Sunday, March 28, 2010

Deliverance from Evil: Lord's Prayer Series #5

Matthew 6:7-13; Luke 4:1-15

We began this morning’s service with a procession of palms, singing “All Glory, Laud, and Honor,” thereby celebrating Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem.  According to the gospels, Jesus rode into the city of Jerusalem on a donkey as a large crowd hailed him as their king.  The authorities, as they watched this scene unfold, would have seen this as a rejection of Caesar’s rule.  Many others in the crowd might have wondered whether they were witnessing the inauguration of God’s reign in the world.  Yes, it would seem as if Jesus had the city in the palm of his hand.  It must have been tempting to hear the cries of the crowd.  If he chose this moment to launch a revolution, surely the people would have come out in force to overturn the system.  Yes, it must have been tempting, but Jesus understood that God’s kingdom would come into the world in a very different way.  

    The journey that led to this apparent day of triumph begins in the desert after Jesus’ baptism by John.  It’s a story of temptation that gives context to both Palm Sunday and the prayer that Jesus teaches his disciples.

1.  The Story of Temptation   

    This morning we come to the final petition in Jesus’ prayer.  In it he speaks of  temptation and deliverance from evil.  It is a petition that finds its roots in Jesus’ own experience of temptation in the desert.  According to the gospels, the Spirit leads Jesus into the desert after his baptism, where he fasts for forty days and forty nights.  

By the end of this sojourn in the desert, he’s hungry and thirsty.  He’s weak and vulnerable.  It’s at this moment that the devil shows up, and presents Jesus with three tests.  On the surface, these tests don’t seem all that evil, and yet they’re designed to appeal to human weakness and desire. 

    Consider the first temptation – turning stones into bread.  If you’re hungry and it’s in your power to provide yourself with relief, then why not do it?  The second temptation is an offer of power, and we all know that power is important, if we’re to get things done.  All that the devil asks in return is a bit of reverence and allegiance.  Finally, the devil takes Jesus to the pinnacle of the Temple and reminds him that people like spectacles.  So, why not jump and let the angels rescue him.  That will get a crowd and a following.  In each case, Jesus rejects the temptation, rooting his answers in scripture.    

    That experience in the desert prepared Jesus for Palm Sunday.  The people offered him a crown, but he resisted their offer to lead their revolt against Rome.  Instead of picking up arms, he resisted both empire and temple through his preaching – though he understood full well that preaching God’s kingdom as a new way of living in the presence of God would lead to his death.  He understood that God’s reign is a parallel culture that comes into existence not with power and might, but by way of the cross.
2.  Some Basic Assumptions about Temptation 

   As we consider this petition, asking that God would refrain from leading us into temptation, it’s important that we consider a couple of basic assumptions.  First, we should note that according to the scriptures, God can neither be tempted nor can God tempt anyone else (James 1:12-16).  This is true because God is good, and therefore God cannot and will not do that which is evil.  This means that if anyone suggests that we do that which is evil in the name of God, they have either misheard or misrepresented the God of Jesus Christ.  Second, while Jesus has been tested as we have, he remains without sin (Hebrews 4:14-16). This says two things: First of all, since Jesus has been tested as we have, then it seems clear that God isn’t in the business of pulling us out of any and every tempting situation.  Still, while we have personal responsibility in this matter, we also have an example – one who shows us a way of living in the midst of enticement and even evil.  In Jesus, we encounter the parallel culture that is God’s kingdom,  a different way of living that stands apart from all evil.

3.  Facing Temptation   

    Having laid out a couple of basic assumptions about temptation, it’s important to put this request that God not lead us into temptation in its proper context.  Most scholars think that Jesus is speaking here in apocalyptic terms.  That is, he’s encouraging us to pray that God would keep us from enduring that final day of testing when good and evil collide.   Help us, we pray, to avoid such a day.  But, as we pray this prayer in our own daily context, what are we asking? 

    In mentioning food, drink, and clothing, Jesus speaks to some of our biggest concerns in life.  These also speak to some of the temptations that we face  – especially temptations rooted in consumerism and narcissism.  Every day, we’re bombarded with enticements to buy this or that item that promises to make our lives easier and better.  Whether we’re watching TV, reading the papers and magazines, listening to the radio or checking the Internet, or even as we walk the aisles of Costco or Walmart, we hear voices calling out to us:  Eat this, wear this, drink this, do this, and you’ll be happy.  And if we don’t really have a need, advertisers know how to create one within us.   When consumerism is paired with narcissism, then the message is:  Buy this, because you deserve it!  Yes, you’re number one, and it’s important take care of number one  – even if that means stepping on your neighbor!  With this as our context, then our prayer is, in reality, a prayer of discernment so that we might walk with God in the midst of temptation and testing.   

4.  Deliverance from Evil

    The second half of the petition is absent from Luke’s version of the Lord’s Prayer, but it may be the key to understanding it.  Although we begin by asking God to carry us through the time of testing, we conclude by asking God to deliver us from the evil one – that is, the one who encourages us to act contrary to God’s purposes.

    Before we look at Jesus’s definition of evil, it would be helpful to think about the nature of deliverance.  And, lest our imaginations get the better of us, I don’t think Jesus has exorcisms – like the ones portrayed in famous movies – in mind.   Deliverance from evil involves putting our trust in God rather than the evil one.   If we make the assumption that God is good and will not tempt us to do evil, then the way to put aside evil is to discern God’s will and direction, which is what we do when we pray that God’s kingdom would come and that we would do God’s will.   Ultimately, our deliverance is found in two commandments that summarize the law and the prophets – love of God and love of  neighbor.  Everything that is good flows from these two commandments.    

    Although the way of deliverance involves committing our lives and futures into the hands of the good and gracious God revealed to us in Jesus, what is the nature of this evil from which we’re to be delivered?  As we consider this question, it’s instructive that the Greek word  translated here as evil derives from a word that speaks of poverty and deep need.  Therefore, when we ask God to deliver us from the evil with which the evil one tempts us, it appears that Jesus is speaking of actions that undermine efforts to relieve poverty and need.  Or, as Father Michael Crosby writes:
    To pray to be "delivered from evil" involves doing good toward those in need.  In this sense poneros also involves economic and political iniquity, not just individual and interpersonal wrongdoing. (The Prayer that Jesus Taught Us, Orbis, p. 165).

It’s a matter, he suggests, of discerning the difference between good and bad fruit.   As for the fruit of our lives, Jesus says  “that the good person brings good things out of a good treasure, and the evil person brings evil things out of an evil treasure” (Matthew 12:35). 

    The question before us, then, as we pray this prayer Jesus taught us comes down to this:  Which tree defines your life?   Or, to put it a bit differently, what do we mean when we sing, as Christians, “they will know we are Christians by our love?”     

Preached by:
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall, Pastor
Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Troy, Michigan
Palm Sunday
March 28, 2010

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Living in Forgiveness: Lord's Prayer Series #4

Matthew 6:7-15; Luke 6:37-42

    As much as we like to say the words “don’t judge,” every one of us has served as judge and jury.  I think it must be human nature!   Maybe it’s the way some person dresses or the car they drive.  Driving a Toyota in Michigan might get you stares, while driving a Prius in Southern California will get you words of praise.   Yes, we love Jesus’s command:  “don’t judge, lest you be judged.”  But, we all find it difficult to remove the log that sits there in our own eyes, even as we try to pick out the speck in the eye of the other. 

    As we come to the fourth petition of the Lord’s Prayer, having prayed that God would hallow God’s name, that God would reveal God’s reign, and having asked that God would provide us our daily bread, we come to the matter of forgiveness.  How should we hear this promise of forgiveness, which seems to be contingent on our willingness to forgive others?       

1.  Debts, Sins, and Trespasses

    Perhaps we should start with the matter of what is being forgiven, and depending on your tradition or congregation, you are asking God to forgive your debts, sins, or trespasses.  Each of these words has its own meanings and nuances, and understanding them can help us understand what it is we’re asking for in our prayers.  But which one is correct?  Perhaps all of them!   Consider for a moment that there are two versions of the prayer – one in Matthew and one in Luke – and both use different Greek words.   In Matthew the word used speaks of debts, while Luke uses one that can be best translated as sin.  As for that old favorite – trespass – it can be found in the Book of Common Prayer, but not our gospel accounts, not even in the King James.  But, it too has implications for us.  

    To start with Luke, to sin is to fall short, to stain something, or break a law.  When we think of sins, we think of our relationship with God, and the ways in which we break God’s laws.  But, if God is forgiving us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us – how would another person sin against us?  Could it be, words spoken in anger?  Slurs against the character of another?  Gossip?  

    To trespass is a bit different.  It involves crossing boundaries and invading spaces.  So, if we use this word in our prayer, how might we commit a trespass against God?  Could we do this when we take on roles and duties that belong to God?  For example, when we take up the responsibility of being a judge, could that be a trespass? For isn’t God alone able to judge without malice?

    Finally, we come to the word debts.  It’s the word we generally use here in this congregation, but what do we mean by it?  Do we think in terms of committing a sin?  Of disobeying God’s law?  Or do we take it to mean what it generally means in other contexts.  That is, does it have economic implications?

    If we take the word metaphorically, at least in regard to our relationships with God, then the issue isn’t one of money or land.  Instead, it involves everything we are and have,  including our own identity, which come to us as gifts of God.   We stand before God as ones who are indebted to God, and what we owe God  is our loyalty, our gratitude, our very lives.   But how do we forgive the debts owed to us?  As I think about this question, I’m reminded of situations like Haiti.  Here is a nation that has lived in deep poverty from the day of its birth.  We’ve been watching as a natural disaster adds to the misery of this land.  While we have contributed to its relief, we’ve also wondered why a country could be in such dire straights.  If we read the history of Haiti, we discover that the nation mortgaged its future to break free from French rule.  Over time, due in part to embargoes and poor leadership, the nation’s debts continued to grow, and it had to give away even more of its natural resources to pay this accumulating debt.  The only way for this country to break free of its misery is for the nations holding the debt to forgive its debt.  To forgive a debt is to set another free.

    Again, when I think about what we’re praying, I also think of the untold numbers of people who have been affected by the financial crisis.  Many are walking away from their homes – both here in metro-Detroit and across the country – because they owe more on their homes than their homes are worth, and there is no hope of recovering from that debt.  So, I wonder what this prayer says to this situation so many of our neighbors find themselves in?  And what does it require of me?  I don’t have answers to that question, but I raise it for our consideration.

2.  The Question of Reciprocity

    As we consider the nature of what needs forgiven, we come to the matter of reciprocity.  I expect that we read this prayer through the filter of Paul’s message of grace.  We assume that God’s grace comes prior to our request for forgiveness.  We may even think of grace as a “get of jail free” card.  But, this prayer speaks of reciprocity.  God will forgive our debts, even as we forgive our debtors.  God’s forgiveness may stand at the beginning of the process, but it seems that God expects something of us in return.

       Consider the parable of the “unforgiving servant,” or perhaps better, the “unforgiving official.”   As the story goes, a king calls in the debts owed to him, but one official owes  a sum that might have been unimaginable until Bernie Madoff came on the scene.  It was so large that it could never get paid off.  With nothing to lose, this official begs the king for mercy, and the king, who is compassionate,  takes  pity on the man, and forgives the debt in full.  The official who owed more than could ever be repaid, is now debt-free.  Indeed, his credit score has now been restored.  And he went out of the palace courts leaping with joy – at least until, he ran into a fellow official, who owed him a great sum.  Now this man’s debts were nothing compared to what the first official owed the king, so you’d think that the one who was forgiven, would return the favor.  But that’s not how things worked out.   Instead, the one who had been forgiven demanded payment in full – immediately.  When the other asked for more time, he responded by having the man thrown in jail until the debt could be paid.   When the king, who had shown mercy on the man, heard this, he was furious that the man had presumed upon his mercy, but wouldn’t show mercy to another.  And so we read that the man is to be tortured until he can pay the debt – and Jesus adds that the same judgment awaits those who presume upon God’s mercy, and don’t show it to their neighbors  (Matthew 18:23-35).  

    Although, we might not like the ending, it’s important to hear this word about reciprocity.  Jesus is saying that our patron, the one to whom all things are owed, is willing to forgive everything we owe, but God also expects us to treat our neighbors in the same way.   Therefore, when we forgive the debts, sins, and trespasses of another, we are acting as agents of God’s divine forgiveness.  What we owe God may be spiritual in nature, but what we owe each other likely is much more material in nature.  As we pray the prayer, let us consider its implications for the economic realities that impinge on our lives.   We might even ask whether this prayer is calling us to push our government to enact legislation that would free our neighbors – whether individuals or even nations -- from unwieldy burdens?

3.  Forgiveness and Restoration

    I will not pretend that this is an easy thing to do.  Its one thing to receive God’s word of forgiveness, and another to offer forgiveness to one who has offended or hurt us.  Forgiving financial debts might be easier.  Sometimes the hurt runs so deep that not only can we not forget, but cannot forgive.  To hear Jesus say that our own forgiveness is contingent upon our forgiving others, can be rather disheartening.  We  want to walk with God, and even be good neighbors who are committed to the common good, but this idea of contingency doesn’t sound like good news.   

    Perhaps the only way for this to become good news is for us to remember what Jesus told Peter, when Peter asked how many times he should forgive the one who offended him.  Jesus said, forgive as often as requested, even up to seventy-seven times (Matthew 18:22).   Our hope is found in God’s willingness to have us continually seeking forgiveness.  As we do this, as we pursue God’s forgiveness, then we can see God begin to transform our lives.  By praying this prayer, from the heart, each week, each day, we acknowledge God’s forgiveness and grace, and seek to offer it to those who need our forgiveness.  

    To forgive, however, means more than saying: “I forgive you.”  Instead, it requires a willingness to restore the other to wholeness.  Remember that Jesus teaches this prayer in a culture that is deeply rooted in traditions of honor and shame.  Forgiveness generally involves finding a way for the other to save face.   For us, this means allowing the one who has offended us to return to the prior status of neighbor.

4.  From the Heart

    Finally, if we’re to fully pray this petition, then it would behoove us to consider the word that concludes the parable.  It is a command to forgive from the heart.  In the cultural context in which Jesus makes this statement, it  means that forgiveness involves our whole being, including both our emotions and our intellect.   Forgiveness comes forth from the depths of our being, so that we might restore others, even as we are being restored and transformed.  Each of us must, therefore, reflect on those relationships that are currently broken and discern what is required of us by this petition.  This holds implications for our personal lives and our public lives – including, I would suggest, the way we spend our money, vote, drive our cars, and more.    Again, this isn’t any easy thing to do, but we  can go forth on this journey, knowing that we stand in the midst of God’s grace.  It is that  grace that enables us to pray this prayer from the depths of our being.

Preached by:
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall
Pastor, Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Troy, Michigan
Fifth Sunday of Lent
March 21, 2010

Sunday, March 07, 2010

Trusting the Day to God: Lord's Prayer Series #3

Luke 11:1-4; Luke 12:22-34

We’ve come to the third petition of the Lord’s Prayer.  In the previous two petitions we’ve asked God to make God’s name holy in our lives, and we’ve asked that God’s reign would be made known in our midst, even as we seek to know and do God’s will.  Having made these requests, which focus on God holiness and God’s reign on earth as well as in heaven, we make our first request of God.  And in this request, we focus on our most basic of needs – our daily bread.  Yes, food, water, shelter, these are the basics, and so it’s not surprising that this is where Jesus begins.
    The idea that God is the provider of our daily bread goes back at least to the Exodus story, where the people of Israel find themselves wandering for forty years in the desert of Sinai.  Reading the story, you might think that the people expected a quick trip across the desert, and on into the promised land.  Yes, just a hop, skip, and a jump, and they’d move from slavery to the good life.  I think that’s human nature.  We like immediate gratification and solutions, but as the story demonstrates, this trip lasted far longer than anyone expected.  So, finding themselves in the desert, which isn’t the greatest storehouse of food and drink, they discover that they don’t have anything to eat.  Upon this discovery, they cried out to God – mostly in the form of complaints and grumbling.  But, God heard their cries, just as God heard their cries while they were living in slavery in Egypt.  In response to their prayers, God provided them with quail, manna from heaven, and water from a rock.

     The provisions did come, however, with a few strings attached.  Moses tells the people that they should gather the manna, which fell like dew on the desert floor, in the morning.  They could bake it or boil it, but they couldn’t save it.  If they tried to keep leftovers, they’d spoil.  So, there was no reason to hoard.  When they saw the food, they rejoiced, but after awhile they got bored with the menu, as well as with life in the desert, and returned to complaining and grumbling (Exodus 16-17).    

    It’s true that the people of Israel took a great risk in following Moses into the desert.  Life may have been bad under Pharaoh’s rule, but at least they knew what to expect.  As we all know, sometimes what we know appears to be better than what we don’t know.  So, facing the possibility of starvation in the desert made slavery look like a pretty good alternative.   To continue the journey in the desert meant walking by faith and depending on God’s provisions. 

1.  Dependency on God the Provider   

    When we pray “Give us this day, our daily bread,” we are offering a statement of faith in God.  We’re declaring our trust that God will provide our basic needs.   Therefore, this beloved prayer, which we recite every Sunday, is a declaration to God of our willingness to entrust the day to God’s care.

    Although the Exodus story stands behind this prayer, so do other stories, stories that Jesus’ disciples knew all too well.  Those who were first taught this prayer, lived under Roman occupation, and therefore understood that Caesar, not God, was their great provider.  Indeed, Caesar used bread, and when the bread ran short, circuses,  to control the mob.  The point that Caesar liked to make was that the people’s lives depended on Caesar’s grace.   Therefore, once again we find Jesus pointing us elsewhere.  He wants us to understand that God and not Caesar is our patron, and as such, we are God’s clients and not Caesar’s.

    There is, however, more to this petition than simply acknowledging God’s patronage over Caesar’s.  As Michael Crosby points out in his reflections on this prayer, in making this petition, we’re recognizing that we’re not self-sufficient.  That is, if we think we have no needs, then we’re saying that we have no need of anyone else, including God.  He writes about his own discovery, that he’d “fallen for the original temptation of the serpent:  to ‘become like God’.”  (Michael Crosby, The Prayer that Jesus Taught Us, Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Press, 2002, p. 123).   When we fall prey to this temptation, then this daily bread becomes “our ‘bread,” which we can provide for ourselves.  At that point, it no longer is seen as a gift of God, and thus, we have no need to share with others.

    But, when we think that we have everything under control, when we believe that  we’re in the driver’s seat of life, then too often we fall victim to anxiety and fear.  That is, if everything depends upon me, then what happens when things go awry?    It’s at this point, when we’re hanging on by a thread, that we hear Jesus say to us:   What benefit does worry bring  you?  Does it add even a single hour to your life?  If not, then why do you keep striving for food and drink, as the nations do?  Does God not know what you need?  Does God really care more for the ravens than for you?  And yet, they don’t seem to worry.  

2.  Our Solidarity as Neighbors

    This petition is our “Declaration of Dependence” on God.  It is also a statement of  solidarity with our neighbors.  The meaning of this prayer depends on its pronouns.  Too often we pray this prayer as if we’re speaking in the first-person singular, but that’s not how Jesus taught it.  Instead, Jesus invites us to use the words “us” and “our” in our prayer to God our Provider.

    We pray:  Give to “us” “our” daily bread.  These are plural pronouns, which means that when we pray this prayer, we’re identifying ourselves with our neighbors.   When we pray this prayer, asking God’s provision of our basic needs, our prayer levels the social playing field.   Indeed, even those who appear to be our clients in life, are, like us, God’s clients.   To pray this prayer faithfully, requires a certain humility.  

    Praying that God would provide manna from heaven also involves a willingness to share our bounty with our table mates.   I think it’s instructive that Jesus tells his followers that they should sell their possessions and give them as alms to the poor, and that in Acts we read that the earliest Christians pooled their resources, so that no one was in need (Acts 4:32-37).

    I’m not sure that we’re supposed to sell everything and join in communal living. Some are called to this life, but it never did become a common practice.  But, when we pray this prayer, as Jesus taught it, we are responding to an invitation to what Walter Brueggemann calls the “practice of neighborhood.”  It’s a commitment to pursue the common good, a recognition that simply because I don’t make use of a particular service in society, doesn’t mean that my neighbor doesn’t.  As Brueggemann puts it, it’s a movement “from scarcity through abundance to neighborhood” (Walter Brueggemann, Journey to the Common Good, WJK Press, 2010, pp. 30-31).  

    The biblical message is not one of “God helps those who help themselves.”   That phrase is more reflective of Benjamin Franklin than Jesus.  The message of neighborly solidarity may be best summarized by these words from Ecclesiastes.
    Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their toil.  For if they fall, one will lift up the other; but woe to one who is alone and falls and does not have another to help. . . . And though one might prevail against another, two will withstand one.  A threefold cord is not quickly broken” (Eccl. 4:9-12).  

3.  Resting in the Provider’s Grace    

    Jesus tells us to strive for the kingdom, and when we do so then everything else will follow in its wake, for it’s God’s good pleasure to give us the kingdom.    All that’s required of us is a willingness to receive God’s provision as a gift of grace.  So, don’t worry about tomorrow, instead, put your trust in God, for God is faithful.
    In the parable that precedes this morning’s text, Luke sets up this call to trust in God.  In this parable, Jesus speaks of a rich man who builds a barn to hold his grain, so that he can sit back, and eat, drink, and be merry.  But, as Jesus tells the story, the man would die that very night – so who benefited from this act of hoarding?  And so it is, Jesus says, with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God (Luke 12:13-21).  Yes, and “where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Lk 12:34).
    The question facing us today is this:  Where is my heart?  On whom will I depend?  By praying this prayer, we’re declaring that our help and sustenance comes from God.  

    Now, I do believe this is true, but I must admit that I have hedged my bets.  I have a pension, savings, and insurance.  Wisdom seems to suggest that we plan for the future, but too often this “wisdom” leads to anxiety, because we believe that everything rests on us, which is why we hoard.
    And yet, as we pray  “Give us this day, our daily bread,” we confess our belief that God is faithful and gracious and loving.  This God will provide all our needs, for as  the third stanza of the hymn Amazing Grace puts it:

    Through many dangers, toils, and snares, I have already come;
    ‘Tis grace hath brought me safe thus far, and grace will lead me home.

Preached by: 
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall
Pastor, Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Troy, Michigan
March 7, 2009
Third Sunday of Lent