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Posts tagged ‘Lord’s Prayer’

Humility: the Path Home

Luke 18:9-14, NRSV

He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.’ But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.”

Gallen.TaxmanPeter Gallen, The Tax Collector and the Pharisee

The other day I was talking with someone about prayer. He told me:

I don’t really pray.

Okay, I thought, but why don’t you pray?

God has enough to worry about. There are kids who are dying of hunger. There are people who die of cancer. The world is full of problems and suffering and my problems seem too small to bother God with them.

I paused. He had a good point, after all. Sometimes our petty problems and situations are not really that urgent or dramatic—by comparison. And certainly, I remember many times in church worship services when the prayer concerns and celebrations seemed quite silly or insignificant.

God has enough to worry about. Why should I bother with prayer?

Right. Why should we bother with prayer? I mean, without question, prayer is confusing. Lots of churches think they know how we are supposed to pray. There are formulas and step-by-step prayer books sold to us. Some people pray the Lord’s Prayer in a pew where there is stained glass. Some just sing the Kyrie. Others cry their eyes out and jump up and down, hands extended in the air. Sometimes a choir sings with the prayers, creating an emotional response. Others kneel down. Some fold their hands and close their eyes and are silent. Others chant, whisper, roll over beads of a rosary, or burn incense.

Is God at all impressed with this prayer pageantry? Are God’s ears tired of hearing about our small problems?

Why pray at all?

And so, we find a story in Luke’s Gospel that seems to spell it out for us.
Aha! THIS is how we should pray!

In fact, our brothers and sisters in the Eastern Orthodox Church have taken this to heart.
jesusprayer
The Jesus Prayer [literally, The Wish], is a short, formulaic prayer:

Κύριε Ἰησοῦ Χριστέ, Υἱὲ τοῦ Θεοῦ, ἐλέησόν με τὸν ἁμαρτωλόν            Greek

ܡܪܝ ܝܫܘܥ ܡܫܝܚܐ ܒܪܗ ܕܐܠܘܐ ܪܚܡ ܥܠܝ ܚܛܝܐ.       Syriac

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, the sinner.            English

The prayer is based on the tax collector’s words in this Luke story. Many believe the prayer to have originated in the Egyptian desert in the 5th Century. It is often repeated continually as a part of personal ascetic practice. It is a prayer method called Hesychasm, to keep stillness.[1]

Now to some, this prayer may seem to be a bit of self-loathing.
Woe is me, woe is me—
I’m such a bad dude—
God have mercy on me,
and I’ll be in a better mood.

Perhaps that is why any formulaic prayer has its limits.
And that is just what Jesus was trying to get across in this story.
Every formula, doctrine or dogma, church tradition or rite that tries to tell us that a particular prayer is putting us on the holy fast track is only holding us back.

Like I said–prayer can be confusing.

But prayer is supposed to be liberating.

Nowhere in scripture do we find limitations on prayer. Jesus does not hand out evangelism tracts with the “Jesus save me/sinners prayer” attached. Instead, Jesus holds up two people as an example of prayer: a Pharisee and a tax collector.

On paper, this story seems black and white, doesn’t it?
Pharisee=bad. Tax collector=good.
We’re done! Let’s go home!

But wait a minute—remember that whenever a parable of Jesus seems black and white, we’ve just been trapped. And this time it’s a prayer trap. We see ourselves just like the tax collector, or at least, we really, really want to.

I’m humble. I can beat my chest and say that I’m a sinner. Thank GOD I am not like the Pharisee. Thank HEAVENS that I don’t brag about how much money I give to my church or how often I go to worship or how many committees I have led. Thank the LORD that I would never stand up in front of people and say how religious I am…

Trapped.

By claiming that we’re not like the Pharisee, we become the Pharisee.

The thing is…we like to be exalted. We enjoy a pat on the back for a job well done or a duty fulfilled. We even go so far as to think that giving money to the church, doing religious things, having a good reputation in society, earning a respectable salary—we think that this justifies us. And in doing so, we distance ourselves from certain kinds of people who we see as lesser than us. How much empathy do we have for others when we pray? How often do we pray for those on the other side of society? Like the distance between the Pharisee and the tax collector, we create distance between ourselves.

Trapped.

You see, I think this story tell us that prayer is about so much more than we typically say and believe.
Prayer is not about checking something off of our to-do list for Christianity 101.
Prayer is not dumping a laundry list of anxiety, hang-ups, and annoyances.
Prayer is not selling something or buying something.
Prayer is not reminding God of how great we are and so reward us, please.

Prayer is about paying attention

to the world, to others, to the trees, to the animals.
Prayer is about paying attention to more than just ourselves.

Prayer escapes our sanctuaries, temples, books, rituals, and words.
Prayer moves through each day, hour, minute, second—each breath.

Prayer does not make us more holy or even better people. It is not some self-improvement program. Neither is prayer about crying our eyes out, feeling bad for ourselves, or focusing on our faults. We can do all these things, thinking that this will get us closer to God or somehow impress God with our humility, but just when we think we’re closer to God and that we’ve got prayer figured out—we are farther from God and our prayers are hollow.

Because in the end, God doesn’t give a flying fig about our accomplishments.
God doesn’t read our online bio or our Facebook profile and say:
Wow! You are really successful. Keep it up! Heaven awaits you!

Instead, God awaits our true humanity.

masksTake off the masks.

masks2

Shed the pompous clothes.
Get rid of the religious piety.

God sees us as we are.
We are tax collectors and we are all Pharisees—all of us.

But mercy and grace await humanity; and humanity is humility.
This is good news for you, me, and even for the guy who refuses to pray.

Humility is recognizing that we don’t have all the answers. Humility is seeing other people as they are with open eyes, not judging them or creating distance between us or classifying them. Humility leads us to the most human and divine of all places—home.

Home is where addicts, the depressed, the lonely, the angry, the sad, the mentally and physically challenged, the lost, the sick, the hungry, the beaten, the forgotten, the abused, the mourners, the bullied, and the marginalized can all be themselves and can all be accepted and loved.

This is prayer’s home. It is by open invitation. All Pharisees and tax collectors welcome.

So friends, pray in whatever way you need to. Pray with eyes open to the world and the people, trees, and animals in it. Pray with hand and words and breath and beads and bowls and chants and songs and service and hugs and smiles and tears.

But pray as a human being. Recognize humility as the path home, and then your living will be driven less by your need to be applauded, recognized, and given high status; instead, may your living be driven by grace and mercy.

May you find your way home.
Amen.


[1] “Orthodox Christian Study on Unceasing Prayer Part I – John Kotsonis – Theandros – An Online journal of Orthodox Christian Theology and Philosophy”. Theandros. Retrieved 2010-07-03.

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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

The Start of Lent

Isaiah 58:3–12     

Fast Actions

carbonFast

In 2011 and 2012, more than 10,000 people participated in the Ecumenical Lenten Carbon Fast, sponsored by the Massachusetts Conference of the United Church of Christ. Each day, participants [including me] received an email with one concrete suggestion for the day, an action that would lessen their carbon footprint. Leadership of this effort interviewed a number of individuals who had participated in the Carbon Fast to explore the impact of this fasting experience on people’s environmental awareness, spiritual practice, and stewardship. These interviews were part of a study about climate change from a psychological and spiritual perspective, trying to gain insight on how people could be inspired to make concrete changes in their lives that would affect the environment and the world.

What they found was that simple actions mattered. Small actions make people more aware. People who participated in the Carbon Fast were more aware of how their day-to-day actions actually made a difference—either positively or negatively. This awareness led to action; the action then led to a greater, longer-term commitment.

Taking action, then, can result in a transformation of the people who take them. People who act start to see themselves as agents rather than passive observers. This shift in self-perception is extremely important. After all, most of us feel like there so many problems in the world, and in this case, so much work to be done about the environment—that we start to feel despair and apathy about it. And we do nothing. But that is a vicious cycle. The hopeful reality is that even a small change can lead to a greater commitment and an improved overall awareness.

Some of the participants who were interviewed said: [The Carbon Fast] was a whole lot more meaningful than giving up something, like chocolate; another participant said: Lent is a time to be reminded of sacrifice and the unification that can come through that process. Changing from being in my car to riding my bike brought me the joy of moving my body, of seeing my neighbors, of having contact with the world around me.

All too often, Lent is merely a religious holiday of sorts—a time when we participate in rituals and traditions, but not much change happens. But religion that is not practiced is worthless.

Lent is about being aware of yourself and the world around you; that awareness leads you to actions, to small changes; those actions then lead you to a greater, longer-term commitment.

Yes, the world is an overwhelming place. Yes, the issues are huge and you are one person. But you have to start somewhere or you won’t start at all. The God of Isaiah chooses a fast that tears down walls of prejudice; a fast that shares with others; a fast that feeds the hungry; a fast that invites the stranger into our lives; a fast that is action performed in daily life. So consider what small changes you can make in your life; choose one or two positive changes that affect your neighbors and your lifestyle; be more aware of the world around you and of yourself; make the change. Commit to it. And see what happens.

Matthew 6:1–6, 16–21

Praying with the Body

In this passage, attributed to Jesus of Nazareth, we find three things that connect to each other: giving, praying, and fasting.

Giving [what we sometimes call charity] should be done without any notoriety. In other words, if  you write that check or make the online donation to a just and worthy cause, don’t put your name on it. Hmmmm. I think that for sure there are times when our left hands have NO idea what our right hands are doing, but not usually in this case. In the Western world, if we give money, we have to know about it [and we make sure to get a receipt or a tax credit] and most of the time, we want others to know about it. Most churches have plaques with people’s names on them. So-and-so donated this pew; or this hymnal; or gave money to fix this roof. Even this doorknob is dedicated to Mr. Smith!

Now in all fairness to the people who gave those things, often they were never asked if they wanted a plaque to be noticed, but the church leadership keeps coming up with these things. Why? Why do we do this? Because we are disconnected from giving as a concept.

When we give, that’s supposed to be it. We don’t get. We give. There is no reward or even a thank you note that we should expect.

Prayer is the same, says Jesus. We don’t pray to get, we pray to give ourselves to relationship. That’s why we shouldn’t stand up in front and eloquently show people how much we think we know about God. We shouldn’t point to how many times we attended worship services, Bible studies, prayer meetings, or ministry conferences. In fact, says Jesus, don’t say much at all when you pray. Keep it simple. For if God is really God, don’t you think God is pretty much aware of what’s up inside our minds and hearts? Notice the “style” of prayer promoted here.

God, you are good. Start with this.

 May your good work happen here on earth—not just up in the clouds. And I will do it.

 Just give us what we need and that’s it.

 Forgive us, because wow—we have trouble forgiving others. Especially that dude who…!$#?!*

Don’t give us too much to handle and keep us from doing evil things. Yeah.

Back to that forgiveness thing, God, cuz man! It’s hard.

 So [*sigh*]

We accept that if we don’t forgive someone, we ourselves won’t be forgiven.

 And…may it be so.

Amen.

From prayer to fasting Jesus goes. Don’t be sad when you fast, he says, like hypocrites who want others to say:

“Hey look at her; look at him! They must be fasting! Good for them…”

 Instead, oil and water–symbols of cleansing and anointing–are to be used. But not in public; in private. Fasting is also about giving, but giving oneself to an awareness of the physical. Try this simple thing. Cut out meat for a couple of days if you are a meat eater. If not, cut out some food that you eat almost daily. This physical decision to change what you put into your body will make you aware.

All these three: giving, praying, and fasting—are intertwined. They are about humility and awareness.

We give because there is a need and we joyfully give, otherwise we shouldn’t at all.

We pray because it makes us aware and connects us to God, but less is more.

We fast because fasting connects our mental and spiritual selves to our physical selves, making us more aware of our bodies and how they connect to our minds and our hearts.

Sermon 06/10/12 Crazy!!!

Mark 3:20-35

Crazy!!!

 Mark’s Gospel doesn’t waste time. Mark doesn’t have patience for lengthy, detailed stories like some of the other Gospels. Mark skips sermons and long conversations in favor of driving action. If John’s Gospel is like a dramatic, indie film with a bit of romantic comedy built in, Mark is a shoot-em-up, action-adventure flick. In Mark, the story sprints forward. And the Jesus of Mark has very little patience for anyone or anything that gets in his way. Mark’s Jesus is Ripley in the Alien movies. Today we’re in the third chapter, during the early days of Jesus’ ministry, just after he has called his disciples. At this point, Jesus is a rock star. Crowds follow him—Jesus groupies. So much so that it’s impossible to sit down and have a decent meal. Mark tells us who the people around him are in this story: the crowds [Jesus groupies and curious folk from towns, villages, and rural areas who had heard of healings and miracles]; his disciples; Jesus’ own family; and religious scribes from Jerusalem, including those who were enemies of Jesus.

It’s a chaotic scene, really. And Jesus’ family [his mother and his brothers] were quite concerned for his welfare. So naturally, upon hearing the screaming, demanding crowd, they attempted to restrain Jesus. Lo and behold, this is the first time the Terminator Gospel mentions Jesus’ family. And in the whole rest of Mark, they are only mentioned once more in chapter 6: They were saying, “Is this not the carpenter, the son of Mary, and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters with us?” Okay, so we already know that Mark is not known for sentiment. But to point out that Jesus’ own family members were restraining him? Actually, the word in Greek is closer to arresting or seizing than it is to restraining. They were holding him back. Why? Because they were scared. Notice one important translation error commonly seen here—some Bibles say that as his family was trying to restrain him that other people called him crazy. But actually, it should read like this: When his family heard about this, they went to take charge of him, for they said, “He is out of his mind.” It was indeed his own family who called Jesus out of his mind.

But that’s better than what the Jerusalem scribes said. You see, even though Jesus had his share of adoring fans, he also had accumulated quite a group of enemies, too. The scribes, representing the temple authorities of Jerusalem, were less polite about it. Jesus wasn’t just crazy, he was possessed! That’s right. He most certainly was possessed by some sort of demon straight out of the Exorcist because he could cast out demons. Their explanation for Jesus’ crazy abilities was that a major demon was inside of him [Beelzebub], allowing him to get rid of minor demons. Sounds like an interesting comic book to me.

Were these scribes jealous? Maybe. Did they fear Jesus? Probably. Were they confused by his teachings? Some of them. Certain scribes were convinced that Jesus of Nazareth was a big loony. After all, how else could they explain his strange behavior? He healed the sick and unclean, there were whispers that he could perform miracles. He taught about the kingdom of God in a way that no one had ever imagined. He had to be crazy. How else to explain this Jesus of Nazareth? The scribes were religious powers, so they did what they felt was necessary to push down someone who challenged their authority: they called him names.

But their argument didn’t make sense. Jesus refuted it quite easily by making the logical conclusion that there was no way he was possessed, because why would Satan try to cast out his own demons? If the devil is so tricky and smart, wouldn’t that be stupid? And then, a random parable about a strong man’s house. The gist of it: one can’t possibly get the good stuff out of a strong man’s house without first making sure that the ripped dude is tied up and not a threat. I don’t know about you, but doesn’t this seem like a weird reference? It does, unless we notice the word for plunder is skeue, the same Greek word that appears only one other time in Mark, in chapter 11 when Jesus raids the Jerusalem temple, throws over tables, and kicks out the moneylenders. The house of prayer, the temple, the strong man’s house, needed to be upset. The only way to upset it was to tie up its strength—its religious bureaucracy. Of course, that was a dangerous thing to say with the Jerusalem scribes around. So Jesus spoke in parables. He may have been crazy, but he was no dummy.

And then we come to a very misunderstood Bible passage. Truly I tell you, people will be forgiven for their sins and whatever blasphemies they utter; but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit can never have forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin— for they had said, “He has an unclean spirit.” Sadly, over the centuries, some have used this passage to define which sins are forgivable and which ones aren’t. I even remember once as a teenager that an adult church leader once said to us that the sin God won’t forgive is when we take the Lord’s name in vain. Another adult told us that the eternal sin was denying Christianity as the one true religion. Wow, that’s ironic, because that’s exactly what the scribes were doing and precisely why Jesus said this! Jesus points out that God forgives all sins. The unforgivable sin is in fact trying to define what God does or does not forgive. You see, the scribes and other religious authorities forced people to make sacrifices, to pay money, and to perform rituals in order to receive God’s forgiveness. But Jesus taught about forgiveness without limitations. God forgives. That’s it and that’s all. The scribes were claiming–that Jesus’ healing of the sick on the Sabbath, his casting out of physical or mental demons, and his acceptance of the unclean—were demonic in nature.

This forgiveness teaching of Jesus is consistent with the original version of what we call the Lord’s Prayer. Starting at Matthew 6:12:  And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one. For if you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins. Forgiving is both God’s job and also our job. It’s easy, perhaps to throw the scribes under the bus, saying that we would never do such a thing. But we in the church often do play this role of religious authority. We spend a lot of time and energy saying which beliefs and practices are more religious. We also spend WAY too much time determining who belongs in the church and who doesn’t. Like the scribes, oftentimes we are not open to the movement of God’s Spirit, still-speaking in our lives. We like order, established doctrine and practice, and clear categories. Forgiveness without limits? Impossible!

Jesus did not and does not fit into our categories. God doesn’t fit into our religious practices, sanctuaries, and traditions. God is loose in the world without limits—upsetting and offering new perspectives and hidden possibilities; unexpected grace. But like the scribes, we often say: “That’s CRAAAAAAAZY! “ Apparently, it was crazy to his family, too. His mom and brothers, standing outside, were asking for him. The people in the crowd were bothered that Jesus didn’t go to them right away. They are asking for you, Jesus. Jesus replied, Who are my mother and my brothers? Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.

It’s almost like Jesus blew off his mom, saying, Thanks, mom, for caring, and giving birth to me and raising me, but you are not being helpful. I know you love me and want to protect me, but I’m a big boy now…

But Jesus was not against family. In his time and culture, family was of the utmost importance. It still is for most cultures around the world. Remember that we are reading Mark’s Gospel, the one that has no birth story, no family genealogy of Jesus. It is not Mark’s intent to focus on Jesus’ blood line. One of my classmates from seminary, Ira Brent Driggers, is the Associate Professor of New Testament at Lutheran Theological Seminary in Columbia, South Carolina. He wrote the book Following God through Mark. I think Brent gives insight when he states:

Jesus will not settle for isolated family units coming and going on Sunday morning, for God pulls us out of our self-interested households, giving us the means of growing in faith and love through the gift of brothers and sisters we would have otherwise ignored.

Jesus redefines family. He doesn’t reject family; he opens up the meaning of family, expanding it, imagining it to be more than we normally assume.

No wonder people thought he was crazy, for this Jesus of Nazareth stood up against all the ailments of society—illness, disease, depression, hate, prejudice, broken community, religious oppression, exclusion–he was not afraid to share abundant life with others. The Jesus Way is still crazy today, because most of us are quite suspicious of such radical, free thinking and healing—especially if it does not seem overtly religious, traditional, or “churchy.” We are often tempted, just like Jerusalem scribes, to pay more attention to the regulation of our faith via church doctrines. Like Jesus’ family, we also get scared and overprotective. And thus, we pay less attention to the life-giving, healing and strengthening relationship we have with our God as human beings. Sadly, we may even stop imagining.

But what the gospel of Jesus Christ offers is what theologian Karl Barth described as the “impossible possibility.” God has given you and me everything we need to be able to think beyond what is possible. The gift of imagination frees us to open our minds and hearts to possibilities far beyond what see and even what we currently experience. Why? We are free to imagine because we are freely forgiven. God loves us first and foremost, and forgives us daily. Being loved and forgiven means we are not stuck in our past or bound to our sins. We are healed; we are freed; we are forgiven; so we imagine.

We imagine a better world that starts in our own little world called our home. We pray and work for a loving, just environment for our life partners, children, and all who make up our household. We imagine friendships based on mutual love and respect, not on material obligation or social status. We imagine a community in Warminster and beyond, where all people can feel welcomed—no matter if he speaks Hindi, Spanish, or Korean; or if she calls Russia, Mexico, or Ireland home; whether his life partner is a man, or hers a woman; or if he’s never been to church and she’s not even sure there is a God. We imagine a church in which they can be accepted for who they are and find safety, love, and community. We imagine healing in our relationships—that one day we will learn to love each other, in spite of our differences and even though we have so many emotional scars; and we imagine ourselves following this crazy Christ, forgiven and loved ourselves, and then loving and forgiving others as we journey in life.

Friends, the theme for the National Youth Event at Purdue University, where some of us will be in a few weeks, is imagine. The video you are about to see is from the vision team for NYE—youth and adults of the UCC who are imagining the new thing God is doing.

IMAGINE…

A church without walls.

The change you want to see.

A healthy world: where no child suffers.

A safe space.

A world without poverty.

A world with clean water for all.

A world where differences are embraced.

A world without prejudice.

IMAGINE! Amen.

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