Relating, Creating, Transforming

Archive for September, 2013

The Giving in ForGIVING

Luke 16:1-13

This story is often called the parable of the unjust steward. There are many different interpretations. It is referred to as one of the hard sayings of Jesus. Why? Because it’s hard to figure out!

Okay, so let me ask you. What is confusing about this parable? What questions do you have?

It will be helpful for us to go back into the Hebrew Scriptures [the OT], to better understand what this parable is all about: forgiveness. In the Gospels, Jesus talks a lot about debts and forgiveness, but he actually draws from ancient Hebrew tradition. There is the famous story of King Saul, David, and Nathan. In this story, David is full of guilt over his adultery, lies, and his contract killing of Uriah the Hittite, a soldier in David’s own army, and of course, the husband of Bathsheba, David’s lover. David, throughout the rest of his life, deals with the consequences of his actions. Eventually, though, Nathan pardons David, saving him from the penalty of death. But it is not a Disneyland ending. In the story, even after receiving forgiveness via Nathan, David flees the city in humiliation and humbly confesses:

IF I find favor in the eyes of the Lord, he will bring me back.[1]
In David’s case, forgiveness involved a long process of difficult, personal transformation, to the end.

In the later writings of the Hebrew Scriptures and leading into the New Testament, the theme of debt and forgiveness emerges. King Nebuchadnezzar, an imperialistic Babylonian ruler, conquers Jerusalem and constructs a mighty kingdom for himself, as told in the book of Daniel. His pride overwhelms though, and he makes a terrible decision to send Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego [three Jews] to the fiery furnace because they refuse to worship the golden idol that the king had forced upon the general public. Of course, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego survive the fiery furnace and the king goes insane [coo-coo] and for seven years he lives as an animal. Then, in the climactic scene, Nebuchadnezzar approaches the prophet Daniel and humbly begs for a way to repay his debt to society. Daniel says:

Pay off the debt you owe for your sins through charity to the poor.[2]
So for King N, forgiveness involved giving something tangible.

Here is why I spent the time on these two OT stories: forgiveness is not simple. I like how C.S. Lewis, the author of the Narnia Chronicles and many other books, puts it:

Everyone says forgiveness is a lovely idea, until they have something to forgive …
And then, to mention the subject at all is to be greeted with howls of anger.[3]

Right. You see, forgiveness is tough.

And I would argue that forgiveness is even harder when it stays ambiguously up in the clouds as some abstract concept. Unfortunately, sometimes our religious traditions keep it in the clouds, reducing forgiveness to linear steps or to one very limited perspective. But forgiveness, in life and in the Bible, has many levels and takes many shapes and forms. David needed to take a personal journey of transformation and face his mistakes; King Nebuchadnezzar needed to give his resources back to those who he had marginalized.

Fast forward to Luke’s Gospel and we find a continuation of the idea of debt forgiveness. Luke, for example, is the only Gospel that includes a version of what we call “the Lord’s Prayer” with these words: forgive us our sins as we forgive our debtors.[4] It is actually even stronger in the original Greek language, reading like this: forgive us our sins as we forgive the monetary debts of those who owe us.

Luke [and Jesus] are not afraid to talk about money, and so here we have this confusing story about an unjust steward. One surprising connection emerges, if we pay attention. Most people are at least somewhat familiar with the story of the prodigal son, right? Well, connect the dots. The prodigal son “squandered” his dad’s inheritance; the unjust steward “squandered” his master’s property. Both characters give away money and then find forgiveness in the end. Both parables are about extravagant, even unfair forgiveness.

In the parable of the unjust steward, though, there is no loving father to mercifully forgive his irresponsible son, just a guy who wastes even more of his boss’ money by secretly pardoning all the debts of his workers. And so…everyone scratches their heads and says: Huh?

But this is typical Jesus turning the tables on our “religious” ideas about forgiveness. The poor, the marginalized—they are the ones to whom much is owed. Society unjustly treats them. The world is out of balance. The rich get richer. The poor get poorer. Jesus, throughout the Gospels, asks the question: will the poor welcome you into the age to come, or will they say: I never knew you? We spend so much time in Christian circles trying to get Jesus to welcome us into heaven, and yet, if we listen to what Jesus actually taught and lived, he sided with the poor and marginalized and gave them the authority to welcome or not to welcome.

Jesus pulled forgiveness down from the clouds and taught his followers to tangibly cancel debts, expecting nothing in return.

He called them to sell possessions and give alms to the poor. Sure, it was 1st Century Palestine, but they might as well have been in 2013 Philly. Nothing has changed. People called “poor” are those who must constantly borrow money, remaining subject to oppressors and owners. As a nation, the U.S. continues to propagate an unjust system in which people are born into poverty and debt. This idea has been implanted in other countries, too. Land is taken from people who have worked it for generations. Now they have to pay taxes to someone else. Are you born into a poor family? You already owe a debt before you can even speak or walk; you owe someone richer than you. In fact, that will never change, UNLESS your debts are forgiven by someone else. Jesus preached that social status was a façade and can even lead to our destruction. This is why the last become the first in God’s kingdom reality.

Forgiveness, then, is so much more than some religious tradition or an individualistic feel-good band aid for us. It is not limited to believing that Jesus died on the cross to forgive us, and so we are okay. Forgiveness isn’t about believing in substitutionary atonement: that Jesus took my place and so now I don’t have to do anything.

Forgiveness is about acting out of compassion for yourself and for others.

Forgiveness requires us to give something.  

David gave up his social status, his rule, and his time.

Nebuchadnezzar gave his mind and then his financial resources.

The steward took a risk and gave his reputation.

What do you need to for-GIVE?

Let’s keep this on the ground and not in the clouds.
So if you need to, take religion out of the equation if it distracts you.
If you feel shame or guilt because of the cross, the Bible, or your inability to forgive—take religion out of it. Seriously.

Forgiveness is a release.

So however you need to approach it, don’t feel limited. Jesus taught freedom for our captive minds and bodies. Forgiveness is about a free release of debts—whatever they may be.

So focus on the debts that others owe you in relationships. Who has hurt you? What do you need to give to forgive them? Maybe you need to give time to writing a letter to that person who has hurt you, expressing your anger, frustration, and sadness over what he/she has done. Write the letter and read it back to yourself. Maybe write another one. Read it.

Or maybe you need to give distance between you and that person in order to really evaluate the situation. Perhaps you need to give yourself [and that person] space.

Or, you may need to give your resources, including money. Have you ever considered how giving to those who are pushed down and marginalized can help you forgive and be forgiven? Try it. And I’m not talking about superficial charity [throwing money at a problem so it will go away]. I mean giving of yourself to a person or a group of people who really can use your help. Believe me, everyone can help. You don’t have to be monetarily rich. Some people just need a friend because they have been bullied their whole life. Some need a job; maybe you have connections. Some need food. Some need rent money. Others need medical care. Some need to take a class to get a job. She needs to talk to a counselor; maybe he needs to learn how to cook for his family. Some people need shoes and clothes. Some kids are shut out of a good education. What can you give?

By no means am I saying that we can save the world all at once. But there are a lot of small ways that we can give of ourselves and make an impact. And in the process, we can participate in the release of debts–forgiveness.

Everyone deserves to be free of debt—everyone!

So friends, let us make forgiveness something we value.
Let us give our time, money, talent, and energy to it.

Whatever road you must take in your forgiving, be like the so-called unjust steward—do NOT wait. Start your journey now.

Find release for yourself and for others.

Amen.

 


[1] 2 Samuel 15:25

[2] Daniel 4:27

[3] C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, 1952.

[4] Luke 11:4

Advertisements

Jars of Clay

Jeremiah 18:1-6

 

Art in Me is a song written by Dan Haseltine, Steve Mason, Matt Odmark, and Charlie Lowell–otherwise known as the band “Jars of Clay.”

jarsofclay They are three-time Grammy award winners who recently released their 11th album [Inland]—this time under a new label. Jars of Clay, in 2007, left the contemporary Christian label called Essential Records and started their own label, Gray Matters. Why? On paper it seems that they have enjoyed a lot of success claiming the label of a Christian music group. But the members of Jars of Clay have never felt completely comfortable within the confines of this label. Dan Haseltine has remarked that the “Christian” label led to limitations.

“It’s a ghetto, frankly,” Steve Mason says of the category. “Unfortunately, it loops us in politically and socially to a bunch of things that we don’t necessarily buy. It is frustrating, sometimes, because we feel like what we’re doing is good art, and we want what we’re doing to stand up with the stuff that’s out right now.”[1]

The questions that Jars of Clay ask in their music can be identified by all walks of life — all faiths, no faith. They are honest questions. As Mason commented in an interview, Jars wants to make “room at the table for everybody.”

jars_of_clayGroupSad, isn’t it? This music group has encountered so much pressure to just “fit” into a category called Christian—to be lumped together with others who are completely different from them. I am glad, though, that the band decided not to change its name. Jars of Clay is an appropriate name for their honest, meaning-filled music. After all, clay jars are earthenware, pots, things made out of earth. They are formed, shaped, pulled, pushed, and molded until they are cooked in a kiln.

And all the pots are different; they are not the same.

But clay jars don’t form themselves on their own. They need a potter. Perhaps one of the most intriguing and misunderstood metaphors for God in scripture is the image of the potter. The prophet Jeremiah, as all prophets, sees things in the natural world and in everyday life and applies a deeper meaning to them. Essentially, this is a prophet’s job—to see and hear a little bit deeper and then to share this insight with people. Sometimes, though, as in Jeremiah’s case, what prophets shared was not always pleasant. The image of God as potter and people as clay is both comforting and challenging.

In Jeremiah’s day, clay was used for lots of things. Of course, there were expensive clay items that the rich would decorate and display. But the most common pots were the ones that Judeans used every day for practical things around the house. Maybe the pots were not perfectly shaped or adorned with color. But they were perfect to store grain, wine, or oil. The pots were life-sustainers. That doesn’t mean that the pots themselves would last very long. Because they were used so much, from time to time they would crack or break.

That meant a trip to the potter’s house.

The potter’s job, of course, was to patch up any cracks or breaks and, on occasion, to completely destroy a pot and remake it. So Jeremiah is called to the house of the potter—a common trip that people of Judea would have made. But we need to pay attention to the Hebrew word for potter here. Potter [in English] is a translation of the verb yatsar which means to fashion or form.[2] It is the same verb used in Genesis 2:7 when YHWH [God] kneels in the dust, grabs a piece of wet clay, and forms a human being. It is the same image we see in the Muslim scriptures [the Qu’ran]: human beings formed by God from clay.[3] So this is a direct reference to the creation story—a story that hundreds of ancient cultures tell in a similar way with humans being created from clay. For example, the Incas of South America tell this story:

Viracocha [God] raised up all the people and nations, making figures of clay and painting the clothes each nation was to wear. To each nation he gave a language, songs and the seeds they were to sow. Then he breathed life and soul into the clay and ordered each nation to pass under the earth and emerge in the place he directed.[4]

And the Hopis from North America tell this story:

The deity of the east made of clay first a woman and then a man, who were brought to life in exactly the same manner as the birds and animals before them.[5]

We must make this connection between the creation story and Jeremiah’s trip to the potter’s house. It shows us that this potter who Jeremiah must visit is constantly forming, shaping, dismantling, and remaking the clay. There is a reason for that.

The clay, now established as being human beings, is seemingly in constant need of repair.

Sometimes the clay pots even need to be broken up completely. At times, the potter’s hands slip on the clay and the potter has to restart the process. At moments the potter isn’t pleased with the pot’s shape and so it must be smashed back into a clump of clay and reshaped. If you’ve ever tried to work at a pottery wheel, you know that this is how it goes. It is a process full of trial and error, smashing, shaping, and remaking until you get the shape you desire. Making pottery requires a LOT of patience. And you have to get your hands dirty. And you have to make sure the clay is adequately moist and not too dry. And you have to spin the wheel just right so as to smoothly transition the clump into being a pot.

So the image of God as potter and humans as clay, shared by so many cultures and religious traditions, seems clear:

All of us come from the same natural, organic earth.
We share a formation by a patient, careful, detail-oriented potter.
Each pot formed from the clay is different—unique.
And the potter is never finished with the clay.

It is a powerful and wonderful metaphor, I think. But it can be misunderstood.

Sometimes we make the false assumption that all pieces of clay are exactly the same and so the pots need to look and act the same. Sometimes we can forget that it is normal for pots to develop cracks and imperfections. Often we look at overused, broken-down pots and assume that they are useless and cannot be remade. And also we can force other clay pots to be shaped in the same way we were—even though that is impossible. Each pot is formed uniquely. Each clump of clay needs a different amount of water and a different shaping technique. Homogenous pots do not emerge from the potter’s house.

And the metaphor hits home when we consider our own brokenness, our struggles, are cracks, fissures, and need for reshaping and remaking ourselves. Yes, we are cracked pots in need of patient care, love, mercy, and periodic trips to the potter’s house. And I think if we recognize that we share this with all others, then we’ll stop trying to force them into categories.

And we’ll embrace their clay-ness and their ability to be molded and shaped as the potter sees fit—not as we see fit.

So friends, recognize your clay-ness and recognize the clay-ness of others. Remember that you have something contained in that clay jar that is your life: a treasure. The treasure inside your cracked pot is the love and compassion of God that you share with others. May it be evident and may it shine through all the beautiful cracks and openings in your pot. Amen.


[1] “Jars of Clay Seek ‘Reintroduction’ With First Indie Release,” Hollywood Reporter, 9/4/2013, Rebecca Sun.

[2] Cracked Pots I Have Known and Loved, John C. Holbert

[3] Qu’ran 38:71: Indeed, I am going to create a human being from clay. Sahih International

[4] Mythology: An Illustrated Encyclopedia. Ed. Richard Cavendish. Silverdale Books. page 187.

[5] The Traditions of the Hopi, by H.R. Voth, [1905]

Giving Up Your Seat = Empathy

Luke 14:1-14

QUESTION: What is the worst seat you have ever had? Consider a concert, opera, game, classroom, etc.

What is the best seat you have ever had?

a-place-at-the-tableHere we are in Luke’s Gospel, and Jesus is still on his way to Jerusalem. Like a previous story about a bent-over woman, here we find a story in which a person is suffering from some sort of illness and then a healing takes place.

BACKGROUND ALERT: Jesus is warned about Herod of Antipas, the ruler of the region called Galilee. At this point in the journey, Jesus’ ideas have become dangerous to political leaders. Surprisingly, the Pharisees actually seem to be protecting Jesus from a possible threat. In spite of the danger, Jesus continues on.

And, like in Luke’s previous story about a bent-over woman, it is the Sabbath day.

Jesus goes to the home of a Pharisee for a meal. As I have mentioned before, in the 1st century in the Middle East, dinners were about more than just food. Great discussions [and debates] about politics, social issues, and religion would take place. Also, keep in mind that one who was hosting such a dinner would obviously invite people of the same social class [or higher], so as to guarantee an invite later on to a dinner at their house. People of low income levels would not have the home to offer so they would not be invited to such a dinner. They could not return the favor.

But we cannot ignore the man with dropsy, who is healed, on the Sabbath.

This man seems to be the male version of the healing story about the bent-over woman. Both stories occur on the Sabbath and in front of the Pharisees. So what is dropsy? The Greek word for dropsy is hudropikos, which is a derivation of the word for water. Dropsy carries with it symptoms of fluid retention and strangely, also great thirst. It’s not a disease really—just a side effect of another health problem. Just like with the bent-over woman, we do not know exactly what is causing his symptoms.

What we do know is that he is thirsty for the thing that he has the most of: water. A sad irony, don’t you think? He is retaining too much water, but is constantly thirsty.

Jesus asks the Pharisees a question, which we can probably guess the answer to:
Is it lawful to heal someone on the Sabbath?

The Pharisees give no answer, though we can assume what many of them were thinking:
The Law says that one cannot work on the Sabbath.

So I guess the answer is no.

Then, the example of the wedding feast.

At the dinner table, always sit at the worst seat in the house—never the best seat.
At first, it seems that Jesus is giving the Pharisees some good advice as to how to be falsely humble.

Sure! I’ll take the worst seat at the table, and then, later on, someone will move me up to the best seat. Sounds great!

But as Jesus continues on, it becomes clear that his point has nothing to do with false humility.

Jesus’ point is all about empathy.

The great reversal, as it is called, that the last will be first and vice versa—is about empathy. Do not identify just with your own social class, but with those who you call poor; those you call marginalized; those you call unclean. Identify. Empathize with them.

Invite them to your dinners and give them the best seats. Give up your own seat, even though they won’t repay you. There is nothing that you will get out of it, actually. The world and its social order will reject this behavior. No one will applaud your efforts, you won’t get an award or your name in the paper, and you won’t get more money or status out of it.

In fact, the only thing that comes out of it is that you will participate in God’s kingdom on earth. In other words, God already says that all people are equal. There are no social classes in God’s eyes. So the great equalizing God asks this of you in order to display God’s mercy and love—give up your seat. Empathize.

So another question for you: who do you usually welcome?

Your families, right? Or, on occasion, you might invite over a good friend, too, or someone you haven’t seen in a long time who just moved into the area. Okay, and let’s admit, sometimes we invite someone over because they invited us, and so we feel obligated. Like the Pharisees, an invitation to our home often has more to do with an exchange of favors than empathy.

And, even if we “invite” someone into our lives who is a so-called “poor” person or someone who is “marginalized” we often do it with the hope of salvation in mind—some sort of heavenly reward.

This is why I’m not a big believer in altruism, or the idea that we as people can act completely unselfishly when we help another. For each time we help someone, we are helped, too. We feel better and useful and when we see someone go from sad to content because we helped her, this gives us satisfaction. There is nothing inherently wrong with that, of course. This positive, pay-it-forward kind of idea can have a wonderful impact on our corners of the world. We help someone with his/her best interest in mind; that person helps us, too.

But for Jesus, the expectation of reward is the problem.

We are not entitled. Oh boy…

ohno

No reward that we should expect if we are to truly empathize. The resurrection of the righteous is not about an express ticket to heaven. It is about new life [resurrection] for all of God’s children.

When we invite those who are left out and pushed down, we empathize with them. We choose to say and show that they are just like us. We choose to say to the world that salvation is not reserved for us. We exhibit controversial, uncomfortable behavior when we radically accept people as they are.

Sadly, we live in a world that promotes an opposite idea [and many churches do, too]. We are not encouraged to empathize with others, but instead we are encouraged to stay close to those who are just like us. The media often portrays a so-called “Christian” perspective that is suspicious of this kind of empathy that leads to social justice—especially if it means giving up a good seat at the table. In fact, recently, a well-known television commentator addressed U.S. Christians, instructing them to avoid at all costs and to run away from “those churches that talk about or promote social justice.” Wow.

But friends, don’t let this kind of nonsense or propaganda make you apathetic.

We are called by Christ to be inclusive and to welcome all to our tables. We cannot say or claim the word “gospel” unless we are welcoming the stranger, the foreigner, and the outsider.

We cannot preach, teach, or live gospel unless we welcome the gay man who was sent to “conversion camp” to get rid of his “gayness”;
or the two women who have loved each other for 13 years and still cannot get married;
the boy who learns differently than the other kids and needs more attention;
the young man who just got out of prison;
the young woman who battles addiction each day of her life;
the people of Syria who are dying and suffering;
the people of Egypt who are mourning;
the families split apart in the Sudan;
the family here in the U.S. that is undocumented and discriminated against;
the Muslim communities in NY or elsewhere who are spied on;
the atheist or the agnostic who has been spiritually wounded;
the teenager searching for acceptance and love in a cruel world.

Friends, we are made in the image of the still-speaking, still-welcoming God.

We have been given a place at the table. Grace and mercy are the place settings.

All of you are invited to the feast of great compassion by God.

So may your life be a table.

And may our tables be radically inclusive.

May our tables be set with no rewards in mind.

May the movement of the welcoming Spirit invade our personal space.

May we always invite those who will not return the favor.

May our church always reserve the best seats for those in great need.

May we choose to empathize with others and accept them as they are.

May our lives be inclusive tables. Amen.

Tag Cloud

My Journey 2 My Peace

Overcoming Anxiety and learning to live Positively

Deeper in me than I

eloquia oris mei et meditatio cordis mei

Mind Squirrels

Ideas that Work

Silence Teaches Us Who We Are

Silence, Centering Prayer, Contemplative Prayer, Jesus, God, and Life.

Casa HOY

On the road to change the world...

myrandomuniverse

a philosophical, analytic, occasionally snarky but usually silly look at the thoughts that bounce around....

"Journey into America" documentary

Produced by Akbar Ahmed

Interfaith Crossing

|||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||

Prussel's Pearls

An Actor's Spiritual Journey

The Theological Commission's Grand, Long-Awaited Experiment

Modeling Civility Amidst Theological Diversity

a different order of time

the work of a pastor

learn2practice

mood is followed by action

Imago Scriptura

Images & Thoughts from a Christian, Husband, Father, Pastor

the living room.

117 5th Street, Valley Junction__HOURS: M 9-5, TW 7-7, TH 7-9, F 7-7, S 8-5, S 9-4

the view from 2040

theological education for the 21st century