Sunday, September 14, 2014

Pentecost 14, 2014: Forgiven and forgiving

Lectionary: Exodus 14:19-31; Psalm 114; Romans 14:1-12; Matthew 18:21-35
Preacher: The Rev Dr Valori Mulvey Sherer, Rector

I shared an article with the vestry at our last meeting as our teaching last week and I’d like to share it with you today. The title is, “You’ll find what you’re looking for” and it’s by Joseph Yoo. It’s a midrash. Yoo talks about a midrash about the story we read from Exodus today which we read today. And here it is: 'As the Israelites were walking across the Red Sea, two of them noticed that now it was safe to walk at the bottom of the sea but it wsn’t completely dry. In fact, it was muddy.

"Ugh," muttered the one. "What in the world is this muck?" And the other said, "There’s mud everywhere. Ugh. This is just like the slime pits of Egypt." And the two grumbled and mumbled all the way across, and because they never once took the chance to look up they never understood why on the distant shore, everyone was singing songs of praise.'

So Yoo concludes: “You’ll find what you’re looking for. If you seek to find negativity, you will surely find it. If you seek to find mistakes, you will definitely find them. If you focus on blemishes, you’ll only find blemishes.”

In our story in Exodus, God said to Moses, the leader of the people: “Stretch out your hand.” Unclench it, open it to receive the gift I’m giving you. Go where I lead you, even if it’s into the muck first, for I have promised to lead you to the Promised Land. Take my people with you. Some are going to grumble. God says to Moses, ‘Do as I tell you even though you can’t imagine why… (remember our discussion last Sunday about trusting God).

There are some who can look up and see the miracle going on all around them. Some who know why there’s singing on the far shore. Those are the spiritually mature, the “strong” as St. Paul calls them. Then there are those who can’t look beyond the mud sticking their feet to the ground. Those are the spiritually “weak” or immature. And Paul said the spiritually weak and the strong will coexist in the churches. One of our purposes as a church community is to live together and journey together into spiritual maturity.

Welcome all, St. Paul says, but not so that you can quarrel over your opinions. Stick to the good news: the good news that on the far shore they’re singing praises and there’s a reason why; the good news that Jesus reconciled the whole world to himself by the forgiveness of our sins - and that’s no small thing.

We are forgiven – something we know best when we repent and our hearts are filled with the grace of God’s mercy and the joy we know when that happens within us is what compels us to go out and forgive others so that they too will know that same joy of entering into the mercy of God.

We are forgiven - and we must forgive as well. Remember how Jesus taught us to pray: “Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us…”

A couple of things about forgiveness: The repentance of the sinner isn’t relevant to our choice to forgive. They might. They might not., Sometimes offering our of forgiveness may be what breaks the bonds that keep them from owning their sin; bonds of shame and guilt. There are times, we simply have to let it go and trust God to keep God’s promises to us; promises of justice and redemption – for them and for us.

Forgiveness sets us free, and also sets the one who sinned against us free – free to enter into the mercy of God. God will work out all the details. We must remember that God seeks to reconcile with the sinner – who in the end, is all of us.

We all sin. We all need to be forgiven. We all need to be forgiving.

Jesus makes this plain in the story of the wicked slave in the gospel. The slave-owner (God) forgives the slave who begs for mercy on the debt he can’t pay. Then that same slave goes out and cruelly and violently punishes those who owe him.

When the slave-owner learns about this, he gets angry: You wicked slave! I forgave you all your debt ... “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 could pay his entire debt” which, according to the amount of the debt was never. So this was punishment for eternity.

Then Jesus gets real with his listeners: “So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart." That’s a serious admonition and we really should take it seriously.

Forgiving from the heart isn’t just speaking the words followed by back-biting and shared resentment-building among your clique later, somewhere outside. This kind of forgiveness takes Christian maturity. It requires us to look up from the muddy muck in which our feet are presently stuck, and see the miracle going on all around us, and go toward that far shore where praise is being sung.

This kind of forgiveness seeks the best for the offender and those hurt by the offense. Both are worthy of grace; both are worthy of love.

Redeemer knows what is required for forgiveness from the heart. We’ve been given lots of opportunities to practice this and grow in our collective spiritual maturity. Some individual members have done that more than others. But as St. Paul says, we must neither despise nor judge one another for we are all moving into our maturity, each at our own pace, each being led and directed by the Holy Spirit.

We can’t change the past but we can forgive it, we can let it go and be free – free from the pain, the hurt, the anger, and the desire for revenge. When we forgive we let go our need to be right, our habit of complaining, and our justification to hate. It doesn’t matter whether everyone, or even anyone, agrees with our memory of the past and it doesn’t matter how well we can explain why we hurt or attacked someone else.

What does matter is what we do in this present moment. Do we choose to hold onto our anger whether or not it’s righteous, and our betrayal? Do we choose to stay stuck in the mud and smother our present lives under the weight of old guilt or resentment?

Or do we choose freedom? We can all choose freedom. It’s as simple as that – making a choice.

Our own Archbishop Desmond Tutu says: “Forgiveness is a choice we make, and the ability to forgive others comes from the recognition that we are all flawed and all human. We have all made mistakes and harmed someone. We will again. It is always easier to practice forgiveness when we can recognize that the roles could have been reversed. Each of us has the capacity to commit the wrongs against others that were committed against us.”

And so we work to forgive anyone who has hurt us, harmed us, betrayed us, angered us, ignored us, made us feel ugly or worthless or embarrassed. We work to forgive those who shut their eyes and cover their ears to the truth – to our truth – whether it’s because they can’t hear it or because they won’t hear it. We work to forgive those who should have known better, and should have loved us better, but didn’t – or couldn’t.

Each of us will need to be forgiven at some point in our lives, and each of us will need to forgive someone – from the heart. When we make the choice to forgive, I commend this poem from Mpho Tutu, Desmond Tutu’s daughter. It’s called “I will forgive”

“I will forgive you.
The words are so small, but there’s a universe hidden in them.

When I forgive you, all those cords of resentment, pain, and sadness
that had wrapped themselves around my heart
will be gone.

When I forgive you, you will no longer define me.
You measured me, and assessed me,
and decided that you could hurt me,
that I didn’t count.

But I will forgive you because I do count.
I do matter.
I am bigger than the image you have of me.

I am stronger. I am more beautiful.
I am infinitely more precious than you thought me.
I will forgive you.

My forgiveness is not a gift that I am giving to you.
When I forgive you,
my forgiveness will be a gift that gives itself to me.”


Monday, September 8, 2014

Invocation given at Moral Monday, Shelby 09/08/14

O God, we know that we are all made in your image and are, therefore, reflections of your love, mercy, justice, and grace. Look with compassion on us as we gather here today; take away any arrogance and hatred which may infect our hearts; break down whatever walls separate us; unite us in bonds of love; and work through our struggle to accomplish your purposes on earth, today and every day.

We pray for our President, our judiciary, and all of the political leadership in this great state and across our country. Grant them wisdom and grace, courage and integrity, compassion, and foresight to provide for the needs of all our sisters and brothers of every age, race, gender and sexual orientation; the educated, the uneducated, the lost, the found, the rich, the poor, and everyone in between.

Remembering that you created us all, love us all, and call us all to love one another as you have loved us, we humbly turn to you, relying on the strength of your steadfast love for us, and we commit ourselves in this moment, to accept our responsibilities as citizens of one family – the family of God, in all our rich diversity- that we may all work together for the well-being of our society and serve you faithfully in our generation. In your Holy Name we pray. Amen.

Article in Shelby Star: Radiate Love

Published August 29, 2014

I read a book years ago called “Salvation on Sand Mountain: Snake Handling and Redemption in Southern Appalachia” by Dennis Covington. It’s a true story about snake handling Christians in the Sand Mountain area of Alabama, near where AL, GA and TN share a border. The story begins with a pastor who gets drunk and deliberately tries to kill his wife by placing her hand into a crate full of rattle snakes. Though bitten several times, she lives, and he goes to prison.

The Sand Mountain believers live out a rigid devotion to the law as they find it in Scripture. For these believers, the Bible is literally understood. Everything you could want to know about how to live, what to eat, how to dress, how to cut your hair (or not cut it if you’re a woman), they say, can be found in the Bible. Their faith centers on Mark 16:16-18: “And these signs will accompany those who believe: by using my name they will cast out demons; they will speak in new tongues; they will pick up snakes in their hands, and if they drink any deadly thing, it will not hurt them; they will lay their hands on the sick, and they will recover.”

For the Sand Mountain folk, there’s no question, no alternative. You do what the Bible tells you, and they believe the Bible tells the saved to handle snakes and drink strychnine. They refuse medical treatment and heal snake bites by prayer and laying on of hands. This is what is called the ‘Galatian error’ which St. Paul addresses in his epistle to that church: “Stand firm and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery. For you were called to freedom…” (Gal 5:1)

As individuals and as a Christian community, we are called to freedom, which is to live being guided by the Spirit of God. This is risky, however, because it means letting go of all the safety and certainty the law and the world seem to provide and steadfastly refusing to be divided again by gender, race, class, sexual orientation or any other worldly and ‘lawful’ distinction.

Living a life of faith means trusting that Almighty God, who is always faithful, can and will act to redeem and restore “shalom” the way things ought to be. It means working to learn how to hear God who is still speaking to us, not only in our hearts, minds, and bodies, but also in and through our varied and diverse communities.

Living in the freedom of our faith requires that we remember how we all came to have salvation. We are saved because God acted to save us, and God acted to save us because God loves us. Our salvation is a gift freely given by our loving Lord, Jesus Christ. The only thing we can actually do is respond to that gift in faith and humble gratitude, living the life of freedom we were given and opening the way for all people to do the same.

While it can be tempting to spend our lives chasing after spiritual law-breakers,” that isn’t our purpose. We aren’t called to judge. We’re called to manifest the love of God in the world. As Mother Theresa of Calcutta once said, “When you know how much God is in love with you then you can only live your life radiating that love.”
Radiate some love. It’s transforming.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Pentecost 13, 2014: Trust God

Lectionary: Exodus 12:1-14 ; Psalm 149; Romans 13:8-14; Matthew 18:15-20
Preacher: The Rev Dr Valori Mulvey Sherer, Rector

En el nombre del Dios: Padre, Hijo, y Espiritu Santo. Amen.

We began our worship together with this phrase: Grant us, O Lord, to trust in you with all our hearts… Today is a special day in the life of the Church of the Redeemer and the Word of God given to us today carries a special message which is perfect for us to hear today.

Let’s begin with the reading from Exodus. Why is God so specific in the instructions to the Israelites? Obedience. God is calling the people to obedience, which means to hear and respond.

God is saying: ‘Will you trust me, just trust me, even if you don’t know why I’m asking all of these things? Will you trust me, and keep trusting me over and over – no matter what you see or experience. Trust me to always be with you, to always take care of you. Then gather together as a community and remember this. Celebrate it. Celebrate the relationship we have – a relationship where I care for you and you trust me to do it.

Then the psalmist calls us to sing, rejoice, dance, and play – to give thanks to God in the congregation, which means in church, and rejoice in the relationship we have with God. Monk and theologian Thomas Merton once said: “To be grateful is to recognize the Love of God in everything [God] has given us – and [God] has given us everything. Every breath we draw is a gift of [God’s] love, every moment of existence is a grace…”

Then in the letter to the Romans, Paul tells us to love, love, love, love, love. Live honorably in the light of the love of God in Christ which is in you. If you trust in God for all you need then you no longer have to steal someone else’s spouse in order to feel loveable, or drown your pain and emptiness in lcohol or drugs, or overindulge in things that can’t satisfy the hunger you know is within you.

Wake up, Paul says. Wake up and remember the relationship you have with God. The freedom you seek isn’t freedom from rules. It’s the freedom to rest in the peace of God’s steadfast love and care. So, live together in peace, he says. Stop quarreling.

Then in the gospel of Matthew, Jesus teaches us how to live as a community committed to reconciliation, because sometimes, living in a community of faith is going to be hard. People who are used to being selfish or controlling or downright abusive out of their fear or insecurity, may choose not change when that behavior is challenged.

When a person sins against you, Jesus says, and refuses to be reconciled even after you have spoken to them; even after you have brought witnesses to support you; and even after the church community affirms their experience of the sin; then, let that one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. That is, cast them out from the community and have no contact with them.

Jesus uses this moment to remind his followers of his previous teaching on binding and loosing. We can bind or loose, but if we are doing that from our own strength, our own understanding, then we are the proud whom God resists because it is our will, not God’s will, we are manifesting.

The verbs for "bind" and "loose" are in the perfect tense in Greek which would translate literally as: what we bind on earth is that which is already bound in heaven; and what we loose on earth is that which is already loosed in heaven. Author and theologian Leon Morris says, “The point is not that Jesus is giving the church the right to impose its judgment on heaven, but that God is giving the church the ability (with the help of the Holy Spirit) to discern judgments that God has already put in place in the heavenly realm. (Morris, Leon, The Pillar New Testament Commentary: The Gospel According to Matthew (Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 1992), 469)

“Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”

That’s why Jesus says that when two of us agree about anything, it will be done because it is the will of God revealing itself to us in community. This isn’t God doing what we ask. It’s us waking up to and discerning God’s will for us. And we do this together.

After our worship service, we will go down to our Parish Hall and discern God’s will for us in this moment of our common life as a community of faith. Having gathered as a community to give our thanks and praise to God and remembering our relationship with God and one another, we go down to this meeting in peace, trusting in God with all our hearts remembering that God is always with us, caring for us and calling us to be faithful.

I close with one final bit of wisdom from our heavenly prayer partner, Thomas Merton (to whom we give thanks for his prayerful wisdom): “You do not need to know precisely what is happening, or exactly where it is all going. What you need is to recognize the possibilities and challenges offered by the present moment, and to embrace them with courage, faith and hope.” Amen.

Note: Merton quotes from: