Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Learning to Pray (Fourth Midweek Lenten Devotion)

[This was shared during midweek Lenten worship with the people of Saint Matthew Lutheran Church in Logan, Ohio, earlier this evening.]

Matthew 6:12
Matthew 18:21-35
To help us think about the fifth petition of the Lord’s Prayer tonight, here’s a literal translation of Jesus’ words from Matthew 6:12, where He teaches it: “And forgive us the debts of us, as indeed we forgave the debtors of us.”

Now, I’ll grant that this literal rendering of Jesus’ words is awkward, as almost any literal translation from one language into another will be. But I do think that it helps us to understand more clearly what Jesus is saying should be part of our praying and our living as Christians.

In his book on the Lord’s Prayer, Anglican scholar N.T. Wright observes, rightly I think, that if you ask the average person today what is meant by the word “forgiveness” today, you’ll hear some version of “tolerance,” not forgiveness.

Rare is the person who actually asks for forgiveness and if they do, we suspect that they’re doing so as a formality designed to induce us to put up with their bad behavior and move on.

“I’m sorry,” the teenager says sullenly with about as much sincerity as the world-famous athlete apologizing for letting his fans down…and incidentally, saving his 7-figure tennis shoe endorsement deal. “Tolerate—or put up with—me,” these apologizers seem to say, with little hint of repentance or of intending to live differently in the future.

But before we scale too far up on our high horses in condemnation of phony forgiveness-seekers, we should say that often, the forgiveness we seek is of the fake variety as well. “Forgive me,” we may say, more as a stratagem for getting people off our backs than anything else. “Look, I did something wrong,” we say, in effect, “Deal with it. Tolerate it.”

But Jesus sees things differently. Both in the way Matthew says that Jesus taught the fifth petition of the Lord’s Prayer—forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us—and in the parable I read a few moments ago, we understand that Jesus views our sins as something more than little flaws in our personalities that we must accept in ourselves and tolerate in one another.

In the eyes of heaven, sin is intolerable. Failure to love God and failure to love others is not something that God tolerates. Sin does not exist in heaven. And when, for our sake, Jesus bore our sins—the sin of the whole world—on His burdened, bloody shoulders on the cross, Jesus sensed a vast chasm between God the Father and Himself.* The magnitude of the sin which the sinless Savior bore was so immense that, at His death, all creation convulsed with grief. God grieves over our sin because, as Paul puts it, “the wages of sin is death.” If you and I are to live with God for eternity, we dare not see our sin as something that God, the world, and we must tolerate.

Jesus says that our sin is a debt we owe to God. God gives us life and we overdraw our accounts by misusing that gift. That’s what sin is: A misuse of the free gift of life.

When we do that—whether by using God’s Name for something other than prayer, praise, and thanksgiving; or, taking or craving things that don’t belong to us; or, engaging in shady practices with money; or, withholding help from the poor; or, failing to work for justice; or, in any other way, failing to love God and love neighbor, we add to what one of our Lenten hymns calls, “the debt of love I owe.”

And this is why the cross is the most important event in all of human history…why it can be the most important event for our personal histories--past, present, and future.

On the cross, Jesus pays our debt. But, as the Lord’s Prayer reminds us, this side of the grave, we still live on earth and not in heaven. Our habits and our inclinations or, as Luther phrases it in The Small Catechism, “the devil, the world, and our sinful selves,” all pull us toward racking up more debt, toward letting sin once more have control of us and thereby losing our connection to the Savor Who gives forgiveness, life, and eternity to those who believe in Him.

This is why confession of sin, asking for God’s forgiveness, should be a regular part of our praying. But the way in which Jesus phrases this petition for the forgiveness of sin is really instructive: “And forgive [present tense, now] us the debts of us, as indeed we forgave [past tense, already done it] the debtors of us.” “Lord,” Jesus teaches us to pray, “Please forgive the debt of love I owe, just as I have already forgiven the debt owed to me by others.”

Last May, in one of my sermons, I shared one of my favorite stories. I’m going to tell it again. It involves Clara Barton, the founder of the Red Cross. Once, a friend of Barton's reminded Barton of another woman’s vicious misdeed toward her. Barton seemed not to recall it. “Don’t you remember?” the woman asked Barton in disbelief. “No,” she replied, “I specifically remember forgetting it.”

Now, we know that we human beings aren’t equipped with the divine attribute of totally forgetting the wrongs done to us. That may be a blessing from God, helping us to avoid being hurt by the same person more than once.

But even when we don’t forget, we can forgive. We can release people from the debts of love they owe to us and so, free ourselves to live. We can forgive and when we do, a wall that would otherwise block God’s forgiveness of us is torn down.

That’s really a key point in the parable of Jesus we read a moment before. The king in Jesus’ parable was perfectly willing to forgive the massive debt of the slave, just as God is willing to forgive our sin. God is the one most offended and hurt by human sin; it’s the lives He gives us that are being misused when we sin.

Imagine the cumulative debt each of us owes to God. Yet, for the sake of Jesus, God is willing to forgive our debts. But, as with the king in the parable, God will not forgive our massive debts unless we are willing to forgive those who have hurt us, offended us, crossed us, demeaned us, or hated us.

This is the hardest of all the petitions in the Lord’s Prayer to pray…and to mean. Withholding forgiveness, keeping track of the ways others have sinned against us, makes us feel powerful, important, and better than others. (I know, I wrestle with whether to give or withhold forgiveness all the time, often toward people who have no idea that they have offended me in some way.)

But God doesn’t want us to settle for being better than others; God wants us to be children of God, citizens of His eternal kingdom. He wants us to lay aside anything that might prevent His forgiveness and life from penetrating into the core of our beings!

It boils down to this: Jesus says that we can’t grab hold of God’s grace if we insist on keeping hold of our grudges. Grace or grudges, forgiveness or separation from God. Those are our choices.

May we learn to truly pray, “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.”

*This is how sin functions in our lives, alienating us from God, even though the Father is always willing to hear and stand beside us.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Prayer isn't "incidental"

Each day, my colleague, Pastor Glen VanderKloot of Faith Lutheran Church in Springfield, Illinois, sends out an email with inspirational thoughts. Today, Glen shares an important insight from a book by Ron Sider:
+ + + + + + + + + + + + + + +

We change history, both by our prayers and by our actions...
Prayer is not incidental to evangelism or peacemaking.
Prayer is not peripheral to empowering the poor,
protecting the unborn, and restoring the environment.
Prayer is a central part of how we do those things.

Ronald J. Sider
Living Like Jesus, pg 61-62

1 Chronicles 22:16 CEV

Now get started, and I pray that the LORD will be with you in your work.


Lord, help me to pray hard and work hard on both
the spiritual and social issues of our day.


Sunday, March 14, 2010

"That's just the way grace is"

[This was shared during worship with the people of Saint Matthew Lutheran Church in Logan, Ohio, this morning.]

Luke 15:1-3, 11-32
The writer Charles Dickens once said that Jesus’ parable of the Prodigal Son, which makes up most of today’s Gospel lesson, is the finest short story ever told. Jesus was always telling parables (stories), you know. One of my old mentors, Dr. Richard Jensen, insists that whenever we moderns preach on the Prodigal Son, we should use a story.* A few years ago, Jensen, in fact, wrote a story sermon for this passage. Another pastor, Ed Markquart, revised it a bit. I've revised it a more myself and want to share it with you now. So, here it is: The Lonely Lady of Blairstown.
George Miller and his wife moved to Blairstown in the 1950’s. George was transferred there by his company and although moving was a pain, George was glad to do it. Not only was he making more money, Blairstown itself was a nice place.

In the center of Blairstown was a park, well groomed with lots of flowers and trees. George walked through the park every day on his way to and from work. He even walked through it to and from lunch every day. On his daily walks, he noticed everything about the place, including an elderly woman who always seemed to be there. At first, George didn’t pay much attention to this lonely figure.

"It’s probably just a coincidence that she seems to always be around when I'm here,” he told himself. Yet as the months rolled on, she really was always there. It started to spook George. He asked himself: “Who is she? What’s she doing in this park all the time?” Though she was ordinary in most ways, there was longing, lonely gaze in her eyes, as if she were looking or waiting for someone. George was troubled by her, and finally asked Harold Clark, a native of Blairstown, “Who is that woman?”

“Oh, you mean the lonely lady of Blairstown Park,” Harold said “Her name is Grace Simon. She’s spent a lot of time in that park recently. She’s a lonely old soul. Her husband, Tom, died a long time ago when their three kids were still little. Now, Shirley, their oldest, runs the furniture store and Steve, the middle one, runs the funeral home, both places on Main Street. When Tom died, he left the two businesses to Grace and, years later, she gave one business to each kid.

“There was a third child. Frank was his name name. Grace learned a few years back that Frank died in an automobile accident out west. Anyway, having only two children instead of three, the businesses could be neatly divided between Shirley and Steve. Grace was a huge help to them. Without Grace, they couldn't have made a go of it. But eventually, they got to the point that they didn’t want her around any more. They became engulfed in a family feud.

“The feud started one day when Grace got a letter from Denver. At first, she wouldn’t tell anybody what was in it. But people could see that it had her worked up. She asked Steve and Shirley for some money. She had to get a train ticket to go to Denver immediately. They thought their Mom had gone off her rocker. She pleaded, ‘Steve and Shirley, I have to have a ticket! I’ve got to go to Denver!’ But she wouldn’t tell anybody why. The kids finally broke down and they got her a train ticket to Denver. Grace headed west.

“It turns out, though none of us knew it when Grace made her visit, that Frank wasn’t dead at all. He was in jail on several counts of armed robbery. He’d been too ashamed to tell his mother of his conviction. So, he had one of his buddies write a letter to his mother saying that he had been killed when his car crashed through a bridge and plunged into the river. He even had him send a clipping from a Colorado newspaper that seemed to verify the story. Anyhow, years later, Frank decided to tell his mother the truth.

"I don’t know why he did it. He should have left things the way they were. It would have been better for Grace and the family to think Frank was dead. Everybody here loved Grace and we all were pretty angry with Frank for telling his mother that he was still alive. Think about it: First he runs away from home, then breaks Grace’s heart with news that he’s dead, and then comes back into her life, a convicted felon! He put his mother through a wringer and it made all of us all upset!

“It was quite a scene in prison when Grace and Frank met. The guards took Grace down a long hallway, into a waiting room with lots of other people. Then a guard took Grace into a small room. He told her to wait. She sat for what felt like an eternity. Then she heard footsteps coming down the hallway. Her heart seemed to pound in time with the approaching steps. The door opened and Grace’s eyes locked with those of Frank.

“Grace moved first; she always does. She walked over to Frank and wrapped her arms around him. She held him and began to cry. She kept on saying, ‘We thought you were dead’ She said it over and over again. At first, Frank stood stiff and lifeless in his mother’s embrace. But then, melted by Grace, he grabbed his mother and held her. He too began to cry.

”Grace visited Frank several times during the two weeks that she was in Denver. After that, she went out there every year for some years. Not long ago, Grace learned that Frank was supposed to be ready for parole any day. When Grace learned that, she told Frank that once he got out of prison, he should come home. ‘I’ve got plenty of room in the house!” she told him. “Frank, you can even be a partner in the family businesses!’

“Well, when Grace got back to Blairstown, she was all excited. She was telling anyone who would listen, ‘Frank’s alive. My boy’s alive! All that business about an accident was wrong. He’s alive!’ She told all of us. Not a word about Frank being a felon. Just, ‘He’s alive!’ over and over again.

“To tell the truth, she was about the only one in Blairstown excited because we’d never had a hometown boy stay in prison for thirty years for armed robbery. People around here weren’t too keen on the whole idea of seeing him. Frank might have been alive, but Frank was a good-for-nothing crook. I mean, what were we supposed to say to Grace, ‘Gee - I’m glad your son’s alive and in prison’? We didn’t say anything. We were just embarrassed.

“Shirley and Steve, Grace’s other kids, weren’t quiet at all, though. When Grace told them that Frank wanted to come home, to disgrace them all, and their momma – and that when she’d said that he could be a part of the family businesses – THAT was the last straw. Shirley and Steve were dumbfounded. A crook in their family businesses? In Blairstown? It just couldn’t happen! Shirley and Steve were right about that. The whole town agreed that Frank would ruin things.

“But Grace didn’t look at it that way. Frank was her son too. She argued that he had a right to be back in the family. That’s what started the family feud. Shirley and Steve had a lawyer draw up papers to rule Frank out of the business altogether. When Grace protested, they told her that it was none of her business. It was only their business and they could do what they wanted. They also told her to never to come into their businesses or to pester them about Frank again.

“I thought that was really unkind. After all, Grace had given them the businesses in the first place. She’d worked hard to help them when they got their starts. Worse than that though, is that they don’t even invite Grace over to their homes anymore. They don’t want to hear her talk about Frank. She doesn’t even get to see her grandchildren unless they sneak over to the park to see her.

“Anyway, George, that’s why Grace Simon wanders alone in Blairstown Park. The Lonely Lady of Blairstown Park, that’s what everybody calls her. She’s out there right now, watching and waiting. Of course, she’s waiting for Frank to come home. And rumor has it that he’s out of prison and coming home any day. So she’s watching that highway coming into town, watching for her boy to come back home. But, if you look at her, you can see that she’s also got her eyes on Main Street an awful lot of the time, Main Street, where her two kids run the family businesses. She’s watching for some sign of love, some softening of the heart, some sign of welcome from Steve and Shirley.”

George interrupted Harold’s story. “You’d think that she wouldn’t want anything to do with those kids,” George said. “What do you suppose Grace would do if those kids, Steve and Shirley, did have some change of heart?” he asked. Harold thought for a moment and said, “I think that Grace would do just like she did with Frank. She’d welcome them with open arms. And if they ever come to their senses, she’s going to run and throw her arms around them and give them a great big love. You know, that’s just the way she is. That’s just the way Grace is.”
And that’s the way God’s grace, given in Christ is, too. No matter how far you wander, our God of grace always wants to welcome you home!

*Theologian Helmut Thielicke calls this the parable of The Waiting Father, maybe a more apt description, since the Father--a figure of God--is the most important actor in Jesus' parable.


See here.

Go, Buckeyes!