Always Reforming – Freedom as Release

Reformation Sunday can be a challenge for Lutherans.  How do we say something that hasn’t been said before?  What can we say that underscores the amazing reality that God loves us first, and that we are made right before God by faith – not by what we do?

It’s quite the counter-cultural thing to grasp – but I know when I finally understood it, it was like the wind had been knocked out of me.  I’m still sorting it all out!

John 8:31-36

31Then Jesus said to the Jews who had believed in him, “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; 32and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” 33They answered him, “We are descendants of Abraham and have never been slaves to anyone. What do you mean by saying, ‘You will be made free’?” 34Jesus answered them, “Very truly, I tell you, everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin. 35The slave does not have a permanent place in the household; the son has a place there forever. 36So if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed.”

Dear people of God, grace and peace and freedom to you this day from our loving God, through Christ.  Amen.

That word.  FREEDOM.  That word carries some serious baggage for us as United States Citizens.

We tend to think of ‘freedom’ as a concept that gives us license to do whatever we want.

I think we all realize that as fun as that might sound, if it’s allowed to run rampant, it just doesn’t end well.

And so I would invite us to think about that word ‘freedom’ differently.  Let’s not think of it as freedom from some human tyrannical overlord or master.

Instead – what if we think of freedom as ‘release’?  Meaning, the broadest possible sense of ‘release’?

Release from rules that keep us from serving the neighbor.

Release from old stereotypes that keep us from seeing our neighbor.

Release from emotional baggage and worries that keep us from loving ourselves.

That kind of freedom is something that goes way beyond what the framers of the US Constitution had in mind.

That kind of freedom is something that eluded Luther in his early days in the monastery.  His dogged pursuit of seeking forgiveness for transgressions both real and imagined drove his confessor, Johann von Staupitz, nuts.  There is a story that once Luther went on for six hours, confessing every possible minute error to Staupitz.  Who is observed in some places as a saint for having put up with Luther.

But that kind of transcendant freedom is what Jesus is talking about here.

It’s a difficult thing to reconcile within our American civil structure, based as it is on personal freedoms.  But the freedom Jesus speaks of is one that is based on God’s love for all of creation.

It’s a freedom that opens us up to change.

There’s a saying that’s associated with the Reformation: Ecclesia semper reformanda est.  The church is always reforming.

Now, we might take issue with whether this is actually happening, but I think that it’s the situation to which we aspire.

The church IS always reforming.  That’s not to say, the church is always throwing out everything that came before and hitching up to every two-bit bandwagon that passes through town.

Nor is it to say that the church is clinging pathetically to a past that largely didn’t exist, along with doo-dads held perilously together with scotch tape and more clutter than any first-rate hoarder.

No.  What it IS to say is that the church is a living, breathing, CHANGING organism.  All organisms change in some manner.  And the change that the church is constantly undergoing is largely one of relevance.

Theologian Phyllis Tickle wrote in her book “The Great Emergence” that the church undergoes a massive shift every 500 years that results in a sort of dogmatic garage sale.  The first one occurred shortly after Constantine converted to Christianity and it became the religion of the empire.  The second was around 1000 AD, when the great schism between the western and eastern church occurred.  Then around 1500, when Luther set the Reformation in motion.

And the most recent one is in process as we speak.

This most recent one finds us at the convergence of a number of crisis situations for the church:

  • A massive shift in how society operates, including the expansion of work hours from Monday-Friday to one that includes weekends
  • Income challenges to many sectors of society, forcing more people to take on more than one job to make ends meet
  • An odd version of “capture the flag” where churches are involved in a considerable amount of in-fighting and name-calling across theological divides and power structures
  • A number of scandals across church lines that have deeply eroded the trust that churches used to carry in our society

I feel confident in stating that church as we knew it for the last 50-100 years is ceasing to exist.  I’m still not sure if feel HAPPY about that – but at the same time, I see tremendous potential in the future.

When Luther stood his ground at the Diet of Worms – and boy, isn’t that the strangest word for a meeting, “diet”, and an really unfortunate match with the city where it happened! – when he stood his ground, I don’t think he was necessarily happy.

But I’d be willing to bet he was convicted.  Determined.  Sure beyond the shadow of a doubt that this WAS indeed where he stood, he could do no other.

And I wonder if in that moment, he realized the fundamental truth that sometimes things have to die for them to realize new life.

After all, the whole point of our faith is that we believe in resurrection.  And we know that without death, there can be no resurrection.

I read a fascinating article this week written by Bishop Elizabeth Eaton, our presiding bishop with whom I’ve had the honor to work.  She is deeply committed to the church and is a really funny person.  She offers these thoughts around the Reformation:

This view of freedom – that freedom is the problem – is well illustrated by Robert Capon in his book, Between Noon and Three. He writes, “If we are ever to enter fully into the glorious liberty of the children of God, we are going to have to spend more time thinking about freedom than we do. The church, by and large, has a poor record of encouraging freedom. She has spent so much time inculcating in us the fear of making mistakes that she has made us like ill-taught piano students: we play our songs, but we never really hear them, because our main concern is not to make music, but to avoid some flub that will get us in trouble.” Think of the systems we have erected, promoted and been trapped in to keep us all in line. We can’t hear the music. And what heavenly music do we miss because we cannot hear? The promise of freedom. The reality that our freedom has been realized through the death and resurrection of Jesus. In our bondage, it has become all about us. Luther’s definition of sin, “the soul curved in on itself” traps us in our own echo chamber.

The soul curved in on itself traps us in our own echo chamber.

Dear friends in Christ, this is the problem in our society.

If we are curved in on the self – if we are engaged what has been called “extended navel-gazing” – then we cannot hear anything other than our own thoughts, our own echo chamber.

We curve in on ourselves because we think we are not enough for God to love us.  We curve in because we are feverishly working to “be better” or “do enough” that God will love us.

Pro Tip: YOU DON’T HAVE TO DO ANYTHING.  You are enough and everything just as you are.

Theologian and pastor David Lose comments that the best way to observe the Reformation is NOT to celebrate it, but rather to REPEAT it.  To look for the places where change is needed, whether that’s in the community, the world, or even your own life.

Shepherd of the Hills has already taken several meaningful steps in this direction.

I wonder what our next step might be?

In the spirit of Luther’s posting of the 95 theses and inviting comment, there are Post-It Notes in the entryway and on the tables in the fellowship hall for you to post your own thesis.  What needs to change?  What is bothering you?  What do you want to see happen?  What do you want to celebrate?  I invite you to write those down and stick them onto a door, ANY door you see.  The kids did this already this morning so if you’re not sure what to do, ask them.

Ecclesia Semper Reformanda Est.

The church is always reforming.

I invite you to be a part of what that might look like.

And in that process, let us remember as our Psalmist claims, “God is our refuge and strength.”

Not studies, or initiatives, or programs, or anything else.

God is our refuge.  And that is truly freedom, defined as release.

Amen.

Running on Faith

As has been the case throughout this fall in Luke, the gospel story this week has a lot going on.  I touched on each of them, and am grateful for Barbara Lundblad’s solid connection of them from her 2019 Festival of Homiletics sermon.

Luke 18:1-8

18Then Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart. 2He said, “In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor had respect for people. 3In that city there was a widow who kept coming to him and saying, ‘Grant me justice against my opponent.’ 4For a while he refused; but later he said to himself, ‘Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone, 5yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming.’” 6And the Lord said, “Listen to what the unjust judge says. 7And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long in helping them? 8I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them. And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”

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Dear people of God, grace and peace to you this day from our loving God, through Christ.  Amen.

I wonder if perhaps you had the same thought as I did when I read this gospel story this week.

“Nevertheless, she persisted.”

We’ve heard this phrase in particular circles, but it sure does work in this gospel story.

This widow persisted until justice was hers.

However, Luke begins telling us this story by saying the disciples were hearing a parable about “their need to pray always and not lose heart.”

I think that’s just one of the things this lesson is teaching us today.  I see not only prayer, but also justice and faith as inherent in this story.

This gospel lesson about a corrupt judge and a widow – one without standing in her society – rings true across all of history.  The one with power, and the one without.  The one who sits on high, and the one who requests access to the upper level of the hierarchy.

If we only see prayer in this model, then we might fall into seeing the judge as God, and us as the widow.  We’re supposed to keep on praying, that’s what it’s all about, as the old song goes.

The problem with that, of course, is that it concentrates on our works instead of God’s grace.  That’s something we call “works theology” – the idea that our standing before God is determined by our good-works scorecard.

Pastor Lia Scholl points out that this could lead us to think “we should just petition God for what we want.  And that if we annoy God enough, we’ll get whatever that is.  So if we wear God down enough, will God fix everything?

And if not, how does this interpretation work for us? If I believe that if I just ask enough, God will make me rich – then what does my poverty say? If you believe that if you just ask enough, God will give you the desires of your heart – then what happens when your heart is broken? And if I believe that God will heal my body if I only ask enough times – then what happens as my body wastes away?”

That’s backwards from what we understand in our Lutheran theology of the cross.  That theology says God meets us in the hard places.  Its opposite, a theology of glory, relies on our being rewarded by God after we’ve racked up enough good deeds to merit that reward.  That falls apart under pressure, for example when you’ve done ALL the right things and you are still just this side of bankruptcy.

The second theme that I see running through this lesson is that of justice.  We’ve been presented with an unjust judge – one who, says Jesus, “neither feared God nor had respect for people” – and the widow who petitions him over and over.  She is seeking justice from the one who has the power to grant it.

This judge who has no consideration for either God or humanity, sounds a lot like the forces in our world that run counter to God’s way of being.  This judge sounds like the powerful who abuse their power.  He sounds like those who exploit the marginalized, like those who ignore the injustices and suffering of all of creation around them.

And the widow sounds like anyone who stands up to say “no more!”

We also might see this story as a question of faith.  After all, that’s Jesus’ question at the end – “when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”

Well, that depends on your definition of faith.  Each one of us has our own understanding of faith.  We’ll come back to this.

The overall posture through this entire story?  One of waiting.

Waiting for an answer to prayer.  Waiting for justice to be done.  Waiting as a work of faith.

I think we’ve all been in each one of these places.  And those places are difficult and painful.  And sometimes they seem mighty long.

How do we not lose heart and maintain the faith in light of the fact that Jesus is not returning as soon as we’d like?

How are we to act if God’s justice is not delivered according to our own timetable?

How do we go on in the face of injustice if God’s ultimate justice only arrives “suddenly” at Jesus’ return?

Luke maintains – and I agree – that our inspiration here is the widow.

We are not to wait quietly for Jesus’ return and accept our fates in an oppression-ridden world. We are instead to resist injustice with the resolve and constancy of the widow. As Jesus explains elsewhere (Luke 11:1-13), prayer is not a passive activity but one that actively seeks God and pursues God’s will.

Like the activity of the widow who was turned down by the judge over and over.

Nevertheless, she persisted.

The 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall is approaching.  I remember the peaceful determination of the people who gathered night after night in the St. Nicholas Lutheran Church in East Berlin.  Their action is largely what led to the dismantling of the wall.

In spite of the clear danger such organizing presented – nevertheless, they persisted.

In the face of ridicule and pressure from the other side of the aisle, and in the reality of failing health, Representative Elijah Cummings of Baltimore continued his work as Chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Reform up until mere hours before his untimely death this past week.

Nevertheless, he persisted.

As followers of Jesus, we are called to be persistent in opposing forces of evil and calling for justice.  It’s such an integral part of what it means to follow Jesus that it’s written into our baptismal promises.

When Jesus compares God to the judge, the real point of comparison is one of contrast.  God is in fact not like this reluctantly responsive judge. God does not need to be badgered into listening, and when God does respond, God does so willingly. If anything, God is more like the widow in her own relentless commitment to justice.  That is what persistent prayer looks like.

And what about faith?

Before this story, Jesus remarks that “the kingdom of God is already among you.”

Framed in that light, this parable is about our faithfulness to persevere.  It’s about seeing God’s justice being enacted all around us, even if it is not yet fulfilled.  We are called to be the widow maintaining the voice of the prophet – not to God but to the unjust rulers of the day.  The question is not if God is hearing us, or if God will eventually be worn down by our prayers.  The question is, will we still be doing the work of justice when we are needed?  Will our faithfulness “keep on keepin’ on?”

For me, this story can be summed up in one question: what do we do with the maddeningly long arc of justice?

That’s the arc described by Dr. King, when he quoted Unitarian minister Theodore Parker: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

Lutheran theologian Barbara Lundblad summed it up well:

  • If we pray without working for justice, our prayers are empty.
  • If we work for justice without prayer, we’ll think it all depends on us.
  • If we pray and work for justice without faith, we will fall to despair when justice isn’t done.
  • Prayer, justice and faith. What Jesus has joined together, let no one put asunder!

Eric Clapton recorded a great song on his 1992 album Unplugged, called “Running on Faith.”  It captures this prayer/justice/faith triad.  When he talks about “love come over me” it is mindful of Cornel West’s statement that justice is what love looks like in public.  And in the tough places of justice-seeking neighbor-love, sometimes we are simply running on faith.

Lately I’ve been running on faith
What else can a poor boy do?
But my world will be right
When love comes over you

Lately I’ve been talking in my sleep
I can’t imagine what I’d have to say
Except my world will be right
When love comes back your way

I’ve always been
One to take each and every day
Seems like by now
I’d find a love who cares just for me

Then we’d go running on faith
All of our dreams would come true
And our world will be right
When love comes over me and you

Then we’d go running on faith
All of our dreams would come true
And our world will be right
When love comes over me and you
When love comes over you

“Running on Faith”  music & lyrics by Jerry Williams

Love has found us – in God incarnate, Jesus the Christ.  And so our whole lives are about running on faith.

In spite of all that rises against us, nevertheless, with God – we persist.

Amen.

Remembering to say thanks

I was inspired this week to frame my sermon around Anne Lamott’s wonderful book “Help, Thanks, Wow: The Three Essential Prayers” (2012, Riverhead Books, a member of Penguin Books USA Inc., New York).  I’ve noted at each of the quotes I used where they are located in the hardbound version.

Luke 17:11-19

11On the way to Jerusalem Jesus was going through the region between Samaria and Galilee. 12As he entered a village, ten lepers approached him. Keeping their distance, 13they called out, saying, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!” 14When he saw them, he said to them, “Go and show yourselves to the priests.” And as they went, they were made clean. 15Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice. 16He prostrated himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him. And he was a Samaritan. 17Then Jesus asked, “Were not ten made clean? But the other nine, where are they? 18Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?” 19Then he said to him, “Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.”

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Dear friends, grace, peace, and light to you from our gracious God, through the healer Jesus.  Amen.

So, is this gospel story about healing, about faith, or is it about thanksgiving and gratitude?

Or is it about something else altogether?

As Lutherans we are a both/and kind of people, so we don’t have to choose.

But there is a lot happening here.  On its face, this is a story about healing.  And while in this story healing means cure, it’s important to remember that those are not equal terms.

This story also encompasses gratitude, in the one leper who returns.  Note that Luke makes a note that it was the SAMARITAN leper who returned.  Luke’s gospel is tireless in its efforts to help us see the other, to see the marginalized who he tends to center in the story alongside Jesus.

But this story is set along Jesus’ way to Jerusalem, and a lot of profound things happen on this part of the journey.  Part of what’s happening here is a particular recognition by the Samaritan leper.  More about that in a moment.

You may be familiar with the author Anne Lamott.  She’s written a number of books that grapple with faith in the midst of everyday life, and her 2012 book is called “Help, Thanks, Wow: The Three Essential Prayers.”  And if you think about it, she’s right.  Those really are the three essential ones, sort of like the praying version of the hiker’s Ten Essentials.

About help, she writes “when…..my other friends and I have run out of good ideas on how to fix the unfixable, when we finally stop trying to heal our own sick, stressed minds with our sick, stressed minds, when we are truly at the end of our rope and just done, we say the same prayer.  We say, “help” (pg. 29).

She continues:  “Most good, honest prayers remind me that I am not in charge, that I cannot fix anything, and that I open myself to being helped by something, some force, some friends, some something.  These prayers say, ‘dear Some Something, I don’t know what I’m doing.  I can’t see where I’m going.  I’m getting more lost, more afraid, more clenched.  Help’ (pg. 35).

This is the cry of all ten lepers in our gospel story.  “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!”  How they knew who he was, of all the people passing them by at a distance, remains a mystery.  But their prayer, “have mercy on us!” is a biblical version of Anne Lamott’s ‘help’ for sure.

She composed a prayer of her own:  Hi, God.  I am just a mess.  It is all hopeless.  What else is new?  I would be sick of me, if I were You, but miraculously You are not.  I know I have no control over other people’s lives, and I hate this.  Yet I believe that if I accept this and surrender, You will meet me wherever I am.  Wow.  Can this be true?  If so, how is this afternoon – say, two-ish? Thank you in advance for your company and blessings.  You have never once let me down.  Amen (pg. 34).

And isn’t this our cry, so many times, in so many different words?  Help.

When Ms. Lamott comes to the chapter about Thanks, she observes how that word can come from many places.  “Now, as then, most of the time for me gratitude is a rush of relief that I dodged a bullet – the highway patrol guy didn’t notice me speed by, or the dog didn’t get hit by someone else speeding by.  Or “OhmyGodthankyouthankyouthankyou it wasn’t all a dream, I didn’t appear on Oprah in my underpants. …..” (pg. 43).

“The second and third levels of this second great prayer,” she goes on, “are said with a heaving exhaustion of breath – THANK you, whoosh.  I found my passport.  The brakes held.  The proliferation of white blood cells wasn’t cancer, just allergies.  Oh my God.  Thanks” (pg. 44).

“We and life are spectacularly flawed and complex,” she says.  “Often, we do not get our way, which I hatehatehate.  But in my saner moments, I remember that if we did, we would shortchange ourselves.  Sometimes circumstances conspire to remind us or even let us glimpse how thin the membrane is between here and there, between birth and the grave, between the human and the divine.  In wonder at the occasional direct experience of this, we say: Thank you” (pg. 45).

This seems to be the central part of our gospel.  “Thanks” is only uttered by one of the ten lepers, the one who is doubly condemned as a Samaritan.  Not only is he an outcast because of his illness, but because of his ethnicity.  There’s a sign at the Temple in Jerusalem that forbids him from entering, so Jesus’ instructions “go show yourselves to the priest” don’t work for him.

Think about that for a minute, and imagine you are the Samaritan leper.  Jesus, the Jewish Master, has healed you from this horrible skin disease, and you realize you can’t even re-enter society because you weren’t welcome in the first place.  And so you do the only thing you can: turn back and thank him for releasing you from the disease, so maybe you could at least try going back home.  In so doing, of course, you are disobeying Jesus.

Or are you?

Maybe this simple action of turning back and saying “thank you” is actually an unconscious realization that it is not what we have done that saves us – the action of going to the priests – but instead what God has done for us, through Jesus directly in front of us.

By turning back and falling before Jesus, the Samaritan formerly-known-as-a- leper has worshiped God in the deepest way: at Jesus’ feet.  We gather week after week in the same way, at Jesus’ feet at the foot of the cross, to tell the stories of remembering what God has done for us in Christ.  Not reserving our thanks for when we get what we want.  And gathering together so that on the days when ‘thanks’ is too hard to pray, the community can hold us and pray it for us.

And then there is the third essential prayer Anne Lamott describes:  wow.

You might think of a prayer of “wow” as a happy one.  Her definition is broader:

“The third great prayer, Wow, is often offered with a gasp, a sharp intake of breath, when we can’t think of another way to capture the sight of shocking beauty or destruction, of a sudden unbidden insight or and unexpected flash of grace.  “wow” means we are not dulled to wonder.  We click into being fully present when we’re stunned into that gasp, by the sight of a birth, or images of the World Trade Center towers falling, or the experience of being in a fjord, at dawn, for the first time.  “w” is about having one’s mind blown by the mesmerizing or the miraculous: the veins in a leaf, birdsong, volcanoes” (pg. 71).this is the place the other nine lepers find themselves.  As they turn to go to the temple, they find they are healed.  WOW.  I mean, WOW!

But what about our Samaritan leper?  Where is his wow?

We might say his wow is wrapped up with his thanks, because while he can’t go to the priests, small p – he can and does go to THE Priest, capital P.  Jesus.

But we of this age can also skip ahead in the book, to the story of Pentecost in Acts.  The book of Acts is considered by scholars to be by the author of Luke, and so it’s possible to consider that perhaps this Samaritan man was present at Pentecost, as one of the hundred and twenty or so believers.  Perhaps his WOW is his sharing in the events of Pentecost, of bearing witness to God’s deeds of power.  Of bearing witness to his healing as one of those deeds of power.

We have nothing to guarantee that this is true.  But it is certainly possible.  The whole event of Pentecost is a communal WOW.

Closer to our own practice, we might turn once more to Luther, as we did last week using his explanation of the Third Article of the Creed.

This week, we turn to his explanation of the first article:

I believe that God has created me and all that exists.
God has given me and still preserves my body and soul
with all their powers.
God provides me with food and clothing, home and family,
daily work, and all I need from day to day.
God also protects me in time of danger and guards me from every evil.
All this God does out of fatherly and divine goodness and mercy,
though I do not deserve it.
Therefore I surely ought to thank and praise, serve and obey God.
This is most certainly true.

Luke, Anne Lamott, and Luther.  Separated over a couple of thousand years, yet all claiming the three essential prayers:

Help.

Thanks.

Wow.

Amen.

 

No cookies for chores

In which I remind myself and my hearers that everyday life involves basic, mundane things that don’t get rewards.  Life in the peaceable realm of God isn’t one that is transactional (work = reward) but transformational (work = thanksgiving).

Luke 17:1-10

17Jesus said to his disciples, “Occasions for stumbling are bound to come, but woe to anyone by whom they come! 2It would be better for you if a millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea than for you to cause one of these little ones to stumble. 3Be on your guard! If another disciple sins, you must rebuke the offender, and if there is repentance, you must forgive. 4And if the same person sins against you seven times a day, and turns back to you seven times and says, ‘I repent,’ you must forgive.” 5The apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith!” 6The Lord replied, “If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you. 7“Who among you would say to your slave who has just come in from plowing or tending sheep in the field, ‘Come here at once and take your place at the table’? 8Would you not rather say to him, ‘Prepare supper for me, put on your apron and serve me while I eat and drink; later you may eat and drink’? 9Do you thank the slave for doing what was commanded? 10So you also, when you have done all that you were ordered to do, say, ‘We are worthless slaves; we have done only what we ought to have done!’”

Dear people of God, grace to you and peace from our loving God, through Jesus.  Amen.

So when you hear this lesson, how do you feel?

Do you feel like Jesus is kind of in a bad mood?

Maybe the disciples have been a tough lot today.  Maybe they’re just annoying him and so he shoots back a snarky answer to get them off his back.

And if you go by face value, it sounds like he’s kind of normalizing slavery.

What up, Jesus?

Actually I think this is one of those lessons where we are reminded that if we read scripture at face value, with our current understandings of language and culture, we’re going to miss the point.  Our takeaway from this might even be something so bad as “Jesus seems to be ok with oppressing some people.”

I’m gonna say right here and right now: that’s not the case.

What’s going on is Jesus is using the reality of his era to make his point.  And it takes a little more effort to figure out what that point is.

The lectionary tells us to begin the reading today at Verse 5, but I’ve taken it back to Verse 1.  I think it’s important to know WHY the disciples say, “Lord, increase our faith.”

And note that the word Luke uses here is “apostles.”  There’s two things to think about here; one, that the author of this gospel is speaking to his audience, not to the 12 disciples; and two, for apostles to ask “increase our faith” is towards a different end than that of disciples.

Both groups, however, are missing what Jesus is trying to tell them.  And that is that the rhythm and circle of life is one that incorporates regular forgiveness of those who have wronged you.  One that incorporates regular coming alongside a friend who seems to be stumbling and saying “you seem to be having some trouble, is there anything I can do?”

And sometimes it’s coming alongside a friend to say, “that thing you did…..not cool.”

But most often, I hear Jesus saying, is that we come alongside not only friend but foe.  That we come alongside the person that has wronged us and we forgive them.  Note that Jesus says “if another disciple” has wronged you, not “if a stranger” has.

And so I wonder if the point Jesus is making here is one that is more directed at how a community of people lives together in harmony.  There are other stories and other lessons at other times in the gospels that address how we treat the stranger.

I’m reminded of something a colleague said long ago, as we compared marriage difficulty notes: “many times we treat complete strangers better than we treat our own families.”

In other words, familiarity breeds contempt.

But what if we approach this from the place where we understand that these things happen.  That folks in close relationships, or close proximity, can step over a line.

And what if the next step is towards seeking the place of forgiveness.

Let’s think carefully here.  If we simply step up and say “I forgive you” there is also the potential for feelings from the other person of being manipulated.  They might doubt your sincerity.

But what if we name it.  What if we say “I felt hurt when you said (this) but I forgive you.  Let’s keep talking.”

Instead of turning this into a major disruption, we’ve recognized that human interaction is difficult, and at times we mess up, and so we try to cut each other a fair amount of slack.  ***Side note: I want to acknowledge that in many situations this simply is not possible, because the other person is not in the same place due to any number of reasons including addiction, anger issues, and so on.  AT NO TIME does Jesus ever mean for us to be a doormat.***

In this story, I think Jesus is saying that forgiveness is something to be spread as far and wide as is possible.  I also think he’s saying that this is what God expects of us.  That this is how followers of Jesus should conduct their lives, day in and day out.

Jesus uses the example of slave and master because it’s a predominant structure that all his hearers would understand.  For our purposes, I’d invite us to think of “worker” and “employer.”

The worker doesn’t get extra thanks for doing the job that’s spelled out in his employment contract.  He or she has agreed to do that job for a particular price.  The hours are spelled out, the tasks are spelled out, and the pay is spelled out.

The employer expects that the worker will do what his or her contract says they will do.  And at the end of the day, the worker expects that the employer will pay them according to the agreement they both signed.

In other words – each does what is expected of them.  Likewise, in the kingdom of God, we do what God expects of us, one aspect of which is forgiveness.

Nobody gets a cookie for doing what is EXPECTED.  It’s when you go the extra mile, dig a little deeper – that’s when the extra reward might come.

Here’s where the grace comes in: if we were to expect a cookie from God – literally or figuratively – after every task, then our relationship with God would be reduced to a transactional level.  And if we do that, it’s all on us, because God does not operate on a transactional level.  No, God is TRANSFORMATIONAL.

Because God is transformational, faith the size of a mustard seed is enough – because faith is something that God through the Holy Spirit causes to grow.  The request in this lesson is “increase our faith” but Jesus’ response is “you have faith the size of a mustard seed but ACTUALLY that’s all you need!  Faith that God will work through you!”

I have experienced this in my own life.  At times when all I knew how to do was simply show up, I heard later from folks that this meant so much to them.

God transformed my showing up into presence that gave people the strength they needed to make difficult decisions, to grieve, to move on.

Like I said, all I knew was to show up.  God took it from there.

I read a commentary this week that pointed out, “faith isn’t an idea, so much as it is a muscle. And the more we use that muscle, the stronger it gets.”

As we hear this story today, what if we think about that mustard seed.  That little seed that we find a bunch of in every cut of corned beef we buy every March.  I believe that each one of us has faith of at least that size.  Faith the size of that mustard seed is plenty enough to be faithful, because being faithful is about recognizing all the places God gives us to simply show up and do what needs to be done.

All of the tasks that get done around Shepherd of the Hills fall into this category too.  All the ordinary stuff we do all the time.  When it’s taken together and blessed by God, it’s extraordinary.

This is everyday faith – the ordinary, extraordinary faith that we’re invited to practice day in and day out. It’s not heroic, but it is essential.

As Mother Teresa famously said: “Not all of us can do great things.  But we can do small things, with great love.”

Which is further illustrated in Micah 6:8:  “What does the Lord require of you, but to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with your God?”

On that road, we will stumble and even fall.

And as companions on the journey, we will help carry the load, and pick one another up when we fall.  Sometimes we’ll need to un-ruffle our feathers a bit.  But that’s all part of figuring this community thing out.

It’s what God calls us to do.  It’s what the world looks to us to see.

May it be found in our midst.

Amen.