It's A Forgiving

Forgiving is one of the hardest graces we give and live. Sometimes we get so focused on the practice of forgiving, we lose track of forgiving as a grace. This message shared with Mt. Zion Church was offered in the hope of helping us all reclaim the hope and promise of forgiveness brings into our lives.


At the first ever session of a long ago, far away confirmation class, I made the mistake of asking: What must we do before we can expect forgiveness from sin?

After a long, awkward silence, a confirmand raised his hand, and said: I’m gonna say… Sin?

He had a point.

Sock Me...

You don’t sin, you don’t need forgiven. And since, we’re human we all sin sometime, which means that getting forgiven is a bit like getting socks for Christmas. You need them, but honestly, not every pair of socks you own has holes in the toes, and I'd prefer you'd not gift me like they do.

But, truth be told, socks wear thin, sure as we sin. And, when it comes to sin, there’s always plenty of that around. You only have to look as far as the people who…

  • just made themselves welcome to crowd into the house without even asking, or the people who…
  • pushed and shoved and packed themselves around the house, trampling the grass and the petunias, who never noticed, or cared about the four guys carrying a paralyzed man to see Jesus, or the way…
  • those same four guys, without permission, carried the man up onto the roof, and without a thought for his safety,
  • dug up a hole right above where Jesus was preaching, and lowered the man down, interrupting his sermon, 
  • or the way, some folks came to judge Jesus in or out of their lives…

…there is so much going wrong here,  there is so much to be put right here, Jesus begins with a forgiving.

Mark writes…

When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralyzed man, 

    “Son, your sins are forgiven.

        Get up. Take your mat. Walk home.”

And when he does, I’m thinking…

    Lord, give me socks for Christmas.

Free Me…

Forgiving sets us free.

All kinds of people have said that…

Lewis Smedes wrote: To forgive is to set a prisoner free, and discover the prisoner was you.

Bernard Meltzer wrote: When you forgive, you in no way change the past - but you sure do change the future.

Desmond Tutu wrote: Forgiveness says you are given another chance to make a new beginning.

Forgiving sets resentment aside, so we can move on well together, Forgiving declares the score settled, so we can hope better for each other, Forgiving decides yesterday over and done, so we can live this day with each other.

Forgiving sets us free. Forgiving is a great gift to receive, which is why it’s so hard to forgive.

Just Me…

We have our rights…

  • a home was invaded,
  • no one noticed him,
  • a roof was torn up,
  • a life was endangered,
  • Jesus was interrupted,

The teachers of the law had a point. Sin wrongs God. What you do to hurt me, hurts God worse. You just can’t decide to forgive a foul. God made rules for putting things right, and one of them is: God and only God can forgive sins, and who is Jesus to do that?

You know how it goes: Ask an obvious question, get an obvious answer, which is Jesus saying: I want you know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins, by telling the paraplegic man get up and walk home. 

But, even that was not that.

The teachers of the law were right. God made rules for putting things right, and because one of them was that no sin is forgiven without the shedding of blood, Jesus sheds his blood on a cross for the forgiveness of every evil, even yours and mine.

But, even that is not that.

Forgive Me…

On Easter, the risen Jesus appeared to his disciples, breathed on them, and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive anyone’s sins, their sins are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.” (John 20:16)

That’s a little scary.

It’s a little scary to imagine myself not being forgiven by the soul I doused with coffee while serving a dinner. When we all get to heaven, will I have to go to finishing school?

What if I forgive the crabby neighbor, who complains and shames the grace out of me every time we cross paths. You know the kind: the neighbor who can’t imagine asking God to forgive anything they’ve done? If I forgive that neighbor, will my neighbor be my neighbor up in heaven?

It's all enough to get me praying…

    Forgive me Lord, for failing to forgive.

        And while you’re at it…

            Forgive me my forgiving Lord, 

                I knew not what I was doing.

Forgiving could use a few rules.

Or, not…

It’s A Forgiving…

If forgiving is only for the asking, and if forgiving is only for the giving, then the only rules might be: ask, and God will forgive you, forgive, and God will put things right.   

Because, whether you are asking forgivng, or, whether you are giving forgiving, forgiveness has already been found, and flows down like a mighty river from the cross, flows into every corner of our life, and invites us to rise, take up our mat, and walk into a God made life.

Giving Grace

The Bible is littered with boat stories: Noah and the ark, Jonah and the whale, Jesus and his disciples, and one of my favorites: Paul and the shipwreck.

Grab a cup of coffee. It’s a long story.

Against all advice, Paul goes to Jerusalem, causes a riot, and after a series of convoluted legal proceedings to a delayed trial, is put onto a slow boat to Rome because he insists on appealing his case to Caesar. Many weeks later, the boat’s captain considers sailing to the west coast of Crete to harbor out the winter. Paul advises they stay put. The boat’s owner orders otherwise, and the boat is soon caught in a storm that carries them beyond all hope of being saved. (Acts 27)

That’s when Paul swings into action. He stands up and says: “Had you listened to me, and not sailed from Crete; you would have spared yourselves this damage and loss. An angel from God has told me that the ship will sink, and you will all live to tell the story.  So don’t lose heart. God will get us out of this. By the way, we will be shipwrecked.”

Whatever you might think about Paul’s leadership style, the boat followed his lead. The Roman guard ditched the lifeboat, passengers and crew ate up the rations, and when the ship wrecked on a sandbar, the prisoners were cut free, and 276 persons either swam or floated on planks of the ship to shore, because God was working in each of their lives for the good of them all.

Grace works that way.

Grace names our failures, and points the way to live well. Grace forgives us our sins, so we are free to live right with God. Grace clarifies our differences, and leads us to embrace God’s truth. Grace tells the truth of our present, and fixes us on the day God gets the last say. Grace endures the dangers, prospers our toils, gets us out of the snares, and leads us safely home. Grace listens to a noisy world, and speaks “the good news of peace through Jesus Christ, who is Lord of all.” (Acts 10:36)

Grace is the gift Christ gives us to give.

The giving of grace begins with a heart given over the truth that when we receive Christ to live in us, “there is nothing we can do to make God love us more, there is nothing we can to make God love us less.” (Phillip Yancey) When we live from the approval God has given us in Christ, our heart is free to give the grace that heals hearts and changes lives without any “ifs, ands, or buts.” God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. God sends us to do the same.

All Good Gifts

I was waiting to get my flat tire fixed. I was sipping coffee, listening for the service van, and occasionally peeking out the window, while I did some work.

I don’t fix my own flat tires anymore. I used to, when I was younger, and tires were easier to change. I’ve changed tires in the rain, along an Interstate Highway, a city curb, and once after a wedding. The last flat tire I tried to fix myself occurred just as I was entering a Pennsylvania Turnpike Tunnel. When I couldn’t budge the lug nuts, I paid a garage to change it for me. Ever since then, I’ve paid the auto club to change my flat tires.

Good thing I did. Turned out my tire wasn’t the easiest fix. The spare wouldn’t release. The cable dropped, and the tire stayed stuck to the bottom of the car. After a few tricks of the trade, and a couple anxious moments, it dropped. Had it not, I would’ve had to wait for a tow truck.

“You were lucky,” the mobile mechanic said.

I thought about that a moment, then the spirit nudged.

“God was with us today,” I said.

I’m not sure how the mechanic took that. To be honest, his showing up was a moment of God with me. I’m not real good at cracking lug nuts, or plugging tires. I'm not the kind of person who could spend an afternoon going to dealerships to figure out why spare tires stick to automobile frames, but he is, and because that’s the way God formed his life, I was spared the dangerous task of laying in the gutter wrestling with a tire.

Somewhere along the line, the followers of Christ arrived at the thought that all good work is God’s work, and because it is God’s work, God calls all of us to the work we do.

The Apostle Paul wrote that thought this way: God has graciously given us all a gift: If our gift is to speak God's message, we should do it with the faith we have; if it is to serve, we should serve; if it is to teach, we should teach; if it is to encourage others, we should do so. Whoever shares with others should do it generously; whoever has authority should work hard; whoever shows kindness to others should do it cheerfully… (Romans 12:6-8)

Not every good work is fairly compensated, nor is it always most pleasant task, but when it is done with all our heart, working with the Lord, it is a labor of the love that leaves us all one blessing better.

Family Month

Once a summer, our family would come home from church, put the finishing touches on a covered dish, and travel the quarter mile to attend the family reunion. When we arrived, Uncle Clair was already tending a large iron kettle of chicken corn soup that accompanied a meal of hot dogs, casseroles, deviled eggs, red beet eggs, baked all kinds of beans, various slaws, and deserts beyond counting.

Throughout the afternoon, folks would spend the afternoon catching up with each other, or put their dinner to work playing spirited games of softball, volleyball, or horseshoes.  The smaller children would play in sandbox made with an old farm tractor tire, or get rides in a wagon pulled by a lawn tractor. The day ended with a cakewalk, and the younger men cranking up some homemade ice cream, which was always topped with homemade hot fudge.

Ours was a large family, so each year’s reunion introduced me to someone new to the family, a relative who lived at a distance, or an unfamiliar cousin. Different as we were, the years revealed the traits that defined our family. Like it or not, when I look in the mirror, I see how well I fit the family template.

May has a way of returning us to family. May brings not only brings us Mother’s Day, it brings us days to celebrate a child’s achievements, place flowers on graves, and honor those who gave their lives in the service of their nation. May weaves us all into a common tapestry of life that is both new and familiar. On prom night, our child meets parents who are as proud, nostalgic, and worried as us. On graduation day, students experience the loss that sometimes tinges a well-earned joy. Different as we are, the days in May teach us that we are much the same.

Pentecost was a day like that. Fifty days after Easter, the church gathered to pray, and God answered their prayer by filling them with the Holy Spirit, which sent them all out to proclaim the gospel, which everyone heard in their own language. Over the years the Holy Spirit would continue to weave God’s people, different as we are, into the body of Christ, where each member is gifted to offer the blessing of Christ’s risen life from a community so the same in Christ, there was neither Jew nor Gentile, male or female, slave or free. (1 Corinthians 12; Galatians 3:26)

Many as we are, we are one body in Christ.

Onion Snow

It was the last official day of winter. I was driving to the church, and when I saw a Mt. Zion groundhog emerge from its burrow, see its shadow, and scurry back inside. I began to worry that six more weeks of winter were in store. 

The next morning I awoke to greet first official day of spring.

It was snowing. Again.

An old Pennsylvania legend says that a limb bender, crack-stuffer, and onion snow must fall before spring can arrive.  The limb bender storm is a wet, heavy snow that bends tree limbs. The crack stuffer storm brings a dry, fine snow that settles into cracks. The onion snow arrives in the spring leaving a thin layer of snow that melts quickly.

Maybe it was the onion snow, I thought. But, as the morning went on, and the snow continued to fall, I drove to the church wondering if this might be the limb bender snow instead. Arriving at the church, I noticed that our parking lot was wet except for the white streaks of snow accumulating in the cracks, and I wondered if this first day of spring crack-stuffer, limb-bender, onion snow was winter’s way of saying that spring had sprung.

It was an Easter thought.

As March turns to April, we remember the week Jesus entered Jerusalem, gave his life for sin of the world, and died on the cross. On that sad day, the land turned dark. The ground shook. The rocks split. The curtain of the temple was torn top to bottom. The bodies of many holy people who had died were raised to life, and they appeared to many people after Jesus was raised from the dead. (Matthew 27)

Then, on the first day of the week, the ground shook again. An angel rolled away the stone from his tomb, and then sat on it. The Roman soldiers guarding the tomb became as dead men. The tomb was empty. Christ had risen. The victory over death was won. God’s eternal spring had sprung.

The Bible says: “Just as we will die, so we will be raised to life. Adam brought death to all of us, and Christ will bring life to all of us. But, we must each wait our turn. Christ was the first to be raised to life, and we will be raised to life when he returns. Until that day, Christ will rule. He will put all his enemies under his power, and the last enemy he destroys will be death.”  (1 Corinthians 15:21-25 sel)

It takes a snow to make a spring.  It takes a cross to make an Easter.

Life Leaves Tracks

Over Coffee

I had just finished clearing the driveway, and was putting the snow blower away, when I saw several deer emerge from the woods next to the parsonage, and leave tracks through fresh fallen the snow as they traveled to the shelter of the woods to the South.  Since then, the morning’s first light has revealed the tracks of a rabbit, a fox, a crow, and more deer in the snow around and about us. Each set of tracks is a reminder that in the dead of this hard winter, life is all around us.

Lent says that, too.

After forty days and forty nights of rain, Noah stays in the ark until a dove returns with a sign that life has returned to the earth.

After miles of traveling, and years of waiting Abram looks to the stars and puts his faith in promise of a new name until the day a ninety-nine year old Sarah and a one hundred year old Abraham are parents to Isaac.

After years of praying, and countless days in the desert, Moses ascends to the top of Mt. Sinai, and returns with word of the ways that will keep Israel living with God in the Promised Land.

Miles from home with too many scores to count between them, God promises the exiles in Babylon a new covenant in which their sins will be remembered no more, and his word written on each heart, so they will each know the Lord.

Under cover of night, a heart bent on God comes to a young rabbi named Jesus who Nicodemus believes to be sent by God to reveal the kingdom of God, and goes home with a born again life.

On a dark Friday, Jesus is crucified. One disciple has betrayed him. Another has denied him. Many more have deserted him. Only the few at his cross hear him pray as a God forsaken soul. Then, as he offers his spirit into the hands of his Father, the curtain of the temple is torn in two, an earthquake springs long dead saints from the grave, and three days later an empty tomb proclaims that in his death there is life.

Life is all around us.

Each rainbow is a sign of God tied to our lives. Each word of God a call to choose and live by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord. Christ’s empty tomb a once and forever moment that frees us to give God this day and every tomorrow. 

 

Pastor Ski

The Least of These

It's been some time since Philip Yancey put me on to noticing that the story Matthew leaves ringing in our ears before Jesus goes to his cross is the scene of people being blessed or cursed because of how they treated the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the sick, the imprisoned, or the souls in our midst who need clothes. (Matthew 25:31-46)

I shared his observation with a recent study group who found itself challenged by this parable. I'm not sure it helped. As the group struggled with questions of eschatology, faith, works, and just how this plays into us getting into heaven, it began to raise questions related to boundaries, fiscal limits, and whether Jesus had ever heard of charity that hurts. These are all good questions, but I began to wonder if they were really the sorts of questions Jesus wanted us to have in mind as he took up his cross, and then announced he would be crucified in two days time.

Immediately after his announcement, Matthew recalls Jesus being anointed at Bethany, and recounts Judas cutting a deal to betray Jesus for thirty pieces of silver. In short order, Jesus would be arrested, beaten, tried, and sentenced to die on a cross where he would die hungry, thirsty, and without clothes. These words began to echo in my ears: "Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me." (Matthew 25:40)

I began to wonder: Could it be that Matthew is leading us to see a crucified Jesus the least of us all, so we will see Jesus in the face of the least? Could it be that the foolishness of forgiving without end, seeking bread only for only this day, giving simply because there is a need, blessing the evil and just alike is the same foolishness that the crucified and risen Christ has proven to be wiser than any human wisdom?

Matthew winds up Jesus telling three stories rooted deep in the wisdom of Israel: plan well, work hard, be generous. Practice the good you know God is. If God is so good that His Son becomes the least, so that we can be the greatest; if by his poverty, we have become rich, then perhaps wisdom is shown by our investing ourselves in the forgiving of sinners, the well being of the poor, and the healing of the world.

Everyone A Valentine

Not long after Christmas, I’d open the box, break apart the cards, fish out the envelopes, and begin addressing valentine cards to my classmates. I forgot how we all got this right; I only remember that on the appointed date of the class valentine day party, each elementary school student was to bring a valentine for each of the students in their class, no exceptions allowed. 

That made for some awkward moments. 

If it was bad enough that I had give my least favorite teacher a card; it was even worse that I fill one out for the annoying girl who spent recess chasing boys all over the playground. I didn’t want these people to be my valentine, and I had a feeling that the guy I had enjoyed plastering in yesterday’s game of dodge ball didn’t want to be my valentine either. Still, rules were rules: a valentine for everyone; everyone a valentine; no exceptions. 

God works that way. 

In his letter to the Roman church, Paul writes: Christ died for the wicked at the time that God chose. It is a difficult thing for someone to die for a righteous person. It may even be that someone might dare to die for a good person. But God has shown us how much He loves us — it was while we were still sinners that Christ died for us! (Romans 5:6-8, Good News Translation) 

Such a love is hard to ignore. 

It’s the kind of love that promises to do whatever it takes to free people from their muck, wash them off, and make them over. It’s the sort of love that puts a soul right for choosing to live on its promise. It’s a love that finds us when we are lost, and then gives us the directions we need to stay found. Such love forgives us over and over, refuses to condemn us for knowing better, and gives us the heart to love from God’s own good and beautiful heart. 

On this year’s calendar, Lent begins four days after Valentine’s Day. The feast day of a saint whose heart was given over to love serves as overture to a season of giving ourselves over to the God who so loved us, He sent His Son into the world, so that all who believe in Him might not perish, but have eternal life. Lent is a season to open our lives to the truth that Christ has a valentine for everyone, and that everyone is His valentine. No exceptions.

All Things Found

Rummaging about my cluttered study, I re-discovered a lyric by Colin Gibson, which was copyrighted in 1996 by Hope Publishing Company. Its words struck me as an expression of the light which shines in our darkness, the light the darkness cannot extinguish, a telling of a hope found in a child born in Bethlehem, in whose love, nothing is ever lost.

"Nothing is lost on the breath of God"

"Nothing is lost on the breath of God, nothing is lost forever.
       God's breath is love, and that love will remain,
             holding his word forever.
No feather to light, no hair too fine,
       no flower too brief in its glory,
no drop in the ocean, no dust in the air
       but is counted and told in God's story."

Nothing is lost to the eyes of God, nothing is lost forever.
       God sees with love, and that love will remain,
            holding the world forever.
No journey too far, no distance too great,
       no valley of darkness too blinding;
no creature to humble, no child too small
        for God to be seeking and finding.


Nothing is lost to the heart of God, nothing is lost forever.
       God's heart is love, and that love will remain,
             holding the world forever.
No impulse of love, no office of care,
       no moment of life in its fullness;
no beginning too late, no ending too soon,
       but it is gathered and known in its goodness."

Peace.

 

The Wait Begins…

Do you remember when your wait for Christmas began?

Did your wait begin with the delivery of that mail order store catalog filled with must-have Christmas clothes and toys? Or, did it begin with Santa Claus arriving at the local department store, or decorating the family Christmas tree, or realizing how many shopping day were left until Christmas?

Thinking back over the years, it was all of the above with an advent calendar, or a bit of church Christmas planning thrown in. Some years, the wait was hopeful. Other years, the wait was frantic. Most years, December was a joyful time; other years, the days were filled difficulty, or shadowed by loss.

God has known those kinds of times, too.

The word says: “When the time was right, God sent his Son, and a woman gave birth to him. His Son obeyed the Law, so he could set us free from the Law, and we could become God’s children.” (Galatians 4:4, CEV)

Waiting for Christmas has meant God has been with his people suffering in Egypt, or travelling a desert, or living far from home. We spend weeks working and waiting for Christmas day, God spent centuries getting us ready for that first Christmas day. God has known the heartbreak of family who wouldn’t talk to him. God has heard his angels fill a Christmas night with carols of joy. God has known the hope of awaiting the birth of a child, and as Joseph and Mary travelled to Bethlehem, God walked each step of the way with them. No matter how a wait for Christmas unfolds, it is good to know that God has already waited that way, and waits with us still.

Each and every Christmas wait finds its fulfillment in that day a child was born to us who is Christ the Lord. All God’s promises have their “yes” in Christ. All our hopes in God are realized in Christ. Refused the dignity of an inn, Christ grows up to lift our shame from us by forgiving us from a cross. Born in stable, Christ prepares a place in his Father’s house for each of us. Content to sleep in a manger, Christ still finds room in any heart open to receiving him. Caroled by angels, the day will come when every knee shall bow and every tongue will declare Christ Lord of all.

No matter how you find yourself waiting this Christmas, may the light of the child born in Bethlehem fill your days with the joy of a shepherd, who coming even unto Bethlehem, has seen the wonder of God with us.