Love before Knowledge

There are two things I have come to hope for on Communion Sundays:

Welch’s grape juice in the cup, and Hawaiian Sweet Bread on the table.

 

941928_479696322109898_1492252979_nAnd that’s for a couple of reasons:

First, they both taste better than most other options available.

Second, the Hawaiian Sweet Bread is the perfect combination of soft and easy to tear and yet not crumble into pieces all over the place – which is a good thing when you are the one breaking bread every time.

And third, the Welch’s are Methodist.

 

In fact, the birth of Welch’s grape juice came out of our desire to stop using fermented wine during the temperance movement. Thomas Welch was a dentist and a communion steward at his local Methodist Church. He heard about how Louis Pasteur had begun to pasteurize milk, so he decided to try and apply the process to grape juice in 1869.

His son, Charles, marketed the pasteurized grape juice to these temperance-minded churches. In fact, he quit his job as a dentist to do so and created the Welch’s Grape Juice brand in 1893. (from Welchs.com/about-us/our-story/our-history and http://www.gbod.org/resources/changing-wine-into-grape-juice-thomas-and-charles-welch-and-the-transition-)

 

While the roots of our “unfermented juice of the grape” go back to the late 19th century, we have continued to emphasize using grape juice, even long after prohibition was repealed.

Our 1964 Book of Worship included this phrase which we have continued to use until today: that while the “historic and ecumenical practice has been the use of wine, the use of the unfermented grape juice by The United Methodist Church and its predecessors is an expression of pastoral concern for recovering alcoholics, enables the participation of children and youth, and supports the church’s witness of abstinence.” (BOW p 28)

I share the brief history lesson, because I think it relates to our lesson from Paul’s letter to the Corinthians this morning.

As this community struggled with what it meant to be unified, they realized that a lot of different types of folks were part of their church.

Some of them were life-long Jews who had followed the way of Jesus. They had only ever worshipped one God. Yet some of the new believers in the faith were pagans. They had spent their entire lives worshipping at the temples of various Roman deities like Apollo and Poseidon.

So how were these people all supposed to share one roof? They had different histories of practice and different understandings of what it meant to worship.

One particular place where their practices conflicted was around the practice of eating meat. In the ancient world, almost all of the meat consumed was done so at a temple. That lamb or beef or whatever was the result of an offering given to the local god.

And here is where the conflict came.

Those who had been followers of Christ of a while, many from the Jewish background, KNEW that there was only one God. Intellectually, there was no worship of these various gods because they simply didn’t exist. So who cared if they partook of a little steak at the local temple?

Well, for those who had recently converted away from that temple worship, it was a big deal. The new converts were working hard to keep on the way, to follow Jesus, and all that alluring smell of roasted meat was making it awfully difficult. And when they peeked in the doors of Apollo’s temple and saw the elders of their new church eating – well, they got pretty confused.   Was Apollo real or not? And if Apollo wasn’t real, why were those Christians worshipping him?

So Paul lifted up a practical solution for the faithful long-time Christians: just stop eating meat.   It is the loving thing to do. And even though you know it isn’t idol worship, you have the ability to choose to act a different way in order to help your brothers and sisters in Christ.

In the same way, we lift up grape juice when we break bread together, so that all might be welcomed at this table. It doesn’t mean wine is bad. It doesn’t mean that some of us don’t drink. But choosing to consume grape juice together means that everyone has a place here.

There is a line in Paul’s letter that I think is key for us to remember this morning: You sin against Christ if you sin against your brothers and sisters and hurt their weak consciences this way.

Now, here Paul doesn’t mean they are weak as in bad… he simply means they are new to the faith. They still have a lot to learn. They are growing into what it means to be a Christian. And so they need to have as few barriers to their faith as possible.

Do you remember, with the children, when we talked about evil spirits? When we talked about those things in our lives that keep other people from knowing Jesus?

Knowledge is sometimes like that. We can flaunt it and it can puff us up and keep us from really and truly showing love to another person.

Love is what is important. Not rules or knowledge or what we eat or drink. Love binds us together. If we remember that we sin against Christ if we sin against our brothers and sisters and hurt them, then love leads us to ask the difficult question of how our actions keep others from Jesus. Is there something about what we are doing that is harming the body of Christ?

 

I am tempted to keep this a surface level conversation about grape juice on the communion table, but the truth is, there are all sorts of really tough and difficult things that threaten to break apart our churches. There are all sorts of things we do and say as Christians that hurt our brothers and sisters, sons and daughters and neighbors.

And perhaps the one that is on many of our minds in recent weeks has been same-sex marriage. Perhaps you have read in the newspaper, or seen on television, how a retired pastor in our conference, Rev. Larry Sonner, officiated the wedding of a same-sex couple and then turned himself in to the Bishop. In our Book of Discipline, our tradition and teaching does not support same-sex marriage, even though our state laws do, and so a process was begun seeking a just resolution.

What is amazing is that we have a process of just resolution at all. According to our Discipline, “a just resolution is on that focuses on repairing any harm to people and communities, achieving real accountability by making things right in so far as possible and bringing healing to all the parties.” (¶363.1).

It is a powerful witness to the love and grace and mercy of God in a world that is so focused on punishment and retribution. In his article on the Des Moines Register, columnist Daniel Finney wrote:

“It’s especially admirable considering how poor our public dialogues are relating to just about any issue today. Here you’ve got a veteran pastor questioning the laws of a church he has dedicated his life to serving and not a voice was raised, not a fist was shaken. Instead, there was thoughtful discussion, prayer and resolution.

Regardless of how one feels about the specific issue, there’s a powerful lesson for peaceful negotiation in this story.”

This is how we act in a church when love and not knowledge is our guide. And this is the witness we have to offer to the world… a witness of finding a way forward in spite of our differences. A witness of acknowledging the harm we do by our actions and inactions. A witness of seeking the good for our brothers and sisters.

So today, I want to share with you portions of a pastoral letter that our Bishop, Bishop Julius Trimble sent to all churches last week:

Grace and peace to you as we journey in Christian discipleship in 2015.

One of the early prayers and initial responses to the formal complaint was that we would be “perfected in Christ love” and engage, rather than ignore, the difficulties the current conflict between what is prohibited in our Book of Discipline and what is legal and celebrated in Iowa.

The reactions to same-gender marriages and relationships and the serious subject of covenant accountability to church polity remind me of a Nigerian proverb: “Children of the same mother do not always agree!

Questions and conflict regarding our future as a Church require much prayer, graceful conversations and decisions that may spell a different future for the Church…

When I was consecrated Bishop, I promised to work to uphold the unity of the Church. I believe that unity has, as its foundation, our love of God and neighbor. I also believe we can have unity of heart and not necessarily all be of one mind. While this Just Resolution is a response to a specific complaint, it recognizes the division of our church on the issue of human sexuality. This Just Resolution is an attempt to honor our disciplinary process, maintain accountability, and seek a deeper, more prayerful, listening to each other and, most of all, to God.

As your Bishop I invite you to join with me in a time of intentional listening to God and each other, remembering that as the Body of Christ, the Spirit can speak through each of us.

Be Encouraged,   Bishop Julius Calvin Trimble

We don’t have time in worship to spend time listening or really go over the content of the just resolution, but I want to extend to you that invitation for a time of intentional listening to God and to one another.  And I want to let you know that I am always available for conversation about this and any other topic that affects our life as a congregation and your lives as individuals.

We won’t all agree. We come at the conversation from various perspectives. We read the scripture through the lenses of our own experience. But above all, we are a people of love, service, and prayer. And together we can put love at the forefront of our conversations and we, too, can seek a prayerful way forward.

And that way forward starts at the table. The table of love and grace and mercy. A table, set with grape juice. Amen and Amen.

 

 

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Them, Too!

When I was looking at seminaries, two of my top schools were in Chicago right across the street from one another in the Hyde Park neighborhood. My mom and I went to visit and we started to imagine what life would be like if I was there. My brother, Tony, was also attending school in Chicago at the Illinois Institute of Technology – right near the White Sox stadium. I started envisioning hopping on the L and going to visit him and all of the possibilities.

But I remember as my eyes lit up, my mom looked back at me with a tiny bit of fear in her eyes. “Katie Marie” she said. “I don’t want you traveling alone in that part of town.”

It was hard enough to send her son to the big city… but her daughter?

We ALL have some definition of what “that part of town” is like. But it is different for each of us.

For some of us, “that part of town” is the street where all the shops are boarded up and folks loiter on the corner.

For some of us, “that part of town” is full of expensive houses and we might get pulled over because of the color of our skin.

For some of us, “that part of town” is where we read about shootings and crime.

For some of us, “that part of town” is where we were a parent or relative was spit on or discriminated against.

It is the place where people aren’t like me. Where we are afraid of what might happen to us if we went there. It is the place where we just can’t wrap our minds around what life must be like there.

And the truth is, we all live in somebody else’s “that part of town.” Or “that part of the country.” Or “that part of the world.”

Each of you were handed this morning a slip of paper.

I want to invite you to take it out right now and hold it in your hand.

This morning, I want to invite us to think about those places where we refuse to go. The people we aren’t sure we want to talk to. The situations we would rather keep our distance from. Maybe it is because you have been hurt. Maybe it is because you are afraid.

This is just for you… not for anyone else to see or read… and what I’m going to ask is not going to be easy.

I want to invite you to write on that paper a place that you stay away from. I want you to think about someone you have intentionally not tried to build a relationship with and write their name. I want us all to spend a minute or two in silence as we reflect and are honest with ourselves and with God.   What people or places come to your mind…

[ pause ]

That might have been the longest minute some of us have ever spent in worship.  I know that wasn’t an easy exercise and I thank you for giving us that time.

Now, fold up that paper and hold it in your hand.

I want you to know that you are not alone.

We all are afraid at times.

We all hesitate to go to certain places.

We all have baggage and prejudice and facts and excuses and our reasons for staying away.

You are not alone.

In fact, Jonah, is just like each of us.

If he was with us this morning, Ninevah would be written on that sheet of paper.

The city of Ninevah was full of horrible, terrible people.

In the book of Nahum the prophet, chapter 2 and 3, we read about their misdeeds:

“Doom, city of bloodshed – all deceit, full of plunder: prey cannot get away. Cracking whip and rumbling wheel, galloping horse and careening chariot! Charging calvary, flashing sword, and glittering spear; countless slain, masses of corpses, endless dead bodies – they stumble over their dead bodies!”

That’s not a pretty picture!

It’s not surprising that Jonah doesn’t want to go.

How would you feel if God asked you to go to this violent, wretched city and tell them all they were about to be destroyed by God’s wrath?

Jonah bought a ticket and headed as fast as he could in the opposite direction.

Well, if you remember the story of Jonah, that didn’t work out so well. He got kicked off the ship, swallowed by a whale, and spit up on the shoreline.

And finally, reluctantly, with fear and trepidation in his heart, he goes.

He goes to “that part” of the world. To “those people.”

He goes to the city and preaches a one sentence sermon:

“Just forty days more and Nineveh will be overthrown!”

He repeats it over and over again as he walks across the city.

Think about “that place” you have written down.

Could you do that?

Not just go to that place you fear, but actually proclaim their destruction?

I think the core of this one sentence sermon was the message that all was lost.

The people were too far gone.

They were just too terrible and God was ready to wipe the slate clean.

And Jonah thought so, too.

He thought the world would be better off without them in it.

What a terrible thing to say.

And yet, if we thought long and hard about the people and the places we have written on our little scraps of paper, I wonder if that phrase maybe had crossed our mind the past.

Anytime we write off someone as hopeless… or treat a community as if it didn’t exist… or think “wow the government would be a whole lot better off if (insert political party here) weren’t around”… we are doing the same thing.

We have done it throughout history… and we have had it done to us.

Whenever the line has been drawn of us/them, good/bad, right/wrong, folks of all sorts of different faith traditions have felt divine calls to pronounce judgment.

The good news is, it isn’t up to us.

Because even when we have declared something hopeless, God isn’t ready to be done yet.

God could have just sent a plague or rained down fire from above upon Ninevah.

But God didn’t.

God called Jonah.

God warned the people.

God gave them a chance.

And even though Jonah didn’t even offer up the possibility of hope in his one sentence sermon of destruction, the people changed their ways.

They repented.

They turned to God.

The entire kingdom, from the king to the lowest in their midst put on sackcloth and ashes.

As Rev. Bill Cotton pointed out in his reflection this week, some translations say even the cattle repented!

Over this season of Epiphany, we have been exploring the light and the dark. We have been wandering back and forth between the two, and one of the things I hope we are discovering is that the dark isn’t a terrible awful place.

There is possibility in the dark.

There are the seeds of creation and re-creation.

And even a place like Ninevah… Even a place or a person like (hold up your piece of paper)… isn’t lost. It isn’t hopeless.

The question is, are we willing to look for the possibility of change?

Will we open our eyes to see the good in a neighborhood or another person?

Will we lay aside our fears and prejudice and assumptions and go to build relationships?

Will we celebrate when we witness transformations?

Will we ourselves be transformed?

Yes, you, too.

Because God is working on your life also. All those pieces of you that are bent out of shape and bruised and dented. You aren’t hopeless either.

So in the words of Christ, “Now is the time! Here come’s God’s Kingdom! Change your hearts and lives and trust in the good news!”

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What God Has Sown

In this past month, I have found new appreciation for the Apostle Paul.

You see, on top of being an apostle and a scholar, a writer and mentor; in addition to the work he did as a tanner to pay his own way through ministry; he was also a fundraiser.

I think that tiny detail skipped my attention for so many years, because I didn’t know what it meant to be a fundraiser. I wasn’t aware of the strategies and the prayer and the faith that goes into soliciting money from perfect strangers.

But I do now!

I have spent my entire life hearing that phrase, “God loves a cheerful giver” out of context… and you probably have, too.

While Paul has many other topics to cover in this letter to the people of Corinth, chapters 8 and 9 represent a sort of “stewardship letter” much like many of you received in the mail last week.

Corinth was a rich and powerful city in Greece. The ports had made them wealthy beyond measure. So it is natural that they had resources to spend and to invest and to, yes, even donate to the church.

Paul was encouraged by the apostles in Jerusalem to remember the poor and needy in the city (Galatians 2), and he wanted to honor those who had sent him out in ministry by sending back gifts that could support their work. Much like our apportionments today, the funds he was raising would be used for ministry in the other places the apostles had influence. And Paul knew Corinth would be the place where gifts could be abundant.

In his letter to them, Paul first of all talks about these poor people in Macedonia who have absolutely nothing but the love and grace of God, but somehow managed to pull together an incredible offering to send with Paul. He writes that though they were impoverished and struggling, they heard his plea for money to help the needy in Jerusalem.

From chapter 8: 3-4: “they gave what they could afford and even more than they could afford, and they did it voluntarily. They urgently begged us for the privilege of sharing in this service for the saints.”

And Paul says, all the while, I was telling them about YOUR generosity, you people of Corinth. I was telling them about how much YOU had promised to do. They wanted to be a part of that… part of this incredible opportunity we have to care for the needs of others. They gave out of their poverty, and now it’s your turn.

Paul asks the Corinthians to carefully consider their obligations and to take note of where their resources are needed and then to give cheerfully and jubilantly out of their abundance to the Lord. He wants them to give only what they know they can. Paul didn’t want them to make a commitment they couldn’t fulfill. He wanted them to give freely, and not out of obligation. He wanted them to think long and hard about what they could give and then to do so generously.

I was in Paul’s shoes many times over my work with Imagine No Malaria. And I know what a fine line it was to walk between challenging people to give more than they thought they should and yet not more than they actually could.

On one occasion, a well-intentioned person filled out one of our pledge cards and sent it in with an extraordinary commitment to give over three years $5000. I added the donation to our totals and celebrated reaching a milestone! But then they called me a few weeks later when reality set in and told me, “I want to support this project so very much, I see how much good it is doing and I am so excited about being a part of it, but I simply can’t afford to do so at the level I told you I could.”

And you know what. That’s okay. I told that person we were so thankful for what they could share.   We were overjoyed that they felt called to give and worked to make the adjustments they needed.

In chapter 8 of his letter, Paul writes that he wants the Corinthians to give what they can afford. If they can make some adjustments to their life and want to make a sacrifice here and there – great. If they have great resources at their disposal, then by all means, they shouldn’t look upon this call and drop in a few dollars. They need to give what they can actually afford to give. The goal is not to make them suffer or create financial difficulties. The goal is to prayerfully ask what God has blessed them with that they can bless others with.

Not one of us should feel guilty about what we can afford to give. We shouldn’t feel pressured to end our support of other good things in order to give here. Every one of us should hear the call, look at the needs, and then joyfully respond from our resources… whatever they might be.

In the early eighteenth century, a scholar and pastor Matthew Henry wrote: “Money bestowed in charity, may to the carnal mind seem thrown away, but when given from proper principles, it is seed sown, from which a valuable increase may be expected.”

Paul asks the Corinthians to think of their gift as an investment. To sow whatever seeds they can so that the Kingdom of God might bear fruit in the world… and so they might personally experience the joy and grace and abundance that come to us when we freely give.

Our commitment to give financially to this church might not make a lot of sense to the larger world. But we do so because we have seen the good it can do.

In the United Methodist Church, we understand that our gifts not only provide this wonderful space for ministry in this neighborhood, but also help to support Women at the Well and help to build churches other parts of the world. Our gifts help our children to learn more about Jesus, but they also help educate communities about diseases like Ebola and Malaria so that every child has the chance to grow up and live an abundant life. Our gifts raise up leaders among our youth here in Des Moines, but they also are providing scholarships for new pastors in Eastern Europe and the Philippines.

Every dollar given to the church is an investment in the gospel. It is a seed planted. And in time, God will reveal how Faith Hall and our children and the women in Mitchellville and communities like the Bo District in Sierra Leone… how all of these investments and seeds will bear fruit for the Kingdom of God.

That is why we are here, after all.

We are here, in this place, for the Kingdom of God.

We are here to worship and to praise God… the source every breath and snowflake and every good thing.

In our passage from Deuteronomy this morning, Moses encourages the people to remember the long road they have been on… the road that was sustained every step of the way by the grace of God.

God was the one who rescued them from Egypt.

It was the Lord who led them through the desert.

It was God who fed them and gave them drink out of rocks and manna.

And he wants them to remember when they get to the promised land… when their lives settle down and they find good work and have food on the table every night… he wants them to never forget who it was that God them there.

Everything we are and everything we have is a gift. It is grace. It is a blessing.

We are here today because God spoke and light and life came into being.

We are here today because God wanted a relationship with us.

We are here today because God moved in the lives of people like Abraham and Sarah, Moses and the Israelites, James and John and Paul and the Corinthians.

We are here because of the faithful people who were led by God to turn a farmhouse into a church in 1925. We are here because the Holy Spirit moved and breathed life into this congregation.

Today, we are the beneficiaries of God’s grace and love and power that moved through countless generations before us. All the resources and abilities we have are gifts from our Lord and Savior.

And like the Israelites, we should never forget that simple fact.

It is not our own strength that has produced our abundance. No, it is the strength of God that has brought us here.

And God has sown his power and blessing in our lives SO THAT we might bear fruit for the Kingdom.

You see… God made an investment, too. God planted gifts and resources into our lives. God has nurtured this church and helped us to grow so that we might in turn be a blessing. As Paul tells the Corinthians, “God has the power to provide you with more than enough of every kind of grace.”

Grace for living.

Grace for giving.

Grace for working.

Grace for singing God’s praise.

God has made sure that you have what you need in order to serve him.

The Macedonians gave out of their poverty.

The Corinthians gave out of their wealth.

But each gave because they believed they were sowing seeds for the Kingdom of God. And each gave out of joy and thanksgiving for the abundance of what God has planted in their lives.

So today, as we make our commitments to the Lord, may we always remember where our abundance comes from.

May we commit without hesitation.

May we commit without guilt.

May we commit what we have and trust that as God has blessed us, so God will bless others. Amen.

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Life’s Not Perfect #NaBloPoMo

It was a lovely day.

We slept in.

The Hawkeyes won.

Friends came over and we binge watched some television (Newsroom is FANTASTIC, btw).

I figured out how to do a double crochet front post and a double crochet back post for an afghan I started.

My husband made apple pie.

The snow fell and it was so lovely.

And then tonight, as I’m setting my clothes out for the morning, I find it:

A nice little pile of poop.

A present left by Tiki or Turbo.

It rarely happens. I could guess at the reasons, but whatever, I’m not a cat.

*sigh*

Tomorrow, I’m preaching on thankfulness and gratitude, so I’m led to say these things:

I’m grateful for the invention of paper towels and carpet cleaner.

I’m grateful messes can be cleaned up.

I’m grateful for the companionship of those two little furballs.

I’m grateful for imperfections that ground us and humble us and help us to not take life so seriously.

I’m grateful for the grace that I have received when I have messed up.

I’m grateful for people who have helped me to clean up my own mistakes and fumbles.

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Justice, Kindness, and Mercy

As we began worship today, we sat for a bit with images that reminded us of the story of the prodigal son, or daughter in this case.

The question that I asked was simple:

Do you celebrate and rejoice when someone who is lost has been found?

Or are you like the brother or sister who stayed at home, the good child, the one who has always done everything right?

Do you feel like you are entitled to more because of your faithfulness and obedience and your work?

It is the question we wrestle with again in our parable from Matthew’s gospel.

It is the question the laborers must ask of themselves.

Do we think that we rightfully deserve something more than others? Are we resentful of what others get, when we are the ones who put in the time and the effort and the energy?

 

As we continue to think about the difficult relationships in our lives, competition, resentment, and jealousy can all play a role.

We can hold a grudge against someone that we feel has gotten an unfair leg up in this world.

We get caught up in that counting game of wrongs and rights, in who is ahead, and who deserves what.

And these kinds of sentiments can destroy relationships with friends, family, and co-workers.

 

The idea of fairness is built into our economic system. We believe everyone has a shot at the American Dream. We want the playing field to be level and we search out those who are cheating and throw them out of the game.

We want everyone to have an equal chance at greatness.

We want to be able to start at a place of fairness… and then the chips fall where they may.

Those who exceed expectations or break records or make billions have our attention. They have worked for it. They have earned it. They deserve it.

After all, we have worked hard for the things we have, just the same.

But when someone comes around who does little to no work whatsoever and gets paid the same as us…. Or when someone who has made millions does so by cheating the system… or when we lose our jobs because someone somewhere else is trying to save a little bit more money for themselves – then we start to feel that maybe the situation isn’t fair again.

As much as we like to use that word, fair, I have often found that the scriptures are full of stories that are unfair.

Like the prodigal son being welcomed back home after squandering his wealth.

And like our parable from this morning:

A wealthy man had a vineyard and needed workers. So he did what all landowners did: he went out and hired some laborers for the day.

Now, all of these day laborers started out with an even playing field. All of them were without work for the day. All of them were willing to work.

The problem was, there were always more people looking for a fair day’s work than there are jobs to go around.

In this story, if you got lucky, you would expect to work for 12 back breaking hours out in a field for minimal wages. You got to go home with your hands dirty, your head held high, and with bread for supper tonight.

But if you weren’t so lucky… then you went home to your family empty handed. You would have spent the entire day standing in the hot sun waiting for work, and you would have nothing to show for it.

There was no safety net. No food stamps, or welfare or unemployment.

No matter what you think about how our government today responds to the needs of the unemployed, the poor, the disabled, and yes, sometimes the lazy and the freeloader, that doesn’t change the fact that in the day and time of Jesus – if you did not get hired for the day, then you would not have money for that day’s food. It was as simple as that.

The laws of fairness would say – well, that’s the way the cookie crumbles. No work, no pay. Little work, little pay.

But this is not how Jesus’s story goes.

Our landowner hires some workers first thing in the morning. They are eager to get to work and head out in the fields for their 12 hour shift.

But the work is plentiful and so the landowner keeps going back in to town to hire more people. Some at 9, some at noon, some at 3, and the last group gets hired just an hour before quitting time at 5pm.

And then they all get lined up to come forward and receive their daily wages.

Those poor souls who were hired for just an hour went into the fields because they were desperate for work. A few bucks would help buy a piece of bread for dinner, if nothing else. But as they were called up, they found themselves being paid the full wages for an entire day’s worth of work!

Well, the rest of the workers were simple peasants, but they could do basic math. And if they had worked for twice as long, they expected twice as much! Can you imagine how the mouths of those who had been working for 12 full hours watered?!

But as each group came forward to receive their wages… each one received one full day’s worth of pay.

And, boy… were they mad!

“It’s not fair!” those workers cried.

And they were right. It wasn’t fair.

But as the landowner spoke, do you remember what he said? “Can’t I do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?”

 

There has been a meme going around on facebook illustrating the difference between what we might call equality and justice.

If we related this image to our parable for this morning, equality would look like each worker being paid the same wages per hour of work.

At $10 per hour, those who were hired at 6 in the morning would have walked away with $120 and those hired at 5pm would have walked away with only $10.

This would have been fair.

But as we look at this first image, we sense that something isn’t quite right.

Aristotle, the famous Greek philosopher defined justice as proportional equality.

And in the second image, we see how the proportions of are changed, so that each person has the same capacity as another.

 

The parable of the laborers in the field is the story of God’s grace and forgiveness in our lives.

Each one of us is given exactly what we need.

Not what is fair.

Not what we deserve.

But what we need.

You see, each of us are like day laborers when it comes to our salvation.

 

We have no land, no rights, no security. The kingdom of heaven, like the vineyard doesn’t belong to us.

We don’t deserve anything.

But then God reaches out to us and says, come my children. Come and walk with me. Come and work with me. Come and be a part of what I am doing.

The thing is, we aren’t all the same. And when it comes to how God hands out love and grace, we discover that

God’s justice lifts up those who are bowed down and sets at liberty the oppressed.

God has compassion for the poor and the sick.

God shows mercy to sinners… no matter how small or great their wrongs.

In the incredible grace of God’s love, we don’t get what we deserve… we get what we need.

 

I think sometimes in our human relationships, we can grow resentful of one another when we feel like someone has gotten more than their fair share of grace.

We watch someone who continues to squander God’s love and keep making the same mistakes over and over again and don’t think it’s fair.

Or see someone live their whole lives away from God only to turn to our Lord and Savior at the last moment and start to imagine they won’t be living in the same patch of heaven as us!

But I think the lessons we are learning in our Forgiveness book study need to be applied not only in those situations where someone has willfully wronged us, but to all of our difficult relationships in general.

This week, Adam Hamilton introduces us to a simple acronym: RAP

R. A. P.

First, we have to Remember our own story. In the case of forgiveness, we need to remember the wrongs we have perpetrated. But in all of our relationships, we need to remember the blessings we have received, the advantages that have been afforded to us. We need to remember the times when undeserved grace flowed through our lives.

We have to remember.

Secondly, we have to Assume the best about another. We need to listen for their story. We need to pay attention to how God is working in their life. We might have one impression of what has led them to this moment in their life, but is it the most truthful one? Does it represent their struggles and triumphs accurately? Do we know their life well enough to discover what they truly need… even if it might not be what they deserve?

We have to assume the best.

Lastly, we need to pray for one another. We need to pray for patience. We need to seek God’s will in our relationships. We need to pray that the person we are encountering is experiencing the love and grace of God in this world. And, as a disciple in God’s kingdom, we need to pray that our eyes might be opened the the ways we are invited to love those who don’t deserve it. We need to pray for the strength to live lives of justice, kindness and mercy to all we meet.

We have to pray for each other.

 

When we focus on these three things: Remembering our Story, Assuming the Best, and Praying for one another, I believe the resentments and jealousies that plague our relationships will fall by the wayside.

We will discover instead that we all live, but by the grace of God, and will work together towards that day when God’s justice and kindness and mercy will reign – that day when we don’t get what we deserve… but what each one of us truly needs.

And on that day, we will rejoice with the lost who has been found.

On that day, we will celebrate with those who have come late to the party.

On that day, we will delight in bountiful gifts of another.

May that day come, and may it come soon. Amen.

sticks and stones

Over and Over and Over Again

Earlier this week, I was tired and worn out, and I kept being lazy and forgetting all kinds of things. I didn’t put the dishes in the dishwasher and left them on the counter. I forgot the previous day’s laundry in the washing machine and when we opened it, everything smelled a little musty. I left a light on in the family room all night long.

Each time, my husband reminded me of what I had left undone.

Each time, I found myself saying, “I’m sorry.”

Each time, it felt like a bigger deal, like straws being added, slowly and surely to the camel’s back.

I don’t know if Brandon was counting, but I was. I kept making note of all the times I messed up and did something wrong.

The little things just kept piling up.

And I felt so rotten about the whole thing that when I noticed something that he had left undone, I jumped on it.

In my head, I thought – HA! Here is something that will cancel out one of those mistakes I made.

In reality, I was not my most grace-filled self.

 

In our relationships, we spend far too much time keeping track of the wrongs we and others have done. Adam Hamilton, in his book Forgiveness, describes these sins and injuries as rocks that we carry around with us.

Some are small like pebbles. You know, like leaving a dish on the counter. [drop a few pebbles into your bag]

Others are medium sized stones, like forgetting a birthday or anniversary. [drop a medium sized stone or two into your bag]And then there are the boulders. Major hurts like cheating on your spouse or getting someone fired. [drop a brick into your bag]

 

When we spend our days keeping track of the mistakes and sins of others, what we are doing is metaphorically carrying around the weight of those wrongs with us. It doesn’t matter if it is one big boulder or a thousand little pebbles… it’s heavy! It’s a burden.

 

In my relationship with my husband, I was counting up my faults. And it wasn’t that he was unkind or not forgiving… I just took it personally every time he pointed out where I had made a mistake.

I found myself mentally adding a stone to our relationship each and every time.

I foolishly thought that pointing out one of his faults would take a stone away.

It didn’t.

It made everything worse.

Because now I wasn’t just thinking about my own faults. I was actively seeking out his so that I could even the score.

In doing so, I only piled a bunch more weight in our bag.

 

The only way to truly let go of the stones is to forgive.

The weight of sin and debt and grievances will overwhelm us if we try to carry them on our shoulders.

Jesus knew this.

And so when Peter asked how many times he should forgive his brother or sister in Christ, there was only one answer.

We aren’t to forgive once or twice or seven times… we are to forgive over and over and over again.

We are to forgive always.

We are to never stop forgiving.

 

To help Peter, and us, understand more fully this imperative to forgive, Jesus tells a little story. A story about someone with unimaginable financial debts who was forgiven by the ruler of the kingdom. Only, when that debtor turned around and was asked to forgive a small debt from a neighbor he refused. The king heard about how the debtor would not forgive another, and took back the pardon that was offered.

A long time ago, a monk named Anselm used this analogy to teach about how we could never make amends to God for our sin. Our sin is like a debt that we will never be able to repay.

If we think about our sins as little mistakes, the cost or weight of that sin is the price we have to pay. In the past, we might have tried to pay for our debts by counting up each one and offering the sacrifice that would counteract each grievance.

But in Anselm’s view, our sin can pile up into one gigantic, big, rocky mountain. It is overwhelming trying to even imagine, much less quantify, the ways we have let God down and have strayed from God’s will in our lives. We simply can’t keep up with the payments and they compound with interest and before we are even aware of it, we owe God an infinite debt. We simply could never repay God for the price of our sins.

Like the debtor on his knees before the king, there is nothing left for us to do, but fall on our knees before our Lord and beg for mercy.

There is nothing we can offer that can make it right.

Even if we gave our very lives, Anselm wrote, it wouldn’t be enough. The weight of our sin is overwhelming.

Our God is a loving God, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast mercy.

Our God created us and loves us, even when we don’t deserve it.

Our God comes to us and lifts us up out of our despair and sin and mistakes.

I forgive you, God says.

I have already covered the price of your sin. It is wiped clean. It is no more.

And so, like the debtor before the king, we have experienced incredible compassion and forgiveness and mercy.

This morning, we baptized little Adelyn Rohde. In that act of baptism, God’s forgiveness pours into our lives.

The point is not that baptism covers all of our sins before we find this water. It’s that God’s love and grace and mercy overwhelms us with forgiveness before we even know we need it.

That’s how abundant and powerful the love of God is.

The question is… what will we do with that unimagineable gift of grace?

 

What we shouldn’t do is live like the debtor. He took advantage of the mercy of the king and hoarded forgiveness for himself. As soon as he was given the opportunity to pass grace on, he refused. He counted every penny of his neighbor’s debt and forced them to pay it all.

That is not what God desires for us. Our Lord and Savior wants the gift of grace to fill in every aspect of our lives.

God wants forgiveness to transform every relationship we have… not just with Jesus Christ, but with our spouses and children, with neighbors and strangers.

God wants forgiveness to transform how we see ourselves.

The debtor in the parable this morning… he went right back to counting sins. He went right back to piling pebbles and stones and rocks up and forcing others (and himself) to carry them around.

God wants us to stop counting.

In the book many of us are reading right now, Forgiveness, a woman talks about her relationship with her husband. Like my husband and I, she had been looking for the mistakes and keeping a mental count of the wrongs in their relationship. But one day, she stopped counting.

“I find that when I make up my mind to stop being bitter or annoyed at my husband that our love is the best. It’s all in what I make up my mind to do.”

God wants us to stop counting.

We aren’t supposed to forgive once, or twice, or seven times.

We are to forgive over and over and over again.

The point of such an extravagant number like 70×7 is that you can’t keep track. You are just supposed to keep forgiving.

Even before Jesus answered Peter’s question, he had been trying to help the disciples learn this life lesson.

We forgive because we have been forgiven.

It is what he taught us in the Lord’s Prayer.

Forgive us our debts, as we forgive those who have debts against us.

 

Friends, we don’t have time to count the sins of others, and we don’t have time to keep track of all the mistakes we have made in our lives either.

A life of love and grace and mercy means that we have the freedom to simply live.

We will make mistakes.

We will forget to put the dishes away.

We are going to not always be our best.

Adam Hamilton writes that “We are bound to hurt others , and others are bound to hurt us.” (page 1)

But we can let the love and grace of God transform our hearts. We can clothe ourselves, as Colossians invites us to with kindness, compassion, humility, and patience.

And we can choose to forgive over and over and over again.

Finding Faith at the Lunch Table

If I think back to the first moment when faith sunk in deep into my life, it would be sitting around a lunch table at Simpson College. 

I wasn’t actually a college student then, but a sophomore in high school participating in our Youth Annual Conference.  It was hosted there at the college every year and it was an opportunity for youth leadership to be developed, new friendships to be made, and for us to explore faith in a totally different way.

I had been floating around the periphery of church for a while.  I went to Sunday School a few times as a youngster.  We went on Christmas Eve with my grandparents.  I had been to funerals and weddings.  And I had a number of friends who were Christian and often invited me along to church.  But their experiences of faith were not my own.  I wanted to know more about Jesus, but I never quite felt like I totally fit in with their traditions.  Looking back, they were more conservative and evangelical than where I eventually ended up, so perhaps early on I was sensing that wasn’t where I belonged. 

I remember vividly in the fall of my sophomore year, however, that my mom realized I had not yet been confirmed and we started going to church as a family.  Both sides of our family had been United Methodist, so we went to the biggest church we could find nearby.  And I was instantly hooked.  I joined the youth choir and the youth bells.  I started confirmation.  I went to youth group.  Because it was a large church, my social circle instantly expanded with students from other area high schools all becoming my new best friends.  It was a really amazing time. 

And that spring, we went to Youth Annual Conference.  We were a small group, even though it was a large church – just my mom; the youth pastor, Todd; another student and myself.  It was my first experience of holy conferencing and resolutions and voting on legistation.  It was my first experience of a praise band.  It was my first chance to really understand what it might mean to be United Methodist.

But it was a conversation around the lunch table that really got me hooked.  Others had been debating about whether or not we should listen to pop music, but Todd had just been rapping in the lunch line the whole “Fresh Prince of Bel Aire” song.  And when he finally joined in the conversation, he talked about how he had used a Judas Priest song in youth group one night.  This was many years ago, but I remember he talked about redeeming rather than rejecting culture.  He talked about asking better questions in the face of music and narratives and people we don’t on the surface agree with, finding out what makes them tick and what they are trying to say, so we can speak with them. And I knew, right then, that I could claim that kind of faith. 

In his book, Falling Upward, Richard Rohr talks about the two halves of our lives.  The time we spend creating the container for our lives (identity, security, relationships) and then the time we spend living in and discovering the life we have built for ourselves.  He writes that a type of spiritual awakening or falling apart happens in between the two of them…. when we realize we can’t just keep going on and building that container for ever, we actually have to start exploring what it means to live in this life we have created.

In the life of faith, one way this can be described is the move from law to grace.  In the first half of our lives, we need the rules of faith: don’t kill, love God, pray this way.  Rules lay the foundations… but the law itself is not the end.  Rohr quotes the Dalai Lama here: “Learn and obey the rules very well, so you will know how to break them properly.” Grace is helping the man get his oxen out of a hole on the sabbath.  Grace is releasing the adulteress and telling her to go and sin no more.  Grace is meeting people out of love rather than judgment. 

Because I came to my faith a little bit later in life, my religious experience was never steeped in law and judgment language.  That being said, I was one of those “good girls” who tried to always follow the rules.  I got straight A’s.  I never drank in high school, or smoked, or experimented in any way. I had enough formation in rule following in other aspects of my life.

In fact, I think in many ways, the church I discovered in places like that lunch table helped to break down and expand that initial container I had built for myself.  My experiences of Jesus and religion were the catalyst for some big changes in my life.  I moved from a desire to be a scientist/meterologist to a religion major.  I found myself moving towards people who were all about breaking the rules…. in both healthy and not so healthy ways.  But because my initial experiences of church were fairly traditional, I have maintained an ability to see and converse with all sorts of different faith languages. We don’t discard the containers we build in the first half, Rohr says, but they become the stuff we build from.

I am living in a very different sort of faith life than I ever imagined was possible sixteen years ago, when I sat down at that lunch table.  I have been an advocate and fundraiser for global health.  I have ministered in cities and small towns.  I’m about to become the senior pastor of a mid-sized church in the city. But as I continue to live into my relationship with God, the desire to get to know and understand someone or something where it is and start from there is what continues to drive me.