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October 2019

November 2019

Forgive Us Our Debts

Forgive Us Our Debts

Leviticus 25:8-13

by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones

First Central Congregational Church

10 November 2019

 

 

            In our worship this autumn, we have been exploring the Lord’s Prayer, taking it line by line and considering the various meanings and applications of its words and phrases.  Today we arrive at the petition “Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.” 

            As background for understanding what Jesus was talking about when he referred to debts, I’ve chosen for our scripture lesson today a passage from the Book of Leviticus.  Hear now the Word of the Lord.

           

Leviticus 25:8-13

 

You shall count off seven weeks of years, seven times seven years, so that the period of seven weeks of years gives forty-nine years.  Then you shall have the trumpet sounded loud; on the tenth day of the seventh month—on the day of atonement—you shall have the trumpet sounded throughout all your land.  And you shall hallow the fiftieth year and you shall proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants.  It shall be a jubilee for you: you shall return, every one of you, to your property and every one of you to your family.  That fiftieth year shall be a jubilee for you: you shall not sow, or reap the aftergrowth, or harvest the unpruned vines.  For it is a jubilee; it shall be holy to you: you shall eat only what the field itself produces.  In this year of jubilee you shall return, every one of you, to your property.

 

For the Word of God in scripture,

For the Word of God among us,

For the Word of God within us,

Thanks be to God.

 

 

            Back in July of 2010 on my second Sunday as your pastor, I made a mistake in worship.  As I was leading the Lord’s Prayer I said “trespasses” instead of “debts.”  Afterwards Val Himes asked me, “Are we going to be saying ‘trespasses’ now?”  I assured her we weren’t, and fortuitously the lectionary provided the Lord’s Prayer as the Gospel text a few weeks after that, so I got to discuss my mistake.

            The Lord’s Prayer is familiar to any of us who grew up in a Christian church, but it is likely that we memorized slightly different versions. There are even two different versions in the Gospels, one in Matthew and one in Luke.  But various denominations also have their preferred translations.  Some folks don’t say the final lines at all, “For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory forever.”  While others make the ending even longer with “forever and ever.” 

These variations are rarely matters that affect the basic substance of the prayer, except for the line that is our focus for today.  Depending on which translation you read or which church you attend, you will be praying for forgiveness from sins, trespasses, or debts.  And while there are clear overlaps of meaning in the use of those words, there are also distinct differences of substance, particularly when we come to debts.

 

Our liturgist earlier read the parable of Jesus about the Pharisee and the tax collector.  The one arrogant and the other contrite and penitent.  The theologian Timothy Bradshaw points out how this story “powerfully exemplifies the call for wholehearted and honest repentance in the eyes of God.”  The story suggest that God desires our “honesty and genuineness of heart” in prayer in order to cultivate a personal relationship. 

So, when we come to this line of the prayer, we are being honest with ourselves and with God about our human condition and about our own failings.  We take responsibility, and we seek to restore broken and damaged relationships.  This petition affirms that personal relationships are at the heart of human life.

Now some think the petition works as a quid pro quo—you won’t be forgiven until you first forgive.  That transactional way of understanding it misses the broader perspective on authentic personhood and the value of relationships.  Rather, we are to cultivate an overall approach to the world that is gracious, merciful, and forgiving.  Oscar Cullman explains it this way, “We can ask for God’s forgiveness only if while praying we are ourselves in the realm of forgiveness that [God] wills.  We must know that God’s forgiveness is not some property, but belongs to [God’s] inmost being, [God’s] infinite love.” 

God forgives us out of a free act of grace—a gift—not something we earn by our own actions.  But if we expect to receive grace and never pass it along to other people, that’s not how grace works. 

Because we are secure in the belief that God extends grace toward us, we are then freed to extend grace to others.  We are secure in forgiving others, aware that our own value, worth, and integrity rests in our identity as God’s beloved children.

Timothy Bradshaw summarizes this attitude: “Praying for forgiveness in a positive sense is realigning our life with the generous outreaching movement of God into the darkness of the world.”  We are joining up with God’s generous, gracious love of the world in an attempt to heal its brokenness.

 

These sorts of spiritual ideas, then, are part of this petition, regardless of which word we use, though the word “sins” maybe best express these ideas.

“Trespasses” is an interesting and somewhat old-fashioned concept.  It contains a particular perspective on sin—that when we sin we have crossed a boundary that we should have respected.  The idea compels us to consider what rules we have broken, what limits and lines we have crossed, what standards we have violated, and particularly where we have disrespected the personhood of others.  How have our actions violated other’s dignity, integrity, and worth?

And then the return.  How have others disrespected us, violated our boundaries, harmed our personhood?

The focus is on setting right our personal violations and reinforcing our boundaries which others have crossed.  There are times in our lives when this perspective is a particularly valuable way of praying.

 

What about “debts?”  We in the Reformed Protestant tradition have generally preferred to pray the prayer with these words.  Now many people simply think of ‘debts’ as another old-fashioned way of talking about sins, similar to ‘trespasses’ in that regard.  But debts has a completely different layer of meaning and it ties back to the Leviticus passage I opened with.

In the Levitical law there is this provision for the year of Jubilee.  Every fifty years the Hebrews were supposed to celebrate this special, holy year, and during that year there were four actions that were to be taken by society: 1) the fields were to be left fallow, 2) all outstanding debts were to be forgiven, 3) slaves were to be set free, and 4) every family that had lost its land was to be restored to it. 

This is a radical, economic vision for society.  In essence it meant that every fifty years society would be reset and everyone would have a fresh start. 

Jesus seems to have been deeply influenced by this tradition of the Jubilee.  When he stood up to preach in the synagogue at Nazareth and proclaimed that “this is the year of the Lord’s favor,” he was probably proclaiming the Jubilee.  And throughout his teaching he emphasizes these social and economic principles. 

What seems to be the case for Jesus is that he wants to reorder human society so that these principles are more a part of every year of human life and not just a once in a generation fresh start.  He wants a society were people are set free, where they are not burdened by debt, where everyone has the opportunity to provide for themselves.

We know that first century Palestine suffered under the weight of great debt.  The taxes of Herod the Great and the Roman empire had become a burden upon the people.  Many of the peasantry had lost their own land and were now working and living as tenant farmers on the property of wealthier people.  Many were still weighed down by the burdens of the debts they had taken on and what they owed to the government.  This is the context for many of the parables of Jesus.

In the midst of this economic and social crisis, which led to banditry and ultimately insurrection, Jesus came preaching a more humane and egalitarian society developed along the great ideals of the Hebrew tradition. 

 

“Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors” is not simply about setting right our personal failings, as good as that teaching might be.  The prayer is asking for a reordering of human society.  And we who pray it are committing ourselves to become part of this movement.  This is one of the practical ways in which “your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” is fulfilled.  God’s kingdom comes when human society is set right.  And that begins with forgiving our debts and starting fresh, as in the Jubilee.

Now, what can we make of that in 2019?  Our modern economy runs on credit and debt.  Jesus’ vision is an even more radical reordering of our economy than it was of the ancient one. 

At its simplest, we as Christians should work for an economy that is more humane and more egalitarian, because that’s the kind of society God wants.  That, at least, means opposing exploitation, conspicuous consumption, inequality, and environmental degradation.  That, at least, means living more simply, more sustainably, more generously.

But there’s more we can do.

If you’ve been following the United Church of Christ news, you probably were excited by what happened in Chicago at the end of October.  Trinity United Church of Christ, in coordination with the national setting of the UCC, this summer raised $38,000 and with that was able to buy $5.3 million dollars of medical debt.  Now, I don’t really understand how debt gets turned into securities that one can purchase for such small amounts, but that’s what happens.  They bought the debt of almost 6,000 families in only three zip codes.  And what did they do once they bought that debt?  Well, they didn’t hire a collection agency, they forgave it.

We aren’t the only Christians forgiving debts.  Earlier this year the Assemblies of God Grand Rapids First Church of Wyoming, Michigan was able, with only $15,000, to buy $1.8 million of debt, which they forgave, helping 2,000 families in western Michigan. 

This is now becoming a movement, and the United Church of Christ is going to make forgiving medical debt a major initiative of the denomination.  On this coming December 3 the UCC will raise money specifically for that purpose.  And they are inviting churches and other entities to partner in this effort.

The Rev. Patrick Duggan, Executive Director of the UCC Building and Loan Fund, wrote in a commentary this week that 52% of all debt is medical debt.  Unlike in the time of Jesus, when taxes were burdening people, in our time medical debt is one of the leading causes of poverty and inequality.  So, as followers of Jesus we are called to help solve that problem.  Rev. Duggan proclaimed: “Alleviating medical debt has the multiplier effect of improving many elements of basic living for millions of families that struggle to make a living.  It hits at the core of a major cause of poverty in the United States.  Ending poverty in all forms is the core mission of Jesus Christ and is the heart of the mission of the United Church of Christ, a just world for all.”

 

So, let’s join up with God’s generous, gracious love of the world in an attempt to heal its brokenness.  Let’s take responsibility for our own actions and seek to restore damaged relationships.  Let’s be a more humane and egalitarian society.

And we commit ourselves to such things, when we pray as Jesus taught us to pray, “Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.


Asymmetry

AsymmetryAsymmetry by Lisa Halliday
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Halliday has gifts as a storyteller, constructing interesting characters and narratives. I did find this book puzzling, and do no think I would call it a novel, though I'm not sure what it would be called. The first story explored a young woman having a relationship with a much older, famous man and the power imbalances involved. It was well told, but not enjoyable. The middle story I liked quite a bit, about an Iraqi-American stuck in customs questioning in Heathrow on his way from the US to Iraq. This section involved flashbacks as well. The final section is a Desert Island Discs radio interview with the famous (and rather loathable) older famous man from section one.

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The Colonial Mind

Main Currents in American Thought, Vol. 1: The Colonial Mind, 1620-1800Main Currents in American Thought, Vol. 1: The Colonial Mind, 1620-1800 by Vernon Louis Parrington
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I often walked the Parrington Oval while a student at the University of Oklahoma. And I remember the photo that hung in Dale Hall of OU's former head football coach who was a Pulitzer Prize winning historian. This is the book that won Vernon Parrington the prize in 1928.

Parrington has a strong position in favor of the Jeffersonian philosophy--agrarian, egalitarian, and democratic--and opposed to the Puritans, Tories, and Federalists. So it was interesting to read his takes on various thinkers. He was a big fan of Roger Williams and Benjamin Franklin and deeply critical of John Winthrop and the Mathers. He thought Jonathan Edwards had great ability which was squandered on his Calvinism. Hamilton he thought of great ability and very successful at achieving his goals of establishing the national economy, but he thought Hamilton completely wrong about what direction America should head and that we were still saddled with problems he had created. Strangely, he writes the only vigorous defense of Philip Freneau I've ever read.

Parrington has blind spots. He lauds Jefferson, though we now have a far more critical view of Jefferson, especially his hypocrisy.

But Parrington is a fun read. He is eloquent and witty with his descriptions of all these thinkers and movements. I enjoyed getting a perspective very different from my own.

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Our Daily Bread (& Butter)

Our Daily Bread (& Butter)

Luke 11:5-13

by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones

First Central Congregational Church

3 November 2019

 

 

            Today, in our series based upon The Lord’s Prayer, we reach the petition, “Give us this day, our daily bread.”  In the Gospel of the Luke, Jesus teaches his disciples the prayer and then tells a parable.  That is our lesson for today.  Hear, now, these teachings of Jesus from the Gospel of Luke.

           

Luke 11:5-13

 

And Jesus said to them, “Suppose one of you has a friend, and you go to him at midnight and say to him, ‘Friend, lend me three loaves of bread; for a friend of mine has arrived, and I have nothing to set before him.’  And he answers from within, ‘Do not bother me; the door has already been locked, and my children are with me in bed; I cannot get up and give you anything.’  I tell you, even though he will not get up and give him anything because he is his friend, at least because of his persistence he will get up and give him whatever he needs.

 

“So I say to you, Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you.  For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened.  

 

Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for a fish, will give a snake instead of a fish?  Or if the child asks for an egg, will give a scorpion?  If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Parent give the Holy Spirit to those who ask!”

 

For the Word of God in scripture,

For the Word of God among us,

For the Word of God within us,

Thanks be to God.

 

 

            In April of 2018, Katie Miller and I attended a denominational meeting in Cleveland focused on the current problems of theological formation in the life of the UCC.  While there, discussing these issues with various denominational leaders, a wonderful story of theological formation emerged back home.

 

The first night I was gone, Michael was carrying out the bedtime routine with Sebastian.  After reading a couple of books and beginning to rock, Sebastian said they needed to pray.  Now, this is usually something I do with Sebastian, so Michael was a little surprised, but went ahead.  They prayed for family and friends by name and then Michael, knowing my routine, ended with the Lord’s Prayer.

Just as Michael was about to say “Amen,” Sebastian (who was only two at the time) grabbed Michael’s face and said, “You forgot the bread.”

Michael then realized that he had, in fact, forgotten to say, “Give us this day our daily bread.”  So, he went back and added it.

Colleagues in Cleveland were thrilled with this story of theological formation that’s working.

Then I returned to Omaha.

My first night back I was doing the bedtime routine.  As I was about to finish the Lord’s Prayer, Sebastian grabbed my face and said, “You forgot the butter.”

“The butter?”  I asked.  Then I remembered that in the blessing his daycare uses before meals they mention bread and butter.  I told him, “The butter’s in the prayer you use at school.”

He said, “I want to use it at home.”

I then asked, “You think we should add butter with our bread in the Lord’s Prayer?”

“Yes,” he answered.

Then I ventured, “You think that would be an improvement?”

“Yes,” he answered again.

 

            Sebastian wasn’t wrong.  The bread would be better with butter.  When I’ve told that story I’ve had other people laugh and say we should add jam or honey as well.

            Nineteen months later, Sebastian is still praying the Lord’s Prayer asking for daily bread and butter. 

            This is, I believe, more than a humorous story.  Pastor’s do like telling cute stories about their kids and grandkids because they provide such good material.  But I also think Sebastian was onto something about the theology of the prayer.  According to the Polish scholar Anna Wierzbicka, “Bread is a metaphor that stands not only for food but also for all the other good and necessary things in life.”

            Sebastian, on some level, grasped this and wanted to add butter because butter is another good thing that blesses our lives.  When we ask, in the Lord’s Prayer, for our daily bread, we are praying for all the good things of God that sustain our lives.  We are asking those blessings for ourselves and everyone else as well.

 

            Bread is, of course, a potent symbol in the biblical story.  This fact is explained well in Walter Brueggemann’s little book The Bible Makes Sense, which I recommend for anyone wanting a handy introduction to how to read and interpret the Bible. 

            Brueggemann writes that when we read the Bible we enter into what he calls a “life-world,” which he describes as a “network of symbols, words, gestures, and images that give meaning and coherence to our experience.”  The biblical life-world nurtures our imagination and invites us to play with images from the biblical history.  Imagination is key here, as he explains that imagination is “the gift of vitality that enables the believing community to discern possibility and promise, to receive newness and healing where others only measure and count and analyze.”

            For Brueggemann the paradigm example of how the biblical life-world invites our imaginations to play with a symbol is the image of bread, particularly the idea of bread in the wilderness. 

            During the exodus from Egypt, the children of Israel were wandering in the wilderness of the Sinai peninsula and were running out of provisions for feeding themselves.  They prayed to God for deliverance, and God provided manna—this mysterious substance that appeared in the morning and could be baked into bread to feed the people. 

            Key to this story is the setting—the wilderness.  That too became a central biblical image.  Brueggemann describes it as “a place of precariousness without food, without defense or resource.”  He continues, “The center of this memory is in the wonder that in this place where death seemed certain, God is present, having also submitted to the conditions of the desert.” 

            Out of that amazement of God’s presence and deliverance in such a setting, the biblical tradition has developed a rich use of these images.  The Isaiah passage read earlier is one example.  That is a poem for despairing exiles to remind them that God is present with them in their distress and it draws upon the exodus memory for its images.  In the Gospels we have the stories of Jesus feeding the multitudes.  Of those Brueggemann writes that Jesus transformed wilderness into a place of nourishment—“a place of abandonment into one of caring power, a place of death into a time of life.” 

            And the image of bread continues to spread through the tradition.  In the Gospel of John Jesus describes himself as the bread of life.  Bread becomes a central image of the Eucharist.  The Book of Revelation imagines a wedding feast that will be celebrated at the end of time, when food represents the abundance of God’s salvation and setting everything right.

            So it is no stretch for us to use the Exodus memory of bread in the wilderness and apply it to our lives.  Most of us are never going to be lost wandering in a wasteland looking for food.  But we do experience metaphorical wildernesses as we grieve, as we are anxious and afraid and depressed, when we are seriously ill, when our jobs and relationships suddenly end.

            “Give us this day, our daily bread” is our appeal for God to be present with us in these times, to provide for us, to bless us, to deliver us.  So, yes, it is more than just bread.

 

            But bread is also important not just because of the rich imagery of the biblical tradition.  Bread in the prayer is also literally bread.  The staple food that sustains us.  The common, ordinary aspect of our daily life.  You wouldn’t be surprised to learn that in other cultures where another food is the staple, such as rice in East Asia, they adapt the language and metaphor.

            An essential aspect of the prayer is that we are praying for something very basic, very ordinary.  We are praying for God to give us what we need every day of our lives if we are to live and flourish.  The prayer expresses a shared human condition—that we need help.  We cannot do this on our own.  We rely on help from a higher power.  We rely upon each other. 

            “Do not worry,” is one implication of the prayer.  And especially of the parable that Jesus teaches right afterwards in the Gospel of Luke.  Do not be consumed by worry, anxiety, and fear, because God is going to provide for you.  God is a loving parent and will not turn away from God’s beloved children.  What you need will be there. 

            I know even in my own life there are times when it seems that what I need isn’t there.  And, yet, usually if I take the time to quiet my anxiety and pay attention, it is in fact there.  The thought that will turn a situation around.  The friend who can provide the support, care, or advice that I need.  The simple beauty in nature that lifts me momentarily out of myself.  The hilarious incident that makes me laugh when I didn’t think laughter was possible.

            We pray with the confidence that every day God is providing for us what we need.  And sometimes that is literally bread.

           

Which teaches us something about prayer.  Prayer is not some extra activity that we must make time for in our lives.  Oh, sure, there are types of prayer that might require some set aside quiet time, but not prayer at its most basic and ordinary, for we can pray in the midst of our work and play and commutes in traffic. 

My favorite writer on prayer is the Quaker Richard Foster who has a great book simply entitled Prayer.  In a chapter on “Praying the Ordinary” he writes, “Prayer is not another duty to add onto an already overcommitted schedule . . . our work becomes prayer.  It is prayer in action.”  Everything we do can be a form of prayer.  Our ordinary lives can be lived attuned to and in gratitude for God’s presence and blessing.

 

            Our daily bread, then, is a rich image that connects us to the biblical life-world.  It is a reminder that God provides every day our most basic needs.  It teaches us that we can pray every moment of our ordinary lives.  And there is still more we can say about this image. 

            It is a reaction to consumerism, by reminding us that what we need will be provided for us and comes to us from God, not the almighty dollar.  It teaches us to live more simply with what we truly need and not get lost in consuming all the luxuries that surround us.

            The petition also teaches us, as theologian Timothy Bradshaw writes, that time has meaning.  We should not overlook that we are praying for something “this day” and that thing is our “daily bread.”  Bradshaw points out that these words imply that God is present in time, working in time, giving meaning to our human time.  I can imagine a whole sermon developing just this idea.

 

            And, of course, there is the connection to communion.  When Jesus taught the prayer, he had not yet instituted the Lord’s Supper, but it is impossible for us Christians to pray these words and not be connected to the celebration of communion and all that this meal means to us as a matter of worship, fellowship, and spirituality. 

            Timothy Bradshaw writes, “Prayer for our daily bread is prayer to the one who desires communion with us.”  God wants to be in a daily, personal, ecstatic, loving relationship with us.  And God wants us to have that sort of meaningful relationship with one another, with all people, with all creation.  To comprehend the deep and intimate ways we are all connected to one another.

 

            On this Sunday we commemorate All Saints Day, when the Christian church remembers and celebrates its saints—all of those people who have preceded us in this life of faith.  In our congregation we name those who have died in the last year, a long list this year as you can see in your insert. 

            Our Christian faith teaches us that life is greater than death, hope is more powerful than despair, love and joy and beauty and adventure and peace—these are the things that ultimately matter. 

            And so the lives of these saints continue on in the presence of God and in the memories of those they loved and taught and cared for.  They remain a part of our communion, now and for all time.

            Even that is a part of this prayer.

 

            So, aware of all the rich meanings connected to these simple words, let us pray as Jesus taught us to pray.  And maybe, like Sebastian, add what will remind you of God’s presence and blessing every day of your life.

            Give us this day, our daily bread (& butter).

           


Grant

GrantGrant by Ron Chernow
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Despite its heft, I read it quickly, for Chernow is such an engaging writer. I learned a lot about Grant, his time, and other figures he interacted with. I've gained a greater understanding of him, better appreciating his strengths and accomplishments and better recognizing his serious flaws.

One drawback of the book is that Chernow seems to feel the need to address every rumor of Grant's alcoholism, so, particularly during the chapters on the war, every few pages Chernow addresses a fresh rumor of alcohol abuse. I got to skipping over those paragraphs.

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