Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Sunday's Sermon - Risking it all for something better

Exodus 14:19-31
Romans 14:1-12
Matthew 18:21-35

As I reflected on today’s lectionary scriptures, they all seem to me to be calling us to take risks, to reach out in trust and faith for that better thing, that wholeness, that new way of being that God calls us to.  Not easy.  Never easy.  But it is what I hear, in different ways, in all three of today’s scriptures.
The Israelites were called to risk everything in order to no longer be slaves in Egypt.  More, they were called to risk everything so that their children would no longer be slaves in Egypt.  For as we know, they were in the wilderness for 40 years, a generation and more passed before they came to their own place, their own home.  They risked everything so that their children might no longer be an enslaved people.  How scary for them!  How terrifying to leave everything they knew, everything they trusted, everything they experienced and understood and lived, for the risk of a better life for their kids.  Of course it was hard, horrible, and at times they expressed great anger at Moses, at Aaron, at GOD for leading them out, for encouraging such a rick.  There were many, many times when they felt, and said, and yelled that it would have been better to just stay slaves than to go through the painful, difficult transitions of risk, of change, not knowing for sure that they would have something better, but instead only hoping, trusting, having faith that they would.
Then we come to the passage in Romans.  And at first it does not seem to be talking about risk.  But it, too, is.  The new Christian community in Rome was called to take the risk of letting go of some of their principle ways and principle beliefs about what could be eaten, when and how.  Those who grew up as Jews had strong opinions, based on their Torah, our first five books of the Bible, about what was legal and okay to eat, when, and how.  But those who joined them from the Gentile community did not share those beliefs or practices.  This was very hard on many of the people who came from the Jewish tradition.  They felt that the writings of what we now consider the Old Testament were as important in this new community as they had been before.  The laws written in scripture about what could and couldn’t be eaten, they felt, must be upheld.  They were willing to fight for these laws, insisting that those who did not follow them were not true Christians, were not people who should be part of the church.  But Paul challenged that, saying that Christ was about Love and only about Love and that these laws about eating (and other things) that people held on to so strongly had to be released.  These new  Jewish Christians were called to let go of some of their ways, or at least let go of the judgments of others that accompanied these hard and fast beliefs.  They could continue to practice their eating laws and other laws, but they could no longer judge, attack, or exclude those who would come to the faith who did not practice these same laws and rules.  But what Paul was asking of these Jewish Christians was hard.  He was asking them to take a huge risk of letting go of judgment.  That might feel so small to us.  But for them it was huge.  HUGE.  It meant letting go of who they WERE at their core, letting go of being JEWISH in their veins, or at least of being part of a community in which everyone followed the same rules.  And again, many of them simply could not do it.  They heard and knew and understood that they were called to LOVE and not to judge.  But some couldn't do it.  It was simply too hard to take that risk. 
And then finally, lastly, we come to the gospel story for today.  And we are told to forgive and forgive and forgive.  And we are told, what’s more, that in the same way that we fail to forgive, so God will fail to forgive us.  This is calling us to a radical forgiveness.  And that, too, is an invitation to risk everything that we hold on to, to risk the anger and the judgments and the fear that we hold on to, to risk letting all of it go in the reach for a different way of being in the world. 
Can we do this?  We are not being asked to leave our country of origin.  We don’t have the same judgments about food.  But we still have beliefs and judgments and practices that God may be calling us to risk changing.  When Jesus calls us to love and to forgive, even our enemies, even people we fear, can we let go of judgment and risk loving?  Can we let God be in charge of holding people accountable? 
We hear the passage from Exodus and we can only imagine how absolutely terrifying it must have been for the Israelites to pack up their stuff and to leave their homes in search of something better.  We know that people throughout history have done the same, packed up everything, without a job waiting for them or a home already picked out, without a clear image of where they were going or if there would be a place for them, or a welcome, or food to find along the way.  And we know it must have terrifying.  Many of our ancestors came to this country in a similar way, escaping persecution and risking everything to start a new life.  If you are like me you think of those people as people of great courage and faith, being willing to leave behind a country that was their own in search of something better.  But my guess is that it is even harder to risk giving up our most deeply held beliefs, rituals, and practices, in search for something better – community, a new way of relating to God.
               I think about people who spend years in counseling, in therapy, and how hard it is to look at the old stuff, to work it through so that a new way of relating to the world might be found.  I think about the stories plastering the news this last week about Domestic Violence, and how hard it is for these beaten and abused people, mostly women, to leave their partners, their spouses, even when they are being beaten up regularly.  I volunteered for a time on a domestic violence hotline and it was the very, VERY rare victim who would find the courage to leave.  I think about people choosing to make friends and cross cultural, religious, ethnic, etc. boundaries with people who are different from them, people whom they normally judge.  All of this is hard, hard stuff to do.
               Paul Tillich said the opposite of faith is not doubt but certainty.  Usually I hear this quote as meaning that faith in God requires believing in something that can’t be proved either way.  But this week I heard this very differently.  I heard it being about everything else that we hold dear.  When we have faith, we are called to risk our certainty about how we see things, who we judge, how we do things, how we live, and we are called to instead rely on the faith that when God calls us forward into a new way of being, that God really does want and intend the best for us.  That no matter how hard it can be to take those risks, that is what faith calls us to do. 
               As I thought about this risk that we take, the movie the Spitfire Grill came to mind.  The movie is about a very young woman who has just come out of prison for manslaughter and is looking to start a new life.  She finds a small town where she is hired to work at the Spitfire Grill.  And while at first there is a lot of fear and judgment towards Percy, as people get to know her they come to see her and love her for who she is.  There is one exception in the movie, however.  Nahum is extremely protective of his aunt, for whom Percy works, his family and his town.  He sees Percy as a stranger, and as a threat.  He doesn’t want to know her story, or really anything about her.  He cannot take the risk of getting to know Percy or, as he fears, getting hoodwinked by her charm.  In the end, his failure to risk seeing her ends up in a terrible tragedy for the town.  I won’t give away what that is for those who haven’t seen the movie, but I will say that it is only after this irreversible tragedy that he can see his own failure to risk forgiveness, to risk love, to risk seeing this other person as a human being.  That failure to risk a new vision leads to the tragedy, a deep loss for everyone in the town. 
               Most of what we fail to miss by not having the faith to trust in love, in forgiveness, in God’s call to us to be open to both, most of the results of that are only personal.  We miss risking and living for something bigger and better, but it mostly only impacts ourselves.  Still, God calls us to something better.  But sometimes those risks are not just personal but communal as well.  I think about this in terms of Church.  As denominations and as the Christian Church on the whole, are we willing to take risks to be more what God calls us to be?  Are we willing to take stands to say, “we are God’s people and we will stand up for the oppressed, the mistreated, the outcast!”  Are we willing to risk praying, and listening and following God’s call even when it seems scary and threatening and open-ended; even when we cannot see where we are going or what God is leading us to?  Are we willing to take the risk, knowing that God wants the best for us, for our children, and for our communities? 
               I want to end this by simply inviting us into a period of silent listening.  I invite you to simply open yourself to hearing what God is calling you to do, calling US to do. 

               I pray we will have the hearts to risk it all for something better.  That something better is God’s kingdom.  Every week we pray that God’s Kingdom will come here as it is in heaven.  We help bring that about by being willing to risk listening to God’s call and God’s will, by being willing to forgive, no matter how hard that is, by being willing to LOVE.