Tuesday, May 29, 2018

Fruits of the Spirit: Gentleness

Today, we come to the eighth fruit of the Spirit listed by St. Paul in Galatians chapter 5 verses 22-23, gentleness.

I don’t know what you think when you hear the word gentleness, but I tend to think of someone who is kind, mild-mannered and tender.  I conjure up images of doves and little lambs.  I decided to do an image search on Google about gentleness, and you see pictures of babies hands being held by adults; puppies, kittens, feathers, and adults holding little babies.  You see things that make you go, “Aw! How cute!  How precious!”

And so one might think, “Ah, this is how we are supposed to be as Christians.  We are supposed to be gentle.  We are supposed to be like doves; like lambs–cute, cuddly, and basically harmless.  But as I have found so often during this sermon series on the fruits of the Spirit, what I first thought was not necessarily the case.

Prautas, the Greek word for gentleness, can be translated gentle strength.  There is no hint of weakness in this word.  Rather, it is a term that is used for someone who indeed is strong; someone who has power; yet, does not use that power abusively. Instead, he or she uses it in a very restrained manner.

I can remember when Kevin, Jr. was born.  Of course, Kiera, being three years old at the time, wanted to hold her baby brother.  She was much bigger and much stronger than he was, and so when we laid him on her lap, we told her over and over again, “Be gentle.”  She could have easily used her superior strength to hurt her baby brother, but instead, we had to teach her to restrain her strength and hold her brother in a way that wouldn’t hurt him.  This is the kind of gentleness that Paul lists here as a fruit of the Spirit.  It recognizes that we have power.  It recognizes that we have strength.  And it calls upon us to restrain that strength for the sake of others.

Now, what does that mean?  We get a good grasp of this from our Gospel lesson from the 11th Chapter of the book of Matthew.  Jesus has been teaching a crowd of people, and he has just finished railing against a couple of cities that he has been in.  He performed many deeds of power and might, but they did not believe in Him.  He told the crowd that it would not turn out well for these cities in the long run.

Turning his focus from these cities, Jesus then thanks God for doing something quite unexpected.  Instead of “opening the eyes of the wise” which one would expect God to do, God chose to open the eyes of “infants”.  This is a not so subtle slam against those who claimed to know who God was and how God acted in Jesus’ day.  These are the folks who rejected Jesus as Messiah and Lord. They couldn’t see God at work through Him because Jesus didn’t meet their expectations.  And so it was those who had been cast off by the religious elite who could see Jesus as the Messiah.  It was those who were cast off by other rabbis because they were considered unworthy to continue their religious education who came to believe in Him.  Jesus rejoices in this.

And then, Jesus utters these words which, if you have been raised in the church, are very familiar, “28 ‘Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. 29Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

Now, there were two types of yokes used in Jesus’ day. The first was a yoke used to harness two animals together so that they could plow, pull a cart or what have you.  But there was also a yoke that human beings would use.  This was placed on the shoulders to help carry or pull a load.  I’m a hunter, and generally, every time I go into Academy or some other similar store, I walk through the hunting section.  On several occasions, I have noticed shoulder harnesses that can be worn in the event that you shoot something and have to drag it quite a distance.  This is a modern day yoke.

The question is: what kind of burden needs to be borne?  What needs to be carried that would require a yoke?  Quite simply put, it is obedience to God. It is discerning and following God’s will.  It is making sure that I do what God tells me to do.  Now, there are some folks these days who would say that they don’t have to worry about that yoke because they don’t believe in God.  To them, I reply, like I did last week, it just depends upon what you mean when you say God.

Remember, last week, I set forth Luther’s definition of a god that he set forth in the Large Catechism.  A god is anything that we look to that we believe will provide safety, security, and to which we give our whole heart to.  I took a bit of time to show that you can basically make anything into a god.  If you think government will solve every problem, your god is government.  If you believe having money will solve all your problems, your god is money.  And so on and so forth.  What Jesus would say to this is that whenever you put your ultimate trust in something–you take on its yoke.  You take on its demands.  You become obedient to your god, and your god has power over you.  Your god makes demands of you.  You must bow to these demands or face the consequences.  And, eventually, you will see that any false god will destroy and humiliate you.

What do I mean by that?  A newspaper reporter who interviewed an old rancher asked him what attributed to his success.  With a twinkle in his eye, the man replied, “It’s been about 50 percent weather, 50 percent good luck, and the rest is brains!”  At that moment, a young, cocky cowboy rode by and saw the old rancher sitting on his mule.  Deciding to have a little fun, the young cowboy drew his six shooter and told the rancher to get down off his mule.  Then he asked him if he had ever danced.  The cowboy laughed as he emptied his revolver at the man’s feet!  Obviously unamused, the old man slowly turned back to his mule and pulled out a shotgun from his pack.  He aimed it at the bulletless young cowboy and said, “Did you ever kiss a mule?”  The young cowboy said with a trembling voice, “No, but I’ve always wanted to.”

You could argue that the young cowboy in that story was worshiping humor.  He tried to satisfy his god at the expense of an old rancher, but his obedience wasn’t good enough.  His tactics did not result in conversion.  Instead, they resulted in the tables being turned.  Now, the question is: what will that god of humor demand of that young cowboy?  What will that god of humor tell him?  It would tell him this, “Well, you messed up royally this time.  So, next time, you’d better try harder.  You’d better take a different approach.  If you want to serve me and laugh and have fun with life, you’d better be more careful and do things right!”

And things might go okay for a time, but there will be another time when someone else doesn’t find things funny. There will be another time when someone else takes offense.  There will be another time when the tables will get turned, and the same spiral will occur with more and more demands being made.  Now, I know I stretched things just a little bit with this example, but hopefully you can see how false gods operate.  They are very demanding with those whom they put in their yokes.

Jesus says, however, “Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.”  Here is that word: gentle.  What is Jesus saying here?  He is saying that when it comes to the demands of satisfying the true God, the only way you will find peace is through Him.  The only way you will find that you can satisfy the demands of God is through Jesus Christ.  The only way you can have obedience to God is through Jesus Christ.  The only way your soul can rest in knowing that you have met God’s demands is through Jesus Christ.

And it’s not because Jesus is a weakling.  Remember, oftentimes we think of gentleness in this fashion.  No.  You don’t calm a storm if you are a weakling.  You don’t cast out demons if you are a weakling.  You don’t bring dead people back to life if you are a weakling.  Jesus embodies the power of God.  Jesus has all authority in heaven and on earth.  But the question is: how does He use it?  How does He put it into practice?  Does He bring condemnation and damnation?

No.  He brings quite the opposite.  He brings love and reconciliation.  Knowing that we could never satisfy His demands; knowing that we fall far short of the glory of God, Jesus saved us by grace as a gift by redeeming us as He gave Himself as a sacrifice of atonement effective through our trust in Him.  That’s a short paraphrase of Romans chapter 3, by the way.  In other words, when we could not be obedient to Jesus; when we failed to follow His commands and were deserving of His wrath. When Jesus had every right to unleash the same power He used to calm the storms on the sea upon us for failing Him, instead, He held us as children in the palm of His hand.  Instead of punishing us and making us pay for our failure; He paid that price for us and gave Himself up for us.  And then, He clothed us with His righteousness.  He clothed us with Himself.  He reached into the depths of our hearts to change us from within.

And because He did this, our hearts respond with gratitude.  Because He did this, our hearts leap with joy.  Because He did this, we know that nothing can ever separate us from our God.  We know His tremendous love for us, and so we strive for His will.  We long to please Him.  We long to fulfill His commands, not because we have Jesus looming over us filling us with fear lest we fail, but because He was gentle with us.  He could have used His overwhelming power to condemn, but instead, He used it to save.

And when our hearts are grasped by this, we do likewise.  This is St. Paul’s point in Galatians chapter 6.  You see, too often, we Christians are like the lion who one day decided to walk through the jungle.  He was taking a poll to find out which animal was the greatest of them all.  When he saw the hippopotamus, he asked, “Who is the king of the jungle?”  “You are,” said the hippo.  Next, he met a giraffe.  “Who is king of the jungle?” he asked.  “You are,” said the giraffe.  Then he met a tiger and said, “Who is the king of the jungle?” “Oh, you are,” said the tiger.

Finally, he met an elephant.  The lion gave him a good rap on the knee and said, “And who is the king of the jungle?”  Immediately, the elephant picked him up in his trunk and flung him against a large tree.  As the lion bounced off the tree and hit the ground, he got up, dusted himself off, and said, “You don’t have to get so mad just because you don’t know the right answer!”

I think we’ve all heard the stories about Christians who walk around thinking they are morally superior to everyone else.  We’ve all heard stories of Christians who walk around wearing their salvation on their sleeves and looking down their noses at anyone who doesn’t believe as they do or who they see as immoral.  We’ve all heard stories about Christians who think that being saved gives them license to point out everyone else’s flaws and rain down God’s condemnation upon others.  Somehow, it is thought that this is effective evangelism.  But it only serves to infuriate others.  It only serves to make them angry at us and turn them away from God.  Paul’s response in Galatians six: if you see someone who is sinning: be gentle.

This means, we have power.  This means we do have a sort of moral high ground.  We recognize the sin.  We recognize that someone is doing the wrong thing, but instead of using our power to condemn, we become gentle.  We recognize that the person who is sinning or who has sinned must be treated in a manner that will bring them to repentance instead of harden their stance.  We must recognize that our role is to bring them to the foot of the cross where they see the God who died for them so that they are willing to put His yoke upon themselves.  We must hold back our desire to yell out “Thou shalt not or you will face God’s wrath!” and instead lead them in holy conversation to meet their Lord and Savior.  We must confront their sin in a manner that helps them see how they have fallen short, but does not condemn them or make them think we hate them.

Booker T. Washington traveled to a city to make a speech.  As the story goes, his train was late, and he was in a hurry.  So he left the station to take a cab, but the driver yelled out, “I don’t drive blacks.”  Washington said, “All right, I’ll drive you.  You get in the back.”

Do you see the gentleness in that response?  Do you see the ability to show the sin without condemning the sinner?  This is the fruit of the Spirit alive and well.  This is the fruit of the Spirit that we produce when we first experience Jesus’ gentleness toward us.  This is the fruit of the Spirit that issues forth from the church and from us as Christians.  May we produce it in abundance.  Amen.

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Fruits of the Spirit: Faithfulness

Today, we come to the seventh fruit of the Spirit found in Galatians 5:22-23: faithfulness.

I found it quite interesting that when I looked at the text in Greek, the word that was used for this gift of the Spirit was pistis.  Pistis is normally translated rather simply with the word: “faith.”  Rarely is it ever translated “faithfulness.”  This sent my brain into overdrive because this word–the concept of faith–is extremely important for the church these days.  The concept of faith is also vitally central to our identity as Lutheran Christians.

And as I began to think about its importance, I began to sweat bullets.  I thought, “How in the world will I be able to cover such an important word; an important gift, in the time allotted to me?  How can I squeeze things down so that we can understand its importance?”  The reality is: there is no way I can possibly do this.  There is no way that I can cram all there is to say about faith into a fifteen to twenty minute sermon, so we will have to talk in broad strokes this morning.  I hope to cover these three things: 1) what faith is.  2) What it means to have faith in Jesus.  And 3) How it leads us to have faith in one another.

The first item to tackle is: what faith is.  What is faith?  A definition that you will hear oftentimes is that faith is “believing without seeing.”  This definition is actually partially correct.  The writer of Hebrews essentially defines faith in this fashion in a classic definition given in chapter 11, “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”  Faith is something we can count on to happen in the future–a hope–a hope that is so deeply rooted that we are convicted of it even though we cannot see it. Oftentimes, this sort of understanding gets interpreted toward God–that God is something out there; someone we will meet in the future, and we are convicted of this to the point that we hold onto this without any sort of evidence whatsoever.

As I have studied what faith is, I now realize that this definition is lacking.  It is true that we all believe in God not having seen Him.  We all believe in Jesus not having seen him.  But that does not mean that we don’t have evidence.  We do.  That evidence is actually sitting in the pews in front of you in that red book with the letters B-I-B-L-E on it.  For the Bible is a recorded history of God’s interaction with the Jewish people, and then God’s ultimate revelation to humanity as Himself embodied in the person Jesus of Nazareth.  This evidence has been passed down for 2000 years.  Not only has this evidence been passed down, but we have a great cloud of witnesses who have shared with us their experiences of God–experiences that walk hand in had with God’s revelation in the Bible.  Most of us here this morning have had someone in our lives tell us about God–tell us about Jesus.  Most of us here this morning have had family members and friends who have talked about their answered and unanswered prayers; they have talked about times where they felt the presence of God; they have shared why they believe God is real.  And, here is the kicker, here is the important part of that which fleshes out the definition of faith for us: we trusted them.  You see, faith isn’t just believing without seeing–that is only part of the definition; faith is also trusting that what has been given to us is true.

You see, this understanding is actually rammed home when you understand the ancient world in which the Bible was written.  There were actually very, very few atheists–as we would call them.  Almost everyone believed in God or a god.  Such belief was taken for granted.  The real question was: which God did you believe in?  Or, better put, which God did you trust?  This distinction can be understood in the following story:

An atheist was out one Sunday morning hiking in a state park.  He was walking along a cliff edge when the trail suddenly gave way.  The atheist dropped down and luckily caught a branch that was hanging over the canyon below.  There was no way he could climb up; now way he could climb down; and the drop would certainly kill him.

As he held onto that branch, he desperately cried out for help, but being a Sunday, there was no one around.  In final desperation, he yelled to the sky, “God, I have never believed in you, but if you really exist, I could use a hand.”

Shockingly, a voice from the sky responded, “I do exist, and I have heard your prayer.  I will help you.”

In that moment, the atheist became a believer in God.  Excited by this new belief that he had, he cried out, “What do you need me to do?”

The voice responded, “Let go.”

The new believer looked at the ground and the long drop, looked back at the sky and said, “Is anyone else up there?”

Do you see how faith and trust can be separated?  Can you see the difference that can be made between the two?  The fruit of the Spirit, pistis, does not make such a distinction.  Belief and trust are tightly wound together so that if this fruit is present in your life, not only do you believe in God, but you trust Him for your safety, security, and well being.  You place your life in His hands.

And that brings us to part 2) what does it mean to have faith in God or Jesus?  Again, this is important for us to be able to talk about in this day and age because we’ve got to do a better job in evangelism.  We’ve got to do a better job in helping people understand their need for Jesus.  Why is this the case?

Because everyone believes in a god.  That might sound strange, and an atheist would certainly disagree.  However, it depends on how you define God.  An atheist can certainly reject the definition of an old, powerful guy sitting on a throne somewhere up in the sky zapping people at His will.  But if you define God like Martin Luther defined God, then there is another story.  You see, the founder of the Lutheran Church defined God as this in the Large Catechism: A god means that from which we are to expect all good and to which we are to take refuge in all distress, so that to have a God is nothing else than to trust and believe Him from the [whole] heart.  So, if we accept this definition of a god: something that we expect that will bring us all good; something that we expect will bring us all security; and something that we trust with our whole heart–it is safe to say that there is no such thing as an atheist.

Everyone has a god.  It just depends on what you put your ultimate trust in.  Do you think government will solve all the world’s problems and bring about lasting peace?  If you do, that’s your god.  If you believe that if you just had enough money, then all your worries would cease, then your god is money.  If you long for possessions: one more car; one more piece of land; one more electronic gadget, and you believe that these things will satisfy you, your god is possessions.  If you believe that if people just had the right kind of knowledge; if they just learned the appropriate things, then the world would be perfect; your god is knowledge and education.  If you believe that science holds the key to making the world a better place and ushering in safety and security for all, then your god is science.  I could go on and on and on because the possibilities of what can be a god are almost infinite.

So what makes our God different?  What makes Jesus different?  If I had more time, I would try to show how each and every false god makes extreme demands on us to the point that it will make us sacrifice ourselves to it.  In other words, we will never, ever satisfy our false gods.  For instance, if your god is knowledge and you believe that if we all just had enough knowledge, the world would be great.  Well, can we ever get enough knowledge?  Will we ever obtain enough education?  Can we force others to learn so that they will arrive at the place we are?  Already you can see that the answers to these questions is no.  We can never fulfill it, but knowledge drives us on. It demands that we learn more.  It demands that we teach more–even though others may not accept it.  Soon, we find ourselves down and defeated knowing that we have failed, but knowledge will not relent.  It will be ever more demanding.  If you look at every other false god, you will see this happening.

And so, now, let’s take a look at what happens when faith/trust is placed in Jesus.  And, I am using Jesus and God interchangeably here.  For the Christian, God is Jesus and Jesus is God.  Yes, Jesus demanding.  He lays this out unequivocally in His teaching.  He demands nothing less than our entire being.  He demands that we follow Him above all else and implement His teachings in perfection.  But what happens when we fail to do this?  What happens when we find ourselves crushed by His demands?  What happens when we find ourselves failing in front of our God?

Does our God demand more?  Does our God demand our death?  Does God demand that we use all of our might to right the ship or we will perish?  No.  Instead of these things, our God lays down His life for us.  Our God sacrifices Himself for us.  Our God loves us with an unimaginable love.  This is what Jesus does for us on the cross.  No other god will sacrifice itself for us; no other god will pay for our failure; only Jesus will do that.  This sets Jesus apart from every other god; every other religion.  This is why He and He alone is deserving of our faith; deserving of our trust.

Think of it this way; if someone is willing to give everything for you; if someone is willing to love you when you are unlovable; if someone has stuck with you through not only the best but also the absolute worst of what has happened, would you trust them?  Would you have faith in them?  Would you come to love them?  Of course you would.  So why put your trust in any other god?  Why look to all of those other things to put your faith in when they will not do the same for you?  Jesus has already done this.  It only makes sense to put our faith in him.

Which now brings us to point 3) Faith in Jesus leads to faith in one another.  A pastor was speaking to his parishioners on the relationship between fact and faith.  He said, “That you are sitting before me in this church is a fact.  That I’m standing here, speaking from this pulpit is a fact.  But to believe anyone is listening to me is pure faith!”

All jokes aside, this world really does a good job of getting us to doubt one another.  This world does a good job of sowing seeds of distrust among one another.  I mean, we do a good job of sowing seeds of distrust among each other.

A church choir director was going crazy at the rehearsals for a Christmas choral concert.  It seemed at least two or more members of the choir were absent from every rehearsal.  Finally, at the last rehearsal, she said, “I want to personally thank the pianist for being the only person in this entire church choir to attend each and every rehearsal during the past two months.”  Then the pianist stood up, bowed, and said, “It was the least I could do, considering I won’t be able to be at the concert tonight.”

It’s funny, but there is no denying the fact that we let one another down.  There is no denying that we fail to be the people we should be in relationships.  None of us are perfect, and we have a nasty habit of magnifying our imperfections.  We have a nasty habit of focusing on our shortcomings.  We are almost programmed to focus on the negative.

But faith helps offer a corrective–particularly the fruit of the Spirit.  Our faith, our trust, is in the one who laid down His life to forgive us.  Our faith, our trust is in the one who died for us even though we were and are imperfect.  Our faith, our trust is in the one who gave Himself up for us and sacrificed Himself for us.  And when we have experienced this kind of grace; when we have experienced this kind of love; when we know that someone died for us with all of our imperfections; we are slow to condemn others for their imperfections.  We are slow to condemn others for their shortcomings.  We are slow to condemn others for when they fall short of what we would like them to be.  In short, we are forgiving.

When the world seeks to sow the seeds of distrust and animosity; the church sets a different tone.  When the world excludes you because of a mistake or a slip of the tongue, the church accepts you.  When the world is harsh because of a mistake you make, the church is comforting.  When the world seeks to hone in on your weakness and bring you down, the church seeks to strengthen you and build you up.  This is only possible when we trust one another in our weakness.  This is only possible when we acknowledge our shortcomings; our failings; our frailty.  This is only possible when we in the church see perfection not as a requirement for membership but as an admirable goal we strive imperfectly toward.  In the church, we allow others to see our pain, our suffering, our vulnerability because we have faith that fellow church members will show us compassion, care, concern, and help us heal.

A father was about to cross the street with his son, and said to his son, “Son, hold my hand while we are crossing the street.”  His son replied, “No, dad, you hold my hand because I know if you hold my hand and something happens, you won’t let go.”

That is the type of faith and trust we have in each other.  We hold one another’s hand knowing that if something happens, we won’t let go.  We hold onto our brothers and our sisters because God held onto us.  I trust and have faith in you.  You trust and have faith in me.  The Spirit gives us that gift.  May we have it in abundance.  Amen.

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Fruits of the Spirit: Goodness

Today, we come to the sixth fruit in St. Paul’s list of the fruits of the Spirit in Galatians 5:22-23: agathōsunē.

Now, there is a reason that I spoke the word in Greek instead of giving you an English translation.  Because when I started work this week, I realized that different Bibles translate this word differently.  Most of the Bibles translate agathōsunē as goodness–like the NIV, ESV, and King James Bibles, but the NRSV, which is the Bible we have in our pews as well as the Bible from which we print our bulletin readings translates the word generosity. 

And so, I very much felt like the two moving men who were struggling with a big crate in a doorway.  They pushed and pulled until both were completely exhausted.  Finally, the man on the outside said, “We might as well give up.  We’ll never get this thing in.”  The man on the inside yelled back, “What do you mean get it in?  I thought we were trying to get it out!”  You know, which way are we supposed to go?  Which translation is most accurate?  It was also like someone coming up to me and asking me: where do you want to go eat: at your favorite Mexican food restaurant or your favorite steakhouse? I’m like: do I really have to choose?

I’m giving you this background information for a reason, because I think it relates to something that most of us experience from time to time.  I mean, I’m not the only one who has had to make a difficult choice, am I?  I’m not the only one who has had two paths before me, and both look to be correct?  I’m not the only one who has had to wrestle with having to choose one or the other of those paths knowing that once I started down one of those paths, I was committed?  Have you ever been there?  Have you ever had to make that choice and have it effect everything else that you would do?  Have you ever studied it and thought: well, either way seems good, but I’m not sure which one would be better?  Don’t get me wrong, some of those decisions are much more important than how you translate the word agathosune, but the experience rings true for just about everyone.

So, here is how I chose to resolve the problem that I had before me.  When you are studying language, you can oftentimes learn more about the definition of a word by studying the root words, and in the case of agathosune, there is a definite root word: agathos.  Now, agathos is normally translated as “good.”  And I thought to myself, “Well, that might be helpful in helping me to figure things out.”  There was one particular story that crept into my mind immediately, and that was the story of the rich, young ruler.  We have that story before us from the 10th Chapter of the book of Mark.  A young man comes up to Jesus and bows down before Him.  This is a major show of honor and respect.  Some might even call it worship.  But what is then striking is what the young man says.  He says to Jesus, “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

Now, the question isn’t necessarily striking: it’s how the young man addresses Jesus.  He calls Jesus “good teacher.”  This was a huge no-no in that time and place.  The Jewish rabbis had argued greatly about whether or not anyone should be called good, and they had come up with a resounding, “NO!”  It was unanimous as far as we can see from the literature.  Jewish rabbis believed that only God was good.

And that’s exactly what Jesus says to this young man.  “Why do you call me good?  No one is good but God alone.”  Now, some scholars believe that Jesus is somehow indicating that he isn’t good; that he is somehow less than God, but I don’t think so.  I agree with other scholars who think that what Jesus is doing here is telling the young guy, “Be careful in what you say.  Do you really want to call me God?  Because by falling on your knees and calling me God, you are saying that you will follow everything I say.  Do you really want to go there?”  The implications of those questions are still quite staggering for anyone who calls Jesus Lord and Savior of their lives.  But that is for another sermon.  What we must take away from this teaching right now is the fact that only God is considered good.

Now, for some of you, this might settle what the translation should be.  It should be goodness; however, I did discover why the translators of the NRSV used the word generosity.  And I think it also helps us shed some light on what this fruit of the Spirit truly is. 

I’d like to ask you to turn in your Bibles to Matthew chapter 20. (It’s on page 19) We are going to read the first sixteen verses of this chapter.  ‘For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. 2After agreeing with the laborers for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard. 3When he went out about nine o’clock, he saw others standing idle in the market-place; 4and he said to them, “You also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.” So they went. 5When he went out again about noon and about three o’clock, he did the same. 6And about five o’clock he went out and found others standing around; and he said to them, “Why are you standing here idle all day?” 7They said to him, “Because no one has hired us.” He said to them, “You also go into the vineyard.” 8When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his manager, “Call the laborers and give them their pay, beginning with the last and then going to the first.” 9When those hired about five o’clock came, each of them received the usual daily wage. 10Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received the usual daily wage. 11And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, 12saying, “These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.” 13But he replied to one of them, “Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? 14Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. 15Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?” 16So the last will be first, and the first will be last.’

Now, please pay particular attention to the end of verse 15.  Do you see the tiny v in italics at the end of that verse.  If you drop down to the bottom of the page, you will see the footnote which says that the literal translation of the Greek is “is your eye evil because I am good.”  Generosity seems to fit the context of the parable, and this is why they use it later on.  I’m not convinced they were right because if we remember that Jesus says, “No one but God is good,” then this parable is saying, “Are you envious–do you have an evil eye–because I am good–because I am like God?”

After I put these two things together–these two parables, I stopped and thought about it for a moment and realized just what this fruit of the Spirit is.  Generosity doesn’t cut it; neither does goodness, in my estimation.  Agathosune, seems to mean godliness–showing forth the nature and person of God; imitating God; being like God.

It’s no wonder then, that Paul pens the opening words of our second lesson this morning from the book of Ephesians, “Be imitators of God.”  In other words, produce agathosune!  Produce goodness.  But how easy is this?  How easy is it to show forth the nature and person of God?  I mean, don’t we tend to be more like this little anecdote that Mark Twain shared? 

Twain writes, “When I was a boy, I was walking along the street and happened to spy a cart full of watermelons.  I was fond of watermelon, so I sneaked quietly up to the cart and snitched one.  Then I ran to a nearby alley and sank my teeth into the melon.  No sooner had I done so, however, than a strange feeling came over me.  Without a moment’s hesitation, I made my decision.  I walked back to the cart, replaced the melon–and took a ripe one.”

Oh, and even when we aren’t falling to temptation, do we not find ourselves much like the young pastor who, while spreading the good news, was making hospital rounds for the first time.  Visiting an elderly parishioner, he walked in and plopped himself down on the side of her bed.  He began aggressively questioning her about her surgery.  Before leaving, he asked, “Is there anything else I can do for you?”  The sweet old lady replied, “Well, if you don’t mind, would you please take your foot off my oxygen hose?”

It is extremely difficult to produce goodness.  It’s extremely difficult to be like God.  And I used to think that getting people and churches to be like God–to produce goodness–was just a matter of explaining to them the command.  I used to think, “You know, if I get up in front of the church at explain why this is commanded; if I put together a few cute stories and give a bit of reassurance, then people will go out and try to be like God.  The church will work together to be like God.  People will begin producing love, joy, peace, patience, goodness, etc.”  Of course, I assumed that I was already doing such things–certainly not perfectly, but I thought I at least was on the right track.

But then reality smacked me in the face.  Then I came face to face with what often happens in churches and with pastors.  After our congregation experienced a time of rapid growth, we stagnated.  We didn’t grow, and we started declining.  Oh, I was still preaching the same sorts of sermons.  I was still putting together cute stories and words of inspiration, but we stopped growing.  And this made me take a hard look at myself.  A real hard look at myself, and what I saw wasn’t pretty.

Sure, I was preaching God’s word.  Sure, from time to time, there were some fruits of the Spirit present, but deep down in the bottom of my heart, I found that God was not at the center.  I found that I was working for what I wanted in my life.  I was striving after the things of this world.  Confronted with this, I realized that not only did I simply commit some sins, but that I was a sinner.  I needed a Savior, and I found myself looking up at the cross at the One who bled and died for me.

And suddenly, the goodness of God became real to me.  The goodness of God shined deep within the recesses of my heart.  I knew that I deserved condemnation for trying to use God to get what I wanted.  I knew I deserved God’s anger and wrath for not putting Him at the center of my life, but instead of getting that wrath, I received mercy.  The God in flesh, Jesus, took my sin upon himself, and he paid the price for that sin.  He died for me.

And then He gave me a new status.  He gave me a new position.  He gave me his righteousness when I did not deserve it.  He gave me His blamelessness when I didn’t deserve it.  He clothed me with Himself so that when I stand before the Father in Heaven, I am deemed worthy; justified; a child of the most high God.  “For I have been crucified with Christ, and yet I live, not I, but Christ that lives within me.”

And things started to change in my life.  Oh, don’t get me wrong.  I’m far from being a perfect imitator of God.  I’m far from producing goodness in total.  I’m still growing and learning and being transformed.  But I know that I don’t get as upset as I used to.  I’m much more slow to anger.  I laugh more.  I see the goodness in others more.  I’m quick to give to those in need, and I don’t need anyone to know about it.  I’m more grateful for the little things.  I appreciate the people who are in my life, and I don’t expect them to live up to my expectations of how they should act.  I’m quicker to forgive because I have been forgiven. 

And I now know that I can’t simply tell people to be like God.  I know I cannot stand up here and tell you, “The Bible says, be imitators of God; here’s why you should be an imitator of God; it’s hard; you will likely fail; but just try harder.”  That didn’t work for me.  It will certainly not work for you.  If we truly want to be imitators of God, we all must experience the love of God in Christ Jesus.  We all must experience standing at the foot of the cross.  We all must experience being forgiven of our sins.  We all must experience being clothed with the righteousness of Christ.  We all must experience the grace that is poured out through the blood of the Lamb of God.  For it is grace alone that transforms us. 

A desert wanderer found a spring of cool fresh water.  It was so pure he decided to bring some to his king.  Barely satisfying his own thirst, he filled a leather bottle and carried it many days in the desert sun before reaching the palace.  He laid his offering at the feet of his noble king.  Over time, however, the water had become stale in the old container. But the king wouldn’t let his faithful subject think his gift was unfit to drink.  He tasted it with gratitude as he sent his loyal servant away.  After the servant left, others sampled it and were surprised the king had pretended to enjoy it.  He said, “It wasn’t the water I tasted but the love that prompted the offering.”

That is what comes forth from us when we are producing goodness–when we are imitating God.  We don’t act the same.  We drink bitter water with gratitude.  We look upon others with different eyes because God has looked upon us with different eyes.  We have tasted the goodness of God, and it has transformed us from within so that we may offer that goodness to the world.  Amen.

Wednesday, May 9, 2018

A Love Letter to the Church

Dear beloved church,

I cannot remember the last time I sat down and wrote to you to tell you that I loved you.  That is not good.  As far as I can tell, relationships cannot last without some form of demonstrable affection, including the relationship between a pastor and his or her flock.  So, let me say it loud and clear: I love you.

I know that not everyone looks at things the way that I do, but let me tell you of how I view our relationship.  It is very much like a marriage to me.  I know our relationship doesn’t encapsulate everything a marriage entails–this is no perfect analogy, but there are enough places of overlap that I think the comparison stands.

I mean, I very much remember our honeymoon.  I remember those days when we first came together and it seemed like neither of us could do no wrong.  We were enthusiastic about our relationship together, and we were joyously happy.  We complimented each other all the time.  We made time for each other as we grew to know one another.  I became excited about the little things you were doing to grow in faith and service.  You listened intently to my teaching and preaching.  You bragged about me in the community, and I bragged about you to all of my family and friends near and far. 

But honeymoons don’t last forever in marriage or between pastors and congregations.  And so we settled in working, living, and learning together.  Things weren’t quite as exciting as they were early on, but we still cared deeply for each other.  I didn’t do as much bragging about you.  You didn’t brag as much about me.  You came to expect a certain quality out of my sermons and teachings, and there may not have been as much excitement about them.  I expected you to keep doing what you had done, and I made little mention of how proud I was of you for doing the little things that made a difference in the lives of others.  Our relationship sort of stagnated, but that didn’t mean we didn’t care.  We were just kind of used to each other.  Perhaps we became complacent.

And, of course, there were the rough patches.  People don’t stay the same.  We continue to grow and change throughout our lives.  You changed.  I changed.  We became different in our own ways.  Sometimes, this happens in marriages, and suddenly, two people wake up in the morning and think, “Who are you?  What happened to you?”  A lot of times, at this point, major conflict erupts.  I’ve seen it numerous times as a pastor.  The outcomes are two fold: 1) folks decide that they want what once was, and “if you won’t be the person I want you to be then I don’t want to be with you any longer.”  They divorce.  That’s not a pretty process.  Or 2) Folks decide that their marriage is worth saving.  They decide to work hard at accepting and loving their spouse, not because of what they want them to be but because of who they are.  Admittedly, this is a much harder path to walk. 

But isn’t that what love really is about?  Isn’t that where true love really comes into play?  Is true love finding the perfect person who is exactly what you want, or is true love a love that lasts even when people change and grow?  Is true love a love that sticks with a person through times of good and bad?  Is true love a love that stands with someone even when you feel like the other is unlovable?  I think it is.

As I have grown in my faith, I have learned a great lesson from the God who loved me when I was unlovable: to love others like He loved me.  I’m not perfect at doing this, by any stretch of the imagination, but I am working to make this central to my life.

And so, I want to let you know, my church, that I love you.  Neither one of us may be living up to the expectations that we have for each other.  Neither one of us is perfect.  Neither one of us can claim to have stayed the same all of these years.  But you are who you are, and you will be who you will be.  I am who I am, and I will be who I will be.  And I love you even in the midst of all these things.  And I will not try to change you.  I hope that you will not try to change me.  Let’s leave the changing up to God and His vision for who we need to be.  Let’s just work on loving one another.  For that is what I will work hard on doing.  You need to know this, and so I write this love letter to you.

With deepest regards,

Your Pastor

Tuesday, May 8, 2018

The Fruits of the Spirit: Kindness

Today, we come to the fifth fruit in St. Paul’s list of the fruits of the Spirit in Galatians 5:22-23.  Today’s fruit is kindness.

And most of us, I think understand what it means to be kind.  When we think of kindness, we think of friendliness, generosity–of being considerate.  We think of stories like this one which appeared in Reader’s Digest: Leaving a store, I returned to my car only to find that I’d locked my keys and cell phone inside. A teenager riding his bike saw me kick a tire and say a few choice words. “What’s wrong?” he asked. I explained my situation. “But even if I could call my wife,” I said, “she can’t bring me her car key, since this is our only car.” He handed me his cell phone. “Call your wife and tell her I’m coming to get her key.” “That’s seven miles round trip.” “Don’t worry about it.” An hour later, he returned with the key. I offered him some money, but he refused. “Let’s just say I needed the exercise,” he said. Then, like a cowboy in the movies, he rode off into the sunset. (https://www.rd.com/true-stories/inspiring/kindness-strangers/)

We admire the people who do such things.  Our hearts become warmed when we hear stories or see actions of kindness.  When we receive such acts of kindness, our hearts melt and we react with overwhelming gratitude.  I remember not to long ago, I had taken my family to eat in Bellville at Galileo’s.  We enjoyed our meal and prepared to go only to find out that someone eating in the restaurant that evening had paid for our entire family.  The next time we saw this person, we thanked her profusely for her generosity and gave her plenty of hugs to show our gratitude.  Kindness has this effect upon us.

And conversely, when we see cruelty, our hearts harden.  We get angry at the perpetrators.  We decry their actions and how they handle themselves.  We prefer kindness and want it to rule the day!  And so, we make bumper stickers that say, “Practice random acts of kindness.”  We initiate anti-bullying programs in school.  We post memes on Facebook that say, “It is better to be kind than right.”

And honestly, I only disagree with one of those things: I disagree with the meme that says “It’s better to be kind than right,” because the right thing is the kind thing.  Some may disagree, but let me explain.  Let's say that your kid comes up to you five minutes before dinner and says, "Mom, dad, I'm really, really hungry.  Can I please have a bowl of ice cream?"  Now, one might say that it would be the kind thing to give her the ice cream, after all, she is hungry.  Even though you might be right that it would be better to make her wait until dinner.  But is it really kind to give her the ice cream?  No.  It isn't.  That's not the nourishment that she needs.  In this case, and in others, the right thing--making her wait for dinner--is the kind thing.  And that brings us to the heart of what kindness is as a fruit of the Spirit.  For you see, kindness can be practiced by anyone.  Anyone can be compassionate.  Anyone can be generous.  Anyone can bring a smile to another person’s face by an act of kindness.  But what Paul is talking about here is not simply a pleasant disposition or a nice deed or action towards someone.  It is much deeper.

You see, the Greek word used for kindness here, xrēstótēs, doesn’t have a good English equivalent.  I think one of the commentaries I consulted this past week said it best when it said the word could best be translated as “useful kindness.”  Now, what does that mean?

Let me illustrate with the following two stories.  Three boy scouts were asked by their scout leader to do an act of kindness one day.  Later that afternoon, they returned with news of great success.  They told their scout leader they helped an old woman cross a street.  He said, “It took all three of you to help an old woman across the street?”  “Yes,” the boys said, “She didn’t want to go!”  Now, helping an old lady across the street is certainly an act of kindness, but helping here when she doesn’t want to go isn’t.  The act isn’t useful.  In other words, it is not what is needed.  The old woman didn’t need help crossing the street.  While the scout’s intentions were honorable, the action was not helpful.  It was not xrēstótēs.

On the other hand, this story, I think, comes much closer to the meaning of this Greek word.  A little girl was sent on an errand by her mother.  She took much longer than expected to come back.  When she returned, the girl’s mother demanded an explanation.  The little girl explained the reason.  On her way, she met a little friend who was crying because she had broken her doll.  “Oh,” said the mother, “then you stopped to help her fix her doll?”  “Oh no,” the little girl said, “I stopped to help her cry!”  This little girl was able to see beyond the broken doll and see into the depths of another’s grief.  She was able to see a heart that needed someone to grieve with her.  The little girl addressed a deeper need than simply trying to piece together a broken doll.  That’s xrēstótēs.  That’s the kindness that St. Paul lists as a fruit of the Spirit.

Interestingly enough, this term does not appear a whole lot in the Bible.  It has only scattered references, and Jesus doesn’t use the word kindness at all.  There is only one time when he uses the word in its shorter form which is translated kind.  But that reference is an important one in helping us understand the kind of fruit we produce.  We have that lesson before us today from the sixth chapter of the book of Luke.

Jesus is teaching to a great crowed gathered on a plain, and very much like the Sermon on the Mount found in the book of Matthew, Jesus is laying out the ethics of a Christian life.  The teaching he gives here is quite difficult.  “Give to everyone who begs from you.” That is no easy task at all, especially knowing that many who beg these days take advantage of people’s generosity–and I am specifically talking about those folks standing on the street corners holding signs.  Jesus says, give to them.

He continues, “And if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again.”  Yeah, you know that guy you lent your favorite tool to.  Don’t ask for it again.  Let him have it.  Does anyone practice this?  Really?

“Do to others as you would have them do to you.” This is a saying found in every world religion and ethical system.  It sure would be nice if we actually did it.

“If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. If you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. If you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to receive as much again. But love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return.”  Are you really listening to what Jesus is saying here?  I mean, really listening?  In Jesus’ day, it was common place to give to someone expecting that the other person would give in return to you.  By giving to another, you put someone in your debt.  So, if you invited them to a dinner at your house, they were now obligated to invite you to their house.  If you loaned something to a neighbor, it was expected that if you asked for something, it would be loaned back to you.  If you gave a gift to someone, it was expected that they would give a gift in return.  There was an entire system built upon this kind of exchange.

And really, is it so different today?  Not really.  If we get a loan from the bank, are we expected to pay it back?  Absolutely, and with interest.  If we work to get a politician elected, do we expect him or her to enact the laws that we support?  Absolutely.  If we give our time to someone, do we expect that he or she will respect our time and our person as we are doing that?  If you don’t think so, let me ask you this: do you get angry when you are trying to talk to someone and they look like they are ignoring you?  If we go into a restaurant to buy a dinner, do we expect to be waited on promptly and cared for by the wait staff?  And if we are not, what do we do?  You see, this system of exchange and indebtedness is still in place today.  It may look a little different, but it is still there.

Jesus upends this system of how the world works.  Jesus throws it all out the window.  He says, “Don’t buy into this system.  Don’t expect rewards from others.  Don’t expect to give and then receive in return from them.  Don’t expect to lend and get anything back.  Don’t live by the “I’ll scratch your back if you scratch my back” axiom because even the sinners–those at the bottom rungs of society–do that.  You live differently.  You expect rewards differently.  You do not expect rewards from others–expect rewards from your Heavenly Father.  As Jesus says, “Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High.”

And here is the why.  Jesus lays out the why we act and move differently.  “For he–Your Heavenly Father–is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. 36Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.”

See, there is that word kind.  It’s the shortened version of kindness.  It’s what God gives to the ungrateful and the wicked.  He gives them what they need.  And what do they need?  Jesus says it: Mercy.  They need mercy.  But let’s get a bit more realistic.  Let’s drive Jesus’ point home into our own lives, because we shouldn’t use the word “they” in reference to the ungrateful and the wicked.  We should use the word “us.”  Now, I know that might be a bit unpopular to hear.  That might be a bit like nails on a chalk board.  We don’t like to hear that we are ungrateful. We don’t like to hear that we are wicked.  We don’t even really like it when someone has the audacity to say that we are sinners.

And, yet, that’s exactly what Scripture says we are.  You can’t read through Jesus’ teachings here and think that you follow them perfectly.  You can’t read through the Old Testament commandments and think that you follow them all.  You can’t read through the rest of the New Testament and come away with the idea that you have somehow satisfied what God demands of you.  This is why St. Paul writes in the third chapter of the book of Romans, “All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God!”  All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.  We stand condemned.  Indeed, we are wicked.

And being wicked, being condemned, we deserve God’s judgment.  We deserve God’s wrath, but instead, God gives us what we need.  God gives us what we need to change our hearts and change our minds.  God shows his kindness–his xrēstótēs by doing what is actually quite unthinkable.  “For all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, but we are now justified by grace as a gift through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus whom God set forward as a sacrifice of atonement effective through faith.”  That finishes out Paul’s statement in Romans chapter 3.  God took on human flesh and sacrificed himself on our behalf making payment for our sin; absorbing our debt; and declaring us not guilty–even though we were.  And as he pays our debt by hanging on the cross and facing the wrath we should have faced, he gives us his righteousness.  He gives us his sinlessness.  He clothes us with himself.  He gives us a new status and adopts us as His children.  It would have been easy for God to think that we needed punishment, but He knew that we needed a Savior.  And that’s exactly what He sent in the God made flesh–Jesus Christ.

And when we have encountered this grace; when we have met Jesus at the cross and seen the outpouring of His great love; when we feel the mercy he has extended to us–we become merciful.  We produce kindness.  Deep down, we long to discover the deepest needs of others.  We long to look deep into their hearts and find what will bring them the most joy; peace; and healing.  We no longer simply look at the surface, but we long to see with God’s eyes–so that we can address what is most needed.

A church began seeking one day to reach out into its community.  They began making plans to build a facility for youth complete with gymnasium and playground.  They were excited about the prospects, but some wondered how much use these facilities would get.  Would the community come and use these things?  The seeds of doubt were planted, and one day someone asked: how many kids are in the neighborhood around us?  That one question spurred a group to go investigate.  What they found was quite different.  Their neighborhood was not full of kids–not in the least.  The demographic was quite different.  In fact, the majority of their neighborhood consisted of retired adults, so the church shifted gears.  They talked with their neighbors.  They discovered their needs, and so they scrapped their plans for a youth facility and built a senior citizens center with full handicap access.  They put in an exercise pool and exercise room especially designed for older adults to help with therapy and rehab.  The church decided it would keep any necessary fees to a minimum so that the community–particularly those with a fixed income–could enjoy these facilities and benefit from their use.  And once completed, every day the facilities were in use.  The church addressed the community’s greatest need.  That’s xrēstótēs.

How do we know that we are producing this fruit?  How do we know that kindness is flowing out of us?  I think we must begin by asking ourselves if we are asking the right questions.  Are we asking ourselves: what is the biggest need that my friends have?  Are we asking ourselves: what is the biggest need that my family has?  Are we asking ourselves: what is the biggest need that our community has?  And are we listening to our neighbors?  Are we listening to our friends?  Are we listening to our communities?  Are we digging passed the superficialities and seeing their hearts?  If we are, we are practicing kindness.  We are producing the Spirit’s fruit.  May we produce it in abundance.  Amen.

Tuesday, May 1, 2018

The Fruits of the Spirit: Patience

Today, we continue our series on the fruits of the Spirit, and we turn our attention to the fourth fruit on that list: patience.

Now, I must confess that I was a bit excited to begin studying this particular fruit because oftentimes I find myself lacking patience.  I mean, a lack of patience is why I enjoy fishing for bass and not for catfish.  When you fish for catfish, you throw your bait into the water and just sit and wait.  And wait.  And wait.  And wait.  Sometimes, you can wait an entire afternoon or an entire day, and nothing happens.  This is very, very tough on me.  I personally don’t like it one bit.  But in bass fishing...well, that’s an entirely different dynamic.  You are constantly throwing your lure out into the water and reeling it in.  You can cast far away.  You can cast nearby.  You sometimes have to work though the weeds.  You are in constant motion even if the fish aren’t biting.  You aren’t just standing or sitting around waiting.  You don’t have to be patient.  Yet, they do say, “Patience is a virtue.”  So, I was hoping to cultivate patience so that at the very least, I might become a better fisherman–at least for catfish.

Ah, but then I started digging into the meaning of the word patience.  On Monday, I sat down and pulled out my commentaries.  I began looking up the word patience in the original Greek.  And I discovered something.  I discovered that there are actually two words in Greek that are translated into the English equivalent “patience.”  One of those words indeed meant simply waiting for something to happen.  But then there was the other one, and here is your Greek word for the day–a word that I am sure you will not remember five seconds after I speak it.  The Greek word used for patience right here in this list of the fruits of the Spirit is makrothymía.  It does not mean simply waiting.  No.  It has a much different nuance.  Let me read to you what Strong’s Concordance gives as its definition: “Makrothymia comes from the Greek words makrós, "long" and thymós, "passion, anger"–properly, long-passion, in other words waiting sufficient time before expressing anger. This avoids the premature use of force (retribution) that rises out of improper anger (a personal reaction).”  So, patience as Paul lists it here as a fruit of the Spirit is waiting a sufficient time before expressing anger.

This means patience, as a fruit of the Spirit, means not only being able to wait in the doctor’s office; it means being able to wait in the doctor’s office knowing that your appointment was at 10 a.m. and that it is now 11 a.m. and you still have a pleasant disposition.  You haven’t become angry.  It’s also the type of patience showed by the man pushing a cart with a screaming baby at the supermarket.  As he goes up and down the aisles, he softly says, “Keep calm, George.  Don’t get all excited, George.  Don’t yell, George.”  A lady watching with approval says, “You certainly need to be commended for your patience in trying to quiet little George!” The man said, “Lady, I am George!”  That’s the patience spoken of as a fruit of the Spirit.

And as I continued on with my study, I found that this word was used by Jesus only a few times.  One of those times, I’m going to deal with in the adult Bible study today, so you are welcome to join in on that.  But probably the most significant time Jesus used this word was in a parable that is very familiar to us.  It is a parable that I literally spent three weeks preaching on not too long ago in my sermon series on forgiveness.  Many of you might remember the parable of the unforgiving servant.  As I sat and wrestled with the true meaning of this word and how it was reshaping my entire understanding of what I had thought patience was and how it related to Jesus’ teachings,  I had to stop.  Literally. I had to stop and just let things settle.  I got up from my studies, grabbed my car keys and headed out to visit one of our members who was in the hospital. 

I mean, have you ever had such a thing happen to you?  Have you ever thought that you knew exactly what something meant and how it played out only to suddenly have everything changed?  Have you ever thought that you had studied something and understood it only then to have one more piece of information change your perspective drastically?  I had to go from understanding patience as simply enduring waiting for something to understanding patience as a slowness to anger.  I had to let my mind process that switch.  Now,  I am wondering if you are having to process this information in the same way.  I am wondering if you are having to re-think your understanding of patience just like I did.  I am wondering if you need some time to let your brain settle in just like I did.  If that’s the case, then maybe I should stop the sermon right here and give you a week to think about it.  Then, next week, we can all come back, and I will finish this sermon when we’ve let the dust settle.

Now, most of you know that I’m not able to do that.  I can’t preach a sermon where I don’t even mention the Gospel of what Jesus has done for us on the cross, so, that means I’m going to have to press onward.  Therefore, I am going to ask those of you who may be struggling to try and hold onto the definition of patience as: slow to anger.  And perhaps turning to something familiar will help us do that as we look briefly again at the parable of the unforgiving servant as we find it printed in our bulletin today.

Just to recap, we know that a master who is wealthy beyond imagination begins settling accounts with his slaves.  A particular slave is brought before him who owes the equivalent of $6 billion.  There is no way possible this slave can pay his master back.  The debt is entirely too large.  Therefore, the master is going to sell this slave along with all the slave’s possessions and the slave’s wife and children to recoup the debt.  The slave falls down, kisses his master’s feet and says, “Be patient with me, and I will pay you everything.”  When I preached on this parable, I was under the assumption that the slave was begging for time.  I thought he was trying to convince his master that given enough time, he would pay back the debt–although we know this is an impossibility.  But, alas, this was the wrong assumption.  This is not what the slave is saying.  The slave is saying, “Don’t let your anger burn against me; don’t let your wrath be turned against me; be slow to anger, and I will pay you back everything.”  That’s actually a pretty big difference in what is being said because we know that the master has every right to be angry with this slave.  We know that the master has every right to unleash his wrath upon this slave.  This slave has managed, God knows how, to lose $6 billion of his master’s money.  That’s not chump change in the least.  That’s an overwhelming amount of your master’s money to lose.  Anyone who’s lost a substantial sum of money on a bad investment will tell you how angry that makes you.  But this slave is appealing to his master’s compassion.  This slave is appealing to the master’s love.

And guess what?  What does the master show?  Compassion.  The master has makrothymía.  The master is tremendously slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.  Jesus is reminding his listeners–and us–of the reality of what God is like; a reality echoed even in the Old Testament in Nehemiah 9: 16-17: 16 ‘But they and our ancestors acted presumptuously and stiffened their necks and did not obey your commandments; 17they refused to obey, and were not mindful of the wonders that you performed among them; but they stiffened their necks and determined to return to their slavery in Egypt. But you are a God ready to forgive, gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and you did not forsake them.”

And that is exactly what the master does here.  The master swallows the debt.  The master writes off $6 billion and frees the slave.  This is the heart of the Gospel.  This is exactly what Jesus does for us on the cross.  We come before God owing a debt that we cannot possibly pay.  Our sin is overwhelming.  We have sinned against God in thought, word and deed.  Every time we have sinned against our neighbor or against the creation, we have sinned against God.  And we can never commit enough good to erase that debt.  We can never, ever pay it off.

Yet, justice demands that it must be paid.  And so, God pays it Himself in the person of Jesus.  Jesus takes our debt upon himself and faces the anger that we should have faced.  Jesus takes our debt upon himself and pays the price that we should have paid.  The cancellation of our debt is free for us, but tremendously costly for God.  But such is the compassion of our God.  Such is the grace of our God.  Such is the love of our God. 

But the cancellation of the debt is only half of what happens, for our God now gives us His righteousness.  Our God then clothes us with glory.  Our God then gives us garments that are whiter than snow.  “For as many of you who have been baptized into Christ Jesus have clothed yourselves with Christ...”  (Gal. 3:27) Not only has our sin been removed and have we been rendered spotless, we have also become children of God.  Jesus has made us His brothers and sisters so that we will share in His inheritance.  And that inheritance was gloriously revealed in the resurrection.  Just as Jesus was raised from the dead, we will be raised from the dead.  Just as Jesus suffering was transformed into good, our suffering will be transformed into good.  These are the things that happen to us when we place our trust in Jesus’ work and not our own.  These are the promises we can hold onto when we trust in Jesus Christ as the Lord and Savior of our lives. 

And when we understand the makrothymía that God has had toward us; when we understand how slow to anger God was with us, then we will have makrothymía toward others.  We will be slow to anger toward others.  We will understand that we were and still are broken people.  We will understand that we needed a savior.  And we will be patient when others sin against us.  For we know that they need grace just like we need grace. 

Ah, but that does not mean that there is no time and place for anger.  That does not mean that anger completely vanishes.  Remember makrothymía means slow to anger.  Jesus reminds us of that in the remainder of the parable because the servant who received compassion from his master fails to extend that same compassion to a fellow servant.  A fellow servant owes him the equivalent of $10,000, and when the fellow servant pleads for makrothymía–that anger might be slow, his pleas are unanswered.  The one who was forgiven fails to forgive. 

And then, the One who was slow to anger, becomes angry.  The one who had forgiven, reinstates the debt and throws the one whose heart was not changed into prison where he must pay back the debt.  And we know, that this debt will never be repaid.  The one who had been forgiven will spend eternity in prison.  Jesus rams home the message, if you who know that you have been forgiven and you fail to forgive, the result will be eternal punishment.  Makrothymía has its limits.

There’s a story about a truck driver who dropped in at an all-night restaurant in the western U.S.  The waitress had just served his meal when three drunken bikers came in and asked him for a fight.  One grabbed his hamburger, and another took a handful of his french fries, while the third picked up his coffee and drank it.  The trucker didn’t respond as one might predict.  Instead, he calmly got up from the table with his check, left his money at the cash register, and walked outside.  As the waitress took his money, she watched the man drive away in a big truck.  When she returned, one of the bikers said, “He’s not very tough, is he?” She said, “I don’t know much about that, but I know he’s not much of a truck driver because he just ran over three motorcycles in the parking lot.”

Now, I’m not suggesting that we run over motorcycles or anything of that sort.  Not in the least.  But I am suggesting that even though we practice patience; even though we are slow to anger, there is also a time where we must realize that there are things that are wrong.  We must realize that there are things that must be confronted.  We must realize that we cannot stand idly by and allow things like poverty, abuse, hunger, bullying, harassment, and such things to go unchecked.  Our anger, like God’s anger must be kindled against such things. 

But here is the kicker–this is why makrothymía is a gift: our anger is directed toward the actions, not the people.  With people, we have patience–we are slow to anger.  Our first response toward people is to share with them the love of God in Christ Jesus.  Our first response is to help them understand how they have been forgiven.  Our first response is to introduce them to the God who loved them enough to die for them when they were unlovable.  For this, and this alone truly changes a heart and helps them stop doing the things they once did that were contrary to God’s word. 

Martin Luther, the founder of the Lutheran Church once said, and I am paraphrasing here: If I truly want people to change their behavior, I do not preach the law; on the contrary, I preach the gospel over and over and over again.  You see, it is very easy for us to see things that are wrong, and yell out, “Thou shalt not!!!”  But it is much more difficult to say, “Look to the cross at the God who died for you.”  To do so requires something special within us.  It requires an ability to be slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.  It requires makrothymía–patience.  May we all be blessed with this fruit.  Amen.