Sunday, September 14, 2014

Welcome Accountability

Matthew 18:21-35 (p. 24)
21 Then Peter came and said to him, ‘Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?’ 22Jesus said to him, ‘Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.

23 ‘For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves. 24When he began the reckoning, one who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him; 25and, as he could not pay, his lord ordered him to be sold, together with his wife and children and all his possessions, and payment to be made. 26So the slave fell on his knees before him, saying, “Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.” 27And out of pity for him, the lord of that slave released him and forgave him the debt. 28But that same slave, as he went out, came upon one of his fellow-slaves who owed him a hundred denarii; and seizing him by the throat, he said, “Pay what you owe.” 29Then his fellow-slave fell down and pleaded with him, “Have patience with me, and I will pay you.” 30But he refused; then he went and threw him into prison until he should pay the debt. 31When his fellow-slaves saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their lord all that had taken place. 32Then his lord summoned him and said to him, “You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. 33Should you not have had mercy on your fellow-slave, as I had mercy on you?” 34And in anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he should pay his entire debt. 35So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.’

This is the Word of the LORD
Thanks be to God

Romans 14:1-12 (p. 198)
1Welcome those who are weak in faith, but not for the purpose of quarreling over opinions. 2Some believe in eating anything, while the weak eat only vegetables. 3Those who eat must not despise those who abstain, and those who abstain must not pass judgement on those who eat; for God has welcomed them. 4Who are you to pass judgement on servants of another? It is before their own lord that they stand or fall. And they will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make them stand.

5 Some judge one day to be better than another, while others judge all days to be alike. Let all be fully convinced in their own minds. 6Those who observe the day, observe it in honor of the Lord. Also those who eat, eat in honor of the Lord, since they give thanks to God; while those who abstain, abstain in honor of the Lord and give thanks to God.

7 We do not live to ourselves, and we do not die to ourselves. 8If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s. 9For to this end Christ died and lived again, so that he might be Lord of both the dead and the living.

10 Why do you pass judgement on your brother or sister? Or you, why do you despise your brother or sister? For we will all stand before the judgement seat of God. 11For it is written,

‘As I live, says the Lord, every knee shall bow to me,
   and every tongue shall give praise to* God.’
12So then, each of us will be accountable to God.

This is the Word of the LORD
Thanks be to God.

Thursday afternoon, Leah took me hiking.

We hiked King’s Pinnacle, a four-mile round trip that is categorized as “strenuous.” Most days I’m all for it, but this past Thursday I was resistant. I was more interested in a lazy late summer day at home than challenging nature and my own ability. But wanting to spend time with my wife won the day, and to the mountain we went.

Leah is in better shape than I am, and likes to push herself on hikes so that she gets a good workout. I kept up with her pretty well for all but the top half mile. That’s the part that gives the trail it’s “strenuous” rating.

That last half-mile, she took the lead. Once we reached the pinnacle, she ranged around at the top, taking in the view. I found a place to sit down, drink some water, and catch my breath. She was appreciating the beauty all around her, I just wanted my heart to beat the way it was designed to do. But we moved a little ways off of the path and she shared with me that part of why she needed to climb that mountain was stuff was starting to get to her. All the worries of contemporary life can weigh us down, and she needed a change in elevation to get an escape from it.

At the top of a mountain there's a shift in perspective. For Leah, that means she can leave behind all the mess and worry of the world, it all seems so small, so manageable at the top of king's pinnacle. The hike gives her the change she needs to sweat some of it out, to stretch herself and prepare to be reminded that everything that had loomed so large is really so tiny when you're watching from a pinnacle. The hard work of hiking reminds her that she’s alive, and the beautiful and peaceful view at the top reminds her of the creator who gives her life. In that face of all that, everything else seems so small. 

The last couple of days there have been some pretty significant thunderstorms. The other night I wandered out into our carport, which is covered but only has two walls. Leah joined me a a couple of minutes later, wondering in part where I had wandered off to. We dropped the tailgate on the truck and watched the lightning flash and listened to the thunder rattle around the countryside.

I told her that I understand the science behind it, how it's all atmospheric discharge, and potential difference, and static electricity on a massive scale. How the thunder is the remnants of a shock wave triggered by the lightning. But even with all that knowledge and ability to describe it, there's still something primordial about a thunderstorm, a divine power that reaches beyond science's ability to describe it, at least for me.

Sitting down and watching at thunderstorm reminds me of how small I am, it's a shift in perspective from trying to carry my own burdens, and if I'm honest, trying to carry the burdens of others too, but the shift in perspective reminds me that I do not have to be a Titan, holding up the world. In fact, the thunderstorm reminds me that I cannot hope to carry everything I might try and pick up. The power of those thunderstorms also reminds me that the God who puts those storms together is so much larger even than the greatest storms, and even though I can only sit and watch in awe of the violence of two thunderclouds wrestling each other, I know also that God is, and that the God who loves me is powerful enough to make some changes. When one glimpses the immense greatness of God, one feels very small in comparison, but I also feel very safe in those moments. It shifts my perspective, as the only cliche goes, from how big my storm is to how big our God is.

So there's two examples of shifts in perspectives. One where the problems look smaller, one where I look smaller. But both shifts refocus us away from the cloud of troubles that buzz around our heads constantly and on to the God who directs our steps. The mountaintop and the thunderstorm remind us of scripture’s promise: “We do not live to ourselves, and we do not die to ourselves. If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s.“

I could not begin to count the number of ways in which we can lose sight of who we are and whose we are. Sometimes it seems like life’s circumstances are conspiring to throw us off our true identity as a redeemed people of God. Our perspectives move off center and tell us that we belong to this or that political party, or denomination, or club. But all of those are distractions, which can only hold us for a moment. In life and in death, we belong to God. “It is before [our] own lord that [we] stand or fall. And [we] will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make [us] stand.”

Paul teaches us that we should welcome those who are different from us, but keeps us from fixating on those differences. Paul reminds us of our identity is rooted in God’s action on our behalf, rather than our own actions in response. Our perspectives shift from trying to find those like us to reminding us that God allows us to stand from a position of grace, not of deserving or “rightness.”

The shift in perspective frees us from having to keep track of all that nonsense that waits for us every morning when we get up. When Peter asks Jesus "How many times should I forgive? As many as seven times?" Jesus's answer totally shifts the focus. Instead of paying attention to his neighbor's wrongdoing, as Peter's question implies, Jesus talks about God's forgiveness, and our own response to it. The funny thing is, not much is expected, we just have to go into the world and with gratitude, and be changed by the free gift of God's grace.

[Talk through the gospel passage]

"How could that miserable creep come rolling out of the King's palace on a highway of mercy, fresh from being forgiven the equivalent of the national debt, only to shut off the water to his own debtor?" (Long 212). But then Jesus puts us in the place of the same wicked servant, and suddenly this story is less comfortable.

We learn that limitless forgiveness from Christ, who calls us to do likewise. That's not an easy task. It's so much easier to take advantage of what God gives us. It's so much easier to take our divinely-given freedom and use it as leverage to control others. It's so much easier to focus on ourselves, rather than our God.

Paul's talking about exactly that temptation. In 1st century Rome, the church was struggling with its identity as a new world religion emerging out of the sect of judaism it had been. There were questions about the centrality of Jewish Law, and about the covenant people as traced back to Abraham. There were questions about meat that had been offered to idols, and questions about which day would be the christian sabbath: the jewish sabbath of sunset Friday through Saturday, or Sunday when Christ was raised up.

God is Lord of every day. And Paul is really tired of these small-minded doctrinal questions. "Paul is not negating political, doctrinal, or moral realities, but he disarms the finality of all such judgements by reminding us that they are not ultimate, that first and last we stand not because we are in the right, but because by grace we are the Lord's (Greenway 66) The unity of the church is paramount for him. Paul knows that a culture like the Roman Empire is not likely to tolerate such strange behavior as the radical love shown by the church. Saying that Jesus is Lord, rather than Caesar, is still a risky claim, and the empires and institutions that stand to gain from caesar are not likely to stand by while their power base is challenged. A divided church is that much easier for the outsiders to tear down, because the church would already have been doing it itself.

So Paul charges us to welcome those who disagree with us, but our disagreement is not the focus. The focus remains on God, who calls us from our various different perspectives, who gives us our faith and fosters its growth. Paul shows us that living as Christians means that we will have disagreements, but also that we will not be defined by them. Perhaps the theological diversity to which Paul calls us is a testament that our God is so great that his church can hold us all together when no logic says we are compatible.

Paul, here, is teaching us that in a world that tries so hard to divide us into our various camps based on social standing and theological and political convictions, that we can still remain one in Christ. The church can and should live in, as the hymn says, “Perfect submission, all is at rest, I in my savior am happy and blest. Watching and waiting, looking above, filled with God’s goodness and lost in Christ’s love.”

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