Sunday, November 26, 2017

Endless Forgiveness

Endless Forgiveness
Matthew 18:21-35
            Peter Ustinov is remembered more for the movie characters he created than for his wise sayings.  Nevertheless, he spoke truth when he said, “Love is an act of endless forgiveness.” 
            This is the lesson Jesus wanted the disciple Peter to learn.  Peter comes to Jesus with what he believes is a very generous statement about forgiveness.  He says if he forgives his brother seven times that should be more than enough.  After all, how many times should you forgive someone who sins against you?  “Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me.” 
Makes sense, doesn’t it?  Jesus says, “Not even close.”
            Jesus has a very different view of forgiveness.  He tells Peter to forgive not seven times, but seventy times seven.  There have been many interpretations of what this number means, but the one I like best (perhaps because of my diminishing memory) is that before you’ve reached that number (70X7=490) you will have lost count and have to start over.
            Just to make sure we understand, Jesus tells us a parable about forgiveness.  A master forgives a servant a huge debt, one that would have crushed even most wealthy men.  A talent was about twenty years’ wages for a common laborer.  You do the math. I think Jesus was trying to make the amount owed so outrageous that Peter and others who hear the story would gasp at the size of the debt.   
            The forgiven servant refuses to forgive another servant who owed him pocket change compared to the debt that had been cancelled for him.  The master, hearing how ungrateful the forgiven servant had been, sends him to debtor’s prison until he can pay all that he owes.
            While Peter’s question concerned the number of times he should forgive, and Jesus answered with a parable about amounts to be forgiven, the lesson is the same:  forgive as God has forgiven you.  We know that God always forgives us, whether that forgiveness involves frequency or amount.  If God’s forgiveness is endless, how can ours be anything less? 
            Forgiveness is one of the central themes of Scripture.  God forgives Adam and Eve.  They have to suffer the consequences of their sin (most people do), but they are forgiven.  God forgives Jacob, David—even the entire nation of Israel.  Jesus forgives Peter, Paul—even those responsible for his execution.  No human being could possibly live up to the standard of forgiveness God has set.
Moreover, God forgets.  Our sins are dropped “in the sea of God’s forgetfulness,” says a chorus we sang when I was growing up.  I can speak only for myself, but I know that even with my diminishing memory I can’t forget as God does. 
One of the most beautiful acts of forgiveness occurs in Luke 15, in the parable of the prodigal sons.  In his analysis of that story, Kenneth Bailey points out how the two sons humiliate their father by their selfish behavior.  The younger son treats his father as if he were already dead, then returns home after squandering a third of the family fortune.  The older son refuses to attend the banquet celebrating the triumph of his father’s love.  In the face of behavior so rude that it violates the fifth Commandment (the punishment for which could be death by stoning), the father continues to forgive.

Forgive seven times?  Not even close.  If we forgive as God has forgiven us, we won’t even keep track.  We’ll forgive, and forgive, and forgive—endlessly.  Don’t we pray, “Our Father, who art in heaven…forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us?”

Sunday, November 19, 2017

Be Prepared

Be Prepared
Matthew 24:36
            If you want the whole story, read Matthew 24 and 25.  Chapter 24 begins with the disciples looking in awe at the buildings of Herod’s temple.  Jesus comments on the transitory nature of those buildings.  The disciples ask him when the end will be.  Jesus goes into a long prophetic discourse on the end times: what the disciples can expect, and how to prepare.  This two-chapter teaching, coming near the end of Matthew’s gospel, acts as a counterbalance to the Sermon on the Mount, which Matthew places at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry.
            While Confucianism is more of an ethical system than a religion, Master Kong Fu Zi had much to say about spiritual things.  One of his disciples once asked about serving ghosts and spirits.  The Master said, “When we are not yet able to serve fellow humans, why worry about serving the ghosts and spirits.”  The disciple asked about death.  The Master replied, “When we do not yet know enough about life, why worry about death?”  Alexander Pope gives the same advice in his Essay on Man when he says, “the proper study of mankind is man.”
            In other words, don’t worry about the things you can’t do anything about.  God knows the future, and will share it with us on a “need to know” basis.
            Isn’t this what Jesus is saying to his disciples?  “Look!  This is going to be a terrible time.  There will be war, famines, earthquakes [Jesus might well have added floods, tornadoes and hurricanes].  You can’t do anything about these things.  You can’t prevent them, and you can’t stop them once they start.  They are going to happen whether you worry or not, so don’t bother worrying.  God’s got this all planned out.  Everything will happen when it will happen.  What you must do is be prepared.”
Jesus tells his disciples (including us) what he means by “Be prepared!”  To illustrate, he tells them threeparables. 
The first is The Lesson of the Fig Tree.  “When the leaves of the tree begin to show, you know summer is coming.  When all these events happen you will know the end is near.”  The problem is that wars, famine and earthquakes have been a part of human history forever.  How are we to know which ones foretell the end?  Best advice:  Be prepared and don’t worry about which events count.  God knows and that’s enough.
Later, Jesus tells The Parable of the Ten Bridesmaids and The Parable of the Talents.  The story of the bridesmaids tells us to be prepared because the Bridegroom can return at any time.  Everything we need should be at the ready.  We must keep our lamps trimmed and burning.  The Parable of the Talents goes a step farther.  We are not only to be prepared for the end, we are also to use the talents God has given us. 
In several other parables scattered throughout the gospels Jesus tells his followers to be found working.  We get a hint of this in Matthew 24, where Jesus says that when the end comes women will be grinding flour and men will be out in the fields.  Even those women who are not housewives, and those men who are not farmers should be found at work—and not just any work.  We are to do the work of the kingdom.  That’s the message of the Parable of the Talents. 
It is also the message of the concluding part of this passage, the description of the Final Judgment.  When the Great Judge comes, we’ll be directed to whichever group our work—or lack of it—indicates.  Until that time Jesus’ message is clear.  Don’t worry about things you can’t control.  Be prepared.  Work for Jethe kingdom as if your life depends on it.

Because it does.

Sunday, November 12, 2017

Extending Life

Extending life
John 3:16-17
            We do all sorts of things to prolong life.  We value life—at least our own—enough to want to make it last as long as possible.  Yes, I know, many of us cling to life-shortening habits like smoking, drinking too much alcohol, overeating, couch potato-ing, drugging ourselves.  Still, we want to live as long as our lifestyle permits.  This causes a medical dilemma, as our ability to keep someone breathing almost indefinitely blurs the line between life and death.
            Those who concern themselves with the quality as well as the quantity of life watch their diet, get enough sleep, exercise, limit alcohol intake, and try to keep unhealthy substances out of their bodies.  They want to live life fully as well as live life long.
            A recent study conducted at Vanderbilt University offers another method for prolonging life—church attendance.  Marino Bruce, one of the primary authors, is a social and behavioral scientist, a professor at Vanderbilt, and a Baptist minister—all of which contribute to his interest in church attendance and prolonging life.
            Bruce and his co-primary author, Keith Norris, a professor at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA, led nine other co-authors in conducting and reporting the study.  Their data was gathered from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, publicly available from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Center for Health Statistics.  I mention this to demonstrate the validity of the data.  This was not some survey conducted through a questionnaire devised by amateurs and administered to some random list of people.  It was data collected from a broad spectrum of the American public by professional researchers.
Bruce, Norris and their fellow authors were interested in three parameters:  worship attendance, mortality and stress levels.  They found that middle-aged adults, 40-65, who attend a house of worship regularly, reduce their mortality by 55 percent.  We know that doesn’t mean they reduce their chances of dying by that percentage, but rather that they have a greater chance of living longer.
Those of us who believe life continues after death know that attendance at church is only part of the story.  Christians believe there is more to life than what we experience here on earth, just as there is more to religion than sitting in a worship setting for an hour or so once a week. 
One of the most intriguing stories in the New Testament involves a Pharisee named Nicodemus.  John’s gospel tells us he came to see Jesus at night.  Whether Nicodemus chose that time because he wanted to keep his visit a secret, or because he thought he might claim more of Jesus’ attention at night we don’t know.  What we know is that he wanted to more fully understand Jesus and his message.  He was already impressed with Jesus’ miracles and his teaching, but he wanted to know more.
Jesus shared with him one of the most famous messages in the Bible, John 3:16: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whosoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.”  This verse, and the next, which helps explain and clarify the concept, demonstrate the availability of God’s grace to anyone who sincerely believes in the lordship of Jesus Christ.
So—as much as church attendance might help prolong life here on earth, that is only the beginning of its value.  When that attendance leads to a meaningful relationship with God through Jesus Christ, life is prolonged even longer.

Infinitely longer.

Sunday, November 5, 2017

Serving Jesus in Disguise

Serving Jesus in Disguise
Hebrews 13:1-2
You might misinterpret the title of this column and think I mean we ought to wear a disguise when we’re serving Jesus.  Let me share a couple of stories to demonstrate what I really want to say.
Today’s Scripture passage refers to Abraham’s story.  One day three visitors showed up at the encampment where Abraham’s tents were pitched.  Middle Eastern hospitality demands that guests be welcomed and served a meal.  This is especially true in the wilderness where nomadic shepherds like Abraham still live today.
Abraham was an excellent host.  He did not fail in his duty to be hospitable to the strangers.  He ordered water to be brought to wash their feet.  He told Sarah to bake three flour cakes.  He chose a calf from the herd and had his servants prepare it.  When all was ready he stood by respectfully while the visitors ate. 
Although Abraham did not know it at first, the three men were angels, sent from God with a message.  Sarah, much advanced in years and supposedly barren, would conceive a child.  She and Abraham would have a son.  And have a son she did!  About a year later she gave birth to Isaac, the second of the three patriarchs of the Jewish faith (Abraham, Isaac, Jacob).
Centuries later, the writer of Hebrews reminded his readers of this story when he said, “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.”  Abraham had no idea when he offered food and water that he was entertaining the Lord.  He was just doing what he felt was expected of him.
The other story occurs many centuries later, and involves not a patriarch of the Jewish faith, but a Christian saint.  His name was Francis, and he lived during the 13th century.  He was born into a well-to-do family, and for many years enjoyed the good life.  Eventually he came to know Christ and dedicated his life to following Jesus’ teaching.
The story which illustrates our Scripture lesson began one day when Francis was riding his horse.  Francis had an intense fear of lepers, as did most people at that time.  Jesus had told him while he was praying that what he found offensive would in the future bring him great pleasure and joy.  He saw a leper approaching, ringing the little bell that all with his condition carried, warning healthy people to keep their distance. 
Francis wanted to turn and ride away, but something prevented him.  He dismounted, pressed a coin into the leper’s hand, and kissed the hand.  In return the leper gave him the kiss of peace.  The next day Francis took a large sum of money to a residence where many lepers lived.  He distributed the money freely, kissing each man as he did so.  What had formerly caused Francis to shudder now brought him sweetness and delight.
One (probably) apocryphal ending to this story says that, as Francis rode away from the first leper, he looked back and saw Jesus.  This part of the story doesn’t have to be true in order for us to see the point.  Whether or not the leper was Jesus in disguise, the man was one of the “least of these” we have been commanded to serve in Jesus’ name.  When we serve our brothers and sisters, and do so in the name of Christ, we are serving him.

This is the point of Matthew’s description of the Final Judgment in the 25th chapter of his gospel.  Where the Judge places us will depend on how well we have served others in Jesus’ name.  St. Francis learned how sweet that service can be.  So must we.