Friday, September 22, 2017
When I lived in New York we would often travel on a toll road. Sometimes we would recognize the people in the car behind us and pay their toll for them as a surprise. They would pay the toll of the car behind them until it became a chain of unexpected payments. But it was a game, almost a joke.
Today the Gospel talks about accounts being settled but there is no joke and it is no game. It is the most real of real life situations. And it all starts, as Jesus’ parables often do, with an innocent question, “How many times must I forgive my brother when he sins against me?” And in typical form, Jesus does not answer Peter’s question with an easy or even a direct answer.
There was a King who wished to settle accounts; an audit, if you will. This man is in business. He is no philanthropist. He keeps track of what is owed. Debts were matters of law, after all. So he calls them in and reads off the debt. 10,000 talents. How much? A talent is a month’s wages so it is a staggering debt of 10,000 months wages – in other words it was a debt that no man could pay in his whole lifetime. There was no possibility of paying back this debt even if the King were patient and extended the terms. It is like the high interest credit card that accrues interest faster than you can pay. So the man was blowing smoke by asking for more time to pay it off.
Then comes the clincher. This debt, so great as to be impossible to repay, is forgiven. It is forgiven not because the debtor was worthy or because he was a good cause or because it was a hardship case. It was solely out of the compassion and mercy of the King that this debt was marked paid.
Then the same servant went to a co-worker who owed him 3 months wages, choking him, having no mercy, and putting him in debtor’s prison until every penny was repaid. This did not go unnoticed. It was not an injustice – the man owed the money – but it was inconsistent with the mercy the man had been shown for his large debt. In the end, his huge debt was re-instated, he was thrown in prison without hope of ever escaping his debt impossible to repay. Then Jesus turned to Peter and said, “If you will not forgive your brother from your heart, my heavenly Father will do this to you.”
God does not shrug His shoulders and forget our sins. The debt must be paid. Jesus has paid the debt. Our account is settled. We are forgiven. That is not in dispute. Peter’s question and ours is the same. But what does God’s forgiveness have to do with my dealings with other people? Give Peter some credit. He knows that the Lord is slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. He know the Lord is merciful. He remembers the Day of Atonement and the forgiveness in the blood that covered his sins. He just wants to know how far mercy goes. He is suggesting 7 times. This is no small offer.
Think of it this way. Your deadbeat brother who does not work and his wife who shops like a pro, rack up credit card debt that threatens their house. Would you give them the money to repay the debt and keep their house? If you looked into the eyes of their innocent children, would you? Some of us would. But how many of you would do it 7 times? No, Peter is not being stingy. But neither does Peter grasp the depth of God’s mercy. Peter is as shocked by Jesus’ answer of 77 times; so are we. Who does that?
Only God. That is the answer. Only God has such extravagant mercy. Only God forgives like that. The problem lies in the fact that we know how much the Lord forgives others. We see the specks in their eyes so clearly. But we do not see the log in our own eyes. We do not believe that we are the debtor who could not possibly repay what he owes. We would rather be the King who forgives than the spiritually bankrupt soul who can do nothing but beg for the Lord’s mercy.
Jesus is telling Peter and each one of us that we are debtors whose debt has been forgiven. That our sins are great and the mercy of God greater still. That we are the guilty beggars who were dead in trespasses and sins until someone gave us new life. That we were ones so buried in debt, guilt, and shame that somebody had to dig us out. We were not forgiven little but much – so much that our hearts and minds cannot even accurately recall or confess how many and how great are our sins. In order to accept this mercy, we must admit our guilt.
Sheriff Arpayo, the Arizona lawman whom President Trump pardoned, must acknowledge his guilt in order to benefit from the pardon. You must acknowledge your guilt in order for you to benefit from God’s forgiveness. The innocent are not pardoned and those who owe nothing cannot have their debts forgiven. This parable is first about you and your guilt and then about God and His mercy. But it does not end there.
The wicked debtor is condemned because he did not get that he was guilty or what mercy was. You cannot be forgiven the mountain of your debt because of sin and then hold back the same mercy who committed small sins against you. And compared to the sins we have committed against God, every sin someone has committed against you is a pittance.
After the parable Peter realized that this whole discussion about forgiveness was volatile. It was more than he bargained for. If you refuse to forgive others, you are insisting that you have no sins that need forgiving. The big issue here is not how many times your brother sins against you but how great is your sin, how great is God’s compassion and mercy to forgive you, and whether or not you own up to those sins and that debt to mercy.
And, by the way, on our journey to the 500th Anniversary of the Lutheran Reformation, we are reminded that this whole thing was not about ceremonies or vestments or personalities or anything else but about grace, about mercy, and about forgiveness. The Reformation was about the cross where our accounts were settled, where the guilty were met by the blood of Christ that cleanses all our sins, and where those dead in trespasses and sins were made alive in Christ to do the good works of Him who called us from darkness into His marvelous light.
You do not forgive your brother because he deserves it. You did not deserve it. It is pure grace and mercy in Christ. You were not forgiven because you deserved it. It was pure grace and mercy in Christ. You do not place limits on forgiveness for others because no such limits were placed upon you. To refuse forgiveness or limit it only shows you do not get sin or your guilt.
To forgive your brother shows that you get it, by faith, through grace. Amen
Drive down the street a bit and you encounter a rather small and very old chapel. It looks as if it is surrounded by a fellowship or educational structure and has another building across a small parking lot. No one would realize that this is, in reality, the largest church in town. It is Roman Catholic. The chapel is used during the week and on weekends the rather nondescript structure is filled with people for mass (the fellowship hall was long ago converted into a sanctuary). It hardly seems right but this parish has almost as many families as the Baptist has members. It is not unusual for Roman Catholics to be somewhat under the radar in the South but it is also a clear statement against the idea that the Church is about real estate.
The national as well as diocesan Episcopal Church jurisdictions have spent untold millions over real estate. In the ELCA we also have a legal trail in an effort to hold onto buildings and property. We have created church banks to finance real estate and construction costs. Many congregations spend the majority of their income paying off the mortgages and not a few have gone broke trying. Sadly, in many of these facilities, the space devoted to worship is secondary to all sorts and kinds of other activities much less important than worship. I fear we have given into the illusion of success size offers and we think that facilities are one of the chief definitions of that success.
Don't get me wrong. I am not at all suggesting that we be cheap with structures built to house the worship of God or that we abandon the witness of a house of the Lord dedicated to His Word and Sacraments. What I am suggesting is that we build buildings to house many things that are not necessarily bad but they have nothing whatsoever to do with the worship of God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. We drive by the solitary chapel with nary a fellowship hall, classroom addition, gym space, or recreational center and we think "how sad." Perhaps it is the other way around. Maybe we should be driving past the mega campuses with all their non-essential amenities and shake our heads in sorrow that it has all come down to real estate. And this from a God who had no place to lay His head and even had to borrow a tomb from another! Birds have nests, foxes have holes, and churches have loads of geography and buildings. We need to remember the Kingdom of God is not of this world and this world's marks of success and accomplishment should not be used to define that Kingdom.
Thursday, September 21, 2017
The funeral has become the wake! Why did I miss that? We have not turned the funeral into a celebration of life, we have confused the wake with the funeral. We don't have wakes anymore. Why? Because nothing we do is located into the home anymore. The traditional (Irish) wake has a long and storied history. Some still practice the traditional wake but many, if not most, have come around to the more staid idea of a time of visitation. The wake was, in part, utilitarian. Death was not so easily certified and the wake was to see if the body was, indeed, dead. The wake was a watch over the deceased. But it was also born of the need to have people remain with the body until burial.
The time of waiting for the person to “wake” began to be accompanied by more people, some food, and much drink until the mourners and family came together as much to remember, tell stories, and reflect upon the life of the deceased as much as any other reason. The wake became a party but the guest of honor did not eat or drink and resided in a box. Of course, there was a religious side of it and a prayer vigil was certainly part of it, as well. When all of this moved from the home to the funeral home, the food may have gone along for the ride but somebody forgot the booze. It was often a social rite that highlighted the loss is one of a social group and how it affected the whole group.
Traditionally, the body would be prepared by the family and laid out in a designated room at the family home. The body would never be left unattended, just in case the deceased did “wake.” The length of the wake depended upon the funeral. The wake would begin as soon as the body could be prepared and it would continue until all left for the Church. All the clocks in the house would be stopped at the time of death as a sign of respect for the deceased. Mirrors would be turned around or covered. Candles would be lit and placed around the deceased. The Rosary would be said at midnight and most left, leaving only the closest family members to watch through the night. It was part of the healing process for family and friends left behind -- time filled with tears, laughter, and memories -- not to replace the Christian hope but because of it.
Now we have only visitation. A long or short line (depending upon how well know and beloved the individual), the signing of the guest book, a few moments before an open casket, a few words exchanged with the family of the deceased, a few moments before the revolving picture book showing highlights of the individual's life, and you can be home in about 15-20 minutes. Or, if that is too much, you can view online, sign the guestbook, and not have to bother with personal contact. Our lack of having a real wake has left us with the desire to convert the funeral into one (minus the booze, of course).
Here is my radical thought. Serve booze at the funeral home. Go back to the wake instead of the staid, chaste, pious, and brief visitation. Eat, drink, tell stories, laugh, cry, and sing. And then we can meet death in the funeral and face its sting with the cross and empty tomb. Then we can let the funeral be about Christ because the wake was about the dead. What do you think?
Wednesday, September 20, 2017
Every now and then it sounds odd to end the Gospel reading by saying, “The Gospel of the Lord.” Today is one of those times. The reading ends with Jesus saying, “And in anger his master delivered him to the jailers, until he should pay all his debt. So also my heavenly Father will do to everyone one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart” (Matt 18:34-35). This doesn’t sound like the good news of the Gospel...and it’s not. This is Law, it’s all Law. It’s the command of the Lord to whole heartedly forgive those who sin against you. This you must do. It’s not an option. So, where’s the Gospel, the good news? It’s in the forgiveness: the forgiveness you receive from Christ that enables you to forgive others.
These Law words come at the end of the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant, the story of a servant whose mountain of debt was forgiven and yet he refused to forgive a fellow servant’s tiny debt. Jesus told this story in answer to a question from Peter: “Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?” (Matt 18:21). To our ears, this sounds pretty generous. Just think about. Your brother, your wife, your friend, they sin against you. The first time you forgive them. Then, a week later, they sin against you again in the very same way. This time you’re a little more hesitant, but again you forgive them. Then the very next day they do it again. No way you forgive them now; three strikes and you’re out.
We can’t image forgiving someone seven times. It’s nonsense. It’s not fair to us. It makes us look like a fool. But Jesus says our forgiveness is to be greater than seven times. He answered Peter, “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy times seven” (Matt 18:22). Jesus isn’t putting a limit to forgiveness, capping it at 490 times. Jesus is saying forgiveness is to be limitless, and He illustrates this with the parable.
The king was settling his debts and a servant was brought to him who owed ten thousand talents. This amount of debt is unheard off. It could never be paid off. Even if the servant’s salary was extraordinarily high and he never had a day off, this mountain of debt would ensure imprisonment for 1,000 years or more. This is physically impossible; there’s no way the servant could pay it back. But what does he do? He falls on his knees and pleads with the king for more time to pay it off.
This servant had to of known it was impossible to pay this debt and yet he still wanted to try. He convinced himself he could work hard enough to pay it off. From our seats this sounds illogical and foolish, and yet we do the very same thing. We know we’re sinners. We know our sin debt is so large there’s no way we can pay it off, but like this servant we convince ourselves we can.
How many times to we sin against friends and say, “I’ll make it up to you.”? Or you husbands, after you and your wife have a fight don’t you try to win back her affection with flowers and a nice dinner? As children and teens, after we got in trouble, didn’t we then behave, didn’t we clean our room and take out the trash without being asked hoping to get back in our parents’ good graces? Our natural inclination is to do good work in order to make up for our sin.
We want to earn our forgiveness. We think it’s the only way. We sin against God in thought, word, and deed and the only logical way to make up for this is to do good in thought, word, and deed. And when we do this good, we feel good about it. It makes us proud and we convince ourselves we’re alright with God. But we’re not alright with God because our good works don’t make up for our sin, because even our good works are tainted with sin.
The reason why we convince ourselves our good works can pay off our debt is because we want the glory of saving ourselves. We want to do it all; to be our own savior. This is a trust in our abilities, in our power, in ourselves, and this is idolatry with us as our idol, our god. But no matter how hard we try, we can’t free ourselves from our unpayable sin debt. It’s impossible, just like the servant couldn’t pay off his.
Knowing the servant couldn’t pay off his debt, the king had pity on him, not because he deserved it, not because the king expected the servant to work extra hard, not because he was a talented beggar, but because the king was gracious and merciful. The king released the servant from all his debt, he forgave him. The king declared him debt free, just as your King forgives you and declares you debt free.
Only God’s grace and mercy releases you from your sin debt. God forgives you, not because you deserve it, not because you work extra hard and promise to do better, but because Christ paid your debt by dying on the cross. God forgives you for His sake, because Jesus took your sin upon Himself and paid it off with His precious blood and innocent suffering and death. There’s no way you could pay this debt, no matter how hard and long you work, not even for a thousand years. Only Christ could, and thanks be to God that He has.
The forgiveness of the king in the parable illustrates the magnitude of God’s forgiveness. He’s forgiven your mountain range of sin debt because of Christ and His cross. This is the good news of the Gospel...but the parable doesn’t end there.
The now debt free servant left the king’s presence and found a fellow servant who owed him one hundred denarii. This debt was miniscule in size compared to the debt he was just released from. It could’ve been paid off in less than a year. But this servant showed no pity on his fellow servant. He seized him and choked him, demanding payment. You would think he’d be more gracious, that he’d pay forward the forgiveness of the king, but he didn’t. Hearing about this servant’s unwillingness to forgive, the king delivered the servant to the jailers until he paid his debt. This means the servant was imprison for life.
The unforgiving servant’s refusal to be gracious and forgive his fellow servant showed he didn’t value the king’s forgiveness. Likewise when you refuse to forgive those who trespass against you, it shows you don’t value God’s forgiveness. It shows you don’t want it, that you think you don’t need it. If you don’t want God’s forgiveness, He won’t force it on you. But without His forgiveness, you’ll forever be imprisoned to sin.
The forgiveness of your sin debt is more valuable than anything you could ever earn. It’s more valuable than any other gift you’ve ever received; and you show how much you value this forgiveness by sharing it with others. Like Joseph, who forgave his brothers who sold him into slavery, you are to graciously forgive your brothers, no matter how many times they sin against you, no matter how big their sin against you is. Whatever sin it is, it’s miniscule compared to your sin before God. Having been forgiven much you forgive much, and you do it gladly.
The Lord calls you to forgive from your heart. This means you completely release your brother from their sin debt. To forgive from your heart means to never bring it up again. When you forgive from your heart you don’t expect payment in the future. Even if your brother sins against you 490 times the same sin, you gladly forgive with no strings attached, because you’ve been forgiven.
We forgive those who sin against us not to earn God’s forgiveness, but to show forth Christ’s love and to show we value His forgiveness. Valuing God’s forgiveness, we forgive others. We forgive without limit because we’ve been forgiven without limit. God our King has canceled our sin debt, a debt we could never pay back. Christ’s atoning death on the cross, the sacrifice of His perfect life paid the price of our sin. It’s this forgiveness that we trust in, not our works. And it’s this same forgiveness that we wholeheartedly share with others. In Jesus’ name...Amen.
But that is the issue, isn't it? How we view children has changed. God's command to be fruitful and multiply has become a burden on women, indeed, on us all. Children are not helpful to careers, they are not friendly to the environment, and they cost too much of us (dreams, money, time, and energy). Maybe it is simply a coincidence that the leaders of Europe are childless. Maybe I am overreacting. Maybe it is all a momentary phase, a fad, and a trend. I doubt it. I wish there was nothing to be concerned about. But I think you and I know better.
The absence of children is telling. Walk into any congregation where there is no child fidgeting in the pew or whimpering baby and you can feel the emptiness. Look across the landscape at cities with empty school buildings and you can see the impact of a lack of children on any community. Watch as people show intolerance and frustration with a child at a restaurant and you get the sense of how profound the impact of fewer children is upon us all.
Life has become only and always about the individual. The freedom of the individual seems to triumph over all other things. We do not produce but consume -- even when it comes to house, home, and family. We have invested our future not in our children but in our technology. Our hopes lie not in those who wear our name and carry on our faith and values but in silicon valley and its latest and greatest gadgets. That is the poverty of our present day culture. But it has not been thrust upon us. We have fully embraced it ourselves -- much the way the forbidden fruit of Eden was gladly chosen and willingly eaten. The struggle of the faith is not only for God the Redeemer of His people but for His creative will and intent. Strangely, the fruit of sin is that we no longer even yearn to be creators or equals with God as did Adam and Even. No, we are content to die as long as we can consume all we want before death comes. Will there be anyone left to mourn our passing?
Tuesday, September 19, 2017
There was no rite for individual confession. In fact, the Small Catechism that I was taught included no rite either. It was as if the whole thing had been erased from Lutheran memory. And it had. So, as Pastor Mark Surburg put it, "from 1856 to 1982 there wasn’t a rite for it in the hymnals published by the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod (one did appear for the first time in the Worship Supplement of 1969). From 1943 to 1986 the description in the Small Catechism of how confession is done wasn’t included in the English translation used by the LCMS. From 1943 to 1991 the description in the Small Catechism of how confession is done wasn’t included in the Explanation of Luther’s Small Catechism used for catechesis in the LCMS. If you don’t read and speak German, and you received catechesis and Confirmation between 1943 and 1991 it is almost certain that you never learned about private confession, much less how it is done." There is the shocking statement. Even though the Confessions not only mention but commend individual or private confession and absolution, most Lutherans had no clue that there was such a thing. Either because they were not taught faithfully or the rites were suppressed, Lutherans developed a clear case of amnesia regarding private or individual confession.
The first official sign of change came in the Worship Supplement 1969 but the big splash came when Lutheran Worship 1982 finally included a rite. Sadly, there was not much catechesis about the restoration of that rite and so it was a big splash that was later forgotten and the status quo of silence continued even to the present day. When a young pastor shows up right out of seminary, having been taught about the value of private confession from pastoral practice, liturgics, and Confessions classes, to address the topic of private confession, people immediately are suspect of him. Does he lean toward Rome? It is not their fault, of course, because they were not properly taught and their church had suffered amnesia with regard to this blessed and wonderful sacramental rite and its gift to the penitent. But it does explain why so many are so confused about what Lutherans believe, confess, and teach with regard to private or individual confession and absolution.
So now we have the rite restored to both hymnal (LSB) and catechism and there are more pastors now willing to teach this wonderul gift with which Christ has blessed His Church, but are we willing to receive it? It will be a long time before we find ourselves in accord with the Apology or with practice Bach knew in which additional times and additional pastors had to be assigned for the many desiring confession or even the time of Loehe when he found the burden so great that it was permissible for the pastor to sit on a chair while handling the great number of confessing people.
It is well known that we have so explained and extolled the benefit of absolution and the power of the keys that many troubled consciences have received consolation from our teaching. They have heard that it is a command of God—indeed, the very voice of the gospel—so that we may believe the absolution and regard as certain that the forgiveness of sins is given to us freely on account of Christ and that we should maintain that we are truly reconciled to God by this faith. (Ap. XI.2).
Monday, September 18, 2017
Sherry Turkle wrote Alone Together: Why We Expect More From Technology And Less From Each Other. Her story is a sad reflection upon the basic premise of technology as a means to improve our lives. The improvement has led to fewer facts and more feelings, less objective reporting and more fake news, the blurred line between self-promotion and media, and, the incredible loneliness for people who would seem on the outside to be connected more than ever before.
This is not simply about smart phones although they have increasingly become the center of our lives. Our children have had their brains rewired by their connections to social media and the internet. Games have taken on a larger than life role and this technology makes it harder and harder for people to distinguish fact from fiction, the virtual from the real, and digital connections and real friendship. How we meet and where we meet has been completely transformed. It is not always bad but the bad seems to outweigh the good. After all, the media fosters lies and deception and there is no greater lie or deception than how we present ourselves to people who have little chance of every getting to know us face to face.
We shop online, work online, have sex online, pursue hobbies online, and hear our news online. What need have we of personal contact? In fact, human contact has become a type of interference with our digital world and its digital lies. The worst is when we make our smallest children addicts to technology and use the screens to keep them quiet and occupied while we focus on our screens. The smart screen has made it harder for us to learn, to read, to retain what we read, and to think. Worse, the smart screen has made it harder to justify the waste of mind and body on pursuits that are "better" done digitally.
When people turn to technology as the wisdom to rescue them from loneliness or from despair, we know we have gone the wrong direction. When we saturate worship with the lessons we learned from that smallest of screens, we confound and confused others and ourselves. The screen has become more than our weakness but the places of our secret pleasures and self-indulgent lives. But it is not the screen or smart phone that is the problem -- it is how we use this technology and the values we attach to it and to its particular perspective on us and our world.
Truth is the first but not the last casualty and yet the Church seems addicted to the idea that technology is not the problem but the answer. It can help, of course, but its help can be and too often is a source of tension for us and our lives. Friends become the digitally likeminded people and what happens on the web is treated as the glowing reality that we seek and not the dull shine we have learned to live without. Technology begs to be used responsibly but instead we text and drive, surf and do not part, and then look surprised because we missed something or missed seeming something.
Lord, rescue us from the prisons and captivities we have placed upon ourselves and give us clear and true vision of what You count as real so that we may survive a digital identity and rekindle with others the grace upon which we stand.