Posts Tagged ‘forgiveness’

How Are We Supposed to Prepare Ourselves 11-9-14

This morning’s sermon is based on Matthew 25:1-13, the parable of the 10 Bridesmaids. Jesus instructs us to be prepared, and I explore just what that means for us.

You can listen to the sermon here:
https://soundcloud.com/revdalen/how-are-we-supposed-to-prepare-ourselves-11-9-14

You can also follow along with the text of the sermon here:

Grace and Peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen

Over the course of this week, I found myself reflecting back on the process that prepared me for pastoral ministry…namely the process of candidacy through the Synod office, which I began in the fall of 2007…including 3 separate steps which were completed at different stages alongside the process of my seminary education.

Both candidacy and seminary included a lot of milestone moments…each defined by a specific portion of time and effort…there were papers to write, interviews to endure, work to do…and in many instances, I found myself in a big hurry to finish some specific requirement by a deadline…only to find myself then in the process of waiting for that next step to occur…but one trend emerged throughout all that time and all those steps…for each and every one of them, I had to be prepared, even those that I really didn’t know what to be prepared for.

As I look back at all those different steps, I think my favorite one was my year of internship, fairly late in the whole process…a time when I was able to start putting all the theory into practice…experiencing ministry by doing it in a congregational setting…and while the year of internship had its fair share of times that I had to be prepared in one way or another…there is a specific instance that really stands out in my memory.

Fairly late in the year I had the opportunity to go along for a week in Green Bay, WI on a Junior High mission trip. Admittedly I was pretty excited about this whole deal. I’d been teaching the jr high confirmation class all year and had a pretty good relationship with most of the kids…I did, and still do, claim to be on the same mental level with jr high students so it promised to be a good time.

During the week in Green Bay, we had one evening of “free time” and the plan as the group, including about 40 kids and 5 adults…to head off to a small amusement park. We divided up into groups, and I found myself surrounded by about 6 or 7 8th grade boys…and we joked around as we headed off to our first destination…the roller coaster.

Now this particular roller coaster was an old time wooden coaster…and if you’ve ever ridden of those, you know that the safety system that keeps you in the cart…while certainly functional…isn’t exactly the most comfortable situation…2 people to a car, with a big metal bar that locks down over your lap. It keeps you there, but there’s a lot of sliding back and forth as you go around curves…not to mention a certain amount of bouncing up and down when you go over to top of hills.

Now as this group of young gentlemen and I took on the coaster for the first time we were all surprised at a certain point towards the end of the ride when a very quick hump lifted us up before immediately yanking us right back downwards again…and with the loose safety bar situation…you can imagine the reaction when we unexpected made contact with that bar locked down across our laps.

Interestingly enough, being jr high boys…and one adult leader on the same mental level…we all got quite the charge out of that…and it was certainly the immediate topic of conversation as we exited the coaster…and it took us all about 5 seconds to decide that we needed to go again.

Now on our second time around…as we approached this certain spot on the coaster…all of us anticipating the shock that we would once again experience…I yelled out the boys. “PREPARE YOURSELVES!!!!” and heard laughter from the whole crew for a brief second until everyone…once again…reacted to meeting with the cross bar…Now let me tell you…this whole group got such a kick out of the whole situation, that we actually named that portion of the roller coaster “prepare yourselves” and we spent the next hour standing alongside the coaster itself, just so we could laugh at the reaction of every single guy that went over it. (pause) Was it wise on our parts, probably not…was it foolish? Most likely…prepare yourselves.

This notion of being wise or foolish regarding being prepared pulls us right into the gospel lesson today…the parable of the 10 bridesmaids…a well-known tale that cautions us to “be prepared.” (pause) Now if we stop for a moment and think about just where we are in the church year, perhaps this passage starts to make a little more sense. It’s November, and we find ourselves rapidly approaching the end of the season of Pentecost…just a couple more weeks from now…and the season of Pentecost is one where we as the church take a long look at the ongoing history of the church itself…beginning with the acts of the apostles shortly after Jesus ascension…and culminating now as the church looks forward to the end times.

And this is exactly where our passage occurs today. In the chapter just before this passage, Jesus has been talking about the last days…speaking very apocalyptically to his followers about what will happen…about what to expect when all of this comes winding down to a close before Jesus returns…Matthew’s gospel is certainly keen on this notion as well…often times we catch glimpses of what is to come…of the trials and tribulations…of the final judgment to come…and today’s story does more of the same.

The bridegroom is coming…but when? That’s the real question…both the question for us today as we think about Christ…the ultimate bridegroom coming back for his bride…the church…as well as for the proverbial bridesmaids in the parable.

Now speaking of these 10 bridesmaids…we can raise the question of just what exactly were they doing? I wish I could give you some sort of perspective, but in all honesty I don’t really know that much about 1st century wedding customs to know what they were up to…all I know is that the groom goes and fetches his bride…and brings her to the wedding feast…and apparently the bridesmaids are tasked with bringing along a lamp and escorting them as they go.

And when we take a look at these 10 girls…all 10 were ready to do that…all 10 picked their lamps…and stepped out into the street to wait…ready to do their duty…and what happens? Well…for whatever reason…the groom doesn’t show up when he’s supposed to…and darkness falls…and still they’re waiting…and as none of them had a smart phone to mess around with while they stood around…they got bored…and they got tired…and all 10 of them konked out. All 10…wise and foolish alike…and then, in the middle of the night when things are at their darkest…they are jolted awake when suddenly he decides to show up.

Now at this point all 10 discover that their lamps are out of oil…and here’s where the division starts…5 had thought ahead and brought a flask of extra oil…and 5 hadn’t. 5 were ready for this unseen delay…and 5 weren’t…all 10 were ready for their duty in the evening…but only 5 were prepared to wait.

And that’s the kicker right there…these 10 girls found themselves in a situation where they needed to be prepared to wait…but they didn’t know it until they were faced with the reality.

And so I pose to the question today, how are we supposed to be prepared for every unforeseen situation? (pause) Think about it…were those 5 wise bridesmaids simply type A personalities who thought about every single contingency? Perhaps…and maybe the 5 foolish ones were simply more reactive…getting themselves ready for the task at hand and never thinking that it might go beyond that.

And so think about that for a second…since parables are aimed at pointing out the truth of our situations to us, which side do you fall on? Wise…or foolish…oil or no oil…prepared or reactionary? (pause) Does one side resonate with you? Or maybe, just maybe can you see yourself in both groups at one time or another? I know I’m guilty of that.

There have been certainly situations in my life where I have “carried extra oil.” One simple example involves packing for our yearly trip to Colorado. Knowing that we experience hot and cold…back and forth…each and every day I have the tendency to fill a suitcase with all kinds of clothes…and honestly, way more than I need…all I’m really accomplishing is taking up unneeded trunk space…but hey, I’m prepared…but on the other hand…I have the tendency to be very reactive…particularly in ministry situations…long range planning…not one of my gifts…but if there’s a confirmation class pending in a day or two, I can write you a lesson. (pause)

Think about it…isn’t that our situation…completely back and forth between these two groups…ready one hand and caught totally off guard on the other? (pause) I think so…but if that’s the case for most of us…if not all of us…then just how are we supposed to be prepared in that unknown day and hour when the Father finally looks at the Son and says “Okay…time to head on back.”

No one knows the day or the hour when Jesus is coming back…and despite claims in recent years by individuals who have “cracked the code” and predicted when it’ll be…the reality of the situation is Jesus is coming back…sometime…but we don’t know when…and yet he tells us that we must be prepared.

The 5 foolish bridesmaids were caught off guard, while the 5 wise ones lucked into their situation…blind luck…that’s really all it was…because what if the groom had waited till morning…it would have been light outside and the lamps would have been useless…and all 10 girls would have walked through that door with him. (pause)
No one knows the day or the hour…so live your lives in a way that is prepared…because while Jesus might not come back in our lifetime…he might come back this afternoon…we just don’t know…and since we don’t know…we ask the question again…how can we be prepared? How do we live our lives as if he’s coming back in a moment, when history and our gut instinct tells us that we likely will not live to see it for ourselves?

This is the pickle that we find ourselves in…caught in the tension of living as if Jesus is coming back now, even if he doesn’t…of trying to balance out our own interests and endeavors while still living for him….this is the pickle…this is the Christian condition…living with the knowledge that the promises of God are both now and not yet…How are we supposed to do that? (pause)

You know what…I think Jesus himself actually gave us that answer…because there was a time when he was sitting there and someone asked the question “what’s the most important commandment?” That random stranger might as well have been asking the question “how are we supposed to live to keep God happy?” (pause) And Jesus responded…really quite simply…Love God…and then love your neighbor. (pause) Yah but that can’t be it can it…there has to be more to it than that right? Love God…and then love your neighbor.

Well what about those times when we mess it up? Because those times happen don’t they? If the answer is really Love God and Love your neighbor then hallelujah…because we have moments when we fall into the wise category…(pause) But…we also have moments when we screw that up don’t we?

And so, as a community of faith…as a community of believers, we offer a word of grace and forgiveness to one another…that’s one of the reasons that we gather here for worship…to hear a word of forgiveness for those times when we are unprepared…when we are foolish…and we praise God in the promise that right now…today…the door to the celebration is still wide open…and that God desires for you to walk through it.

And so today if you find yourself longing to walk through that door…and you are wondering if in fact you are worthy…if you are acceptable…if the door will be open for you, then know this…through the power of Jesus Christ, made real through his life death and resurrection you are cleansed from your sin…and to hear this and believe it to be true is to believe the promise of God to be true and clinging to that promise is what makes you prepared. (pause)

Love God…and love your neighbor…have you messed that up lately? Yah? Okay, own it…and by doing so you are repenting of it…and God promises that when you do that, you are a new creation through Jesus Christ…and if that’s good news, then hold onto it…because tomorrow, you might need to say it to someone else…That’s why we come together in fellowship. I say it to you…and tomorrow you say it to me…and together, we are prepared to wait. Amen.

Quality Not Quantity 9-14-14

Today’s sermon is based on Matthew 18:21-35. Within the text Peter asks Jesus to clarify how many time we are called to forgive someone who sins against us. Jesus responds far beyond Peter’s expectations, and shares the parable of the unforgiving slave. Within the sermon I explore Jesus’ response and just how we are to respond within our own lives.

https://soundcloud.com/revdalen/quality-not-quantity-9-14-14

Grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen

Last Tuesday afternoon I ended up in Neola at the community center, cranking out a pint of blood for the Red Cross. As I sat there with my feet up chatting with the nurse, I was transported through a montage of my childhood…because playing in the background was an extended playlist of 80’s music. I heard Madonna and Tears for Fears and Prince just to name a few.

The nurse and I were joking around about it, both being children of the 80’s and the next I knew we were talking movies…and perhaps I’m biased…but I tend to think that the 80’s produced the best batch of “classic movies” out of any decade…and one in particular comes to mind. Ferris Bueller’s Day Off…arguably the pinnacle of John Hughes’ career.

If you’re unfamiliar, Ferris Bueller, a high school senior from Chicago decides that he needs one last day off from school before he graduates…and not only does he pull it off with his parents, but crazy hijinks ensue while the whole day, his principal tries to bust him…starting off with a phone call to Ferris’ mother.

Mrs. Bueller, are you aware that your son is not in school today? Do you know how many days he’s missed this year? Oh I don’t know 3 or 4? 9 times…9 times? NIIINNNNEEE TIIIMES? (pause). Within this conversation, the principal is very intentional about quantifying the number of absences of our hero…Mr Bueller.

And its this notion of quantity…of assigning a number that draws me into todays gospel lesson…Directly following last week’s passage, when Jesus gives guidelines for being reconciled with a brother or sister that has sinned against, Peter…ever the impulsive one, asks a question of clarification of Jesus…and I can about imagine just how that conversation really went. (pause)

“So, Jesus, just how many times should I forgive? Like, seven?” (thumbs up, gesturing up) “More than that, my friend.” (pause) “Ok, like seventeen?” “Not even close.” (pause)“Wait, like twenty-seven?” “Keep going.” (pause) “You’re kidding, right? Thirty-seven?” “Try seventy-seven times.” (pause) “But that’s ridiculous! Impossible![1] Seventy-Seven times?” “SEVVVEEEENTYYYY SEEEEVVVVINNNN TIIIIMES.” (pause)

Now clearly this is a shocking number for Peter, regardless of if we read it as 77 or 70 times 7…either of which are valid translations of Jesus’ response…but as we think about it, perhaps we begin by questioning Peter’s motive for his question in the first place. Jesus is talking about forgiveness…and he has told us to offer it…to be reconciled…seems pretty open and shut so just why does Peter ask in the first place?

Well, perhaps its his Jewish heritage…obviously Peter as well as the other disciples would be familiar with the law…they had the 10 commandments not to mention the rest of the over 400 laws handed down in the Old Testament…so perhaps Peter is just trying to get the specifics…making sure he’s got his bases covered…and so he offers a legitimate question of quantity…how many times must I forgive Lord? Even as many as 7 times? (pause) And interestingly enough, I think Peter is actually considering this to be a pretty generous amount…Seriously Jesus…if my brother wrongs me 7 times and I forgive him, that outa be enough right? (pause)

But Jesus, in his divine wisdom, reacts in much the same way he usually reacts to a question of this nature…but tossing it right back at the individual in a way that tends to blow their understanding right out of the water. No Peter…77 times…or 70 x’s 7…either way its an enormous amount…and think about it…are we really going to forgive someone that much? Do we have that capability…or is Jesus just throwing out some astronomical number to get us to think WAY bigger. (pause)

Now before you come up with an answer in your mind on that question…or before I try to offer you one…let’s switch gears…just like Jesus does…because for Jesus…the question of forgiveness doesn’t get a quantity. (pause)

And so Jesus switches into a parable…which he’s known to do, because he knows that we have a REALLY hard time getting past our own limitations…and in his normal style…he tells a story…a story about a king…and two servants…each who owes a debt.

And let me offer you a little perspective here…about just how different these two debts are that we hear in the story. The first servant…owning a debt to the king…that Jesus says is ten thousand talents…and the second guy, well he owes the first guy 100 denarii…and now perhaps you’re thinking “that’s all well and good pastor, but we don’t know what those values add up to.” And so…perspective…

The federal minimum wage is current $7.25/hour. Now a talent…that’s the equivalent of 15 years worth of wages…and this guy owes the king ten-thousand of them…and at $7.25/hour, 1 talent equals about $226,000 dollars…and if you multiply that by 10,000, we find the first guys debt at a little over…2…BILLION…dollars…let that sink in for just a minute. (pause) OK, and now the second guy, well he owes 100 denarii, which is the equivalent to a day’s wage…1 day…so his total debt is roughly…$6,000. No laughing matter of course…but something that’s doable…something that he could…given enough work…pay off. (pause)

That’s what we’re looking at…and interesting enough…when faced with judgment day…when faced with their debt being called in…these two men…respond the exact…same…way.

BE PATIENT WITH ME…AND I WILL PAY YOU EVERYTHING… (pause) Now the guy who 6 grand…maybe that’s not surprising…he probably could…but the other guy…roughly 6 billion in debt…yah right? Unless he’s on good terms with Warren Buffet, I kind doubt it…but yet these guys both seem to think that somehow…some way…they can pay it off themselves…that they can somehow free themselves of this cost…of this burden…

And isn’t that our normal tendancy….it must be part of the human condition…to think that somehow…someway…if we just work hard enough…or if we just say the right thing…or sway our reality with enough force that somehow, we can manage to overcome…we think it in moments when it might actually be possible…and we think it when the reality is so far beyond impossible that its not even funny…And that is the response of both of these guys today.

But what’s really interesting to note in Jesus’ story…is the response of the king…He recognizes the impossibility of the first servant ever managing to even put a dent in it…and he…forgives it…completely…its like the debt never existed in the first place…and yet despite that…this man…newly freed…cannot do the same with even a tiny amount…he can’t show the same mercy….and because of that…because of this inability to mirror the mercy first shown to him…he is punished…and Jesus tells us…that we face the same choice. (pause)

This story is all about forgiveness…but for Jesus…for God…forgiveness is not about quantity no matter how much our limited human understanding wants to make it that way. Jesus tells us, that there is no limit to the forgiveness and mercy that we are to offer our brothers and sisters…no limit…but rather that we are simply to mirror the grace offered by God when HE forgave our unpayable debt. (pause)

The apostle Paul tells us in the book of Romans that the wages of sin is death…this is the cost…the debt…the burden that we bear because of the presence of sin within our own existence…and just like that first servant…there is no way that we can do it…we are completely unable do anything about it…and not just because it is some astronomical amount of money…but because the ability to atone for sin is beyond our human ability…and so in His unfathomable mercy…God showed us grace and through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, our immeasurable debt is paid…and we are called to mirror that same mercy…that same grace for others. (pause)

But as I say all that…I’m struck by the truth of the situation…by the truth of forgiveness…and I fully realize that there are situations in our warped reality where forgiveness…is REALLY hard…and it may even seem impossible.

Sometimes it might be easy to offer…and that’s great…but what about those other times? (Pause) A few days ago was September 11th…when we as a nation remember the horror of the terrorist attack on the Twin Towers…when a force of unknown individuals broke the tranquility of our lives…and when thousands of lives were needlessly lost…and imagine if you were a family member of one of those people…and you were trying to forgive the horror of their death…that’s just one example. What about a murder of a loved one…or a betrayal of trust…or the destruction of a marriage…there are countless ways that we as individuals can do what might seem to be utterly un-forgivable to one another.

So what do we do with that? (pause) Valid question…because I think…at one time or another…we all face this reality on one side of the table…or the other…and in all likelihood, we face it from both side of the table at one time or another…I know I have.

For me…it was the inexcusable loss of a winter job…when my old boss knew full well of my intentions of working for him through the season before returning to my summer job…I had made no secret of that…and yet, out of the blue, he fired me…and I fumed over that situation for years…I always said I was over it…but anytime it came up in conversation…the person I was talking to could tell I wasn’t over it…and I hadn’t forgiven him…and even now today, as I stand before you and think about it…it still gives me pause…and I still get a bitter taste in my mouth over it. (pause) And likewise, I know that I done equally hurtful things to other people…and I know that they have struggled to let go…and to forgive…and in recognizing my own faults…my own failings…I too struggle to offer myself forgiveness…and perhaps you can understand…perhaps you face similar situations in your own lives…and so together we wonder just how to go about this whole forgiveness thing that Jesus is talking about.

And I don’t want to stand here before you today…looking down on you…and telling you that if you just believe enough it should be easy…because it’s not easy…and there is no surefire way…no amount of faith that is big enough to overcome our inability to heal and let go of the past…because even though the phrase is forgive and forget…we have a really hard time with that whole “forget” thing don’t we? (pause)

But maybe…just maybe…in order to begin the process…we must first acknowledge the pain and hurt caused between us…I read this week that forgiveness can be defined when we acknowledge that the past…hurtful as it may be…cannot be changed…when we acknowledge the reality of what has happened and that it will be forever a part of our history…and only then can we even begin to move forward.

And perhaps…the reason that Jesus tells us that we are to forgive 77 times is because we need to forgive the same thing over and over again…and maybe…just maybe…today if you have something eating at you…a past hurt…you need to simply say “Today I acknowledge it…and right now I’m gonna let it go.” And maybe it will come back in 5 minutes…or in a day…or in a month…or a year or a decade…and in that instant…when you recognize it again…and realize that we can’t change it…we let it go again…and maybe Jesus is telling us that we have to forgive the same thing over and over again…

And perhaps on the flip side, when we were the ones in the wrong…and we struggle to offer ourselves forgiveness, we need to do the very same thing…admit that we can’t change it, but repent of it and let it go…and remember that we must do the same the next time it comes up again.

Maybe forgiveness really is an ongoing process simply because we are flawed and we lack the ability to ever really let something go…but find hope in the fact that God can…and not only can he…He already…HAS…and you better believe it…because Jesus himself said. IT IS FINISHED…and you know what? There’s hope in that…but even in those times when we fail to see that hope…well…Jesus forgives that too…because that’s the quality of God’s forgiveness…for you. Amen

[1] Credit for this little exchange belongs to Karoline Lewis in her commentary on the Working Preacher website
http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=3322

Confirmation Questions 2-9-14

Last Sunday’s sermon was based on Matthew 5:13-20 and focused on Jesus declaration that “You are” the light of the world. You can find that sermon here.

A question came out of the confirmation student’s sermon notes that I’ll attempt to answer here.

-Why does God continually forgive us even through we mess up so much?
Great question. The simple fact that, through Jesus Christ, God does continue to forgive us is evidence of the incredible depth of the grace of God. Because Jesus has experienced life and all the temptations that come along with it, his sacrifice on the cross was sufficient to overcome all sin for all time. Because of this, God continues to forgive sins.  If there is a simple answer, that would be it. Now on the other hand, I’m going to get a little bit more “heady.”  Luther called us (individual members of humanity) simultaneous saint and sinner. This means that, at the very same time and all of the time, we are completely forgiven of all sin within our life because of Christ and yet we are still completely sinful because of our human nature. The important thing to recognize here is that through Christ we are forgiven. That’s a done deal for us, not by anything we have achieved but only by the grace of God. Yet at the same time, we still feel the effect of sin in our life. Sin is still present, but through Christ we are not subject to the judgment that our sin deserves.  But it is because of this dual nature (sinner and saint) that we can see the effects of sin in the world. We know that the world is not perfect, and neither are we. But the ability to recognize this, and to acknowledge it is exactly what makes us turn to Christ, declaring each and every day, that we are incapable of doing it on our own.