Posts Tagged ‘mercy’

Not seven times…

September 24, 2017

Forgiveness is treated like an option; a burden.  “How many times…” whines Peter.  Peter wants to find a loophole; perhaps there is a reasonable limit to loving tolerance.  Seven times; wouldn’t that be plenty?  How about seventy times, or seventy seven times…?  Peter opens the bidding – Jesus raises the stakes by telling a story.

In another life, I was ‘invited’ by my boss to collect his delinquent accounts.  Nothing in the million dollar range, but many in the several thousand dollar range, and many of those had been dragging on for too long.  “Get me my money” was how the invitation went, and so I went to work; learning the details behind the debts; learning the ins and outs of the small claims court system in Ontario.  It was never my favourite job.  But what I learned in that brief time as a collection agent is that some stories are tragic and demand careful handling.  Other stories are lame, and require ‘tough love’.  But everybody has a story, and those stories must be heard – especially if you take it to court.

It was not unusual for a legitimate story to prompt some sort of bargain – I was never allowed to wipe the slate clean, but I did agree to take one year’s worth of firewood in exchange for a long-standing invoice.  It was satisfying to go from demanding something that  was clearly not available (money) to accepting something that this gentleman had in abundance.  Oddly, I think that is what is at work in Jesus’ parable.

Ten thousand talents is an awful lot of income.  It boggles the mind to consider how a slave racks up that sort of debt…owed to his master.  (It is possible that discipline problems might prompt indebtedness, or the master was acting as a loan shark – who really knows. ). The point seems to be that whatever privilege this slave enjoyed has been cancelled by what amounts to roughly 25 years wages owed to the boss.  An impossible hill to climb.  His only assets are his family and his own labour, so the boss is ready to recover his losses by selling this troublesome slave.  But the slave has a story – and the slave has a plan – and he makes a promise “if only you will have mercy!”

And against all odds, the master cancels the debt – releases the man and sends him on his way.  Liberation!  If not from servitude, then certainly from the burden of owing a debt he may never fully repay… which, of course raises the question; is he now ‘in debt’ for the mercy he has been shown? and  I think the answer is yes.  He must now deal in a different currency.  Mercy for mercy; that is the economy of forgiveness.  It’s a clearer kind of barter than repair work for firewood, but the principle is the same.  When the newly liberated slave fails to show mercy, his liberty is cancelled, and he is hauled off to face the music.  He does not seem to be able to learn how to work within the local rules.  He is still trapped within the broken system that asks too much of those who find themselves short-changed.

“So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”  (Mt 18: 35)

The message here is not that God is vengeful and ready to ‘smite’ – the message is quite the opposite, in fact.  God has shown mercy and love in disproportion to our gratitude – and we have been given a new coin with which to trade.  Love is the currency of God’s kingdom.  Mercy is the thing which we have access to; the abundant gift that makes this marketplace function.  Both of these slaves are lacking in the coin of the realm; they cannot participate in the world’s economy.  They have tried, and failed, to ‘keep up with the Joneses’ but the master has shown them another way to participate – and to participate in the economy of the promised kingdom requires nothing more than the kind of mercy shown in the forgiveness of so large a debt.  Love, in other words, makes this brave new world go round.

It seems too simple, doesn’t it?  The thought of removing ourselves (somehow) from a punishing economic system, where costs are always a little higher than we would like and demand is always just ahead of supply (at least where our money concerned); the idea of putting a stop to it all and creating a cashless society – trading and creating for ourselves, and taking the money managers out of the equation – this sort of arrangement sounds very attractive, especially when times are tough.  But we’re too deeply entrenched; capitalism is our master now, and the debt we owe to this particular economic system climbs higher every day – it can never be fully paid.  And just like that, we recognize that Jesus is using terms that we will understand – huge financial debt – to explain a system that is both foreign to us and embedded in us as part of our primordial link to the divine.  His parable reveals a new ‘economy’ – the mercy and freedom of God’s kingdom of grace and peace.  We are citizens by default of this kingdom.  It’s in our DNA, we just need to be reminded how to behave; how to speak the language; how to participate in the life and work of the world as God has imagined it, and Jesus is our teacher.

This lesson on forgiveness – the ‘moral’ of the story suggests to me that our inclination to ignore mercy and forgiveness leaves us mired in the material world, and never able to experience the presence of God.  And our tradition understands such separation from God as sin.  Our slavery to an economic system that leaves the overwhelming majority of the population in abject poverty is an affront to the will of God, and just as God sent Moses to lead a nation to freedom, Jesus teaching, living, dying and rising are offered to show us a new way through the systems that would otherwise bog us down, frustrate and terrify us.  And for Jesus, it begins and ends with forgiveness.  Not an option.  Not a burden.  A necessity, if we are to experience the freedom for which we were created.  Not seven times – not “until the moment is forgotten” – but as a continual habit.

“Forgive our debts – our trespasses – our sins”, we pray “AS WE HAVE FORGIVEN our debtors – those who sin; who trespass against us.”  This is the economy that matters.  These are the rules of God’s marketplace.  Rules so absolute, that even on the cross Jesus will say “forgive them…”

The court that heard the only case I followed to the limit had a judge whose rules were curiously biblical.  you didn’t get to his courtroom until you had found the person you had named in the action and worked out a deal.  The hallway was full of subdued conversations, and when you had ‘worked it out’ the clerk would take you in to see the judge.  So mercy meant firewood, instead of cash.  Mercy meant an alteration from the rigid system of dollars and cents, and an imaginative move towards real justice; both sides were satisfied – neither side was punished.  And Jesus says “That’s what the kingdom of God is like…”

Thanks be to God.  Amen

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Samaritan 2.0

July 10, 2016

There is no one who can remain unaffected by recent world events.  Mass murder, on an industrial scale; special interest groups fighting among themselves – each cause desperate for front-page status; law-enforcement overstepping bounds, and lawless individuals fighting back.  Not to mention the atrocities in Iraq and Saudi Arabia – more bombing and terror in a region that has seen too much terror – and all at the close of Ramadan.  We don’t hear or see much of those stories – we are too absorbed in our own fear and misery.

It is all too much to take.

We inhabit a world in chaos – and it is chaos of our own making.  Our collective greed and inclinations to leap to conclusions have helped us divide the world into “us” and “them”over and over and over again.  Colour, sexual orientation, religious expression, nationality – you name it, we’ll fight about it… to the death.

It is a world whose physical laws suggest that things like motion and gravity and all that (remember Sir Isaac Newton?) are predictable and precise – yet the actions and reactions of people these days can neither be predicted nor controlled.  It is horrifying and frustrating – it suggests that we have been reckoning, for far too long, without an important part of the equation.

In Physics, (the basic kind that I studied, at least) it has long been understood  – if you know enough you can soon know it all: speed, angle, force, mass – put enough information together and you can predict (or at least, understand) how a physical system works.

We’ve tried the same approach with social systems – cultures, nations, economies and so on – but we don’t have a clue.  Because we make our calculations without considering the part played by God.

What must I do to “inherit eternal life?”  a question that we want to believe is about safety in heaven…but is it?  For the lawyer, perhaps that’s all it is, until Jesus turns it into a question about living in the here and now.  The story Jesus tells – about a victim of violence and the response to his victimhood – does not end with a happy, heavenly welcome.  It ends with an urgent request to live in an attitude of mercy (compassion).

Our quest for “eternal life” is too often an escape mechanism – our hope against hope that we might leave misery, violence and all earthly uncertainty behind as a reward for good behaviour.  Jesus ignores that plea for an escape clause, and suggests that the ‘here and now’ can (and should) have an eternal character.  Jesus message throughout the gospels is consistent in this.  What we often imagine heaven will be like (a joyous place of reunion), can be found and experienced long before we draw our final breath.  After a week of news such as we have had – tensions driven by fear and power leading to the deaths of too many people – it may be hard to accept that statement; but that is what Jesus’ parable offers.

“Go and do likewise” he tells the man who wanted the easy way out – the fast-track to heaven.  Go and be among those whose condition frightens you; be with those whom you do not understand; offer mercy to those who may not (in your opinion) deserve mercy.  Reach out to the one in the ditch – to the stranger, the enemy – as though there was no difference between you.  Let mercy (compassion) guide your actions and reactions, and then watch what the universe does.

It seems a simple solution – and it has been one of our choices since the beginning of time.  “Do justice, love kindness, walk humbly with God” – Micah urged the people of God toward the path of compassion (mercy).  And not just in some far distant paradise, either;  “It is not in heaven [that promised prosperity awaits]…No, the word is very near to you; it is in your mouth, and in your heart to observe.” (Deuteronomy 30: 12-14).

Our actions towards one another can have a domino effect, to be sure, but lately we have seen behaviour that we do not want affecting us.  And no one can point to the moment in recent history that saw compassion pushed out by fear; but that is what has happened.  In a world that has seen some horrible deeds done ‘in the name of God’, we have tried to act apart from divine influence, without any notion of the grace of God – the compassion of God – and Fear has become our guiding principle.  And just like my intro to Physics class, when you use incomplete (or incorrect) information in the equation, you get the wrong answer.

The lawyer – the guy who wants to do the end run around misery and confusion – he has performed his calculations using all the ‘heavenly’ components.  He quotes the law (and keeps it) while trying to avoid the messy reality of human interaction.  We, who seem fully engaged in a world of messy human interactions, are often guilty of trying to find our way through without letting God into our calculations.

In Jesus, God has demonstrated that the Holy, ‘heavenly’ realm that we desire is very much concerned with the everyday interactions between and among such ordinary folks as us.  Eternal life is not a promise that we will never again be troubled by those who are different than us – it is a promise that those differences will cease to matter, because we have been connected by something in the character of God – something pure and positive and universal.  The mercy we offer – the compassion we have – is what connects us to the work of God that began with creation and has never stopped; work that is driven by a desire for good, for peace, for unity.  Collectively, we can frustrate that work by acting in fear, or ignorance, or selfishness.  But if we acknowledge that love and compassion are available to us, then we will begin to see that ‘eternal life’ is for the living too.

The sin of Jonah

September 21, 2014

God’s mind is changed – and Jonah is beside himself.

Jonah is our kind of guy – he knows what he knows –

and he knows that God is capable of great mercy.

But he also knows that the citizens of Nineveh are past all mercy and grace.

They are exceedingly wicked – they don’t deserve the promise of God;

they are not worthy of God’s grace.

Yes, Jonah is our kind of guy – or more accurately, we are guilty of Jonah’s mistake –

we know what we know; about God, about our friends,

and more importantly, about our “enemies”.

We know – or we imagine that we know – how the promises of God

and the gospel of Christ are arranged:

the word is offered and accepted – then the hearer is changed and,

God be praised, the kingdom is brought closer.

So we appoint people to preach the word,

and we arranged an institution to instruct God’s people

in the principles of goodness and grace (we call it The Church) –

and then we set the price of admission just high enough

that only the right sort of people will come…

it didn’t begin that way, but that’s what we have become –

or more properly, that’s how we are perceived.

I don’t mean that there is an actual price of admission –

though we are delighted by the generosity of our members

(how else would we keep the lights on and pay the preacher?)

No, the price of admission is more complex;

you must believe what we believe – and recognize our traditions –

and understand our structures –

and please, please, please don’t question the image of God that we have constructed

it’s one we understand and we’d rather not change our minds

about who God is or how God acts…)

The Church (the whole church) sounds alarm bells when attendance drops off,

and when we meet resistance in the public square about our ideas,

or our expressions of faith. We (the church – the whole church) circle the wagons

and call on our friends to support us in this “war against unbelief”

or whatever we might call it – there are calls for renewal and reformation

and rededication to “holy principles”, and all the while,

God goes on loving and saving and showing mercy through any means available –

to people we recognize as good and to those we think have fallen off the wagon.

The recent General Assembly is a case in point – we argued for hours

over a description of the mission of the Presbyterian Church in Canada –

fighting over wording and grammar

because these are the things that help us express who we are and what we are about –

but none of our efforts did anything to expand the notion of who God is

or how God might act apart from this small, stubborn band of Presbyterians.

Our arguments made new excuses and new enemies for us to blame for our problems –

and God simply smiled and went on being gracious.

That’s the way God works.

Yes, we are guilty of the sin of Jonah, because God is not our puppet –

and God will not be bribed, or tricked when it comes to deciding who receives mercy,

or whose repentence is genuine, or who might be considered a child of God.

It’s not because God doesn’t want us to work for justice and peace –

that is what we are called to do as disciples of Jesus –

but we try to make God our puppet when we bend the gospel to our own purposes,

and create closed communities of people unwilling to push boundaries or ask questions.

God’s Kingdom will come whether we participate or not –

whether we proclaim the gospel, or not –

whether we are willing, eager participants, or not.

(that is the lesson Jonah doesn’t learn)

Our own communities are full of people who feel

that their questions about God

(or their complaints about the church)

have excluded them from the mercy that we claim as our own.

Our future is in danger because we can’t imagine

how those people who dare to ask such questions

could help us shape the kingdom of God –

but God doesn’t need us to define God’s kingdom,

rather, God works to ensure that their is a place

for all who choose to participate in the building up of the kingdom.

Our doors are open – the invitation of the gospel is generous and clear .

Scripture reminds us, time and time again,

that we are no judge of who is fit for the kingdom.

We must open our hearts to welcome those we once called enemies –

those we thought beyond all help – for God’s mind has been changed before,

and God’s mercy is wider than we can possibly imagine.

Thanks be to God. Amen

Another Good Samaritan sermon

July 14, 2013

“Rabbi, how can I inherit eternal life?”

The question is a ruse – a trap – a blind that covers his real fear.

But Jesus is not fooled.  ‘What does Torah tell you?’

Always go back to the source, is Jesus’ motto.

Answers are given – satisfactory answers, according to the law –

according to the teacher.

Love God – Love your neighbour.  But, says the man….

There is an easy way, and a more difficult way –

and the easy way is hidden by his next question.

 

Yes, this is a parable about the power of love, and the kindness of strangers –

and yes, the ‘law’ that has been quoted is illustrated by this parable.

But what if there is more?

 

The priest and the Levite are held up

as grumbling, miserable self-righteous jerks, to be blunt.

They cross the road and don’t look back.

There is too much of the unknown in this situation –

For them, the chance is not worth taking.

 

The man may be badly wounded –

there is the very real danger of breaking laws of purity (and propriety)

by coming in contact with this dying stranger –

– maybe it’s a trap laid by clever criminals.

There are many reasons to avoid this life-lesson.

 

I have every reason to believe that when these two made it safely home,

they thanked God, hugged their wives, and were swarmed by their children;

ordinary people doing ordinary things – just like all of us.

 

We don’t take chances,

we don’t interfere where we may not be wanted.

we are afraid; and our fear keeps us safe.

This is not a tale designed to set the Jews against the Samaritans –

the fight was already ancient.  This story tells the truth about salvation.

 

Salvation is, first of all, about mercy –

even Jesus questioner recognized

that mercy was the principal quality of the man who stopped to help.

But mercy, in this case, comes from the most unlikely source –

it comes from the stranger – the enemy – the one we think has nothing to offer.

 

Too often, we are asked to put ourselves in these stories of Jesus –

do we walk by? Would we stop and “do mercy”?

Are willing to consider that we are wounded, broken, and waiting for help?

 

For in our time, we have stumbled and fallen,

and the last thing we expect is to be rescued by God –

God has been painted as a jealous and wrathful Master –

mercy is not expected, but mercy is what God is,

and mercy is what God offers in Christ.

 

The Samaritan is not troubled by robbers, or traps – why?

The common suggestion is that he is not bound by these religious notions

of purity and cleanliness, but that is misleading.

Every culture has their taboos – their obligations their innate fears.

There was, in Jesus telling, something about this man (who happened to be a Samaritan)

that would not let him leave a fellow human being in distress.

 

Mercy is the thing that reminds us ‘there but for the grace of God go I’;

Mercy that moves us to action

and helps us decide that this particular trouble cannot be ignored.

This is the same trait that moves God to seek reconciliation with humanity –

to tell a story in flesh and blood, and say to the world

‘I am found where you are hurting and troubled’…

 

Of course, the gospels say it differently:

“Come to me, all you who are weary and carrying heavy burdens,

and I will give you rest.’  but Jesus suggestion is that mercy is very near to us –

that reconciliation is within our reach – that help is coming up the path.

 

It won’t be in the form we expect –

not dressed like a priest; not holy and proper.

God’s mercy comes in the form of a wandering teacher,

who was treated like a criminal, arrested, convicted,

and left for dead by the powers that be.

Until that glorious morning when the love of God set him free to rescue the rest of us.

 

We know the beauty and truth of God’s mercy.

We continually encounter people and places who need mercy grace and love.

Let us, in the name of Jesus, filled with the love of God, never tire of doing mercy