9-29-17 - Get In Line

Nobody likes waiting in a line, especially not when people cut in ahead of you at the invitation of someone further up. So imagine how thrilled the Jewish religious leaders were to hear, “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you.”

This was how Jesus summed up the parable of the two sons. The tax collectors and prostitutes presumably represented that first son, who said he wouldn’t work for his father, but then changed his mind and did. Sinners who repent, Jesus suggested, are closer to God’s heart than do-gooding, self-righteous holy people. As he saw it, the scribes and Pharisees were more like that second son, who mouthed the right words but didn’t give his heart to the father’s vineyard.

The leaders saw their fidelity to keeping the Torah, the Law, in minute detail, as evidence that they were more righteous than anyone. But Jesus had a different angle – for him what mattered most was how they responded to the revelation he brought, which he said was in line with what John the Baptist taught, and what the prophets for centuries before him had foretold. “For John came to you in the way of righteousness and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes believed him; and even after you saw it, you did not change your minds and believe him.”

He knocked the religious leaders for their refusal to recognize that God offered righteousness through his Son, a redemption of the heart much deeper and longer-lasting than mere law-keeping could ever bring. They thought they’d be first in line by virtue of how well they stood in line! Jesus suggested that God was more interested in those who genuinely recognized their faults and God’s mercy. If the leaders had acknowledged their need for God’s mercy, he would have liked them more.

Our culture is filled with people who have not been raised with church or a knowledge of God or God’s transforming love. In our age, churches are often seen as smug, rigid, prejudiced, oppressive, not to mention dull and irrelevant.

We need to be committed to our churches not because it’s the right thing to do or will “get us into heaven.” We need to help turn them inside out, making them incubators for new life, spiritual growth, transformation and healing. We need to make it easy for people with no church background whatsoever to find meaning and life in our midst. That means rethinking the way we worship, give, govern, preach – everything. What would you do differently at church to make it comfortable for the non-churched to encounter God's love?

I’ve always been amazed at the Iftars I attended during Ramadan. (Iftar is the meal at day's end in that season of fasting.) Though most of the Muslims present had had no food and water since daybreak, and they had provided most of the food, the leader always told his congregants to go last in the food line, to let us non-fasters fill our plates first. This is the kind of grace to which we are called.

As far as we know, everyone who wants to be a part of God’s worldwide, time-and-space-encompassing community of love, is welcome. We’ll know we’re steeped in God's love when, no matter how long we’ve been in line, no matter how hungry we are, we’re delighted to let someone get to that feast ahead of us. There will be plenty, and to spare.

9-28-17 - Religious, Not Spiritual

Jesus often told simple stories to make complex points. The parable we are considering this week, about a man and his two sons, is no exception. This one is bare bones. We're told who’s involved and what happened. No characterization, dialogue, insights into motivation; just the facts, ma’am.

They’re easy to tell: a man has two sons. He asks each one to go work in his vineyard. One says, “No way,” but then he goes and does it. The other says, “Sure, Dad,” and doesn’t go. Jesus asks, “Which did his father’s will?” The religious leaders answer, “The first.” Easy A. Seeing the work get done matters more than the intentions of the would-be workers. Isn’t that obvious?

Snap! They walked right into Jesus’ second trap. For they had built their reputations and their power base on being the “right people,” and on judging who else was a “right person.” For them, the “who” mattered much more than the “work.” The scruffy, the poor, the sick, the lame, the divorced, the sinful need not apply. These guardians of Israel’s purity kept temple life shut against the unrighteous.

But they couldn’t keep Jesus out – his ideas flowed under the doors and through the walls, empowering all those spiritual “have-nots” to repent and be healed, to call God himself their “Abba.” And these, Jesus goes on to say, will enter the Kingdom ahead of the professionally holy. Even tax collectors and prostitutes, he says. Look out!

In real life, people are not so easily reduced to one kind or another, are we? We’re both of those sons, ready to commit at one moment, easily distracted and derailed the next. Some people's detours away from God’s vineyard are decades long, through other religious explorations, deep into consumerism, to the worship of other goods and gods - or simply into dells of doubt or despair.

Others of us hew closely to the way of Jesus and his church - and find our enthusiasm siphoned off to managing buildings and accounts, worrying over empty pews, and lining up cooks for the next church supper. Is one more “right” than another? Many of us mourn the lack of interest in church and faith in our culture, shaking our heads about those who consider themselves “spiritual, but not religious.” But many of our churches contain folks who are religious but not spiritual – that saps our vitality.

Is there room in the Life of God for both types – and for us, when we are both types? For, in fact, these two sons are really two parts of one person, two ends of a continuum. Some of us are closer to one end than another; some hug the middle. If you’re more definitely an over-promiser or an over-deliverer, are you able to love those on the other end of the spectrum? Today, might you bring to mind someone who irritates you because they don’t come through, and someone else who refuses to commit, but gets it done anyway… and pray for each one to be fully blessed? Even if that person is you? Especially then?

Jesus leaned toward the under-achievers in his parables – maybe because he knew the over-achievers didn’t need as much encouragement, or because he knew how easy it is for the righteous to judge others and he needed to remind them that it’s up to God, not us, to love whom God chooses. Jesus doesn't suggest that the father in the story loves one son more than the other – one just helps him out more. That’s the one I want to be.

9-27-17 - Promises, Promises

The men interrogating Jesus about the source of his authority – “Who you working for?” – were good and righteous men, religious leaders. They were sure, as are most righteous folks, that they knew what God did and did not approve of, and were not very keen on the way Jesus represented the Almighty. So they questioned him, thinking they could entrap him into saying something blasphemous.

But Jesus is two steps ahead of them. In response to their question, Jesus asks them one they cannot answer without getting in trouble with the people – and as they rely on the crowd's approval, they are unable to answer one way or the other. Check and mate.

Jesus does not give a straight answer to their question, but he does respond in his sly, elliptical way – with a parable. This one is about a man and his two sons. It's not the one about the Prodigal Son; this is shorter and far less complex:

“What do you think? A man had two sons; he went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work in the vineyard today.’ He answered, ‘I will not’; but later he changed his mind and went. The father went to the second and said the same; and he answered, ‘I go, sir’; but he did not go. Which of the two did the will of his father?”

Before we get into how the Pharisees and Jesus interpret this little story, let’s explore it for ourselves. Many of us have teenaged children or have been teenaged children. It is easy to imagine either scenario – the one who, when asked to unload the dishwasher, refuses… and then, when no one is looking, cleans up the whole kitchen. And another, who, when asked to mow the lawn, says, “Sure, sure,” and never looks up from his video game till evening.

But why am I picking on teenagers? A Facebook meme reads, “Ladies, if a man says he’s going to fix it, he will. You don’t have to remind him every six months.” Promising more than we deliver and delivering more than we promise are pretty basic human behaviors. Is one more godly? Is one more fruitful than another?

Which of these two sons do you gravitate toward? Put another way, which better describes you in your faith journey? Were you raised a Christian and have been half-hearted in your practice? Or did you come to it as a convert, now eager to participate in a life you’d either spurned or not known about before?

And how do we react toward people who fit either of these categories? A favorite charge leveled at churches is that they are full of hypocrites. Have we said or heard that? My answer to that is, “There’s always room for one more.”

None of us gets it quite right, and none of us gets it all wrong. Thanks be to God, we are all sons and daughters of a God who judges with mercy and corrects with love. When we fully integrate that truth, we usually want to get out to that vineyard and get to work.

9-26-17 - Who's In Your Wallet?

In yesterday’s reflection I wandered into a different meaning of the word “authority” than I intended, the “Who’s in charge?” sense. But the temple leaders interrogating Jesus in our Gospel passage meant more, “Who’s backing you? Who is ultimately responsible for what you’re saying and doing?”

We all carry bits of paper and plastic around with us, which we use to buy things. These derive their value from what backs them up. The dollar bill is only “worth the paper it’s printed on” because the U.S. Treasury has issued it. A letter of introduction to someone who might give you a job has value because of the person who signed it.

Jesus’ teaching and miracles had value because they were evidence of the power of the God who backed him. Those who believed that he represented the Living God were fine with that. Those who thought they knew God better had their doubts. Hence their question, “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?”

It’s a good question for us as we seek to offer love, peace, healing and justice in God’s name. We know our world is full of people doing all kinds of things in the name of God as they understand God – how do we justify our ministries in the name of a force no one can see or prove?

Well, the first answer is – we can’t. Not fully. Not to someone who is sure there is no God, or no creator who interacts with his or her creation. And we don’t have to try to “prove God.” We are only to bear witness to what we see and know, and to help generate evidence for others to respond to – and then be around when their questions burble up.

Beyond that, I believe we should speak and act in the name of God often – that’s what it means to bear witness to the Jesus we see and know. So when we serve a meal at a shelter or spend time with a sad friend because we feel called by God to do so, let’s say so. When we hear of a situation over which we are powerless, let’s offer to pray, and say it’s because we believe God’s power is at work in the world.

How do we evaluate actions that are justified as reflecting God’s authority? Christians have been given criteria. One is, do we see evidence of the Holy Spirit? Do we see good fruit? That’s a mark of the Spirit. Is there more peace? That’s a mark of the Spirit. A religious organization that sends out hate-filled communications is not moving in the Spirit and authority of God. What spiritual fruit is being borne?

Another criterion: Is a given action consistent with the revelation we received from Jesus, or in Scripture? This last is a pretty wide field – our scriptures contain all kinds of things I don’t think are the fruit of the Spirit. So I’d lean toward the Jesus side of that equation – is it consistent with what he did and taught? If you’re unsure, ask a brother or sister in community to help you discern.

By whose authority do we do the things we do? If it’s by the authority of God in Christ, by the power of the Holy Spirit, let people know it. We have been given access to an incredible inheritance already, here and now – immense spiritual power. God didn’t mean for that to stay in a bank vault. We carry the cards, the cash, the checks to spread that spiritual wealth around. Let’s use it.

Who’s in your wallet?

9-25-17 - Authority

Last week we explored a subversive story Jesus told about laborers, in which those hired late got paid the same as those who worked all day. After telling this tale, Jesus healed two blind men. This was all a bit much for the religious leaders whom he was always skewering; they had to confront him. “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?” they ask him. (This week's gospel passage is here.)

Authority. We order our lives by it. Sometimes we expend considerable energy flouting it. Often, the less of it we have, the more we want to wield it over others – observe some restaurant hosts or train conductors.

The religious leaders of Jesus’ day held authority by virtue of their positions in the temple, or were given it for their reputation as teachers. But their authority was very limited. The occupying Romans allowed a nominal Jewish king and religious structure to exercise power, but only under their close and watchful eye. Any affront to the temple council’s oversight of Jewish life threatened to undermine the whole system. That is one reason they were so antagonistic toward Jesus and his followers. Their question really was: “Who said you could come in here to our temple, teach and preach and flout our Sabbath laws and heal people right and left? Who do you think you are?”

Jesus doesn’t answer them directly in this instance, but his answer usually came down to one thing: "My authority was given me by God." Which is fine, if you believe Jesus is intimately connected to God. It is not so fine if you believe he’s a deluded fool, at best, and a master manipulator at worst. What Jesus cited as evidence for his claim was his works, his miracles. (John 10:36-38) But they had trouble seeing his authority because of the packaging – Jesus was an itinerant preacher and healer, not an official clergyperson.

And this was God’s big idea – to send his Son, in whom God was fully realized, into this world as a mere human person, so we could come to know God. The passage from Philippians this Sunday expresses this in the words of an ancient hymn. “And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross.” Jesus’s authority was not visible until he’d completely given himself away.

Does God have authority in your life? Though I do believe Jesus is my friend in a way, I do not imagine myself on equal footing with God – the whole revelation Jesus unfolded, and which we’ve been unpacking ever since, assumes that we honor God’s authority over us, over life itself. How does that sit with you? Is it a relief or a burden not to be God's equal?

In our current age, nothing is considered true just because the church says so, even for church-goers. But Christ-followers are not called to promote a set of ideas – we are invited to make known a risen Jesus who said he was Truth, Truth made personal, Truth made knowable. As we keep getting to know him and making him known, we will find just how free we can be under his authority.

9-22-17 - The Owner

This week we’ve been hearing how the different characters in Jesus’ story might have experienced the event. I thought we’d hear from the Landowner last – and I’m pretty sure the Landowner in this story is God. Parables are open to multiple interpretations, but it’s hard for me to conceive of this character as representing anyone but the Almighty. After all, it is God’s Kingdom that Jesus is trying to convey in his parables, a realm that cannot be depicted or even described except through story and symbol.

Does God come out to the marketplace of this world and invite those who are willing to work in his vineyard? Does God keep at it, knowing there’s more than enough work for everyone? Does God go after even those whom no one else has wanted to hire, or those who got there late? Does God compensate everyone at the same rate, knowing there is no “more” or “less” when you dwell in abundance?

If this is who God is, we’re in good shape. We can be frustrated, not always able to fully comprehend the ways of God, but we are also in line for more blessings than we can fathom. Above all, this story Jesus told is about blessing, blessing beyond what make sense, blessing that doesn’t quit.

Around the year 400, St. John Chrysostom wrote a beautiful Easter Vigil sermon, drawing on this parable to convey that, no matter what kind of Lenten fast people have kept, no matter what sin, they are welcome at God’s table. I’d like to give him the last word this week, in an excerpt:

If any have toiled from the first hour,
let them receive their due reward;
If any have come after the third hour,
let him with gratitude join in the Feast!
And he that arrived after the sixth hour,
let him not doubt; for he too shall sustain no loss.
And if any delayed until the ninth hour,
let him not hesitate; but let him come too.
And he who arrived only at the eleventh hour,
let him not be afraid by reason of his delay.
For the Lord is gracious and receives the last even as the first.
He gives rest to him that comes at the eleventh hour,
as well as to him that toiled from the first.

To this one He gives, and upon another He bestows.
He accepts the works as He greets the endeavor.
The deed He honors and the intention He commends.
Let us all enter into the joy of the Lord!

First and last alike receive your reward; rich and poor, rejoice together!
Sober and slothful, celebrate the day!
You that have kept the fast, and you that have not,
rejoice today for the Table is richly laden!

I pray you feast richly this weekend – it’s always Easter around God’s house, and the table is always richly laden.

9-21-17 - The Idle Poor?

Today we’ll let one of those “one-hour workers” tell his tale:

I hope you don’t think I’m lazy. I tried all day to get work, but whenever someone came in hiring, other guys got to him first. I’m not as fast as some, but I’m not lazy. It’s hard to stand there all day hoping for a job. I’d rather be working.

Not sure why I was still there at 5 o’clock – certainly didn’t expect a job then. But this manager guy came along hiring for the big vineyard. “Why you standing around here doing nothing all day?” he asked us. “No one has hired us,” we said. Hey, it’s not like we're just guzzling beer, like some. He said they could still use some help to meet the day’s quotas, so come on. Hell, I figured, a few bucks is better than none.

Felt a little bad getting out there with these guys who’d worked all day, so we threw ourselves into it. Barely broke a sweat, though, before they called quitting time. The manager tells us to line up first – that seemed odd, but we did it. Figured we’d get our hour’s pay, and move on. But that’s not what happened. We each got a full day’s pay. Couldn’t believe it.

I don’t know why this owner wanted to treat us like that – most of them are looking to take as much as they can from you, half the time cheating you out of what they actually owe you. But this guy? He treated us as though we’d worked a full day, even coming in at the 11th hour like that. I don't think I've ever been treated so well. It actually made me want to get there earlier tomorrow, so I can work a full day.

In telling the story, Jesus gives no reason for why these last workers were hired so late in the day. He doesn’t suggest there was anything wrong with them. In the world of the parable, they stand in for the outsiders, maybe Gentiles or Samaritans; maybe the poor or the lame, or people too busy getting by in life to pay much attention to their religious life. They represent the sort that the religious leaders disdained. And these, Jesus suggests, will not only receive the same reward as the “righteous" – they will be first in the kingdom.

Who do you relate to most in the story? The all-day workers? The manager? The one-hour folks? The boss? When have you been rewarded for what felt like insufficient effort on your part? How did it make you feel?

Do you ever extend that kind of generosity to another? Maybe praise someone who needs the affirmation? Help someone accomplish something? Continue to offer your friendship when you are giving more than you receive back? It only works if we ask God to give that grace through us. If it’s us “being nice,” it can become manipulative. If we step out of the way, allow God to love through us, we get as filled as the other person.

Let’s pray today that God send someone our way who needs the gift of grace we can offer – of love and affirmation, of acceptance based on their identity as a child of God, not their resume or to-do list. And if we’re the one in need, let’s pray we meet someone who treats us that way. Let grace abound!

9-20-17 - Not the Boss

As we move through this Sunday's parable, let’s hear how the vineyard manager might tell the story:

Let’s get this straight right off: It was not my decision to pay everyone the same. That was the way the boss wanted it, and I follow orders. To tell you the truth, I felt a little funny about it. I watched how hard those guys that got hired at dawn worked. The ones who came later worked hard too, but there’s a big difference between working for twelve hours and one.

When the boss told me to give out the full daily wage for everybody, I was surprised. I thought maybe he’d add some kind of a bonus for the ones who picked all day. But no. It was like his generosity only went toward the ones who got hired late. More for them than expected; the amount agreed-upon for everyone else. He even paid them first. Fair…and not quite fair. Depends on how you look at it. Depends on who you’re looking at.

I don’t blame the all-day folks for being mad. But here’s what they don’t know: they were already at the top of the pay scale. That daily wage was way above the norm. The boss was paying out everything he was making off that vineyard. The only way to pay those workers more was to pay others less.. and that’s not how he rolls. Not how he thinks. He’s quirky, the boss… hard to understand at times. But I’ll tell you this: he knows what he’s doing. 

Who might the manager in Jesus’ story represent? I think he stands for all who consider ourselves servants of God, who participate in what God is doing, carry out God’s mercy and God’s justice, speak God’s peace, who forgive and heal and love and tend. God’s ways don’t always make sense to us – we take a big leap of faith whenever we walk into the works God has prepared for us.

It can be hard to be God’s rep in the face of grief or crisis, to sit with someone in who feels God is not blessing her as God blesses others. It is a challenge to proclaim God’s love to someone who insists they have never known it, cannot feel it. I often have to resist the impulse to defend God when someone is disappointed or accusing, when something in the Bible or the church causes offense. Then I remember, God doesn’t need me to defend him. God only needs me to be true to what I believe God is telling or showing or leading.

And God needs us to be true to ourselves. We don’t leave ourselves at the door when we work for God - the Spirit of God works with and through us, through our intellect, emotions, history, moods, our circumstances on any given day. God doesn’t want robots – God seems to want us.

Are you willing to be God’s “ managing agent” today? What vineyard have you been called to tend? Are there difficult “orders” to carry out? We don’t have to worry about doing it ourselves. We can simply pray, “Lord, if you want me to do this thing, or have that conversation, please work in me and through me.” And then pay attention to what happens.

I stand on the reminder I once got, that God already loves me the most. There is nothing I can do or have to do to make God love me more, because God is already as delighted in me as can be. I could quit accomplishing and producing right now, and my God-salary would not decrease. I’m already at the top of a really generous pay scale. And so are you.

9-19-17 - I Was Robbed

One way to “hear” parables afresh is to look at them from different angles. Today, let’s see what one of those “all day” workers might have to say:

You think I’m wrong to be resentful? I was up and at the marketplace by 5 o’clock this morning, ready to work. This guy hired me and a bunch of others, told us we’d receive a good day’s pay. It was good pay, better than some. I didn’t mind working all day, knowing I was going to get paid well. I'm a good worker.

Every few hours, a few more joined us – Good, I thought, There’s plenty of work. I was a little surprised when a few more came in at nearly quitting time. Oh well, they’ll get paid for an hour. Enough for a beer. Why not? Even with the extra hands, though, it was a long day, and the sun was hot.

When the foreman finally called time, I was ready. But the boss said those who worked fewer hours should get in front of the line; us all-day guys to the back. Okay, I thought, maybe he doesn’t want them to know our wage. Then I saw they were getting the full day’s pay, even the one-hour folks. Wow, this guy is generous! I couldn’t wait to see what kind of bonus I was going to get.

But I finally got up to the front of the line, and got my pay… and it was exactly the same as everybody else. Exactly the same as we’d been promised at the start. Seemed okay at 5 o’clock this morning, but now, with the sun going down, knowing what everybody else got, I feel stiffed. You bet I do. I worked like a dog today, never looked up, never sat down. Why did I bother, if others get more for less?

A few of us spoke up, but the boss, he just said, “Can’t I do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?’”

I don’t want his stinking generosity – I want things fair. You work, you get paid. You work longer, you get paid more. Tell you this much, this is the last time I agree to a daily wage. You can just pay me hourly from now on. Then I'm in control.

This guy represents the religious rulers that Jesus was always tussling with, the ones who thought God’s rewards were only for those who kept the law like they did. They show up in a lot of Jesus’ parables – the older brother in the Prodigal Son story is another example. They want to control the terms. And Jesus keeps saying, “No, God controls the terms. And God can welcome whomever God wants.”

Do you know anyone like this? Have you ever been someone like this, resentful when someone else gets rewarded? How are you at asking for help? Do you prefer to give gifts, or receive them? These are some of the ways we know how open we are to the generosity of God.

A prayer for today: Lord, open my spirit to receive your gifts. Open my heart to rejoice in the blessings given to the people around me, whether or not they’ve earned them. Open my eyes to see who wants to give me time or help today. Open my ears to those who want to share themselves with me. Open my hands to give and receive, in love and humility and gratitude. Amen.

There’s a lot to be said for getting paid hourly… but what Jesus offers is daily bread. Enough for the day. Take it.

9-18-17 - No Fair!

Now we come to one of my favorite parables – the workers in the vineyard. No blood or violence in this one, just grace beyond measure. And boy, does that make some people mad!

You can read the whole story for yourself – Here’s the “nutshell” version. A landowner hires day laborers for his vineyard, agreeing to a standard wage. They’re happy, he’s happy. As the day progresses, he goes back out to the marketplace at intervals and hires more workers, even at 5 in the afternoon, when the workday is nearly done. At quitting time, he instructs his manager to pay everyone a full day’s wage. Everyone gets the same – what could be more fair than that? But the ones who worked the whole day feel they should get more than those who worked less time.

"And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, saying, ‘These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.’ But he replied to one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?’"

Now, maybe their workload grew lighter as more workers were added to the vineyard… but even so, they have a point, don’t they? We almost always have a legitimate grievance when we compare ourselves to other people. When we stand before God’s grace alone, though, we're more apt to be in awe of the abundance of mercy extended to us.

Like many of Jesus’ parables, this one is aimed at those who believe they are “in” in God’s realm by virtue of their hard work and righteousness. If we all get the same reward no matter how hard we work, what’s the point of working hard? Precisely! The Kingdom of Heaven is not for strivers – it is for what we become when we’ve finally reached the end of our striving and give up. Give in.

The currency of the Kingdom of Heaven is grace, unmerited love and forgiveness in abundance. Grace goes beyond contract. By its very nature, it is “unfair.” We cannot earn it. It is totally up to God to give, to whomever God wants, no matter how much or how little we try to please God.

How does that sit with you? On our best days, we say, “Whew!” because we know we get a pass. On our worse days, we say, “Hey! How come that one got a break?” Are you having a “thank God for grace” day or a “I want them to get what’s comin’ to them” day? If you’re in the former position, amen! You are in in the Life of God. Spend some time in prayer today giving thanks for all the ways you see and pass on God's grace.

If the idea of mercy for another – even a heinous monster – is troubling you, that’s fine too. We feel what we feel. With those feelings we can pray for those undeserving people. Pray that they might come within reach of God’s true blessing. That’s the only force I know of that can transform the blackest heart. It's happened before...

A few years ago, I-Tunes users received a free gift of the new U2 album, whether or not they wanted it. Many in fact resented it. But In honor of that gift, let’s end with an old song of theirs, “Grace,” especially these lyrics:

What once was hurt / What once was friction / What left a mark / No longer stings /
Because Grace makes beauty out of ugly things

Litany of Forgiveness

Litany of Forgiveness 
Compiled by Kate Heichler

“Forgive, and you will be forgiven; give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap; for the measure you give will be the measure you get back.” (Luke 6:37-38)

Lord, release in us forgiveness for our enemies in the world. 
“But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.” (Luke 6:27-28)

For those who hate us for who we are – and those whom we disdain;
for those who use violence to gain their ends – and for the times we do the same;
for those who seek vengeance, not peace – and for us, when we do the same;
Help us to forgive those enemies we name before you now, especially…
Forgive us, Lord, and help us to forgive.

Lord, please release in us forgiveness for ourselves. 
“Jesus said, ‘But the one to whom little is forgiven, loves little.’ Then he said to the woman, ‘Your sins are forgiven.’” (Luke 7:47b-48)

For the ways we have disappointed ourselves;
for the things we have said that we cannot un-say;
for the things we have done that we cannot undo;
for the opportunities we have let go by;
for the hurts we have inflicted on those whom we love:
Help us to forgive ourselves for those things we name before you now, especially…
Forgive us, Lord, and help us to forgive.

Lord, please release in us forgiveness for people who have hurt us. 
“Whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone; so that your Father in heaven may also forgive you your trespasses.” (Mark 11:25)

For grudges we have held and bitterness we have fed;
for the people who have hurt us by what they’ve said to us or about us;
for the people who have hurt us by not valuing us;
for those who have taken from us and not given back;
for those who have abused our trust – and even those who have abused us
Help us to forgive those people we name before you now, especially…
Forgive us, Lord, and help us to forgive.

“All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us.” (II Cor 5:18-19)


© Katherine Anne Heichler, 2008; use by permission only

9-15-17 - Forgiveness for Freedom

Lest we think this story Jesus told was hopelessly out of date, we should remember that we still have debtors’ prisons in this country. The Southern Poverty Law Center got one in Alabama closed down a few years ago. Threatening punishment for those who cannot pay is an old strategy. Jesus even seems to employ it in the end to his parable:  “So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.” 

Forgive, or else, is that Jesus’ message? I hope this is another of his hyperbolic turns, where he drives home a point by exaggerating it. However, whether motivated by fear or love, the call to Christ followers to excel at forgiving others is clear. In fact, it is necessary if that living water of God’s transforming power and love are going to flow through us unimpeded. Unforgiveness creates blockages, debris that can – like plaque in our blood vessels – create clots. This is why forgiveness and healing are so intertwined.

I was privileged to know Canon Jim Glennon, an Anglican clergyman from Australia who had an extraordinary gift and ministry of healing. His notion of God’s healing was simple: It is God’s desire that we be whole, so we pray, planting the seed of faith in Christ; give thanks for God’s activity, even before you see it, and don’t be afraid to test it. Jim and I corresponded quite a bit before he died, and he came to New York to lead a healing mission I organized at my church.

He did some teaching and then, to demonstrate, he asked if someone with severe back pain would come up for prayer. A man did. He’d been injured at his workplace 15 years earlier, and his pain was incessant. Jim prayed for him awhile, and then stopped and asked what the man was feeling or sensing. The man said, “It’s weird – ever since you began praying, I’ve had my old boss’s face in my mind.” This boss had denied him worker’s comp benefits he should have received, and the man bitterly resented him. Jim said, “Are you willing to forgive him?” He didn’t push, just invited. The man said, “Yes, I am,” and then began to sob and sob. After some more prayer, Jim asked him how his pain was now, and he said, “It’s gone! It’s been with me for 15 years, and it’s gone!”

If you have a sense of blessings blocked, either coming to you, or from you to others, ask God to show you if you’re holding onto anger or resentment toward someone. And release that debt as well as you’re able, asking the Spirit to do for you what you’re unable to do for yourself. And then test out your freedom, the way Jim asked the man to test his absence of pain by twisting around and moving. Pray for the person who hurt you. Go out and give to someone else. See what has changed. (If you’d like to pray a Litany of Forgiveness I developed, you can find it here.)

“It is for freedom that Christ has set us free,” Paul wrote. (Galatians 5:1). Let’s spread it around.

9-14-17 - Communities of Forgiveness

This week’s Jesus story still isn’t over – there is another turn to it. (You know, Jesus’ story is never really over!) The injustice wrought by the newly forgiven slave is not the last word. After he refuses to release his fellow-slave from his debt, the other servants turn the mean guy in:

“When his fellow slaves saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their lord all that had taken place. Then his lord summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?’ And in anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he would pay his entire debt.”

Okay, I’m pretty sure God is not in the torture business – though we do endure a kind of spiritual pain when we withhold forgiveness. (Is that what hell is?) But here Jesus explicitly links forgiveness in and forgiveness out, as he does in other teachings on prayer. We can’t get away from it. We can’t fully experience God’s love if we can’t forgive ourselves and others.

What I like in this story is the way the community watches the situation, and calls out the injustice. Having witnessed the great mercy shown this slave, they were not about to let him get away with holding someone else to harsh terms.

Injustice can be perpetrated and perpetuated in communities, and misdeeds swept under the carpet. But in healthy communities, a light is always on and members are accountable to each other. When someone acts in a destructive or prideful way, a healthy community has people of integrity who can remind her of the mercy she has received, and invite her to align her values with those of the community. In Christian communities, that means the values Jesus taught and lived.

Think of how our police departments and military units and financial institutions might function if they were communities of accountability and justice. Many recent news stories would have been non-events.

Have you ever been called on your behavior or treatment of another? Was the message delivered in a way that you could receive it? How did you respond?

Have you ever addressed someone about the way they were acting or speaking? Perhaps a notorious gossip or someone who routinely sows discord? Those are hard conversations to have. But when we put the health of the community and of each person in it – including the one who’s being destructive – above our social discomfort, we can move forward. And if we pray it through beforehand, and during, those conversations often go much better than we anticipate.

If someone you know is damaging the community, you may need to deal with it. Pray for that person for a time before having the conversation – it gives us more peace and gives the Spirit a chance to prepare the ground. And if, as you speak, you can cite times you have been less than wonderful, and speak with humility, it might keep the walls from going up. And if you’re able to pray with the person you’re having the conversation with, so much the better.

God set us into communities, starting with families, classrooms, workplaces, memberships. Community can be one of the hardest aspects of human life, and one of the richest. This story Jesus tells invites us to be active in keeping our communities as healthy and life-giving as we can. That includes speaking the truth in love.

9-13-17 - Mercy Strained

What a heart-warming story we hear in Jesus’ parable about debt forgiveness. The king had pity on his poor slave and forgave his debt, all 10,000 talents of it. In fact, Jesus says, “he released him and forgave him the debt,” suggesting perhaps he was even set free from his servitude. It must have been a good day for that debtor. We'd like to think he continued the chain of mercy. Ah, but the story was not finished. Plot twist – the debtor was also a creditor:

“But that same slave, as he went out, came upon one of his fellow slaves who owed him a hundred denarii; and seizing him by the throat, he said, ‘Pay what you owe.’ Then his fellow slave fell down and pleaded with him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’ But he refused; then he went and threw him into prison until he would pay the debt.”

So the one who, in effect, just gained 10,000 talents he no longer has to repay, refuses to even extend the collection period on a mere 100-denarii loan. Liberals like me tend to think, “Oh, if everyone just received merciful treatment, they’d treat others that way.” This parable suggests it’s not automatic. I’ve preached to guys on the street who I’m pretty sure have called for major forgiveness in life – and some of them did not approve of the parable of the prodigal son. They prefer justice to mercy, hard as it is.

In this story Jesus suggests that, when we refuse to forgive our fellow human beings for the offenses they have committed, we are being exactly like that wicked slave – because the forgiveness we have received from God is so much greater than anything asked of us. Do you buy that? We need to accept at least two conditions for it to make sense:
  1. That we are sinners in need for forgiveness by God, and have received God’s grace.
  2. That, no matter how serious another’s offense against us is, it pales in comparison to humankind’s offenses against our Creator.
At the time we are wounded or insulted in some way, it’s hard to see anything but our pain and righteous anger. We’ll talk about it to anyone who will listen – often to anyone except the perpetrator. The idea that in God’s Big Picture our betrayals and shortcomings may be just as serious, or more, seems inconceivable in that moment. We lose perspective.

I will not try to persuade you which forgiveness is bigger. I’ll just invite us to put ourselves in the shoes of the first debtor, the one whose huge debt is removed, who has been set free. I believe that the more fully we integrate that spiritual gift, the better able we are to keep perspective when we are sinned against. When we really “get” how blissfully off the hook we are, we might just be more inclined to want other people to enjoy that feeling, even those who’ve hurt us most. Especially them.

Yesterday, I suggested some confession. Today, let’s think about people we still need to forgive for hurting us, letting us down, lying about us. Bear in mind the person you’re keeping on the hook might be yourself. It might be God. What would it feel like to release that person?

It can take a lifetime to accept God’s forgiveness and freedom, to live into the change in status conferred upon us in Christ: no longer a slave, no longer a debtor; now a daughter, a son, free. But what a life we can have if we accept that gift right now.

9-12-17 - Mercy Unlimited

Jesus said there is no limit to the number of times we must be prepared to forgive someone. Then, to illustrate the point, he told one of his trademark stories. This is a longer parable, with multiple characters and scenes. As is often the case in how Matthew relates Jesus’ stories, this one has a violent cast to it. The story in a nutshell goes like this:

A king is settling his accounts with his slaves. Apparently this king not only owns slaves, but is like their loan-shark. The terms of non-payment are pretty severe – you’re sold off, along with your wife and children, and have to sell all your belongings, with the proceeds going to service your debt. Nice. One guy owes ten thousand talents. He begs the king to forgive his debt – and he does. Wow! That was unexpected, right? What he does in response to having his massive debt forgiven we’ll talk about tomorrow. Today, let’s focus on this ruthless king who is capable of such mercy.

Jesus starts the story by saying, “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves.” Is he saying that GOD is like such a king? Not necessarily – he says the realm of God may be so compared. At the very least, we surmise that in the economy of God’s realm, the servants owe the king quite a bit, and that settling these accounts is a normative occurrence.

Do we owe debts to God? Some theologians, like Anselm of Canterbury, argued that every sin we commit is akin to stealing from God. If God is perfect and has given us perfect life in his image, then every blemish on that perfection is an offense against the creator, an offense for which we must make restitution. That’s one way to look at it.

Or we might try the language of stewardship, which asserts that everything we have in this world, including our life, our gifts and resources, our relationships, our abilities, is on loan from our heavenly father, for us to use and enjoy and to nurture into growth. In this sense, every time we claim something as ours, whether money or credit for things we’ve done, we are grabbing at what was freely offered us to use. There is no “mine” in this view – we are always to be ready to account for our use of God’s gifts.

That's a way of seeing the process of repentance and confession – a daily settling of our accounts with God. Do you make a regular practice of confession? We do it in church, with or without much thought. Some people do it in their own prayer times. Others visit a confessor for the sacrament of reconciliation. To be honest before another person and hear the words of God’s forgiveness is a powerful grace.

We can do an inventory, thinking through our relationships, our work and activities, our use of our gifts. Incidents of self-centeredness or wounding of self or others might come to mind as we do this, and we can offer them to Jesus for forgiveness. Or read through a Prayer Book litany like the one for Ash Wednesday – that’ll stir up some penitence.

When we find we’ve taken more out of the kitty than we can replace, when we have committed too serious an offense to repay – which might be all of them – we fall on God’s great mercy. If it’s anything like the king’s in this story, though the consequences could be extremely dire, we get to walk away with our books balanced, nothing hanging over our heads. That what “whose service is perfect freedom” means.

9-11-17 - Forgiveness Without End

In last week’s gospel passage, we explored what happens when one member of the community is wounded by another. Jesus laid out a process of confrontation leading to resolution, either reconciliation or separation. Peter must have been thinking ahead, for he realized it wasn’t enough to be able to address conflict… if what Jesus had been saying all along meant anything, reconciliation would have to include forgiveness. How far was that supposed to go?

Then Peter came and said to him, “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” Jesus said to him, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.” (Here is this week's gospel passage.)

Sometimes it’s translated “seventy times seven.” I once wrote a short story called “The 489th Wrong,” about a religious woman who finally reaches that number of times she feels she’s forgiven her husband, and thinks she can stop (wrong!). But it’s not about the math. Seven is one of those infinite numbers, so Jesus is basically saying, “As many times as needed.” There is no end to the number of times Christ-followers are called to forgive.

The deeper the wound, the more forgiveness costs us. I see forgiveness as “giving for.” Someone has taken something from you; they owe it, and you pay yourself for them – in effect, you lose twice. Why do that? Because it cancels the debt, clears the field, resets the clock, frees you and the other person. That’s one reason.

The other, as we’ll see from the parable Jesus uses to illustrate his point, is that while we’re busy trying to decide whether or not to forgive someone, somebody else may be wrestling with forgiving us. And even if we’ve offended no one on earth, chances are we’ve done, said or thought something that makes us less than who God intended us to be, and therefore we need God’s forgiveness. When we think about how many times we ask God to forgive us, often for the same darn thing, we’re more inclined to cut each other some slack, as the great hymn “Forgive our sins” reminds us.

Is there someone whom you have been unable to forgive?
A resentment that sits there within you? Chances are that wound remains unhealed, and gets reopened periodically, either by that person or by similar feelings.
What feelings come up when you think about forgiving that person, releasing that debt?

If you don’t yet feel ready to forgive, might you be willing to let God do it? That’s one way to pray toward forgiveness, by praying, “Lord, I can’t forgive this person… but if you want to, I guess it’s okay.” Just praying that will shift the landscape a bit, generate some space, and the Holy Spirit will work with whatever space we give. If you're willing to go a little further, pray, "And if you want me to, please give me a desire to forgive..." That's another opening.

Our “forgiveness muscles” need to be exercised just like everything else in us. On this anniversary of one of the worst wounds inflicted upon our nation in recent times, we have yet another opportunity to flex those muscles. No one is beyond the reach of God's forgiveness, and as we grow in faith, we are able, by his power, to forgive even terrorists. 

9-8-17 - Jesus Here Now

Sometimes I wish Jesus would show up and set a few things straight in this messed up world of ours – if people would pay more attention than they did the first time around. But that idle wish misses a big ol’ point: He is here. He said he would be. It’s up to us to discern him and to make him known.

“For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them,” is a promise. A promise of presence. To unfold that promise, though, requires a few actions from us.

First, we have to be able to distinguish between flesh and spirit. Jesus said that fleshly reality was limited, and that spiritual reality was never-ending. Jesus’ enfleshed presence was time-and-space-limited, 33 years or so, give or take, in one region of the world. His presence in a resurrection body lasted about 40 days. His spiritual presence is eternal, and still going strong among those who believe in his promise.

The other article of faith we need to affirm is the idea of Jesus living in us. I take the promises of baptism at face value - the promise is that we are united with Christ, made a new creation, given a new heart and a new spirit – his spirit. So Paul wrote, “It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.” This filling with his spirit is not an “invasion of the body snatchers” thing. Rather, his spirit joined with mine brings forth a new person, that most true “Kate” (fill in your name) that can possibly be.

If Christ dwells in us, abides in us, then he is real in us. And when we gather with others in whom Christ lives, his presence becomes even stronger and more real. By believing and joining together, we make Christ present in our world, not just a suggestion of presence, but fully here, spiritually speaking. (We supply the flesh and blood.)

How might it change our lives and ministries if we brought this reality more fully to our consciousness? If, when we gathered together, we knew Jesus was among us, and we spoke and acted and prayed like we knew we were in the presence of the all-powerful God? If, when we went out in ministry, we made sure we went in teams of at least two, so that the power of Christ’s presence would fill and empower our work in his name? Don’t get me wrong – Christ is present in us when we’re alone. But he said when two or three of us – our more – gathered in his name, he would be in our midst.

Where do you think it would be great if Jesus showed up this weekend? What place, person, situation? Do you have any idea how you might bring him there, with a few others?

Going deeper… where do you think he might want to go? You might get quiet in prayer and ask him: “Jesus, where do you want me to take you today, to make you known?”

I can’t wait to hear how those prayers turn out. I do know the world needs a lot more Jesus, and we’re just the ones to help make that happen.

9-7-17 - Pre-Blessed Prayers

Some promises are dangerous, offering more than can seemingly be delivered. This statement of Jesus’ strikes me that way: “Again, truly I tell you, if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven.” Anything? If even just two of us agree?

Is this a promise with a back-door clause – is it so unlikely that two people on earth would ever fully agree about any request, God has an automatic out? No, let’s assume Jesus was being straightforward. That might leave us doubting God, knowing that we have prayed for outcomes with many people in whole-hearted agreement as to their desirability, without seeing them come to pass. Exhibit A are prayers for healing that are not visibly answered.

This is one of those bible verses that cannot be separated from the one that follows. It only accords with both faith and experience when seen in tandem with this: “For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.” (This Sunday's gospel is here.)

Ah, now we’re not only talking about human agreement. We’re talking about being gathered as the Body of Christ, in his very presence. To pray in Jesus’ name is to pray as Christ; to pray from inside, as it were; to invoke the power that his very name makes known. To pray in Jesus’ name is to pray in agreement with him, and thus to pray with perfect faith. Our own is far from perfect, but Jesus’ is 100%. When we pray with Jesus, not only to Jesus, we have all the faith we need.

So why are some of our prayers not answered as we desire? Perhaps we weren’t quite praying in Christ. Maybe we were bringing forward our desires and seeking God's blessing upon them, like a pie at the county fair. “Here, isn’t this one pretty?” Sometimes that yields answers we recognize. But our prayers feel more effective when we pray what Jesus is already praying for; his prayers come pre-blessed.

What are some of those “unanswered prayers” in your life? I think most of us have some, and they often put distance between us and God. Call one to mind today.
Have you ever asked God what God thinks about that prayer? Ever discussed it with Jesus? Ever paid attention to the Spirit in you when you pray about that?

We might even try asking God: "What is your desire for me in this area?" We might be surprised at how God answers us. We might have to stay still for a time, and attend to what words or images or songs arise in us, now or later.

Prayer isn’t about getting what we want; it’s about deepening a relationship, one that will last forever. We need to speak our desires - that's just good communicating, being real. But the more we cultivate intimacy with Jesus, the more we’ll find ourselves truly praying in his name, his will, his mind, his heart.

And sometimes, as Garth Brooks reminds us, there are reasons we only discover later for what feel like Unanswered Prayers.

9-6-17 - Free To Set Free

Do we want this much power? Several times Jesus sets the authority to offer or withhold forgiveness into a cosmic framework, saying that what we do in this world is mirrored in the heavenly realm. 
“Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” Yikes.

Maybe Jesus teaches this process of confrontation and reconciliation because there are such cosmic consequences to ignoring conflict and pain. When we bury our hurts, sweep our conflicts under the rug, not only do we stay bound, we keep the perpetrators of hurts bound to us. No one is free.

I believe that what God wants most for us is freedom. I have seen the process of healing and forgiving result in amazing freedom for people, huge releasing of energy and giftedness, new ability to see, to hope, to live. As I reflect on this, I keep thinking of stories of survivors of sexual abuse and trauma. (The next two paragraphs contain nothing explicit, but if this is a sensitive area for you, read with care.)

I once prayed for months with a woman who had endured sexual abuse throughout her life – people who have been victimized as children often suffer similar abuse in adulthood. This woman saw herself more as victim than survivor, and harmed herself as well. One time I said something about moving toward forgiveness. She turned on me in fury and said, “They told me in my support group that I don’t ever have to forgive!” I backed down, thinking, “That is true – but then will you ever be free?” Forgiveness cannot be rushed, but to close ourselves to it leaves us bound to people who have hurt us.

Years later I met another woman. She and her two sisters had been sexually abused throughout childhood by her father and grandfather, who were still alive and in the family. She had done the excruciating work of addressing those wounds and moving toward healing, and had come to forgive her abusers. She did not trust or get close to them, and worked to ensure the safety of children in the family system, but over time she released the awful burden of their crimes. And then she was no longer psychically connected to them – forgiveness meant freedom from them. Her sisters refused to do this work; one was deeply alcoholic and the other suicidal. As brutal as it is to work at healing from trauma, it is a movement toward freedom, and life.

Many of us have not experienced trauma this severe – but we might feel bound in some way by a hurt we have suffered or anger we continue to hold. Usually the anger is justified; it can still be corrosive over time. Today, we might let some of those stuck places come up in our mind, and pray about forgiving people who have hurt us, or ask forgiveness of those whom we have hurt. If we ask the Spirit to show us those things, they often emerge from the muck.

Inner healing is a powerful process of bringing the love of God to bear on our emotional wounds. I have witnessed tremendous transformation result from the healing of memories and specific areas of woundedness. (If you want to know more about this process, please contact me.)

As we release that healing stream of God’s love and power to soak into hidden wounds and resentments, life returns to parched places, and old knots become unwound so that peace can flood in. “It is for freedom that Christ has made us free,” Paul wrote. Jesus has won for us freedom to release ourselves and others. Let’s set the captives free.