Sunday, October 16, 2016

Oct 16, 2016 - Wrestling with God

Genesis 32:22-31; 2 Timothy 3:14-4:5; Luke 18:1-8

When was the last time you prayed? Well, a couple of minutes ago, I guess. What I mean is, when was the last you really, earnestly prayed? For some of you, it might have been last night when you went to bed, or this morning when you got up. Or maybe it was when you were driving to church this morning along the Deerfoot and someone tried to change lanes into you, and you sent up a quick, “Oh, God, don’t let him hit me!” (Who drives like that on Sunday morning??) For some of you, maybe it’s been years since you’ve really, truly prayed. And I’m not here to judge that, because I’ve been there, too.

My real question, though, is when was the last time you yelled at God? Or even argued with God? When was the last time your prayer was a striving, a wrestling, a struggling with God where you said, “You know, God, this is what I want. Not that. And you’re not making it happen, and I’m angry with you!” When was the last time you flat-out challenged God because you didn’t like the way things were changing, or not changing?

It may seem scandalous that I’m even suggesting this. The idea that we should argue with God is certainly not one that is dominant in our tradition. If I suggest to you that this is something we might consider doing, you may think I am contradicting our second reading from 2 Timothy, “But as for you, continue in what you have learned and firmly believed ... for the time is coming when people will not put up with sound doctrine, but having itching ears, they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own desires, and will turn away from listening to the truth.” After all, doesn’t the church teach that we should be obedient to God, and faithful in all things, and not question the decisions of God or complain about what God has given us in life? If God has given us challenges in life, who are we to demand something different? We have been raised in the church to believe that being faithful means being obedient and submitting to God’s will. Obedience has been associated with righteousness, submission with salvation, and bowing our heads results in God blessing us. Disobedience has been associated with sinfulness, self-determination with turning our back on God, and of course, if we turn away from God, then God may very well turn away from us.

And yet. Just because something has been the tradition, doesn’t mean it’s the only way of doing things. Because when it comes to our relationship with God, the Bible actually tells us something different. That is, the Bible tells us more than one thing. Yes, it tells us to be obedient - we have Jesus’ prayer in the garden of Gethsemane that not his will but God’s be done, and we have Abraham’s immediate obedience to God to leave the land of his ancestors and travel to Israel - but the Bible also gives us other stories. And these are the stories we hear today. 

First, we hear the story from Genesis of Jacob wrestling the “man.” Right off the bat, I need to tell you that the English translation we have is misleading. Our English translation says that Jacob wrestles with a “man” until daybreak. But the original Hebrew says ish. Ish is a word that doesn’t have a direct English translation - it is something like a being, and in the Bible, ish most often refers to some kind of divine being - a representative of God. The word that translates most directly to “man” is a’dam, which is what God created on the sixth day of Creation, and where we get the name Adam from. And Jacob is most definitely not wrestling an a’dam. He is not wrestling another human being like us, he is wrestling an ish. A divine being - something that is alternately an angel of God, a representative of God, and God’s own self. Which means that it is more accurate to say that Jacob is not wrestling with a man, Jacob is wrestling with God. And more to the point, Jacob is winning. The ish says, “Let me go,” and Jacob says, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.” Jacob wrestles with God until he receives God’s blessings. Just imagine that! Imagine the audacity of saying to God, I will not let you go, I will not stop wrestling with you, struggling with you, yelling at you until you bless me! We might expect God to strike Jacob dead, but instead, God blesses him. God blesses Jacob, and gives him the name Israel, so that everyone might know that this is the one who wrestled with God and prevailed. God makes public the reality that wrestling with God does not automatically result in death, but in blessing! This is a far cry from wrestling with God and being abandoned. Quite the opposite!

And then we have the parable that Jesus told his disciples, about the need to pray always and not lose heart. And Jesus, who in the Gospel of Luke is interested in social justice and overcoming systems of prejudice and lifting up those who have been treated badly by society, tells his listeners not that they should suffer in silence and just live with things the way they are, but to continue to petition and pray for and nag the one in charge. You see, judges in those days made the rules. There was no comprehensive, binding, explicit code of law like we have today. Instead, each judge was responsible for deciding the outcome of any given situation, based on their own opinion. The judge was the law, in a sense; the ultimate authority - which is why Jesus uses the metaphor of a judge to talk about God. And Jesus encourages us to cry out to and challenge and petition and pray to and nag the ultimate authority until things change. The judge does not lock up the persistent widow. Or ban her from his courtroom. He does not turn his back on her or even just shut his ears to her. Instead, he responds to her. He acts in her favour. He grants her the justice she seeks. Jesus is telling his listeners that God responds to us when we pray and beg and persist.

This is because God has made a commitment to us. God has committed to be our God, no matter what. And being our God means responding to us, being in relationship with us, keeping our “going out and our coming in from this time on and forevermore.” This is what we see in Jesus Christ - living evidence that no matter what we do, no matter whether we angrily drive God to the cross to die or just run away and abandon him, no matter whether we yell at God or turn our backs in silence - God will not abandon us. God’s love for us wins. It’s not our obedience or our submission or our passive acceptance or our silence that ensures that God stays with us. It’s God’s love that ensures that. And God’s love is as enduring as God, because God is love. Love for us. Love for the world. Love for you. It’s a love that endures challenges, that welcomes arguments, that responds to demands for change. Astounding as that might be, the Bible clearly tells us that when we go to God and wrestle for something, God sometimes actually gives us what we’re praying for.

So, knowing that, what do you think you might pray for? Really, truly pray for? What blessing might you wrestle from God? What injustice might you nag God with? What is worth your effort and time? Keep in mind - I’m not saying that God grants us every whim and half-articulated desire. Jacob had to wrestle, all night long, enduring an injury to his hip that made him limp for the rest of his life and no doubt caused him constant pain. We do not emerge from wrestling with God unscathed. And the widow had to be persistent, she to take significant amounts of time every time she went to the judge. She had to be brave and raise her voice to authority and risk her freedom. It is not easy, but even in this God gives us the strength to keep going and to not lose heart.

So what is your prayer? What blessing do you need to wrestle from God? What justice do you need to nag God to avenge? Each one of us will no doubt have something different in mind. Perhaps you are furious over the injustice of ill health as you age, or the injustice of dementia or mental illness. Perhaps you are wrestling with God over the blessing of this congregation continuing. Perhaps you are continually yelling at God over the desperate situation of war in our world that kills millions of innocent children and drives other into the horrific existence of refugees. I know that this week in particular I have been so, so angry with God about the way women have been ignored and dismissed and “handled” as if we are less than God’s creation, and so, so angry that God has allowed other Christians to encourage that misogyny by preaching that women should be silent in church and submit to their husbands and fathers. I wrestle with God that God has allowed to stand in Scripture Bible verses that support that injustice. What are you going to continue to go to God with, over and over and over, like the widow?

I know that those who hold to tradition, and to obedience as the marker of a faithful Christian, might tell us that when we wrestle and challenge and yell and nag that we have “itching ears,” and that we are “turn[ing] away from listening to the truth.” But the truth is that we are God’s children. God is our God. And God, who blessed Jacob, and who avenges injustice against widows, and whose relationship with us is defined by the love we see in Jesus Christ, our God sticks with us in our wrestling and our challenging and our nagging and our praying. So pray always and do not lose heart. Wrestle. Challenge. Nag. You have God’s ear. God is listening. God will not turn away. God may even address the injustice keeping you down, and bless you. Thanks be to God. Amen.

October 2, 2016 - How to Forgive

Luke 17:5-10

So, if you’re finding this to be a confusing reading and you’re sitting there thinking, “I have no idea what that means,” you’re not alone. This Gospel reading takes a lot of unpacking to figure out what Jesus is trying to say, and we’re going to try to do that this morning, and hopefully by the time I’m done it will make a little more sense.

The first thing to look at is Jesus’ bizarre response to the apostles’ request for faith. Actually, it’s not even “Jesus” who responds, it’s “the Lord.” The Gospel of Luke very rarely uses “the Lord” to describe Jesus, so right away we know that we’re supposed to pay attention. This is more than Jesus just talking to the people who happen to be gathered around, this is Luke’s message for Christians who already know who Jesus is, who are already determined to follow in his path, who want to live Christian lives.

And so we have this request for faith. The apostles ask Jesus to give them more faith, and he basically says to them, “What for? What good is more faith?” Jesus says to them, “Even if you had the smallest amount of faith, you would be able to command this large tree to plant itself in the sea, but what would be the point?” You see, trees can’t grow in the sea. If a tree was planted in the ocean, it would die from the saltwater. And both Jesus and the apostles know this. So Jesus is saying, “I could give you more faith, but what would you do with it? It wouldn’t be useful to you in the least.”

Which is a very weird thing for Jesus to say. Don’t we all want more faith? Wouldn’t we all benefit from having more faith? So that our days would be easier when we’re confronted with challenges? So that we could look at the future and feel peaceful and serene and sleep better at night? Why does Jesus dismiss the apostles’ request for more faith?

Well, it has to do with why the apostles want more faith. You see, right before verse 5, where our Gospel reading starts for today, we have Jesus saying to his disciples (not the Lord speaking to his apostles, as it says in verse 5), “If your brother or sister sins, you must rebuke the offender, and if there is repentance you must forgive. And 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.” And then the apostles say to the Lord, “Increase our faith!”” 

Jesus is telling the disciples that they must do something incredibly difficult - they must forgive someone who repents, no matter how many times they commit the same offense - and so the disciples, feeling the challenge of this, turn to the Lord and ask to be given the faith to do it.

Which sounds very Lutheran actually. We know that Jesus sends the Holy Spirit to give us more faith - that faith is not something we get or increase or strengthen by our own will or desire or prayer life. The famous Reformation bible verse from Ephesians (2:8) says, “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God.” Faith comes solely from the Holy Spirit, so if we want more, we ask Jesus to give it. So then why does Jesus ridicule their request? And what does he mean by going on to talk about masters who tell their slaves to make supper and us calling ourselves worthless slaves?
I would suggest that what Jesus is actually trying to tell us is that forgiveness is not connected to faith. Or rather, it’s not connected to faith as we and the disciples understand it, where faith is the belief that Jesus is the Son of God, and that Jesus saves us - faith as something we have, like money or clothes or food - the more the better. This understanding of faith has nothing to do with whether or not we forgive someone who has offended us and who is now repenting.
You see, forgiveness as it was understood in Jesus’ time, and as I think he himself understood it, is about erasing what’s called “moral debt.” When someone does something against you, that hurts you either financially or physically or emotionally, they put themselves in moral debt to you. They owe you financial or physical or emotional compensation. Repentance is when that person comes to you and says, “I repent. I hurt you. I owe you.” Forgiveness is when you say to that person, “Yes, you hurt me, but I am canceling what you owe me.” In the Bible, repentance and forgiveness are transactions. Forgiveness, actually, implies that a debt is owed - that an offence did occur. We don’t forgive innocent people - we only forgive those who are guilty in the first place. So when you forgive someone, you say, You stole seven hundred dollars from me, but I’m telling you that you no longer owe me seven hundred dollars. You hit me seven times, but I’m not going to hit you seven times. You emotionally hurt me seven times, but I’m not going to hurt you seven times. I forgive you; I’m cancelling your debt.

Which sounds all well and good but, when it comes to physical or particularly emotional hurt, is extraordinarily difficult to do. It is very, very hard when someone hurts us emotionally to erase the debt and to let go of our need for compensation. There is nothing that stings quite as painfully as when someone hurts us that way - we never forget it, and in some cases, we never get over it. And yet Jesus tells us that if that person repents, we must forgive them. We must zero their debt to us. We must tell them that they no longer owe us. (Incidentally, I feel like I need a footnote here. I need to be clear that Jesus is talking particularly about forgiving those who repent. Jesus says nothing about forgiving those who don’t repent. If someone doesn’t repent, Jesus doesn’t tell us either way what we should do. I know that a lot of damage has been done by Christian demanding that we forgive those who haven’t even repented, and if that gives you peace, that’s great, but if doing that feels like denying the hurt you’ve gone through, then you can feel free not to forgive someone who hasn’t repented.) 
But if they do repent, Jesus tells us that, as his followers, we must forgive. No wonder the disciples ask Jesus to increase their faith. There are some pains in life that are so severe that it would take a lot of faith for us to dismiss what is owed us.

Except that what it seems Jesus is saying is that having more faith would be about as useful to us in forgiving others as seawater would be in helping a mulberry tree grow. Which is to say, not at all. More faith doesn’t replace the money owed to us, it doesn’t heal the bones that have been broken, it doesn’t take away the life-long crippling of emotional harm.

So, then, how do we forgive? If more faith isn’t the answer, if faith is not compensation for what is owed to us, how do we let go of what is owed? How do we say to the one who repents, “Your debts to me are forgiven?”

We do it by remembering that we ourselves are in debt to Christ. This is what Jesus is getting at when he starts talking about masters and slaves, which makes sense when we think of forgiveness as having to do with debt. Most of the slaves in Israel during Jesus’ time were slaves because of financial debt. They owed something to their masters that they couldn’t pay back, which is why they were now slaves. They had to work off what they owed. Jesus starts by putting the apostles (and by extension us) in the position of the master - someone who is owed something. And Jesus points out that masters typically don’t forgive the debts of their slaves. They don’t invite them to “take their place at the table.” They hold them to their debt and insure that their slaves carry out the labour that is owed to them. This is what it’s like when we don’t forgive someone who has repented. They come to us and acknowledge that they owe us, and then we say, “Fine, get to work paying it off.” Not forgiving is, in fact, perfectly reasonable.
But then Jesus flips everything. He points out that we are not the masters, as we like to think. We are, in fact, the slaves. With our own master. This is why Luke calls Jesus “Lord” in this passage. Because we are slaves to our Lord Jesus. We are in debt to this Lord, and in order to work off that debt, we must work for Christ. And the work that our Lord demands of us is to cancel the debts that others owe us. Forgiving those who come to us in repentance is how our master, our Lord, wants us to work off our debt to him. It has nothing to do with what we believe about Christ. More or less faith is not the issue here. Forgiveness, as an act of Christian servitude, is.

Being slaves of our Lord Jesus means two things. First, and most important, it means that when our master goes into the kingdom of heaven, we go, too. That’s how it worked back then - what happened to the master happened to his whole household, slaves included. So being a slave of Christ means that our entrance into God’s kingdom is guaranteed. How we perform as slaves has nothing do with our salvation. Whether we work or not, whether we forgive or not, has no impact on our status with God.

The second thing it means is that we have to do what Jesus tells us to do. Because we are voluntary slaves. We accept the price our Lord has paid to free us from sin and we have chosen to give up being our own masters and to make Jesus our Lord. Every day that we get up and say, “I am a Christian,” we make that choice. Which means we have chosen to do everything Christ tells us to do. When he tells us to love our neighbours as ourselves, we do it. It’s hard, but we do it. When he tells us to give to the poor, we do it. When he tells us to cancel the debts, to forgive those who owe us and come to us in repentance, we do it.
Mulberry trees planted in the sea are pointless. They don’t do any good for anybody. But forgiveness makes lives better. There is a point to forgiveness. When we forgive others, we free them from the cycle of debt, and make their lives better. That this is what our Lord commands us to do is actually a blessing to us and to the world, and so we say, Thanks be to God. Amen.