Sunday, September 17, 2017

Living Forgiven

Romans 14:1-12, Matthew 18:21-35

How many of you have been forgiven? Show of hands…

That should be everybody’s hand – at the very least, if you’ve been to an Episcopal church before. Every time we confess our sins together, we are reminded of how God’s mercy and forgiveness are given to us – each of us, all of us, all our sins.
Many of us have also experienced forgiveness from another person, for small everyday hurts or major sins.

So – remembering what it’s like to be forgiven, how do you live with that forgiveness? What have you done with that relief or freedom or humility that washed over you when an apology was accepted, or a hurt released?

Have you made rules for yourself, or found rules to follow, so that you’ll never hurt someone like that again?
Do you find yourself living large, overflowing with generosity, in gratitude?
Do you suddenly find it easy to let go of old hurts yourself, and forgive others?
Or did the release of a guilt you’d been carrying suddenly remind you of the guilt that others owed you?

Maybe you’ve responded in several of those ways. We respond to forgiveness in all kinds of ways, and Paul and Jesus are both teaching about that today.

Jesus tells a story of a forgiven debtor whose sudden relief takes a selfish turn: freed from the absolutely unpayable debt he owed, he’s ready to get his life back on track by collecting what’s been owed to him. It doesn’t go very well for him, to say the least.

Jesus tells that story to remind Peter (and not so incidentally, us) that God’s nature and God’s judgement are infinitely more generous than our human nature, even at our very best. And it is dangerous for our souls and our everyday lives to put fairness ahead of generosity in the ways we live with one another. Doing that interferes with our own ability to receive forgiveness.

Forgiveness has to work without limits – even the generous limit Peter tries to set.
(Some of you must be wondering or worrying, so take note: Jesus isn’t telling Peter we have to set ourselves up to be hurt again and again, just let go of the hurts of the past, as many times as it takes to be truly free.)

Jesus reminds us that if we pass judgement on one another, as we do if we hold on to a hurt or insist on the payment of guilt, it means we’re forgetting who we belong to, and especially, forgetting who the other person belongs to: not to me as an antagonist or debtor, but to God, as a child of God. And they, too, are learning how to receive and respond to God’s forgiveness. They may just do it differently than I do.

In Paul’s communities, there seem to have been common disagreements about how we live forgiven; how we live in response to God’s mercy.
Having been brought into the risen life of Christ, adopted and loved and forgiven by the one Lord, some would say, there’s no way it’s okay to eat meat from the temples of the Roman gods, those dangerous idols. And if most of the meat in your city comes from those idols’ temples; if that pagan meat probably isn’t kosher, if – these days – you can’t tell if it comes from a farm that violates God’s standards for love of creation, or it comes laden with the baggage of unhealthy fast food and the soul-crushing consumerist culture – well, then, we should be eating only vegetables, in thanksgiving for God’s mercy toward us. Right?

Others say we should actually be eating it all – meat, vegetables, everything – in thanksgiving for that mercy. We should be celebrating our freedom from following all those idols of false religion and secular culture, showing far and wide our knowledge that it can’t hurt us because we are already redeemed through Christ, not through what we ourselves can do. Right?

Both could be pretty persuasive arguments – maybe one more than another, depending on how much you personally like a juicy steak. But if you’re convinced of one of them – if your response to God’s forgiveness is to avoid anything, anything at all, that could accidentally drag you away from your thanksgiving to God – having your friends keep arguing that being too straight-laced is a lack of gratitude toward God gets old pretty quickly.  And when they keep inviting you to meat-eating parties, full of everything that distracts you from God, and complaining if you stay away… you’re not going to be friends for long.
And vice versa. Vegetarians who insist you’re going to hell for eating meat are just as likely to break up relationships.

“So just cut it out, all of you!” says Paul.
“Those who eat, eat in honor of the Lord, since they give thanks to God; while those who abstain, abstain in honor of the Lord and give thanks to God. … Let us therefore no longer pass judgment on one another, but resolve instead never to put a stumbling block or hindrance in the way of another.”

Sometimes, Paul is so very Episcopalian. Live and let live, he seems to say – or better, live and let God. That’s familiar and welcome to the ears of those of us who love the diversity and tolerance of our particular way of common prayer.

But Paul himself isn’t interested in tolerance. What he wants is unity. Do not separate yourselves by passing judgement, he says, and I don’t mean just ignore each other’s quirks – support them! – because GOD has welcomed every one of these with whom you disagree. And our life together must reflect the unity of God.

I know that you know some people who don’t practice their faith the way you do. You know some people who don’t take church – or prayer, or the Bible – seriously enough, who feel free to take God’s forgiveness as a given, whether they worship or behave or not.
And you know some people who take church – the Bible, their prayers, whatever – far too seriously, people who can (and do!) tell you how not following the rules will take you straight to hell; people who know that being welcomed by God demands responsibility in response.

Do you tolerate those folks, or do you embrace them?  Do you work to build them up, to support them in their own response to God’s mercy, however different from yours, because without them, we will not be complete; without them, God’s mercy will not be fully known, to us, and to the world around us?

We all live forgiven, and we all respond to that forgiveness differently. The only thing we can’t do is limit it. We can’t limit forgiveness to seven times, limit it to the way that works for me, limit it by simply tolerating one another. The only thing we can do, forgiven as we are, is to build one another up, without tiring, without ceasing, without doubt, so that we are stronger, healthier, holier together in Christ.

How many of you, was it, who have been forgiven?
Keep those hands up, if you rejoice in Jesus’ call to live that forgiveness without limits. Keep those hands up, if you rejoice in Paul’s reminder to live that forgiveness for the sake of others. Those hands say that your life, and mine, are a testimony of unity and Christ, and of thanks to God, now and ever. Alleluia.


Sunday, September 10, 2017

Ready to Respond

Exodus 12:1-14, Romans 13:8-14

About a week ago, I stumbled into a Facebook group for people who own those countertop pressure cookers known as “Instant Pots.” And amid the posts about perfect eggs, amid the eagerness to share the good news of fast and delicious meals with anyone who will listen, there were a few particular pleas for help:
“Quick, I need a recipe for something I can make to feed 30 people doing hurricane recovery work in my neighborhood.”
“We’re collecting Instant Pots for residents of Houston who’ve lost their kitchens; can you help?”
And then – one, then another:
“We’re emptying out the freezer before Irma comes. What can I make with four pounds of frozen chicken, or with a lot of ground beef, that will last through the power outages or evacuation?”
And Facebook was ready to respond.

“You shall eat lamb roasted over the fire, with unleavened bread and bitter herbs,” God tells the people of Israel, as they are in the midst of a series of natural disasters, knowing they may need to flee. “You shall eat it [with] your loins girded, your sandals on your feet, and your staff in your hand; and you shall eat it hurriedly. It is the Passover of the Lord.”

The presence of God is coming into the lives of these people with extraordinary and dangerous power, and they must be ready to move, ready to respond – even in the middle of a ritual meal.
It’s a dramatic, this moment when the presence of God and our response to God is literally life and death; the whole future in the balance.

Paul has that same sense of momentousness, writing to the Roman believers in the first years of the Christian movement.
You know what time it is,” he says, “now is the moment for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers.”
The alarm is about to go off, the race is about to start, the fullness of salvation is pouring over the horizon any moment now. So get dressed for action!

This is faith as edge of the seat anticipation – at that first, perilous, Passover meal, eaten ready to flee; in Paul’s momentary expectation that not only he, but all believers are about to be swept up in the fulfillment of God’s ultimate plans for heaven and earth.

Is that what you feel, about your relationship with God?
Do you feel that taut awareness, the humming expectation, about what we do together at the altar this morning?
Do you feel that way about your private prayer, your service to God’s people, or the nature walks or music or whatever else connects you to God?
Do you feel that eager anticipation, salvation on the threshold?

Neither do I, mostly.
Oh, it’s urgent when I pray for someone I love in the crisis of an illness, or the path of a hurricane, but mostly prayer is much calmer, routine even.

And yet the inrushing power of God, the transformation of our world and private lives is what we’re here for. Not just here in these pews – here on this earth. We’re here to experience at any moment – at every moment – the redemptive power of God, active now. But it’s so, so easy for that to be lost to us, living day after day when the world doesn’t end.

You and I live in a world where, for the most part, everything else feels urgent.  Work deadlines, school and sports schedules, family matters, getting dinner on the table, getting answers from the doctor, getting stuff done around the house, getting a little time to myself, even.

We know that God is always with us. That God is here, whether or not we’re paying attention, and it can be reassuring to know that God doesn’t depend on my meeting deadlines. But for some of us (for me), it’s hard to keep up that sense of momentousness without an appointment, a time limit, that urgency.

These days there are cell phone apps that will sound an alarm for you when it’s time to pray. But the world won’t put peace on the priority list for us. Salvation doesn’t come with a deadline from the boss or the teacher; the presence of God can’t be red-flagged in your email inbox.

Yet that’s what we’re here for, whether we know it or not. We are – like the Israelites in Egypt, like Paul in those early decades after resurrection – created and called to be a people of eager anticipation, dressed for action, ready to respond to the kingdom of God coming now.

It’s counter-intuitive, but perhaps the way to reclaim that vibrant expectation in our daily prayer, that eager responsiveness of a soul ready for God, is not to get everything else done so we have time, but to reject urgency altogether, and just stop.

The Bible calls it Sabbath. You can call it whatever you want, but I know that for me, and probably for many of us, the only way to reclaim that keen alertness to the presence and action of God, is to act sometimes as if nothing is urgent at all.

I still remember one Lenten Saturday, years before seminary, when I had two or three deadlines looming at work, prep to do for coffee hour the next day, a car inspection due, and an overflowing list of correspondence and chores, and I ran by the retreat day at my church for just a few minutes – there certainly wasn’t time to stay! – and found myself stopped.
There was a prayer in the first few minutes, or some word of scripture, that just stopped me,
made me stand still, and say, “No!” to the long and urgent list of things to do.

Some long, uncounted hours later, I was surprised by a humming, joyful anticipation singing in my soul. Salvation, healing, the kingdom of God were all on my heart’s threshold, and I felt dressed for action, ready to go, not exhausted by that long and urgent list, the way I had been in the morning.

I’ve had to learn that over and over and over again, year after year. Had to learn that that expectant, eager readiness, that vibrant sense of the dawn about to break, the presence of God on the threshold now, doesn’t come from obeying the urgency of my tasks, but from stopping.
From stepping out of the race, for a time, and discovering that God has been seeking me, full of that eager anticipation, all along. God has been ready to act, as soon as I stopped long enough to be made welcome in the presence of God.

Will you stop, this week, in the midst of all that is urgent?
Will you stop, amid the work that’s due, and the breaking news of another natural disaster, the traffic, the chores, the homework?
Will you stop the slow regularity of your routine, and the tiresome waiting for news, if you’re retired and past deadlines, or spending time waiting in medical offices?

Will you stop the urgency of the ordinary, for long enough – however long – to discover salvation on your own heart’s threshold, and let your soul fill with the readiness to respond to the action of God, who has been seeking you with that same ready eagerness, all along?

Sunday, August 27, 2017

Who You Are

Matthew 16:13-20

Do people often ask you to tell them about Jesus? To explain – or even just describe – who Jesus is?

It really almost never happens to me. And you would think it would. (Or at least, I thought so, before I was ordained and found out that priests are a lot more likely to be asked why we do this or that in church, to explain our theology and policies about marriage, or where to drop off rummage than about who exactly this Jesus is.)

So I’m out of practice with this question, and I actually found myself a little stumped recently when our Bishop asked me – started asking the whole diocese – “What is our relationship to Jesus, and how do we explain it?”
Mmm. That's complicated. There’s just so much to this relationship. I know Jesus, but it’s hard to describe Jesus.

But now I need to know my answer. And you need to know yours. Our bishop has put this question at the heart of discerning the call of our diocese – a process that has gotten underway this summer.

You recognize this question, don’t you, from the gospel story we just heard? You recognize that it’s a question that Jesus asks his disciples: “Who do you say that I am?”

We usually answer the question “Who is this?” with relationships or roles:
This is my best friend.
He’s my first grade teacher.
She’s the CEO of the company.

And that’s how the disciples answer Jesus. First, what other people say: Well, John the Baptist, or Elijah - a prophet. Who is Jesus? A prophet important to the history and future of Israel.

Then Jesus asks, “Who do you say that I am?”
And Peter speaks up - with a role: You are the Messiah. You are the one our people have been waiting for since forever. The one who is going to bring the reign of God.
And a relationship: You are the Son of the Living God. You are closer to God than anyone else.

And Peter’s answer is affirmed: Blessed are you. What you know, and say, is God’s Truth. Jesus’ identity – who he is – is truly revealed in this exchange. And then Peter’s identity is changed: You are Rock, Jesus tells him.

Peter started this conversation as “son of Jonah” – ordinarily human, known by those human relationships. Now he’s rock. Bedrock, foundational, known by what God will do with him. Given new responsibility, new identity, new relationship with everyone. All because of who he says Jesus is.

It’s not just Peter. It’s true for you and for me, also. Your answer to the question, “Who is Jesus?” defines you as much as it defines Jesus. My answer to that question defines me. And it defines our relationship to one another.

That’s why our bishop is asking us to know and say who Jesus is. Because what we say to others and to ourselves about Jesus – our relationship, his role – defines who we are.

If we know and describe Jesus as love and forgiveness, then our relationship to one another as the Body of Christ must be forgiving and loving, so that the world can see that in us, and respond. Or if we identify Jesus as a healer, our relationships must be about healing – one another, and the world. Whether we say Jesus is judgmental or generous, distant or close, historical or very present, how we know Jesus is how we are called to be, and the world will know Jesus through that.

But I believe there’s even more to it than that. Because it’s not just other people who ask this question, but Jesus himself. When Jesus asks you, asks me “Who do you say that I am?” we have to respond face-to-face with God. And that response reveals and shapes our identity at the most fundamental level.

When Peter says, out loud, to Jesus, that Jesus is the Messiah – the bringer of God’s kingdom - he is committing himself to living in that kingdom the way Jesus brings it, giving up his own agenda for what God should do on earth. (This is immediately tested, by the way, when Jesus starts talking about crucifixion and Peter realizes he’s signed up for something VERY different than he thought he meant).

When Peter says out loud, to Jesus, that Jesus is the Son of God, it means that to keep hanging out with Jesus, Peter is going to have to live with God in every single ordinary moment of his life: every meal, every blister, every incredible sunrise, every mistake, is not just his own, or shared with his friends: all of that is wide open to God. God isn’t distant, potential, or uncertain anymore. God is immediately present, “up in our business.”  And that will change any of us, won’t it?

Those commitments of Peter’s are affirmed by Jesus, confirmed as the truth of God. So Jesus reveals Peter’s true identity: not only the impulsive, eager but unreliable man we see in the gospel stories, but more truly the bedrock of Jesus’ community reaching into the future, the rock on which we are built.

In the same way, when you or I say out loud, to Jesus, who we know Jesus is, we are revealed by those words as the person – and the community – God has called us to be.

If I say, (as I eventually do when I clear my way through all the things I know about Jesus to the most essential thing) that Jesus is God made flesh, a real person, all of the divine in the space of one human life, then I commit myself to the holiness and revelation of my embodied life, and yours, and the holiness of a flesh that can touch one another, taste God’s creation at the same time that it itches and sags and gets broken or tired.
Then I learn that Jesus sees me as flesh that can, must, will hold and reveal the presence of God – in this messy, ordinary human body.

And when I commit myself to the truth that God loves in the flesh, that God wants to be that close, that messy, that involved, that physical with us, it’s going to change me. It has.

If you say – to Jesus – that Jesus is a teacher, then you are revealed as a student. Or in biblical terms, a disciple, one who tries to become like the teacher.

If you say – to Jesus – that Jesus is the Light, you commit to seeing what that Light is showing you, in yourself and the world, even when you would rather not. And you are revealed to yourself and others in that Light.

If we say that Jesus is the Way we commit ourselves to being guided – always – by that Way, and to being known as those who guide others along that Way.

If you say that Jesus is our Redeemer you commit yourself to forgiveness and salvation, to accepting it – for yourself and for those who you really don’t want to see in heaven, thanks – and to sharing that forgiveness with all. And God will name that and use that in you, just as God did with Peter.

It may be that - other than our Bishop - no one will ever ask you to identify or explain Jesus in your lifetime as a member of the Church. And maybe you’re ready anyway with an answer for anyone who asks.

But it is certain that if we choose to be disciples of Christ, sooner or later Jesus will ask us, will ask you and me, “Who do you say that I am?”
In that moment, face-to-face with all of God, what will you say?

And when you respond, who will you become?