How Clarence Came Fully Alive

Listen to the sermon being preached at the link below

How Clarence Came Fully Alive

A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY
by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor
23rd Sunday After Pentecost • October 23, 2016

Why were these men at the temple that day? We all have reasons to come to worship. Perhaps it’s a habit, perhaps it’s a hope. Something got us up, something made us do all the get ready things and come here today. So I wonder about these two men, I wonder why they are there. The most frustrating thing about the stories of Jesus to me is all the questions they raise.
Take the second man in this story. He doesn’t sound like a regular worshipper. What’s he doing visiting this day?

Tax Collectors

Tax collectors had a bad reputation in that time. The term itself doesn’t really translate the reality. Taxes weren’t collected directly by the government. The collection system was privatized; a business would buy the right to collect the taxes for a certain area, a county perhaps or even a whole state, a province. Some things don’t change: buy low, sell high is one and in this case what it means is that once you’ve paid for the right to tax, you make money by squeezing every last nickel out of every last person. In Jesus’ time, that’s just what was happening. Old, obscure taxes were being brought up; new ones were being thought up. Small timers and the poor who had escaped in the past were being pressed. All governments use force to collect taxes eventually and in this case, the force was the sword of the Roman legion. The Romans were very fussy about paying your taxes, they made our IRS look like fairy godmothers. The connection between threats from the Romans and taxes meant that tax collectors were seen as occupiers, also, traitors to the always simmering cause of Jewish independence. No good Jew would eat with a tax collector or invite him to their home or say hi in the street. If the tax collector sat down in a coffee shop, no one waved, no one cam by his table to ask how his day was going.

Lord Have Mercy

Yet here he is, a tax collector, at the temple. Watch him go in: he’s the one wearing the slightly worn suit, last year’s cut, serviceable but not stylish. He’s shaved; the Romans don’t like beards. He doesn’t look around as he goes in; he isn’t expecting any friends and he won’t find any either. Now he goes up to the place where you put your offering. No one really knows what it looks like but I like to imagine one of those banks of candles they have in European cathedrals. Each candle represents a prayer. But the prayers aren’t free. You have to pay. Go to Notre Dame and there’s a box where you’re expected to put in a 1 euro coin before you pray. I imagine him doing something like that, putting in his coin, standing there, head uplifted in the Jewish manner of prayer and saying nothing, noting at all.

I know the text quotes him, and perhaps his voice carries his thoughts or perhaps Jesus put the words in his mouth, words evident from his look. “Lord God, have mercy on me,” his prayer, isn’t simple or usual. It’s not a prayer you choose, it chooses you. I look at this man, praying this prayer and I think: this is a man who is dead and cries out to come alive. Maybe he couldn’t find any other job when he got out of school, maybe he was ambitious and hoped he’d advance under the Romans, the reasons don’t matter, somehow he’s come to a moment when he can’t stand himself and knows no one else can either and he’s wondering if God can. Have you ever wondered that? Have you ever prayed this prayer? Have you ever wanted to come alive again?

The Pharisee

He’s not alone. There’s another man standing there, a Pharisee. He’s dressed for worship, finest robes, perhaps a leather pouch tied to his head containing a bit of the Torah—it’s a religious custom, observed only by the very careful. He puts his offering in too, he lights a candle too, and he prays. But notice how different his prayer is. The tax collector’s prayer is all about hoping God will do something: “Lord God, have mercy on me.” The Pharisee’s prayer is all about what he is doing: “Look at me, I thank you, I fast twice a week, I give a tenth of my income.” He’s not a secular man, he’s very religious. He’s doing everything he can. Imagine what would happen if we made these things a requirement for membership here. I can just see the conversation with a prospective member: “Now, in addition to agreeing to our church covenant, there are just a couple of other matters that we do ask of all members. First thing, we ask that you fast, not eat anything, two days a week. You choose the days, and you can indicate them right here on this pledge card. Oh, and by the way, you will, of course, be expected to contribute a full tenth of your income.” Now there’s a program for a membership drive!

The Pharisee in this story doesn’t get much approval, but it’s worth pointing out that he is there, he is at worship. Something brought him there too. Maybe it was the chance to show off his righteousness, but that wears thin pretty quickly. I wonder if he isn’t struggling also, just like the tax collector. Self-inflicted righteousness can get awfully lonely. All those ‘I’s’—so little space for God. Most of us were brought up on a diet of these stories in Sunday School, so I know right away when you heard the word ‘Pharisee’ you knew that wasn’t you and it certainly isn’t me—or is it? The Pharisees have gotten some pretty bad press but the truth, the uncomfortable truth, is that they were more like us than we often want to admit. They were the good people, the law abiding, worship going people, of their time. Many of them seem to have followed Jesus around, which makes me wonder: what were they looking for? Were they hoping to come alive too, just like the tax collector?

The Story of Clarence

Garrison Keillor tells a wonderful story about a day when a man named Clarence came alive.

One day Clarence was standing in the shower when he felt something that could have been a heart attack. It wasn’t a heart attack but for 10 seconds or so it might have been and it made Clarence think that life could be very short. It was Sunday and Clarence thought if life was short, maybe there wasn’t time to sit through a sermon. But he got dressed anyway and went downstairs and when someone asked later how he was feeling, he said “I’m fine.” Clarence is Norwegian and Midwestern. Norwegians and Midwesterners could be torn to a bloody pulp and gasping their last but if asked, say, “I’m fine.” At church, he checked out of the sermon fairly early because it was one of those where you really don’t need to listen, you can just pick up the last two or three sentences and get the whole thing, and when the pastor’s voice sounded like it might be near the end, Clarence took out his wallet and saw he had no cash. So he got out his checkbook and wrote a check for thirty dollars. Of course, he didn’t want anyone to see him writing while the pastor was still talking so he tried to do it without actually looking at the check.

Then came the hard part: how to get the thing out without making that awful ripping noise but he folded the thing back and forth over and over until Mrs. Tollefson frowned at him and it slipped out. When Elmer passed the plate, he put the check in and kept it moving and just after he handed it along, he realized he had written a check not for thirty dollars but for three hundred. What to do? Can you sneak in where the Deacons are counting and say, “Hey, there’s been a little mistake, I meant to write 30 and I wrote 300, it could happen to anyone.”? How do you say, “I gave more than I meant to”? Was there even that much in the account? At this moment, Clarence felt terrifically awake, totally aware, completely and fully alive.

Fully Alive

Isn’t this the key?—we come fully alive when we have given more than we meant to, more than we can afford. This isn’t about amounts of money; it’s about giving ourselves. We’ve all heard the story of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector before, maybe heard it many times before. But what’s the difference here? Why does one go away with what he sought and one without? No one can afford to pray, “Lord have mercy on me”—it’s a prayer you come to when you are spiritually bankrupt, empty, nothing left. It’s the last prayer, the prayer when you can’t do anything else, can’t pray anything else. The tax collector is beyond what he can afford. The Pharisee still thinks there’s something he can do, that it is in fact just about him and what he does when the truth is, fully alive, abundant life, is God’s gift. Clarence is a Norwegian and a Midwesterner and he’s lived his whole life from what he can afford. But he comes fully alive when he goes beyond it.

In a few weeks, we’re going to meet as a church to decide on a plan for next year. In a few days, we’re going to have to decide what to give to support that plan. There’s a terrific urge at such times to consider what we can afford and to plan the same way we do in a good business. Good business practice is fine but we ought to remember that we aren’t a business. We are a church, a church of Jesus Christ, and no one comes here because of our great business skills. They come here, we come here, because Jesus Christ offers life fully alive, life beyond death. His life, lived in us; his life, living in us.

Come Fully Alive

I don’t know what happened to that Tax Collector when he left the temple; I don’t know what happened to the Pharisee. I don’t even know what happened to Clarence. But I do know that whenever someone has come fully alive and lived from that excitement, it began when they moved beyond what they could afford. That’s how Clarence came fully alive; how are we going to do it?

Note: The story of Clarence and the collection is told as Collection in Leaving Home, by Garrison Keillor, p. 22.

The Long Haul

Listen to the sermon being preached at the link below

The Long Haul

A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY
by The Rev. James E. Eaton, Pastor
22nd Sunday After Pentecost • October 16, 2016
Jeremiah 31:27-34 • Luke 18:1-8

“The time is coming”, declares the Lord, “when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah.”—Jeremiah 31:31

How much will we do?

Recently our Jewish brothers and sisters observed Yom Kippur, a day of reflection on failings through the past year accompanied by fasting. All faith communities have special observances and rituals. Muslims, for example, pray five times a day.

An Islamic story explains how Muslims came to pray five times a day. It says that when the prophet Mohammed was ascending to the seventh heaven to receive the holy Qu’ran from Allah, he met Moses on his way. They chatted and immediately liked each other and when Mohammed was returning he stopped off to visit Moses. “What did Allah say we must do?,” Moses asked. Mohammed replied: “We must pray 50 times every day.” “They’ll never do it!”, Moses replied, and he told Mohammed to go back and tell Allah and beg for a smaller number. So Mohammed returned to Allah and when he met Moses again, he told him that Allah had agreed to limit the number of prayers to 40 per day. “They won’t do that,” Moses replied; “Go to Allah again.” Mohammed returned a third time to Allah and this time Allah agreed to limit the number of prayers to just five each day. “Well, I know this people,” Moses said, “even five may be too much for some.” How many times a day will we pray? How long will we keep praying?

How much persistence is in us? How long can we be patient, how long can we keep keeping on? We have not been to the seventh heaven with Mohammed; we have not been to the mountaintop with Moses. We weren’t there in the upper room when the Resurrected Jesus walked through the door. We live in the streets and houses of this world where sometimes God seems distant and silent.

How faithful?

Luke is talking to us and the topic seems to be what we will do for and keep doing for our faith. How faithful will we be? Luke is speaking to a congregation which wonders when God will come and right wrongs, when the great banquet of the heavenly kingdom will begin. He is speaking to Christians who are fraying at the edges, whose faithfulness is beginning to fail.
So he imagines Jesus telling this story we’ve read. A widow seeks justice. What a wealth of detail is contained in that simple statement! Women could not go into the courts of the time. Who is this woman? She is powerless; she is poor. She doesn’t have powerful friends to pressure the system for her, she doesn’t have money to grease the wheels. She can’t afford a lawyer; she can’t force a judgement. She has nothing, no lever, no means, no way to get justice from her adversary.

We know this woman

We know this woman. She lines up every week outside the magistrate court, trying to get her former husband to pay the child support a judge so serenely ordered. She comes in quietly to ask for a recommendation: the man who deserted her is now trying to take her children and the Department of Children and Families is acting in that disinterested way that takes no account of how she has struggled to keep a family together. She struggles with incomprehensible forms because she has no one to help her; she misses work and sees the tight lipped look of her boss when she has to go to court or see the social worker.

We know this woman. She has a history. She is one of the mothers de mayo: women whose children were disappeared by the military in Argentina. We called it anti-communism but to her it was a boot breaking down a door, masked men stealing her children and blank stares at the police station when she asked questions. So she joined others and for years she risked her life marching in the capital plaza asking for an answer.

We know this woman. She is a woman of intelligence and wit who cannot vote and is laughed at and called names when she joins others chaining herself in public, making a scene, asking only for the same rights men so solemnly declared in the great documents of her nation.
We know this woman: she is everyone who has persevered, who has persisted, whose faith in ultimate justice has been so strong that she kept keeping on.

And we know this judge. Remember the judge? The story says the widow kept coming to him. It describes him as a man who feared neither God nor men. Now “the fear of the Lord” is the general description the Bible has for those who act according to God’s ways. The judge is not a Godly man. He has a position of authority that allows him to act with complete freedom. He doesn’t care about God; he doesn’t care what others say. He is accountable only to himself. He is powerful, in other words, powerful in a way that almost defies description. I imagine him surrounded by aides who tell him how smart he is, how right he is, how his judgments are so perfect, so apt. I imagine him going to lunch, surrounded by such people. “That was a great session this morning, Judge,” they say, and laugh at the people who come before him. So there we have the two of them: the powerless widow, the powerful judge.


Luke is remembering the questions of all those people in churches who wonder how long it will take for God to come to them. How long will it take for the widow to get justice? Remember the woman: the poor woman, the powerless woman. She can’t go to court but every day she is there outside the judge’s door when he leaves for work in the morning. She follows him to the coffee shop, she puts papers in his hand as he is walking into the court. She waits for him at lunch time, oh, she gets jostled aside of course by his friends but her face is there in the crowd. She waits for him at the end of the day. Perhaps he puts her off: “Yes, well, you should file these”, he says. Later he gets more abrupt when she persists: “I really can’t talk about this now.” But she keeps coming, and after a while he realizes he is looking for her, her face in the street as he goes back and forth, always that said faith, always that same request, made so often he can hear it even when she isn’t present, “Give me justice, vindicate me.” And one day he does: not because of her cause, not because it is just, but just to get her off his back.

Now Jewish sermons often used an argument that moves from the lesser to the greater, from the smaller to the larger. Here the argument is clear: if even an unjust Judge can do justice for a powerless widow if she is persistent, how much more will God who is righteous bring justice to faithful Christians. It is a reason to keep praying, a sermon in a story about faithful persistence. Luke lived when Christians were beginning to fall away, believing God had forgotten them. Do you believe God has forgotten? Do you believe God doesn’t care? Hear this: if even we here on earth can be moved by faith, how much more can God. That is the sermon: that is the lesson.

Turn it arond

But there is another lesson here as well, a surprise. We get used to identifying God with the powerful person in parables but I wonder about this story. Imagine for a moment that it is not the Judge who represents God’s position; suppose it is the woman. Suppose we are the Judge. Isn’t the judge more like us? Surely we live lives in which often it seems we don’t fear God, we don’t take God seriously.

Imagine that God is like this widow. The deep faith of every Christian is that God has come into the world in the person of someone who has given up everything, every power, to live in the world with us and for us. Isn’t the figure of this woman, this woman who is so like us in her frustration, her struggle, her feeling that she isn’t heard just such a person? Suppose the widow is meant to represent God. Now the story is turned around.

Oh, it’s a story about faithfulness still. But it is a story about God’s faithfulness. Here we are, fearing neither God nor men, going about our lives. But God keeps coming, God persists, God keeps calling us back to righteousness. Do you remember the word of the Lord we read from the prophet Jeremiah? Jeremiah lived in a time when God’s people knew they had failed, had broken their covenant. God knew: God had said so over and over again, called them over and over for hundreds of years. The prophet Hosea described God drawing the people with “cords of compassion”, an image of the leather straps with which Jewish mothers would bind their babies while they worked in the fields. What is God to do with such a faithless people? What will God do with such a faithless people? This: “I will make a new covenant with them.” God will not give up even when the cause is hopeless: God makes new hope, God makes a new covenant. Like the widow in the story, God keeps coming over and over and over.

What is it that God hopes for us? The widow wants vindication. Vindication means admitting someone is right. God wants us to prove God was right to keep trying, right to keep loving, right to endlessly, eternally imagine us living from our best selves. God hopes we will become people who faithfully live our lives as good stewards. God hopes we will create families and communities where care is given to all, widows, children, every single one, every child of God. God hopes we will make our gifts a blessing. That was God’s plan from the beginning; God’s first covenant with Abraham and Sarah was to make them a blessing to the whole world. And that is still God’s purpose, to bless the whole world.

God doesn’t seek consumers: God seeks covenant partners. Patiently, persistently, faithfully God keeps seeking us, hoping to find in us people who joyfully give, who bless the world by their gifts, as God blesses us. The last question in the story is for us: will the Song of God find our faith in God has last as long, persisted as long, as God’s faith in us?

Heaven’s Door

Heaven’s Door

Click Below to hear the sermon preached

A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY

by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor

21st Sunday After Pentecost/C • October 9, 2016

The border between the United States and Canada runs for 3,900 miles, not counting Alaska. Some runs through small towns like Standstead, Quebec; some through desolate, unpopulated country. Where it runs through towns, neighbors sometimes have to stay in their own yards to avoid breaking the law by not going through a border crossing station. But even there, in places almost never visited by human beings, a wide area has been cut back to mark the border, an area known as “the trace”. There hasn’t been a war between the two countries in over 200 years. But we mark the border. We are always conscious of boundaries. So perhaps it isn’t surprising that today’s scripture reading is all about boundaries—and crossing them.

“On the way to Jerusalem, Jesus was going through the region between Samaria and Galilee.” [Luke 17:11] How packed with meaning is that simple statement. Jerusalem is the capital of Judah, the center of Jewish history and hope, the city of faith and the site of the temple where God is present. Galilee is a rural area up in the north, home to Jesus and his disciples, and an area where many gentiles have settled, soldiers retired from the Roman arm, others who liked it’s hills and valleys. Samaria sticks out between the two. Almost 800 years before, the Assyrians conquered the area and deported thousands, bringing in other people they had conquered. Already separated from Judah by politics, the area had a different history and developed a different pattern of worship, including a competing sanctuary. Samaritans and Jews developed a bitter rivalry.

A journey from Galilee through Samaria to Jerusalem is a journey across some of the most difficult borders the people around Jesus could imagine. Yet there are tantalizing clues through the gospels that Jesus had an impact in Samaria. Luke tells a story about the conversion of Samaritans in chapter eight of the Book of Acts. Jesus crosses the boundary: so does the gospel, so does the love of God.

Crossing Boundaries at Church

This is a significant point because one of our great problems in church life is the ability to cross boundaries, to lower the threshold that guard our doors, so people can get in. Of course, our boundaries are not always national: there are cultural boundaries as well, our way of doing things, our shared history which we imagine will become the future.

Congregational meeting houses built in the 1600’s and 1700’s often had seating that included walls with gates; perhaps you’ve visited a church like that. The reason was simple: they were cold; there was no heat and the buildings were drafty. The end of the 1700’s brought the Franklin stove, and some churches began to install them. So of course there were church fights about this: whether you could be holy if you had heat. Bitter words were said, but the heat came on and today, if the church is cold, we hear about it.

There are so many things like this, things we take for granted but which are just how we do them. These mark a set of boundaries and sometimes the boundaries can be tough to cross. Most of us here, for example, know how to use a church bulletin. No one has to tell us to find the songs in the hymnal, to read the parts in bold print, and follow along. But what if you didn’t grow up in a church? What if you came from a church where they don’t have hymnals, where the words of songs are projected on a screen? You won’t know what to do; it’s a boundary and if the boundary is high enough to embarrass you, you won’t come back there. The boundary will be marked and keep you out.

Healing On the Boundary

Jesus is crossing boundaries and helping others across. Along his journey, he comes near a village and like many villages, there are lepers on the outskirts. Once again, he’s on a boundary, between the countryside and the village. Out there in the wild are a group of people who have been cast out. Although they’re called lepers, their disease is most likely not what we know as leprosy today but instead some sort of skin infection. Torah provides for the separation of people with this and that’s what we have here: ten who have been pushed across a boundary, who are living with a boundary around them that says “do not approach.”

The lepers are careful about the boundary: “Keeping their distance, they called out, saying, ‘Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!’” [Luke 17:13] Isn’t this the sum of all prayers to Jesus? Doesn’t this sum up what we all hope, that the love of God, expressed in Jesus, will result in a mercy that accepts us beyond anything we deserve?

So they cry out, there on the boundary, and Jesus, crossing the boundary, speaks to them, comes to them and tells them to do exactly what Torah says: go show yourself to a priest. Leviticus 13 makes the priest the one who diagnoses a leper and also can certify that he has recovered and can return to the community.

What happens next is a miracle. But the miracle isn’t the healing; it is that these lepers believe Jesus. What faith, what conviction, makes them go on their way to the priest? The story doesn’t say they are healed immediately; they don’t suddenly get better standing there. No, the text says they were healed on the way. It’s when they start to make their own journey that they find healing; it’s when they cross the boundary back to their community that they get better.

This is what Jesus does: he heals people and sends them out, crossing boundaries on their own. When you make a cake, it takes a long time. You have to get the ingredients, mix them up, pour them into pans, turn on the oven, bake the batter, perhaps take it out, let it cool, frost it. Now you have a chocolate cake. But isn’t the real experience sharing the cake? Isn’t a cake made to celebrate with someone, to lift others, to share?

The lepers are healed on the way: isn’t that our story as well? I spent some time studying this scripture, drawing together information and reflections from others, thinking about it. But its effect won’t be immediate; it depends on whether we together lower the thresholds, as Jesus does, cross boundaries, like Jesus does. It depends on what happens on our journey. Maya Angelou said,

“As soon as healing takes place, go out and heal someone else.” That’s what Jesus hopes; that’s what Jesus expects, that having healed and forgiven us, we will in turn cross the boundaries and heal others.

Coming to Jesus

Now the end of the story brings a final set of boundary crossings. One of the healed lepers is not a Jew; he can’t go to the Jewish priest. He can’t complete his healing. He has nowhere to go so he goes to Jesus. Now often when this text is preached, the emphasis is on his gratitude, his act of devotion: “He prostrated himself at Jesus' feet and thanked him” [Luke 17:16] Certainly there is gratitude here but there is something else. This Samaritan goes to Jesus because he has nowhere else to go. He can’t go to a Jewish priest, he can’t go to a Samaritan priest and say a Jew healed him. He has nowhere to go so he goes to Jesus.

Nowhere Else to Go

This is my image of our church: we are a place where people often come because they need healing and have nowhere else to go. They can’t go to churches that won’t accept their lifestyle or sexuality or clothing or that they can’t sit for ten minutes in a row. The thing I love about this church is that we take them in and often take them to heart. It’s one reason I am so proud to be a member here, to be a part of this congregation. It genuinely is a place where “everyone is welcome”. That’s what we say; that’s what we believe.

Yet even here there are boundaries; even here there are borders. This story should remind us that Jesus means to cross all the boundaries, ignore all the borders. This story should remind us that the embrace of Jesus will never stop at some invisible line and ours shouldn’t either. This story should remind us that in the heart of Jesus, there are no boundaries, there are no borders, there is only compassion for all the children of God.

Welcome Someone

This story should call us to go out on our journey like Jesus intent on breaking down the boundaries that separate and the borders that confine. It starts with simple acts. Find someone at the end of worship who is visiting some Sunday, go up to them and say, “Hi, I’m so glad you’re here today.” That’s a step over a boundary. Sit with someone you don’t know at coffee hour; that’s a step over a boundary. Invite someone to church with you. That’s a step over a tough boundary for many. There are so many acts, so many things we can do to walk with Jesus. It just takes the faith to follow and the courage to act.

Decision and Discipleship

It takes decision to be a disciple. We all are good at waiting, at finding reasons to delay. But sometimes the chance to cross a boundary only comes once. A friend posted something online that made me laugh this week. It was a picture of a cake, and it said, “How to keep a chocolate cake from drying out—eat it!” How do you fulfill Jesus mission of a wider embrace? Welcome someone.

I called this sermon “heaven’s door” today because I think we all stand at the door of heaven though we don’t always know it. I mean by heaven that place where we know ourselves loved by God, forgiven, embraced. We stand at the border, at heaven’s door. And Jesus says, “Knock and the door will open.”. Knock: come across the boundary. Bring someone along.


The Gift of Jesus

Click to hear the sermon being preached

A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY

by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor

20th Sunday After Pentecost • October 2, 2016

A group of thin, raggedy boys file into a room with tables, singing a song with the refrain “Food, glorious food”, lamenting their hunger. Instead of the wonderful things they imagine in the song, they are served a small bowl of gruel. An imposing man in a blue uniform with a wooden staff stands at the front commanding. After a few moments of frenzied eating, one boy gets up; one boy walks forward, obviously fearful, yet driven by his hunger to say, “Could I have some more please?” That scene from the musical, Oliver!, came to mind this week as I opened the scripture and read the disciples’ request of Jesus: “Increase our faith!”What would you ask from Jesus? What do you ask in your prayers? What do you want Jesus to do for you?

More Forgiveness

The disciples ask for more faith. Perhaps the reason is in the context. Jesus has been speaking about forgiveness. He lives in a culture where honor and shame are key values and there are rules for how you treat family. But in his teaching, a son who treats his father shamefully is received home and feasted, forgiven, the father simply saying, “This my son was dead and is alive again.” Just before the section we read today, he says,

If another disciple sins, you must rebuke the offender, and if there is repentance, you must forgive. 4And if the same person sins against you seven times a day, and turns back to you seven times and says, ‘I repent,’ you must forgive.”

Matthew’s version of a similar saying says,

Then Peter came and said to him, ‘Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?’ Jesus said to him, ‘Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.

Just as the elder brother reacts to the amazing forgiveness of the father in the story of the prodigal son, this seems to be more forgiveness than the disciples are prepared to imagine.

The Hard Part

Forgiveness is tough. Part of what helps us function in the world is our ability to remember and act from previous experiences. Touch a hot stove: you learn never to do it again. Pour out some milk and drink it and discover it’s soured and you learn to sniff the container next time. I’m sure you have your own list of life lessons, many earned at the cost of a scar. We bring the same process to our relationships: hurt me and I remember and do whatever it takes to avoid being hurt again. So the process goes on and on, in our individual lives, in the lives of communities.

Our scripture lessons, as you know, are drawn from the Revised Common Lectionary, chosen in some sense by the whole church for churches everywhere. I almost always follow these. But today’s Psalm was too terrible for us to share responsively. It is Psalm 137.

By the rivers of Babylon— there we sat down and there we wept when we remembered Zion.
On the willows there we hung up our harps.
For there our captors asked us for songs, and our tormentors asked for mirth, saying, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”
How could we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?

In 587 BCE, the Babylonians conquered Jerusalem, threw down its walls and temple, took its sacred things and thousands of captives, holding them in captivity in Babylon. In this sad song we hear, decades later, the pain and problem of the exiles. The Psalm ends with terrible words, indicting the Edomites, neighbors who joined the enemy:

Remember, O Lord, against the Edomites the day of Jerusalem’s fall, how they said, “Tear it down! Tear it down! Down to its foundations!”
O daughter Babylon, you devastator! Happy shall they be who pay you back what you have done to us!
Happy shall they be who take your little ones and dash them against the rock!

What anger, what pain, what hurt could call up such a terrible vision of violence?

Voting for Peace

Colombia has been the scene of a violent civil war for about 50 years. Think what that means: what were you doing in 1966? How old were you? Were you even born? Throughout that time, both guerrillas and government troops have made war on civilians. Yolanda Perea was 11 in 1997 what guerrillas attacked her home. A few days later, they came again and shot her mother. Now she’s facing a vote on a referendum designed to bring peace by providing amnesty. She is planning a “yes” vote for the referendum. She says,

“I don’t win anything if I continue to hate,” she said. “I have to vote yes because peace depends on each of us. There are more of us who are good, and we simply have to keep fighting for a quiet country for our children and grandchildren.”

What Jesus Says

This is what Jesus understands, this is what Jesus knows: we cannot enter the coming Kingdom of God chained to a past of division and hatred. Forgiveness unlocks us so we can follow him.

So Jesus responds to the disciples in two ways. First, he tells them to open their imagination. Even a little faith opens the door to a world of possibility. Only a little faith is needed to make amazing changes. The mulberry tree is famous for putting out tough roots that make it impossible to move. If all it takes is a tiny faith to create such change, what would it create in human life? Could it move them to the same forgiveness as the father in the story? Second, Jesus reminds them of their relationship. They are there as servants, disciples, followers of a Lord. Servants do not turn to the Lord for resources, the Lord gives them what they need and sends them out to do the job he sets. So also, followers of Jesus are not free to wander off on their own; they have a Lord to follow, a Master to serve.

What Jesus Gives

Most of all, Jesus gives them each other. We often become so focused on Jesus himself, we forget to see the people around him. There they are, people who would never have met without him: a tax collector, fishermen, and others as well, women, gentiles, all together, all brought together, at the table of the Lord. This fellowship is his gift to them.

The gift we mean to give is not always the one received. Maybe you remember a Christmas when you gave a little child a present, only to discover they were more enthralled with the box in which it was wrapped then the present you so carefully purchased.

O Henry’s story, The Gift of the Magi, imagines two young married lovers, so poor they cannot afford Christmas gifts for each other. She has one great thing she values: her long, beautiful hair; he prizes a gold watch, an inheritance from his father. But her love is so strong, she sells her hair to purchase a gold watch chain that will perfectly set off his watch. When he returns, she is excited to give him the gift but mystified by his behavior, because he seems to draw back. She’s afraid her shorn head makes him no longer want her. But then he gives her his present: a set of combs, meant to complement her hair; he explains, he pawned the watch in order to buy them. Both have given up what was most important, most valued, to give a gift to the other. The gifts cannot serve the purpose they meant but the larger gift, the gift of love, is imperishable.

Giving Us To Each Other

Jesus gives his disciples a precious gift, though not the one they ask. By teaching them to forgive, to reach over boundaries, to embrace each other, he creates a fellowship that endures. It lasts beyond his death and it is in that fellowship, he is recognized as risen. It lasts beyond that moment and becomes the life of all who follow him. Now we are a part of that fellowship.

Today is world communion Sunday. All over the world today, Christians, despite 500 years of division, remember today we are meant to forgive, to embrace each other, to live as one family of God. Like Yolanda Perea, we are reminded, “Peace depends on us.”

When we act like Jesus, we find the faith Jesus meant us to have. When We act like Jesus, forgiving and loving, we become the disciples he meant us to be. When we act like Jesus, we receive the gift he meant to give: practicing loving each other, we know ourselves loved by God.