Hope is inhabiting our longing

(Isaiah 64:1-9) By Rev. Rick King—The reading from Isaiah for this first Sunday of Advent does not have the tone we’re accustomed to, busy as we are with all there is to do in this season I call, “Hallowthankmas,” which runs roughly from Halloween, through Thanksgiving and on past Christmas, and stops sometime shortly after the New Year. There’s a lot in us that wants to look forward immediately to Christmas, accustomed as we are to constant stimulation. We’re used to the traditions that propel us from one holiday to the next in a season when there’s limited light, and it’s too cold most of the time to get anything done outside. Maybe we want to keep our Seasonal Affective Disorder at bay, or perhaps we associate the holidays with our families and the interpersonal struggles that come with being part of them.

This time of year, we may fall into using the season’s purposeful busyness and noisy cheer to fill the empty spaces we may feel, whether we’re single or married, solitary or with more people in our life than we can ever spend quality time with. Because the season is supposed to be bustling, busy, and full of life and good cheer.

Well, the Isaiah reading speaks to our situation, as it did to Israel’s. It’s different than many of the other Isaiah passages we read during Advent and Christmas. We’re more familiar with words like those in chapter 40, for example, which we know from Handel’s “Messiah”: “Comfort, comfort ye my people.” But our reading today is a prayer uttered to God out of pain and deep despair. And given what’s happening in our nation and the world this year, Isaiah’s words this morning seem particularly relevant because God seems absent, and silent. Like Israel, we would like God to return to a time when God acted in unmistakable ways—when God acted like GOD! Mountains quaking, and fire, so much so that all their enemies, the nations that wanted to take them out, would tremble.

But Israel had entered into a different period in its relationship with God, a time not just of silence, as though God were hiding. No, God’s relationship with people was evolving, becoming less overtly supernatural. The Hebrew Scriptures go from stories like the Burning Bush and the parting of the Red Sea, to God speaking to Elijah in a still, small voice, rather than in earthquake, wind, and fire. God was a lot more subtle now, and Israel’s prophets were there to remind people that God was still at work, just not in parting seas, but now instead in parting nations and families from one another in the form of military conquests and the Babylonian Exile. Prophets were there to tell them that God was working through historical events.

In this season we’re entering, this season of waiting, of preparation, of expectancy, of supposed HOPE—where do we look for hope? In a time when the people Jesus and the prophets said are dearest to God’s heart are being thrown under the bus by our own government, and the poor, women, children, immigrants and minorities are being trampled underfoot, how can we have hope? Doesn’t any message of hope, even during this season, ring hollow in the face of what’s happening?

But as the apostle Paul is so good to remind us in Romans 8:24, “Hope that is seen is not hope, for who hopes for what is seen?” The very essence of hope is that we have to look for it, reveal and call attention to what points to it, and yes, even LONG for it. This Advent, in this time and place, you and I can find, as Israel did, that longing for God in hope is itself part of God’s presence, part of how we know God is there. IF we learn to live in the times when God seems most absent, and silent, and to practice perseverance in our longing and our hope. We need to learn to inhabit our longing. For it is our longing that makes us reach out, thirsting, hungering for a deeper relationship than just “what God can do for me.” And all of a sudden, it also makes it impossible to spiritualize the message of the readings, impossible to individualize it. This is a longing for the salvation of all, not just an individual!

In Advent, we have an opportunity to intentionally focus on what it is we’re missing in our spiritual life, to reach out to God and to remove barriers to a deeper, more resilient, more indestructible relationship with God—to sharpen our prayers, and embolden our social action. In Advent, we get ready for a God who moved from Burning Bush, to sheer silence, to being the voice of prophets, to a face-to-face presence in Jesus. We celebrate a God who will stop at nothing to get through to us, who is not only there waiting for us, but deeply desires a relationship with us, who longs for the truth and reconciliation so badly needed in our world right now—and who promises to transform us through a love that will not let us go.

This is how we LIVE HOPE, in preparation for the coming of Jesus. Let’s not be afraid of God’s seeming absence. But on the other hand, if we feel God’s presence in all the Advent traditions and preparations for Christmas, so be it—let’s give thanks for it, and have it power our action on behalf of hope!

If you feel God absent, in the form of a longing, I invite you to welcome it; listen in the silence for what your heart might be telling you. And give thanks for that longing, because it drives us all to reach out to God even more, and to become part of the transforming work of Jesus in our world. Amen.

The fall of leaders and the lessons of shepherding

(Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24; Matthew 25:31-46) By Rev. Rick King—What a week! We’re witnessing members of Congress in both parties continue to wrestle with a tsunami of allegations of sexual harassment; the fall of Robert Mugabe, Zimbabwe’s only leader in its history; and the conviction of General Ratko Mladic for war crimes and genocide. And that was all before Thanksgiving; who knows what the next week will bring?

One of the things the Christian year and the readings associated with it can give us is a lens through which to see the world, that helps us connect the dots and make sense of events, understanding and even drawing lessons from history, so we can avoid repeating the worst, and at least make different mistakes. And as a result, you and I can come to know better how to live in the midst of it, as people of faith, and agents for change.

Today is the last day of the Christian year—you might call it New Year’s Eve in the church calendar. Because next Sunday, we begin the season of Advent, and with it, a new year in the liturgical cycle. Like any New Year’s Eve, it gives us the chance to look back and take stock of the good and the bad, the victories and defeats, and all that lies in between. This is Reign of Christ Sunday, also called Christ the King, and as you might expect, the question of “Who’s in charge?” in the world is central—and it feels even more urgent when something happens like the terrorist bombing of the Sufi mosque in Egypt—as in the sense of somebody walking into a room during a crisis and yelling, “Who’s in charge here?!”

The book of Ezekiel was trying to help Israel make sense of what had happened to them and why. They were exiled in Babylon, their leaders under house arrest in Jerusalem, which had been destroyed and occupied, their temple was in ruins; and the rest of the population had been scattered throughout the region, refugees invaded by a foreign aggressor and kicked out of what was supposedly their God-given Promised Land.

In the face of what had happened, how were they supposed to live now, as exiles in a foreign land and not knowing if or when they would ever return?
I might be stretching just a little bit, but many of you have intimated that you, too, feel a bit exiled right now in a nation you thought you knew, but which has come to seem like a foreign land.

The prophetic tradition, of which Ezekiel is a part, has a particular take on leadership: “Kings will let you down.” Israel wanted kings, eventually, as a sign to all the other nations that they had “arrived,” as a legitimate world power: Assyria, Babylon, Israel. “Get us a king,” they would say to God; and the prophets would say, “You don’t want a king.” And the history that runs through 1 and 2 Samuel and 1 and 2 Kings in the Old Testament is a compare-and-contrast piece proving, over and over, that it’s not having an earthly king alone that makes you a legitimate nation, but whether that king places God at the center, and love of God and neighbor are your goals.

The good news, says Ezekiel, is that God is through with irresponsible leaders, and is taking over. “I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep…I will seek the lost, and bring back the strayed, and will bind up the injured, and strengthen the weak—but the fat and the strong I will destroy. I will feed them with justice” (34:15-16).

Now, whether we can understand the recent fall of powerful leaders as God’s will or not, we can draw some lessons that help us live in the midst of it and not lose our perspective, and even be more effective agents for good in the lives of others, whether it’s our family members, or practicing just and kind covenant relations within our congregation, or advocating for systemic change in schools or the halls of government.

Ezekiel’s not the only place where God seems to take one look at what’s happening and says, “Okay, step aside; this is a mess; I’m taking over.” Jesus is doing it, too, in the vision of the Great Judgment, or what’s come to be called “the separation of the sheep and the goats.” And the message is simple, and one we often use as the measure of a faith, or a leader, or a government: “Whatever you did to the least of these my brothers and sisters, you did it to me.”

Right leadership leads as though it seeks God, seeks love in all things. M. Scott Peck tells a story called “The Rabbi’s Gift,” in his book, “The Different Drum,” that reminds us of the power of living this way:

The story concerns a monastery that had fallen upon hard times. It was once a great order, but because of persecution, all its branch houses were lost and there were only five monks left in the decaying house: the abbot and four others, all over seventy in age. Clearly it was a dying order.

In the deep woods surrounding the monastery there was a little hut that a rabbi occasionally used for a hermitage. The old monks had become a bit psychic, so they could always sense when the rabbi was in his hermitage. “The rabbi is in the woods, the rabbi is in the woods,” they would whisper. It occurred to the abbot that a visit to the rabbi might result in some advice to save his monastery.

The rabbi welcomed the abbot to his hut. But when the abbot explained his visit, the rabbi could only say, “I know how it is.”

“The spirit has gone out of the people. It is the same in my town. Almost no one comes to the synagogue anymore.” So, the old abbot and the old rabbi wept together. Then they read parts of the Torah and spoke of deep things. When the abbot had to leave, they embraced each other. “It has been wonderful that we should meet after all these years,” the abbot said, “but I have failed in my purpose for coming here. Is there nothing you can tell me that would help me save my dying order?”

“No, I am sorry,” the rabbi responded. “I have no advice to give. But, I can tell you that the Messiah is one of you.”

When the abbot returned to the monastery his fellow monks gathered around him to ask, “Well what did the rabbi say?”

“The rabbi said something very mysterious, something cryptic. He said that the Messiah is one of us. I don’t know what he meant.”

In the time that followed, the old monks pondered the rabbi’s words. The Messiah is one of us? Could he possibly have meant one of us monks? If so, which one? Do you suppose he meant the abbot? Yes, if he meant anyone, he probably meant Father Abbot. He has been our leader for more than a generation. On the other hand, he might have meant Brother Thomas. Certainly, Brother Thomas is a holy man. Everyone knows that Thomas is a man of light. Certainly, he could not have meant Brother Elred! Elred gets crotchety at times. But come to think of it, even though he is a thorn in people’s sides, when you look back on it, Elred is virtually always right. Often very right. Maybe the rabbi did mean Brother Elred. But surely not Brother Phillip. Phillip is so passive, a real nobody. But then, almost mysteriously, he has a gift for always being there when you need him. He just magically appears. Maybe Phillip is the Messiah.

Of course, the rabbi didn’t mean me. He couldn’t possibly have meant me. I’m just an ordinary person. Yet supposing he did? Suppose I am the Messiah? O God, not me. I couldn’t be that much for You, could I?

As they contemplated, the old monks began to treat each other with extraordinary respect on the chance that one among them might be the Messiah. And they began to treat themselves with extraordinary respect.

People still occasionally came to visit the monastery in its beautiful forest to picnic on its tiny lawn, to wander along some of its paths, even to meditate in the dilapidated chapel. As they did so, they sensed the aura of extraordinary respect that began to surround the five old monks and seemed to radiate out from them and permeate the atmosphere of the place. There was something strangely compelling about it. Hardly knowing why, they began to come back to the monastery to picnic, to play, to pray. They brought their friends to this special place. And their friends brought their friends.

Then some of the younger men who came to visit the monastery started to talk more and more with the old monks. After a while one asked if he could join them. Then another, and another. So, within a few years the monastery had once again become a thriving order and, thanks to the rabbi’s gift, a vibrant center of light and spirituality in the realm.

The Messiah is one of you.

Amen.

Allies don’t rest

(Zephaniah 1:7, 12-18; 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11) By Rev. Rick King—When we discussed these two texts on Tuesday morning in Bible study this week, we all pretty much agreed that we liked Paul’s words in the second one a LOT better than Zephaniah’s in the first. Zephaniah is harsh, his God is angry at something the people have done, and seems to have it in for them. It fits all the negative stereotypes of a vengeful God that turn people off on Christianity.

More than that, it overturns our expectations for the Sunday before Thanksgiving: In normal years, we expect—indeed, we may feel entitled to—an early celebration of Thanksgiving, where we can look back and count our blessings. And this year would seem to be a season in our church’s life that brings forth more praise and thanks than usual for all that God is doing. And in Zephaniah, it seems from the context that the people he’s speaking to were expecting something different from him, as well—a message congratulating them on how well they were doing as God’s people.

I think this is important, because today is not only the Sunday before Thanksgiving, but also our observance of Transgender Day of Remembrance, which was started in 1999 to remember and mourn the lives taken by transphobia-motivated violence. At this time of year, as the temperatures drop and the nights become long in the Northern Hemisphere, the seasons in the Christian Year invite us to turn inward and get more reflective. Two weeks ago, All Saints’ Day reminded us of the shortness of life and the faith legacy of people close to us who have died. In two more weeks, we will begin the season of Advent, when we are invited to prepare for the coming of Jesus by doing a spiritual housecleaning of sorts.

Don’t worry, it won’t all be introspective: We have Schubert’s Mass in C and “Just a Lowly Camel,” this year’s Christmas pageant, coming in the two Sundays after that! But as a church, we need to be able to look at hard things, and take a hard look at ourselves and the human condition, without shrinking. Beware of a church that can’t do this, in which everything needs to be sweetness and light all the time; beware a church that can’t do dark. Not everything is gloomy all the time, but not everything is all good.

So, to set the context a little bit more: Both of our readings deal with something called “the Day of the Lord,” a time of reckoning and taking stock, and if you and I were doing such an inventory of our lives, both Zephaniah and Paul would prompt us to ask how we’re doing as people of faith—both in the gratitude department, AND the “Allies” department. After all, things are different in the world than we would like them to be, and part of a prophet’s role is to name things for what they are, and that’s what Zephaniah is doing. He might be saying to us that today is a day of deep anguish at the culture of death that’s reemerging around the rights of transgender and gender non-conforming people.

In the gratitude department, you and I would be remiss if we didn’t recognize and give thanks for the progress that’s been made in LGBTQ rights in the last decade; yet we can’t rest on our laurels, or what Zephaniah calls “our dregs”—the long-ago-won victories of the past. In the “ally” column of our inventory, we need to address our vigilance, or we will witness the undoing of all those victories won since Stonewall. And as a cisgender, straight white male, I know I really have a lot of catching up to do on trans rights and what life is like for members of the trans community. And what I can do as an ally.

In our inventory, the gratitude and the vigilant ally columns are related: true gratitude and a focus on the progress we’ve made encourages us and spurs us to further action, because we know we can make a real difference. At the same time, if we ask regularly how we’re doing as vigilant allies, we can keep from putting on rose-colored glasses and have a more accurate grasp on reality, which provides its own kind of motivation to be agents of change in the lives of those who are in peril.

If we were to imagine what Zephaniah and Paul might be saying to us on this Trans Day of Remembrance, it might go something like, “Beware of treating ONA as though it’s a finish-line, because that’s an illusion: it’s really only a starting line, and you shouldn’t think, ‘Whew! Thank God we’re ONA!’ and slack off; that’s living in the dregs; and allies don’t rest when there’s justice to be done. Being ONA is a trust, and if we’re not moving forward, we’re moving backward.”

And yet, I get the feeling I’m reminding you of things you already know, and this is where Paul’s approach is helpful. He says in the opening words of our chapter, “You don’t need to have anyone write to you about times and seasons. For you are children of the day, and you already know what time it is.”

But we take time out on this day to focus on the fact that trans lives are still being lost—indeed, the rate of hate crimes and suicides based on gender identity and gender expression are on the rise again. Rights of trans members of our military are being rolled back, as are employment protections for LGBTQ folks in the workplace. Not to mention the continuing health care challenges trans folks face from a lack of understanding and acceptance of their distinctive set of medical needs.

So there’s a great deal yet to be done. Part of a prophet’s role is to interpret the signs of the times through the lens of God’s will, and if we take that look through clear eyes, Zephaniah’s view looks right on—pretty bleak, I admit, but right on. Zephaniah’s warning is also there in Paul’s words to the church at Thessalonica: Remember who you are, and how important this is. Don’t let the Day of the Lord come upon you like a thief in the night: Don’t underestimate how bad things are, and how much worse they can get if good people rest on their laurels of what they’ve done in the past, but do nothing in the present.

So on this day of mourning, let us remember the lives lost because of transphobia and neglect of the rights of these precious children of God. And the Day of the Lord is never a day of doom in the Bible; it’s always a day of turning and transformation, of our lives, and the lives of all. Amen.

Ultralight with Jesus

(Matthew 9:35-10:14) By Rev. Rick King—For our honeymoon in 1997, Linda and I backpacked six miles in on the Kekekabic Trail in the Boundary Waters. We had planned to go further, but found the perfect campsite and decided to make it our base camp for day hikes and hanging out. It was wonderful: simplicity, solitude, and the kind of silence that refreshes your spirit. Apart from two hikers going by once on the trail and a single canoer on Parent Lake, we saw nobody but each other the entire week—perfect for two newlyweds on a long-awaited honeymoon.

For our wedding, the only place we registered for any gifts was at Erehwon Mountain Outfitters, for camping equipment. On the Kek, we took conventional frame backpacks, down sleeping bags and Ensolite pads, a couple backpacking stoves and fuel, clothes and sundries, and a traditional, 2-person tent and ground cloth borrowed from a church member. Plus that delicious, dehydrated food you buy at places like REI.

Both of us are committed to simplicity, and we tried to pack sparingly, but our packs with food, water, and fuel ended up weighing 45-50 pounds each! Now, this would not have been a big deal in ordinary circumstances—both of us were in our early 30s and in really good shape—but for the fact that we lost our way on the opening section of the trail before it goes into the woods, where it’s easier to see the path—and fell off an old beaver dam into the water up to our chests! It was at that moment that the extra pack-weight became apparent!

Since then, Linda, especially, has discovered how packing less for a hike, beyond a couple of energy bars or an apple, and a water bottle, can make the hiking experience less arduous and closer to the land. And if you’re backpacking out west, you still need a way to bear-proof your campsite. But thanks to the advent of what’s called Ultralight Camping and Hiking, the focus is less on things and more on what we get outdoors to do!

Ultralight principles emphasize carrying the lightest and simplest gear safely possible for a given trip. The goal is to cover longer distances per day with less wear and tear on the body, and particularly over the course of a long through-hike like the Appalachian or Pacific Crest Trail, that can make a difference.

In our reading this morning from Matthew, Jesus instructs his disciples to travel light. Ultralight. He’s been preaching, teaching, healing, and casting out demons as a growing crowd follows him throughout the countryside. He now has so much to do that he’s reached the point where he’s calling others to be involved in this work, and he starts with the twelve disciples—essentially, putting an expedition together for a trek through the Galilean wilderness, if you will.

And so, as he sends them out, he not only gives them authority to do what he does and say what he says, he also gives them strict orders about where to go and what to take. And he says, essentially, “Love before luggage. You need to give people the opportunity to receive you and provide for you, because that will tell you if they’re receptive to what you’ve come to offer.” They’re on a mission, and the mission is what dictates what to take and what to leave home.

Ever notice how being preoccupied with an exhaustive packing list is driven by fear of not having something? The same is true of our lives, particularly as people of faith. It’s not that we’re supposed to deprive ourselves of what we need; but a preoccupation with things can close us off to other people, and the value of relationships, which are Jesus’ stock in trade, and therefore ours, as well.

Much of the recent literature on Ultralight camping and hiking is focused on being intentional and strategic in choosing gear. To illustrate the difference in Ultralight’s orientation toward stuff, compare the difference in what’s called “base pack weight”—the weight of the pack, plus the gear it’s carrying, excluding consumables such as food, water and fuel. Traditional backpacks can range anywhere from over 30 pounds to upwards of more than 60; Ultralight packs aim for below 20 to as low as 10 pounds! To do this, Ultralight says do things like the following:

Reduce each item’s weight, weigh everything, carry fewer items.
Share gear with others, swap gear for skills – use well what you have.
Rethink, reduce, repackage to take exactly what you need; no extra.
Pack items that will serve more than one purpose.

Jesus is very specific in telling his disciples what to take and not to take on their journey. Understand what a change this outfitting talk would’ve been for these fishermen, tax collectors, and others who had never had to even think of traveling light, much less do cold-calling on communities where they might be rejected outright, even attacked. But if they’d been weighed down by their luggage, even a quick escape from an inhospitable town would’ve been more difficult.

On our faith journey, we need to travel light, too. You may never hike or do backcountry camping, but you intuitively understand how things get in the way of living life faithfully, rather than making it possible. This is especially true in communities. Traveling “ultralight with Jesus” frees us up to focus on relationships, and sharing, and creativity—and it frees us from the tyranny of money and possessions, restoring right perspective on them as tools that God can use to heal the world and spread the liberating Good News through us.

Today is Pledge Sunday, when we recommit our life and our living, in specific ways, to what God will accomplish in the coming year as we live out our mission as “seekers and servants, growing in God’s transforming love.”

Amen.

“Blessed”

(Matthew 5:1-12) By Rev. Rick King–The last few years, the word “blessed (blest)” has come into wide use, not just among religious people, but among all types. A quarterback is said to be “blessed” with good receivers; someone says they’ve had a good year in their business or the stock market by saying, “We’ve been blessed;” and recently a female celebrity said she’d been “blessed” not to have experienced sexual harassment in the movie industry. Heck, there’s even a hashtag for #BLESSED.

But using “blessed” as a substitute for “lucky,” or “fortunate,” is rightly being questioned these days for being just a pious way of bragging about being privileged. (And my apologies to anybody who might be offended here this morning for using the word “blessed” indiscriminately—I was caught using it myself several months ago, in the South, of all places, and a member of the church brought me up short by calling it to my attention! Bless my heart.)

Blessing comes in all forms: When we feel gratitude for good things coming into our life, we may feel blessed, and BLESSed can describe an event such as Elliott’s baptism today, or in some parts of the Church, the Communion we will receive together shortly is referred to as “the Blessed Sacrament.”

But in the Beatitudes from Matthew’s gospel today, Jesus is using “BLESSed” to mean something different, something very appropriate to the Feast of All Saints, which we celebrate today. The Roman Catholic Church’s recent beatification of Archbishop Oscar Romero, and of a priest in Oklahoma named Fr. Stanley Rother—in which they were given the honorific title, “BLESSed”—illustrates that “BLESSed” has a meaning not just associated with good fortune. It’s more along the lines of the original, root meaning of blessed—“To hurt or wound; to mark with blood; also, to consecrate.” Those two men, who are now beatified and on the path to sainthood, died as martyrs, killed for their faithful witness.

The Feast of All Saints in the Christian calendar is a celebration not just of famous, holy people whose legacy seems out of reach for normal, everyday, ordinary people like you and me, but of normal, everyday, ordinary people we know who bring a sense of the holy into ordinary life. Their lives embody love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness, faithfulness, humility and self-control as the fruit of their life lived with God in community. Not that they’re perfect; self-acceptance is also one of their virtues.

You know people like this. In this church. Just take a moment to remember people who are no longer with us… And now, look around you. Ordinary saints. BLESSed saints. Salt of the earth saints. They look ordinary, and you would probably not find a big “S” on their chest underneath their shirt, if you asked them to show you.

You see, the Beatitudes are a description of what “BLESSed” looks like in real life, not as a prescription for how to claim notoriety or “blessings.” Because the Beatitudes describe a whole bunch of things that can go both ways, be seen as “lucky,” but also marked as something very different from lucky. Here we see the humble, earth-bound, brokenhearted, de-voiced, passionate and compassionate, nonviolent seekers of justice and reconciliation, who know deep-down from experience that only truth-telling and truth-hearing will set us free.

This is the Cloud of Witnesses, the Communion of Saints that we celebrate today. And because we have promised, as a congregation, to be Elliott’s “extended family,” we know that for him, as for us, growing up will mean facing situations where “blessed” looks very lucky indeed, and he will experience them as a “blessing,” as obvious good coming to him. But he will also face situations where blessing looks more like what Jesus teaches in the Beatitudes—the poverty of a spirit that knows it needs God; times of grief and mourning; discovering the way of nonviolence to match a hunger for justice; true-heartedness, mercy, and peace—a life that can look very unlucky, but which can hold in store the greatest blessings any of us can ever experience.

As a congregation of the “BLESSed” in Elliott’s life, we get to live a life that knows blessedness comes not from seeking everything from God, but from seeking God in everything. Amen.

Jesus said: Forgive 70×7 times?

(Romans 14: 1-12; Matthew 18:21-35) By Rev. Jacob Kanake –The subject of forgiveness is widely discussed inside and outside of the church. Today, forgiveness is even studied in the academic fields (masters and Ph.D. level). Psychologists, psychiatrists, social workers, and spiritual care professionals say the practice of forgiveness has many health and spiritual benefits. There is consensus across several academic disciplines that forgiveness, spoken about in religious realms for about 20 centuries, is now an accepted public subject.

In today’s readings, Jesus focuses on the subject of forgiveness at the individual level because individuals have the power to influence what happens around them; individuals can choose to forgive. This personal forgiveness has real impact on the people who are the offended.

What is Forgiveness? Forgiveness is a new covenant that was inaugurated by Jesus Christ (Mark 2:5-11), which embodies God’s promise to his people, “I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more” (Jeremiah 31:34). Before the birth of John the Baptist and Jesus, forgiveness was implicit. That is, until Christ came to fulfil it.

When forgiveness happens, the offended person takes an action and lives as if the offense never happened. The forgiveness is best expressed if the offender asks the offended to forgive. The offended may forgive out of compassion and in response to Christ (Ephesian 4:32). In the process of forgiving, the offended person may rebuke the offender by expressing anger, pain, and hurt instead of continuing to keep grudges toward the offender. Forgiving does not mean condoning the offense or allowing the offender to continue hurting the victim. Last week, we learned the process of reconciliation when an offense is done. Today, the victim is empowered to be assertive on expressing the pain and willingness to forgive.

There are many reasons why forgiveness is necessary. One, the offended person forgives to be free of resentment and hostility. In this case, the offended person forgives the person who offended them for self-benefit and not necessarily for the offender’s benefit. Secondly, the forgiving person feels positive and works to reduce negative feelings by setting up a welcoming tone to the offender, despite the offense. And third, in a close relationship or with acquaintances, the forgiving person forgives with the hope that the offender is willing to restore the lost relationship and start a new chapter. Fourth, both the offender and the offended are willing to settle the conflict peacefully for the sake of their life or those who depend on them.

When forgiveness takes place, the issue of power and control may be addressed (because in the church, a master and slave mentality ought not to exist). The offended person has the option to continue or terminate the relationship with the offender. When Jesus says forgiveness has no limits, he does not mean that people allow themselves to continue being offended or victimized intentionally. Forgiving has a limit when an individual’s life is in danger. Forgiveness should occur without causing physical, emotional or spiritual injury to the offended or the offender. When one is offended, ghastly resentment builds up quickly and retaliation can seem like the only remedy; sometimes the offended person wants revenge or to fight back. I do not know about you, but when I am offended, often negative thoughts build very fast and cloud my normal reasoning. Scientists tells me it is because of the adrenaline rush—a sudden increase of the stress hormone secreted from the adrenal glands that prepares me to fight or flight. When things settle down, the fat from cortisol is stored back into the waistline. Charlette’s research shows that unforgiving people have large fat mass on their waistline.

Forgiving is a Christian duty: Despite our physiological ineffectiveness, Christ advises that vengeance is not ours; it belongs to God (Deuteronomu 32:34; Romans 12:19), because God is the judge, not ourselves. God will take care of those who hurt others because God knows their motive and can avenge at an opportune time. Jesus calls us to maintain peace with others and ourselves. Jesus uses the parable of the servant/slave and master to illustrate this point. During the time of Jesus, the ancient world was influenced by the Greek culture that allowed slaves to own property. In most cases, masters entrusted their slaves to manage their properties and to keep their accounts. The slaves were free to invest their money by lending to other people like their masters. Therefore, Jesus tells of a slave whose master forgave a debt; however, this slave did not in return forgive the debt of his own debtor, but forced the debtor and his family into prison instead. The master of the mean slave decided that the mean slave did not practice forgiveness and therefore should also pay back the debt that the master had forgiven.

Jesus used this parable to teach a necessity of forgiving injuries caused to us without counting the number of offenses!

This parable is also a reminder of the Lord’s Prayer that we say every Sunday and during our private prayers. Forgiving others is not a simple task. Those who attend Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) know that to stop drinking or taking drugs, they need daily practice of the serenity prayer, the principles of the AA book, regular attendance at the AA meetings, and a sponsor.

The same practice is needed for Christians: we ought to practice forgiveness daily and remind ourselves of the meaning of the Lord’s Prayer, “forgive us as we forgive those who wrong us.” Genuine Christians must constantly remember God guides our thoughts and actions. We should not take on God’s responsibility for judging others, including any offender.

Are we stupid and unreasonable if we allow God to fight our battles? Does being patient with those who offend us make us lesser human beings?

I read many forgiveness stories this week and some people’s comment caught my attention. One person said, “I cannot forgive. I am not God; if anyone hurts me, I will revenge very fast. I do not like religion, they want me to remain in a hurting relationship.” Another said, “I cannot stand those who hurt others.” Listening to these voices makes one wonder what God feels with human provocations. While I’ve wanted to play God on some provocations, the reading reminded me that God is merciful and forgives out of compassion. God also does not keep an account of human offenses/sins, which is why Jesus asks humans to forgive without limits—70 x 7 times.

St. Matthew states forgiveness should be without limit whether the offender asks for it or not. St. Luke goes a little further to maintain that an offender should be rebuked and forgiven if the offender asks for forgiveness (Luke 17:3-4). Though it is necessary to rebuke and hold offenders accountable for their offense, we also realize that Jesus paid the human debts on the cross, making us free to have fellowship with God like children have fellowship with their parents. We can hold offenders accountable and not keep account of offenses, but forgive others without limit instead.

What can we forgive? Forgiveness is a gift from God; it is offered to all who believe in God by repenting all offenses/sins and trusting God through Christ (Acts 20:21). For those who believe in God, there is no limit of offenses that one can forgive including heinous offenses (Matthew 18:27). Christian ethics demand that forgiveness be done without fines. God through Christ encourages us to offer unconditional forgiveness to those who offend us (Matthew 18:35). However, if the forgiven offender wants to pay back what was taken, like property or money, he/she should be allowed to return it. For example, Zacchaeus, a tax collector at Jericho, returned the money he had taken illegally from taxpayers (Luke 19:1-10).

The secular justice demands that those who commit offenses be punished, and that is where justice and Godly forgiveness clash. The law of the land/justice may not advocate forgiving under all circumstances like religion does. But I know that restitution, a sincere apology, or a punishment imposed by the law can sometimes make it easier for an offender to grant forgiveness. When the law of the land is applied fairly, it may benefit both the offender and the offended. When we forgive those who offend us, do we stop the law of the land from doing its justice?

What happens if we do not forgive: The unforgiving person appears stressful and unpleasant; he appears and feels angry, sad, anxious, and less in control. Refer to the forgiven slave in Matthew 18:28-31: The behavior of this slave correlates with Charlotte’s research on unforgiving people. When he asked unforgiving people to try to empathize with their offenders or to imagine forgiving them, their physical arousal went downward. The same study shows that people with unforgiven grudges have many symptoms of illness, including high blood pressure, high heart rate, and facial muscle tension. When you live around unforgiving people, you will experience their reactions and feel uncomfortable and often you get stressed out.

It is better to forgive for our own good health than live with resentment and hostility.
Forgiving people have high self-esteem, better moods, and happier relationships. The Bible shows that most forgiving people have positive emotions toward their offenders; these people experience changes in physiology, including lowered blood pressure. A person who forgives replaces the feelings of revenge with a caring altitude and is driven to reconcile with the offender. Those who experience positive emotions toward their offenders are more likely to forgive them.

Forgiving means continuing to work for the good of the other without malice or revenge, despite the past incident that affected you. This sends a message to the offender and to those around the offended that love is stronger than fear and hate. Working lovingly does not mean one has forgotten the offenses, but one continues loving despite the negative thoughts that remind them of the past abhorrent deeds.

When people live together, mistakes and conflicts are inevitable. It is the same as when coins are in a pocket; they rub against each other and make noise. Some people have personalities (sharp corners) that irritate those who interact with them. If the theology of forgiveness has proved anything, it is that these irritations do not lead to condemning us into a life of hurts and aggression (Ephesians 4:27).

I know forgiveness is real but not easy. The Kenyan nation did it; they forgive their colonizers. The British colonized Kenya from 1894 to 1963, denying the local people a voice in everything: politics, religion, and economy. Kenyans fought for their freedom (thousands of people died) and won independence in 1963. The first Kenyan president asked the Kenyans to forgive the Britons and not to seek revenge by killing them or taking the British property by force. The nation was receptive and the Britons who choose to stay after independence lived in peace. The Britons who wanted to leave sold their property and left. That is what forgiveness means. Forgiveness is for the brave, not the weak. It takes God’s grace to forgive and to keep forgiving when past negative emotions may come back and bring one down emotionally. Be brave!

Amen.

Healing and reconciliation

(Romans 13: 8-14; Matthew 18:15-20) By Rev Jacob Kanake–

The Corn Story

Two members of my previous congregation who lived across the road from each other picked a fight over a chicken’s destruction of a corn crop. The chicken of neighbor A wandered in the field of neighbor B. She called neighbor A to ask her to restrain her chicken from destroying her corn crops. Neighbor B did not act. Neighbor A was annoyed and called aloud to her neighbor and a fight started. They argued for a long time until neighbor B was visibly agitated, and when she was crossing the road to grab neighbor A by the neck, an oncoming car came and killed her instantly. The story of grief reached my office and upon investigation, both neighbors had other grudges that were triggered by the chicken incident. Neighbor B died without a possibility of being reconciled to the surviving neighbor A. This case is a reminder that reconciliation should not be delayed. When Christians in the same congregation disagree, they can easily affect others.

Introduction

In previous weeks, we encountered Jesus revealing his identity; Jesus laying the foundation of his ministry, calling disciples and giving them lessons on doing ministry; and the disciples in the field doing the ministry. In Chapter 18, Jesus turns to teaching his disciples and all the future believers how to respond to personal injury caused by others. When the disciples heard Jesus was about to die (Matthew 16:21), they began to be caught in power struggles. Jesus knew a disagreement was about to occur amongst the disciples and they needed to know how to deal with it. Though there was an old Jewish way of dealing with disagreements, a new way, a global way was deemed necessary.

The whole of Matthew 18 is devoted to innovative ways of solving disagreements among the believers in petty cases, business cases, political issues, economic cases, divorce, and death cases. In every case, Jesus emphasizes that those in disagreements should exercise faith through love. Sometimes hard love! In today’s passage, Jesus moves on to teach the disciples/believers how to deal with disagreements and warns of the evils of power and pride (verses 1-4); Jesus commends the benefit of practicing humility.

The procedure Jesus lays down for dealing with disagreements (and offenses) is new; it cannot be compared with Jewish, American or African methods of dealing with disagreements. For instance, in the Jewish scripture, when people disagreed with the will of God they would die. When Korach disagreed with Moses (Numbers 16) the earth opened and he was swallowed with his assembly. The Jewish people of Moses’ time did not tolerate anyone who disagreed with what they perceived as God’s directives. With time, though, Jewish people moved from a death sentence to paying a fine. When disagreements/sins occurred, the offender would be pardoned after paying a fine (Leviticus 16:8-11). And during the intertestamental period (600 BCE to first century AD), the Jewish people amassed 613 laws and breaking any of them (sinning) attracted various consequences (death in heaven, lashes, and minor punishments). An offender had seven pardons for unintentional offenses; more than seven offenses/disagreements were not tolerated (Matthew 18:21). Jesus summarized all these Jewish laws into two: Love God and love your neighbor as yourself (Romans 13:8-10).

Therefore, Jesus wanted to set a new procedure that a loving believer should tolerate offenses seventy times seven (77×7) times in a lifetime. Jesus is building a new case for the disciples and all believers to handle offenses or disagreements. Whereas the Jewish people at first killed the offender, they later made laws to isolate the offender by making an offender an outcast. Jesus teaches in the new method that the offender also needs pastoral attention. The new process should be mutual, not one-sided—protecting the offender only but extending mercy to both the offender and the offended!

When disciples disagreed among themselves on who was closer to Jesus than others, the person who might inherit Jesus’ authority and leadership after his death, Peter courageously went and posed the question to Jesus, “Who is greater among us?” Peter was indirectly asking Jesus, “Who is your favorite? Who are you grooming for leadership among us?” Perhaps the disciples wanted to know if Jesus wanted their opinion. Jesus deflects the question on leadership and power and directs his answer toward resolution of disagreements. Jesus told them whoever humbles himself like a child will inherit the kingdom of heaven. But wait a minute, they are asking about earthly life and he is talking about heavenly life! How can one balance both life spheres: living faithfully and graciously on earth and finally living a more full life in heaven? How can one hold both lives in balance, because human tendencies are toward disagreements due to a desire to control and to own others?

Jesus goes further to instruct the disciples to refrain from offending others, especially the weak, the minority and the marginalized (verses 6-7). Jesus asks the disciples to be self-controlled when dealing with self-offenses and self—wrongs to be forgiven (verses 8-9). Furthermore, Jesus taught disciples/believers about practicing heart-felt love toward all believers and all people, including “these little ones” (verses 10-14) and not hurting them with evil plans.

Jesus CAUTIONED the disciples/believers against fighting for power, fame and recognition and instead Jesus implores them to command humility, to commend humility for themselves and for other people. From generation to generation, humility is a lesson hardly learned, yet it is the most vital lesson needed in life. Jesus used children to explain that humility enables the learner to have a new frame of mind and new insights for self and for benefit of others in Christ’s mission. Humility endows those lost in pride and fame to repent/heal, to modify and to reform their lives when they get filled with grace and a sense of caring for the weak. They soak in a deep need for mutual fellowship and they fully come back into themselves. One example of a reformed life is Saul of Tarsus, who became St. Paul; God facilitated his ministry and he became an influential spiritual teacher.

According to Jesus, one way of practicing humility is caring for all believers irrespective of their status. Jesus insists that those among us unable to provide for themselves need greater attention. The homeless, the disabled, the elderly and foreigners are part of what today can be referred as the “little ones.” The people who stand for equality, kindness and love for all get God’s blessings because “[their] father in heaven”—God—is glad of what they have done.

The above qualities and actions should guide the believers as they seek to restore themselves and others back to fellowship. Those to be restored may have withdrawn themselves from the fellowship or certain circumstances made them withdraw. The responsibility of searching for those who withdraw is placed on the community of faith. During the restoration aspect, the restorer ought to be aware not to allow their impulse to lead them into judging others. Instead of blaming and accusing the lost, they should exercise brotherly correction, necessary as it will be (Matthew18:15-20).

In this passage Christ cautions disciples/believers not to be stumbling blocks to those willing to remain in the fellowship. And in this reading, Christ advises the believers who are clothed with humility and a buffer of grace to confront those who offend them with the powerful desire for reconciliation and not being a stumbling block to them.

Jesus lays down a unique way of dealing with grave issues among the believers. Jesus is aware of secular methods (courts of law) of dealing with offenses, but instead of using the legal apparatus that most church discipline uses, Christ encourages mutual fellowship and pastoral nature where there are disagreements. If churches and individual Christians practice Christ’s teaching, they would be warned of turning to the secular legal apparatus as a means of getting rid of a disagreement or one causing it. Our Falcon Heights church bylaws make it clear that members hold one another in covenant and God’s spirit teaches each member the best way to interpret scripture for Christian growth. Ours is a covenant that we will walk and grow and get transformed together in Christian love. We anticipate each of us listens to God’s spirit for advice. When disagreements occur, we are covenanted to correct each other on time by exercising hard love.

We have many reconciliation methods today, including the secular court mediators or specialized therapists, according to our needs. These methods can be expensive to access and only informed people know where to get the services. We are aware of murder cases where couples, siblings or children and neighbors gun each other down instead of seeking mediation from their church, a court or a therapist. I know the majority of Christians also seek out their pastors or fellowship members to reconcile them when they disagree. I would encourage the Jesus way of mediation and reconciliation; it is easy to access and use either individually or from other believers. I encourage believers to trust other believers and seek their assistance with marital issues, business issues, and personal life crises that lead to self-denial of one’s situation. Welcome to my office and let us pray and evaluate your situation and agree how to solve the situation. I have relied on others and have given time to others in need of individual or family reconciliation.

A Christian believer who is offended even at home or at work is advised not to threaten another person with legal consequences unless one’s pastoral ways of solving the problem are gravely exhausted. When mutual humility is in practice, a desire to control others is minimized and unlimited forgiveness becomes the ideal way of love.

When dealing with disagreements, the question of power should be put at the center of the discussion of “who is greater.” Jesus says both the offender and the offended and the reconcilers should exercise humility in dealing with any disagreement/offense. That way, a disagreement is isolated from both the offender and the offended and handled as an external force that need to be corrected. When disagreements are solved the Christian way, God assures the two believers in agreement to pray and their prayers will be answered. When they also gather in fellowship, Jesus is there among them.

Amen.

Living in God’s transforming love

(Romans 12:9-21) By Rev. Jacob Kanake — Last week we encountered Jesus when he was on vacation with his disciples. He was teaching them how to transform their faith. The transformed faith renews the mind and wills good for everyone. Unless one has faith that transforms and renews the mind, unconditional love (topic of today’s sermon) cannot be achieved; it is extremely hard to love without faith that transforms and renews the mind. A renewed mind can put unconditional love into action for the individual and for the family of God. Paul is willing to educate Christians on how to develop the mind of Christ in their lives and be Christ-like, to “be good, perfect and acceptable.” Unconditional love hates evil and loves doing good, and it wills good for everyone and cultivates a conducive environment where good can thrive. Unconditional love does not sugarcoat evil nor pretend terrible things do not happen, but unconditional love has its own way of overcoming the evil. Unconditional love is one aspect of love (Matthew 22:40).

What is love? Love is the powerful emotions that human beings experience toward God, themselves, other people and other things. It is hard to define love because different people experience and express love differently. Each tribe defines and express love differently. The Greeks defined love in diverse ways: There is love of God (Agape); the love among siblings (Storge); the love between long-married couples (Pragma); the love for self (Philautia); romantic love (Eros); the love (Philia) for other people; and unconditional love (Agape). Today’s world is influenced by the Greeks’ way of defining love. The ancient Greeks also cautioned that love was a mental illness, and anyone who overexpressed love was feared to be “lovesick.” The modern society also tends to believe love is a disease and expresses that “love is blind, love is stupidity,” meaning one should be careful in expressing love. Expressed well, love makes people brave and do bold things. When love is overexpressed, it can make people do stupid things. So, should we condition love to adhere to certain regulations so love can remain valid?

I preached on unconditional love before, and other preachers have preached on the same topic. So, why should I repeat it again? I think reminding ourselves of the topic of unconditional love during this time of racial hatred, Hurricane Harvey and divisive politics is appropriate. We continue to remind ourselves of unconditional love—Christian love, because love never lasts forever unless those who believe in it continue to understand how it works. Whereas un-Christian love seeks rewards, appreciation, payback—kickbacks, or bigger favors like a bank account owner expects interest from his bank or the stock market—Paul says Christian love does not.

Between 56 and 58 A.D., Paul wrote to the Roman Christians, made up of five households (16:5,10,11,14,15), on the dangers of not loving unconditionally. Paul had become aware of the factions in the church at Corinth in Greece. Paul wanted Roman Christians to be careful of divisions and love each other. Paul directed his message at individual Christians (Roman 1:17, God’s beloved in Rome). Like many American churches, the Roman Christians were from diverse origins (Jewish Christians, Gentiles and Africans). Paul was instructing them in faith, seeking their prayers and introducing Aquila and Priscilla, Christian missionaries who were visiting Rome. Paul is also aware most of the Jewish Christians at Rome were more concerned with Jewish nationalistic religion rather than being a global church. Paul’s interest is to promote unity in the body of Christ and not promote certain cultural practices (3:26, 29-30). Paul never denied his Jewish identity yet he knew Christ was for all people (1:16; 2:9-10, 3:1-2, 9-11; 11:25).

The message of Paul is appealing to us today as we live in a religious and political environment that can easily divide people by cultivating fear and impressing on people to fight for their identity. Some of the Roman Christians were jealous; others would openly be showing self-pride; the Jewish Christians thought they were better than the Gentile Christians. And the Africans, the Jews and the Gentiles despised each other for their political adherence. The Roman Christians misused their Christian freedom and they were unable to love or express love to one another. Much of their problem was lack of skills in dealing with the varied needs of a cosmopolitan life and congregation (Gentiles, Jews, and Africans). The congregation needed to learn a unique way of expressing their faith in love rather than bragging, thriving on hate and dividing into factions. In this reading Paul offers and explains ways to practice unconditional love:

Respectful love (9-12) is being able to stay in fellowship with others without bragging or being under the pretext of being superior to others. Many of us have tried to practice this Christian skill by cultivating inner awareness of who we are and how we should respond to others. The more we know about ourselves, we become aware of our weakness and avoid affecting others to hide our weakness. Being aware of ourselves helps us to like who we are and who we are in the process of becoming. This is the only way one can open to the needs of others easily and jump in to help others, remembering the help one received from others.

Caring love (13): Paul emphasizes that a true Christian is the one who cares for others. I have witnessed the many caring events we do here, including making sandwiches for the homeless and visiting those in hospitals, rehab or homes for the elderly. We have our cart full of donations every other week and we pray for the sick. I feel the Lord had enabled us to do that and we can do much more.

Sympathetic love (16): Sometimes sympathy is best understood when an individual explains his actions toward others. I have on a number of occasions prayed and walked with those in need of either moral, financial, spiritual or emotional support. Often, I try “to be with” people in their issues when they open and seek for my support. I have felt compassion toward those with problems and offered my support even without being asked. I join those who invite me to rejoice with them upon healing, reviving a marriage, successful graduation or successful business. Yesterday I received an email from a friend in Norway who has been in my prayers; he was struggling financially. He said, “I want to thank you for praying and encouraging me when I was financially unable to meet my needs. I want to report things have been going well and I am stable financially.” In cases like that it is easy to say, “Praise the Lord!” Being with those with problems and rejoicing with those who rejoice is part of Christian duty. I am aware most of us are sympathetic to others and we can continue to do more …

Uniting love (16): Paul encourages Christians to stay in peace with others where possible. This is the tricky part because a Christian can easily get killed if one practices this Christian skill without reasoning. Trying to be in peace “where possible” does not mean denying the disagreements and insisting that peace must prevail. I think it means being aware of the disagreement and trying to agree in affection, sometime enduring hardship. And when peace is not a solution to the problem, one ought to withdraw and acknowledge the failure and move on.

Engaging love (17-21) is expressing the love that does not hurt others and always wishing others good in their endeavors. Paul would love his enemy and wish them the good rather than the worst; he would feed the enemy and welcome him. If another human affects Paul, he would not seek revenge but leave it to the Lord. Most Christians have practiced this virtue with good outcomes. For me, this is not an easy virtue because I cannot control other people’s reactions. However, it is an easy virtue as far as I can control my own reactions to any situation. Being one to agitate for peace where possible makes one blameless by the witnesses; they can say that lack of peace was not your fault if the situation spirals out control. Paul insists that Christians are called to cultivate peace in their lives and in the lives of those around them. Furthermore, Paul is asking Christians (in public rallies? moral issues?) to watch out for onlookers; they can interpret their behavior and actions.

Apostle Paul expands Jesus’ teaching on unconditional love and affirms that a Christian believer must practice Christian love while in the fellowship of other believers and at an individual level. Any Christian fellowship or individual faith devoid of practical love is difficulty to “grow.” Although it is difficult, I submit that unconditional love ought to be practiced by all believers across every generation, and every race and human class and status.

Paul emphasized that unconditional love can heal and cure the individual, the family and the church divisions (4:15; 15:1-2, 7). Unconditional love can extend beyond personal lines and help believers feel like a part of each other and become each other’s keeper. The teaching of Paul is to love others unconditionally and without reservations (Galatians 5:6). The loving Christian can express human virtues based on affection, kindness and compassion. This is the pure love arising from individual’s state of being and blesses those encountered. Christian love is unconditional love toward God, self and other people or things. A Christian can balance personal happiness with others happiness and make both the receiver and the giver better. Amen.

A story of unconditional love

At 12 years old, I was helping my grandmother in her garden, weeding. My grandmother’s garden was next to Janet (not real name), her friend. At lunch, we ate together and both ladies shared their life stories. Janet almost always talked about her grandchild, whom I will call David (not his real name). Janet’s son had married twice. David was the son of the first wife; she divorced and left David in the care of the second wife. The second wife was not caring. Janet took in David and she said it was hard to care for David because of her age; Janet was older than my grandmother. Whenever David’s name was brought up at lunch time, I curiously listened without contributing or appearing like I was hearing, fearing to be told “Keep quiet! I am talking,” the often-African way of telling the children this is adult conversation.

I felt compelled by David’s story. I wanted to meet him and welcome him at our home. When Janet died, David’s story ended abruptly. I kept thinking about him and I met him after five years at his high festival. David had managed to graduate from middle school and went to a local high school. I asked if I could help him to get to a better school, he said his Dad was not good at paying school fees. I said I will talk to him. He agreed. I talked to his Dad and he agreed to transfer David to a school near my school. His Dad entrusted me with David’s school fees every semester.

When David agreed to stay at our home, I talked to my parents of David’s situation and they agreed for him to stay at our home. My Dad helped to get an extra bed for him. David was considered as one of us, receiving all the privileges of a biological child. David stayed with us for four years. Due to his background David was not an excellent farm hand and sometimes he would sneak out and leave me doing family chores. But there was no time he was punished or denied privileges.

He later became a Christian and a good youth leader. I recommended him to be appointed to lead young people to the world conference in the U.S. in the 1980s. David also studied in the U.S. and later joined politics. I hoped to keep the relationship but he chose a different path and agreed to end our relationship. He is still in politics.

During our time together, my faith did not let me discriminate against him or listen to what other people were saying to my parents. My parents were respectful of him and my Christian values. I did not welcome David into my life with the intention to impress anyone. I never told him the stories I heard from his grandmother, Janet. I knew he would feel embarrassed and perhaps refuse the help I was offering. This was an expression of unconditional love. I am glad my parents did not object to it. I never ever felt David owed me anything. Unconditional love does not count on being repaid; it is authentic love.

I have many other stories of love. I have given love and I never been tired of helping. When I offer unconditional love and I am let down or ignored I move on. I am never slothful; my desire to help boils over and is ever ready to help until the one receiving help again expresses distaste for it or ignores it. When I sense I am offering my help to a bad person, I do it out of submission to the Lord. I feel obligated to serve the Lord, not the mean-spirited person! I have high endurance when tested; I do not give up easily, lest it be God searching my heart during a storm. I become steadfast in prayer and continue to seek the hand of the Lord.

Many of us have expressed unconditional love to others in many ways. May we continue to practice our Christian faith by helping others irrespective of their race, political affiliations, class and status.

Transformed faith

By Rev. Jacob Kanake — We have been exploring our call to Christ’s ministry. Specifically, last week we found Jesus went outside Israel’s territory and healed the daughter of a Canaanite woman, a Gentile. The exchange between Jesus, the disciples and the woman was perhaps unfair, although she did not stop asking for healing of her daughter.

Let us revisit the conversation between Jesus and the Canaanite woman for a little while. Using modern language, I can say the Canaanite woman was harassed and mocked! Today the woman would have accused Jesus and his disciples for being sexist, racists and intolerable males with the intention of dominating a woman. But, this woman’s patience and her power of persuasion should not be underrated.

The Canaanite woman being called a dog did not irritate or annoy her; if it did, she did not show it. Jesus used the phrase “throw food to the dog”; taken negatively it would mean the Canaanite woman is a person of inferior race, a person of low standing in society, hence unworthy of being helped! The Jews boasted of being the chosen ones and the Canaanites knew themselves as the owners of the land where the Jews lived. Most theologians and myself agree that Jesus used the phrase not to demean the woman, but as a metaphor to explain the priority of his ministry and to teach the disciples of his messiahship. The Greek term Jesus used kunarion means a small dog or a pet dog. Jesus did not use the Greek term kuon used to refer to unspiritual people or to an ‘unclean’ animal. For Jesus, failing to stick with his call to save Israelites first is the same as taking children’s food and giving it to a pet.

The woman understood Jesus’ use of the Greek term—a metaphor because she was a Greek and welcomed the metaphor and entertained the thought of converting to Christianity. She was convinced Jesus was the long-awaited messiah of the Israelites; she affirmed Jesus’ Messiahship, saying, “You are the son of God, the highest.”

Today’s reading in Matthew describes Jesus and his disciples being at a city near where he healed the daughter of the Canaanite woman. The Caesarea-Philippi city is 25-30 miles on the northeast of the sea of Galilee. Mount Hermon, where the local tribes worshipped traditional gods, and the babbling brook, the source of the River Jordan, are both in this city. My friend who visited the area in 1997 found the location has been turned into a public park, a “getaway” place for many people today.

Jesus may have chosen to rest in this city because of its location. Being a northern city with most non-Jews, it had would not have many Jews who would be attracted to His presence.

This city was built by Herod the Great in honor of Emperor Caesar and the Roman temple was there for worshipping the emperor. The Greeks had a great temple for the Greek god Pan and many traditional temples were built there. The mixture of religious worshippers in this city would inform the ministry of Jesus.

Therefore, Jesus was exposing his disciples to multi-religious beliefs and a multiethnic city because he wanted them to realize the type of world where they were called to preach; they were called to deal with varied belief systems, cultural practices and mixed political ideologies. The disciples encountered a context like ours. Today we live in a multi-cultural-religious society with many political ideologies. How are we doing our ministry?

To deal with this context disciples must identify themselves and their mission; they must not act or work for Jesus until they have known him and confessed. It was time to learn and to make their inner confession, or they’d get consumed by many gods, mixed tribes and global problems.

While Jesus was waiting for the disciples to account for their faith, he posed a general question: “Who do people say I am?” Let us reflect on this question for a moment: the question is inquiring about public thought about Jesus. He is interested in knowing why the big crowds follow him and what was their reflection of him and his ministry. This public question ought to be asked in every generation.

The disciples were quick to say what they heard from people. They said, “Some say you are a prophet, you are John the Baptist, Jeremiah, or Elijah.” Why did people equate Jesus with John the Baptist, Jeremiah, Elijah or one of the prophets?

For our understanding and clarity let us review Jeremiah: He was a prophet and priest whose ministry lasted for 40 years. Jeremiah’s personal life (character and personality) and prophetic ministry struggles are clearly written in the Bible more than any other prophet. Jeremiah confronted the people (Jews and their leaders) for their apostasy (greed, corruption, pride, jealousy). They nicknamed him “the prophet of doom” and he attracted few friends (Jer. 26:24). Jeremiah was fearless and courageous (Jer. 15:20) and God affirmed his work (Jer. 17:19-20); he kept the Jewish people on their toes. He did not waver in expressing his feelings and the message of God (Jer. 12:1; 1:17) until his death. When the Christian faith is under threat, the book of Jeremiah is a must-read! The faithful Christians and most of the courageous leaders I know read the book of Jeremiah.

Why did Jesus pose both the general and individual questions?

I think Jesus knew his death was less than a year away and he wanted to prepare his disciples for the work ahead after his death. Also, Jesus wanted the Jewish people to know that he was the Messiah they waited for, although he was a different kind of a Messiah—a spiritual yet indirectly political messiah.

After the disciples answered the general question, Jesus looked at them directly and posed the second question that was demanding yet reassuring, blunt yet warm; in a confrontational yet inviting tone He asked, “Who do you say I am?” The question is “Not who do you think I am” or “Who am I?” The question is: “Whom do you say I am?” The question needs to be explained, “If you say I am [x] then explain why I am [x].” A question like this is difficult and hard to answer quickly. However, Peter did not miss a breath, saying, “You are the son of God.” The answer Peter gave appears to be the second answer given to describe Jesus’ identity. The first revelation came from the Canaanite woman, a non-Jew who confessed Jesus is messiah!

Why was this question so hard to answer?

In my humble opinion, there was no one else capable of answering this question than his disciples! The disciples were with Jesus from the time he called them. They left their professions and followed him to be “fishers of men [humanity].” The disciples heard him laying down the scheme for his ministry using the proverbs, doing miracles and healing diseases. They saw him feeding the crowd, walking on the water and calming the waves; they were with him when he rebuked the Pharisees (traditional Jews), and when Jesus healed the daughter of a Gentile. I mean, they heard him teach and were shocked, doing miracles and they were thrilled, and healing the sick they were amazed with awe and wonder; they were the reputable witnesses of Jesus’ work up to this point! Why can’t they answer the question?

Because it was their time to express their opinion, their time to fish or cut bait; a time to mend or tear, really the time for them to take a stand.

Let us leave the mental wondering on the historical context and the fear and the confusion of the disciples about this question. Let us return to today at Falcon Heights Church situated in Falcon Heights, MN 55113. Let us consider that Christ is visiting with each of us at the Gathering Room to my left side over a cup of coffee and he asks you this question: Whom do you say I am?

If we had time we would like to hear from each of us what answer we would give to Christ. I hope each of us would answer quickly like St. Peter said, “You are the Christ, the son of the living God.”

If Christ went further to engage us about the debates taking place around the nation and ask us, “What are you saying in my name” about the hatred, the face of racism rearing its ugly head, the unending call to forever condemn the minority, the unemployed, the disabled, and the old people from having proper health coverage? What if Jesus can ask further questions, “What are you saying in my name” during this divisive environment of “them vs us” and “the haves and have-nots” and the “They must go back to where they came from” narrative!

I would expect us to answer genuinely that our faith does not allow us to discriminate, hate, and define others because of their place of origin, color, political, economic, sexual orientation, or appearance. Our faith in Christ provides us with courage and fearless spirit to confess Christ and to stand for Christ as we learned since we began to believe.

To transform our faith into action we need to be a voice against injustice from within or without, attend local meetings organized to fight injustice. We support our conference and United Church of Christ justice ministries and say no to anyone holding us back from practicing our faith in genuine ways. For instance, when praying, I ask what God wants me to do to show love to others and what action of love I can take to make my prayers practical. I donate (do small actions of love) according to my financial ability and give my energy toward causes that promote justice.

From the foregoing, I learned Christ does not care about public opinion as much as “my opinion” of who I say He is in my life and what I SAY he does.

In 1 Peter 3:15, believers are reminded to be prepared always to give an account of their faith in Christ. Being in the constant presence of the Lord makes faith mature and strong, and makes one a new creature and offers one courage to stand against all evil thoughts and actions from within or without—external forces.

St Paul in his Epistle in the Romans, reading from this morning, asks for Christians without strong faith to rethink their faith; to ask Christ to reenergize and renew their faith/strength to overcome evils within their context. Let us be reminded that St. Peter’s open confession was acknowledged and Christ insists that individuals confess. The individual’s answer to the question Christ asks today will determine the individual’s relationship with God, conduct, character and ability to truly love and to experience peace in time of adversity.

Amen!

Our Christian faith or our tradition?

By Rev. Jacob Kanake – Today, this sermon is about our traditions vs. our Christian faith. The online dictionary defines tradition as a long-established action or pattern of behavior in a community or group of people. Often, tradition is handed down from generation to generation. And faith is strong belief in God or in the doctrines of a religion, based on spiritual apprehension rather than proof. Whereas every tribe has their tradition, Christian faith arises from taught Christian doctrines and its rituals such as baptism and sacrament. Faith is also a gift from Christ. And Jesus spreads the Good News to the non-Jews and heals a Gentile in a foreign country. The Gospel is for all believers.

Matthew today explains how the Jewish tradition evolved and found itself in sharp contrast with Christian faith. The Jewish tradition was written down by Moses (Mosaic law) and later was written down by the Scribes. The Pharisees (Jewish elders) made sure everyone observed the Mosaic traditions. In this reading, Jesus is having an intense conversation with the Scribes and the Pharisees, the supporters and promoters of the Jewish traditional hierarchy; they came to accuse Jesus’ disciples of violating the food law. The tradition was to wash hands before eating meals.

These Scribes and Pharisees were from Jerusalem, the holy city, the capital city, the judicial headquarters and by all standards, a modern city where people from small cities and remote villages went to shop, seek medical treatment or religious education and to worship in the temple. One would expect people from a modern city to be better informed than others. But, Jesus found them worse than others. They applied Mosaic law where it fit their plans; they were tyrannical; they used Mosaic law to oppress and force common Jews into obedience.

Jesus knew the Scribes and Pharisees were hypocrites who asked people to do things they themselves were unable to do. Jesus did not allow these hypocrites to accuse his disciples and make them unfit for the public for his mission; if Jesus did not strongly challenge the accusers, his disciples would have been condemned for disobeying the fifth commandment (disobeying elders) and isolated from the public until they paid a fine and purified/cleansed themselves in the temple. That is why Jesus exposed the leaders’ inability to keep the Mosaic law. Since the Pharisees were not ready to be challenged, the disciples got scared, but Jesus reassured them by drawing illustrations about the plant’s growth, food digestion and thoughts from the heart.

The disciples continued to speak with Jesus indirectly so that Jesus would either retract his rebuke of the Pharisees and his teaching, or offer them a detailed explanation or modify the teaching. Jesus knew his new teaching was in direct confrontation with the old teaching but his disciples perhaps felt less equipped. Therefore, turning to the disciples, Jesus asked them, “Don’t you understand?” and they still did not understand; they were fearful, so he encouraged them not to fear and not to evade any truth or duty. Jesus made it clear that concealing of the truth, and the indulgence of populist evil deeds and any corruptive ways, makes a disciple of Christ less of a follower and ineffective as a servant of Christ. Christians must own the truth and do their Christian duty and if anyone is offended, it is her/his own fault.

Some American traditions may be harmful like the Jewish tradition of washing hands. One of the American traditions is slavery, which began in 1619 and was abolished in 1863 by president Abraham Lincoln. The slavery tradition, though abolished, exists today in different forms. This nearly 400-year-old oppressive tradition needs to go. It is time to let it go! Modern Americans must say NO to the old ways and indirect system of oppression.

When speaking of this vice, I am aware not every American owned or benefited from having a slave at home or place of work. And I am also aware that most Americans who owned slaves have since self-cleansed themselves by speaking out against the practice. and they have moved with newfound freedom of their mind. However, we have a clear majority of Americans who have not come to terms with freeing themselves from indirectly oppressing others; they want to keep benefitting from the systematically oppressive system, a system that denies minorities housing and economic, social and political freedom.

Those who continue to protect and to continue to improve this longstanding tradition of oppressing others are not doing it with God’s blessings (Acts 5:38). The practices that are not divinely instituted will die of themselves, or they will be openly challenged by those who honestly feel it is their God-given duty to reform humanity; they might be among the Christian believers. Like the parable of tares, such ungodly systems will be bundled for the fire. What has become of the Pharisees and their hand-washing traditions today? The tradition is mostly long abandoned; but the gospel of truth is alive and it is still going strong 2,000 years later.

The human-made systems and their followers always take time to die. An example is patriarchy that oppresses women; it has been a long-standing tradition, but in many parts of the world today woman have become free individuals. In these societies, women decide when to marry, when to have children, and when to keep the marriage to let it “die.” Today, women choose the type of profession or friends to have. Few years ago, we did not have many women in senior positions or places of power. Today, the government of Rwanda’s majority is women.

We are witnessing the last vestiges of the racial oppression in America today. I have heard from many people who do not like the racist speeches and they are joining the freedom movements. The image to illustrate my feeling on racist speeches is the skunk’s poop; its smell shocks the victim. I and many people resent it! I wish I could switch off my brain or put in long-lasting earplugs.

But the last kicks of a dying animal can inflict damage to those who are nearby, and that can be a lasting damage. This week I heard several warnings on the political environment such as the Holocaust survivor (Sonia K) when she was being interviewed by CNN. Sonia said, “When the Holocaust broke, everyone was silent. The Holocaust took place because individuals, groups and nations made decisions to act or not to act. People were quiet then, but we must not be quiet again. Now we know better. We must all commit to making the world a better, kinder and more understanding place. Perhaps it is as simple as speaking out when you see something wrong, saying ‘I know better,’ but, please never be a bystander or a perpetrator.…Take active part in standing against [evils]…being promoted today or we could find ourselves repeating a regrettable history. We all need to be on guard and resist and fight.”

Some of these rallies promote fear and hatred and many people are now speaking. Mitt Romney advises people to tune their language because “it can cause racists to rejoice, minorities to weep, and the vast hearts of American to mourn.” There are genuine politicians who are concerned, although others might use the situation for their political benefit.

People of faith need to take note of what is happening and voice their feelings. Christ was forceful with his disciples when he asks them, “Don’t you understand?” Perhaps they did not! By asking this question, Christ expects from believers some degree of knowledge, grace, and wisdom. But that understanding comes with truly being a Christian. Racial bias persists this long because practicing Christians either did not realize it was evil to own another human being, or to mistreat another person, or did they ignore Christ’s doctrine of love? Did they love selectively? Why did it take this long for Christians to understand the doctrine of love, the teachings of Christ alongside the American Golden Rule or Constitution—created equal?

The reprieve for those who do not love with Christ’s love is that they may be forgiven. Christ’s forgiving aspect can be witnessed by how he treated the disciples despite their flaws: Jesus did not abandon them. Perhaps Christ did not abandon racist people. Christ may have walked with them though disapproving their practice of hatred and their dullness. In his mercy, Christ will not cast evildoers off, but he pities them and continues to teach them lessons of love until they will finally love! (Luke 24:25-27).

In conclusion, Jesus reminds us that our secular traditions affect our faith. Jesus uses the example of the zealous Pharisees on the tradition of washing hands to show that human tradition, however treasured, will end but the Good News will remain. We are also reminded today that God is concerned with the human heart, not physical food that goes into the body. Jesus is concerned with the human heart, the good thoughts that can fully influence or affect the entire life. And the Prophet Jeremiah (Jeremiah 8:7) says the heart is the source of all sin/evil, though not everything comes out of the mouth like a plan to kill or to steal arises from human thoughts/heart. When we allow our mind and conscience to be defiled by sin/evil thoughts, it makes everything else so. The daily reflection on thoughts may help to avoid evil actions.

There are also church traditions that were formulated by the ancient church leaders/fathers and councils and some of them are not supportive of the faith today; Christ calls for those church traditions to be reformed lest they keep believers away from participating in the life of the church.

In many parts of the world, the church is being challenged for speaking against political, economic and social injustice in society. Today many American churches are more than aware of the systemic policies that are designed to affect the minority today, but sadly the same system also affects the majority. For instance, the debates on health care, food stamps, unemployment, the drug epidemic and mental health issues affect American people whether white or black, although in varying degrees.

May the inclusive Gospel of Christ heal all people despite their color, race, political affiliation, or economic status. The healing of the Gentile (Canaanite woman’s daughter) is an indication that Christ’s mission is for all who believe. In Christ, they’re neither a Jew nor a Gentile. No comparison of one person to another. God is calling us today to dismantle all racial systems and outdated church human-made beliefs that promote racial bias because they are contrary to Christ’s teachings on the love of a neighbor.

Amen.