“Certainly, Certainly, Certainly Lord!”

Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Matthew 18:21-35

Preachers tend to tell big forgiveness stories about people who wrestle with the devastating effects of war, murder, and stupendous acts of unfaithfulness. I am more comfortable talking about penny-ante examples of forgiveness. Jesus covered the entire spectrum with one story. When Peter asked Jesus to define the limits of forgiveness, Jesus told a tale about settling accounts. It’s easy to find ourselves in Jesus’ stories. Jesus never said, “I’m going to tell you a story about two builders, but it’s really about you.” He didn’t have to. In a good story we recognize ourselves instantly. Jesus’ parables are mirrors into which we are invited to take a hard look. Read more

The Beautiful Reality of Repentance

Almost thirty years ago, I saw a movie that has stayed with me ever since. The Mission, directed in 1986 by Roland Joffe, isn’t exactly the kind of film that an eleven year-old would normally be drawn to, and I’m sure there was much in this narrative about Jesuits in 18th-century South America that I didn’t fully grasp when I first watched it. But because film can be such a powerful visual medium, there were scenes that left an indelible impression on me, so that I find myself going back to them even now, decades later. Read more

Assumed and Healed

Baptism of the Lord

Genesis 1:1-5 OR Isaiah 42:1-4, 6-7
Acts 19:1-7 OR Acts 10:34-38
Mark 1:4-11

Mark’s characteristically spare account of Jesus’ baptism tells us little about the encounter between Jesus and John. We don’t learn if Jesus joined the riverside queue waiting to be dunked or suddenly presents himself to a wading John, but we get some sense that Jesus’ arrival is both anticipated and in need of explanation. Why does he undergo baptism of repentance?

Have we’ve heard the story too often to grasp its strangeness? Jesus, like us in all things but sin (see Hebrews 2:17 and 4:15), joins the sinners’ ritual of publicly displaying need of forgiveness. Read more

Forgiven to Forgive

Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Matthew 18:21-35

American culture has bastardized forgiveness into a self-serving tool. For proof, look no further than the Mayo Clinic website or a personal favorite, wikiHow Comparable to its detailed instructions on how to train for a 5k or get rid of a pimple, Wiki provides a 12-step prescription on “How to Forgive,” complete with additional tips and warnings like “forgiveness is hard!” These sites, in addition to others of the self-help variety, commonly extol using forgiveness as a way to better your own physical and emotional health, with the bonus of decreasing stress and potentially increasing your life span. Forgiveness is 100% about you.

This week’s parable in Matthew offers a corrective to this stunted understanding of forgiveness. We first learn, per Jesus, that we have an obligation to extend forgiveness – or release someone from the metaphorical debt they owe you – essentially without limit. The parable also makes clear that we forgive even small slights, because we have already been forgiven a debt that we could never repay. Our ability to forgive is a reflection of and witness to God’s forgiveness of us. Finally, even though it is expected of us, the gesture has to be genuine – “from your heart” (18:35). Read more

Why Grace Doesn’t Fit on a Bumpersticker

Sixth Sunday after Epiphany
Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Psalm 119:1-8
Deuteronomy 30:15-20
Matthew 5:21 – 37

“Christians aren’t perfect – just forgiven.” So the bumper sticker proclaims the good news, the gospel in a nutshell to those shackled by guilt over the slightest failure. Or, better yet, consider how this quip responds to those who enjoy reminding rather sorry Christians, such as myself, how we fall short. I can’t count how many times my own hot-headedness and quick tongue get the better of me. How many of you, like me, have been a jerk to another – especially a family member who may not be so “into” the faith – and get the sarcastic response, “Oh, so that’s how Christians act, eh?” or “Boy, your hypocrisy is really inspiring me to follow Jesus!” And thus this short phrase challenges anyone – Christian or not – who doubts that the heart of our faith is about grace freely given.

And then we read the lectionary readings for today. Read more