and the stores were closed on Sunday. My home life moved around the rhythms of Christianity as well. We went to church on Sundays, attended Vacation Bible School, prayed before meals and before bed time. We went to Sunday School, celebrated Christmas and Easter. We prayed family devotions and talked about Jesus. When something bad happened, Jesus was invoked as a standard bearer in how to deal with the situation. When a wrong was committed, I was challenged to forgive as Jesus taught. We prayed the Lord's Prayer. My father's family was Southern Baptist and my mom's family was Methodist. Two of my ancestors were circuit riders in the Methodist tradition. The doxologies, hymnody, order of service, calendar, colors, smells, and little rituals became a part of me as they were practiced in formal ritual and in daily life. I am Christian in name, practice, and time. It is the Christian story that helps me connect to the ineffable. Christianity is not and has never been a set of beliefs; it is a story lived by people every day.

Once I was older and off on my own, like many young adults I dabbled in all kinds of religion. I dabbled with Unitarians, wiccans, and Episcopalians. I looked long and hard at Judaism and Buddhism. But, it all came down to one thing: Despite my problems with a great deal of Christianity, it is me and I it. I belong to it and it belongs to me. I could no more convert than decide to be a Martian.

So, it is through the Christian story that I relate with the ultimately relational godding that bends toward compassion and justice. So, I talk about God as a person. I use gendered language (both male and female). I talk about "God" and put that word in the subject line of the sentence. I find my story in the Bible. I wrestle as Jacob did (see that nice use of my story to talk about my story??) with the violence, prejudice, and difficulties of Christianity.

And still I try to remain aware that all of our language, all of our stories, all that we dream of cannot contain the wonder of godding. Because of this, I have deep respect for Buddhists, Jews, Muslims, agnostics, atheists, and people from faiths all over the world. These folks, too, are trying to make sense of that which is beyond our cognition and to live lives connected to something bigger and more wonderful than themselves.

In the end, "Christianity" is not a belief system for me, it is a way of life that begins with a story and moves into continuing the work of Jesus to heal, restore, reconcile, and resurrect. And "faith" is not intellectually assenting to a list of precepts, it is trusting in the actions of God to move the world and me toward these very things - health, restoration, reconciliation, and resurrection.

I feel "called" by God to set my life apart from other pursuits to help others locate themselves within stories, to find home after long sojourns in exile, and to claim language that makes them and the world more whole.

I am not a systematic theologian and have little room for such activities. Of course, we need to have some sense of wholeness in our relationship with God, but in the end God will always be a giant mystery for us.

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