Sunday, September 28, 2014

Meditation on Philippians 2:1-13



 

Today we read the letters of Paul and marvel, or shake our heads, over how much influence those letters had in the formation of the Christian church. Ironically, with the possible exception of the Book of Romans, Paul was just trying to put out a fire in a local congregation. He had no idea we would be reading these letters as great theological works. Douglas John Hall notes, “When one is reading the New Testament two things are obvious. First, the church is God’s chosen instrument for accomplishing the mission of God on earth, and second, something seems to have gone terribly wrong with that instrument.”

The church in Philippi was coming apart at the seams.    The cause of the problem was two women named Euodia and Syntyche. I don’t know what the conflict was. I am not even sure I pronounced the woman’s names correctly. I do know the conflict had grown bigger than the original problem. Gandhi was probably not the first nor will he be the last to observe, “I like Christ but I don’t much care for Christians. Why can’t Christians be more Christ like?” Paul was probably wondering, “How does one calm the savage soul?” One thing I have learned in my years in ministry is sermons might challenge the intellect but it is music that touches the heart.

At my last church we had a weekly meditation on Sunday evenings. It was set up to accommodate those who worked or played on Sunday morning. We also thought some kids might hang around after youth group for a less formal service. As the service become a fixture on Sunday evening those that attended regularly included the usual suspects who show up anytime the church doors are open and two families who rarely made it in on Sunday morning. These two families included six boys of varying ages with every energy level imaginable except off.  To begin, we would gather in a circle, grab the hand of the adult or child next to us, close our eyes and sing:

Gather us, O God, body, spirit, soul and mind;

Gather us, O God, one in union now with you.

 

We never sang it just once. For the first two months it took singing it through twice before all the boys would take their seats. We would sing as an invitation for God to enter and make our space holy. It was a nice gesture because for the first month I feared not even God would enter our chaos. But we kept singing until everyone joined in and then one by one the adults would fall silent until the only ones singing were the six boys. The rest of us were transformed by the voice of angels. I believe some folks regularly came just to experience that moment of genuine holiness.

I suspect all of us have a favorite song. I am not talking about “Moon River” or “Jumping Jack Flash”. I am referring to a hymn, a spiritual, or perhaps a camp song learned at a retreat. The words and melody are etched in your soul. They are a lifeline that pulls us to shore when chaos is crashing around our shoulders. A sermon of mine might make it to discussion during lunch. But these songs have delivered us from the very gates of hell.

Paul, who was never one to shy away from his own voice, knew the chaos in Philippi demanded more than a lecture. In the early church, before the New Testament was written or the traditional creeds shaped most, churches clung to a song that described the very essence of Christ. 

We find it in Philippians 2.

Christ, who though he was in the form of God,

Did not regard equality with God

as something to be exploited.

Christ emptied himself,

Taking the form of a slave,

Being born in human likeness,

Christ humbled himself,

And become obedient to the point of death.

Therefore God highly exalted him,

Giving him the name above every name, 

So that every tongue should confess

That Jesus Christ is Lord.  

 

We no longer have the tune to which the song was sung. We don’t know who wrote the original words. But we are certain Paul used this very familiar poem to remind the church family that the essence of God is the one who was humbled for the sake of all of God’s creation.

Those who worship power prefer to speak of God as Almighty and Omnipotent. The words ring with the very essence of authority. They might ask if it is even possible to use the word God and humbleness in the same sentence.

Think of that great poem that begins the book of Genesis. In the beginning God created. Perhaps a different translation could be, “In the beginning God humbly gave control of the earth to us.”  

Think of the Hebrews slaves struggling to remain alive. They cried out and God not only heard them, God emptied God’s self into the midst of their tribulation.

Think of the Psalms or Jeremiah. Read Isaiah 53, “Surely he has born of our infirmities, was wounded for our transgressions, and crushed for our iniquities. By his bruises we are healed.”  Long before Jesus humbled himself, God was in the humility business.

Does this make you feel uncomfortable? Does this strip God of power and dominance? Perhaps the problem is the word itself. What exactly does the word humble actually mean within the context of the New Testament community?

G.E. Mendenhall writes, “Humility was regarded as the most important trait of early Christian life. In dealing with others, humility called on one to do away with selfish pride, arrogance, especially violence and strive for that which will bring about peace and harmony within the community. The early Christians were encouraged to reject power and prestige as the normal foundations of human society.”

        Paul wrote to his fellow Christians, “Make my joy complete.  Have the same mind, the same love, the same compassion, the same sympathy, the same spirit as Christ.

        I know what some of you are thinking. Here goes Louie spouting off once again about the Holy Foolishness of Jesus. You may be right. Only I ask you, which works best in a marriage; an iron fist, or four equal ears. Which businesses are more successful; those where workers are exploited and abused or the businesses where respect trumps arrogance? In my church in Texas the clerk of session was also the janitor. We had 500 members and could have found someone else. What message is sent when the one who cleans the toilet bowls also your clerk of session?

        Can our family members, or our church members, or our neighbors near or far see Christ in us? If they can’t, then perhaps Gandhi got it right. And if that old peace loving, compassionate, forgiving Gandhi can’t see Christ in us, what do you imagine the rest of the world sees?

        Isak Dinesen in her wonderful book Out of Africa tells the story of a young Nairobi boy who appeared at her door and asked if he might work for her. He was a good worker but after three months asked if he might have a letter of recommendation to Skeik Ali bin Salim. Dinesen asked why he was leaving. The boy replied he was deciding if he would become a Christian or a Muslim. He would work three months for the Skeik and see how Muslims behaved then he would make up his mind. Dinesen thought to herself, “I wish he had told me when he came.

        We never know how each moment of our life might make an impression on another. Remember, it is not what you say, it is what you do. Therefore,        Be in the same mind of Christ. Humble yourself. Place humility before selfishness, harmony before arrogance, peace before conflict, and community before pride.

If you just can’t quite get your “righteousness” bridled, might I suggest you quietly sing,

        Gather us, O God, body, spirit, soul and mind;

        Gather us, O God, one in union now with you.

                                                                        Amen.

 

                                                                               

 

Sunday, September 21, 2014

That Hardly Seems Fair


Matthew 20:1-16


        In the next few weeks a movie called “The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby”, a film about a couple struggling with their marriage, will be released. Admittedly my curiosity stemmed from the title, a clear reference to one of my favorite Beatle songs. What I discovered is the movie is actually three films. Evidently Jessica Chastain, the actress approached to play the leading role, felt the original screen play was told primarily from the perspective of the husband. So the script was rewritten from the viewpoint of the wife. Then it was rewritten to try to find a fair intersection of both stories.  The last rewrite will be released this month. In October “his” version and “her” version will be released back to back in a film that will run about three hours. That’s a lot of popcorn.

        Stories are best understood from a variety of perspectives.  Perhaps that is what has made the parables of Jesus so timeless. Take the prodigal son. As a child, I understood the carefree son who wanted to experience life on his own terms. But I also had three younger sisters. As I grew older, I often envied and resented the cavalier attitude of my sister Becky.  On becoming a father I had to undertake the responsibility of distributing both grace and justice.

        This morning we have a parable that changes colors more than a lizard in October. It begins with a definitive phrase, “The kingdom of heaven is like.” What exactly does that mean? Is Jesus talking about heaven, a place prepared for us when we die? Is Jesus, a good Hebrew, referring to the possibility of heaven on earth? Or could Jesus be referring to a combination of both?

        Confused? Wait until you hear the story.  An owner of a vineyard hires laborers to help with the harvesting of his crop. He promises a fair wage for those willing to work. In the morning he picks a crew. He comes back at lunch to select a few more workers.  Later in the afternoon he picks a couple more to complete the job. At the end of the workday he paid all the workers the same amount.  The early morning workers were outraged. But the farmer replied, “Did I not pay what I promised?”

        Where do we begin? It is obvious Jesus never took the time to read Adam Smith. This is no way to run a business. Eventually workers would not show up until late in the day. So what is this the point of the story? Is it about the workers or is it about the owner of the vineyard? My experience is when folks look at the parables of Jesus, regardless of the meaning, eventually we make it about us.

A quick glance at this parable raises questions concerning its fairness. Forget the economic aspects; let’s talk in terms of salvation. I personally think my parents did a wonderful job raising me. A huge part of this task was sharing their faith and integrating me into a community of faith. When my first profession of faith was made before my eight birthday, they impressed on me the idea that my faith journey would be a lifetime journey. They were right. My faith as an eight year old holds little resemblance to my belief system today. I have grown older and matured. The idea of God is much more mysterious now than it was 55 years ago. And while my belief in the grace of God has never wavered, there is still a teeny part of me that wonders if this marvelous gift of grace is fair. How can God possibly love someone like Adrianne Peterson as much as God loves me?

We all have our stories of the guy who lived wildly for the better part of his life. He didn’t think twice about the way he treated himself or others. Then life caught up with him. Three marriages and four jobs later even his children would not give him the time of day. Alone and somewhat desperate, he discoverers God and outwardly we rejoice. On Sunday morning we praise God that another lost sheep has been found. But later that evening two thoughts enter our mind. “I wonder how long it will take before Jim returns to his old ways.”  Then we admit what is really bothering us. “Where is the justice in this? I’ve been good my whole life. How can God love the good and the not so good the same?

A second and perhaps equally dangerous interpretation of this parable assumes that it really is an economic parable. What if this story not only envisions what heaven on earth could be like, it exposes why bringing in the new kingdom will be so difficult. When I served a Church in Virginia Beach. I was privileged to work with a woman who dedicated her life to the poor and homeless in the Tidewater Area. Often I would help Alice transport folks to a job site where extra workers would be picked up as day laborers. At 6:30 a.m. all the perspective workers regarded each other as equals competing for a job. The selections were made. Some got work, most were sent away. I watched as one day as a selected laborer turned to his rejected companion and mouthed the word, “Loser”. Why should I have been surprised? Isn’t that what most working folks think as we drive by a line of unemployed men?

In our lectionary the text often paired with this parable is the story of the children of Israel receiving manna in the wilderness. Provisions were running out as a trip that should have taken days began to multiply into months. The people complained to Moses that they would starve in the wilderness. God answered with the promise of manna, a sweet sticky substance that can be retrieved throughout the desert. The first day folks rushed out into the desert to collect the food. Some were younger or stronger than others and they began to take more than their fair share. The most amazing thing happened. The manna that was not eaten spoiled. Those that had taken more than their fair share were stuck with garbage. To further prove that God’s hand was at work in this, the manna collected the day before the Sabbath magically lasted through the holy day when no manna could be found on the ground.

Despite the fact Jesus didn’t teach his disciples to pray, “Give me this day my daily bread”, it can be successfully argued that our economic system is based on competition. We faithfully cling to a social Darwinism that promotes the survival of the fittest. This creates a climate of winner and losers, intentionally making the losers feel inferior.   We even insult those without work or those forced to work remedial jobs by insisting the playing field is level and they haven’t taken advantage of the opportunities given them. Note the complaint of the workers in the parable. “You are trying to make them equal to us.” Could Jesus have possibly been suggesting that God created enough manna for everyone? Is Jesus unmasking an old order and offering a new way of doing business? Could Jesus have actually been telling this story to laborers who faced the real economic terrors of their day?

Here in lies the problem of any parable. What does it really mean?  Is this a story promoting economic justice? Is it a story of grace? Is it a story suggesting grace trumps justice? All kind of assumptions are made when we wrestle with the parables of Jesus?

Charlotte Cleghorn writes, “Wouldn’t it be wonderful if the only theological assumptions we ever made were:

   God loves me and all creation profoundly.

   I and all others are made in the image of God.

   God’s generosity is beyond our wildest imagination.

   There is nothing I can do to earn or deserve God’s grace.”

        That is a lovely thought but our life experiences filter through those assumptions and convince us these nice sounding words cannot be true. Any conversation about the generosity of God can quickly turn into an argument over what is and what is not fair. What complicates this discussion is the biblical message that offers this unnerving truth.                   GOD IS A LOUSY BOOKKEEPER.

A long time ago I viewed God as my heavenly bean counter who was closely taking notes on all my actions. The good things I did were equally weighed against my mishaps.  My God not only had a long beard, he probably wore a red robe. But then somewhere along the way I stopped believing in Santa Claus. This was probably about the time I decided since I was a pretty good guy, I wanted God to punish those who threatened to harm me and the ones I loved. My image of God turned from St. Nick to St. George.

This God, who would slay my dragons along with many other fears, served me quite well until I began to realize that much of what I feared was created either by my own nearsightedness or by trusted voices that had much to gain by expanding my list of enemies.

New saints emerged to enlighten my life long journey. St. Martin preached, “Hatred and bitterness can never cure the disease of fear. Hatred paralyzes life; love releases it. Hatred darkens life; grace illumines it.”

St. Coffin wrote, “Why do Christians look so joyless. Could it be because we regularly practice guilt while forgetting Jesus’ message was forgiveness and grace?”

Finally a voice one nowhere near sainthood prayed, “O God, grant me the courage to wrestle with my fears until I can name them, and claim them, and if necessary even befriend them. Let me face the uncertainty of today armed with nothing more than the promise of your grace.”

So here is my unsolicited and meager opinion.  Grace is a gift. It is offered in the morning, at noon and at quitting time. The recipients of grace include the good, the bad and the ugly. But there is a string attached. Grace interrupts the assumptions that hold people captive and creates the possibility of experiencing something new.              Amen.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Why Am I So Obsessed With Your Sin?


Romans 14:1-12

 

Many folks in my profession love to engage in what is called proof texting. In laymen terms, we find an obscure text that perfectly makes our point. Usually the search for this scripture is done on Saturday……late in the evening…just after the sermon is completed when the preacher discovers the sermon is lacking a biblical text. Using all the tools at hand, they, and I would like to emphasize the word they, search until a scripture is found. The next morning the scripture is read, then quickly set aside while the minister drones on about whatever happened to be on his mind on Saturday evening.

Other times a minister will stumble across a text that is too good to pass up. The scripture is a jewel. It has been buried deep in scripture and for some reason never been uncovered in all the Biblical studies of the diligent pastor. The discovered gem proves something the minister has always known to be true, but has never been able to scripturally substantiate. This morning I have the honor of sharing one of those rare jewels with you.

Romans 14:2, “Some believe in eating anything, while the weak only eat vegetables.”

As much as folks like to quote scripture, you think someone would have turned Romans 14:2 into a bumper sticker.   But why stop there. The next slogan adopted by Five Guys could be, “The Apostle Paul claims the weak eat vegetables, so make it a large cheeseburger and be strong in the Lord.” While that might not work in our area where folks believe in strict separation of church and menus, I have to believe places like Lynchburg would elevate this slogan to legendary culinary status.   (Stop)

 

Proof texting is as dangerous as it is fun. I can make almost any argument when I choose to use just one isolated verse. But when the reader expands the text to include more than one verse, the text, much to the disappointment of the Saturday night scholar, is seen in an entirely different light.

Why does it appear Paul is giving vegetable eaters such a hard time? Maybe the better question should be, “Why should I care what another person eats?”

Being raised in the South, I quickly learned to eat whatever was placed on my plate. My five basic food groups include, bread, grease, sugar, caffeine, and seconds. Paul’s apparent approval of meat eaters makes perfectly good sense to me. But my knowledge of the cultural setting in which Paul lived makes me hesitate before making God an accomplice when I reach for that second ham biscuit.

The early Christian community was often divided into two distinct groups, those who were originally raised in the Jewish faith and those who were more familiar with the customs of the Roman or Greek cultures. Many Jews and Gentiles alike were transformed by the story of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. They flocked to hear folks like Paul and Peter tell of God’s amazing gift of grace. They were baptized and welcomed into new communities of faith. But they brought with them many of their traditions. Even I, a die in the wool southerner knows a Hebrew National hot dog tastes a lot better than the hotdogs served at Ashley’s. Jewish laws concerning food are very particular and the preparation of the food they consumed was meticulous. Many meat dishes served by a Roman would never find its way to the table of a good Hebrew, even if the family claimed Jesus as their Lord. And this caused problems.

Imagine a potluck supper in the time of Paul. Three families were assigned to bring bread, three families were to bring vegetables, three families were assigned deserts and three families were asked to bring the meat. The three meat families got together and collaborated. The prayer was offered, the line formed, and the meat presented for everyone’s consumption was pork barbeque. It was a feast for both the eyes and stomach of at least half the congregation. But to those who had been raised Jewish, it was an abomination.  Trying to be polite, they skipped the barbecue and filled their plates with vegetables.

You know what happened next. Mrs. Rossini, whose pork recipe was legendary, was miffed that Mr. Jacobson had suddenly become a vegetarian. She tried to be tactful. “Come on Stan, try the pork. You are a Christian now. You’ll like it. Give it a go.”

Mr. Jacobson politely refused.

Mrs. Rossini was not to be discouraged, “What’s it going to hurt, just a little taste.”

Mr. Jacobson replied, “To eat pork is a sin.”

Mr. Rossini entered the conversation, “Are you calling my wife’s barbeque the work of the devil?” That is when things got ugly. The group was clearly divided over what was and what wasn’t a sin. Finally one of the members of the church, realizing there was going to be no agreement that evening said, “Paul’s in town. He was a Jew and is now a Roman citizen.  Let’s see what he thinks.”

Paul correctly surmised that this particular congregation was having bigger issues than what was served at a family night dinner. Each of the people in that congregation was engaged in a particular faith journey and not all their faith experiences intersected.

 I have been Presbyterian all my life. My father was a Presbyterian minister.  I was brought up under the Covenant Life Sunday School Curriculum. I graduated from a Presbyterian College and three Presbyterian Graduate Schools.  That is not the journey most of you have taken. You are Methodist, Baptist, Lutheran, Congregational, Roman Catholic, and Unitarian roots, just to name a few. Some of you are influenced by the teachings of Calvin and others wish you had never heard the name. You have brought to this place your gifts, your faith journey, and your deepest beliefs.  Furthermore you came from the east, the west, the north and the south. Some of you came because of your love of music, some of you love the diversity of thought, and some of you love our commitment to mission. But I dare to say none of you think alike. What is important to you may be of no interest to me. We each have a set of values and beliefs developed over the past 50 plus years and those standards are important. But what does that have to do with me not particularly caring for tomatoes? 

Everything!!!  You don’t have to listen to Guy Clark to know, “There are only two things money can’t buy; true love and home grown tomatoes.” For some of you, to not like fresh tomatoes is downright sinful.

And there is the problem faced by Paul. The congregation was divided and each side was saying to the other, “If you don’t think like me you must be wrong because I am getting my directions straight from God.”

In one of the most prolific statements attributed to Paul, the great missionary and theologian uttered these unforgettable words, “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. Whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s.”

Paul is saying to members of that Church in Rome,   if Christ is the Lord of both the dead and the living, then Christ can certainly be Lord of the weak and the strong. Christ can even be Lord of those who abstain and those who indulge. Vegetarians and Carnivores, Jews and Gentiles, together can identify themselves as children of the living God.

As Christians we always get ourselves in trouble when we stop seeing another person as a child of God and view her as a personification of a particular “sin” which we abhor.  From this spiritual posture, our righteous actions are not all that righteous and our defense of Christian ideals is not all that Christian. The horrible truth is some folks use their allegiance to the Lord as an excuse to lord over others.

 

 This brings a smile to my face because Paul, who some might suggest has theologically lorded over us for 2,000 years, is urging folks to avoid passing judgment on others. Perhaps Paul was remembering when he was called Saul. Perhaps he was remembering a day when he thought he knew the truth and that truth wasn’t about to set anyone free. Perhaps he remembered going blind, both physically and spiritually and having to learn everything over from scratch. Paul was not without opinions but a basic message continues to ring through his writings. “There is no longer Jew or Greek, no longer slave or free, no longer male or female. All of us are one in Christ Jesus.”

It is honorable to stand up for what you believe. It is commendable to march into hell for a heavenly cause. All Paul is asking is in the name of Christ, we listen before we speak; we think before we react;  we pray and  we love each, even to the point of making ourselves venerable as we try to figure out what it is God wants us to do.  In 30 odd years of ministry I have yet had God interrupt a sermon and say, “Louie, I think you missed the point.” But God regularly sends folks to talk to me on Monday morning to remind me some folks really do eat tomatoes.  

In the coming months we will need to hear each other more than ever.  Our fellowship hall has some serious structural issues and together we will need to decide what we are going to do about it.

A pipe line is being discussed which is dividing our county both geographically and emotionally and I believe our neighbors are interested in what we might say.

Our country seems to be running out of options in the Middle East decisions are being made that will directly impact the lives of our children and neighbors.

This place, this holy place, this lively place can bear the burden of these conversations because we love each other, we trust each other and we have chosen not to lord over one another. That doesn’t mean that on these and many other issues some of you will eat meat while others will insist on the nutritional value of vegetables. That is what makes this place unique. But what makes us holy is that we continue to eat our barbeque and tomatoes at the same table.

                                Thanks be to God,     Amen.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Short Term Memory


Matthew 18:15-20; Romans 13:8-14



 

        When I was at my last church I would join, Ron, the minister of First Baptist Church, and Bob, the minister of First Methodist Church for an occasional round of golf.  There was only one Presbyterian and only one Methodist church within the city limits of Clinton and yet there must have been ten other Baptist congregations. Bob and I quizzed Ron on the secret to church growth. His answer was quite simple. In the Baptist tradition when someone gets mad, they start a new church.

        In the gospel of Matthew we are reminded that squabbles and hurt feelings are not limited to just the Southern Baptist. Since before the time of Christ people sitting in pews have found things about which to complain. Even here in beautiful Rockfish Valley, occasionally a distressful voice is raised about one thing or the other.

        Idle minds often find complaining to be a way fill the void in their lives. We all have friends who are not happy unless they are complaining. I get it. As an avid sports fan, I spend way too much time second guessing the starting lineups of the Washington Redskins and the Atlanta Braves. As a political junkie, too much of my idle time is consumed by thinking of the decisions and the lack of decisions made inside the DC beltway. Face it; satellite radio would crash if it weren’t for the number of people calling in to complain about anything and everything imaginable.

        So I guess we should not be surprised that Jesus takes a moment to discuss discontent among church members. What does surprise me is where the writer of Matthew places this dramatic statement of Jesus. It comes before the parable of the lost sheep. I am sure you remember it well. A shepherd has 100 sheep. He returns home and counts only 99. By all accounts the shepherd did everything right. 99 out of 100 is pretty good especially considering the dangers that lurk in the fields. One sheep could have easily wandered off, or been injured, or even devoured by a hostile animal. Even sheep must take some responsibility for its predicament. The sheep chose a dangerous path and suffered the consequences. Most shepherds would have gone to bed and renewed the search in the daylight when it was safer. But not the Good Shepherd. Disregarding his own safety the shepherd goes out into the night to find the malcontent and bring it back.

        I have to believe as the disciples are hearing this tale at least one of them is thinking, “If a congregant is that much trouble, why not just let them just wander off on their own. For the sake of the church, wouldn’t things be better if they just went off and joined another herd?” But that is not the way of Jesus. The lost, regardless of the reason they are lost, are to be searched for and when found invited to retake their place among the rest of the congregation.

        If that parable wasn’t difficult enough, guess what Jesus talks about in the verses following the text we read this morning? Forgiveness!!! Not only does the Good Shepherd go out into the night to insure no one is left behind, the Good Shepherd is willing to forgive the waywardness of the sheep. Am I the only one thinking that sheep might continue to be a lot of trouble? Honestly, wouldn’t the herd be a lot better off if the wayward sheep were cut from the herd and forced to survive on its own. Why didn’t someone have the courage to remind Jesus that one bad apple can spoil the whole barrel?

        The more I read the New Testament the more I am convinced Jesus did not have an ounce of common sense. The sheep gets lost. That should be strike one. The sheep has a confrontation with a number of members of the herd. That should be strike two. We know where the problem lies and yet na├»ve old Jesus suggests we sit down and have a conversation. If that doesn’t work we are to gather two or three together to hear the complaint of the trouble maker.  And if that doesn’t work, you are going to love this, we, who have done nothing wrong,  are asked to forgive, not just once, not just twice, but seventy times seven. Don’t reach for your calculators.  In biblical terms seventy times seven means as many times as it takes. Why would Jesus place this burden on the innocent?

Perhaps Jesus knows that every incident has more than one version.  Perhaps Jesus also knows conflicts quickly resolved can avoid confrontations that will erupt into battles that have nothing to do with the original complaints. Perhaps Jesus knows that the true test for one who claims Christ is the willingness reconcile oneself to another, even when there seems  no way reconciliation can happen.  How is that possible? Perhaps Jesus prefers short time memories and long time solutions.

        I saw a TV commercial the other day in which James Harden of the Houston Rockets was having a conversation with NBA great Charles Barkley. Harden asked, “Charles, what did you do after a really bad game?”

        Barkley responded, “You need a short memory. I can’t remember ever having a bad game.”

        Harden shook his head, “But what about not ever winning an NBA title.”

        Barkley, “I don’t remember that.”

        “Or what about your legendary temper. Didn’t you throw a man through a glass window?”

        “Not me. I’m a pacifist. A short memory is what you need.  Don’t just believe me, ask Scotty Pippin.”

        “Charles is right,” said Pippin, “Short memory is a must to play this game. I should know, I was the greatest player to ever wear a Chicago Bulls uniform.”

I am not trying to make light of the conflicts that arise even among the best of friends. But I am suggesting that our memories can become our worst enemy. We are all familiar with the phrase, “I will forgive but I won’t forget.” How much true forgiveness takes place with that sort of attitude? Memories often do two things. First, memories further villainize our adversary while lifting our own innocence to somewhat lofty heights. Second, memories concentrate on the second and third tense while neglecting the log that might be in our own eye.

Jesus calls us to be transformational agents of reconciliation. If I desire that role, the initial change must begin with me transforming me rather than me converting you. That calls for more imagination and less memory.  

Imagine the desire to be more Christ-like.

Imagine the courage to hear the other side of the story.

Imagine yearning to preserve the honor of another.

Imagine not writing someone off even when their actions are beyond our comprehension.

Jesus knows this is hard stuff. That is why when we talk about forgiveness too often we use the language of the absurd. We ask questions such as, “How can we forgive an extremist group that has beheaded a fellow American?”  I don’t deny the world is a dangerous place.  I don’t deny international conflicts and the way we approach those conflicts challenge the very the very notion of forgiveness and reconciliation. But sometimes we mix apples and oranges in order to avoid the obvious. The text this morning deals specifically with folks who know each other, have a history with each other, and probably really like each other. A moment of anger or a word spoken in haste has disrupted the trust that existed between them. Such a situation is repairable if imagination can trump pride and the participants remember of the sacrificial nature of God.

        God so loved the world. What does it cost God to continue this relationship?

        Love God with all your heart and soul. What does it cost us to be without this relationship?

        Love your neighbor as yourself. What does it cost us to continue this relationship? Perhaps more importantly what does it cost us if we lose this relationship?

        The wonderful thing about the concept of church is the church is not a place where just one person gathers. It is where two or three come together. It is where we bring our joys, our talents, our love and our imaginations. But it is also complicated by our warts, our wrinkles, our imperfections and our occasional conflicts. The spirit of God mixes all these components into a body built on a profound trust and commitment toward each other. We don’t always agree. We certainly are not perfect and yet we are bound to each other by two great axioms:

  1.  “God loves us, God forgives us, and God expects us to love and forgive each other.”
  2.   “Be kind to one another, for everyone you meet is fighting some  great battle.”         (Philo of Alexandria)
     
    To God be the glory.      Amen.