Sunday, September 21, 2014

Fairness or Grace? (September 21, 2014)

Fairness or Grace?
Matthew 20:1-16; Jonah 3:10-4:11
September 21, 2014[1]

When I was beginning my sixth year as a lawyer, I took a position with The May Department Stores Company in St. Louis.  May Company had a mid-sized and well respected Legal Department.  I was one of about 17 lawyers.  I remember so well when the head of the Department gave me the speech about money—a speech that he gave to every lawyer in the department.  He told me in no uncertain terms that when it came to setting salaries, giving raises and awarding bonuses, he tried as best he could to be fair, as he understood what was fair in each lawyer’s situation.  He knew the egos of the lawyers working for him, and he just didn’t want to deal with the complaints of 17 lawyers crying, “it’s not fair!”  His solution was to prohibit talking about salaries or bonuses with anyone else in the department.  If his rule was violated, the offending lawyer would be fired.  His rule seemed a bit harsh, and I was curious if he was speaking metaphorically, or did he mean that literally.  So one day, I asked him.  He assured me of his literal intent, but he said with just a bit of a twinkle in his eye that no one had dared to test him yet.
Later on, when I became the head of a legal department, and when I had to listen to the complaints of employees who worked hard for the company, I understood why my boss had drawn his boundaries where he did.  I tried to follow suit.  To be honest, I don’t know that I really stopped anybody from comparing their paychecks; it may have simply driven the conversation underground.  We have this drive to compare ourselves with others, and what we get with what other people get.  I might add that preachers are not immune from this temptation, any more than the lawyers are!
Our Gospel Lesson this morning is disturbing to our sense of fairness.  We calculate fair pay on a comparative basis, and (not surprisingly) we usually feel that we are deserving of more!
So we hear the story about the day laborers, and we understand why the first set of laborers are upset.  It’s not fair, we cry!  Surely, when we bring this injustice to the lord of the manor, he will respond with greater reward to those who worked all day in the hot sun.  But instead, we find this cryptic “moral” to the story, “the last will be first, and the first will be last” (Matthew 20:16).  We have been exposed as having been caught in the “fairness trap,” in which we measure who we are by what we get compared to everyone else.
It is critical to the story to note that their complaint is not that the landowner failed to live up to his agreement.  He did exactly what he said he would do.  Nor is the complaint that the wages were unfair, below market.  Indeed, he paid them “what is right” (v. 4), the “usual daily wage,” the going rate for day laborers (v. 10).
The landowner knows that there is a much deeper issue at work here.  He confronts the complaining laborers with the source of their discomfort.  He asks them, “are you envious because I am generous?” (Matthew 20:15). 
One of the commentators I read this week pointed out that the Greek text actually put that question more bluntly.  A more literal way of translating Jesus’ question is this:  “is your eye evil?”[2]  If we shudder at the word “envy,” we really squirm at labeling this very human emotion as evil.
In our day and age, our culture seems to have lost recognition of envy as a sinful passion, but not so the early church.  Christians quickly came to recognize envy as one of the seven deadly sins, right up there with wrath, greed, sloth, pride, lust, and gluttony.  We tend to look at that list and say that those sins aren’t hurting anybody; they are internal attitudes that everybody has.  As long as we don’t act on them, why are they so bad?
When we look at them that way, we miss the obvious point.  Those passions are wrong because they do hurt someone.  They hurt us, because they separate us from God.  When we turn our gaze and compare ourselves with someone else, we turn our focus away from God and the gifts that God gives us.  We lose gratitude for what we do have because we become focused on what we don’t have.  As our hearts fill up with envy, they have less space for God.
This is another application of the point we made last week, when I quoted a spiritual principle from a man I call Fr. Joe:  “God can only occupy the space that we offer to Him.”  If our hearts are filled with other passions (last week, we were talking about anger, bitterness and resentment), we have no space for God.  In the same way, if our hearts are filled with envy, we miss the gracious gifts of God because we think we are entitled to something more.  We miss our own sinfulness.
This entitlement trap comes up in another context in the Old Testament Lesson.  Jonah complains at the unfairness when the worm eats the plant that gave him shade.  “It’s not fair,” Jonah cries, even though he had nothing to do with the plant growing near him in the first place.  That plant was the product of God’s grace.  Jonah was given the grace of shade from the plant for a day; that did not mean that Jonah was entitled to receive it on a continuing basis.  Rather than giving thanks for the day that he received shade, Jonah focused on his loss when it was gone.  Why did this happen to him?  He was a good person.  Hadn’t he gone to the people of Nineveh to preach faithfully the Word that God had given to him (never mind the detour he took through the belly of a whale!)
Be very sure.  The sense of entitlement and attachment can drag us down and separate us from God.
That is one of the reasons that the spiritual giants teach the importance of detachment—of letting go to our attachments to things around us.  Those attachments cause us to become so focused on ourselves and on what we have that we lose sight of the most important thing—our relationship with our Creator who gives us every good and perfect gift.  Often, the sin is not in the objects themselves that we seek and collect along the way; the sin is in the attachment, the binding force that makes the collection of things so important.  Jesus knew how important it was to hold on to the things and even the people in our lives “loosely.”[3]  Not that we don’t care about them; but we don’t cling to them, and we don’t make them the center, the focus of our lives.  We adopt what Ignatius of Loyola called an attitude of “indifference” in which we no longer focus on whether we are healthy or sick, rich or poor, whether we live a long or a short life.   Instead, we desire and choose “only what is most conducive for us to the end for which we are created”—namely, “what better leads to God’s deepening life in me.”[4]
And yet, we find those attachments in our hearts, everywhere we turn.  Even when we want to let go of them, we find them creeping up in our hearts and lives.  How can we be freed from the bondage of these feelings?
Does anyone remember the similar cry we heard from the Apostle Paul earlier in the summer?  “Wretched man that I am!  Who will rescue me from this body of death?”  (Romans 7:24).  He answers his question with thanksgiving:  “thanks be to God through our Lord Jesus Christ” (Romans 7:25).  It is because of Jesus Christ that Paul can urge us against being “conformed to this world” but, instead, being “transformed by the renewing of your mind” (Romans 12:2).  He calls on us to make our bodies into “living sacrifices,” giving up those attachments in favor of the fruits of the Spirit that lead to the kingdom of God.
That is a very practical reason for the Christian practice of self-examination and confession.  We don’t focus on our sinfulness so we can feel guilty; we identify our sinfulness so that, in awareness, we can offer our sinfulness to God for God’s transforming, redeeming, life changing power.  As we become freed from these attachments, as we exchange our self-centered egos for God’s will, we can open our eyes to see the gifts that God offers us daily. 
Is there anything wrong with working hard to earn a living, to make our lives better?  Of course not.  The problems come up when making money, when creating creature comforts become the central focus of our lives, rather than a means of serving God.  The problems are compounded when money, things, and even relationships becomes a means for comparing ourselves to others, depriving us of any ability to give thanks to God for the graces that He gives to us.
Fairness or grace?  In reality, that is the wrong question.  Everything comes to us through grace.
It is only when we allow the transforming power of God to change us that we are able to seek first the Kingdom of God.  When we do, the promise is that “these other things will be added to us, as well.”
May it be so!
Copyright © 2014 by Thomas E. Frost.  All rights reserved.

[1] Preached at Cunningham United Methodist Church in Palmyra, Virginia.
[2] Patrick J. Willson, “Matthew 20:1-16:  Homiletical Perspective” in Cynthia A. Jarvis and E. Elizabeth Johnson, gen. eds., Feasting on the Gospels:  Matthew, Volume 2, Chapters 14-28 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2013), 127.
[3] I first heard this characterization from the Rev. Dr. Thomas K. Tewell, formerly the pastor of Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church in New York.
[4] Ignatius of Loyola, trans. by David L. Fleming, Draw Me into Your Friendship:  The Spiritual Exercises—a Literal Translation & a Contemporary Reading (St. Louis:  The Institute of Jesuit Sources, 1996), 26-27.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Forgiving from the Heart (September 14, 2014)

Forgiving from the Heart
Matthew 18:21-25
September 14, 2014[1]

Forgiveness again!  Didn’t we just hear a sermon on this topic?  Didn’t we just complete a Lenten Study on forgiveness?  If you are wondering how often we have to hear about forgiveness, you are in good company.  Peter himself asked Jesus, “If another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive?  As many as seven times?”  Jesus answered, “Not seven times, but … seventy-seven times.”  (Some translations say “seventy times seven”—the Greek in our oldest manuscripts differ on this point).  You can read about this in Matthew 18:21-35. 
And yet, here we are.  Once again, Jesus is reminding his disciples, he is reminding us all, he is reminding me, just how important forgiveness is to our spiritual journey.  It is so important that Jesus tells us that if we want to receive forgiveness ourselves, we must forgive others from the heart!
So I asked God this week, if this is so important, help me see this truth in a different way.  How can I offer it from a new perspective?  My answer came in a conversation I had this week with one of my spiritual directors.  His name is Fr. Joe.  And although he wasn’t speaking specifically about forgiveness, his words put forgiveness in a new light for me.
Fr. Joe told me, “God can only occupy the space that we give Him.”  If we give Him a tiny bit of space, He will occupy just that amount of space.  If we give Him a wide-open space, He can occupy a wide-open space.  I have been thinking about that idea constantly since then.  I recognized in it the idea that I have been using to speak about the second worship service that we will be starting in October, with the theme “Making Space for God.”  We aren’t simply talking about space in a crowded sanctuary at 9:30 am—we are talking about space in human hearts—hoping to reach out to people in Fluvanna whose hearts are filled up with so many other things.  We are inviting people to make space in our hearts for God.
How do I connect that concept of space with forgiveness?  Let me ask you—how much space in your heart is filled up with hurt, anger, resentment, disappointment, or bitterness?  To use a different metaphor, how often do you continue to push the rewind button in your spirit and replay the scene of someone hurting you?  Forgiveness means clearing the debris from our lives so we can make space for God.
But it is hard to forgive.  It is so much easier to keep replaying over and over again the bad things that have been done to us.  And in the process, we re-live the pain over and over again, and we close our hearts to the living God.
In a humorous way, I was reminded of this the other night when our son David told about attending a baseball game in Richmond a couple weeks ago.  He was there with his wife, Nicole, our two grandchildren, and Carol.  A batter hit a pop foul that towered so high it got past the backstop and was heading right to Section 209, Row H, Seats 9 through 13.  David had his glove with him, and it was his moment to shine.  But he was so concerned about protecting his family from the ball that was heading in their direction that the ball bounced in and out of his glove.  He was mortified!  Weeks later, all he can see is that ball bouncing out of his glove.  He could not forgive himself—even as he was telling me the story!  He just kept replaying the scene over and over again!  (I pointed out to him that at least is was a minor league game, so there was no television camera beaming the picture out to a big screen in the outfield for everyone to see!)
It’s easy to laugh at David’s situation; but our laughter masks the hurt that most, if not all of us, carry over some situation.  We have been hurt.  The person who caused our pain may have been a stranger on the highway, a friend, a family member or ourselves.  And we keep replaying the same incident in our minds over and over again, but the result never changes. 
There is only one way to stop inflicting this pain on ourselves again and again.  That way is the way of forgiveness.  Yet I know how hard this is.
Peter asks Jesus, “When a member of the church hurts me, how many times to I have to forgive him or her?  Do I have to forgive this person as many as seven times?”  Jesus answers him, seventy-seven times or seventy times seven.  If you have to count, whether to seven or to seventy-seven or to 490, you have missed the point. 
The real point is not to count how many times you have forgiven; the point is to forgive until you no longer are holding anything against your brother or sister.  How long do we need to hear about forgiveness?  Jesus’ answer is “as long as it takes.” 
Jesus then tells a parable to illustrate his point even further about the unforgiving servant.  This servant owed an immense debt to the king of the land.  When the king threatened to throw the servant in jail for failure to pay, the servant pleaded for mercy and the king forgave the debt.  But when the king learned that the servant had then threatened someone else who owed him a small sum of money, the king “took back” his forgiveness and through the unforgiving servant into debtor’s prison.
I have often been curious about the point Jesus was making here.  Was Jesus implying that God might change his mind and take back the forgiveness He has given us if we fail to pass the test?  The answer that I have been receiving this week to that question is no.  God does not change His mind on forgiveness.  But the real question is whether we are able to receive forgiveness in the first place.  Are we clinging so tightly to the things of the past—the hurts we have sustained, the wrongs that we have suffered—that we have no room to let God have space in our hearts?  Are we clutching so tightly to the anger and resentment in our lives that we can no longer reach out to receive the bread of life from the One who prayed, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do?” 
Don’t get me wrong.  I know that forgiveness is easier said than done.  I know from my own experience—both on the forgiving side and the times that I need to be forgiven for my own mistakes, my own stupidity, my own failures.  It is hard to forgive. 
I don’t mean to gloss over the pain that we experience.  It is real.
I don’t mean to suggest that in forgiving, we need to put our lives, or our safety in jeopardy by returning to an unhealthy or even dangerous situation.  God does not call us to do that.
I am also aware of the pain that can be caused when someone refuses to forgive you or me for the things that we have done. 
And I don’t pretend that forgiveness is a magic want that we can wave and go immediately to a happy ended in which “they all lived happily ever after.”
But Jesus is clear:  In order to receive God’s forgiveness, we need to be able to forgive—not just in our heads, but in our hearts.  We need to forgive so we can make space for God.
How many times do we need to forgive?  As many as it takes.
But what do we do when we reach the limits of our ability to forgive?  We give that situation to God.  There are times that we need to pray, “Lord, I can’t forgive this person on my own.  I need for you to forgive through me.”  It is that prayer—the prayer that recognizes our own weakness—that gives up control to God, that gives God the room to work. 
In a few moments, we will be invited to come to the Table.  It is hard to open our hands to receive the presence of Christ if we are holding on to the past.  As you come to the Table, may you pray the prayer that Jesus taught us to pray, “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.”  May it be so!
Copyright © 2014 by Thomas E. Frost.  All rights reserved.

[1] Preached at Cunningham United Methodist Church in Palmyra, Virginia.

Monday, September 8, 2014

Waking Up (September 7, 2014)

Waking Up
Romans 13:8-14
September 7, 2014[1]

“The hour has already come for you to wake up from your slumber, because our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed.”  Romans 13:11b

Today’s lesson tells us to “wake up!”  Why?  Because “the hour has already come” and “our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed.”  But the “why” question is not the most important question.  This why question gets us caught up in conversations about “when” and “what if” and “what if we don’t.”  There may be a time and a place for those discussions; but there is a risk that those conversations will divert us from the most important question.  That question is the “what” question.  What does Paul mean when he tells us to wake up?
So many times, I have read these words (as well as similar words from Jesus himself) and interpreted them as a call to repentance and conversion—to “seek the Lord while He wills to be found, call upon Him when He draws near, [to] let the wicked forsake their ways and the evil ones their thoughts and let them turn to the Lord, and He will have compassion, and to our God, for He will richly pardon” (Isaiah 55:6-7).  As much as I believe in the urgency of that message of repentance and turning around, something occurred to me this week.  In today’s lesson, Paul is not writing these words to evangelize.  Paul is writing to people who already have made the decision to follow Jesus Christ.  From the very beginning of this letter, he makes it clear that he is writing to “all God’s beloved in Rome, who are called to be saints” (Romans 1:7).  As important as the message of conversion is, I don’t believe that conversion is the message here.
Perhaps a little bit closer is the message to “get your house in order.” 
He tells us to wake up from our slumber.  That means that we are asleep.  If we are sleeping, we aren’t doing something that we should be doing.
Paul tells us to wake up because he wants us to do something.  He begins verse 11 by saying, “and do this, understanding the present time.”  So he wants us to be doing “this” (whatever “this” is) now.  There is some immediacy.  It’s as though he is stamping the message “URGENT.”
But what is it that we should be doing?
Recall that earlier in the summer, we spoke about the dilemma that Paul found himself in.  Having encountered the Lord Jesus Christ, have turned his life to a new direction, he was distressed to find that he kept slipping back to his old tendencies.  “I do not do the good that I want to do, and I do the thing that I hate.”  After reaching the point of despair, he cried out “who will save me from this body of death.”  He then answered his own question!  “Thanks be to God,” for he discovered that “there is no condemnation to those who place their trust in Jesus Christ, our Lord.  He then spends Chapter 12 and 13 inviting us to let God through Jesus Christ transform our lives.  “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds.” 
That transformation sounds like an internal, spiritual transformation.  Indeed, it is.  But when we are transformed on the inside, the change makes a difference in the way we live.  Chapters 12 and 13 are filled with reminders about the changes God wants to make in our lives.  To truly follow Him, you need to open yourself up to the possibility that you might be changed.  Christ gives you freedom; but in the divine economy, freedom becomes a matter of giving up your self-will and ego-driven nature so that you want what God wants!
So Paul teaches us ways that God wants to change us.  In doing so, he steps on our toes (at least he steps on mine!).  Just look at some of the instructions he gives in Chapters 12 and 13:
·      Let love be genuine (Romans 12:9).
·      Hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good (Romans 12:9).
·      Love one another with mutual affection, outdo one another in showing honor (Romans 12:10).
·      Extend hospitality to strangers (Romans 12:13).
·      Bless those who persecute you (Romans 12:14).
·      Live in harmony with one another (Romans 12:16).
·      Do not claim to be wiser than you are (Romans 12:16).
·      Do not repay anyone evil for evil (Romans 12:17).
·      If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all (Romans 12:18).
·      If your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink. (Romans 12:20).
·      Let every person be subject to the governing authorities.  Paul calls the authority “God’s servant for your good.” (Romans 13:4).  He even tells us to pay our taxes (Romans 13:6-7).
When I read this list, when I see how far I have to go in order to measure up to these standards of Christian living, it’s easy for me to go back to the despair we found in Chapter 7:  “I do not understand my own actions.  For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate…  Wretched man that I am!  Who will rescue me from this body of death!” (Romans 7:15, 24).
It almost feels as though I could spend years and years trying to learn all that Christ wants of me, and then years more trying to live up to it.  But Christ doesn’t require special training in order to follow Him.  He reaches out to everybody who wants to receive Him.  But there is a catch.  You find that the way of Christ is a way of freedom; but freedom in Christ only comes when you give yourself fully to the law of love.  “Owe no one anything except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law” (Romans 13:8).
How do I give myself the freedom to follow Christ completely?  We seek openness of heart, willingness to extend ourselves to people.  Looking for the deeper walk, beyond appearances.  Getting below the surface in our relationships.  Emptying ourselves, giving of ourselves, even to the point of joining Christ on the cross.  His way is a way of Love, a way of sacrifice.  Love your neighbor as yourself.  The perfect self love is giving yourself away to the people who need you.  It gets down to the business of “how do I get around to surrendering myself to Christ?” 
The wake up call that Paul is giving us today is a call to love.  A call to love with urgency!  It is a hard call.  It is easy to love when the person you love is lovable; but Christ loves me when I am not lovable.  He loves me when nobody else does.  And he calls on me to do the same.  He raises this standard of loving to make it the litmus test of discipleship:  “by this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35).
And yet, He knows that this type of loving is not something we can do on our own.  That is why He invites us to have our lives transformed through the power of the Holy Spirit living and working in us. 
And this brings me to the final point of urgency.  In this call to wake up from our slumber, Paul is inviting us to enjoy, to savor every minute, every second we have to live in love with Christ and each other.  When I fell in love with Carol, so much in my life changed.  I wanted to spend all my time with her.  To talk with her.  To listen to her.  To hold her hand.  Sometimes talking, sometimes in silence.  But there was an urgency that would drive me to drive hundreds of miles to be with her.
Jesus Christ invites you today to wake up.  He is playing “Reveille.”  He calls you to love with urgency.  And He invites you to bask in, soak in, revel in the love that He extends to you.  Won’t you wake up today?
May it be so!
Copyright © 2014 by Thomas E. Frost.  All rights reserved.

[1] Preached at Cunningham United Methodist Church in Palmyra, Virginia.