Sunday, September 24, 2017

Reflection on Matthew 20:1-16

“It’s not fair!”

Those are the three words that popped into my head as I read again the story of the day laborers. “It’s not fair” that those who worked the last hour of the day in the coolness of the evening got the same amount of money as those who slaved under the sun the entire day. Right? It is not fair.

As they stood in line, waiting for their pay, those who worked all day expected, and maybe got a little excited, that they might be making more money than was agreed to in the morning as those last workers received an amount equal to an entire day's wage. When they got the same amount as those who worked one hour, they were understandably incensed.

"These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.”

In other words, “It’s not fair!”

There are lots of things that are not fair, of course:

The neighbor who got a bonus at work and a new car, but we still tinker to keep our junker going, is not fair.

The girl who always gets the lead part in the musical even though we might be a better singer, is not fair.

The couple in the restaurant who gaze lovingly into each other’s eyes as we struggle to make any relationship work, is not fair.

The children on the other side of the room who are so well behaved as our children scream because they did not get their third piece of candy in a row, is not fair.

As you scroll through social media, you see the fun others are having at the beach or on the top of mountains while you struggle. Life is not fair, and there is no joy in comparisons.

Now, it is easy for a non-Christian to say, “life is not fair” because for them it is simply a statement attesting to the random nature of the world.

But, those of us who believe in a God who has a hand in the affairs of our lives, the unfairness of it all is a little more personal and biting.

The faithful clearly see that people who worked only an hour getting the same wage as we who worked all day is a choice that the land owner makes. It is not a random occurrence. It is a choice.

And, that choice to lift others up while leaving us behind hurts. Why do they get the attention, but we hard workers are just left behind? Why are they chosen for joy, but we are destined for sorrow? In other words, “God, why don’t you love me as much?”

There is a problem with comparisons. Comparing our lives to others is like putting blinders on the eyes of a horse. Those little half cups that go on the outside of the horses eyes cause the horse to see only what is ahead and only what is a ways away. When wearing blinders, the horse cannot see what is quite close by.

In the same way, comparisons serve a similar blinding function.

The day laborers who worked through the sweat of the day could see the ones who worked for only an hour standing far up ahead in line, but could not see a basic fact about their own life: the land owner also paid them, and paid them exactly what was owed.

The land owner responds, "Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?'

As you see, the problem with comparison is that it does not allow you to see just how much God has blessed and loved you.

The day laborers who worked an entire day could have chosen to rejoice with those who received a day’s wage, but did not earn it. They could have been happy that these guys' families would eat well tonight, and maybe could have even taken them out for a beer after work in order to rejoice with them. That could have happened, had they understood just how blessed they were.

They were blessed after-all. The landowner paid them as promised. The fact that the last are first in God’s kingdom does not necessitate a negative attitude. The fact that those who were initially left out eventually get some grace and gift should remind us of the grace and gift that God has given us.

God has blessed you. Some days it is hard to see, I know, but it is still true. God has blessed you with grace and gifts, but sometimes we are just blind to it.

Do you want some practical, “I can take this home and use it,” sort of discipleship advice this morning? Theologian David Lose offered these suggestions, and they are quite simple, but good.

Know though that following this advice will not gain you any points in heaven, nor will it gain you any points in the eyes of your pastor (mainly because I will not see you doing them in the first place), but it will open your eyes to those instances in which God’s grace is poured out upon daily.

First: Count your blessings.

The familiar and beloved hymn encourages you to “count your blessings” and “name them one by one.” Unfortunately, the hymn has turned the idea into a sort of trope that is easily ignored, but believe me when I say that the practice can be quite powerful.

Each morning, while you wash your face or take your shower name at least two things for which you are blessed. Try to think of specific things from the day before. Take note of your blessings. Do not allow yourself to be one of those blind horses. See the gifts that God has given that are right beside you.

Second: If you are on social media, put it down at least an hour before bed.

Not only is this good sleep practice, but it also allows you some time free from the temptation of comparison. You know, as well as I do, that we only put the best stuff from our lives on social media. Well, most of us do anyway.

You do not put your struggles out in the public domain. That, as you know, is considered inappropriate and narcissistic in the social media world. You do not put your major struggles out there and neither do your neighbors and friends.

But, do you not see how that creates false images of reality?

Therefore, allow yourself the gift of an hour before bed away from the temptation of comparison. Use that hour to again list your blessings. Maybe, make your last post of the day something for which you are thankful.

Third: Share your struggles with others.

Crack open that perfect external mask. Remember, others are staring at what appears to be your perfect life. They look at you, and your pictures on social media or in your wallet or in your purse, and they see how great your life is in comparison with their own.

Maybe, it would help them to know that you have scars too.

Jesus showed his own scars after-all.

Maybe, people would feel less forgotten by God and their friends if they could see someone else who struggles, yet finds new life and hope in the end.

Another way to put all of these suggestions is to stop identifying with the laborers who worked all day in the sun. Instead, locate yourself among the group who have been given a full day’s wage after waiting in hopelessness all day on the street corner waiting for work. Identify with those who are hired just moments before the work day is over.

You are the one who has been blessed without deserving it. You are the one for whom God has shown mercy. You are the one who thought you might be lost and left behind, but instead was found.

You are the recipient of God’s grace and gifts.

You are blessed.

Just make sure that you take time to remind yourself.

Monday, September 18, 2017

Reflection on Matthew 18:21-35

Can I just say this morning that I am not so sure?

Oh, I understand very well. I understand that we are supposed to forgive. I understand that it is supposed to be a lot of times.

It is supposed to be seventy times seven times…that’s 490 times. In other words, we are supposed to always forgive. I understand that completely. Actually, it is the understanding that makes me not so sure.

Certainly, I can forgive that many times for small things; like when tired parents continually forget to close the cupboard door. Not that that has ever happened in my house. I can envision forgiving that 490 times or more.

I can even forgive for a bit larger things too; like when a little child continually forgets that they are not supposed to pinch when they are mad. Not that that has ever happened over and over and over again in recent memory…yesterday.

We can all forgive those types of sins over and over again without too much problem. But what about the big ones?

A pastor friend has one of the big ones to mention. What about the man who was abusing her when she was eight years old who kept saying, “I’m sorry,” and then doing it again and again. As a young person, she was told by a pastor that she just needed to forgive, because that is what Jesus would do.

That answer strikes me as abusive in itself. In fact, in today’s world such an answer without any action would be illegal.

Could not the pastor have notified the authorities so that the abuse would at least stop. Forgiveness is not a pass for abuse to just continue. “Just forgive the guy,” she was told. That is ridiculous.

I am just allowing some space this morning to say, I am not so sure.

There is always the drunk spouse who is apologetic in the morning and asks for forgiveness each and every time. Are we supposed to forgive so that they feel validated to just keep hurting again and again without ever changing? I am just not so sure.

Jesus, is that OK? Is it OK for me to say that I am not so sure? Because, I know that this forgiveness thing is big for you. I know that you died on a cross to save and forgive all of us, even the most despicable of us.

I know, in my head, that I am supposed to forgive and forgive and forgive. Theoretically, it all sounds fine. But, when the rubber hits the road, in some cases, I am just not sure.

Of course, if we are honest with ourselves, there are things that God probably needs to forgive in us over and over again.

Am I able to ever pass up a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup when it is obvious that I probably should at this point in my life. Nope.

That is just one of those little sins, I am not going to share the bigger ones with you, though they certainly exist. What if God just decided to give up on me or you?

The promise is that God will not. You see, there was this king who just wanted to get his finances in order and was in the process of settling his accounts when encountered a debtor who falls to his knees in distress, and begs that the king forgive his debt. The poor guy owed 10,000 talents.

A talent (which is a form of currency) is worth 130 pounds of silver, which is about 15 years worth of daily wages. So, if you do the multiplication here, the man owed the king 150,000 years of labor. And you thought you had a debt problem!

But, the king forgives the debt. The king forgives the huge debt. God forgives our huge debt.

Here is the fundamental misunderstanding that we humans have about the foundations of the moral universe. We tend to believe that the moral universe is built upon a foundation of justice. When a gallon of oil is stolen, a gallon should be given back. When things are restored as they were, all is well again in the universe. That feels right, does it not?

But, the problem starts to happen when an eye is poked out. Does the universe become right again when a second eye is poked out in return?

How about a life being taken accidentally. Is the world suddenly right if another life is taken in return?

People will have different answers to both of these instances, and that very uncertainty…that very difference of opinion…starts to reveal that such a foundation to the world has major cracks and can crumble away very quickly.

An eye for an eye, in fact, is not the moral foundation supporting the universe. Instead, Jesus showed us clearly on the cross that something else is the foundation.

John 12:32 puts God’s intentions for all creation plainly, “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.”

God’s intention is that everything in the universe that has been pushed apart, might finally be drawn back together and be whole again. On the cross, Jesus opened his arms wide to gather all back together. On the cross, Jesus opened his arms wide in an act of forgiveness.


Forgiveness is the foundation upon which the universe is built. When everything that we have built up crumbles away and the universe is no more, forgiveness will remain, unmoved.

Since forgiveness is the foundation of our existence, since it is the ground upon which we walk, then it makes sense that the king is incensed when the man who was forgiven 150,000 years of labor refuses to forgive a fellow worker a debt worth 100 days worth of labor.

“Forgive and you will be forgiven,” Jesus says. Forgiveness is how the universe is made right once again.

So, where does that leave us? Where does that leave us in those hard, unforgivable cases?

I’ am not certain. I do not actually know.

But, here is what I do know, God cares about your hurt. God wants you to be restored to health and wholeness. God really does. But, God also wants your neighbors and your enemies to be fully restored.

Maybe, it is OK for just right now to realize that though we may not yet be able to forgive at this point in time, it is still a real possibility with God. Forgiveness is always a possibility.

Maybe, rather than trying to identify with the king who is able to forgive greatly, we can simply take some time to identify with the servant who was forgiven greatly. Maybe, we can simply take some time to let it sink in just how much we have been forgiven.

How much has Jesus forgiven you?

In fact, let us spend more time letting that sink in than the servant did. He did not let it sink in for even a minute. Unlike the servant who immediately refuses to forgive his debtor, let us hold off on the decision to forgive or not forgive those around us who have sinned greatly.

Instead, let us just take some time to focus on how we have been forgiven. I have a hunch that in time, we will get our answers to the hard cases also.

But for now, allow yourself to be forgiven, so that you may know what it is to forgive.

Sunday, September 10, 2017

Reflection on Romans 13:8-14

Peering through the clouds, using a sideways glare, I tried to see if God was watching. I was worried sick and running scared because I thought I had been caught.

I do not recall in the least what I had done. Perhaps, I had hit my younger brother. That seemed to be a regular, enjoyable sin of mine. Perhaps, I had looked at a girl with lustful intent. I had reached the age where girls were suddenly all around and I could not help but look. Or perhaps, it was the huge, enormous sin of not changing the toilet paper roll after using the last sheet. This was cause for murder with my household.

Whichever it was, I was certain that God peered around the clouds and saw what I did. I was waiting for retribution to fall from the sky in the form of a falling piano or flying tractor trailer.

I do not know exactly where I got such an idea, but it never even crossed my mind that God just might choose mercy instead of retribution.

Instead, I was stuck on that little piece of scripture from the reflection last week. You remember, we read in Romans that vengeance is God’s job, not ours. Our only job is to show love to our enemies.

That is a great take-away, if you read far enough to get to the love your enemy part. I had not gotten that far. I was stuck on the “Vengeance is mine” says the Lord part.

It is strange that I had this vengeful conception of God at that point in my life, because my pastor at the time was a great preacher of God’s grace. The guy preached God’s grace all the time. He made the love of Jesus Christ very real, even for a small child, using examples of parents loving children unconditionally and dogs loving children unconditionally.

For some reason, after listening to him I knew that my dog Sparky loved me no matter what, he slobbered up my face after-all, but I was not equally convinced concerning God.

How we see God is so important, because we will follow the God we hold in our hearts. There is the phrase, “be careful what you do, your children are watching.” I think that this is somewhat true concerning God in that we will strive to be like the God we hold in our hearts.

So, if we hold to a God of vengeance in our hearts, not only will we worry about whether or not we are being perfect, but we will also likely worry about whether or not everyone around us is being perfect. If they fall short of the mark, as they of course will, we will be convinced that they deserve to be punished. Following the example of a vengeful God, we just may personally make certain that punishment is doled out.

And, do not pretend you have never committed an act of punishing vengeance upon someone else. You certainly have at least committed that “I’m not going to talk to you for the rest of the day” sort of vengeance. If we believe that God is vengeful, we will be vengeful.

It is going to be hard to follow the advice of Paul in Romans to “owe no one anything, except to love one another” if we believe that God does not follow by the same rules. We will be ruthless judges if we are certain that God’s primary job is being a ruthless judge. However, by the same token, we just may put our lives on the line for another person if we are convinced that God has done the same for us.

Fast-forward a year or two when I was in my Freshman year, in the locker room, and a classmate was being pushed around in the shower because a deformity in his feet made him easy fodder for ridicule. Stepping in between this classmate and the bully, I took the shove intended for him, slid across the floor on a nice film of soap, and ended up on my rear-end in the gutter of the shower. Laughter ensued of course, we were immature freshman after-all, but the laughter was now on me and my classmate was able to slip away safely.

At some point in the one or two preceding years, someone broke through my image of a vengeful God and helped me understand that Jesus Christ stuck his neck out for me in a big way. It was more than his neck. He stuck his whole body out for me on the cross. At some point, I learned what it means to “be loved,” and it made a difference for that classmate.

“Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law.”

The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not covet”; and any other commandment, are summed up in this word, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.”

These words of Paul make no sense if we do not believe God acts the same way. But life is different when we understand that Jesus Christ loved all of his neighbors (the whole world, in fact) as much as himself; dying for everyone’s sake on the cross.

He was not bound by anything else that distracted him from this love. He did not owe anyone anything. He did not have a debt that he needed to settle first or an obligation that would deter him from loving.

The only thing he owed the world was to love it.

The only thing he owed you was to love you.

You are loved by God. Life is different when you are told that you are loved.

If I had understood God’s love earlier, maybe instead of trying to run away from a God who was going to drop a piano on my head for something I did wrong, I would have used that same amount of time to go and pick flowers for my neighbor (she was a cute, little, golden-haired girl, just a year younger than myself).

That is a little self-serving, so better yet, I could have gathered those violets and shared them with the cute girl’s great grandmother who lived locked away in the house with few people coming to visit.

Life would have been different if I had realized that God loved instead of despised.

So, I am going to take some time to type a message directly to you and let you know that you are loved by Jesus Christ.

You are loved by Christ more than life itself.

That is the message of the cross. Jesus was willing to die for you.

You are loved that much.

And, I hope you allow yourself to accept those gospel words because it makes a difference in how you see the world, in how you see other sinful people like you, and in how you treat them.

In your gallery of life, where all of the major paintings of your life’s events are hung, the Apostle Paul hopes to see paintings of you hearing of God’s love. He also hopes to see paintings of you so filled with that love that you give up your other obligations…you give up all that you think you owe others…and instead use that time to love. That is what God did after-all.

Know today that God is a God of mercy, and that mercy is for you. You are loved.

Be free from that which has convinced you otherwise.

Allow yourself to “be loved.”

Sunday, September 3, 2017

Reflection on Romans 12:9-21

Do not let your enemies control you.

Last week we talked about God’s unconditional love for us, and how that love is then spread by us.

We imagined that our life is a gallery in which are hung paintings of our life. In one corner we find a painting of the day we took in an abandoned kitten and gave it a home. But, in another darker corner, we see a painting of the time someone needed help and we injured them further by stating, “God helps those who help themselves,” and then walked away.

We heard the Apostle Paul’s desire for us: that when we look upon our gallery of life, we might see more paintings of love than anything else.

In today’s reading, Paul goes on to instruct us as to how we might create those paintings of love. There are many small suggestions that would each warrant a sermon of their own, such as making lifting up other people’s lives (showing them honor) a competition with our friends. Which one of us can serve their neighbor more?

There is also the suggestion that we be patient when we suffer and having no clue what the future may hold. God has it all taken care of, so pray for patience to see how God will make it all come out in the end.

There are more suggestions on how to fill your life’s gallery with images of faith and love, and I suggest that you use this bible passage as a devotion in the weeks to come, reading a sentence per day and thinking deeply on each.

But, for the purpose of this reflection, we are going to focus on one particular aspect of the artistry of love. I mentioned it at the very outset of the sermon: “Do not let your enemies control you.”

During my internship year of becoming a pastor, I counseled a couple who were getting married very soon. I was going to aid in officiating at their wedding.

As the couple sat in my office talking about their lives together, I soon realized that there was someone else silently present in the room. That person was the soon-to-be bride’s former husband.

The young woman's anger at her former husband kept spilling out into our conversations. Each time it did, I saw the look of helplessness and even abandonment on the face of the groom-to-be.

The poor woman was pouring so much anger and emotional energy into her former marriage that she was neglecting the guy who was sitting right in front of her…the guy who desired to make her life happy. The woman was allowing her enemy to control who she was and how she was acting, even when that enemy no longer needed to be in her gallery of paintings.

Do not let your enemies control you. Do not let your enemies control who you are and what you do.

Paul desires that our personal galleries be filled with paintings of love, forgiveness, and service to others. He wants to see paintings of us welcoming strangers into our communities and into our homes. He desires to see images of us giving them welcome meals, showing them where the grocery store is located, and aiding in any way possible. He wants to see acts of love in those brush strokes. And, he does not want to see anything deter us from creating those images.

“Do not repay anyone evil for evil,” Paul encourages, “but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, 'Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.' No, 'if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.' Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” (Romans 12:9-21, NRSV).

Jesus once said, “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you” (Matthew 5:38-42, NRSV).

In others words, just because your enemy is evil does not mean that you must become evil. Do not become the very thing that you despise.

Here is the reality: God created your enemy also. They are works of God’s hand. They may have strayed from God’s intentions for their lives and they may have filled their galleries with paintings of horror, but that does not mean they are loved any less. God would still love to see them return from their lost ways and would offer them a hug and a party the very instant their silhouettes might be seen cresting the horizon.

May your own galleries be filled only with images of love toward your enemy. If they are hungry, give them food. I'm not saying that you have to feed them Filet Mignon, but do care to their needs.

The fact that they do not care about other people’s lives has nothing to do with how you treat people.

If they are thirsty, give them something to drink. Bring a little something for yourself to drink also, you are probably going to need it.

All joking aside, if you are a caring and giving person, with images of caring and giving usually hanging in your gallery, their paintings of evil should have no affect on your own works of art.

Do not let your enemy control who you are and what you do. Let all bitterness and anger depart, and strive only to create paintings of forgiveness and love.

Oh, there is that word: "forgiveness." A neglect of forgiveness is what vengeance is about, is it not?

After-all, if we refuse to forgive, then maybe our enemy will feel the same pain that they have caused. Maybe, ripping out their eye will somehow bring ours back.

It will not of course. It will only leave two blind people.

Doing an act of evil in retribution for an act of evil only fills galleries with evil paintings. I would hope that children would be able to walk through our galleries without fear of what they might see.

Leave the avenging to God. Remember that patience thing that I mentioned earlier? Give God time to work it out properly. God does not need your help in avenging evil; God really does not.

What God does need help doing is showing unconditional love, because, let us face it, there is not enough of that going around in our world.

Forgive your enemy. Give them the same kindness that you would a stranger or someone down on their luck. Lift them up from the grave, because Jesus did that for you through the cross and resurrection. You have been lifted up from the depths by your savior, so do not hesitate to lift others from their dark depths.

So, there is this big, black man, and he has made it his life’s work to befriend KKK leaders. It does not seem likely, but he is not your typical guy.

He is nice to them. He eats with them. He pays for their meals. He plays games with their children when invited into their homes. In other words, he does for KKK leaders what he would do for his family or friends.

Their evil in no way changes who he is.

And, one by one, these KKK leaders have all slowly become former KKK leaders. He treats them as friends at the outset, and they all, one by one, eventually become real friends.

Love can win. In fact, love does win. The evil of the cross is not the end of the story. The resurrection is the end of the story. Forgiveness is the end of the story. Love is the end of the story. Love always wins.

Therefore, do not let your enemies control you. Instead, let love control everything you do.