Uncountable Grace

Sunday, September 17, 2017
Christ Lutheran Church – Manchester, PA
Matthew 18:21-35 & Romans 14:1-12

Can you imagine someone paying off all your debts? Imagine how that would feel! No more financial worries. Maybe you could pay off the mortgage on your home, or you could finally buy one – outright. You could pay off your car loans, student loans, and the rest of your bills. You’d probably be in a state of shock at first, but then, you’d be overcome with an incredible amount of gratitude. I know I sure would! Jesus’ parable in Matthew’s gospel today tells us of just such a story.

A servant who owed a king a huge amount experienced just such an amazing situation. He owed the king 10,000 talents, which doesn’t mean that much to the average person today, so let me explain. One talent in the Ancient Middle East was equivalent to about 130 lbs of silver. It would take 15 years to earn that much. The servant Jesus tells us about in his parable owed 10,000 talents meaning that it would have required him about 150,000 years of labor in order to pay it back. In other words, it was a debt that he could never repay.

Yet, when the servant begged the king for mercy, the king did an unbelievable thing. He didn’t just what he could to get some of his money back; the king forgave the entire debt! Everything! This servant no longer owed him anything! He was debt free! Imagine! And imagine if you will how elated this servant must have been. Why you’d think he’d be jumping up and down. He’d be hugging the king and singing his praises! He’d be dancing in the streets and smiling from ear to ear! He would be filled with joy and gratitude! Just imagine how you’d feel!

And when this servant ran into one of his servants, why the obvious reaction would be one of sheer joy. You’d think he’d most likely would have run into him and said, “Hey, the king just forgave all my debt! I don’t have to work the rest of my life knowing I’ll never pay it off! Can you believe it? And now, I’m going to forgive the money you owe me! My heart is so full, I’m going to pay it forward. I’m going to pay this forgiveness forward.

Now, the second servant owed the first one a good some of money to be sure. One denarius was worth about a day’s wage, and since he owed 100 denarius that was worth about 100 days labor or a little over three months. It’s not a small amount, but still, compared to what the first servant owed the king it wasn’t that big in comparison. The king just forgave the huge amount that the first servant owed, so again, with a heart full of gratitude you’d expect the generosity to flow. But that’s not what happened. In fact, what happened is quite shocking.

He demanded payment. He wanted his money now and since the poor servant couldn’t pay it he had him thrown in jail! He showed no mercy. He showed no compassion. He had just been forgiven of all his debt and instead of paying it forward he was thinking only of himself. What happened?

That’s the question isn’t it? What happened? The truth is the first servant didn’t pause to acknowledge anything happened. He didn’t stop to pause and really take in the great gift that was just given to him. He didn’t allow the king’s grace to touch his heart. He felt no gratitude, and no joy over this life changing encounter. He acted like nothing even happened. That is the tragedy in Jesus’ parable. This servant who had just been forgiven everything couldn’t do the same because he was counting money instead of counting grace. He was counting what he could get instead of what he could give. He was counting how much was owed to him instead of counting how much had just been forgiven for him. He was counting on the wrong things.

And that’s what Peter was doing. Jesus told this parable in response to Peter’s question, “How often should I forgive?” Peter thought seven times was a lot better than the religious rule of that time of three. But Jesus said, “seventy seven times” or in some translations, 70 times 7 or 490 times. What Jesus was really saying was forgive a countless number of times. Infinity. And that is something that we can’t do.

But the good news is God can! Yes, God – like the king in Jesus’ story – can forgive what seems something impossible to forgive. In fact, God’s already done just that. Through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus our sins – those sins that seem unforgiveable – have already been forgiven. Jesus did that on the cross. He forgave you and he forgave me, and he forgave all people and uncountable debt.  Yet, like the first servant in the story, we live our lives like that hasn’t happened.

Jesus tells us this story today to remind us to do what the first servant didn’t do. He wants us to pause, to stop, and allow the life-changing event of the cross and resurrection to sink in. And when that does we are transformed and we can live our lives for others. That’s what happened to Martin Luther. Through the study of Scripture he realized that God wasn’t counting his sins against him. Luther didn’t have to continually try to earn his way into God’s favor to repay an uncountable debt. Instead, the Holy Spirit opened Luther’s eyes and his heart and he was able to see that God’s forgiveness and grace are life-changing. It’s that awareness that compelled him to start the reformation of the church. First, it had to begin in his own heart.

It needs to begin in our hearts as well. Each week, in the sacrament of Holy Communion, we are fed and forgiven at Christ’s table. We need to pause and allow this life-changing time of grace to really sink in. When it does it changes our relationship with God and with each other.

A few days ago, when I was visiting with my mom, I experienced such a life-changing moment. I brought Communion to my mom, and as we received that holy meal together, I could feel God’s presence in the room in a very tangible way. I could feel the grace, and so could my mom. She said she was going to keep those little Communion cups so she could look at them every day and be reminded of that special moment. She saw the gift. I know it renewed her body and  spirit, and it certainly renewed mine. It was a special time of thanksgiving.

That is what God’s forgiveness and grace does. It frees us. It transforms us. It fills us with thanksgiving. It enables us to do things we can’t do on our own – like forgive those deep wounds that seem almost impossible on our own to forgive. Forgiveness isn’t always easy, but God does for us what we cannot do for ourselves, so that changed by grace we can pay it forward. God’s grace enables us focus on what truly matters in life – our relationship with God and with one another. St. Paul reiterates this when he says, “We do not live to ourselves, and we do not die to ourselves.” Jesus’ way of life is a life spent in loving relationship with God and each other. It is a life spent not in counting things, but counting how blessed we are by God because of God’s countless grace. When we do that, we are filled with gratitude and thanksgiving not fear and retaliation.

Can you imagine someone paying off all your debts? Imagine how that would feel! Well, the great news is that Jesus has! And He is with us always. As we celebrate this Rally Day, let us stop and reflect on God’s amazing generosity and grace. In all that we say and do, let us live each day in gratitude like the Psalmist says, “Bless the Lord, O my soul, and all that is within me, bless God’s holy name. Bless the Lord, O my Soul, and forget not all God’s benefits.” Amen.

 

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Storm Chasers

Sunday, September 3, 2017
Christ Lutheran Church – Manchester, PA
Matthew 16:21-28 & Romans 12:9-21

The storm was bigger than anything I had ever seen. It seemed to take up the entire sky and the dark foreboding mass of destruction was coming right toward me. Well, okay, I was watching a documentary on storm chasers, but from the angle of the camera it really did look like it was coming right at me. As frightening as it looked on television, I was safe. I was not there in the midst of that storm that was picking up houses and everything in its path and tossing them around without any care or concern. I was not there running for my life wondering if I was going to live or die. I was safe on my sofa in my nice comfortable living room. I was experiencing this storm only vicariously through the effects of modern technology. How terrifying, I thought, to actually be there in the midst of such an evil force, helpless in the face of the suffering this storm was causing.

In the past week, we’ve all witnessed on television a real life storm that continues to cause suffering for thousands of people – Hurricane Harvey – and the images that are being recorded of the devastation Harvey has caused are heart breaking. And now meteorologists have their eye on another storm that is brewing in the Atlantic. Its name is Irma, and it has the potential to be the worst hurricane on record. Storm trackers are keeping a careful eye on this. What’s truly unbelievable is in order to get detailed information on tornadoes or hurricanes someone – or should I say a group of people – actually go into these storms voluntarily– to record the data! What on earth would possess someone to do such a thing? Why would they risk their lives? Are they just addicted to the rush of adrenalin this experience gives them? You have to wonder, do they have a death wish?

I wonder if that’s what went through Peter’s mind when Jesus began to tell him and the other disciples that He must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering, and be killed. Peter – through the revelation of the Holy Spirit – had just professed that Jesus was the Messiah, the Son of the Living God. We heard that in the first half of this gospel reading last week. Peter finally got it right! It seemed like he finally figured out who Jesus was and why He was here – what His mission was – and Jesus even gave Peter a new name – rock. Jesus was going to build His church on this profession. And ever since Peter’s great profession, Jesus didn’t let up talking and explaining how He was going to Jerusalem where He would be killed. It’s like Jesus was heading right into the center of a giant mega-storm, a category 5 – and Peter and the disciples must have thought Jesus had a death wish!

The priests and Pharisees were getting increasingly angry with Jesus. He’d been interpreting Scripture different than they always understood it. He was saying that people come before rules. Jesus was telling them a new way to live. Love is the greatest commandment. Jesus was becoming a threat to the everyday way of life because the things God values are different than the things society values. Jesus was becoming a radical political trouble maker because he was pointing to God as the means of our salvation and not human powers. This was not the Messiah the disciples thought they were following. They thought Jesus was going to overthrow the corrupt Roman political system and lead them into a life of ease and peace.

So naturally when Jesus told Peter than he was going suffer, and die Peter said to Jesus, “No, God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.” Peter didn’t want Jesus to go to Jerusalem, into the storm of death that was waiting for Him there. He felt it was better to avoid it. They could go somewhere else. Go somewhere away from the danger and wait until the storm blew over. I can’t imagine if any of us were there we would have reacted any different. We don’t want the people we love to suffer and we certainly don’t want them to head right into certain death! I think we would have all reacted the way Peter did.

And Jesus would have said to each one of us exactly what He said to Peter. “Get behind me Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things, but on human things.” And to be called Satan, or adversary, by the person we love the most would break our heart. But Peter didn’t understand then, and we still don’t understand today, that Jesus’ heart was breaking too. God’s heart was breaking for all of humanity. There was a giant storm coming. A mega-storm, worse than a category 5 tornado or hurricane, and its name was Sin and Death. The only way to stop that storm from destroying all of us was for Jesus to head right into the center of the storm and release Himself into it. Through the Cross of Christ, through Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, He stopped the storm of Sin and Death from destroying us. If there was any other way, Jesus would certainly have chosen it. He didn’t want to die – it was tempting to not go through with it – but the consequence of living a life of total faith and commitment to the will of God resulted in His crucifixion. Jesus loved the world so much that He was willing to face the storm of death if that is what it would take to keep us from eternal suffering. That’s not just courage, that is pure love!

To Peter and the other disciples, including us today – disciples in the 21st century – Jesus commands us to take up our cross and follow Him, and not be a stumbling block. The phrase taking up your cross has certainly been distorted over the years. It’s been twisted by people who say things like, “Well, that’s my cross to bear.” It’s been said in relation to having to deal with a bad job, or relationship, or health issue. “That’s my cross to bear” as if God has personally given us some terrible suffering and we are doing some holy work by carrying that burden. That’s not what Jesus meant when He told us to take up our cross. Taking up our cross first and foremost, is a collective cross. We as the church collectively are to carry our cross, which is Jesus’ cross.  We are to continue to carry the cross of Jesus’ mission – the cross of ultimate love and compassion for the entire world just as Jesus did. Jesus didn’t suffer just for the sake of suffering. He suffered and died because He loved the world so much that he didn’t want anything to destroy us. The Good News is that because of the cross, death no longer is the end to everything. We don’t have to be afraid of it. We don’t have to deny it as our society tries to tell us we should. Death is a part of life, but through our baptism we have also been united in Christ’s resurrection!

It’s critical for us to understand what the cross means to us. Jesus was willing to go into the center of the storm – to die on the cross – to show us how far he would go to save us.  God loves us so much – even though we are sinners, even though we will hurt each other and God, that we were worth dying for. I don’t know about you, but that truth brings me to tears.

Being a Christian, a follower of Christ, means that we – like Jesus – are to love as Jesus loves. And that means we are to face the storms that threaten to destroy people and do whatever is necessary to help just like the thousands of people who are helping others in the wake of Hurricane Harvey. Jesus showed us that we can’t remain complacent or silent in the face of the storms that threaten others. This would be a stumbling block to Jesus’ mission.  He showed us that we have to help those in need, those who are afraid, those who are isolated, ridiculed, or rejected. We, as Christ’s body on earth today, are to bring his healing and hope to all people. Hope can keep a person going even in the darkest storm. Like scientific storm chasers, who chase down the storms in order to collect data to improve warning systems to save people’s lives, we as followers of Christ have to chase down the storms to bring them the light and hope of Jesus Christ.  And sometimes the consequence of getting involved means suffering or ridicule or even death. But it’s worth the cost. People are worth the cost.  Martin Luther King Jr. knew it was worth the cost. Mother Theresa knew it was worth the cost. Dietrich Bonhoeffer knew it was worth the cost; he reiterated what Jesus said, there is a “cost to discipleship.” Every day when someone chooses love over hate they are taking up the cross of Christ.

Taking up our cross and following Christ means that through our baptism the sinful goal of living for ourselves has been put to death, and we are free to live a life of living in community. Our lives are lived for one another. When one person suffers we all suffer, because we are all connected as God’s children. We are to carry the cross of Christ that loves people and cares about their needs and not just our own. Carrying our cross means standing up as Jesus did for justice. It means standing up against those powers that try to keep people oppressed. It means seeing the storms of racism, prejudice, violence, poverty, or any kind of suffering and doing whatever is necessary to save God’s people. Being a disciple of Christ means we are to follow in Jesus’ footsteps. We as a church are to open our eyes to the suffering that exists in the world – even if we think it doesn’t directly affect us – and head into that storm of suffering and find a way through the love of Christ to end it. Taking up our cross means taking up the responsibility of caring for all of God’s creation.

As St. Paul says in Romans 12, our love must be genuine. We must love one another with spiritual affection. We must bless those who persecute us. Bless and not curse them. We are not to repay anyone evil for evil. We are not to be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. St. Paul says, “Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord.” This is the cross that together as followers of Christ we must carry. We, like Jesus, are called to be storm chasers.

Martin Luther said, “God is pushing me. He drives me on, rather than leading. I cannot control my own life, I long to be quiet but am driven into the middle of the storm.” We, like Luther, like Jesus himself, are called to go to the center of the storm and do whatever is necessary to end the path of destruction of our brothers and sisters. We are storm chasers. Jesus tells us to pick up our cross – the cross of Christ – and follow Him in proclaiming the kingdom of God for all people. Sometimes it means taking that cross into the path of a storm, but Jesus continually tells us not to be afraid. He assures us that he is with us always to the end of the age, and that God’s love will ultimately prevail over evil. “Take up your cross and follow me.” And all God’s people said, “We will!” Amen!