I said over the summer that I am reading a book on Philosophy. It is actually a novel that tells the whole history of Philosophy as the story unfolds – it is called Sophie’s World.
Now what is really neat in the book is that for the first two thirds, Sophie, our heroine, has no idea what is going on... a lot of the things that happen don’t make sense... There is this mysterious girl, Hilde, who could, or could not exist, who might or might not be Sophie herself... It is quite confusing to her – and the reader genuinely has no better idea what is going on.
Then – two thirds of the way through we switch narrators – Hilde becomes the heroine... and almost immediately we are told the answers. All of a sudden we have this “AH HA...” moment when it all makes sense – and is so easy... such a simple solution....
But until that point nothing made sense.
Do you ever wish God would explain some things?
Ever wish that there WAS an answer that made it all make sense?
Ever wish you could yell at God about the things that don‘t?
Well – perhaps some times we should....
Are We Saved
So – here is an interesting question: “The summer is over, the harvest is ended, are we saved?” Why not?
Why is it that no matter what we do, no matter how faithful we are – there are still so many problems? You know, this week I honestly thought I would have to resign my membership in the Christian church. There was this guy down in Florida, Terry Jones, who is a Pastor of some unheard of evangelical church; who decided he was going to burn all the copies of the Qu’ran he could get his hands on on September 11th.
Luckily common sense, God, and the President of the United States talked him out of it... but still, my gut reaction was, do I want to be associated with this guy? Are he and I, as pastors, thought about in the same way by people? And the reason I considered leaving for a day is that yes, to many people, we are....
Most people see Christianity as pretty ineffectual. It doesn’t do a whole lot of good. We pray for rain and there is still a 50/50 chance of sun. We live according to our faith and we are no more likely to live long lives, or get rich, or be happy than anyone else.
So what good is God?
Is it enough that God would weep for the people who lost their lives on 9/11? Is it enough that God is there silently loving us when we are in pain? Is it enough?
I guess this week I am feeling a little like raging against God. Just wait till we get to the Psalm...
How Long O Lord?
It used to be, in almost all of our lifetimes, that the church was the centre of society. Heck I have even talked to people who chose Saint John’s over Central just so they could be seen by the right sort of people....
That is not the case now, is it... my how the tides have turned in a few short years. The truth is, we are back to being much closer in societal position to the people who wrote the Bible... Those guys who wrote the Psalms... they felt a whole lot of neglect.... they felt like outsiders.... and they never got the respect they deserved.
So they cry out to God, HOW LONG! How long are you going to sit by and let the good be punished? How long are you going to stand idly by while the wicked prosper?
If ever there was such a thing as a bolt of lightning from God, I have a few suggestions...
Of course, that is probably why I am not in charge of the lightning bolt aiming device...
But seriously... the church seems to be relegated to the sidelines, Christians are dismissed as lunatics, mainly because the craziest of us get the most press; and what exactly is the point of all this?
Why do we come here every week? Why do we say prayers? What difference does it make?
Just because I know some things stick in our heads and we get distracted by them; I want to remind you, this is a rant. This is me being upset with God for all the bad things I have seen in my lifetime. And like most of you, I suspect, there have been a ton of them. Instead of pretending they don’t exist, I am bringing them out into the open and asking God, what are we supposed to do in light of all this....
Did I ever tell you the story of the starfish?
There was this old man, walking the beach at dawn, who noticed a young man ahead of him picking up starfish and flinging them into the sea. Catching up with the youth, he asked what he was doing. The answer was that the stranded starfish would die if left in the morning sun. 'But the beach goes on for miles and miles, and there are millions of starfish,' countered the man. 'How can your effort make any difference?' The young man looked at the starfish in his hand and then threw it to safety in the waves. 'It makes a difference to this one,' he said."
The Parable that Makes no Sense
Let me re-tell this story according to someone who wrote a Master’s Thesis on this parable, Dylan Breuer, an Anglican Priest in the states...
A very, very rich man lives in a big city (like Jerusalem), with a lifestyle of luxury made possible from the income of the estate he owns in the countryside. He's hired a manager (steward) to run it while he parties in Jerusalem, and all of the work of planting and harvesting is done by peasants whose grandparents might have owned the land but lost it in payment to a debt. Now the peasants work the land as tenant farmers, buying what they need from the company store (at prices far above what their grandparents paid for the same goods), with whatever is left over after the exorbitant rent is paid to the landowner. The harvest is never quite enough to pay the rent plus what the family needs, so the family is slipping further and further into debt.
The landowner fires the steward because of rumours that the steward was squandering the landowner's resources. So the steward is no longer authorized to do anything at all in the master's name. The farmers from whom he probably came aren't about to take him in either, given that up until now he's allied himself with the landowner by taking a job that involves collecting exorbitant rents, running the company store, and generally dealing unjustly with the farmers.
So what does the steward do? Something extraordinarily clever. He gathers all of the farmers who owe him money, and he declares that their debts have been reduced from the rough equivalent of "a million bazillion kajillion dollars" to something that maybe could be repaid, (maybe) freeing the family to make choices about next steps. With quirks of how records were kept, this involves a few subtle strokes of the (forger's) pen -- much like what students do in changing a handwritten 'D' to a 'B' on a report card.
The steward doesn't tell the farmers that he was fired any more than he tells them that the landowner didn't authorize any of this generosity. The result is that the farmers believe the landowner is more generous than just about anyone else in his position would be. The landowner is now a hero in the farmers' eyes -- and the steward is also, by extension.
The landowner comes for his customary visit to pick up the wealth the steward has collected for him, and he gets a surprise... The streets for miles before he reaches the estate are lined by cheering farmers. They're shouting his name, telling him he's a hero.
He finds out (probably when he arrives at the estate house) what the steward has done in telling the farmers that the landowner forgave their debts. Now he has a choice to make. The landowner can go outside to the assembled crowd -- the people shouting blessings upon him and all his family -- and tell them that it was all a terrible mistake, that the steward was just making it up.... or... he can go outside and take in the cheering of the crowd. He can take credit for the steward's actions, in which case he'll be a hero.
Now here is the big problem we always see in this story... the steward is clearly dishonest.... and we can’t figure out Jesus is praising him.
So here is a question for you... forget the ethics for a moment and consider: What, precisely, is it that the steward does?
The steward forgives debts.
The steward forgives. He forgives things that he had no right to forgive. He forgives for all the wrong reasons, for personal gain and to compensate for past misconduct. But that's the decisive action that he undertakes to redeem himself from a position from which it seem he couldn't be reconciled, to the landowner any more than to the farmers.
So what's the moral of this story, one of the stories unique to Luke?
It's a moral of great emphasis for Luke: FORGIVE. Forgive it all. Forgive it now. Forgive it for any reason you want, or for no reason at all.
Why do we complain about the way of the world? Why do we rage when things look unjust? Because we genuinely still don’t get it. This is the way God is... God is above all score keeping, above all our concepts of right and wrong... God is love. God is forgiveness. And if we could get there DESPITE how we feel about 9/11, despite how we feel about our neighbours cat, despite how we feel about people who irritate us... well... we would be commendable too.
Why forgive someone who's sinned against us, or against our sense of what is obviously right? We don't have to do it out of love for the other person, if we're not there yet. We could forgive the other person because of that whole business of what we pray in Jesus' name every Sunday morning, and because we know we'd like forgiveness ourselves. We could forgive because we've experienced what we're like as unforgiving people, and so we know that refusing to forgive because we don't want the other person to benefit is, as the saying goes, like eating rat poison hoping it will hurt the rat. We could forgive because we are, or we want to be, deeply in touch with a sense of Jesus' power to forgive and free sinners like us. Or we could forgive because we think it will improve our odds of winning the lottery.
It boils down to the same thing: deluded or sane, selfish and/or unselfish, there is no bad reason to forgive. Extending the kind of grace God shows us in every possible arena -- financial and moral -- can only put us more deeply in touch with God's grace.
SO what is the payoff to being Christian? Why aren’t we seeing it? Maybe because we aren’t there yet. Faith is a journey and it is a journey to the heart of God. That is not an easy place for us to get to. Almost every day I fail. But almost every day I start over. And yes, sometimes I do it for the wrong reasons.
Do you know, a scientific study shows that couples that kiss goodbye in the morning are more than 50 percent more likely not to divorce? Want to know the truly odd thing? The study showed that it made absolutely no difference whether they meant it or not.
So to quote Nike, just do it. Love, with all you can, forgive with all your heart; for whatever reason – eventually you will get where you are supposed to be.
Amen, and thanks be to God!