Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Debts or Trespasses?

 Debts or Trespasses?

One of my favorite moments in ecumenical worship is the train wreck between traditions over debts and trespasses during the Lord’s prayer. I like it because it is an uncomfortable space that forces us to recognize the division in the Body of Christ and the space that division creates for the movement of God’s Holy Spirit. That uncomfortable space leads me to wonder how often we robotically recite that portion of the prayer, and how often we deeply consider what it truly means to forgive and be forgiven of our debts – whatever that means.

Let’s begin by getting the language of debts and trespasses out of the way. I’ll also ask the historians among us to forgive this brief and crude brushstroke of history. In the fourth century of the Common Era, the Latin Vulgate – translated from original manuscripts by St. Jerome – became the official cannon of scripture (the Bible) for the Roman Catholic church.

In 1526, inspired by the protestant movement in Switzerland and empowered by the invention of the printing press, William Tyndale began to produce Biblical material translated from the original Hebrew and Greek manuscripts. In Tyndale’s work the Lord’s prayer uses the word “trespasses,” presumably as a way to talk about wrong doing. In 1611 the King James Version was printed, replacing trespasses with debts. And in 1989, the New Revised Standard Version maintained “debts” as a more accurate version of the original Greek in one place, and “trespasses” in another.

The scholarly argument is that the context of Mathew’s Gospel is about repayment of something owed, whereas the context of the Greek in Luke’s Gospel is about making mistakes that need to be accounted for. For those in the protestant, Reformed tradition the idea of repayment of sin on our behalf fits pretty well, so we tend to like saying, “debts”.

Some congregations use the ecumenical version, which was produced by the Consultation on Common Texts – the same body that is responsible for the lectionary readings many congregations follow – and was printed in our hymnal by the Office of Theology and Worship. It simply replaces both choices with something that most people agree on – sin.

One Pastor tells the story of supply preaching in a congregation that uses the ecumenical version. Her son occasionally worshiped with her and sometimes at his father’s PC(USA) congregation. At the door he stopped her and said, “WAIT! Mommy, is this a debting or sinning church?" I replied, "Oh honey – this is a sinning church." A member who was passing by said, "You got that right."

Truly that is the core of the issue – sin and forgiveness. We can argue all day about language of economy and language of property or the historical politics of the church and our penchant for doctrinal lines in the sand, but the issues are sin and forgiveness. What does it mean to sin? What does it mean to forgive? What is the relationship between the two? What is our role, and what is God’s?

Our passage from Numbers recounts the giving of the law, which is the origin of our awareness of sin. It is the origin in the sense that a road with no posted speed limit is a road you make up your own mind about. I used to think that this passage described a mean and vengeful God. I mean, everything’s fine if you don’t make any mistakes – but if you do, God’s going to come after you and your family like the mafia. What I have come to understand, however, is that forgiveness does not mean there is no consequence. It simply means that the consequences are not binding or permanent in the way that God’s love and forgiveness are.

So sin is the cause that sets the ball rolling, but that does not mean that everything is directly related in the sense of Karma and cosmic payback. Sometimes the chaos of this world simply spills over into our lives. Sometimes we are victimized by the actions of others. Such is the case of David, a man after God’s own heart, as he hides in caves and prays for redemption. What does he do? He confesses his shortcomings. He repents. Repentance is not required because we should be so self centered as to believe that our actions can manipulate the hand of God. Repentance is required because it prepares us for God’s involvement, it removes the delusion of our entitlement, and it acknowledges the participation and our expectation of God’s involvement as the source of our forgiveness.

True forgiveness moves us toward reconciliation. Forgiveness and reconciliation do not mean giving permission to harmful behavior. It means moving forward despite the injuries between us. It means being defined by our agreements rather than our conflicts.

All of this leads us back to the Lord’s Prayer, and the words of Jesus about forgiveness. In Mathew’s version, Jesus adds a little interpretive kick at the end. He says, “For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.”

Ouch. You mean I have to forgive Osama, Obama, Bush, and that person from the third grade that made me feel like a jerk? Yeah. But, here’s the thing. The forgiveness of God is not transactional. We don’t earn God’s love. We can’t earn God’s love! Love does not come with conditions and expectations. So what is Jesus talking about here?

Maybe it isn’t about God’s ability to give as much as it is about our ability to receive. I saw a posting on facebook the other day that said something like that. It said, “What you do with any opportunity God gives you will determine what opportunities God gives you!” I would change that just a bit to say, “What you do with any of the opportunities God gives you determines your ability to see all of the opportunities God gives you.”

So, must we forgive in order to be forgiven? Yes, but not because of God. We must forgive in order to have the capacity to receive God’s forgiveness – for the amount of grace we are able to offer is equal to the amount of grace we are willing to receive. And although this sounds like a fairly massive task that really only applies to our deepest wounds and most offensive relationships, I think it begins in the simplest and smallest places we can provide.

I had a young, sincere Christian teach me that once. I was managing a restaurant and one of my waiters routinely messed up. I spent more time fixing checks during his shifts than any other, and they were mostly his. After a while he stopped asking for help. Instead he would walk up to me and say, “You’re just going to have to find a new way to love me today.”

That is the opportunity of forgiveness, finding a new way to love one another – every day. That’s one of the valuable things about Christian Fellowship. It gives you a space to forgive regularly, so that it becomes more of an instinct in other places. I think it is fair to say that we are a sinning congregation. I think it is fair to say that we are a reconciling congregation. I think it is fair to say that in the present darkness of this world we whisper prayers that shine as light because of our ability to forgive – in fact, that is the only way any congregation can do it. Amen?

Next week we will look into the heart of that darkness with our final exploration of the Prayer of Jesus, based on the phrase, “Deliver us from evil.” Now let us stand and sing to the glory of God.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

It’s All Providence

It’s All Providence 

There are certain words and catch phrases that creep into our vocabulary from time to time. Every generation has them. These words and phrases usually stick around, retaining some significance but never really meaning what they once did – except to the generation or social group that first claimed them. You probably know what I am talking about – words like fine (or real fine), cool, hip, groovy, and awesome. Phrases like “the buzz,” or “I’m blessed,” or “It’s all good” are like this, too.

Sometimes the words or phrases sound silly or even offensive to new ears. For example, some of you may remember me telling you about a friend in a rural town who was told that his sermon was awful and later realized it meant filled with awe or inspired.

These buzz words and catch phrases are important to us, because they locate us. They state what matters to us in the present moment, and they speak of our relationships (culture, each other, etc.). In its own way, the Lord’s Prayer, the prayer of Jesus, is a string of endearing and enduring phrases that focus our attention on our relationship with God. It speaks of who we are, who God is, and what exactly is our relationship.

One of the early church fathers, Tertulian, described it this way:

"[The Lord's Prayer] is truly the summary of the whole gospel...Since the Lord...after handing over the practice of prayer, said elsewhere, 'Ask and you will receive,' and since everyone has petitions which are peculiar to [their] circumstances, the regular and appropriate prayer (the Lord's Prayer) is said first, as the foundation of further desires."

In our tradition we offer petitions first, and at times I have begun the Lord’s Prayer by saying, “Now let us pray about the things that truly matter.” I’ve dropped that phrase recently because I don’t mean to dismiss the importance of the needs expressed in other prayers. The point is that Jesus stated that this prayer describes what is essential in our relationship with God.

Last week we talked about the idea of giving honor and glory to God. The question we considered is whether or not our prayer life is a laundry list for God or a place of vulnerability and transformation for us. And although we talked about what “Hallowed be your name” means, we did not talk much about the name that we call God in this prayer – Father.

Before going any further, I want to own an assumption. That assumption is that the Prayer of Jesus – the Lord’s Prayer – is part of a prayer life. By prayer life I mean a lifestyle – or regular personal practice – of praying. By prayer life I mean two things. The first is a regular practice of intentional, daily reflection on God’s active presence in your life. Our Old Testament reading comes out of a culture of regular reflection on the active presence of God to guide and define the actions of our days. It reminds us that even the most chaotic moments of human experience are part of the rhythm and movement of an active and present God.

The second form of a prayer life is more of an ongoing conversation with God. The text from Philippians is an example of this tradition. “Rejoice in the Lord always. Again I say, rejoice!”

Rejoice – what about when things are bad? Sometimes I catch myself complaining about my problems to others, and in the midst of it I realize that I really don’t have any problems. Even on my worst days I usually have more things to be thankful for than to be sad about. Sure, I’ve had difficulties. I have had times that without God I would not have made it through. Still, it seems very first world, upper-middle class to boil the gospel down to "Count your blessings," and “Don’t worry, be happy!”

That’s a theology that is so thin that just about anyone can see through it. Just the other day my daughter and I were in the car listening to a Christian radio station, and she asked, “Why do they always say that they are “positive” when sometimes they talk about someone whose baby almost died?”

I thought about that and said, “Well, they aren’t saying that bad things are good, or positive. They are saying that God is always good. They are saying that even when things are bad you can have a reason to hope.”

That’s where the Prayer of Jesus comes in. That’s why it matters that we call God, “Father.” Personally, I don’t think it matters if you call God “Father,” or “Mother,” or “Creator.” What matters is that we approach God with the understanding that God is the reason we are here, and God cares for us. Whether you had a good relationship with your parents or not, whether your parents were able to express their love for you or not, whether they were even able to love you or not – God is complete where others have been lacking. And at the most basic of levels, it is good and right for us to ask God to give us what we need to sustain us.

“Give us, Lord, our daily bread.” It may seem demanding to say it this way – and maybe it is – but not in the sense of a child that is completely dependent on the parent. Of course, children naturally seek independence – and in a healthy family the parent encourages independence. Yet there is something different in our relationship with God. We were created in the image of God and given rational minds to think and solve and create, so in some ways our natural state is one of independence. Remembering to expect God to provide for us is not a challenge to our independence; it is simply a reminder that God is the source of all that we have and all that we are.

Still, I have to say, this is a very privileged perspective on providence. How does a person at St. Joseph’s Dinner feel when they utter the phrase, “Give us, Lord, our daily bread”? How do the Christians in Syria feel about it? For that matter, how do we really feel about it?

There’s a great scene in the Movie Shenandoah where Jimmy Stewart’s character is sitting at table forcing himself and his children to pray after the death of his wife. He says, through clenched teeth, “Lord, we cleared this land. We plowed it, sowed it, and harvested it. We cook the harvest. It wouldn't be here and we wouldn't be eating it if we hadn't done it all ourselves. We worked dog-bone hard for every crumb and morsel, but we thank you Lord just the same for the food we're about to eat, amen.”

Maybe we are not that callous, but what do our actions demonstrate? Do our actions demonstrate an expectation that God will come through in the end – that even as we labor “by the sweat of our brow” the results are still a gift at the hand of God? Or what about the opposite? Are we willing to accept poverty and injustice and times of personal need as a part of our experience of an active and present God?

In the prayer of Jesus, a Jewish Rabi, the phrase “daily bread” meant all of these things, but even more specifically it was a reference to the story of the exodus from Egypt. It was a reminder that God gave the people enough for each day. In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus reminds us that God knows all that we need just as God knows the need of the sparrow and the lilly, and he reminds us to “Let the day's own trouble be sufficient for the day.” I really like the King James version on this one. It says, “Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof.”

As a people of the resurrection we remember that Jesus called himself “the living bread that came down from heaven.” And so, a life of prayer offers the chance to continually receive the living bread. Whether we have bread to eat or not, we have hope. We have hope in the life to come, but we also have hope in the life that is – whether it gets any better or not.

That reminds me of one of the catch phrases of my generation that can be down right infuriating to those of, say, my mother’s generation. “It’s all good.” I think that phrase has value to people of my generation because it reminds us not to sweat the small stuff. Maybe everything isn’t good. Maybe saying, “It’s all good” is living in denial. But what if what we are really trying to say is, “It’s all providence. It’s all in the hands of God. Whatever "it" is, "it" is not permanent. But God is. God’s love is. God’s sustaining presence is good. God is providential.”

I bet we could even make “Providential” into a new catch phrase, if we lived it! Of course, that’s what really matters – living the good news. The only way that we can hope that the Prayer of Jesus can be more than a collection of meaningless phrases is to demonstrate reverence and providence and mercy. Living the good news does not mean being perfect. It means knowing that you are not. It means demonstrating a belief that God is active and present in the good and the bad – and even in the ugly and meaningless – and God is always moving us toward something better. It means demonstrating the belief that through God we can do things that are not possible without God!

Personally, I like the way Julian of Norwich said it.

“All shall be well,
and all shall be well,
and every manner of thing shall be well.”

Next week we’ll finally get down to the difference between “debtors” and “trespasses” as we continue to explore the providence of God Most High through the opportunity to forgive and be forgiven. Let us stand and sing as we worship the Lord together!

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Hallowed Be Thy Name

                                                             Hallowed Be Thy Name 

Today begins a sermon series on the Lord’s Prayer. We call it the Lord’s Prayer because it is the only prayer prescribed by Jesus in scripture. As we begin a new season in the church with new classes, and as we continue to think about and talk about a new understanding of our calling as a faith community – that’s what it means to redefine our mission – it seems a position of prayer is a good place to start.

I think prayer is a good place to start because it seems intimidating to say that we need to redifine our mission. It seems confrontational to say that we need to become transformed into something new. Yet that is the calling of Christian faith – a life of constant transformation and renewal. That’s not neccessarily why most people come to church, though.

Most of us come to church because the world is so complex and frustrating, and we want something solid to hold on to. There is nothing wrong with that, and certainly the unchanging word of God offers us something we can depend on in this ever changing world. Certainly our community of faith stands for something different in a world so full of greed and struggles for power. Certainly we still have greedy power struggles in our faith community – and even in our families – but we also have the power to love and forgive and live in a different way from the world. Here, reconciliation is not only possible – it happens!

Still – as likely as we take our faith seriously – we also run the risk of going through the motions. Just like the ancient Isrealites who whined to God. “Look, God, we fasted. We prayed. We burned stuff. We did the ritual, and we are on a schedule – so, WHERE ARE YOU? Perhaps you haven’t noticed the armies gathering to the North.” In the same way, we often look at our faithful practice and wonder why it does not seem to be working the way it used to. Don’t we just need to do what we know to be right and true, only better? Don’t we just need new people to plug the holes in the damn? We pray the prayer. We call it the Lord’s, but how often do we consider what we are really praying?

[Lord’s Prayer Skit]

Søren Kierkegaard has been quoted as saying, “The function of prayer is not to influence God, but rather to change the nature of the one who prays.” This is something I often forget. I mean, I love to quote it. I just have a problem living it. It’s simply not our nature to want to be changed. We pray because we want results, but usually for someone else. We pray because sometimes we don’t know what else to do or to say other than, “I’ll be praying for you,” or maybe, “God, help us - please!” And we pray because we believe, or we want to believe, that God is listening.

In the prayer of Jesus, especially in Matthew’s gospel, Jesus has one primary agenda – honoring God. He moves into other expressions of need, but it all flows from a desire to honor God. For prayer to be prayer you can’t call attention to yourself. Prayer is deeply private and personal. It can be done anywhere with anyone, but the point is not to be seen by others. The point is to understand that you are seen by God. It is time spent alone with your Creator. And Jesus tells us to begin by showing our appreciation for God.

“Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be Thy name.” That is a statement from a people with a different experience of what the universe looked like. For God to be God, then God – who is holy, separate, other, and perfect – cannot exist in the same place as God’s imperfect creation. For us, the universe is too big for God to be on the other side and still be God. We want to know, and see, and feel the active presence of God. For God to be God – holy, separate, and other – we need an experience like no other to point to and to prove that God is with us.

And that, dear friends, is why prayer is so important – and this prayer in particular. It provides language to frame our experience of God. If you aren’t in the habit of prayerful conversation with God – or even if you are – try praying the Lord’s Prayer in a quiet moment during your day. It may even force you to create a quiet moment just to pray, which might not be a bad idea!

Prayer provides an open space in our minds and hearts to recognize that the God of the universe is with us. The Lord’s Prayer allows us to open the spaces of longing within us and say, “Thy Kingdom come. Thy will be done right here, right now! Let us in on the secret of heaven! Let us experience your perfection in the middle of our imperfection. Let your will be done, because my will is just not enough.”

That’s a good place to start, as we continue to seek the transforming presence of God together through prayer. Over the next three weeks we will consider the providence of God, the nature of forgiveness, and the problem of evil.

As we journey together, may the name of God be hallowed in our lives which are lived together and apart, and may the Kingdom come near in our lives, together and apart. Amen.

Tuesday, September 03, 2013



                         Jeremiah 2:4-13          Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16         Luke 14:1, 7-14

We’ve barely made it to labor day and the posturing of obsessed sports fans (yes that is technically redundant) condemning the actions of their opponents and all of their descendants has exploded accross the internet through the wonder of social media. I’m sure there have been banquets and festivals throughout the land as we begin the holy season of football worship. Call that sarcasm if you will, but I would argue that football as a sport is a center of value for our culture. It commands a tremendous portion of our resources by comparison to other sources of value or activities that offer hope and meaning.

Of course no one is claiming that the Roger Goodell, the Commissioner of the NFL, is a god (although some may claim that he is an agent of the devil). No one is literally worshiping their team or quarterback (except maybe Bronco’s fans). Yet we build stadiums that large segmants of our population cannot even afford to walk into unless invited by someone who can afford it.

Such was the case when a homeless man arrived at a dinner party in a village outside of Jerusalem in First Century Palestine. Jesus was invited to a party he could only get into because of the invitation, and they were watching him like a chickenhawk. Now, before we go too much further, it is important to note that Luke does not give us the context of this meeting to condemn the Pharisees. They, and the lawyers with them, represent the old gaurd. They interpreted the relationship between God and the people. Although some were surely selfish and flawed, their purpose was to maintain a cultural and social identity that witnessed to the active presence of God. Sound like anyone else you know?

Our lectionary text jumps over a healing narrative as though Jesus is using it to say, “Now that I have your attention...” But we should note that once again, Jesus is basing his teaching on the action of caring for someone who cannot care for himself. He goes on to offer some practical party advice. Who could disagree with a little shrewd maneuvering? Don’t rush to the place of honor. Besides, there could be someone that your host thinks is more honorable. Wait to be called upon, and have your honor confirmed before others.

Imagine how this sparked their imagination. This rabbi was pretty smooth. But then he went from preachin’ to meddlin’ when he turned on the host. “When you give a banquet, don’t just invite the people who are going to make you look good or the ones who will invite you to their parties. Invite the poor and lame. Invite the friendless and the unloved.”

He said this at the Sabbath meal – a meal that required ritual purity. You can’t invite those people to that meal and still call it the Sabbath meal. Clearly, this was no longer about securing a position. Clearly, Jesus was calling them into account for more than matters of etiquette. Clearly, Jesus was setting down a model of hospitality that begins with seeing the needs of others and moves toward a celebration of our relationship with one another.

I read an article recently that spoke to the difficulty we face today in our relationships with the poor (or anyone with a perceived difference in power). The article was about the difference between volunteering and serving the needs of others. The author ran a non-proffit ministry that served the poor in an urban context. He was contacted by a friend that he had grown up with in church. The friend was leading a youth group and wanted a service project. Some dates were agreed on, and he suggested they take a time of study beforehand to prepare them for the experience. That way they would know why the needs existed, understand the humanity of the people in need, and be able to meet with them on common ground. He also suggested they take time afterward to reflect on the experience and the way it had impacted their lives. In the end, the project fell apart because the youth group just did not have time to do all of that.

Saddly, this describes the majority of our service projects and mission trips. Getting to know people is messy, and most of us do not really want to be transformed by relationships over and over again. It’s heartbreaking. Not only that, but not everyone has the means to be that hospitable. Some of us are in need ourselves of a kind word or a friendly visit.

Fortunately, there is more to the gospel than a disappointed and disaproving Jesus. Instead of condemning, Jesus is encouraging us to see the opportunities that we do not normally see. Jesus is turning the tables once more to help us see what defiles and what makes holy. Through Jesus, the sins of the past are turned into the lense for seeing the Kingdom of God that has come near.

There are some in our Presbytery that have gotten this message. Recently a team returned to University Presbyterian Church in Baton Rouge from Cuba. They were trained and empowered by the Synod of the Sun and the Synod of the Living Waters, and they installed solar powered water treatment equipment. Another team from a variety of congregations will leave to do the same in October (I’ve gotten confirmation that they will cary letters for us if we want to re-establish our old conection with our long-lost-sister church in Sabanilla). Each team was trained for months, and the hope of each trip is to find common ground and to extend and receive hospitality that is real and true.

The thing is, for hospitality to be real and true it can not be convenient, and it has to be mutual. It has to cost you something, and it has to have the effect of creating commonality. That’s a little different than what we think of as Southern hospitality. Southern hospitality is all about making the guest feel special, and there is an unavoidable aspect of pride that slips in when the guest acknowledges what a good job you’ve done. In my family, we threw parties all the time for Dad’s office, the church, or whoever we just wanted to celebrate with. One of my favorite memories was the day that my dog got into a fight with the neighbor’s dog just as the cars were rolling up. My mother’s friend Carol got out, saw my mother’s embarassment and proclaimed in a deep southern drawl, “Why Beth, you always throw the best pah-ties. You even have a dawg fight!”

In some small way, Carol became the host for just a moment – empathizing with and blessing a moment of chaos. Jesus obviously calls for something more than that in our lives, but I think Mrs. Carol is an example of how hospitality is more of a life style than an action. It impacts everything we do, and every relationship we are a part of.

Likewise, our passage from Hebrews begins with encouragement to take care of our own – let mutual love continue – and moves imediately to care for strangers – even comparing them to the angels entertained by Abraham and Sarah at Mamre. This command is given as though loving the familiar and the strange have the same value. In fact, the Greek word we often translate as hospitality is “philoxenia,” which literally means, “love of the strange.”

Love of the strange commands both empathy for those who suffer and fidelity in the relationships we’ve been given. Love of the strange pushes us outside of our comfort zones. Love of the strange puts us in a place to see what God is doing not only through us but for us. Love of the strange is difficult and dangerous, but it is also beautiful and neccesary.

For in the end, we are not called to live in a peace that has no tension. It is in fact the tension of our relationships that provides the very space where a table might be spread and grace might be experienced.

We no longer live under a sacrificial system. We cannot earn God’s love and forgiveness. Jesus turned the tables once and for all so that we can know that God’s love is not about our worthiness. It is about God’s willingness to love us. And so our sacrificial living is a constant opportunity to live in response to God’s grace.

So, when we read, “Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God.” It does not mean “be nice and share when you can.” It means, “Don’t stop being nice. Don’t stop sharing what you have. Don’t just do it when it is convenient or when it feels good. Don’t act nice. BE nice.”

Fortunately for us, there is yet the table of grace where God meets our strangeness, smiles kindly, and says, “Taste and see the goodness of the Lord. I love you. I forgive you. I will never stop, and I have given you this day and this community for you to experience, explore, and express my love.”

The question that is still left open is one of how we will love the strange in response to God’s love for us. How will we love the strange in ourselves? How will we love the strange in our neighbor? Is our love of the strange strong enough to make us do more than just invite others? Is our hospitality radical enough that it pushes us out to find common ground with people we do not even know? Are we willing to see our love of the strange, the difficult, the one we really would rather not even talk to as our love of God? Yes. It is just that simple, and it is just that hard. And thanks be to God for the font of grace and the table of mercy that offer continued renewal as we move toward the Kingdom that is both present and yet to come. Amen.