Luke 10: 25-37 “He asked to justify himself”

Reading: Luke 10:25-37

When the lawyer asked Jesus “Who is my neighbor”, he asked in order to justify himself. He was more interested in knowing who his neighbor was not than knowing who his neighbor was. Last time we talked about this passage, I talked about who Samaritans were, and how scandalous it would be to say: “go and do likewise”, and it was scandalous — but, today I want to focus on what it means that the person wanted to justify himself.

Anyone who seeks to justify himself is somebody who is looking for a loophole. The lawyer knew perfectly well who the neighbor who he did not love was, and he was looking for some sort of a rule that would make it so it was okay. He wanted to know how he could exclude those who were not easily lovable.

Recently I’ve learned something about people justifying themselves; sometimes it is just baffling to watch. One example, a few years back is that I and several friends of mine donated a small amount to an aid organization run by the Orthodox church. As you might know, Lebanon has a large number of Orthodox Christians, and it also has taken in so many refugees that 30% of the population are refugees, mostly from Syria and Palestine. We donated, specifically, to help the church in their work with a very large number of refugees caused by the ongoing civil war in Syria.

Now, in my case, I let some people know there was an opportunity to give to an organization that was doing good work; and as seems normal people either ignored it or they passed it on. One of my friends who passed it on was a fellow pastor in Kansas — and quite strangely, he was attacked by his friends for giving. They were suggesting that it was a terrible thing to give money to help refugees in Lebanon, and they suggested what he should be doing instead. It was especially strange because these friends would have been absolutely angry if anybody suggested what they should do with their money.

This summer, I heard from a friend of mine who was part of a group of people that brings soup and sandwiches to homeless people in the park in Kansas City. He was rather upset when people from the city came and poured bleach in the soup and over the sandwiches — it turns out that there were complaints, so the city did something; and as I read Christian magazines such as Sojourners, I read that it is illegal to be homeless in many cities, and those organizations that attempt to help the homeless survive are often blamed for the homeless problem. Sometimes people have even been arrested for giving out food and water to those who are hungry and thirsty.

This is all very strange to me; I get that emergency shelters don’t give people a permanent home; I understand that giving food and water to those who are hungry is not a long term solution — but, it is also not the cause of the problem. If you suggest that feeding the hungry, giving water to the thirsty, and giving emergency shelter to those who have none creates the problem — that seems a rather cynical euphemism for “you should let them die”. I know that sometimes when people say this, what they really mean is that somebody should be working on helping people get what they need to find jobs and a permanent address; but I also know that I’ve heard people complaining about that kind of help too.

My minor experience with organizations that run shelters tells me that there is a significant overlap between those who pass out meals and run emergency shelters — and those who help people find jobs and live independently. A bowl of soup for people who are desperate enough to forage through garbage for food helps them survive long enough to help them into a better situation. Emergency shelter for the night does not cause homelessness; it just reduces the number of people who die of exposure to the elements.

Why are those who donate money, or work with desperate people actually blamed for their work? Why are those who try to do good so often attacked by those who live in comfort? You see, many people are exactly like the lawyer who tries to justify himself by asking: “Who is my neighbor” — they are seeking to justify themselves by naming those who are undeserving of help, and then following up with anger against those who help the undeserving.

One of Plato’s best-known works is called “The Republic”. “The Republic” is a series of dialogues between Socrates and various people on what would be the best government, why governments fail, and more esoteric topics such as ethics, justice, and what is now called the theory of knowledge. In this work, Plato talks about how society hates the just man, and if there were a truly just man, he would be rejected, beaten, and crucified. The injustice of society is exposed by the just man, and they cannot stand it — like the lawyer who sought to justify himself by finding out who his neighbor was not, society wants loopholes rather than true justice. People hate to admit those things that expose where they are wrong, even when those who are handing out soup and sandwiches are not thinking about what everybody else is doing.

The dark thing that I have learned in the past couple years is that desperate poverty, war, and human suffering, in general, is something that we want to be out of sight, and out of mind. Visible poverty offends us — it makes us uncomfortable, and we don’t like it. It would be easier never to see where somebody sleeps on the sidewalk on a cold winter day. It would be easier if we didn’t ask why so many speakers of languages indigenous to the Americas are asking for asylum right now. It is much easier to close our eyes and our ears and blame those who hand out soup and water. It is much easier to ask “who is my neighbor”, and point at them and say: “surely they are not my neighbor.” People even get together and make rules to exclude some neighbors, have the law pour bleach into their soup, and harass those who would offer them the smallest amount of comfort.

It is fitting that when Jesus told the lawyer who he should emulate, he would choose to make a Samaritan a hero of the story. The man was looking for people to leave out — and Samaritans would be at the top of his list when he made a list of people who were not his neighbor. Maybe he would have fought for laws that would keep Samaritans out of his sight — anything at all to justify not loving his Samaritan neighbor, but in the story Jesus told, the Samaritan was the one who cared for and saved a person, not caring that that person was an enemy. He sought to justify himself by naming those who were unworthy of his love, and Jesus condemned him by making a kind enemy the kind of person to emulate.

Luke’s Gospel tells us that Jesus came to preach good news to the poor — and in this case, the good news is that the even the poorest are human beings created in God’s image. Luke begins with Mary and Joseph seeking shelter, and Jesus born in a barn because Joseph can’t even find a place to stay where his extended family is from. Later in Luke, when Jesus is traveling and preaching, he describes himself as having no place to sleep; he identifies with the homeless, the hungry, the desperate, and the imprisoned. If we want to see the face of Jesus — we need to look for His face is the faces of those we would exclude when we try to justify ourselves. As long as we keep looking for loopholes in order to justify ourselves, we need to hear the words Jesus said to the lawyer: “Go and do likewise.”

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Luke 9:57-62; Luke 14:25-33 — Discipleship costs

Reading: Luke 9:57-62, Luke 14:25-33

One thing that I remember from my childhood is that every year there was a mass mailing selling magazines that the words: “You may have already won 10 million dollars” on the front of the envelope. When you opened the envelope it was full of stickers representing magazines so that you could order a subscription, so you likely ordered another year’s subscription for those magazines you subscribe to every year.

This was an amazingly clever marketing scheme. If you took a philosophy class, you might have learned about Blaise Pascal. One of the things he wrote about is called: “Pascal’s wager”. The basic idea of Pascal’s wager is there is a great potential reward but no cost, it makes no sense not to make the bet. In the case of that envelope that gives you an entry in a sweepstakes drawing; it is cheaper, and more convenient, to renew your subscriptions through them than to renew each one individually; it costs nothing, and who knows, maybe you’ll win the prize — there is nothing to lose, so you make the wager when you buy your magazines.

Another example of Pascal’s wager is a little social media hoax that goes around on a regular basis saying something like: “Mark Zuckerberg promised he will donate \$1 to Shriner’s Children’s hospital every time this message is shared” — you seriously doubt that it is true, but many share it anyway because it seems not to cost anything.
Of course, Pascal’s wager wasn’t about marketing, nor was it about creating a Facebook hoax — it was an argument for living a religious life. Pascal argued that if we believe in Jesus — if we are right, our gain is infinite while if we are wrong, our loss is finite. If we don’t believe, and we are right, our gain is finite, while our loss is infinite; so there is only one safe bet.

I really did grow up with Pascal’s wager evangelism — Heaven, hell, eternal destiny. The gospel that I heard and understood as a child really was a pretty obvious bet; there really was no downside to choosing Jesus. Choosing Jesus was easy, it was painless, and the alternative was too terrible to imagine. It is safe to say that what I understood was Pascal’s wager.

When I read my Bible, sometimes there were passages that stuck out, because they made no sense in my life context, or because I understood them differently than what I had learned in Sunday school, or understood from the preaching in church. Today in our Sunday School class, we discussed one of these passages. I really remember how it stood out to me when Jesus turned away those who would follow him.

The first person Jesus discourages is somebody who promises to follow Jesus anywhere; Jesus responds: “Foxes have holes, birds have nests, but the Son of man has nowhere to lay his head.” Jesus discourages a follower who says “anywhere” because the cost of following Jesus is the discomfort of vagrancy. The idea that following Jesus may lead to homelessness is a pretty big, and immediate cost — this isn’t what I was told before the altar call.

The next two people make even less sense to me — you see, I don’t have to sacrifice my family or say goodbye to those at home to commit my life to Jesus; my family are devout Christians and I have many Christian friends. If there were a decision that would separate me from home and family, in my childhood context, it would be rejecting Jesus. For both Pascal and I, choosing Jesus is easy — and I have only benefited in life from this choice. I didn’t understand why Jesus would discourage followers. This passage and a passage that comes later in Luke (which the Sunday school book does not cover) just didn’t seem to fit my experience nor my understanding — listen to what Jesus says to those who follow:

25 Now large crowds were traveling with him; and he turned and said to them, 26 “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple. 27 Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple. 28 For which of you, intending to build a tower, does not first sit down and estimate the cost, to see whether he has enough to complete it? 29 Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who see it will begin to ridicule him, 30 saying, ‘This fellow began to build and was not able to finish.’ 31 Or what king, going out to wage war against another king, will not sit down first and consider whether he is able with ten thousand to oppose the one who comes against him with twenty thousand? 32 If he cannot, then, while the other is still far away, he sends a delegation and asks for the terms of peace. 33 So therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions. (Luke 14:25-33 NRSV)

My Christianity costs me nothing — Jesus talked about a Christianity that cost everything. The only cost I counted was the cost of Hell, and the cost of losing the Church — I never counted the cost of following Jesus. Was the preacher wrong, was my prayer inviting Jesus into my heart ineffective? Did the child me deeply misunderstand some very important details? Needless to say — the child me deeply misunderstood many things; I had no concept of “original audience.” When Pascal makes his wager, Christianity costs him little. When I asked Jesus into my heart, I had nothing to lose, and only something to gain.

Luke 9 foreshadows the Crucifixion. In this chapter, Herod takes an interest in Jesus and notices a similarity between Jesus and John, who he executed. Herod’s interest is a dangerous thing. In the same chapter, Jesus tells the disciples about what is coming; that he will be rejected by Jerusalem’s religious leaders, and that he will be put to death, and later he told the disciples that he would be betrayed. Jesus is turning away those who want to become disciples when he knows he has started his journey to the cross. Following Jesus is easy when you have a Christian community, government officials want the Christian vote, and those dearest to you also follow Jesus. Following Jesus is hard when it means you will be isolated, lose your community and will likely lose your property and your life. Pascal’s wager does not look so good in the First and Second century as it does in 17th century Europe or the United States today. As I learned about what the first Christians faced, I learned that they truly had a cost to count.

I have to admit, I’m glad I’m not part of the Primitive church. I have no desire to be lit on fire, nor killed by wild animals, nor any of the other tortures the earliest Christians faced. I’m very glad I’m in the United States, and not one of the many countries where I would risk persecution and death for my faith. I’m glad that Nero isn’t in charge, and that I have the freedom to say what I believe without fear of arrest, even when what I believe is inconvenient for those in power. John the Baptist lost his head because he condemned Herod’s behavior, but if I said the same thing about our current leader’s misbehaviors, my head would remain safe; the worst I could expect to suffer is a few rude comments on social media.

Cost counting isn’t very relevant in my context; except that it grows relevant as I understand more. I live in a very Christian society, but I also live in a society that has great difficulty distinguishing its secular culture from Christianity. I live in a society where Christians can argue about which parts of the Bible are not Biblical, without irony nor intended disrespect, and who will defend what the Church has long named mortal sin because our culture says that greed is good. I live in a culture that asks Christianity to excuse its sin and with politicians who ask preachers to teach religion in a way that is convenient; now, these are just requests — and there is nobody coming to arrest those who do not comply, but these are very tempting requests — there is an idea that compromising scripture to fit culture or politics brings fame or success. You can find preachers who will excuse any sin if there is somebody in power to reward them.

I’ve grown to appreciate two preachers and theologians who served in Germany during in the first half of the 20th century: Karl Barth and Dietrich Bonhoeffer. You might know, Nazi Germany hung Bonhoeffer for treason and deported Karl Barth to his native Switzerland. When I read their work today, there is nothing especially exciting radical about what they write — but, in their context, it was a matter of life or death.

Early 20th century Germany was very Christian. It is uncomfortable to say it, but when Hitler was elected, Christians supported him — and very few churches spoke out against him. Christians largely rationalized and compromised, and there was nothing that the government did that the majority of churches would not support, and many went beyond compromising and rationalizing, to adjusting their teachings to match those of the secular government.

Barth and Bonhoeffer were leaders in what has become known as the confessing church. Bonhoeffer was a Lutheran and his friend Barth was Reformed; as the majority of the churches were compromising with Hitler, those churches who felt that these compromises were too much formed an alliance. There was a joint statement of faith written that both Lutheran and Reformed churches agreed to, and they had to do some truly challenging theology as they were in a truly unique situation: I would like to read the English translation of this joint statement:

In view of the errors of the “German Christians” and of the present Reich Church Administration, which are ravaging the Church and at the same time also shattering the unity of the German Evangelical Church, we confess the following evangelical truths:

1. “I am the Way and the Truth and the Life; no one comes to the Father except through me.” John 14:6

“Very truly, I tell you, anyone who does not enter the sheepfold through the gate but climbs in by another way is a thief and a bandit. I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved.” John 10:1,9

Jesus Christ, as he is attested to us in Holy Scripture, is the one Word of God whom we have to hear, and whom we have to trust and obey in life and in death.

We reject the false doctrine that the Church could and should recognize as a source of its proclamation, beyond and besides this one Word of God, yet other events, powers, historic figures and truths as God’s revelation.

2. “Jesus Christ has been made wisdom and righteousness and sanctification and redemption for us by God.” 1 Cor. 1:30

As Jesus Christ is God’s comforting pronouncement of the forgiveness of all our sins, so, with equal seriousness, he is also God’s vigorous announcement of his claim upon our whole life. Through him there comes to us joyful liberation from the godless ties of this world for free, grateful service to his creatures.

We reject the false doctrine that there could be areas of our life in which we would not belong to Jesus Christ but to other lords, areas in which we would not need justification and sanctification through him.

3. “Let us, however, speak the truth in love, and in every respect grow into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body is joined together.” Eph. 4:15-16

The Christian Church is the community of brethren in which, in Word and Sacrament, through the Holy Spirit, Jesus Christ acts in the present as Lord. With both its faith and its obedience, with both its message and its order, it has to testify in the midst of the sinful world, as the Church of pardoned sinners, that it belongs to him alone and lives and may live by his comfort and under his direction alone, in expectation of his appearing.

We reject the false doctrine that the Church could have permission to hand over the form of its message and of its order to whatever it itself might wish or to the vicissitudes of the prevailing ideological and political convictions of the day.

4. “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. It will not be so among you; but whoever wishes to have authority over you must be your servant.” Matt. 20:25-26

The various offices in the Church do not provide a basis for some to exercise authority over others but for the ministry [lit., “service”] with which the whole community has been entrusted and charged to be carried out.

We reject the false doctrine that, apart from this ministry, the Church could, and could have permission to, give itself or allow itself to be given special leaders [Führer] vested with ruling authority.

5. “Fear God. Honor the Emperor.” 1 Pet. 2:17

Scripture tells us that by divine appointment the State, in this still unredeemed world in which also the Church is situated, has the task of maintaining justice and peace, so far as human discernment and human ability make this possible, by means of the threat and use of force. The Church acknowledges with gratitude and reverence toward God the benefit of this, his appointment. It draws attention to God’s Dominion [Reich], God’s commandment and justice, and with these the responsibility of those who rule and those who are ruled. It trusts and obeys the power of the Word, by which God upholds all things.

We reject the false doctrine that beyond its special commission the State should and could become the sole and total order of human life and so fulfil the vocation of the Church as well.

We reject the false doctrine that beyond its special commission the Church should and could take on the nature, tasks and dignity which belong to the State and thus become itself an organ of the State.

6. “See, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” Matt. 28:20 “God’s Word is not fettered.” 2 Tim. 2:9

The Church’s commission, which is the foundation of its freedom, consists in this: in Christ’s stead, and so in the service of his own Word and work, to deliver all people, through preaching and sacrament, the message of the free grace of God.

We reject the false doctrine that with human vainglory the Church could place the Word and work of the Lord in the service of self-chosen desires, purposes and plans.

The Confessing Synod of the German Evangelical Church declares that it sees in the acknowledgment of these truths and in the rejection of these errors the indispensable theological basis of the German Evangelical Church as a confederation of Confessing Churches. It calls upon all who can stand in solidarity with its Declaration to be mindful of these theological findings in all their decisions concerning Church and State. It appeals to all concerned to return to unity in faith, hope and love.

 

The result of this choice was the arrest of about 700 Christian pastors, for Bonhoeffer it was death, for Karl Barth, the principal author of the declaration, it was deportation. Now, as I said, the situation here isn’t the same as it was in Germany. Sometimes a government official might take it upon himself to tell a church what they should teach and believe — but such a statement has no legal force. (I condemned such a statement that was made against the Southern Baptists and the Catholic church in Ft. Wayne Indiana by the Attorney General.) The Barman declaration named government supported, blindly patriotic and political Christianity as false teaching, and named ways in which it is false; you see, sometimes there is something to sacrifice. Sometimes we have to remember that because Jesus is Lord, Caesar is not.

I don’t expect that the cost of discipleship will be mass arrests or for American pastors to be hanged — but, the cost is to be accused of being unpatriotic, of political pundits telling people to run away from your churches, and for high government officials to use their position to publically condemn whole denominations and cast doubt upon their faith. I don’t expect an order to worship Caeser, but I do expect people, including political commentators and government officials, to quote Romans 13:1-2 in a way that says the Early Christians disobeyed God when they refused to sacrifice to Ceaser.

In all of this, we must put Christ first, even if it costs us pride, esteem, or our sense of belonging in a community. As the Sermon on the Mount teaches us, we cannot serve two masters, there comes a time when we have to choose; and when that time comes, we need to choose Jesus — even if the cost is a hanging. I’ve said many times I believe Christianity is about Jesus coming to where we are and inviting us to walk with Him wherever that leads. There are many who followed Jesus to the Cross, and if that is where Jesus leads us, that is where our Faith says we must go. Our hope remains the same — whether we are lead into the valley of the shadow of death, or the valley of the shadow of embarrassment: that as long as we walk with Jesus, we are with Jesus at the end our journey because we never forget that the cross isn’t the end of the story.

Fishing with Peter

Reading: Luke 5:1-11, John 21:1-19

I love miracles; I want to see miracles, they are spectacular and exciting, they really mark the moment, and when they happen I know that there is something bigger than myself going on. Things that are spectacular and out of the ordinary have a real way of catching our attention — and when Simon, later called Peter, met Jesus these spectacular things started happening.

In Luke’s gospel, we first see Simon Peter when Jesus is going to his house after he leaves the synagogue. At this point in Luke’s gospel, Jesus was traveling from town to town preaching in a number of synagogues. Now I don’t know why Jesus went to Peter’s house after teaching in the synagogue; maybe it was because Peter, as a small businessman with a handful of employees, was accustomed to offering hospitality. Maybe Jesus and Peter already knew each other because they both lived in Capernaum. What is important is that Peter’s mother in law was ill when Jesus visited, but Jesus healed her. This story ends with a few words telling us that Jesus left town to travel from town to town preaching in synagogues.

The next chapter, he is back at the lake, and there is a crowd eager to hear him teaching. As exciting as eager crowds are, they are more than a little dangerous; such a crowd could push Jesus into the lake. Jesus gets onto Peter’s boat and asks him to launch so that he can speak to the crowd from the boat.

When Jesus finished speaking, he told Peter to put out into the deep water, and start fishing. Peter answered that they had been fishing all night and that they caught nothing, but, he’d cast again at Jesus’ request. The catch was big enough that the boat couldn’t hold them all — in fact, it was so big that when Peter called for help, and the other boat came, it was too much for both boats.

When Peter saw the miracle, he was a bit afraid of such miraculous power — but Jesus told Peter not to be afraid, and that from this point on he would be catching people. Luke tells us that Peter and his fishing partners James and John were all there for this catch. When these men returned to the shore, scripture tells us that they left everything and followed Jesus.

How Peter responded to Jesus calling him into something else amazes me. Peter had a small business and business partners. He had a mother in law, which strongly implies he had a wife, he had a home, and thus he had all the bills and expenses and responsibilities that come with having a small business and a family. People depended on him, both his own family and his business partners; and his work benefited society, because everybody needs to eat. Peter walked away from his business, including two boats overfilled with fresh fish. It is tough to commit to something new and risky when you have a vision for your life — this is what Peter did, he walked away from his life for something new.

When I read this passage last week, for some reason the last chapter of John came to mind. If you recall, John ends with Peter saying to several disciples: “ Let’s go fishing”, so several disciples go fishing with Peter. This happens after Jesus is crucified — it even happens after Easter, and after Jesus appeared to several of the disciples.

Peter had denied Jesus, and it is very possible when he said: “let’s go fishing”, he was ready to end that chapter of his life and go back to the work that he knew. Needless to say, the Crucifixion wasn’t in Peter’s plans — and it made sense for him to go back to work after Jesus was dead and buried. It made far more sense for him to go back to work than it did to wait and figure out what it meant that a number of disciples saw a ghost.

So, Peter and several disciples fish all night, and they catch nothing. At sunrise, a man on the shore calls to them and asked them if they caught anything; the men in the boat answered that they caught nothing, so Jesus said: “Cast your net on the right side of the boat,” they did, and the net had too many fish it it for them to bring it into the boat, so they had to drag the fish to shore beside the boat. Somebody recognizes Jesus, so Peter jumps into the lake to swim to shore. Jesus then invites the disciples to eat breakfast with him and following breakfast Jesus had a discussion with Peter that ended with what Jesus said the first time there was a miraculous catch of fish: “Follow me.”

I don’t know about you, but I’m sometimes a bit slow to pick up on things. I too often need to be told three times before something really sinks in. I know I point out that even after spending years with Jesus, the disciples did not always get what seems obvious after a nearly 2000 years of Christianity; but when I look at how long it took me to learn some things that seem obvious now, I have to admit that like Peter I’d need to be told again.

If I try to put myself in Peter’s place, “Follow me” would seem to have ended at the cross. As great as a Jesus internship was, it would never have crossed my mind that I would follow Jesus after Jesus was buried. I’d basically need to be called again to realize that “Follow me” had a metaphoric as well as a literal meaning; it is hard to embrace the metaphor when the literal meaning was correct. Literally, Peter followed Jesus as far as he could — why would he assume there was another meaning that would allow him to follow further unless he was called again; and even if I were clever enough to realize that “follow me” meant something bigger, the shame of denying Jesus may cause me to doubt that I was still called.

Now that I know that Jesus meant more than what was literal, I wonder what life-lessons Peter might have learned from these experiences that served as matching bookends: Why did Jesus say “Follow me” after a miraculous catch of fish, and what might have Peter seen when he reflected on it.

In both accounts, Peter had been fishing all night and had nothing to show for it. I think it is safe to say that this would not be a common experience. Empty nets do not pay the bills, and Peter does not seem the type who would insist on spending every night doing unproductive labor. Peter had an extraordinary failure so that he could see that when he did things on his own, nothing came from it, but Jesus provided everything. While this is not the normal results when fishing, when fishing people, it is God that gives the increase.

Another thing that is different between fishing fish and fishing for people is that when fishing if you fish all night and catch nothing, you can’t expect to catch anything in the morning either. The pattern of results is different so it would not work to treat both as they are the same.

I’m going to give a practical example: Six months ago, we had no idea if Iglesia Amigos could survive. Two blows came together — first blow, the church lost a family that was very dear to them, a faithful volunteer who was the first person to start attending. This blow came with another, roughly at the same time, an announcement that the most common legal status for the attendees would be phased out next year. It felt like the community was under attack, and the only thing I could imagine is the little flock being scattered.

Last Sunday, there were two services. The reason why there were two services is that Iglesia Amigos is twice as big as it was the Sunday before the calamity and two services are necessary. The larger of the two services had an attendance of about 70 people, which is as much as the worship space can comfortably hold. It is remarkable to go from questioning viability to needing to add services in a matter of months. You might know, Karla and I buy little gifts when they are on clearance, and make an in-kind donation to the church to give to the children; This December, the church church money to supplement these because the gifts that we donated were not nearly enough; not only that, but, they have started to write reimbursement checks (through in-kind donations are still pretty common). I’ve said before that they needed to move because there is a lack of classroom space: they now need to move because they fill the worship room as well, and starting on March 9 they will rent from a church that has space for them to grow.

Having observed what it means to work all night and catch nothing, and then suddenly have a catch bigger than the boat can hold; I have a new perspective of what it means to be fishers for people. It really is distressing to see what seems to be a disaster and have nothing to show for your work, and wonder if it is time to pack up and move on. I imagine most people involved in church planting have had those moments. No matter how much work you put into it — God gives the increase and on God’s timing. Simon Peter was called away from the fishing boat to fish for people, and we still fish for people. Some days we catch nothing, other days there are miracles.

Luke 4:1-13 — The temptation of Christ

Reading: Luke 4:1-13

The temptation of Christ is a rather interesting passage. I am never quite sure how it got into the Gospel narrative because there was nobody (except of course Jesus and the devil) there to see it happen. In spite of this being entirely hidden, it is the first thing you see in the life of Jesus following John’s Baptism. The temptation of Christ is part of the story of Jesus to the point that it is not only part of Mark’s gospel, but Matthew and Luke tell an expanded version rather than simply using the short version we find in Mark’s gospel.

I don’t know how much you know about how Matthew Mark and Luke were written, and I don’t really want to give a lecture on it today, but I do want to give enough of a summary to make a point. Mark is the oldest of the written Gospels. Mark is also the shortest and it tells a story. If we were to listen to Mark recited, in full it would take about an hour and a half. I believe that Mark was originally used in exactly this way — it was read out loud or recited by a story-teller in a single setting. As you might know, a storyteller convinced me of this as I listened to him reciting Mark.

Mark is wonderful for giving an engaging narrative that can be told in less time than we spend watching a movie, but Mark leaves a lot of important things out; specifically what Jesus taught and any stories about Jesus before John Baptized him. Basically Matthew and Luke are expansions of Mark’s gospel; both of them add sayings and teachings of Jesus, along with some stories that are not found in Mark — but, they generally follow Mark’s narrative structure. Scholars believe that Matthew and Luke had a shared “sayings” source that they call “Q”, and they believe that each had sources unique to themselves that scholars call “M” and “L”.

What is important here is that Luke and Matthew both have similar expansions to the temptation narration in Mark. The Temptation of Christ is both part of that short essential narrative that tells the story of Jesus’ ministry, and it is also found in those sayings of Jesus that people remembered. When we read how Christ was tempted in Luke 4, we are reading a blending of both the story of what Jesus did, and an account of what Jesus taught.

The first thing I’m going to do is respond to what it means that Jesus was tempted as an important part of the story. The account of the temptation of Christ is two verses in the first chapter of Mark:

And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him. (Mark 1:12-13 NRSV)

That is all there is in the essential story of Jesus, simply a couple sentences saying that right after the voice in the clouds said of Jesus: “You are my beloved Son, I am well pleased with you,” Jesus felt compelled to spend about 6 weeks in the desert where he was tempted by Satan. Mark does not talk about what the temptations are, only that there was temptation.

The biggest lesson that I learn from the couple sentences that we find in Mark is that temptation is not fatal. It is easy for a person to see himself as a fraud because he has internal struggles. This is so common that it was given a name: “Impostor syndrome”. Syndrome, of course implies that it is a mental illness, but psychologist say that it is not; the problem with diagnosing these feelings of self-doubt is that most of humanity would be crazy.

Why do people feel self-doubt? We feel it because we know our own struggles and failures, but we don’t know those of others. There is a proverb that says: “a master has failed more times than a beginner has tried.” The thing is, even after we are competent, we remember our failures while not seeing the failures of others with similar skill. When our success is recognized we remember our failure.

When it comes to our spiritual life, it is even harder. We don’t know our neighbor’s struggles. I don’t know how the people I respected the most have struggled — because our struggles are often internal and not visible — it is so easy to think that we are the only one.

Seeing that Jesus faced a period of temptation, even if we don’t know the nature of the temptation, tells us that internal struggles are universal. We shouldn’t lose heart if we face one of the same things Jesus faced. C.S. Lewis tells us in Mere Christianity that Jesus struggled with temptation more than anybody because he never gave into temptation. The thing about temptation is that the only people who don’t struggle with it are those who give into it without a struggle. There is nothing wrong with struggling to do right — if one did not struggle, one would not do right.

Luke (and Matthew) have added material which, our best guess, says comes from Jesus’ teaching. If we assume that Jesus told the story of how he was tempted — we see that Jesus named three ways he was tempted — following the order that we find in Luke:

  1. Tempted by hunger
  2. Tempted by power
  3. Tempted by fame

I guess that the reason Jesus would tell this story would be to help people realize their own motives for things, and to see things that can get in the way. If this is the purpose, then we can assume that all of these are common temptations and something that might endanger us as well.

First, let us consider the first temptation: Hunger. Jesus tells the story where near the end of his fast, Satan suggests that he turn stones into bread. While hunger can be a metaphor for anything that we need and a metaphor for what desperation can do to a person, it also can be taken quite literally. Worldwide 1 out of every 9 people went to bed last night without supper and 1 out of 3 suffers malnutrition. Unfortunately, while the United States is wealthy, in 2017 our ratio of people who face “food insecurity” was 1 out of every 8 people. I’m not sure how these statistics compare, but I do know that hunger makes a person desperate, and this is quite a few desperate people.

Now, the Proverbs 6:30 teaches us that we are not supposed to despise somebody who steals food to eat; yet the Proverb also observes that the thief will be punished for theft. Hunger can drive people to do what they would not normally do; it can lead us to turn away from our principles and to make decisions based on desperation.

Now — I completely understand when a hungry person is selfish. Somebody who is desperate for his or her next meal, perhaps cannot afford to do volunteer work, but instead always wonders “what is in it for me”, although, when I’ve worked with people distributing food from food pantries, I’ve noticed that a number of the people who came and worked passing out the food also received from the food pantry. When I’ve worked with the Salvation Army — I learned that a number of people who rang bells did so because they were grateful that they had received help. In my life, I’ve met a number of people who never have quite enough, yet always finds ways of helping others.

Here is the thing; if we let ourselves fall into the habit of asking: “What is in it for me?” and always acting in desperation, then we fall into temptation — as Jesus said, we do not live on bread alone. Yes, we need to eat, but we also need to see beyond the needs of our own stomach. Christianity is about the whole community — and if we get caught up on our personal needs, we miss everything else.

In Luke’s account, the second temptation is when Satan takes Jesus to a mountain and shows Jesus all the kingdoms of the world, and tells Jesus that if He worships Satan, he will be given rule over all the nations. Now, this is both pretty obvious, and yet it is also hard to see how it applied directly to Jesus.

We’ve had about 17 centuries of significant influence in the political system. From chiefs of state who attended a publicly significant church to Christian kingdoms that are Christian by law, to political parties in democracies fighting for the Christian vote, political power is a reality.

Now, I am happy to see Christianity have a positive influence on the world; but I’m not happy to see the world’s influence on the church. I’m not happy when I see what churches preach change according to what is politically inconvenient; that people will ignore those parts of the Bible that challenge their favorite leaders. I’m not happy to see people make exceptions for clear teachings in scripture, because they challenge the behaviors of a political party, and I’m deeply concerned about the tendency we have to seek a political messiah.

Perhaps this last part is exactly what Jesus meant when he talked about his temptation. Several of his disciples wanted a political messiah who would sit on David’s throne after expelling the Romans. Acts 1 even has an unnamed disciple asking Jesus if, now that he is raised from the dead, he will drive out the Roman occupiers and establish His kingdom in Judah. The temptation to seek political power has been going on since the beginning. Once there has been an opportunity, Church leaders have failed many times; and while I won’t enumerate these times, I will point out that secular politics, not faith was the cause of “anti-Popes” (where more than one person was made bishop of Rome, based on which secular European king each “Pope” would support), and ultimately corruption would cause a number of Christian leaders to rebel against Rome. The earliest extant group of Protestants, the Waldensians formed communities in the 12th century. By the 15th century Martin Luther would leave the church starting the Lutheran (or Evangelical) Church, and soon after, John Calvin would form the Reformed Church. At the same time that Luther and Calvin were trying to rebuild Christian nations, there was also a radical reformation that sought a level of reform that would include tearing down the barrier between clergy and laity and building a barrier between church and state.

Both the attempts to reform the institutional state church, and the attempt to form a free church that was separate from the state was a response to corruption, manipulative fundraising and preaching, and inappropriate relationships between kings and bishops. Even our word Nepotism came from a practice of several popes, starting in the 11th century, appointing relatives to positions of influence and power. By the time of the Protestant Reformation, this practice was so common that there was competition between the Borgia dynasty and the Medici family for both political and ecclesiastical power — both of these families produced 2 popes in the 15th-16th centuries. The condition was so bad that when Luther visited Rome, he learned that those who had the highest positions in the church were not pastors, nor theologians but politicians and opportunists. The Church had worldly power, so those who wanted worldly power worked their way into positions of power within the church.

The third temptation was when Satan took Jesus to the top of the temple and told him to publicly throw himself down so that he would be saved by an angel. The temptation was a spectacular public reveal that would bring much attention. It is quite tempting to seek attention; many people want fame — they want people to be talking about them.

While John does not talk about Jesus’ temptation in the desert, John does talk about when Jesus’ brothers noticed that Jesus was preaching and healing in small villages, and they advised him to go to Jerusalem for a major holiday, and very publicly reveal Himself to the nation. It is really tempting to seek a bigger venue.

The gospel, however, isn’t about putting on a show, nor is it about ratings, or poll numbers. The gospel isn’t a competition for the biggest crowd — the gospel is simply good news for those who can accept it. Boiled down to as few words as possible, I believe that the good news is the news that Jesus is God with us, that Jesus came to where we are and invited us to walk with Him. I believe that the good news is that Jesus forgives sins, heals broken hearts and souls, and teaches us to forgive as well. I believe that the good news is that the grave could not keep Jesus and that we live in an Easter community where God is a real and present part of our lives. I believe that the good news is that if we walk with Jesus, we end up where Jesus is.

This is good news, but it is not the kind of thing that brings fame; and when Jesus preached, eventually the crowds even left Jesus — but his disciples stayed. When the crowds left, Peter said of Jesus: “You have the words of eternal life” — and this is the good news, crowds or no crowds. Christianity isn’t about fame — it is about being a community that walks with Jesus and has faith that Jesus leads us into the kingdom of Heaven.

Luke 3: John’s ministry

Reading: Luke 3:1-20

John the Baptist is a rather amazing figure. The people of Judah believe that he is a prophet, and crowds come to him, they repent, and they are baptized. The people who come to hear him preach are of every social class, they are not only of every social class, but they are diverse politically: Herod’s brother Philip comes, Pharisees come, even soldiers and tax collectors come to hear John preach and to be baptized by John. If we jump forward to Luke 20, Jesus answers a question about his authority to preach with a question about John’s baptism, asking whether John’s baptism was of God or a personal whim. Those who asked him this question refused to answer because that question was just as much a trap as the question they asked Jesus — even though John had been executed, the people remembered him as God’s prophet.

There is something about John’s story that is difficult for me to understand — why was John popular? Why did people listen to him preach, why did they seek his advice on how to live their lives? Why did they repent and seek to be baptized? Why did both the leaders of society and the people at the bottom both go to hear him? Why did not only Jews but also Roman soldiers seek his advice?

This is even more confusing when you consider his ministry model; he went out to the wilderness to preach. John preached where the people were not, and where they would have to make a special effort to come to him. None of the gospel accounts gives me a hint as to how people even knew to go out into the wilderness to hear John. When people came to hear his preaching, he wasn’t exactly welcoming, but basically said: “Who invited you?” and proceeded to insult the people who came to him.

Add to this that he was a popular prophet, seen in the same light as the Old Testament prophets, even though when Tax collectors asked him what they should do, he did not suggest they stop collecting taxes, only that they don’t cheat by collecting extra and stealing it for themselves. Not only that, he advised Roman soldiers, the occupying army, not to seek bribes; but he did not condemn them for occupying Judea. John was far more generous to his people’s enemies than he was to the people themselves, yet they still came, listened to him preaching, sought his advice, repented and were Baptized.

To understand why this is confusing to me, imagine if we want to plant a church. Would we choose the strategy of sending a single person to go to Hoosier National forest, send him deep into the trees, have him eating bugs and do nothing to promote his message? If people came to hear him preach, would we suggest that instead of giving a welcome and a blessing, that he say: “who invited you?” as if new people are unwelcome? Would we have him insult the local population? Would we have him treating our national enemies if they could keep their affiliations, and would still be just as acceptable as the rest of us?

If somebody tried that strategy, my first expectation is that nobody would know where to find him; he would preach to the trees. Even if people knew where to find him, and there was a great number of people eager to go and see the forest madman, it is hard to imagine that he could keep a following when he makes the people who come feel unwelcome. “Who invited you?” isn’t something that I would dare say if we found new people sitting in the pews.

As little as this model makes sense, the thing is, it worked. A great crowd of people went to John, and many were baptized. John recognized Jesus, and he introduced Jesus to the crowds. Even though none of the things he did make any sense in my eyes, people heard God’s message, people repented, and people were pointed to Jesus. John accomplished his ministry to the point that we still speak of him even today. How can you get lasting results when you do everything wrong?

Now, I don’t know much about John’s ministry; I really only know what scripture tells me. John didn’t write a spiritual autobiography, and there are many details that the Gospels do not choose to tell us. As much as we remember John, he isn’t exactly the main character; he’s one of the characters who’s role ends in Act 1. If I speculate about John’s prayer life, or I speak of a mystical experience he might have had — I am merely speculating. I know he preached repentance, the coming of the kingdom of heaven, and the coming of Someone bigger than himself; but any question of John’s motivation is pure speculation.

Instead of completely blind speculation, I will do the best I can, and tell the story of a preacher who did something that made absolutely no sense, and yet somehow what he did worked.

How many of you know who Stephen Grellet was? Grellet was born in France in 1773, he was a member of the French Royal guard, but at the time of the French revolution, he was sentenced to death. Grellet became a refugee and immigrated to the United States in 1795.

In 1796, Grellet joined with the Society of Friends and would become one of our most prominent ministers. He preached throughout America, and he also traveled to most of the countries in Europe. He became so well known that he was granted a personal audience with a number of foreign dignitaries including Czar Alexander I and Pope Pius VII. Unlike John the Baptist, his Grellet’s journals were edited together to form an account of his life and ministry after he died; we do have a window into his motivations and life.

Now, the one part of Grellet’s ministry that makes no sense was when he felt that God called him to preach at a logging camp in Pennsylvania. This logging camp was a three-day journey away from him, but he felt God had a message for that place, so he traveled for three days. When he got to the place where he felt God called him nobody was there. There were no tents, only a single log cabin and it appeared that the workers had not used the building for several days. Grellet, after making this journey just to find nobody was there prayed and asked God what he should do. He felt that God told him to preach in the empty building, that it was God’s message and not his.

Grellet responded by walking into the building, and according to the memoir of his ministry, he spoke to the empty room as if there were 200 people in there to hear his message. The sermon was about how sin is a wall, but Jesus tears down that wall and has come to be with us. He then prayed for the lumberjacks, and when he was finished he emotionally collapsed. He looked around, saw that he preached a sermon to an empty room. He saw the dishes that the lumberjacks left behind, and felt like a complete idiot because he traveled three days, one way, to give a sermon to an empty room. He knew what he did made no sense, and was a complete waste of a week, but he took comfort in that he was obedient.

Six years later Stephen Grellet was on a trip to London, and he had a chance meeting with an American out in the streets of London. This American recognized Stephen Grellet as somebody who was influential in his life, even though Stephen didn’t recognize the man. It turns out that this man was a lumberjack, and had gone back to the camp for a tool. When he got there, there was this crazy guy preaching to an empty room. The lumberjack waited until the crazy man had gone before fetching his tool, but while he waited he heard the sermon. He heard about sin’s wall and how Jesus tears it down. Something about this sermon worked on his heart, and he got a Bible. When he got the Bible, he read, and he read about Jesus coming for the one lost sheep and he felt that he was that one sheep. This lumberjack shared his testimony with his lumber-camp, and the whole lumber-camp heard the message that the one lumberjack brought them, and many were inspired by this message.

There were a number of things about Grellet’s journey that makes little sense: he made no appointment, he just spent a week traveling to and from a camp that might not bother to listen to him; when he got there, he found the camp empty and he preached anyways. This seems like a waste of time and energy. It seems a poor strategy. There is a reason that Stephen Grellet felt a fool after preaching his sermon but the important thing is that he was obedient and God worked in ways that Stephen could not see. Somehow God brought the message and the person who needed to hear the message together.

Now, after this story, I still can’t do much more than speculate on John’s motivation, but I have a direction in which to speculate. Our God is a God of miracles. Our best plans will never be as good as obedience. Our best strategies will never succeed better than God’s providence. Sermons in the wilderness can have a very real audience and exactly the audience that needs to hear. John’s sermon is one that we still hear today, “repent for the Kingdom of heaven is near.”

John the Miricle-Baby: Luke 1:5-25

Reading: Luke 1:5-25

The first thought I had when I looked at this passage was: “The gospels always start with John the Baptist;” so, I decided to look through old sermons and I saw that I focused on that about a year ago. Reading my old sermon, I see that I observed that John’s life has some parallels to Jesus’ life, and thus we get hints about where the Jesus story is going by remembering John’s story. I also quoted my fellow pastor Charity Sandstrom, who pointed out that you can’t have a completely original teacher, somebody needs to say it first; as she said: “Standing on your own is suspect, even today.”

I think that this is important enough to mention again; we need John, because without John we wouldn’t be ready to hear Jesus. We not only needed John, but we also needed the law, and generations of prophets who interpreted the law. God had been working in the world for hundreds of generations before the time was right for Jesus; God not only sent John, but God also sent Moses and Isaiah and others.

This is one thing that I’ve been thinking a lot about this year — how there are a number of tropes in scripture. When we were going through Genesis, we heard similar stories told generation after generation. Abraham called his wife sister, and his son Isaac did the same with Rebekah. Abraham favored Isaac, Isaac favored Esau while Rebekah favored Jacob, and Jacob favored Joseph over all his other sons. Brothers fought; Cain and Abel fought, Esau and Jacob fought, and Joseph and his brothers fought.

The trope I see here that is repeated in scripture is the story of a woman who has given up on the hope of having a child. We see this happening with Sarah. Sarah goes so far as to try to get a son through her servant Hagar. Rachel, when she can’t have a child tries to get one through Bilhah, of course, another woman having a child really isn’t a successful strategy, and it is not the strategy that Elizabeth used.

There are a number of women in scripture who were concerned that they didn’t have children, and either prayed for a child or just gave up on the possibility. Isaac prayed that Rebekah would have children, because she had none — and Rebekah had twins. Manoah’s wife was barren, and an angel Manoah and his wife and told them that they would have a son — that son’s name would be Sampson. Hannah prayed for years that she would have a son — her prayers eventually became so desperate that she was thrown out of the place of worship for being drunk, but she shared with the priest Eli why she was praying and he blessed her saying: “may God grant you what you asked.” She gave birth to the prophet Samuel, the prophet who anointed both king Saul and King David. There are a number of miracle babies throughout scripture. Elizabeth and Zechariah were one of many who had a miracle baby.

Why is there a trope of miracle babies? In the case of Abraham, he needed a miracle because without one, everything that he had and worked for would go to one of his employees and his family line would die with him. With everything that was promised, and apparently everything that was expected of him (Abram, meaning exalted father, implies that something was expected of him); clearly a miracle was needed. In the case of Rebekah, Isaac prayed on behalf of his wife. In the case of Manoah and his wife, Sampson was a bit of a savior to the people of Israel — he saved them from the Philistines. In the case of Hannah, her son was one of the greatest prophets — the prophet who made messiah-kings; the prophet who created David’s royal line.

One reason for this is that having babies is important, especially in ancient societies. Even ordinary farmers with a bit of land and migrant herdsmen need somebody who will inherit and take on the work. There is a sense that through children, our place in the world is bigger than ourselves and the world will grow.

Another reason is as simple as shame. Women were expected to marry and have children. When things don’t go as expected – especially when it is an expectation of society, people do suffer shame. Unfortunately, it can go beyond personal shame, people say things. I once spoke with a woman who miscarried, and the idea of where to place blame came up. Even though there was nobody to blame, it is how we often react when things don’t go as expected.

In a case such as Elizabeth and Zechariah, there was another thing that was a bit significant. Zechariah was a temple priest; he served in the Holy place. You know that priests are Levites, and the inheritance of the Levites is positions between the religious and government bureaucracies. Priests were not just Levites — they were a single family within the Levite tribe. Not having a child meant that Zechariah would know that when he retired from his position, it would be given to a nephew or a younger cousin. His name would never be mentioned when people listed their male ancestors from their father all the way to Aaron the brother of Moses.

With all these social pressures, it is no doubt that Elizabeth would be absolutely devastated when she admitted to herself that there would be no son. But, like all these other stories, before there is a miracle baby, an angel makes a special visit — in this case Gabriel appears to Zechariah. When Elizabeth is pregnant, she says: “This is what the Lord has done for me when he looked favorably on me and took away the disgrace I have endured among my people” (Luke 1:25 NRSV)

The older story that this is most similar to is that of Hannah, where the priest Eli blesses her at the place of worship, she becomes pregnant and gives birth to Samuel. It is similar, not only because it included a message from God at a place of worship, but because John and Samuel are similar. Samuel is special, because it is Samuel who creates the monarchy, and establishes David as king. Samuel is the man who introduces David to the world. John is special, because he preaches the gospel of repentance before Jesus appears on the scene — John baptizes Jesus and announces what Jesus is to the world.

The most important thing though is that David and Jesus established a kingdom; a kingdom that is supposed to be something different, something righteous. A kingdom where the people try to follow God’s law, and are governed by God’s principles. David’s kingdom of course failed in many ways; he is honored because he built something great, but he didn’t quite live up to the standard of Righteousness found in the Torah. David’s descendants, with a precious few exceptions didn’t even try. For all the good intentions to for a nation where God is God, and the people live in righteousness, Judah and Israel became very much kingdoms of the Earth.

Jesus said that he was here to bring about the Kingdom of Heaven, or in some passages the Kingdom of God. Jesus’ kingdom is different — it is not one of the Earthly kingdoms ruled by corruptible human leaders. One thing that I’ve learned from history is that theocracies don’t seem to go well. They start with good intentions, but eventually someone who abuses power gains power. What started as a light shining in the darkness becomes just as dark as everything around it. God’s kingdom is different — it isn’t a kingdom of the world, and it won’t become a kingdom of the world. Samuel introduced a king that would produce a dynasty lasting for about four centuries, but John introduces a King who’s rein lasts for eternity.

Matthew 3:2 has the adult John saying: “Repent for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” John preaches that God will overthrow the current systems, and that there is one that will baptize with the Holy Spirit — and then John baptizes Jesus. The kingdom of heaven is as near as Jesus is. This is the good news that starts with John’s message — the kingdom of Heaven is coming, and it came with Jesus and through Jesus we are given a place in the eternal kingdom. This message starts with Zechariah in the temple meeting an angel who tells him about his miracle baby.

Genesis 50: Sin has consequences

Reading: Genesis 50

It is very hard to know the way other people feel and think. The most natural thing to do is to assume that other people are just like you are; to walk a mile in their shoes and consider what you would do in their place. One thing that you quickly observe is that what you think you would have done is usually different than what the person you are trying to understand did. Fortunately, most of us have complex motivations, and if we understand ourselves, we can use our own complexity to help us have empathy with those who made hard choices.

Of course, not all of our motivations are complex. Sometimes people are motivated by greed, and generosity is never a consideration. A truly greedy man is left guessing at the motivations of a true philanthropist. A grifter sees an honest man as a rube; but if he needs to trust somebody he can’t believe that somebody would be honest, just stupid. Sometimes people carry a grudge and would consider forgiveness unthinkable, and thus they cannot accept that somebody might forgive them.

Last week, I talked about how forgiveness can fix what sin breaks; but unfortunately, when people have sin in their hearts, sin keeps breaking things down. Many looked at Esau and Jacob and speculated that even when Esau told Jacob that he had enough, Jacob could not believe that his brother forgave him. Scripture does not directly tell me whether or not this is true; but, it does hint that Jacob took a bit longer than necessary to go home to his father — it could be because he didn’t trust anybody.

Unlike Jacob’s response when Esau forgave him, we know what Joseph’s brothers were thinking. All this time in Egypt they were under Joseph’s power, and there was something in their mind that knew what they did was not forgivable. When Jacob died, Genesis tells us that Jacob’s children suspected that Joseph was waiting for his revenge out of respect for his father.

I see Joseph’s brothers acting in fear, and responding to their father’s death by telling Joseph that his last wish was that Joseph would forgive them. Joseph responded the same way he did when his brothers were there and their father did not: “I’m not in God’s place — even though you intended evil, God’s ends were good. Don’t worry, I’m not going to hurt you.” Joseph was able to forgive his brothers, but the brothers were not able to accept Joseph’s forgiveness.

This is a pretty significant problem that we face; even when we do the right things, sometimes things do not turn out correct. Joseph forgave his brothers, but they never really believed he forgave them. This is the kind of thing that makes holiday dinners uncomfortable; no matter what you do, you can’t make other people’s decisions for them, nor can you repent of their sinfulness. All of us have agency, but our influence is limited. We can choose for ourselves, but we cannot choose for others.

Remember when we talked about Psalm 73 — I said that this Psalm dealt with the difficult question; “Why do good things happen to bad people? Why are they wealthy, and powerful?” The Psalm pointed out that their wealth and power is not exactly safe — they are not on stable footing and could slip and fall at any time. This Psalm really sticks in my mind — because, imagine if you were greedy, and could not accept that other people might be generous. Imagine if you remembered every grievance no matter how petty, and could not accept that there were people who might forgive. Imagine if you saw every one of your friends as connections in a network meant to build your professional life, and could not accept that somebody might have a friend purely for the sake of the friendship. If you are in a place like that, and you slip up, what do you have? If you slip, you need a real friend that will help you with no thought of personal gain.

Joseph’s brothers lived in fear because they could not accept that Joseph would be able to forgive them. Joseph forgave, so there was no grudge acting as a weight on Joseph; but there was a shadow of fear on every one of the brothers. In order for the relationship to heal, three things would be necessary; Joseph had to forgive the offense, the brothers had to truly repent and change, and everybody had to accept that change is a real possibility.

Nothing good comes from holding onto a grudge. Whenever we recite grievance lists to ourselves all we do is make ourselves angry. The person who hurt us likely neither knows nor cares what happens. Even if the other person repents, truly apologizes, works to make amends and to make things right again, this is not enough to undo a grudge. Grudges are the exact opposite of forgiveness.

Forgiveness is a central aspect to Christianity, without forgiveness we have no hope for salvation. We make much of God’s radical forgiveness and how our salvation depends on how God forgives us, but Jesus made it clear that we are expected to be just as forgiving with each other as God is with us. Holding a grudge is an act of disobedience — it is, in a Biblical sense, a mortal sin because if we do not forgive, we cannot expect God to forgive us either. Now, I don’t know exactly what judgment day will be like — but I know that there is no place for grudges in heaven. We all have to be together.

Repentance is also central to Christianity. When scripture talks about salvation, we are called to repent of our sins. The Greek word that is translated as repent literally means `to think again’; so, on those nights when I lay in bed and think about that stupid thing that I said — and what I should have said instead, I am repenting of my words. I am rethinking my actions, and hopefully because I rethought my words and actions I will be able to speak differently the next time I am in that situation.

Forgiveness and repentance are not only central to our hope to enter heaven, but they are our only hope to preserve healthy relationships on Earth. If one person carries a grudge, the relationship cannot be healed until there is forgiveness. If one person refuses to take responsibility, never gives a second thought to his actions, nor a thought of changing his sinful behavior, a healthy relationship is still impossible. Both sides must take a step in order for reconciliation to be possible.

The thing is, in the case of Joseph and his brothers, the brothers repented. The brothers clearly repented before the first time that they visited Egypt. Remember the conversation the brothers had with each other? They spoke of punishment coming on them for their sin. Now, they never confessed what they did to their father — but they very much rethought their actions, regretted their actions, and wished they never sold Joseph into slavery. Joseph, Chancellor of Egypt, forgave his bothers. He was able to see that what they did put him exactly where he needed to be, when he needed to be there, irregardless of their motivation. Holding a grudge against them would be wishing that he never became one of the most powerful people on the planet and that he never saved Egypt from certain ruin. Both Joseph and his brothers seem to have done what they needed to do — yet their relationship was not yet restored.

Something was missing — there is obviously something that was needed that goes beyond forgiveness and repentance. I suggest that what was missing was faith. Joseph’s brothers could not trust Joseph. They had no faith in his power to forgive. They repented, Joseph forgave, but they could not trust him to forgive.

Fixing those things that were destroyed requires us to take a risk. We have to take a chance that the repentance is genuine and the person is truly working to change. We have to take a chance that forgiveness is genuine, and that the person who forgave us isn’t laying in wait to take revenge. We have to trust that everybody is truly working together to rebuild a relationship. You know something — this is a real risk, but if we don’t take the third step, have faith, and take a risk we cannot hope that the relationships sin destroyed will be restored.