Tag Archives: forgiveness

Jesus hosts The Clock Game: “Higher, Higher, Higher”

Part two of our #TryLENT journey with the Godspell, the musical. Read Part one: Prepare Ye the Way.

Remember the Clock Game? It is a The Price is Right classic, and it hasn’t changed much over the years. The premise is so simple: just name the exact price of the prize, and you win it. You have as many guesses as you can muster in the 30 seconds on the clock. The contestant says a price, and the host says simply “higher,” or “lower,” until the right price is found. Above is a video of a woman who won $1 million playing the game. It helps that she nailed the first price on the first guess. It also helped that the second price was a nice round number. Still, it was an impressive feat.

This is the second part of our Godspell journey, and there is a great part of the musical that tells the story of Matthew 18:21-35. It is the story of a servant who owes his master ten thousand talents. I think the amount, taking exchange rates and translations into account, is one bajillion dollars. Actually, it is an amount that equals 60 million days of labor, so it may as well be a bajillion. When the master wants to collect the debt, the servant begs for mercy and promises to pay the master back. Clearly this is absurd promise. It would take him over 150,000 years to pay the master back. The master though, takes compassion on the servant, and forgives the entire debt. It feels like a happy ending, but then the servant goes and sees a fellow servant who owes him money. The second servant, facing a debt of about two month’s pay, seeks the same mercy. It is refused. When the master gets wind of the refusal, he’s mad. “I forgave you all that debt because you appealed to me. Shouldn’t you also have mercy on your fellow servant, just as I had mercy on you?” (Matthew 18:32-33).

This is a great parable about forgiveness, and it is important to hear the echo of the Lord’s Prayer in the background, “forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.” On its own, it is a great fable about compassion and how we should behave as a people who have been granted mercy. Our of our gratitude for the mercy we have been shown, we should show others the same mercy. Given Jesus’ intro to the story however, where he plays a little bit of the Clock Game, it takes an even greater weight.

Yes, Jesus plays the Clock Game with the disciples as a part of a long teaching about the nature of the community Jesus is forming. Back at the beginning of the chapter Jesus is asked, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom?” (Matthew 18:1). His answer includes several parables and tweetable quotes, like:

      “I assure you that if you don’t turn your life around and become like this little child, you will definitely not enter the kingdom.” (18:3)

 

    “Those who humble themselves like this child will be the greatest in the kingdom. Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcome me.” (18:4)”If your hand causes you to sin, chop it off and throw it away.” (18:8)”If someone had one hundred sheep and one of them wandered off, wouldn’t he leave the ninety-nine to search for the one that wandered off?” (18:13)”If your brother or sister sins against you, go and correct them when you are alone together… But if they won’t listen, take with you one or two others.” (18:15-16)

The disciples are taught that humility matters. They are taught to avoid sin as much as they can, but Jesus acknowledges that sin is going to happen. So he tells them how to work to bring people back into community. He tells individuals to do all that they can (I’m assuming that the cutting off the hand thing is hyperbole) to avoid sin. He is also telling the community to work hard at keeping in community – even in the face of those that sin against you. So Peter, who seems to be getting it, starts to play The Clock Game.

The prize: Community. It is the ability to stay together as the Body. It is nothing less than entry into the Kingdom of Heaven, which is inseparable from connection to the Community. So Peter guesses at the price of community. His first guess is seven times. Jesus’ response? “Higher.”

“Then Peter said to Jesus, ‘Lord, how many times should I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Should I forgive them as many as seven times?’

“Jesus said, ‘Not just seven times, but seventy and seven times.” (Matthew 18:21-22)

So does Jesus mean 77 times?

Higher.

Does he mean 70 times 7 times?

Higher.

Does he mean a bajillion times?

Now we’re getting closer.

This feels like an impossible task, but the task of staying in community is never easy. Being in community is full of difficulty. It is full of pain, pitfalls, and disappointment. Being a community means that faulted, hurtful, selfish people are going to come together for long enough to see the faults, the hurt, and the selfishness.Yet it is only in community that we may know Christ.

The only way to God is through community. Are there moments of individual revelation? Of course. Are there moments when solitude is a holy experience? Yes. But any full pathway to God includes others. It includes doing the hard work of justice, mercy, kindness, grace, and love. And if we are going to be in community, we need to forgive. Day by day, every day. We are need of forgiveness, and called to extend forgiveness to others. It is not an easy task. It takes a lasting, growing, long-term relationship with Christ and others to be able to remain in community.

Day by day, the Godspell song says. Day by day I pray for three things, to “see thee more clearly, love thee more dearly, and follow thee more nearly.” Those things don’t come easily. They don’t come magically after saying a prayer, or after having water poured on your head at baptism. Seeing God more clearly is a process of practicing intentional grace. The only way to see God more clearly is to see God in the face of others. See God in the face of strangers, in the face of homeless man on the street, in the face of immigrants struggling to make a life, in the face of the women on your screen with nothing else on, in the face of those that want to do us harm. It is no easy task to see God clearly. I’d much prefer a caricature of God, one that looks like me, acts like me, worships like me, works hard like me, and thinks like me. So Day by day I pray. I pray for the compassion it takes to forgive. I pray that God will have the same kind of compassion on me. And I play The Clock Game.

How many times will I be forgiven? How many times am I called to forgive my brother and sister? How many times will I be invited into community? How many times can I see the face of God in another? How many days will I have to live in the Kingdom, if I but answer the call? How many times will Christ call me back?

Seven. Higher

Seventy Seven. Higher…

Seventy times Seven. Higher…

Higher…

Higher…

 

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A table for one.

Table for OneI’m an introverted person.  One of the distinctive marks of an introvert is that they don’t mind going to a restaurant and asking for a table for one.  Don’t get me wrong, I love eating and being with people.  I love a good dinner party, or going out to eat with friends.  I also enjoy a meal by myself.  I enjoy the calmness of a table for one.  There are no social expectations, no awkward silences.  There might be a book, or a crossword puzzle, or a legal pad and a pen.

I enjoy a table for one.  It can be a space for reflection, meditation, or even prayer.  Sometimes though, it is not…

God “prepares a table before me in the presence of my enemies,” reads Psalm 23.  What if it is a table for one?

What if the enemy is within?

I’ve sat with myself on dark and lonely nights.

What if the enemy is my own apathy?

I’ve walked by pain, turned a blind eye to the suffering of my neighbor.

What if the enemy is my own comfort?

I’ve chosen to settle for the inertia of inaction over disrupting the status quo.

What if the enemy is my own pride?

I’ve avoided the one that hurt me. I’ve held onto bitterness, even when the taste in my mouth was too much to bear.

What if the enemy is my own fear?

I’ve walked away from persecution, and participated in unjust systems for fear of the wrath would be turned onto me.

So Jesus, what then?

You tell me to love my enemies.  Am I to love my enemy when the enemy is looking back at me in the mirror?

I know the answer.  I’ve sat at that table before.  Still, God meets me there.

I sit at the table in the presence of my enemy, and can only confess to my God and myself the times I have fallen short.  I sit with myself and have no choice but to forgive, so I may be forgiven.  I sit at my table for one and am confronted with the  profound absurdity of the gospel.  There is good news in sitting at the table for one.  

There is confession.  There is forgiveness.  There is grace.  There is bread for me to eat, and a cup overflowing.  There is oil being poured out on my head with such exuberance and abundance it seems shocking.  There at the table for one I learn that goodness and mercy are following me.  No, they are doing more than following me.  They are pursuing me.  Actively, purposefully, God is pursuing me.

Goodness and mercy are pursuing me, even when I flee.  Goodness and mercy are pursuing me, even when my apathy and my comfort and my pride and my fear seem to get the best of me.  God is pursuing me, and sometimes it is only at a table for one that I pause long enough to sense it.

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Let no prison hold you

let none hold you

Few of us ever plan on going to prison.  No one wants to spend time in a jail cell.  Yet many of us spend time in one every day.

We spend time in jails built around us.  Sometimes they are barely noticeable.  Like the fish that doesn’t know it is in a fish bowl, or the bird that doesn’t know the world outside the cage, we spend our time in prison.  These are the prisons of injustice.  They are the prisons of systems that keep us from fulfilling our dreams.  They are the walls that are built by those that want to keep others oppressed.  Hope and possibility are kept out, and all that remains is a cycle of despair.

Sometimes we are in prisons that we built ourselves.  We guard our pain and our torment and make sure nothing is able to penetrate the walls we build.  We have been hurt too many times, so we build walls.  We remain in the cell because the outside world is full of pain, and at least inside the cell we have the illusion of safety.  Intimacy and friendship are kept out, and all that remains is superficiality.

Sometimes we are in prisons that have been built for us.  These walls are built by sickness, or by those that hurt us.  Sometimes great wrongs are inflicted upon us.  Sometimes the tragedy is too much to take.  Some say, “God doesn’t give us what we can’t handle.”  I don’t believe it, because I don’t believe it is always God that is giving it.  Sometimes the pain is just too much, and the walls of the prison are too strong to break free.  Healing and joy are kept out, and all that remains is pain.

In Matthew 11:2-11, we find John the Baptist in prison.  He was imprisoned by a King that did not want to hear the truth.  John spoke the truth to power.  He called for repentance.  He called for a change of heart.  He called upon people to follow the path of righteousness, and he prepared the way for the one that would come.  But he was not imprisoned until he demanded too much of the King.  When he impeded the powerful from having his way, he had to be stopped.  He was kept alive, for awhile, by the will of the people.

John was called the “greatest of all those born of a woman,” by Jesus.  And yet as he was in jail, he wondered.  It can be dangerous to inject too much of our own thoughts into figures in the Bible, but here it is almost impossible not to wonder what John was thinking when he sent a messenger to Jesus.

“Are you the one? Or are we to wait for another?” he asked.

John was in prison, so all he could do was wait.  And yet he wanted to know, “Are you the one?”  Sitting in jail, still alive at the whim of a tyrannical King, looking back at his work, his ministry, and looking forward to a future that was unlikely to have a happy ending, he asked, “Are we to wait for another?”

And likewise I wait.  I wait in my prison.  I wait in the prison of sin that I have built around me.  I wait in the prison of injustice that is all around.  I look to Newtown and Columbine.  I look to the Liberian Civil War and Apartheid South Africa.  I look to violence on the streets of our cities, and violence in the homes our children.  I look to hungry children at the school in my neighborhood, and to the cold families looking for coats at our Wardrobe ministry.  I look into my own heart at the choices I make, the hurts that I cause, and the prisons I build.  I wait and look back at my work, my ministry, and look forward to the future and wonder.  “Are we to wait for another?”

Is the question a sin unto itself?  Maybe.  But at least I know that I’m in good company.  I’ve never felt that doubt is the opposite of faith.  .

So, trapped in our prisons, what do we do?  What is Jesus’ answer?  Of course, Jesus doesn’t give us a straight answer (That is why I think doubt is not an obstacle to faith, but lines the pathway of faith.  If Jesus wanted us to never doubt or question, he would have given us more straight answers.).

Tell John what you have seen,” Jesus says.  Tell John to look beyond his prison walls.  Tell him to look beyond the pain and the heartache and the bleak outlook.  Tell John “that the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.”

This Advent, we still wait.  We wait like John in prison.  Not held in by despair, but looking always outward.  Looking from within our own prisons at the world all around. Waiting and watching with God’s eyes to see the signs.  Waiting is never a fun activity.  We do everything in our power to avoid waiting… for anything.  We fill our time with noise.  We go to restaurants designed to limit waiting as much as possible.  We go to grocery stores where the lines are filled with things to read, and last-minute items to buy.  What are waiting rooms filled with? TVs, magazines, some even check out ipads.

Yet here we are waiting, but not idly.  We are purposefully waiting.  Waiting with eyes open to the love of God that is all around.  We hear one of the Newtown mothers declare “Love wins,” and are left in awe of the power of the human heart to heal. We hear stories like the one Peter Storey tells here, of a woman in South Africa who said to the man that killed her son, “You took my son.  So now you must be mine.”

Advent is a season to wait.  Wait and watch for Christ in our midst.  In a world addicted to instant gratification, the act of purposeful waiting is a revolutionary act.  It is a soul-cleansing act.  We wait with eyes wide open.  We wait with hearts open for Christ, seeking the answers to our questions in the stories of hope and grace.  We wait, seeking  forgiveness.  We do not rush into anything, because you cannot rush something as powerful and painful and precious as forgiveness.

This Advent, we wait like John in prison, who was called to notice the signs all around.  

This Advent, we wait like Mandela in prison, who refused to let the walls hold him.  We wait like Mandela, who transformed his prison into a crucible of learning, organization, and reconciliation.  Who practiced forgiveness even as he was tormented.  Mandela, who befriended white guards who were supposed to hate him, who used their friendship to secretly write his manuscript for A Long Walk to Freedom.  Mandela, who wrote in prison, “I am fundamentally an optimist. Whether that comes from nature or nurture, I cannot say. Part of being optimistic is keeping one’s head pointed toward the sun, one’s feet moving forward. There were many dark moments when my faith in humanity was sorely tested, but I would not and could not give myself up to despair. That way lays defeat and death” (from A Long Walk to Freedom)

We are called to look beyond the walls of our prison.  Don’t ignore the walls, but do not let them defeat you.  Look beyond the walls, and do not let them contain you.  See the signs of mercy, justice, and love.  See Christ all around – not in holiday decorations or TV specials.  See Christ in the hearts of others.  The prisons made by sin and injustice can feel impenetrable, but there is freedom in Christ.  No prison held Mandela.  No prison held John.  Let none hold you.

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10 years later in a 9/12 world

Photo taken by my good friend Rev. Scott Elliott. This is part of a mural in a Sunday school room. The original art is by Steve Selpal and the gifted artists who painted it were Steve, Anita Knapp Kidney, Lizzy Knapp and Emily Knapp.

I’m wondering.  Did our world change, or just our perspective of it?  In many ways, the answer is obvious, and it runs deeper than longer lines at the airport and more flags flying from front porches. Two wars have been fought.  Thousands have died.  The lives of the families of those that were lost were changed in ways I cannot even fathom.  Billions have been spent.  Countless tears have been shed.  There are many ways the world has changed.  We live in a more fearful era.  There is less trust.  There is more resentment.

Yet at the same time I can’t help but wonder if the world really changed, or just the way we see it.  There was terror on September 10, 2001.  There were people that hated America.  There were people that feared Muslims.  There was injustice.  Innocents died.  People mourned.  We have a tendency to look back at our country before 9-11 and glamorize it.  Listening to the accounts of the day makes me wonder if people think that economic turmoil, political upheaval, and fearful lashing out with violence are new to the world.

We live in a September 12 world, and we are keenly aware of this world’s problems, but they were not invented on that terrible day.  We continue to struggle with the events of September 11 and wonder when we may get past it.  We wonder how long we will live in fear?  How long will we live with resentment?  How long will we live in suspicion?  When will September 13 come?  When will healing come?  When will peace come?  Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord. Lord, hear my voice! (Psalm 130).

As Christians, none of this should come as a surprise.  We live most of our lives in a Saturday world.  Saturday is the day of waiting.  It is after the terror of Friday and before the joy of Sunday.  It lies in the midst of fear and speculation.  Most of the disciples responded to Jesus’ death as most humans would.  They ran.  They hid.  They locked themselves in a room and wondered, “When are they coming for us? How long will we live in fear?  How long will we live with resentment?  How long will we live in suspicion?”  They might have remembered the promises of Jesus while he walked with them, but all they could see were the lashes on his back and the crown of thorns on his head.  All they could hear were his cries of pain.  All they could taste were their own tears.  All they could touch was the cold and lifeless body of their teacher, their friend, their Messiah.

How long must we live in Saturday?  How long must we live in September 12? 

I’m not sure I can answer that question.  I know this: The disciples didn’t come out of that locked room on their own.  It took the resurrected Jesus to break through the barriers that men built.  It took the risen Lord to overcome their fear and their doubt.  It took the loving arms of the Son of God to set them free and send them into the world to set others free.

In the few days that followed the attacks on 9/11, none of us really had a choice.  We were deep in the shock of sadness and fear.  I remember being glued to the TV for hours on end with tears dried on my face.  I remember coming to grips with the fact that my freedom and safety was in jeopardy.  My world changed that day, or was it just my perspective?  Did I finally awaken to the reality of the world that had so long been easy to ignore?

Ten years later, we all have a choice.  The shock has long worn off, so now we have the ability to choose.  With what perspective are we going to look at the world?  I have lived through the pain of Good Friday.  I have waited through the despair of Saturday, and I have risen with Jesus in glorious resurrection on Sunday.  I know there is much to do.  I know we are not there yet, but I have been shown the way.

So now, in the midst of our September 12 world, we must choose.  In your own September 12 world, which do you choose? Hope or despair?  Understanding or ignorance?  Mercy or vengeance?  Reconciliation or bitterness?  Grace or judgment?  Justice or oppression?

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Why Church?

An Illinois country road. Photo by DeWayne Neeley. Click on the picture to go to his Flickr site.

A long time ago I wrote a sermon about a bike ride through the cornfields of central Illinois.  It was one of my favorite things to do when I lived in Chenoa.  I would turn left out of our driveway and just keep going.  It wouldn’t take long before I was on a road that looked a lot like the one pictured. 

When the corn was high, riding a bike down a narrow road like this was a slighltly harrowing experience because I couldn’t really see where I was.  When you’re in the middle of one of these corn canyons, you can see where the road leads – at least until the next hill – and that’s about it.  When the corn is high, you can’t really see anything but corn and sky.

That is partly why I loved those bike rides so much.  It was so peaceful and so calm.  I spent a lot of time in prayer on those country roads.  The reason I said it was harrowing, however, is because I could be riding along with cornfields on boths sides for quite some time.  And while country roads were usually straight, they were not always a dependable grid.  Some were deadends.  Some veered in directions I didn’t really mean to go.  Some took me to the highway (and if you ever want a lesson in white-knuckled prayer, ride your bike on a busy country highway – with semi trucks passing you at 60 miles and hour).

It could be really easy to get turned around amidst all the fields and right angles.  Yet no matter where I rode, I always knew that I could see the water tower.  As long as I could see the water tower, I knew I could get back home.  The water tower is the tallest thing poking out of the grove of trees that is Chenoa.  Whenever I rode – I knew I could make it home if I could see the water tower.  That is why those moments in the corn canyons were a little unsettling.

In life, we can go down a lot of roads.  Sometimes were are heading away from home.  Sometimes we are meandering around aimlessly.  Sometimes we hit dead ends, or go on courses we didn’t intend.  Sometimes we get turned around.  Sometimes we hold on white-knuckled just praying that things will be okay.  That is why it is so important to have that water tower – raising over it all, showing us the way home.

To me, that is church.  It is the place to which I can always turn.  It is not perfect.  The church has made mistakes – some historic, some personal.  The church has hurt people, hurt families, hurt nations.  Yet as far as I’m concerned, it is our best hope.  It is the best hope we have of finding our way.  It is the beacon that calls us home. 

At its best the church is a place of love.  If the church is being what Christ intended it to be, the church is a place of forgiveness, grace, invitation and mission.  It is a place to be fed, empowered and sent out.  It is the oasis of the Kingdom of God.  When I think of the churches I have been a part of, I don’t think of buildings or decor. I don’ t think of great sermons or well-organized Bible study.  I don’t think of perfect liturgy or music.  I think of love.

I think of people that cared for me as a child.  I think of people that loved me as an adult.  I think of people that helped guide me into ministry, that picked me up when I failed and allowed me to grow.  I think of people that loved me like parents and were grandparents to my daughters.  When I think of when the church has hurt me I do not think of wrong theology, or boring sermons, or bad music.  When the church has hurt me it has been when people failed to live up to the commandment Christ has given us – love one another as Christ has loved us.  Yet before I let the anger, resentment and hurt feelings get the better of me, I remember that I have failed to love as well.  I am in need of forgiveness for my carelessness, my thoughtlessness and my selfishness.

Through it all, I have found love in the church.  My heart breaks for those that have been wronged by the church.  My heart yearns for those that seek and do not find.  I don’t know where you are on your journey.  I don’t presume to know the path you need to take.  All I know is what I have found.  I have found a place to hold onto.  I have found a water tower in the bike ride of my life – showing me the way to get back home.  I pray you find your way home too.

 

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