Sunday, February 22, 2015

Before and After--a sermon for Lent 1 / NL1-25

Rev. Teri Peterson
Before and After
Matthew 18.15-35
22 February 2015, Lent 1, NL1-25

 ‘If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one. But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax-collector. Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. Again, truly I tell you, if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.’
 Then Peter came and said to him, ‘Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?’ Jesus said to him, ‘Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.
 ‘For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves. When he began the reckoning, one who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him; and, as he could not pay, his lord ordered him to be sold, together with his wife and children and all his possessions, and payment to be made. So the slave fell on his knees before him, saying, “Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.” And out of pity for him, the lord of that slave released him and forgave him the debt. But that same slave, as he went out, came upon one of his fellow-slaves who owed him a hundred denarii; and seizing him by the throat, he said, “Pay what you owe.” Then his fellow-slave fell down and pleaded with him, “Have patience with me, and I will pay you.” But he refused; then he went and threw him into prison until he should pay the debt. When his fellow-slaves saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their lord all that had taken place. Then his lord summoned him and said to him, “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?” And in anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he should pay his entire debt. So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.’

There’s nothing quite like beginning the season of Lent with what feels like Extreme Forgiveness Makeover. We began just a few days ago with Ash Wednesday, confessing the many ways we have fallen short and missed the mark, and hearing yet again that we are finite beings in the midst of God’s infinite love. And now today we have this: a completely outrageous story in answer to what seems like a perfectly good question.

In Jesus story, the slave owes a massive debt to the king. And I mean massive. When Jesus said “ten thousand talents” it’s likely the disciples gasped in disbelief, because that is roughly equivalent to a gazillion dollars. One Talent was about 16 years wages, so Ten Thousand Talents is the income from 160,000 years of ten hour work days, six days a week—before spending anything on housing, food, clothes, or taxes.

Or, in other words, a gazillion dollars.

Jesus knew this number was ridiculous. It is so much money, no one could possibly have any hope of paying it. Many of us know the hopelessness that comes with a pile of debt, and the frustration that accompanies the monthly statement on the student loan or mortgage that never seems to get any smaller. More and more people in our nation, especially young people, are trapped in a cycle that seems impossible to get out of—the education required to get a job that pays the bills creates unsustainable bills itself. And many nations are similarly trapped, with the costs of building an infrastructure or managing poverty and disease leaving them beholden to wealthier countries at rates that boggle the mind. Debt is a fact of life for many of us, or at least something we are used to hearing about in very large numbers. It is so common that we forget there is a measure of injustice in allowing or perpetuating a system in which some people can become so indebted that it becomes a prison or even torture.

And this debt that the slave owes is well beyond even the most unjust student loans or even the amount owed to the World Bank. This is something that can’t even be imagined.

And that is how much the king forgives.

If the disciples gasped in disbelief on hearing the amount of money at first, by now they’ve passed out in shock. To be forgiven in such a way was unbelievable.

And this, says Jesus, is what the kingdom of God is like. More than we can ask, more than we can imagine, more than we can ever expect or deserve—God’s mercy is from everlasting to everlasting. 160,000 years of work, and more, all the way from In The Beginning to Amen.

I am not sure if it’s possible to convey the enormity of what has happened in Jesus’ parable—it is so big, so ridiculous, so life changing, so…I don’t even have enough superlatives.

But that’s okay, because it’s that last one that matters. Before, the man was carrying a heavy load. At any moment, judgment could come and payment could be demanded. He had to work constantly to try to catch up, and he probably didn’t treat himself or others well. Before, he was on his own, looking out for himself, even while being little more than a cog in the empire’s machine. Before, his life was dominated by money and by how people and situations could benefit him. Then he encounters the king and his gracious mercy, and…what happens after?

This is the question. When we have encountered the king and his gracious mercy, when we have experienced the steadfast love of the Lord, then what? What happens after?

The slave goes out from the king’s office and, whistling his jaunty tune, continues the same story he’d been living before. His experience of grace does not translate into gratitude. He is not able to turn the mercy he has received into mercy he can share—he continues instead to work only for himself, to hoard what he has, and to insist others pay up too, no free lunches here. If the forgiveness is in his heart, it doesn’t show in his actions. Nothing has changed.

What about us? We receive incredible forgiveness, we sing about the love of God, we hear God’s word, we pray and we listen…and when we go out, has anything changed? Does it show? Are we transformed by the gift of grace, or are we still imprisoned even though the debt is forgiven?

Just as unpayable debt is no longer shocking to us, I wonder if grace is also no longer amazing to us. Perhaps we are indeed imprisoned, by our own familiarity. We have become so comfortable with bending things to fit our economic story that we cannot see how God’s generosity requires turning over a whole new chapter. 
The servant’s punishment was, in many ways, of his own making. He left an encounter with divine grace and continued to walk the same old path, and that is a torturous prison. What difference does grace make in our lives? How can people tell we have experienced this extravagant mercy? Even though the king has offered us a new page, a fresh start, it is difficult to imagine a new story.

We could be forgiven for not loving the outline Jesus gives of this new way of life. He says that we, who have experienced the generosity of God’s mercy, are to make different decisions, treat people differently, change the script and keep loving beyond reasonable limits. If we’re keeping score, we’re not offering the kind of forgiveness we have experienced.

Please note that forgiveness does not mean accepting bad behavior. While we are not to hold on to our resentment, nowhere does Jesus tell us to be nice at all costs, to be careful not to make anyone upset, or to insist on surface calm and uniformity. Instead he shows us how conflict can be an opportunity to grow in grace. Speak directly to one another, not about one another. If the person is still crossing boundaries, stirring the pot, hurting others, or refusing to even listen to other perspectives, then Jesus says we are to treat them like a Gentile or tax collector. Before we jump to the horror of excommunicating people, remember who Jesus hung out with and loved: tax collectors, sinners, and Gentiles. It is okay for us to trust Jesus’ love for those people whose behavior says that they have chosen not to live within the covenant community, for us to care for them as people made in God’s image—and yet not continue to treat them as if they are still committed to our communal life, with all the vulnerability, trust, and power that entails. To do so is unfair to the person and hurtful to the community.

This is a hard thing for those of us who want everyone to be happy, and yet it is the new story we are offered by God’s grace. This new story is not bound by the scarcity and fear that comes with poor boundaries and brushed-aside disagreement, but is instead a story of practice, of care, of hospitality, and of abundance. Because we have received so much, we are able to work toward a community where all can experience this mercy and love. Because we have been found and fed, we are able to follow even when the path seems hard. When we come face to face with all God has done for us, we can go out like the unforgiving servant, unable to integrate this new reality into our everyday lives, or we can go out the way Jesus teaches, changed by his love and ready to do the hard work of creating a community that shows the world what the kingdom of God looks like.

The season of Lent is often described as a season of repentance. To repent means to turn around and go a different way—to encounter grace beyond belief and let it change the course of our lives. This is an ongoing process not confined to these 40 days, of course. But this is a season when we walk this journey together with more attention than we might otherwise. This is a season when we encourage one another and hold one another accountable to the new path Christ has laid before us. This is a season when we don’t just encounter God’s amazing grace, but we anticipate it—we prepare, we look forward, we share, and most importantly, we stand out in front, transformed by the love we have known, ready to offer it to others, to pay it forward, to live in gratitude.

May it be so. Amen.

Sunday, February 01, 2015

Blessed Salt--a sermon on Matthew 5

Rev. Teri Peterson
Blessed Salt
Matthew 5.1-20
1 February 2015, Epiphany 5, NL1-21

When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:
 ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
 ‘Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
 ‘Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
 ‘Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
 ‘Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.
 ‘Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
 ‘Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
 ‘Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
 ‘Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you. 
 ‘You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot.
 ‘You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hidden. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven. 
 ‘Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.

For the past few weeks, I have watched as my pastor friends and study groups talked about the beatitudes all over the internet. There were conversations about translation, and whether the word “blessed” means today what it would have meant when Jesus said it. Some translations say “happy are those…” while other scholars suggest it should say “honored” or even “lucky.” Many people are uncomfortable at the thought of Jesus saying “Happy are those who mourn,” so we quickly dismiss that translation. 

And yet, isn’t there something to that? We are taught that these would be shocking words to those who first heard them, and we who know them so well are no longer even slightly moved at “blessed are those who mourn.” But Happy? It seems there might be a little bit of the “are you kidding me?” factor in that word.

Even as that discussion was happening, there were also people suggesting that the beatitudes are Jesus’ 10 commandments. Aside from the fact that there are nine beatitudes, of course. But the comparison was essentially that the 10 commandments were when God taught the Israelites how to be the chosen people, and the beatitudes are when Jesus teaches his followers how to be disciples.

I admit that I had a moment when I thought this comparison was intriguing. But after a day or two, I realized something:
The ten commandments prescribe action. We will worship the Lord our God and serve only him. We will honor the Sabbath, and our parents. We will not steal, lie, cheat, kill.
But the beatitudes seem to describe a reality beneath what we can see or do. Blessed Are the meek, grieving, hungry, poor, pure, peacemakers.

That’s when I had a realization: I think we have actually turned the beatitudes into commandments, or even a contest. Be meek, and inherit the earth. Be a peacemaker, and be called a child of God. Be pure in heart, and see God. Be poor, hungry, thirsty, and you will be filled. 

But that’s not what Jesus says. He doesn’t say “run out and be more poor, more meek, more pure, so you can be blessed.” He says “Blessed Are.”

This is one of those times that I think the traditional lectionary has gotten us in trouble. We have heard the beatitudes so often, but without the rest of the chapter. We have missed what Jesus said next, and so I wonder if we have also missed the explanation of these shocking words.

Just at the end of today’s reading, we hear Jesus say that our righteousness must exceed that of the Pharisees, or we will never enter the kingdom of heaven. And because we have read scripture as if it is one set of commandments after another, we have believed the word “righteousness” to mean correctness, or purity, or even self-righteous. But the word righteousness is a relationship word, not a legal word. To be righteous is to be in right relationship with God. So Jesus says that we must have a relationship with God that exceeds that of the Pharisees, if we are to experience God’s kingdom.

The way Matthew tells it, the Pharisees have a relationship with the law, not with God. They have a relationship with the institution of which they are a part, not with God. They have a relationship with their standing in the community and the ways they can maintain it, not a relationship with God.

If we read with a relationship lens, what happens to the rest of today’s reading?

When we have a deep and good relationship with God, we will be blessed even as we recognize our poverty of spirit. Our relationship with God will sustain us in days of mourning, and will remind us that this life is not the end. A carefully cultivated relationship with God may very well cause us to grieve for the injustice of the world more than we already do, in fact, and those tears are God’s own. When we are in close relationship with God, we will know the extent of Christ’s mercy, and we will be merciful. And on and on—what if the beatitudes are a description of a life lived in close friendship with God? Just as later Paul will write that the fruit of the spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness, faithfulness, generosity, and self-control…nine fruits, incidentally…maybe the beatitudes are another way of describing the fruit of a with-God life?

Or perhaps the beatitudes are the salt of a with-God life. What happens if we read Jesus’ saying that we salt of the earth and light of the world through a relationship lens, rather than a rules lens? We know that salt and light exist not for themselves but to highlight other things—a little salt in a dish can make other flavors pop, and a little light in a dark room isn’t made to be looked at but rather to allow us to see other things. But what if these, too, are descriptions of the blessings of a with-God life? 

These are just as shocking, in their way, because our human nature, bolstered by our culture, tells us to get noticed. But to be light is to allow others to see the glory of God—not the glory of ourselves. To be salt is to allow others to taste Christ’s goodness, not our own usefulness or worthiness.

And more importantly, salt does something to people. Salt makes us thirsty. After a salty snack, we reach for the water.

did you catch that? 
You are the salt of the earth. 

We are the salt of the earth, the thing in this world that makes people thirst for living water.

Or are we?

When people encounter us outside this building, do they see the blessedness of a relationship with God? Do they get a taste of kingdom life from us and then long to come to the waters? Does our relationship with God make us salty enough that other people become thirsty? When we are the salt of the earth, we will be blessed in ways we could never imagine—though perhaps in ways we don’t want, if the beatitudes are any indication.

Or has our life with God become so habitual that we relegate it to the background, bringing it out only when we’re in crisis or in the sanctuary or when we’re doing the things we’ve always done? Have we lost the earth-shaking experience of God, just as we have lost the meaning of the word blessed?

How can our saltiness be restored?

Well, I suspect that depends on whether we want a relationship like that of the Pharisees—a relationship to the things that serve us—or a relationship like the one Jesus offers—a relationship with the living God who is here and now, active and moving, calling and feeding and seducing us every step of the journey.

A few weeks ago I invited all of us to jump-start our relationship with God by memorizing a bit of the word. Let the word dwell in you richly, Paul wrote to the Colossians—and to us. This is where a deep, fruitful, blessed, salty relationship with God begins. Not with keeping the rules perfectly, but with loving God enough to want to know the word and allow it to bear fruit in our lives. 

May that fruit be a blessed salt that makes the world thirsty for living water.