The True Scope of Forgiveness

Sunday’s Scriptures ~ Matthew 18:21-35 and Genesis 42:1-16.

This Sunday Andrew and I will pulpit swap for our 11 o’clock worship services. I will lead our Morningsong Service at 8:30am and offer a message entitled “The True Scope of Forgiveness”. I will then travel to Azalea Park UMC to preach their 11 o’clock service. Andrew will join the TUMC family for our 11 o’clock service and continue our Joseph Saga series with a message entitled “More Brothers, More Problems.” He is very much looking forward to worshiping with you.

(I will return to Tuskawilla by 12:30pm…my sources tell me there is some kind of celebration happening…*wink*)

During my senior year at Florida Southern College I registered for a cross-listed philosophy and political science course entitled “The Politics of Terrorism and Insurgency.” Impressive, right? On the first day of class our professor – who also had my mother as a student – clarified the focus for the course. He said, “This semester we will study proposed methods and applications of conflict resolution from philosophers and political scientists through the ages beginning with the Ancient Greeks and culminating in the present day. The course has the name it does because I was doubtful anyone would register for a class dully named “Methods and Applications of Conflict Resolution.”

He was probably right.

The first topic on the syllabus was a review of Hammurabi’s Code – the ruling religious, political, and philosophical thought in the Ancient World (and, in some contexts. still today). “An eye for an eye; a tooth for a tooth.” Sound familiar?

Hammurabi’s Code focuses on fairness. Its use created a “tit for tat” society and normalized “tit for tat” behavior as part of the human condition. Jesus’ intent was to normalize radical role reversals and counter-cultural behaviors into the human condition. This was his method for fulfilling both the Law and the prophets.

The Torah contains impressions of Hammurabi’s Code and Jesus quotes a number of those passages in his Sermon on the Mount: “You have heard that it was said, An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you” (Mt 5:38-42).

Jesus does not promote retaliation in these verses – a significant counter-cultural and radical role reversal move! These words of Jesus become the foundation for our text for today.

While Hammurabi’s main focus was on fairness, Jesus’ main focus is on forgiveness.

The practice of forgiveness brings separated, estranged, and embattled community members back to one another – so that what once was broken may be fixed, may be healed. The act of repeated forgiveness – seventy-seven times – over and over – holds communities together.

Temptation can lead to sin. Sin leads to separation – from God and from one another. Like a shepherd that seeks out a sheep gone astray, so we are to seek out those we are separated from because of sin. Jesus affirms, “It is not the will of your Father in heaven that one of these little ones should be lost” (Mt 18:14). Through forgiveness we are found. Through forgiveness we make our way home.

When did you last experience forgiveness – either giving or receiving? How did you find that experience? Needful? Extraneous? Powerful? Casual? What lessons has forgiveness taught you? How has forgiveness changed you into more of  a Kingdom resident than a resident of the world?

Prayer: “Be thou my vision, O Lord of my heart; naught be all else to me, save that thou art – thou my best thought, by day or by night; waking or sleeping, thy presence my light.”* Amen. 

*”Be Thou My Vision,” The United Methodist Hymnal 451.

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Heroes and Villains: Delilah

Sunday’s Scripture ~ Judges 16:4-22.

Four-legged children have been members of our family since the very beginning. Andrew moved to Atlanta ahead of me in 2007 because his job was set to start before mine…and I am pretty sure that it was only after 96 hours in the city that he sent me a picture of a little Schnauzer face that was now ours.

Normally I would not recommend surprising a family member with a four-legged child, but when that four-legged child is as wonderful as our Samson, I would recommend it every time!

A year and a half later our sweet Delilah joined our family. Samson picked her out from a rescue in Middleton, Georgia. Samson and Delilah were not from the same litter, but that did not stop them from acting like brother and sister – two pups that had been together all their lives.

Now something about Schnauzers…they are pups…they are also silent ninjas. We have a rule in our house called The Little Mermaid Rule when it comes to the puppadoos. Ariel wanted to be “where the people are” – and our pups need to be where the people are…because if they are not…who knows what will ensue!

Consider one Thanksgiving Dinner at my parents’ house. The family was busily eating in the dining room and we all figured that our four-legged children were under the table hoping someone might share some holiday cheer with them. How quiet and patient they were being! As the meal concluded I rose to take my plate into the kitchen to start the clean up process and saw a mess of turkey juice all on the floor! What in the world!? As I rounded the corner of the countertop, there knelt Samson and Delilah, astride the trashcan, chowing down on the remainders of the turkey carcass my mother had already put in the trashcan!

Samson was the r-u-n-t of his litter; no way he was reaching into a 13-gallon trashcan to fish out a turkey carcass…but Delilah…if the carcass was near the top, could definitely reach it.

Little furry co-conspirators! It is a good thing they are cute…otherwise my mother would have had an outright fit!

Just like our four-legged children, the stars of our Scripture passage this week find themselves in a mess of their own creation – a mess fed and intensified by temptation for more. Temptation is a slippery slope. It causes us to lose our center, to lose sight of what anchors us, to forget or skew the core principles – the covenant – that we share with God that guides the actions of our hearts, heads, and hands. Temptation causes us to lose sight of humanity – our own humanity and the humanity of others. People become objects, the means to ends, useful only in the ways that they accomplish what we want or fulfill our needs. And that is not how our God created us to be.

A inescapable litany throughout the book of Judges is “the people did what was right in their own eyes.” This is the cause of temptation. The effect of temptation is separation – estrangement – from God and others. Resisting temptation – repenting from temptation – brings our lives back into focus by doing what is right in God’s eyes. Doing what is right in God’s eyes is an invitation to sacrifice, to put others before ourselves, to follow the ways of the Spirit rather than pursuing the ways of the flesh.

Our God is good and our God provides. When we fall to temptation we challenge the belief that our God will provide. Waiting for God’s provision is, at times, a struggle. But I believe God purposefully uses those times of waiting to teach us if what we desire is truly important and if what we desire is appropriate for that time in our lives.

Personally, I would rather wait to eat turkey that is nicely sliced on a plate than fish bones out of a trash can and gnaw on a carcass. What about you?

Prayer: “Fear not, I am with thee, O be not dismayed, for I am thy God and will still give thee aid; I’ll strengthen and help thee, and cause thee to stand upheld by my righteous, omnipotent hand.”* Amen.

*“How Firm A Foundation,” The United Methodist Hymnal 529.

Wilderness Trials

Sunday’s Scripture ~ Luke 4:1-13

SPOILER ALERT! This week’s Sunday Stiletto contains reference to a scene in Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Hopefully I will not give away too much…but this scene is just too good.

Read on.

Rey finds herself in a storage closet in Maz Kanata’s Canteen and – after listening to the Force, that she would not identify as the Force at this time, nevertheless she responds to it intuitively – Rey uncovers a light saber. Rey takes hold of the saber and immediately experiences a number of flashbacks, her own and others. Frightened and overwhelmed, she returns the saber to its box and runs from the room. Maz finds Rey in the hallway of her Canteen’s basement. A dialogue ensues. Rey apologizes for being in that part of Maz’s Canteen; Maz is not concerned. In fact, Maz encourages Rey to take the saber and to see where the saber will take her. Rey ponders this proposal…and then declines. She has to get back to Jakku.

Rey is saddened by her decision to leave…and to leave the light saber. Like a mother, Maz comforts Rey. Looking deep into her eyes Maz says to Rey, “The belonging you seek is not behind you, but ahead.”

When I am in the midst of a personal wilderness experience – when I feel abandoned, afraid, alone, angry, lost, and out of control – I tend to dwell on what is behind me instead of ahead. I harp on my failures. I am quick to refuse help because I think I can figure it out on my own…and because of my actions I do not think I deserve help.

I wallow. I weep. I wander.

Guilt grows. Shame showers. And I think, what if I could just go back to before this happened? Can I call a mulligan on this conversation? This day? This experience in my life? Why did we get rid of rewind buttons? Like Cher, like many of us, I wish I could turn back time.

But we cannot turn back time. We do not have the benefit of a cosmic mulligan. And to some extent I am thankful, because if there were cosmic mulligans, there might also be a chance that the film Groundhog Day could be a reality…and I do not want that either!

Rey wanted to return to Jakku; she was convinced that her future was there in that desert, scavenging through Imperial and Resistance wreckage. When I falter in my faith, when I wreak havoc in relationships, I want to go back to where I think my future is…before the incident. But that is not where my future is. The belonging I seek – the belonging I have broken because of my selfish words or selfish desires – cannot be restored by going behind me. The belonging I seek can only be restored by going ahead purposefully, seeking forgiveness with acts and words of reconciliation.

For me this process looks this way:

  1. Name my wilderness – what am I experiencing?
  2. Identify how I got myself here – where did I fall from temptation into sin?
  3. Learn a lesson – this is critical! If a lesson is not learned, then it is only a matter of time before I make a repeat visit to this or another wilderness.
  4. Approach the person I harmed – a sibling in Christ and/or God, my Creator – and ask for forgiveness, share what I learned through this experience, and ask that person to help me in strengthening my belonging into the future.

My process does not have to be your process, but it can be a help as you process how you respond to your personal wilderness experiences and move towards the belonging that God desires for you.

Maz’s words were right for Rey…they are right for all of us, “The belonging you seek is not behind you, but ahead.”

Prayer: Sweet Jesus, “As thou with Satan didst contend, and didst the victory win, O give us strength in thee to fight, in thee to conquer sin. As thou didst hunger bear, and thirst, so teach us gracious Lord, to die to self, and chiefly live by thy most holy word.”* Amen.

*”Lord, Who Throughout These Forty Days,” The United Methodist Hymnal 269.