Sunday, September 14, 2008

Eighteenth Sunday in Pentecost or Holy Cross Day
Genesis 50:15-21
Psalm 103:[1-7] 8-13
Romans 14:1-12
Matthew 18:21-35
Numbers 21:4b-9
Psalm 98 or Psalm 78:1-2, 34-38
1 Corinthians 1:18-24
John 3:13-17

For as the heavens are high above the earth, So great is his lovingkindness toward them that fear him. As far as the east is from the west, So far hath he removed our transgressions from us.

It is sometimes amazing how similar today’s church is to the churches we read about in the scriptures. The problems Paul and the other apostles addressed in their letters are as common for us today. There are, perhaps, some differences, but I could see Paul writing this very passage to some Christians in our world today. I can also see him taking this concept and replacing the problems with our conflicts. Disagreement is a fact of human life. We are different people trying to work in the same world. We have a common goal, but very different visions about how to get there. By the time we get around to working together, our differences are so vast that we can’t find a way to compromise. We think compromise means giving up something that means too much to us.

Many of the Christians in Rome were former pagans. They knew that the meat that was purchased in the marketplace had most likely been sacrificed as part of the ritualistic worship of the pagan community. They did not feel they could eat that meat because they knew where it had come and why it had been slaughtered. They did not want to support the worship and ministry of the pagan communities, so they chose to avoid eating that meat. Paul knew that though the meat was slaughtered as part of a ceremony that the meat itself was still good and acceptable to God. He also knew that it would weigh on the conscience of those former pagans. So, he treated the issue with grace.

He called the community to join together not based on what they would eat, but on the Christ they worshipped. Eating meat or not eating meat is not a salvific issue. Instead of rejecting or judging one another, the Romans were encouraged to see Christ in their brothers and sisters and to live together in a way in which both could do the work they were called to do as a community of faith. The meat-eaters and the vegetarians all had gifts, gifts that are needed to do the work of God in the world. To reject or judge others means cutting off a part of the Church that Christ has called together. We tend to think the world must conform to our vision. But the reality is that God has a much greater vision in mind than any of us human beings can imagine, a vision that includes all believers using their gifts for His sake.

As I was doing research this week, I came upon a story about a first time college professor who had discovered that many students believe they are entitled to good grades. It was the end of the fall semester and the professor finished posting the grades of her students before heading home for the holiday. She was uncertain about the process, but worked her way through and managed to post her grades in due time. It took less than an hour for one of her students to challenge the grades.

The young man emailed her immediately to complain about a ‘B’ grade. He did understand how he could have gotten a ‘B.’ “Please respond ASAP, as I have never received a B during my career here and it will surely lower my GPA.” She didn’t understand the desperation of the student, but she went back to her grade book to see if she had made a mistake. As she looked over the records, she saw that the young man skipped class, missed quizzes and got ‘B’ grades on several major assignments. He did not deserve an ‘A’ grade. He got what he deserved. This inexperienced professor would quickly learn that she would experience far more pressure from her students. They demanded the chance to retake tests and to have their papers rescored. They felt entitled to better grades and boldly demanded mercy even when they did not deserve it.

When she shared her frustration with the other professors, she heard similar stories. One told of an honors student whose actions earned her a very low grade. It meant that she would be kicked out of the honors program. The student could not understand how the teacher would have so little concern over her future. The student herself had little concern. She skipped classes and slept through the midterm exam. The professor allowed her to retake the exam, but with conditions. The student had to show more responsibility—no skipping classes, assignments turned in on time. The student did not keep her end of the bargain. She continued to skip classes and she even turned up late to the final exam. How can a professor be lenient, caring about the student’s future if the student does not even care?

These students did not deserve to have their grades changed, but there are circumstances that are not so easy to decide. Grade point averages may not get a student a better job in the real world, but they are important in the academic world. Students on scholarships are required to keep up a certain GPA or they lose their money. For those students at private schools, a bad grade can mean the difference between continuing in college and going home. You might think that it shouldn’t matter, if they can’t keep up the grades, they don’t deserve the scholarship. However, there are always exceptions to the rule. Take, for example, the student who is attending the college on a music scholarship. He has never been able to understand algebra, but he’s required to take the course for his diploma. He tries hard to pass. He gets tutoring. He attends every class and does all the homework, but in the end he still fails the exam. Does he really deserve a failing grade, a grade that might destroy his life?

We worship an incredible God. In the first part of today’s Psalm, the psalmist sings a song of praise for all that God has done for His people. He forgives, He heals, He redeems. The Almighty God crowns His people with love and mercy and grace. He provides for the needs of His people. He moves for righteousness and justice in the world. In the second part of today’s lesson, the psalmist describes God’s grace. We are like those students, the ones undeserving of mercy and those who just can’t seem to make the grade. We fail. We sin. We continue to do what we should not do and do not do what we should. Yet, God is merciful, slow to anger. He is patient and longsuffering. He does not give us what we deserve but instead forgives us our sins and forgets them forever. We might suffer the consequences of our failure, but God redeems us despite ourselves.

Matters of salvation are not up to us, thankfully, because none of us is worthy to even consider the matter of eternal life for another. This brings us to the shocking and disturbing parable in today's Gospel lesson. In this story, a servant of a king owes a large amount of money. The amount was equal to the wages of an average person six thousand days. Ten thousand talents was a ridiculous amount, an unpayable debt. What king even had that kind of money available? As a matter of fact, the entire yearly tax income of Herod the Great's territories was between 600 to 900 talents. It would take Herod himself a dozen years if he paid every talent he received toward such a debt.

As we look at this parable, we see the mercy and grace of God as the king was moved with compassion. The servant was released and the debt forgiven. We are reminded that our own debt is unpayable. We are sinners that will stand at the judgment seat of God with nothing to give Him in return for the incredible blessings of life which He has bestowed on each of us. He created this world, molded us in the wombs of our mothers, and granted us gifts and talents to be used for His glory. He has loved us as a father loves his children and we have returned his love with nothing but sin.

In last week’s gospel lesson we heard about how to deal with sin in the community of believers. When someone sins against us, we are called to deal with it with grace and mercy, while also helping our brothers and sisters see their sin and be transformed by God’s forgiveness. At the end of the passage, Matthew told us that if our brother or sister continues to ignore our admonishment, then we are to treat them like the sinners and tax collectors. But even then we are reminded how Jesus treated sinners and tax collectors—as people who need God’s grace. They need to know the power of forgiveness. We need to know the power of forgiveness.

Peter asks a very difficult question: how often should we forgive. We know that even when sin has been dealt with that people still fail. It takes time after time of practicing good discipline with a child before that child will truly learn the lessons we are trying to teach. A child might touch that shiny, breakable bobble on the coffee table a dozen times before they truly understand what we mean by “NO.” Each time takes forgiveness, but our hurt and anger over the actions of others who harm us is magnified with every offense. It becomes harder and harder to forgive.

We find a way to separate ourselves from those who cause us pain by moving away and cutting off communication. It seems impossible that anyone would have the kind of patience necessary to stay in a relationship with people who cause nothing but harm. Yet, Jesus is calling for that kind of patience with one another. We forgive not once, twice or even seven times. We forgive seven times seventy. Four hundred and ninety is not even enough, as the number itself represents a willingness to continue to forgive an infinite number of times.

There is a story about a man who took this passage literally and established a record of all the times he forgave his wife. In this play, every time the woman sinned against the man he went to a board, said “I forgive you” and placed a white chalk mark on the board. He had decided that when he reached 490 marks on the board, then he could answer her sin with “POW,” whatever “POW” means. Jesus was not limiting the amount of forgiveness we are to give to our brothers and sisters in Christ, but rather telling us that we are called to live in that community and it will mean that we will have to give much forgiveness. Should we even be counting every act of forgiveness, holding on to those acts of compassion as if they are debts that will come due at some point in the future? In last week’s epistle, Paul encouraged us to continuously pay the debt we owe to one another, the debt of love.

Now, many people would say that those willing to continue to forgive without limitation are simply naïve. We need to accept that people don’t change. People don’t learn the lessons we teach one another when admonish and encourage faithful living. We forget. We are led by our flesh. We fail over and over and over again. So, we wonder if it is really smart to forgive someone over and over again. Perhaps we would learn our lesson and allow for the instruction in our passage from Matthew last week, where we separate ourselves from those who bring us harm over and over again.

But, forgiveness is not naïve. Just as a child might learn to say the word “sorry” without understanding what they are apologizing for, we can also say “you are forgiven” with the same ignorance. Repentance and absolution is about restoring relationships and transforming people. We have to deal with sin from both sides: that of the victim and that of the sinner. That takes recognizing our own debts and forgiving the debts of those against us. The servant in today’s story was more than willing to accept the forgiveness of the king, yet he was unwilling to forgive a much smaller debt. The power of forgiveness is opening our eyes to our own failings, giving us the freedom to be transformed and to take the transforming grace of God into the world. It does little good for us to say the words, “I forgive” over and over again if the absolution is not coming from God’s grace. Our word is useless, but God’s Word brings forgiveness and peace.

Christ died to be Lord of both the living and the dead. He is Lord over all. All will bend their knees and confess to God. We need not worry about His judgment against others because we have our own judgment to face. We will give an account, not for our neighbor but for ourselves.

The Old Testament lesson is the final word about Joseph’s story. Joseph had led an interesting life. He was the favorite son, spoiled with fine gifts. He was equally hated by his brothers, who were jealous of their father’s favor for Joseph and also disturbed by Joseph’s strange gifts. Joseph didn’t help matters when he held his gifts over his brothers, seemingly arrogant about the dreams he had. His brothers sold him into slavery. He served faithfully, only to be falsely accused and sent to prison. His gifts proved to be helpful again after some time, and he was made an important man in Egypt. By his encouragement, Egypt prepared for bad times during the good times, and was able to supply the world with food when famine struck. In the end, Joseph’s family benefitted from his rise in power. He moved them to Egypt and provided for their needs. They saw the fulfillment of those dreams that disturbed them when he was young.

The scriptures tell us that God was with Joseph all along. Joseph was blessed even when he was a slave, a servant and a prisoner. Joseph recognized that his gifts and circumstances of his life came from God. He was not subtle, and appeared arrogant, especially when dealing with his brothers at home, but he had a heart for God. Despite his imperfections, God was with him. Joseph recognized this, even in the midst of his troubles. When his brothers sold him into slavery, they sold him into a life of suffering. However, that life led him into the powerful role that saved many from death. Joseph could not act as a god and punish his brothers for an act that the one true and living God used in an incredible way.

Joseph’s brothers had certainly sinned against him. He had every right to demand restitution for sending him away from family and the life he knew with his father. He could have blamed them for the years he spent in slavery and in prison. They were afraid of him after their father died because they knew that he could have them killed for their actions against him.

Joseph did indeed suffer, but as he said, “God meant it for good, to bring to pass, as it is this day, to save much people alive.” His journey was difficult, but step by step it led Joseph to a place where he could not only help the world, but also his family. He did not care only for his father; he cared for his entire family. He loved them, despite their evil against him. He accepted the hardship in his life as a way God works for good, not only for the world but for those closest to him. How could Joseph act as God to treat them with any less mercy in the misery of their fear? He may have wanted revenge, but he allowed God to be God. He trusted God’s will and lived in the promise that God is present with His people in the good times and the bad.

I’m not so sure we do very well at being like Joseph. We spend so much time, even amongst our brothers and sisters, arguing about so many things. One person, thinking about the importance of Sunday worship condemns another because they aren't in church every week. Another Christian, thinking that any alcohol is sinful considers another unsaved because they like to have a glass of wine with dinner. Whole churches condemn other churches because they have established different ways of practicing their worship of God. We all require certain debts to be paid while forgetting that we are all in greater debt to the One who granted us forgiveness for all our sins. We bind people to our rules and our laws, instead of living in thankfulness for the mercy and grace of God in all our lives.

Sunday is Holy Cross Day, a festival to celebrate the triumph of the cross. This festival comes at a very appropriate time in our scripture readings, as we have been dealing with sin and forgiveness. The cross stands as a witness to both. As we look at the cross, we are overwhelmed with the conviction that we are sinners in need of a Savior. We are also overwhelmed with the promise that we are saints made free by God’s forgiveness. The cross both convicts and sets free those who believe.

The Old Testament lesson for Holy Cross Day is a story about Moses in the wilderness and the company of Hebrews traveling to the Promised Land. The people were grumbling about the journey and the food. They were tired, hungry, thirsty and frustrated; they were beginning to doubt the promise. They cried out, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the desert?” The answer from the LORD is shocking. He sent venomous snakes among them that bit the people. Many died. The people went back to Moses and asked him to pray for them. He did. God told Moses to make an image of a snake and put it on a pole, displayed for all the community to see. All who were bitten by the snakes needed only to look at the bronze image on the pole and they would be healed.

I always wondered, “Why didn’t God simply remove the snakes?” It would have been easier for everyone if He had taken away the problem rather than offering a source of healing. Yet, this story shows us that the people had taken their eyes off the promise, off God, and focused on their needs and desires. They cared only about themselves and forgot the God who was delivering them from a life of bondage and oppression. In their grumbling they showed God that they would rather be bound and beaten than to trust in Him. The snakes and the snake on the pole helped them to see again God’s power and authority over the world and their nation. They turned to Him for salvation from the snakes, but God provides so much more.

In one of the most famous passages of scripture, John tells us that the Jesus on the cross is like that serpent in the wilderness. Sin is a sign and a symptom that there is something wrong, that there is brokenness and imperfection in our lives and our flesh. We fail. We do the wrong things and we don’t do the right things. We are upside down and backwards against God’s good and perfect purpose for our lives. Something needs to be fixed.

Now, a good many people have deliberated over the millennia since Christ was crucified if God could have done it another way. “How could a loving God be so cruel to His own Son?” It is a hard question for us to answer. How could a loving God continue to allow the Hebrews to be bitten by poisonous snakes in the wilderness? God could, and did, offer forgiveness to His people even without the cross. Look at all the stories of miracles in the Gospels. Jesus often concerned Himself first with forgiving the person seeking healing, and then restored their bodies.

But the cross served a purpose far more important than just the forgiveness of sins. The cross offers healing and wholeness. The cross convicts, opening our eyes to the reality of our brokenness and imperfection, but on that same cross is lifted the Son that has saved the world. We see God’s love in both the conviction of our sin, as God calls attention to the things that make us imperfect before Him, and in the promise of forgiveness and healing. It is an object of both pain and peace, an object that shows us our failure and draws us into God’s heart. That’s what makes it so holy, because it is through the cross that we are restored to the God who has loved us eternally.

So, we are reminded in the Gospel text for Holy Cross Day that “God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth on him should not perish, but have eternal life.” But even moreso, we are reminded that “God sent not the Son into the world to judge the world; but that the world should be saved through him.”

God does not hold our sins against us. The psalmist writes, “For as the heavens are high above the earth, So great is his lovingkindness toward them that fear him. As far as the east is from the west, So far hath he removed our transgressions from us.” He has removed our transgressions, set us free to live in His mercy and grace. The life lived in thankfulness will not bind the sins of another, but will set him or her free to also live in God's grace. It is not easy. We know God is just and sin deserves punishment, but it is not for us to judge. God deals with sin and seeks vengeance according to His good and perfect Word. But we are reminded that God desires all to be set free. He desires all to be saved. He desires all to be reconciled to Him and to one another for eternity, as He created us to live. One day, everyone will bow. Until that day we can rest in the hope that God can, and will, use even those tragic moments in our lives—like that of Joseph—to bring His grace to the world.

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