Sunday, September 14, 2008

Pentecost 18 - Year A

“How many times should I forgive?” Peter asked, “Seven times?”

“Not seven,” Jesus replied, “But seventy times seven.”

I’ve told you this story before, but it bears repeating.

The Sunday after the US attack on Iraq, Global National News came to Lutheran Church of the Resurrection in Halifax to get a faith perspective on the war.

We’d been leading prayer services for peace the months leading up to the war, services which had been covered by the media, and so a reporter came to interview me about how some Christians were responding.

He was known for his confrontational interview style. And it was clear he had an axe to grind.

He knew that I and most of the congregation were opposed to the war and he tried to get me to say on camera that any Christian who supported the war was going to hell. Saying that high profile Christians were destined for damnation would have sounded great on TV.

I tried to convince him that reconciliation was at the heart of the Christian faith and that was one of the reasons why I opposed the invasion of Iraq. He kept needling me, pushing me, asking leading questions. Frustrated, he turned the question around on me and snapped,

“Where then, is this ‘reconciling God,’ when children are being maimed, lives destroyed, innocent people killed, all in the name of so-called freedom?”

I fumbled around for words, very aware that any bonehead comment I’d make would be broadcast across the country.

The only response I could think of was, “God is present when people suffer unjustly. When a child is maimed, God is maimed; when innocent people die, God shares their death.”

I wasn’t entirely satisfied with my answer. And from the disappointed look on the reporter’s face, neither was he.

It’s hard to talk about reconciliation in any real sense. Forgiveness, the other side of reconciliation, is easier to talk about in the abstract than to actually forgive those who’ve hurt us.

It’s easier to talk about forgiveness and reconciliation in grand terms, waxing poetic about how important forgiveness is to the health of our souls, and how bitterness can be like drinking Drano and expecting the other person to keel over.

But forgiveness, in any real sense, is hard. I think today’s gospel reading is one of the most difficult passages in scripture. Real forgiveness offends our sense of justice. It lets people off the hook.

It must have sounded equally nutty to his listeners. These people knew pain. They knew cruelty. Their enemy surrounded them daily, controlling every aspect of their lives.

Their home was occupied by the repressive Roman regime. They were taxed beyond their ability to survive. The Romans brutally executed thousands of their young men and used their young women as sexual play things.

To make matters worse, some of their religious leaders got into bed with their Roman occupiers, growing fat and rich off of the blood of their fellow Jews.

Jesus’ audience knew their enemy. To love and forgive them was out of the question. There was too much pain, too much anger, and too little hope for change.

We have no idea how the crowd reacted to Jesus’ teaching. To some, Jesus must have sounded like a traitor or a coward, selling out his people for some hippy-dippy religious twaddle.

To others, he probably sounded terribly romantic but purely impractical. “That all sounds well and good, Jesus, but let’s get real. Peace, love, and flower power won’t stop the Romans from killing us. We need some real answers. We need justice NOW.”

But to others, Jesus’ words must have been cold water in the desert sun. They understood the power that Jesus was giving them. They had spent their whole lives as victims. They didn’t know any other way to see themselves. Their whole identity was wrapped up in the pain and cruelty the Romans caused in their lives.

Now Jesus was telling them that they were MORE than victims; they were MORE than an oppressed people; that the enemy does not have to control how they saw themselves.

Jesus handed them tools of resistance. Jesus was telling them, “Why are you allowing the Romans to tell you who you are? You don’t have to be a victim. Yes, you have pain. Yes, you are oppressed. But you are not your scars. You are not your grief. Your pain, your sorrow, your poverty, are part of you, but they don’t make up the whole of you. You are more than your wounds.”

Jesus wasn’t ignoring the injustice and abuse they endured. He was challenging them to look beyond their pain.

“It is freeing to become aware that we don’t have to be victims of our past, “wrote RC author, Henri Nouwen, “ and can learn new ways of responding. But there is a step beyond this recognition…It is the step of forgiveness. Forgiveness is love practiced among people who love poorly. It sets us free without wanting anything in return.”

18 years ago, two teenage boys got drunk and took a car out for a joyride along the rural roads down the Nova Scotia/New Brunswick border.

A young man was walking home from work at the side of the road. The driver of the car knew him from school thought it would be funny to scare the guy by swerving close to clip him. But instead of scaring him, he killed him, as well as his friend in the passenger seat, after the car left the road and hit a tree.

Charges were laid. The boy was convicted and sentenced. Afterwards, the parents of the boy in the passenger seat moved from Nova Scotia; their grief was too great and their anger too raw.

The mother of the boy who was hit while walking home, however, decided that she wasn’t going to live with bitterness and anger.

She wrote letters to the boy in prison. But he was too ashamed to write letters back.

As time went on she decided she wanted to visit him. Her friends weren’t sure that this was the right thing to do. They were afraid that, when she saw the boy - now a man - face to face, she would lose it.

She brought her pastor along for support. No one spoke as they waited in the visitation room. The prison chaplain waited with them. A guard stood just outside the door. The grieving mom chewed her fingernails and her pastor lightly tapped the table.

Finally, the door opened and the man came in. The mom got up from her chair, looked him in the eye, and embraced the man who killed her son, while tears streamed down both their faces.

“I’m sorry. I’m sorry,” was all he could say.

“When you get out, you’ll come live with me,” said the woman.

“Why?” he asked.

“Because we already lost two lives, we aren’t going to lose one more.”

I’m not sure that I could be as gracious and forgiving as the grieving mom; but that’s the challenge, isn’t it?

When the reporter turned off his camera, put away his microphone, and took down the lights, I asked him where he stood with regards to the war.

“I’m a Muslim” he snapped back. “I lived in Palestine in ’91 when the first Gulf war broke out. Back then we saw Saddam Hussein as the saviour of the Arab countries. But now I know he’s evil, he’s offering the Arab cause little help.

“But I can’t but see this war as anything else but an attack on Islam and Palestine. They’re doing Israel a favour by getting rid of Saddam, especially when there was so much progress made between Israel and Palestine.”

“Progress?” I ask with bewilderment? “Isn’t Yassar Arafat prisoner in his own home, enduring daily attacks from the Israeli army? Aren’t there suicide bombers blowing people up in crowded Jerusalem marketplaces? Isn’t there retaliation for retaliation? Revenge killing for revenge killing?” I was now getting frustrated.

”You’re right.” He replied. “But what you don’t know about are the villages outside Jerusalem, small cities, pockets all over the region where Israelis and Palestinians live together in whatever peace they can hammer out.

“They have agreed not to fight with one another, but to strive to live peacefully as neighbours. They don’t want bombs exploding at the corner Starbucks. They just want to make a living and watch their kids grow up. They just want a life like we have. These are not isolated cases; these communities are popping up all over the Middle East.”

“Why don’t you report on this?” I asked knowing what the answer would be, “Why doesn’t this get on the news?”

He smirked knowingly at me. “You know why. War is sexy. Peace isn’t.” With that he packed up his camera and went on his way.

When I reflected back on those villages where Israelis and Palestinians live peacefully together intentionally, ancient enemies in an ancient war zone, I wondered if that’s how God works: away from the TV lights, far from crowds. God is behind the scenes hard at work for the world’s salvation; reconciling enemies, healing relationships, standing with sinners.

Jesus never told us forgiveness would be easy. And it’s not a one time deal, but a way of life. When we forgive, we not only pardon a failing or sin, but we embrace the sinner and restore a relationship.

Once we reach out to those who’ve hurt us, resentment begins to drain from our hearts. We may remain deeply wounded like the mom who lost her son, but we will not use our hurt to inflict pain on others.

What resentments are you holding on to? What abuses have you endured that keeps you from living the freedom and power that God wants you to have? What bitterness is gnawing away at your soul?

God wants you to bring it to the cross, the home of forgiveness. Forgiveness is discipleship; it echoes God’s grace, and sings the song of salvation.

May this be so among us. Amen.

Monday, September 08, 2008

Pentecost 17 - Year A

Today’s gospel reading is about how get along in the church. Practical advice for dealing with those who get under our skin, or give us stomach cramps.

We often have this image of the early Church as a love-fest where miracles were as common as a cold, and no one raised their voice to another. All congregational votes were unanimous and people greeted each other like long lost French lovers. Like Woodstock with clothes on, and everyone was high on Jesus.

But Matthew didn’t include these Jesus’ sayings because early church life lacked the spice of controversy. If we think a disagreement over an elevator can become a problem, you should’ve seen the tantrums these baby Christians could throw. Brawling believers might get attention of some bloggers typing away in their parents’ basements, but most people would need to scrap the dust off this old newspaper. A church fight? Christians clawing at each other again? Yawn. What else is new?

I don’t know why that is. Do you?

Maybe, it’s because, as Protestants, it’s kinda who we are, what we do. The root word of Protestant is “protest.” So that’s what we do. We protest. We argue. We wrangle. We fight. We demand reform. NOW! Our form of Christianity was born from a mega-sized church conflict.

And any church consultant worth her weight in communion wafers would tell you that when a church is created from conflict, conflict become part of its DNA. Disagreement sinks deep into the church’s chromosomes and its genetic material is spread around until it covers every aspect of its ministry.

Some Lutheran pastors have said that the best way for us to do radical surgery on our appetite for conflict is for us to re-submit ourselves to the authority of the pope. If not THE pope then at least a Lutheran version of one. That way, if a divisive issue slithers into the church, threatening our unity, we’d have a central authority to crush the disruptive interloper with the heel of divine justice.

But I wonder if that cure is more cosmetic than cosmic. Plastic surgery for the soul. Ecclesiastical Botox. A religious tummy-tuck. The wrinkles may fade for a while, and the abs may look ripped, but everyone knows what’s actually underneath.

However, conflict can spur creativity. Martin Luther preached some of his best (and saltiest) sermons in round seven of his Cage Match with the pope. What's more, I doubt we’d still be reading Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s books if he didn’t drop the gloves to go after Hitler. And Jesus saved some of his best punch lines for the religious hecklers who could’ve strung him up anytime they wanted – and they did!

This isn’t just true of the church. Conflict, creativity, and competition go hand in fist. The Labour Day match-ups thrive on gridiron bloodlust. McDonalds needs Wendy’s to improve their tastier heart attack combo. And Prime Minister Harper is skipping church this morning to fire the electoral starting gun. Business, politics, sports would be nowhere without creative conflict. Conflict, at times, can haul out the best in us.

As Christians, the conflicts we stir up might emerge from our commitment to gospel renewal. We are never comfortable with the status quo because the gospel is always in need of proclamation in new and fresh ways. We worry that God’s plan for us is still half a light year away from invading our world.

And so, in a passionate call to renewal, in our zeal to announce God’s message of life and freedom, we Christians end up duking it out with each other, trash-talking our sisters and brothers in Christ when they don’t adapt as quickly or in the same way as we would like them to. Or we spend time attacking those we disagree, exposing bad doctrine, challenging poor practice, rather than proclaiming what we DO believe. At least I know that’s true of me.

That’s where Jesus’ practical advice comes in handy. And why I think Matthew included them in his gospel.

“If a member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone.”

Makes sense.

“If the member listens to you, you have regained that one. But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of the two witnesses.”

Good idea. Covers your assets.

“If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if the offender refuses to listen, even to the church, show him the door then give him the business end of your Kodiaks.”

Wow. That’s pretty harsh. But it was the agreed upon process. And it still is. This passage from Matthew 18 has found its way into our church constitution. This is how we’re supposed to handle church conflict. (For you would-be trouble makers - I’m looking at you Wayne - consider yourselves warned.)

In Halifax we had a member who would go visit seniors in the congregation to bully them into changing their wills, having them leave money to the church Endowment Fund, against the wishes of church council. I thought that Endowment Funds were unbiblical. To me it felt uncomfortably close to storing up treasure for ourselves on earth. It assumed that God would stop providing at some point down the line.

But he wouldn’t stop. So, following the first bit from today’s gospel, the council president visited him at coffee hour. She received a pat on the head and was told to run-along.

Then the council president visited him with the former pastor, and they were chased from of his house yelling “You can’t tell me what to do!”

So, the council president brought it up at the annual meeting. It wasn’t exactly a secret that this was going on. Believing he had the support of the majority of the congregation and it was just the “incompetent council and uppity pastor” who had the problem, he unleashed a series of motions meant to swell the Endowment Fund to two million dollars.

He was voted down on all of them. All the money people voted against them. I think even his wife voted against them. They weren’t voting against the motions. They were voting against HIM and all the trouble and anger he caused. They were voting against what he was doing to the church.

No one liked doing that to the guy. But they wanted their church to be the church, they wanted to jump to the end of today’s passage where Jesus says, “Where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.”

Wherever two or three are gathered in a spirit of forgiveness and reconciliation, wherever a couple people come together looking to love the world rather than bully it, wherever a few brave souls really believe that God is still putting broken people back together again, I am there in the middle of them.

While we didn’t take Jesus’ third bit of advice and push the guy out the backdoor - time and age would soon take care of that – his influence in the congregation diminished. He could have been a mentor to young leaders, a warm smile to visitors, or a cheerleader to energy and joy that was happening all over the church. He could have been the elder statesman. But instead, he smoldered on the sidelines.

What I like about this passage is that it looks at church life with terrible honesty. Yes, we will disagree. No, we won’t always get along. We will have competing visions and divergent priorities.

But Jesus tells us what to do when things get really bad. But he also moves quickly into the dream he and his followers have for the world, where forgiveness is at the heart of every relationship because its at the heart of our relationship with God.

And from that forgiveness, the disciples are sent to be agents of reconciliation in a divided world.

For us, God’s of forgiveness Spirit is always hovering over us, even if there’s only a couple of together. May this be so among us. Amen.