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“As We Forgive Our Debtors”

Rev. Katherine Todd
Luke 6:34-35
Matthew 18:21-35

 

Luke 6:34-35

If you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to receive as much again. But love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return. Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked.”

 

Matthew 18:21-35

Then Peter came and said to him, “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” Jesus said to him, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.

“For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves. When he began the reckoning, one who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him; and, as he could not pay, his lord ordered him to be sold, together with his wife and children and all his possessions, and payment to be made. So the slave fell on his knees before him, saying, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ And out of pity for him, the lord of that slave released him and forgave him the debt. But that same slave, as he went out, came upon one of his fellow slaves who owed him a hundred denarii; and seizing him by the throat, he said, ‘Pay what you owe.’ Then his fellow slave fell down and pleaded with him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’ But he refused; then he went and threw him into prison until he would pay the debt. When his fellow slaves saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their lord all that had taken place. Then his lord summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?’ And in anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he would pay his entire debt. So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”

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I listened to an interesting podcast by Radiolab this week that showcased the power and disconnect of words.  The interviewee had spent years in Africa and there learned that the word, “Seriously” means something quite different there than in America.  Here, we use the word to explain that we are not joking, there’s no nonsense, we are serious.  In Africa, he most often encountered the word used when a bribe was expected.  Someone would say, “Are you serious?”  or “How serious are you?”  And so he quickly learned.

Zooming out from his own experience, he witnessed John Kerry’s diplomatic statement in Africa, over a breach of faith and national cooperation.  And when Kerry opened the floor to one question from an African Journalist, that person asked if Kerry was “up there doing lip service” or if he was “serious.”  Kerry immediately sounded a bit perturbed, as he felt himself to be quite serious about the matter.  But this journalist was found after-the-fact and asked about his use of the word, “serious.”  And in fact, he was asking whether or not there would be financial implications – sanctions or what-have-you – because of the incident.  The word serious was referring to money…yet again.

 

This story was told to highlight the nuance and subjectivity of language, from culture to culture, from ancient times until today.

And this example so beautifully illustrates the same need we, as Christians, have:  to research and understand the culture and language of our Biblical texts.

 

Today’s reading quotes Jesus as telling Peter to forgive his neighbor that sins against him, “seventy-seven times.”  And this sticks out to us like a sore thumb because it is odd.  It seems so random:  why seventy-seven?!  But a closer look at the culture of ancient Hebrews reveals meaning, hidden in various numbers.

The number seven was perhaps the greatest power number of ancient Judaism.  It alluded to creation, good fortune, and blessing.  And reinforcing this belief-system, two Hebrew words for luck – gad and mazal – actually mean 7 and 77 respectively.  All things 7 were powerful, lucky, blessed.

And so this opens to us a much greater understood meaning of Jesus’ words here to the listeners of his day.  Hearing that he was to forgive his offending neighbor seventy-seven times would immediately cause him to think of luck and blessing, power and creation.

 

Could the subtle message then be that when one forgives, again and again, that such a one is blessed, lucky, powerful? 

Does this not sound like something Jesus would say?

 

Jesus was continually challenging conventional wisdom – debunking it, turning it on its head.  And here it appears he is doing no differently; people have always felt more powerful when holding a grudge against someone else, but Jesus is instructing that power and blessing come through forgiveness. 

That is radical.
That is world-altering.
This sounds like Jesus!

And then Jesus goes on to share the parable of the Unforgiving Servant.  This servant owes a great deal to his lord and cannot yet repay it.  Though the lord plans to sell he and his family, the servant begs for mercy – asking for more time to repay the debt.  The Lord has compassion on the servant and forgives the servant his entire debt!  But then the servant leaves that place and goes to demand payment from those below him, who owe him money.  So when the lord gets wind of it, he reprimands the servant for not extending the mercy he has received to his own debtors.  The servant was shown great mercy for his debts.  But the servant does not extend mercy to his own debtors.  And this decision to follow greed over mercy leads the servant to a worse fate than before…

 

And I am intrigued here because Jesus has gone from talking about forgiveness to talking about debts. 

 

Now in my mind, those are two different things.  Forgiveness might be for a debt, but it might also be for a lie or an accident or an injury.  Forgiveness is much broader to me; whereas, a debt is usually just financial.

But recall the language in our own Lord’s prayer – also the words of Jesus:  “Forgive our debts, as we forgive our debtors.”  Forgiveness is again tied to debts.  And so we garner a larger definition of debts.  The Greek word for debts refers not just to financial obligation – thought it certainly does cover that.  Debts also refers to something owed, an offense, or a sin.  …and thus we have the various renditions of our Lord’s Prayer!

So putting all these insights in context, we find Jesus instructing Peter to forgive, time after time after time, with the understanding that blessing and power will be his, as he forgives.  And Christ then gives them all an illustration to show that because we have been forgiven, we must also forgive.  We are called to forgive sins, offenses, and actual financial debts – as the lord of the parable has done.

 

And so what does this mean for each of us? 

 

Psychology has long claimed the destructive power of holding a grudge.  But psychology has not yet ventured into comment on the power of holding a financial debt, of remembering what one owes us.

In Luke 6:34-35 we read:

“ If you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to receive as much again. But love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return. Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked.”

 

God is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked.
GOD is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked…

 

Again we have Jesus’ words, and again Jesus speaks about money.  And this time the meaning is not so veiled, as in the special Hebrew number 77.  Jesus outright says, “Lend, expecting nothing in return.  Your reward will be great…”  Wow.

Jesus is speaking clearly about the power of NOT keeping a debt…even to those least deserving. 

 

It is easiest to relegate Jesus to the disembodied, spiritual realms of our lives, but Jesus was alive, flesh and blood.  Jesus spoke about hunger and greed.  Jesus spoke about sin and unfaithfulness.  Jesus spoke about taxes.  Jesus spoke about money.

And Jesus is stating – both in powerful, cultural subtleties and in direct form – that blessing lies in forgiving others of what is owed us. 

THAT is where power is.
THAT is where luck is.
THAT is where blessing is.

 

This message is still just as counter-cultural as it was when Jesus spoke it.
This message still makes us uncomfortable.
This message still rubs up against our financial strategies and wisdom.

But this is Jesus’ message:  forgive all those who owe you – money, an apology, a service – and see if blessing and luck and power do not follow you! 

 

The Kindom of God is made real among us
When we forgive, as we have been forgiven.

 

Halleluia!!!
Amen.

“Connecting the Dots”

Rev. Katherine Todd
1 Peter 3:13-22
Acts 17:22-34

 

1 Peter 3:13-22

Now who will harm you if you are eager to do what is good? But even if you do suffer for doing what is right, you are blessed. Do not fear what they fear, and do not be intimidated, but in your hearts sanctify Christ as Lord. Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and reverence. Keep your conscience clear, so that, when you are maligned, those who abuse you for your good conduct in Christ may be put to shame. For it is better to suffer for doing good, if suffering should be God’s will, than to suffer for doing evil. For Christ also suffered for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, in order to bring you to God. He was put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit, in which also he went and made a proclamation to the spirits in prison, who in former times did not obey, when God waited patiently in the days of Noah, during the building of the ark, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were saved through water. And baptism, which this prefigured, now saves you—not as a removal of dirt from the body, but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers made subject to him.

 

Acts 17:22-34

 Then Paul stood in front of the Areopagus and said, “Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way. For as I went through the city and looked carefully at the objects of your worship, I found among them an altar with the inscription, ‘To an unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. The God who made the world and everything in it, he who is Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by human hands, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mortals life and breath and all things. From one ancestor he made all nations to inhabit the whole earth, and he allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places where they would live, so that they would search for God and perhaps grope for him and find him—though indeed he is not far from each one of us. For ‘In him we live and move and have our being’; as even some of your own poets have said,

‘For we too are his offspring.’

“Since we are God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the deity is like gold, or silver, or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of mortals. While God has overlooked the times of human ignorance, now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will have the world judged in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed, and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.”

When they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some scoffed; but others said, “We will hear you again about this.” At that point Paul left them. But some of them joined him and became believers, including Dionysius the Areopagite and a woman named Damaris, and others with them.


 

I appreciate this passage about Paul’s time in Athens.

He went through the city and was distressed to see so very many idols through-out the city.

I imagine most of us would want to leave as quickly as possible or would be likely to condemn and to judge the people.  After all, they were partaking in and passing on lies as truth; for idols are anything other than God, that we lift up in the place of God.  And these human-made infatuations are not worthy of our love and devotion.  They cannot protect us and do not care.  They are not worthy of our lives.

But I love Paul’s response:  when asked to speak about the gospel he had been arguing in the temple and the marketplace, he begins by connecting his experience of Jesus Christ with their own experiences and belief in “an unknown god.”  For rather than outright despising the people or fleeing from them, he dug in, wandering the streets and reading inscriptions on their idols and statues.  He had found an altar dedicated to “the unknown god.”  How marvelous!

 

First of all, this shows great humility, as in truth, to all of us, God is mysterious and a great bit unknown and not understood.  Paul grounds his message in their own experience and belief.  It is wise and helpful to the people because it gives them a way to understand and themselves explore Paul’s message, rather than outright reject it.

Furthermore, though Paul is distressed by the presence of so many idols, he chooses to see the glass half full, rather than half-empty.  In other words, he recognizes in this plethora of idolatry, their seeking for God.  He recognizes this search as something holy and beautiful.  He praises their search, for in speaking of people through-out time he says, “…that they would search for God, and perhaps grope for him and find him.”

Paul has acknowledged the people’s own sacred searching for God.  And he comes as one to close the gap, between their searching and their finding.  Paul would fulfill God’s call on his life to proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ in their midst!

And Paul goes yet another step further, connecting the dots for the people:  he connects the words of one of their poets Aratus, to the gospel message.  In Aratus’ poem invoking Zeus, he says, “in whom we live and move and have our being.”  And rather than allow any open distress at this misguided sentiment, Paul again recognizes these words as true – not of Zeus, but of God Almighty, as known and seen in the person of Jesus Christ.

 

You see the people HAD been seeking for God, groping for God.  They had recognized that God was far more and far bigger than they could even grasp or understand.  And they knew that their own lives were tied in some way to God, who enables all of life.

And though they did not know the name of Jesus, though the gospel had not yet been preached among them, many among them had indeed been seeking God, the unknown god, for whom they had no name…  And scripture assures us that when we seek, we shall find, if we seek with all our hearts.

 

Through-out time, God has been known and seen through the things God has made.  Paul wrote this.  And he was onto something.  Indeed, truth is truth, no matter the time or place.  God is God, no matter the time or place.  And even though folks had fallen short in their understanding of God, they had also hit the mark in moments, just as we all do.  They had understood bits about God, and Paul recognized this work of God among them.

Through many well-intentioned mission outreaches to other cultures and lands, we have slowly learned – by standing on the shoulders of those who have come before – both healthy and unhealthy ways of sharing the gospel.  There has been much remorse over the years at the way we stripped other cultures of their story, trying to replace their stories with our story.  While some actions and traditions of cultures are most clearly evil, many others are good and of God, for God has been seeking them out, from the beginning of time.  And to truly honor and respect another people, is to humble ourselves and to endeavor to see the world through their eyes.  In doing so, we become better equipped to respect and honor their stories, naming God’s presence in their histories and acknowledging their holy efforts to seek out and find the Almighty. 

 

And this is precisely what we see, modeled here by Paul.  Paul can only connect the dots for the people – between the God they have sought and the God revealed in Jesus of Nazareth – by taking the time to learn their culture.  And he already had the benefit of having one foot in both worlds; he was both a Roman citizen and a Jewish leader.  Paul was uniquely equipped to help folks connect the dots, and he took this calling and responsibility seriously.

Most of us are likely indebted to him for having heard the good news of Jesus Christ at all!  Paul worked hard to operate within culture, while simultaneously pushing the boundaries of that culture; encouraging people by example, to live less and less according to the ways of the world, and more and more into the Kingdom of God in their midst.  But Paul’s ability to do both – to conform and challenge, to respect and inform, to proclaim the good news and to humble himself – these tools made his work mightily more effective. 

 

Today in America, we live in post-Christendom.  There was a time when Christianity here was the norm.  That is no longer the case.  Today, spirituality is common but religion is largely mistrusted.  And folks have various and valid reasons for their caution to embrace institutionalized religion.  After all, for all the good it has done, the institution of the church also has a history of grappling for power, wielding scripture as a weapon, and reducing Christ’s words to mere guilt and threat – missing the power and point of Christ’s coming in the first place.

And just as Paul did, we can respect folks’ reasons for caution, while inspiring and inviting folks into the fellowship of Christ’s body here on earth.  We can be in the world while not being of the world.  We can get to know and understand our own secular cultures, while also pushing the boundaries of culture, toward a more just and loving community – the Kindom of God.

In the same way that Paul’s great outreach in Athens yielded some who received the good news with joy, and others who scoffed and walked away, we too will meet with similar results.  But may we press on in courage and faith, for only God will know the impact our life and witness, our words and our actions, our loving and our serving.  And one day, along with all the saints who have gone before, may we too hear the voice of our Lord saying, “Well done, my good and faithful servant!  Enter into the joy of your God.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“Christ or Culture”

Rev. Katherine Todd
John 10:10b
Mark 7:1-8

John 10:10b

Jesus said to them, … “I came that they may have life and have it abundantly.”

Mark 7:1-8

Now when the Pharisees and some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem gathered around him, they noticed that some of his disciples were eating with defiled hands, that is, without washing them. (For the Pharisees, and all the Jews, do not eat unless they thoroughly wash their hands, thus observing the tradition of the elders; and they do not eat anything from the market unless they wash it; and there are also many other traditions that they observe, the washing of cups, pots, and bronze kettles.) So the Pharisees and the scribes asked him, “Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?”  He said to them, “Isaiah prophesied rightly about you hypocrites, as it is written,

‘This people honors me with their lips,
but their hearts are far from me;
 in vain do they worship me,
teaching human precepts as doctrines.’

 You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.”


In seminary, we read a book called Christ Or Culture by religious scholar, Richard Neibuhr.  While I cannot remember the details of the book, my take-away was that it is a complex thing to untangle Christ from our culture, but that we are each responsible to work on it.

 

The basic gist is that when a people has lived with Christ for some time, the knowledge of Christ gets integrated into the way things are done and vise versa.  Culture gets mingled into our understanding and worship of Christ.  Our traditions, rites, and rituals are all a co-mingling of Christ and culture.

When we’re in our own cultures, it is almost imperceptible which is which at times.  For example, our Christmas trees feel very Christian, though their origin is distinctly pagan.  We have taken things that had no association with Christ and connected them to Christ, so those things acquire new meanings.  Now, Christmas trees are in most churches in America.  Few even think to question their place.

This merging of Christ and culture is honest and natural.  It’s as natural as our own American melting pot.  Made up of people from most nations, our country indeed begins to take on the blending flavors and cultures of those nations.  We take for granted the fact that we can buy Chinese, Italian, or Mexican food on the same block, get our nails done by a Vietnamese shop owner and have our clothes dry cleaned by a Korean family.  Obviously these are stereotypes, but as with most stereotypes, they communicate because there is truth behind them.  My point is that we are accustomed to this blending of very different foods, people, and culture.  It is the natural outcome of our nation of immigrants.

In the same way, when a culture hears the good news of Christ, their own traditions and rituals start blending with the Good News of the Gospel, and in the end, it can be difficult to tell one from another.

All of this is just fine.  Where it has most often gotten problematic is on the mission field.  When well-meaning Christians leave home and culture to share the good news with a people who’ve not yet heard, they, as would any of us, can have quite a time discerning where their own native culture ends and Christ begins.  Since our own cultures are simply our “normal,” they can become invisible to us.  They are the air we breath and the ground we walk on, so to speak.  We take them for granted.  We rarely question them, if we even notice them at all.  But when we encounter folks from another culture and try sharing our faith in Christ with them, our own culture inevitably is also communicated.

Now, this isn’t all bad.  Learning of another culture can be a beautiful and eye-opening thing.  IT gives us new eyes to see the world around us.  Where it has gotten toxic is when culture is mistakenly presented as being part of Christ and one way is presented as the way.

Now, I don’t think all cultural traditions or mindsets are made equally.  Some native traditions are full of the honor and respect we learn in Christ.  Some are filled with domination, cruelty, and the things Christ warns us against.  But when we share the Gospel with another, we need to let Christ be the center and the guide and not impose our culture on others.

This is easy enough to say, but it’s quite another things altogether to do.

How do we separate Christ from the culture in which we’ve come to know Christ?

How do we separate Christ from these walls in which we’ve worshipped, year after year?

How do we separate Christ from the creeds we’ve memorized?

How do we separate Christ from the songs we can sing by heart?

How do we separate Christ from our experiences of Christ in this community?

 

All of these are excellent questions.

And while we cannot answer them all cleanly, it is important that we ask them and keep asking them. 

The reason can be found in the Hippocratic oath Doctors take.  They promise “first, to do no harm.”  And when we impose our own cultures onto others in the name of Christ, insisting that our way is superior to their ways, we can do a great deal of harm to that people.

Now, I know you guys are not missionaries in the traditional sense, so all this talk of Christ & Culture may feel misdirected, but if you are a Christian, you are indeed a missionary because Christ lives in you.  You have the Spirit of the Almighty God living in you, and God’s heart is for the whole world.  God’s love is for the whole world.  And God is pouring out love and light in the world through each of you.

Now you can rightly point out that if you haven’t left your culture, this information is not exactly pertaining to your sort of mission work in the world, but I would argue that in our culture today, Christ is not the center.  And even when we thought it was, it probably wasn’t.  Truly, when cultures have adopted Christ as the main religion, they have often, if not always, done so with covert motives, using Christ to one’s own ends.  And even if motives started purely, the result of aligning Christ with power and regimes is growing corruption of faith for political power and personal gain.

My point is that we live in a post-Christian society.  Most families and people do not go to church.  Many do not claim Christ.  And a great number do not consider themselves religious.  So our experiences may be a great deal different than that of our neighbors.

But we know that God’s heart is for each of them.  We know that God’s love extends to each of them, just as they are, right where they are, many here all around us in this neighborhood, in their houses, running trails, or perhaps in the park just blocks away.

We know that God doesn’t require conformity first, in exchange for love and acceptance, but that God has loved and accepted us first, and we are called to respond in faith, walking in God’s ways.

We are bearers of light.  We have a message folks deeply need to hear.

But we will lose people and do more damage than good, unless we can untangle our own histories of Christ & culture and begin to imagine what Christ is doing in new cultures, in a new people, in the lives of those who’ve sworn never set foot in a church.

Because God IS moving in their lives.

God IS inviting them to come close.

God IS calling, through work and rest and play.

God is reaching out first.

 

It is not therefore, our job to INITIATE God’s work in their lives.

Rather, it’s our job to listen and follow God’s work in their lives.

It becomes a matter of listening for what is profoundly Christ-like in their unchurched lives and affirming those commitments to love and justice, respect and community.  It becomes a matter of listening for what may be destroying life and listening for God’s invitation to wholeness and healing.

So, our children do not have to do exactly as we do.  They don’t necessarily need to sing the same songs or speak the same creeds in order to hear God’s still small voice.  But perhaps when they love as God has loved us, we celebrate the beauty and goodness of their lives.  Perhaps when they undo themselves with poor decisions, we forgive as we have been forgiven and call them to a better way.

In other words, we affirm the love and goodness of God in their lives, listening for God’s lead and following.  And we echo the words of God for all who are suffering in sin saying, “You are made for so much more.  You dear and beloved, just the way you are.  Please do not hurt yourself or anyone else anymore.”

When we truly begin doing the work of separating Christ from Culture, we will find that things and rituals, traditions and nostalgia matter far less than we may have thought.

For as Christ quotes Isaiah, saying to those criticizing his disciples for not following the rituals, “This people honors me with their lips, while their hearts are far from me.  In vain do they worship me, teaching human precepts as doctrine.”

All our routines and rituals are beautiful but only a vessel for the divine.  And without Christ at the center, all of it is meaningless.  For it isn’t what we say, but what we mean that matters.  It isn’t calling ourselves Christians but rather living as little Christs that matters.  It isn’t singing hymns, saying creeds, or even coming to church that is the most important thing.  What matters is following God, day by day.  What matters is loving as Christ has loved, forgiving as Christ has forgiven, doing justice as Christ brings justice, loving mercy as Christ has shown us great mercy.   And none of that requires a steeple or an organ, a pastor or a sermon.

Now all those things can help us a great deal.  We have reasons for doing them.  But these THINGS, these ROUTINES are meant to be a vehicle of God’s presence and power.  These expressions of faith are meant to empower us in the living of our faith.  They are not meant to be obstacles or litmus tests or criteria for inclusion in the club.  Our forms and ways of being church are meant to flow out of vibrant lives of discipleship, and not the other way around.  And when Christ is truly at the center, we may find that there are an infinite number of ways we can follow faithfully – at least as infinite a number as we have one-of-a-kind children of God in the world.  And just as the rituals we follow were once birthed from new vision and ideas, new rituals and traditions are emerging still.

And so may we not be as the Pharisees in the scripture today – criticizing those who do not do as do we do, looking down on those who do not come when we come, …thinking of ourselves more highly than we ought.  But rather, may we recognize that what matters most is on the inside.  And may we each tend to our hearts and minds and spirits with great and loving care.

So that when God moves in new and unexpected people and places and rituals – those outside our circles, who look differently, and live differently, and see the world differently – we might see and hear and follow – ever following Christ, beyond the borders of these walls, of our own cultures and ways, and into new broad vistas of an ever-deepening and living faith.  For our God is calling, calling each one out of darkness and into Christ’s marvelous light.  And that broad place is like nothing we have ever experienced before, transcending all the ways of this world, and all the things we’ve come to know.  Christ alone remains.

 

In an ever-changing world

where church as you may have known it, no longer exists,

where potlucks no longer fill the hall and Sunday School isn’t packed…

May we keep our eyes on Christ.

It is Christ who knows the way;

Christ IS the way.

The landmarks and scenery will ever change,

Our tools and methods and rituals will also change,

but our God remains the same and is ever with us.