Mindfulness Meditation

This is my church newsletter column for this month:

While my son was in the hospital this summer, I stumbled across the work of Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn, a professor at the University of Massachusetts Medical School and founder of the Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction Clinic.  Dr. Kabat-Zinn is credited with being the first person to make use of meditation as clinical practice in western medicine.  According to Dr. Kabat-Zinn, the words meditation and medicine both come from the same Latin word: medeor, which means “to heal”.

After listening to an on-line lecture and reading Dr. Kabat-Zinn’s book Full Catastrophe Living, I decided to start practicing mindfulness meditation.  After almost two months, I can tell you that it has indeed been a “healing” addition to my daily self-care routine.  More than any other single practice, mindfulness meditation was most helpful in getting me through the crisis of my son’s early and traumatic arrival into the world.  My closest friends have remarked that I actually seem to be more relaxed than usual, in spite of my unpredictable circumstances!

Dr. Kabat-Zinn presents this practice from a clinical (rather than spiritual) point of view.  However, I have found it to be most helpful to my spiritual life as well.  By “tuning in” to the present moment, I have become more aware of God’s loving and peaceful presence within and around me throughout my day.  Sunsets and changing leaves have captured my attention in new ways.  I find that I can say in my daily life what we say to God during our Communion service each month:

Holy, holy, holy Lord,

God of power and might,

heaven and earth are full of your glory.

When I relax into the present moment and accept it as it is, I find that heaven and earth are indeed full of God’s glory!

If you would like to try mindfulness meditation on your own, here’s how it works:

Sit still for three minutes, close your eyes, and try to pay attention to your breathing.  Don’t breathe any differently than you normally do.  You’re breathing all the time, whether you realize it or not.  Just try to become aware of what is already happening without your conscious effort.  Start with this and see what happens.  How did you feel before, during, and after the exercise?  Once you’ve done this once, try and do the same for five minutes a day.  When you feel ready, increase that amount to ten minutes a day, then fifteen, then twenty, etc.  Dr. Kabat-Zinn recommends practicing this exercise for 30-45 minutes every day (I’m only up to twenty minutes right now).

After practicing, you might not feel any different than you normally do.  That’s okay.  The point of this exercise is to practice being rather than doing.  It’s a healthy alternative to our culture’s constant pressure to “keep going” all the time.  Many of us have forgotten the sound of silence and the feel of stillness.  We identify so strongly with our activities and accomplishments that we lose touch with our true identity as beloved children of God.  I recommend this exercise as a way of bringing us back to an awareness of who we really are.

If you’re interested to learn more, check out this lecture on You Tube:

You can also order this and Jon Kabat-Zinn’s other books on meditation from Amazon.com:

Charity vs. Justice

Thanks to Brooke Newell (Central New York PPG Advocacy Ministries Coordinator) for this image.

It reminds me of another story about the difference between charity and justice:

Two friends are sitting by a river one day when they notice an abandoned baby floating downstream.  They immediately jump in to rescue the child.  Before they get back to shore, they notice another baby, and then another, and another.  Soon, the babies are floating by so fast that the two friends can’t possibly save them all.

Suddenly, one of them climbs onto the bank and starts running away.

“Hey,” the friend in the water says, “where do you think you’re going?!  You’ve got to come back here and help me!”

“I’m going upstream,” the friend on shore says, “to find out who is throwing babies in the river!”

Charity and justice…

Prayer In School

Politically correct disclaimer:

This is not an endorsement of the dark arts.

Neither is it a slight to my Wiccan/Asatruar friends.

It is a simultaneously amusing and thought-provoking image I found on Doug Barr’s Facebook page.  That being said, I am a also firm believer that advocacy for people of other faiths leads to greater freedom for my own.

Have a nice day.

Hard Questions for Easy Answers

This week’s sermon from First Presbyterian, Boonville.

The text is Matthew 21:23-32.

OK class, it’s time for a pop quiz!  That means you have to close your books.  All of them.  I don’t want to see an open hymnal or Bible in this church for the next few minutes!  We’re going to see how much you know.

  1. What is the last petition in the Lord’s Prayer?
  2. Fill in the blank: “I believe in the Holy Ghost, the holy catholic church, the communion of saints, the _________.”
  3. What is the Fourth Commandment?
  4. “What is the chief end of man?” (wording from the 1647 Westminster Shorter Catechism)

(See answers posted below)

We’re talking about questions today.  We’re asking lots of questions, we’re answering questions with more questions, we’re exploring all of these questions to see whether they can tell us something enlightening about ourselves, but the one thing we’re not doing today is getting a lot of straightforward and direct answers.

That’s not something we’re very used to in 21st century North America.  As products of the modern era, we like to have an answer for every question and a solution to every problem.  This works pretty well for us, most of the time.  Since the dawn of the modern age, humanity has developed capabilities undreamed of in previous periods of history.  We’ve eradicated diseases, traveled into space, and thanks to the internet, exponentially multiplied our capacity for distraction and procrastination.  But, in spite of all these benefits, the Law of Unintended Consequences still applies.  Our pursuit of easy answers and quick fixes has often led us to find better and more effective ways to manipulate and kill our fellow human beings.

One of my favorite examples of the Law of Unintended Consequences halting the drive for easy answers and quick fixes comes from about ten years ago.  TV infomercials were all atwitter about this new device that was supposed to help you lose weight.  It was a belt that fit around your stomach and would send electrical impulses to stimulate your abdominal muscles.  Theoretically, you could get six-pack abs while sitting on your couch and watching TV.  Sounds pretty great, right?  It’s the boldest claim I’ve heard since McDonald’s started offering “health food”!

Unfortunately, this fairy tale did not have a happy ending.  These devices were not FDA approved and several safety issues quickly arose.  First of all, the FTC determined that they have little or no muscle-building effect.  Second, several people were badly burned or electrocuted as the belts started to wear out from regular use.  Comedian Robin Williams commented that people should actually strap it to their heads and tell themselves, “I [zap] will not [zap] buy [zap] stupid [zap] junk [zap] for no [zap] reason [zap].”

Our obsession with easy answers and quick fixes will lead us to no end of insanity.  Thankfully, we are not alone in this.  God knows about this tendency in us and has shown us a way out of our own obsessive craziness and back into blessed sanity.

I’m about to tell the story of Jesus cleansing the Temple, which took place in Jerusalem in 30AD, but I’m going to tell it in today’s terms:

Jesus blows into town like a hurricane one Sunday morning and visits the big old First Presbyterian Church downtown.  Entering the building before worship, Jesus goes into their bookstore/gift shop and tells the clerk to take an early lunch.  After she’s gone, Jesus rolls up his sleeves and starts taking all the merchandise off the shelves: Christian t-shirts, WWJD bracelets, greeting cards, posters, praise & worship CDs, and Christian Living bestsellers.  And he sets them out by the curb with a sign that says “FREE”, all the while muttering something under his breath about “house of prayer” and “den of thieves”.  Then he goes back in, pulls the cash register off the counter, and empties the money out on the floor of the fellowship hall.  Going back into the now-vacant shop, Jesus pushes all the racks and shelves back into a corner, sets a chair down in the middle of the room, and pulls a Bible out of the plastic shrink-wrap.

“We’re going to have a Bible study in here,” Jesus says, “Stick around, if you want.”

Well, people do stick around and the Bible study is a hit.  Unfortunately, Jesus didn’t bother to consult the pastor or get the approval of the session before starting it (not to mention his little “renovation” of the gift shop).  So the presbytery forms an emergency judicial commission to go down to First Church and regain control of the situation.

So they go down there and get right up in Jesus’ face.  “Listen,” they say, “We want some answers and we want them NOW.  What gives you the right to do all this?  Who died and made you God?”  (Which is an interesting question to ask Jesus.  I like to imagine he said, “Give me a week and I’ll tell you.”)  This visit from the denominational officials is the part of the story we read in this week’s gospel lesson.

Well, Jesus doesn’t give the religious leaders the answer they’re looking for, but he does ask some rather poignant questions.  He engages them in the Jewish art of pilpul, which is a way of getting at the truth through vigorous debate.  Rabbis would argue endlessly (and loudly) over a particular passage of the Torah.  To the outsider, this looked like pointless hair-splitting, but within the Jewish tradition, pilpul was a means to getting at the essence or heart of a matter.

In the west, we have a similar rhetorical device used today by philosophers and lawyers.  It’s called the Socratic Method.  Socrates, an ancient Greek philosopher, was famous for pestering his debate opponents with endless questions until they stormed off in frustration, unable to defend the inevitable contradiction in their thinking.  Like the rabbis who practiced pilpul, Socrates wasn’t so much interested in answering the question as much as getting at the very essence of a problem or person.

In this week’s gospel lesson, the religious leaders show up wanting answers and control, but Jesus doesn’t give it to them.  Instead, Jesus uses question on top of question in order to cut to heart of the matter.  He’s not particularly interested in hearing what they think about John the Baptist.  In fact, Jesus couldn’t care less about their answer to his question because their answer isn’t the point.  The point is in the question itself.  The question itself is enlightening.  It reveals who they are on the inside.  It exposes the fact that their obsession with their own agenda had completely blinded them to what God was doing right in front of them.  That’s the truth that Jesus is trying to get at.

When we read this story about Jesus interacting with these religious leaders in the first century, we get some insight into the way that God interacts with us in the twenty-first century.  We come to God looking for easy answers but God gives us hard questions instead.

I started our sermon this morning with a little theology pop quiz.  We talked about the Lord’s Prayer, the Apostles’ Creed, the Ten Commandments, and Presbyterian tradition.  That’s all well and good.  But at the end of the day, those questions tell me a lot about what you know.  By themselves they don’t tell me very much at all about who you are.  And that’s what God is most interested in.

Are you the kind of person who walks through life, fixated on your own agenda, looking for easy answers and quick fixes?  Or are you the kind of person who can embrace the mystery of life with an open heart, even when it messes with your agenda and leaves you with more questions than answers?

For me, that’s what the journey of faith is all about: moving forward, taking risks, trusting that we’re not alone in this life, believing that all of this mess is going somewhere, even if we can’t see where that is just yet?  Will you trust with me?  Will you come with me on this journey?  I don’t exactly know where we’re going either, but I can promise you this: it’s going to be one heck of a ride!

Pop Quiz answers:

1.  Deliver us from evil

2.  Forgiveness of sins

3.  Remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy

4.  “The chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy him forever.”

Thoreau and Pride

H. D. Thoreau

This past Sunday afternoon, I had the honor of preaching at the interfaith worship service for PrideFest in Utica.  My chosen text was a passage from Henry David Thoreau’s famous book, Walden:

We might try our lives by a thousand simple tests; as, for instance, that the same sun which ripens my beans illumines at once a system of earths like ours. If I had remembered this it would have prevented some mistakes. This was not the light in which I hoed them. The stars are the apexes of what wonderful triangles! What distant and different beings in the various mansions of the universe are contemplating the same one at the same moment! Nature and human life are as various as our several constitutions. Who shall say what prospect life offers to another? Could a greater miracle take place than for us to look through each other’s eyes for an instant? We should live in all the ages of the world in an hour; ay, in all the worlds of the ages. History, Poetry, Mythology! — I know of no reading of another’s experience so startling and informing as this would be.

I love Thoreau’s question, “Could a greater miracle take place than for us to look through each other’s eyes for an instant?”  For me, that question sheds light on our culture’s assumption that “truth” is primarily propositional.  We think it can be found in books.

As a book-lover, I fall particularly prone to this assumption!

Because of this, many folks who are active in working for LGBT equality tend to focus their efforts on establishing adequate education and legislation for equal rights in our public institutions.  To be sure, these are important.  We need to be putting time and effort into education and legislation.  Equality will not come without them.

However, I don’t see either education or legislation as the primary catalyst for social change.  For me, the deciding factor is relationships.  It was my close and personal encounters with LGBT friends, roommates, pastors, and colleagues that opened my mind and heart for the first time.  Only after that did I go back and reread the pages of the Bible with a new set of eyes.  Only then did I make phone calls, write letters, speak out to the media, and march with a sign outside my senator’s office.  Before education and legislation, there was relationship.

It began with people who cared about me enough to talk, listen, wait, forgive, and ultimately love me into a new way of thinking.  It was these relationships that led me to experience the miracle of “look[ing] through [an]other’s eyes for an instant”.

These relationships have carried me thus far and I believe they have the power to carry us all forward.  Let’s make every effort to “look through each other’s eyes for an instant”.  Let’s find a friend there.  Ultimately, let’s find the face of God there.

God is Generous to a Fault

Here is this morning’s sermon from First Presbyterian, Boonville.

The text is Matthew 20:1-16

Do you remember what it feels like to be picked last for a team in school?  Most of us do.  The excitement of playing a new game quickly gives way to fear as the number of other kids around you starts to dwindle.  Fear then becomes shame as you are left standing alone in the vast emptiness of space in between the two teams while the captains argue over whose turn it is to have the “loser” on his or her team.  Your confidence is shot before the starting whistle blows, making it that much more likely that you will mess up at a critical moment, drop the ball, and thus increase your chances of being picked last again next time.

It’s a bitter feeling.  And it’s a feeling that each and every one of us carries around inside of us.  Whether we admit it or not, whether we even realize it or not, it’s there.  And it stays there for most of our lives.  Inside each and every one of us is that scared and hurt little kid who just doesn’t want be picked last again.  So we do whatever we can to prove our worth to ourselves and everyone else around us.  We get up early and work late.  We work hard to become the strongest, fastest, smartest, prettiest, wealthiest, most popular, most powerful, or most “successful” (whatever that word means).  The saddest cases are those that involve bullies who are only too willing to step on and hurt their fellow human beings in order to reach the “top” and stay there.  They might play it tough, but inside each and every one of them is another scared and hurt little kid.  We all just want to “be somebody”.

We might fool ourselves into thinking that we’re really beyond all of that nonsense.  We might think we’ve grown up and taken on a more mature view of ourselves, the world, life, and reality.  But, as I have often observed, the politics of the professional board room and the politics of the high school locker room are one and the same.  Here’s a famous example: The Enron Corporation.  Enron had a policy of firing the least productive 15% of their employees each year.  It didn’t matter how well you did in previous years.  Honestly, it didn’t even really matter how well you did that year.  What mattered is whether or not you did better than the person in the cubicle next to yours.  All you had to do was stay out of the bottom 15%.  Rather than fostering a spirit of camaraderie in the pursuit of quality service, this firing policy created an atmosphere of ruthless competition and backstabbing that eventually led to the moral and financial ruin of the company.  In a very real sense, none of these professional adults wanted to be picked last for the team!

This phenomenon is hardly unique to 21st century Americans.  We can see it the Bible too.  Jews and Christians in the first century had a rough time of things.  They all lived under the occupation of the Roman Empire, which wasn’t so bad as far as empires go, but it still wasn’t the kind of freedom, prosperity, and security they had longed for.  And even these supposedly progressive and tolerant Romans had a nasty side.  Those who were accused of inciting a rebellion against Caesar had a way of getting flogged and crucified as a deterrent to others.

Before Rome, the Jews had suffered under the brutal Seleucids, the Babylonians, and Egypt’s genocidal Pharaoh in Exodus.  It seemed to them like they were constantly struggling to preserve their culture, faith, and dignity under the thumb of some other oppressive regime.  This ongoing fight gave them a sense of national and religious pride.  This fight kept them together as a people.

This is why there was so much conflict between Christians and Jews in the early days of the church’s existence.  Christians were seen as traitors who abandoned the traditions of the Torah that were preserved by generations of Jews who suffered under the yoke of oppression.  As for the Christians themselves, they didn’t know what to think.  They saw themselves as faithful Jews whose faith in Jesus as the Messiah fulfilled God’s plan for the salvation of the whole world, Israel included!  The fact that their faith was rejected by most mainstream Jews was very painful for the early Christians.  They suddenly felt very alone, like the odd one out or the last one picked for the team.  How were they supposed to maintain any sense of self-worth and dignity?  The temptation would have been to strike back with their own counter-rejection of Judaism.  They could have easily come to see themselves as spiritually superior to their Jewish neighbors.  After all, didn’t the Jewish religious leaders reject their own heaven-sent Messiah and conspire with the Romans to have him killed?

The author of Matthew’s gospel saw this conflict going on in the hearts and minds of Christians at that time.  Their struggle for significance brought to mind something that Jesus had once said.

It all started one day when a well-to-do young man came up to Jesus one day and asked him, “Teacher, what good deed must I do to have eternal life?”  Jesus told him about following the commandments of the Torah, which is what anyone would expect of a good rabbi.  But something inside that young man still felt empty.  He intuitively knew that there must be more to life than that.  He responded, “I have kept all these [commandments of the Torah]; what do I still lack?”  So Jesus upped the ante, saying, “If you wish to be perfect, go, sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.”  The rich young man got exactly what he asked for but it was too much.  He had found his limit.  He didn’t have the strength in him to do something that drastic.  It just felt impossible for him.

Meanwhile, Peter and the disciples were watching this exchange take place with smug smiles.  After the young man left, Peter walked up to Jesus and said, “Look, we have left everything and followed you.”  Yeah, Peter felt pretty sure of himself.  That brash young kid just didn’t have what it takes to roll with Jesus and his crew!  But Peter and the twelve had already done everything Jesus asked of the young man.  They had left their possessions, their jobs, their families, and everything else to go and follow Jesus.  Peter figured that put him and his buddies in a class above these other half-hearted people.  He thought he had all the right stuff, which is probably why God picked him as part of the Messiah’s entourage.

Jesus picked up on Peter’s smug attitude.  In fact, he was able to look past it and see that scared and hurt little kid hiding deep down in Peter’s heart.  Maybe there was a time when little Peter got picked last for a team.  Maybe somebody once told him that he was a worthless good-for-nothing who would never amount to anything.  Maybe that’s why Peter felt the need to puff his chest out and flash his spiritual credentials around for all to see.  Just like the rich young man, he thought he had to do something to earn a sense of dignity and self-worth.

So Jesus spoke directly to that little kid inside Peter and told him a story.  It’s a story about who God really is and the way life really works.  He told him about a vineyard owner who had some pretty inefficient business practices.  He didn’t seem to know how many workers he needed for his grape harvest.  Most farmers would hit up the day-labor pool just once in the morning during harvest, hire whatever help they needed, and go to work for the day.  But this person kept going back to the unemployment line again and again.  Every few hours he was going back out to see who was there.  He kept on doing this right up until five o’clock, as the workday was coming to an end.  The only folks left to hire at that point were the rejects and losers who nobody else wanted to hire.  These workers were weak and scrawny.  Bored and ashamed, they kicked at the dirt in front of them as the sun got lower and the shadows got longer, wondering how they would put food on the table that night.  Then that same old vineyard owner showed up again, wanting to hire them.  It didn’t make any sense.  There was only an hour left until quitting time, but they figured that a little work was better than no work at all, so they got to it, hoping that somehow the vineyard owner would make it worth their while.

An hour later, as the shift was ending, people started lining up for their pay.  The last-picked hires lined up first, expecting maybe half a crust of stale bread.  They just wanted to get a little something for their trouble and then shuffle off in shame.  The vineyard owner smiled as they walked up and put a full denarius in each of their hands.  A denarius was a full-day’s pay.  They couldn’t believe their eyes!  They looked at each other, then they looked back at their boss.  He was either really rich or really stupid, but they weren’t about to complain.  They tipped their hats and went off to buy dinner.  Before they got too far away, they heard shouting and turned around to see what was the matter.  One of the first-picked hires was losing it at the vineyard owner.  They heard their own names, followed by all kinds of unrepeatable slurs.  Apparently, their boss was giving everyone the usual daily wage.  The first-hires didn’t like that one bit.  But the boss just looked back at them and calmly said, “Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? 14Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. 15Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?”  The first-picked workers stormed out in a huff.

Amidst all the shouting, there was one phrase that had stood out to those last-picked workers: “You have made them equal to us”.  Equal.  Suddenly, something dawned on them.  They figured out what their boss was up to all along.  He didn’t need extra hands that day.  He didn’t even care about turning a profit after that harvest.  This boss cared about people more than profits.  Their value to this boss wasn’t based on what they could do for him.  Because of his graciousness, the social barriers between first-picked and last-picked were momentarily destroyed.  The pecking order had been dismantled.  Because of the boss’ generosity, the losers and rejects had been made equal to those other “successful” types.

Jesus ended the story there.  Peter and the other disciples looked at each other uncomfortably.  They understood the story’s meaning: Their sense of dignity and self-worth didn’t come from their ability to keep the commandments of the Torah or even their faith in Jesus.  God, like that vineyard owner, is generous to a fault.  That hurt and scared kid inside of them can come out to play now, because, from the perspective of eternity, every player gets picked first.  Trying to earn your place in the kingdom of heaven is ludicrous and can only end in frustration, because you are trying to earn that which has already been given to you for free.  You’ll be a whole lot happier if you can just embrace the gift and be thankful.

The author of Matthew’s gospel wrote this story down in order to remind those Christians in the early church of this incredible truth.  The way to overcome that fear and pain of being rejected, outcast, or picked last (for any reason) is to recognize the unconditional grace of God as the great equalizer.  Then we can all let go of our constant striving to be the best and beat the best.  It doesn’t matter if we get picked last because on God’s team, the only one that really matters, there are no first and last picks.  We are free to be ourselves and try our best in life without the urge to be constantly working or productive as if our sense of self-worth depended on it.

You don’t have to try hard to “be somebody” because you already are “somebody”.  You matter.  God loves you and there’s absolutely nothing you can do about it.  So you might as well just accept it.

My September 11th Sermon

Bulletin cover from this morning’s service. Presbyterian bulletin covers are not usually this cool.

I normally wait until after church to post my sermon, but I’m doing it early today, given it’s time-sensitive nature.  The recording will be up later.

My text is Matthew 18:21-35.

To be perfectly honest, I’ve been dreading this sermon all year, ever since I learned that today’s date would fall on a Sunday and I would have to get up into this pulpit and say something meaningful.  I wasn’t sure whether I should just ignore the day and preach the lectionary text from Matthew or cut whatever else we had planned for today and just focus on what I know is on everyone’s mind.  After agonizing over it all year, I can’t really think of any other way to begin except by coming right out and saying it:

Today’s date is the 11th of September.  And we’ve come together this morning to remember something important that happened.  Some of us remember exactly where we were and what we were doing when the news of this event first struck us speechless while others have simply grown up hearing about it.  It was a great injustice.  It was a horrifying spectacle that still leaves us in shock and awe.  For days afterward, people could do little else than huddle together behind closed doors and drawn curtains.  They held each other and sobbed, knowing that, whatever else they had hoped their future might be, it had now changed forever.  It was a watershed moment that defined who we are as people.  The very worst in the human race came face to face with the very best in the human race.  The events of that day brought us together as a community like nothing else ever could.  More than any other before or after it, this event taught us to admire and respect and love those individuals who lay down their lives and make the ultimate sacrifice for the benefit of others.  Because of that which we remember this morning, none of us will ever be the same ever again.

The event that I am describing here is not the attack on the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and Flight 93 that took place ten years ago today.  The event that I’m describing here is the crucifixion of Jesus Christ.

Before I go on, I feel like I should pause and tell you that I’m not trying to be flippant or witty about the events of September 11, 2001.  Nor am I trying to disrespect the memory of a national tragedy by twisting it into an opportunity for religious proselytism.  What I’m trying to do is reflect on who we are as Christians and human beings on this particular day.  I want to take the smaller events of our personal stories and understand them in the larger context of God’s big Story.

The cross is one of the most universally recognizable symbols in the world.  Ask almost anyone, regardless of their religious affiliation, to name one Christian symbol and most people will probably mention the cross.  More than any other event in history, what happened on the cross shows us who we are as followers of the way of Christ.

On the night of his wrongful arrest, Jesus assured Peter that he had the power to call down legions of warrior angels to annihilate the world in his defense.  However, we know that Jesus didn’t do that.  Instead, Jesus looked down from the cross at his executioners and prayed, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.”

Most of us who read that story with the benefit of two thousand years’ distance find this gesture admirable but also pitiful.  “It’s a generous sentiment,” we say, “but you can’t live that way.  It wouldn’t work!  People would walk all over you!”  We don’t believe there is any actual power in Jesus’ prayer, so we dismiss this noble gesture as a product of his divinity and proceed to hide behind a comfortable curtain of systematic theology in which we benefit from the effects of that forgiveness without ever actually having to experience it.

But Jesus doesn’t let us off the hook that easily.  Teaching about forgiveness in today’s gospel reading from Matthew 18, Jesus assures us that the only way to remain assured of God’s forgiveness is to give forgiveness away.  “Blessed are the merciful,” Jesus says, “for they will receive mercy.”

The passage begins with a legitimate question from Peter about the reasonable limits of forgiveness.  He says, “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive?  As many as seven times?”  Jesus’ response is ridiculous and shocking, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.”  He then tells a cautionary tale about two people: one with an impossibly large debt and another with a trivial one.  The first debtor owes ten thousand talents to the creditor.  How much is that in today’s terms?  Well, a “talent” is a term of measurement.  The parable doesn’t tell us exactly what was being measured but, for the sake of argument, let’s assume that we’re talking about talents of gold.  Let’s use today’s gold price ($1,855.15 per ounce) times 16 ounces in a pound times 71 pounds in a talent times ten thousand talents, and we end up with a debt of $21,074,504,000.  That’s how much this first person owed.  That’s how much debt the creditor forgave!

The second debtor owed one hundred denarii.  A denarius was equivalent to a day’s wages for a laborer.  Let’s put that in today’s terms using New York state’s current minimum wage.  That’s $7.25 an hour times eight hours in a workday times one hundred days, and we get $5,800.  This person’s lending firm received a twenty-one billion dollar bailout yet foreclosed on a debt of less than six thousand dollars.  According to Jesus, those are some messed up priorities.

The unmerciful servant in this parable was a person who was adamantly unwilling to look at the smaller issue of the debt he was owed in relation to the massive debt he was forgiven.  He would not understand the smaller events of his personal story in the larger context of God’s Story.  Forgiven people have an obligation to spread their amnesty over as wide a field as possible.  Otherwise, they are only robbing themselves.  The paradoxical irony of heaven’s economy is that those who keep forgiveness for themselves will lose it while those who give it away will keep it forever.

But forgiveness is also a dangerous business.  It is demonstrably true that one cannot guarantee economic security or national defense on a consistent doctrine of forgiveness.  Just look at Jesus himself.  When he prayed, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing” he did not speak from the comfort of heaven’s glorious throne.  No, he forced those words out as he hung from the cross, bleeding and dying.  Jesus was a failed revolutionary who was branded as a “terrorist” by those who were fighting to protect their own national security and traditional family values.  One can imagine the Centurions and the Pharisees laughing at Jesus when they heard him say this.  His position at the time would have served as incontrovertible proof that forgiveness “does not work” as a strategy.  A few may have admired him for it, but everyone still walked away shaking their heads after this forgiving Messiah finally fell silent.

But you and I know that’s not the end of the story.  That night, they laid his body in a tomb and rested on the Sabbath.  Then, on the first day of the week, early in the morning, a few brave women made their way to Jesus’ tomb and when they got there, they couldn’t believe their eyes!  The stone had been rolled away from the entrance, the soldiers had passed out from fright, and angel stood in the entrance and asked, “Why do you seek the living among the dead?  He is not here.”

Why not?  “He is risen.”  Today is the day that everything changes.  Death itself has begun to work backwards.  The dead come alive.  The blind see.  The deaf hear.  The mute sing.  The lame dance.  The weak are strong.  The foolish are wise.  The first are now last and last are now first.  The whole world is turning upside down.  Or is it right side up?

We know for a fact that forgiveness does not work.  Yet we believe in the truth beyond the facts.  We believe it when the Bible says that “mercy triumphs over judgment” and “love covers a multitude of sins.”  We believe it because that failed revolutionary who died in disgrace with forgiveness on his lips is now hailed as the most influential person in human history.  His ridiculous message of forgiveness outlasted the culture that gave it birth and the Roman Empire that tried to suppress it.  That message of forgiveness has now reached the shores of every continent on this planet and continues to spread as people like you and I choose to take our smaller personal stories and understand them in the larger context of God’s big Story.  We take the small debts that we must forgive and hold them up next to the huge debt that has been forgiven us.

It is true that September 11, 2001 changed us.  It was a horrifying spectacle and a tragic injustice.  It brought us together as a community.  We saw the very worst and the very best of humanity in action on that day.  Our future will never be the same because of it.  But September 11 does not dictate who we are.  If we take the events of that one story and look at them in the context of God’s big Story, then we will be able to see that it is the cross of Jesus Christ, seen and understood in the light of his Resurrection, that shows us who we really are.  As we move from our smaller stories to God’s big Story, which is what we do each week here in church, we will find all the strength we need for healing and yes, even forgiveness.

Make A Declaration Of Inter-Dependence

Here is my Labor Day article from last Sunday’s Rome Sentinel.

One of my favorite growing-up memories is of a time when my father took me to hear the President of the United States speak in my hometown of Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Walking away from the event, Dad repeated a single sentence from the President’s speech: “We must learn to treat one another as indispensible partners and not disposable parts.”

I’m not surprised that this phrase stood out to him. My father’s family moved to New York from Puerto Rico when he was a small child. He grew up facing the dual pressures of prejudice and poverty. My grandmother and her seven children lived in a one-bedroom trailer with no furniture. My father worked his way through college as a janitor.

Dad knows firsthand what it feels like to be treated like a “disposable part” because of one’s ethnicity or blue-collar status. Nobody cares about learning what the janitor’s name is until he misses a spot! Years later, he eventually worked his way out of poverty and made a comfortable life for my siblings and me. However, he never forgot what it felt like to be treated like a “nobody” at the bottom of the pile. He raised me to respect the humanity in all people, especially those who work in occupations that receive less prestige than doctors and lawyers.

This is an important value to remember as we celebrate the Labor Day holiday. We cannot afford to hold onto the myth of the “self-made individual” any longer. We all depend on one another for community stability. We couldn’t even order lunch or gas up the car if weren’t for the labors of others. This Labor Day, it’s time for us to make a Declaration of Inter-dependence. We need each other. Our future depends on it.

So, when you’re ordering lunch at the diner, make a habit of looking up from your menu and looking the server in the eye. Remember his or her name. Say “thank you” and take a moment to honor your common humanity and mutual inter-dependence.