Monday, October 28, 2013

Pleading for Mercy

Pleading for Mercy
Luke 18:14-19
October 27, 2013[1]

While Carol and I were in Ohio for our vacation, I heard about a case that drew quite a bit of attention.  A 22 year-old man posted a video on YouTube in which he confessed that he was the driver of a car that was involved in an accident that killed a man.  The video begins with the young man staring into the camera.  He says “My name is Matthew Cordle, and on June 22nd, 2013, I hit and killed Vincent Canzani.  This video will act as my confession.”[2]  Cordle then goes on to describe the events that led to the accident in which Cordle’s truck struck the car being driven by Mr. Canzani.  The video impressed a number of viewers as a sincere effort by Mr. Cordle to get the matter off his chest.  Mr. Cordle may, in fact, have been feeling genuine remorse, but in the skeptical part of my mind, I saw it as a more sophisticated attempt to plead for mercy.  The video looked a bit staged, with some ominous music playing in the background.  It was filmed in stark black and white.  It begins with Mr. Cordle’s face blurred, and then the picture becomes sharp and focused when Mr. Cordle confesses to his crime.  The video cuts away to show Mr. Cordle sitting, looking dejected.  He looked remorseful enough; but there also was an angle that led me to think that he was hoping for mercy.
During my first two years as a lawyer, from time to time I would represent indigent defendants—people who had no resources available to hire a lawyer.  The law had caught up with them, and they had been arrested for one crime or another.  This was an eye opening experience for me. I guess I had lived a pretty sheltered life.  I was amazed at how my clients could so persuasively claim their innocence to me.  Very seldom did I hear my clients tell me that they were guilty.  The police may have been after them, or their best friend had turned against them, or their mother hadn’t taken good care of them.  But they were innocent.  I learned quickly that in the plea bargaining stage of things, it wasn’t my job to pass judgment on my clients.  My job was to represent them. 
Sadly, in many cases it meant, after investigating what evidence the prosecutor was likely to present in court, that I would have a difficult conversation with the clients.  I would tell them what witnesses the prosecutor was likely to present and what those witnesses were likely to say.  I would tell them what eye witness evidence they had collected, what fingerprints they had found.  I would point out the relative strength or weakness of what we had to offer in rebuttal.  I would assure them that I was willing to go to the mat for them and give it my best shot in trial.  But if I didn’t think they had a convincing case, I would be candid to tell them.  I then would point out that the prosecutor had made an offer:  if the client would agree to plead guilty, the prosecutor would recommend to the judge that he be given a lighter sentence.  The client might argue with the facts a bit, but most of the time, the client was quicker than I was to recognize the reality of the situation.  I would see this remarkable change come over the client—the client would switch from pleading his or her innocence to pleading for mercy.  That same young man or young woman who, moments before, had me convinced that they were just once step away from sainthood before the world conspired against them now changed gears and pleaded that they really didn’t mean to do any harm and they promised to change their ways if only the Court would show leniency.  They were pleading for mercy. 
The judge had heard this before, as well.  The judge would hear usually hear them out, but then the judge cut through all the excuses that he had heard and pronounce judgment—which usually meant that the judge followed the terms of the plea bargain.  We might complain about judges, but they have a tough job.  They have spent years seeing and hearing from the tough side of humanity.
By the way, the judge in the Matthew Cordle case had a tough side to his sentencing.  The judge sentenced Cordle to 6 ½ years in prison for his actions.  Fancy videos and confessions couldn’t bring back the life of Vincent Canzani.
Jesus had a tough side to his preaching.  We like to remember Jesus as the Good Shepherd who lays down his life for His sheep—and that certainly is true.  We like to remember the Jesus who said “Love one another, as I have loved you” (John 13:34)—and the Bible clearly presents that side of Jesus.  But Jesus also had this unnerving way of seeing through the pretenses of the people who followed Him.  He had this way of penetrating directly to the human heart.  We see this a little bit of this tough side of Jesus in our Gospel Lesson this morning. 
Let’s set the scene.  Jesus is traveling from Galilee to Jerusalem, where Jesus knows he will face suffering and death.  He knows that among those traveling with him are certain people who are looking for a way to build a case against him.  One of those people asks him a trick question, “when is the Kingdom of God coming?”  (See Luke 17:20).  Jesus answers, surprisingly, that the Kingdom already is among them—it already is in their midst (Luke 17:21).  He tells them of the need to be ready, to be prepared.  He then tells them a few parables about the need for persistence and preparation.  That is when Jesus tells this story. 
Jesus tells of two men, standing in the Temple courts, praying.  Both stood off, by themselves.  The first man is a Pharisee.  Luke makes it clear that this Pharisee stood aloof, to show that he was not like the others who were present.  In his prayer, the Pharisee told God how good he was.  We have no reason to doubt the Pharisee’s words.  He pointed out to God (as if God needed to be told) that the Pharisee was not a thief, a rogue an adulterer.  He wasn’t like the tax collector!  He fasted twice a week—far beyond the requirements of the law.  He tithed all of his income.  He was a good man, and he knew it.
The tax collector also stood far off—not to show that he was better than the others; but because he knew that he wasn’t.  He couldn’t even raise his eyes to heaven—the standard posture for prayer at the time.  He simply stood off to the side, head bowed, beating his breast and kept saying, over and over, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!”  (Luke 18:13).  He made no pretense to claim his innocence.  He pleaded for mercy.  And just in case the meaning of the story isn’t painfully obvious already, Jesus then emphasizes that the tax collector went home “justified.”  “All who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.”  (Luke 18:14).
Do you think Jesus was too tough on the Pharisee?  We have been conditioned to hear the word “Pharisee” and pronounce judgment against him without hearing all the evidence.  We are pretty quick to see that he was proud, he was haughty, and his attitude convicted him.  Yet, the trap is there for those of us who are the “religious” types.  It is so easy for us to be thankful that we do things rightly, and we should be saved.
Do you think that Jesus was too easy on the tax collector?  Did Jesus let him off the hook too easily for his crimes?  Keep in mind that this was a parable, told to illustrate one particular point.  I don’t think we can read into this story a message of “cheap grace,” in which we can say the right words, cry the appropriate tears, and get out of jail free.  I don’t think that Jesus was overlooking the need for true repentance.  In fact, we will look next week at the story of Zacchaeus and the repentance that Zacchaeus offered. 
Jesus told this story to teach about humility, to be sure.  But there is something more that I hope we don’t miss.  Both the Pharisee and the tax collector needed forgiveness.  I believe that Jesus had compassion for both of them.  But only the tax collector saw his own need for forgiveness and transformation.  Forgiveness is not the same thing as pretending something never happened.  Jesus still expects changed lives and behavior, and transformation still begins with recognizing our need to be transformed.  As long as we are focused on defending our behavior, or explaining why we don’t deserve to be punished, we miss the point.  Our salvation, our reconciliation with God, and our healing from our brokenness do not come not because we deserve it, but because God loves us. 
In our legalistic world, we forget that mercy stems not from pity or sympathy but from compassion.  We look to the love of God, revealed in Jesus Christ, as the source of our healing and forgiveness.  Love that gave, and gave, and gave, even to the point of death.  Love that ultimately prevailed over death.  Love that still beckons to us today.
Yet even such wondrous love has to be accepted.  It is not to be purchased or bargained for.  We only receive such healing when we let go of our excuses, of our pride, of our defenses and come to God empty handed.  In words from an old hymn, “Nothing in my hand I bring, simply to the cross I cling…”[3]
Did Matthew Cordle receive justice or mercy?  We don’t know the human heart, and it is not our place to judge.  The same God who loved Vincent Canzani also loves Matthew Cordle and this same God also loves you and me.  He extends his compassion, his mercy, to us when we come empty-handed to the cross.  What are you carrying this morning?  Are you willing to put it down so you can receive Christ’s mercy?
Copyright © 2013 by Thomas E. Frost.  All rights reserved.

[1] Preached at Cunningham United Methodist Church in Palmyra, Virginia.
[2]Driver who confessed to DUI killing in YouTube video gets 6 years, 6 months in jail” viewed on the internet on October 27, 2013 at
[3] Augustus M. Toplady, “Rock of Ages,” in The United Methodist Hymnal (Nashville: The United Methodist Publishing House, 1989), 361.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Faithful Living, Grateful Living

Faithful Living, Grateful Living
Luke 17:11-19
October 13, 2013[1]

This morning, we continue to journey with the Gospel of Luke as Luke describes Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem.  You may remember that last week, we spoke about stepping forward in faith and identified it as the key to being able to forgive those who have hurt us.  Today, we look at how stepping forward in faith leads to wellness, to wholeness, and how that wholeness is reflected in our gratitude.
We often give a simplistic interpretation of this story.  Ten lepers were healed; one returned to say “thank you.”  Is the moral of the story simply that we should mind your manners and say “please” and “thank you?”  Those words certainly are good things to say; but if that is all we draw from this story, we might as well learn it from our mothers, our kindergarten teachers or from “Miss Manners.”  We don’t need to take up Jesus’ time for that lesson.
There is a much deeper lesson here.  The leper who returned to say “thank you” demonstrated a thanksgiving that went far beyond good manners.
We can draw the inference from the story that all ten of the lepers knew and obeyed the Jewish law--even the one who was a foreigner, a Samaritan.  How can we draw this inference?  All knew, during the time of their infliction, that they were banished from society in accordance with the Levitical law: 
The person who has the leprous disease shall wear torn clothes and let the hair of his head be disheveled; and he shall cover his upper lip and cry out, “Unclean, unclean.”  He shall remain unclean as long as he has the disease; he is unclean.  He shall live alone; his dwelling shall be outside the camp.  (Leviticus 13:45-46).
Further, all ten understood very well the instruction that Jesus gave to them—to go show themselves to the priests.  The Levitical law was just as strict, if not more so, about the procedures to be followed when the lepers were cured from their disease.  The law established an elaborate process for washing both the body and the clothing of the healed person, as well as a requirement for a sin offering and guilt offering for the one to be cleansed.  You can read these very detailed instructions in Leviticus 14:1-32.
There were ten who were healed and told to report to the priest.  It is possible that the nine were from Judea and had to travel to Jerusalem to see the priest.  The Samaritan would have to go to Mt. Gerizim in Samaria.[2]  This one, who knew all his life what it meant to be separated, was the one who would return to Jesus and would lie down prostrate before him, to praise God and to give thanks.  He was the one who could recognize the source of his healing.  He was the one who could recognize that healing meant more than a mere physical cure; it meant that he was restored to new life.  He would not only comply with the letter of the law; he would give thanks and praise to the God who touched him and made him whole. 
It might not jump out at you, but there is an interesting ambiguity built into the scripture.  In verse19, where Jesus says “your faith has made you well,” the Greek word that Jesus uses can be translated three different ways:  to be healed; to be made whole; to be saved.  Is it possible that Jesus was telling this Man that his faith transformed his life?  Could it be that the act of listening to the instruction of Jesus, turning to go to the priest, discovering that he has been a changed man on the outside led to him being changed on the inside?
As we discussed last week, the step of faith—the step out into the unknown, the step of relying totally on God—is one of the hardest steps to take.  It is a step of trust, even when the evidence seems totally against us.  It is a step that changes the way we see the world.  It is a step that can lead us to be forgiven people.  It is a step that can help us become forgiving people.  And it is a step that can transform us into grateful people.
What does it mean to become a grateful person?  Does it mean that we deny reality as we look at life through rose-colored glasses?  No.
Does it mean that we adopt an optimistic overview of the world expressed by Alexander Pope that “whatever is, is right”?[3]  No.
Does it mean that we deny our pain and pretend that it doesn’t exist, hoping that if we ignore it, it will go away?  No.
Does it mean that we engage in the “Power of Positive Thinking,”[4] and see the world differently?  No.
Does it mean that if we learn to step forward in faith that bad things won’t happen to us?  No!  Even the Apostle Paul prayed three times for healing, for a “thorn in the flesh” to be removed, but it was not (2 Corinthians 12:7). 
So does it mean that we give thanks for the good things that happen and simply put up with the bad things that happen?  That’s not quite it, either. 
Living a life of gratitude means that we live trusting that we are in God’s hands.  The Apostle Paul was not healed from the “thorn” in his flesh, but he received instead an assurance from God “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness" (2 Corinthians 12:9, NIV).  In the words of an old hymn, we remember that “though the wrong seems oft so strong, God is the ruler yet.  This is my Father’s world …”[5]
Last Sunday evening, Laurie Baker asked me to give a “short version” of last week’s sermon to the youth who were not present to hear it.  I recapped as best I could what I have learned about faith—that it isn’t something we possess or something that we can measure or quantify; it is something that we do.  When we trust, we get better at trusting.  One of the youth asked me if faith was like a muscle—the more you use it, the bigger it gets.  I have thought about her question quite a bit this week.  I think that she is close to getting it, but I think another analogy might be better.  I don’t think that it is a matter of size.  I think of it more as a matter of practice.  Think about someone learning to play an instrument.  When someone learns to play the piano, they don’t begin by playing Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1; they begin with something that sounds more like “Three Blind Mice.”  They practice and practice and practice.  They make mistakes.  They practice some more.  They take lessons.  They study with a teacher who has lived through the same mistakes that they are making.  Over time, the talent that God has given them develops.  It doesn’t become larger in a way that you can measure; but the budding pianists become more capable of demonstrating the talent that they have.  If they didn’t practice, they would remain stuck forever playing “Three Blind Mice.”
So it is in faith.  If it is true that faith is a verb, if faith is something we do—then it must be that through practice, our ability to trust increases.  If faith is a way of seeing what cannot be seen, then how, in the words of the Apostles last week, how do we increase our faith?  We increase our faith by exercising the faith that we have—not to make it bigger, but to make it stronger.  Yet even here, we find out quickly that we cannot do it by ourselves.  So we join those disciples in pleading “increase our faith.”  One of the key ways that we practice our faith is through gratitude—recognizing that it is God’s grace that has brought us safe thus far, and grace will lead us home.[6]  We remember, and then we trust some more.
In a few moments, we will celebrate Holy Communion, the sacrament of the church which sometimes is called the “Eucharist.”  The word “Eucharist” comes from the Greek, and means “Great Thanksgiving.”  That is the name by which we identify the sacrament in our bulletins; but I like to think of it as “Sacred Remembering.”  Did you ever notice how much of the prayer in our Holy Communion liturgy is a prayer of thanksgiving? 
Lift up your hearts.  Let us give thanks to the Lord our God.  It is right, and a good and joyful thing, always and everywhere to give thanks to you, Almighty God, creator of heaven and earth.[7]
We remember, and we give thanks for God’s acts of creation, re-creation and salvation. 
This week, as you come to the Table, I invite you to engage in some sacred remembering of your own.  Remember:  what has God done in your life?  Remember how God has accompanied you through the tough places in life.  Remember who you are as a child of God.  Remember, and be thankful.
May it be so!
Copyright © 2013 by Thomas E. Frost.  All rights reserved.

[1] Preached at Cunningham United Methodist Church in Palmyra, Virginia.
[2] Amy-Jill Levine, “Notes, The Gospel According to Luke” in Amy-Jill Levine and Marc Zvi Brettler, eds., The Jewish Annotated New Testament:  New Revised Standard Version Bible Translation (New York:  Oxford University Press, 2011), 136.
[3] Alexander Pope, “An Essay on Man,” viewed on the internet on October 13, 2013 at
[4] Norman Vincent Peale, The Power of Positive Thinking (New York:  Fireside, 1980).
[5] Maltbie D. Babcock, “This Is My Father’s World,” in The United Methodist Hymnal (Nashville, TN:  The United Methodist Publishing House, 1989), 144.
[6] John Newton, “Amazing Grace,” in The United Methodist Hymnal, (Nashville, TN:  The United Methodist Publishing House, 1989), 378.
[7] “A Service of Word and Table II” The United Methodist Hymnal (Nashville, TN:  The United Methodist Publishing House, 1989), 13.

Monday, October 7, 2013

Faithful Living, Faithful Forgiving
Luke 17:1-10
October 6, 2013[1]

"If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him. If he sins against you seven times in a day, and seven times comes back to you and says, 'I repent,' forgive him."  The apostles said to the Lord, "Increase our faith!"  He replied, "If you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mulberry tree, 'Be uprooted and planted in the sea,' and it will obey you. (Luke 17:3-5, NIV)

We sometimes hear about “mustard seed faith” and equate it with an ability to obtain miraculous results.  If you only believe, if you only have faith the size of a tiny mustard seed, you can ask for the impossible and it will be granted.  You can move mountains.  You can have this mulberry bush relocated into the sea.  If you are like me, this idea seems to leave me feeling inadequate.  I don’t know about you, but I haven’t moved any mountains lately.  Does that mean that my faith is too small?  Have I failed to pass the “mustard seed test”?
I have discovered this week that Luke’s use of this story from the teachings of Jesus is much more textured, much richer than that.  And in a specific way, Luke’s use of this story is even more challenging for us than moving mulberry trees.
First, let’s start with the idea of “size.”  I learned this week that there are variations among the existing manuscripts of Luke in the way they translate this paragraph concerning mustard-seed faith.[2]  The translation that we read this morning does indeed say “If you have faith as small as a mustard seed…”  (Luke 17:6, NIV).  But the footnotes to the text show that there is some variation among the manuscripts—with some using the word that simply means “like or as,”—“faith as a grain of mustard seed.”  There seems to be no dispute as to the request that the disciples brought to Jesus.  The translations agree that the disciples asked Jesus to “increase their faith” (v. 5).  Could it be that the disciples asked their question wrongly?  Were they asking a question about the amount or size of their faith, about the quantity of their faith when they should have been asking about the quality of their faith?  Is there something about our faith that suggests that you can’t use a ruler or a scale to measure the quantity of faith that you have?
Looking at the question in this light makes sense to me.  You have heard me speak before about faith as a verb—it’s not only about something that you have, but it is about something that you do.  If you have faith, you trust.  You place your trust in the person or thing in which you have faith.  When you take a step in faith, you step forward not “knowing” in an intellectual sense where your feet will land; but you trust that they will land on solid ground.  Do you remember the scene from Indiana Jones in which Indiana steps into what appears to us to be mid-air?  He can’t see anything beneath him; but his foot lands on something solid.[3]  This is the quality of faith, it is a matter of trusting in what we cannot see.  Faith is “being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see” (Hebrews 11:1, NIV), or, as I learned it in King James English, “faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1, KJV).  If you can see it, it isn’t faith.
Let’s go back and look at the context for this discussion in Luke (it’s different than the context we find in the other Gospels).  Do you remember what Jesus was telling the disciples at the time they asked Jesus to “increase our faith?”  He was talking about forgiveness.  He was telling them that they had to forgive, and to forgive, and to forgive again (Luke 17:4).  Forgiveness is a part of faithful living—a central part—and those who cause someone to stumble because of their own failure to live faithfully—well, it isn’t very pretty (see v. 2).  This is what prompted the disciples to recognize their own shortcomings.  This is where the disciples had to acknowledge their own failure to forgive.  And I have to agree with them.  Forgiveness is one of the tough issues that we have to contend with.  And yet it is so central.  Jesus taught us to pray “forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us” (Luke 11:4; Matthew 6:12).  Jesus went on to say that “if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses” (Matthew 6:15).
This is why I said at the outset that Luke’s use of this story is so challenging for us.  Jesus links our own forgiveness to our own ability to forgive; He recognizes that it is not possible for us to receive forgiveness for the wrongs that we have done when we are holding on to the grudges we have picked up along the way.  But Jesus also recognizes that in order to forgive, we are stepping out into unknown territory, where we cannot see where we are walking.  We cannot take this step in our own strength.  We can only walk forward in faith and trust.
It is at this point that we start to explain why our situation is different.  We have a long list of reasons why we can’t forgive someone because what they did was so bad or hurt us or someone we love so much and besides, they haven’t even apologized, and we don’t feel that we can ever trust them again.  Sometimes these reasons are absolutely true.  Sometimes, people cannot be trusted.  Some people are evil.  I don’t believe that Jesus intended for us to assume guilt for the wrongs that have been done to us.  The victim should not be made to feel guilty for the crime.  Yet, so long as we fail to forgive, we allow those people to hold a chain that binds our own souls.
Seen in this way, forgiveness means that we are no longer going to let someone else have the power to dictate our own lives.  We are no longer going to let someone else have the power to prevent us from experiencing the abundant life, the life of joy that God offers to us.
How do we do this?  I don’t want to oversimplify such a difficult matter.  The obstacles may be different for different people and different situations.  Let me offer a couple starting points, each of which could be developed into a sermon in its own right:
First, develop an awareness of the wrongs that you hold on to.  Where have you been hurt?  We learn to live with pain, and we develop calluses to protect us from the pain, but the pain still is present.  Sometimes we can’t see the many ways that past wrongs continue to control us.  Part of the process of forgiveness is to become aware of the pain that we are experiencing so that we can let it go.  We need to see who we need to forgive and what we need to forgive them for. 
Second, ask God to help you see the other person as God sees that person—as a child who is beloved and cherished by God just as much as we are, and will be judged by God just as we will be judged by God.
If you say that it is not possible, then I think that you are recognizing what the disciples recognized.  On their own, they could not forgive.  They could not see how they ever could measure up.  That is exactly why they asked Jesus to “increase their faith.” 
The September issue of Guidepost Magazine has a story that illustrates my point.[4]  Marcus Weaver had grown up in some tough circumstances, and he had bounced around quite a bit in his life; but things seemed to be getting better when he took a friend named Rebecca to see a movie one evening at a theater in Aurora Colorado.  In the middle of the movie, a silhouette seemed to emerge from the movie screen, holding several weapons, but this silhouette was not part of the movie.  He began firing his weapons.  Marcus was injured; Rebecca was killed.  In the days and weeks that followed this terrible incident, Marcus struggled with this question of forgiveness.  He mouthed the words of forgiveness, but he felt numb inside.  And the reporters continued to ask “Do you forgive him, Marcus?  How can you forgive something like that?”  Marcus struggled and struggled with this question.  The memory of that man silhouetted against the screen kept reappearing.  Yet, all the while a quote from 2 Corinthians that kept coming back to him:  “For God, who said, "Let light shine out of darkness," made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ” (2 Corinthians 4:6, NIV).  Marcus began to recognize the voice of God speaking to him, asking him “Who do you need to forgive, Marcus?”  The answer may have seemed obvious; but at a terrifying moment, Marcus was able to see that there was more than one face appearing to him in that silhouette.  He also was able to see the face of an abusive stepfather, whose unspeakable acts of cruelty had left scars on Marcus’s soul for years.  Marcus had to forgive a killer; but in order to find peace, he also had to forgive a stepfather who now was only a shadow from his past.  The stepfather could no longer hurt Marcus, but Marcus had to let him go.  Marcus writes, “The silhouette was gone.  In its place I saw plain old Herbert Weaver, a man who lashed out at others because he couldn’t face his own torment.  His fate was in God’s hands too.  I could let him go.  I could let God’s light fill the shadow in my soul.”[5]
On this World Communion Sunday, I would suppose that most of us, perhaps all of us, have some memory that haunts us, some pain that continues to hurt us.  As we come to the Table of Our Lord, Our Lord invites us to come forward in faith, opening the windows of our soul to let God’s light fill the shadows.  Faithful living means faithful forgiving.  It is difficult.  Lurking within the shadows are silhouettes that we would prefer not to face.  It may take time.  We ask, as the disciples asked, “increase our faith.”  But Jesus says that it isn’t a matter of how much faith you have.  It’s a matter of trust—of trusting in the God who said “Let light shine out of darkness.”  That same God is calling to us, pleading to us to let His light fill our souls.  Are you able to open your hearts and let God light shine upon you today?
May it be so!

[1] Preached at Cunningham United Methodist Church in Palmyra, Virginia on World Communion Sunday.
[2] M. Eugene Boring and Fred B. Craddock, The People’s New Testament Commentary (Louisville:  Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 246.
[3] Steven Spielberg, director, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (Paramount Pictures, 1989).
[4] Marcus Weaver, “A Different Man,” in Guideposts (Vol. 68, Issue 7, September 2013).
[5] Marcus Weaver, “A Different Man,” in Guideposts (Vol. 68, Issue 7, September 2013), 55.