The Nature of Forgiveness

Luke 7:36

One of the Pharisees asked Jesus to eat with him, and he went into the Pharisee’s house and took his place at the table. And a woman in the city, who was a sinner, having learned that he was eating in the Pharisee’s house, brought an alabaster jar of ointment. She stood behind him at his feet, weeping, and began to bathe his feet with her tears and to dry them with her hair. Then she continued kissing his feet and anointing them with the ointment. Now when the Pharisee who had invited him saw it, he said to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what kind of woman this is who is touching him—that she is a sinner.” Jesus spoke up and said to him, “Simon, I have something to say to you.” “Teacher,” he replied, “Speak.” “A certain creditor had two debtors; one owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. When they could not pay, he canceled the debts for both of them. Now which of them will love him more?” Simon answered, “I suppose the one for whom he canceled the greater debt.” And Jesus said to him, “You have judged rightly.” Then turning toward the woman, he said to Simon, “Do you see this woman? I entered your house; you gave me no water for my feet, but she has bathed my feet with her tears and dried them with her hair. You gave me no kiss, but from the time I came in she has not stopped kissing my feet. You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment. Therefore, I tell you, her sins, which were many, have been forgiven; hence she has shown great love. But the one to whom little is forgiven, loves little.” Then he said to her, “Your sins are forgiven.” But those who were at the table with him began to say among themselves, “Who is this who even forgives sins?” And he said to the woman, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.”

The Nature of Forgiveness

A young man went to a minister and said, “I have a confession to make."

"What is it? the minster asked"

"Well, I know that we are supposed to be humble, but twice a day I look at myself in the mirror and tell myself how incredibly handsome I am."

The minister took a good look at the rather plain boy with a big nose and ears to match.  She said, "I have good news. That isn't a sin . . . your mirror is broken."

People come to the church all the time about sin.  They want help in forgiving other’s sins, getting forgiven from God, figuring out their own sins.  We are, in fact, in charge of sin.  The culture may enact legislation and fix public morality, but when it comes to sinning, we get to say what that is.  Different churches have different ideas about sin, but the Judea-Christian heritage is all about sin.  When Jesus gave Peter the keys to the kingdom, he might have thought Peter would use them to open the doors of heaven, but in fact, the church has often kept eternal life under moral lock and key.

Us Calvinists structure our traditional theology around five major points, the first of which is the total depravity of human beings.  Original sin, mortal sins, venal sins, sins of omission . . . The only title of a sermon you probably remember is Jonathan Edward's 'Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.'  Churches spend much more energy labeling and chasing sinners than saving them.  Even in the liberal prophetic traditions of Protestantism, social ills are gleefully pointed out with less enthusiasm for actual fixes.

We have to be sinners.  The Christian church is in a bit of a bind, since it has made Jesus the sacrificial lamb for our sins, if our sins aren’t all that we have made them out to be, Jesus isn’t quite as necessary.  If the only reason Jesus is around is to forgive our sins, sinning had better be pretty important. 

Today, some of what I say may be a bit heretical, but I am only trying to get at a basic position of Jesus.  I’m going to discuss how sin is a decision of the church, how Jesus questions that system of judgment, and how humility is the heart of forgiveness.

Sin is a decision of the church.

Of course, we try to base our deliberations on the Bible, but the Bible needs interpreting.  And we have interpreted things differently over the years.  For example, the church was a champion of the anti-slavery movement, but the Bible doesn’t seem to have much problem with slavery.  Paul even sends a runaway slave back to his master.  Another example: there could be no clearer provisions in scripture than those outlining how to keep the Sabbath holy, but most of those are winked at now by almost every denomination.  Those are really sins anymore.  We say.  There are churches that have their whole identity wrapped up in the identification and demonizing of gay and lesbian people as sinful.  And even though there is no hint of abortion in the Bible, it is the sin of the day for many churches.  Churches choose their sins.

Which brings us to the story of Jesus in the gospel lesson.  Jesus is being adored by someone who has been labeled a sinner by a church leader.  We never get to know exactly what her sin is, but the fact that this sinner is loving Jesus is bothering the good church elder.

Jesus saves his most damning remarks for those who judge others, especially the scribes and Pharisees.  “Woe to you,” Jesus says a few chapters after our reading, “because you load people down with burdens they can hardly carry, and you yourselves will not lift one finger to help them.”

And always remember good friends, that when we read about the scribes and Pharisees, that is a story about us.

For Jesus, forgiveness questions the law as much as the offense.

For example, when you see someone steal your favorite shirt out of the backseat of the car, do you arrest him?  Perhaps forgive him?  No, says Jesus.  You give him your coat as well.  What is at stake here?  Nothing more basic than the nature of ownership.  God owns everything.  Who are you to suggest that someone who steals from you needs forgiveness?  Of course this approach is impractical.  Jesus never claimed to be practical.  He claimed to be of God.  And does God care whose shirt it is?  This is just an example of the many times Jesus raises the question of the nature of forgiveness in a setting of bad laws and worse judgments. 

We understand unjust laws in our political system.  Most people understand that there is unevenness in the criminal justice system.  There are thousands of examples of the strangeness of our state and national laws.  Like the church decides who the sinners are, the state decides who the criminals are.  Drug laws of the poor have heavier penalties than designer drugs. In Saudi Arabia it’s against the law for a woman to drive a car.  In Arizona, you can get arrested for looking like an illegal alien and not having papers on you.  

We have tried punishment and blame for so long.  Isn’t it time for something else?
Jesus called the whole thing into question.  Jesus knew that the whole system had problems and blaming any individual was often cruel and self serving.  For this insight, he was tortured and killed.

Who can judge when we all are to blame?

Even if we are right about what sin is, we are on thin ice when we apply those ideas to anyone but ourselves.   It is possible that some of our ideas of sin are off, but the big problem is the fact that we use these frail ideas against people when we judge them.   When we think people need forgiving, we have already judged them.

How can we even know what sin is, when we have logs in our own eyes?  We have finite views, self interested positions, conflicts of interest.  We have been stockbrokers making money off the distress we cause.  No one is in a position to judge who the sinners are or even what sin is.  As Paul says in Romans, only Jesus is in a position to judge and he is interceding for us.  “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? . . . No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.”

Let the one without sin cast the first stone.  Let the person who does not have any investment in the current economic system cast the stone against those whose poverty forces them to steal bread.

We are sinners when we make and maintain a world that creates sinners.         

Humility is the heart of forgiveness.

The true nature of forgiveness is not condescension or forgetfulness or even rehabilitation, it is humility.

Humility is quick to love and slow to judge.  Humility may not even see the need for forgiveness.  “How have I caused this?”  Is always a legitimate first question to ask of any behavior problem.  “How can I help this?”  “How can I love this?”  “How would God’s love change this?” There are many many questions to ask before we might get to “How can I punish this?”  or “How can I protect myself from this?”

But let’s get back to Jesus.

So do we need Jesus?  Oh yes.  Jesus saves us all right.  Jesus saves us from our sins as much through his model of absolute humility as through any moral calculus.  Jesus, although perfect, did not let it go to his head, did not count equality with God a thing to get all puffed up about.  As he is being killed he wanted God to know that it was ignorance that caused his murderers to torture him and his friends to abandon him.  “Forgive them for they have no idea what they are doing.”  Now that is a perspective worth living for.

Let our own actions be just, let our hearts be filled with mercy, let us walk humbly with our God.

(c) William H. Levering 2009

Pentecost 2010 - Understanding Babble

Understanding Babble

Recently, Daniel Carlson was in my office for a meeting and at exactly 3 o'clock he suddenly looked up and asked, "Is something about to explode?"  Now ministers rarely take each other at face value, so I was wondering what he might mean by this, when he pointed to my desk.  "Over there," he said, "something is beeping."  I thought he was kidding.  So I go over to my desk to show him that there is nothing there.  After I get to my desk I hear the faintest of noises.  Like an alarm coming from a world on a baseball.  I find a electronic pocket watch that is on my desk and hold it directly to my ear.  There is the tiniest of alarms going off.  It had apparently been going off every day at 3 pm, set months ago for some event that I must have missed, since I couldn't hear the darn thing.  I had heard that there were frequencies that you lost touch with as you got older, but here it was.  Daniel could hear things plainly that I couldn't.  My own alarm, no less.

Our lives are full of babble, of misunderstanding.

Each of us lives in slightly different perceptual world.  Because of our physiologies, we hear different things.  Before sense data even gets to our frontal lobes, our experiences are filtered and often categorized by our sensory processing.  We look at ink blots and actually see different things.  A few people in the world can listen to hard rock music and understand the lyrics.

It is no wonder we understand things differently.  In the human family we use different languages and words to describe different experiences.  It is to be expected that I couldn't understand someone speaking Mongolian, but most of the misunderstandings in the world are with the people closest to us.  Husbands and wives who have lived together for decades will still completely miss some meaning or message.  Parents and children will see each other as people from other planets even though they have shared life for years.

It's a wonder civilization exists at all.  The simplest of orders is mixed up.  If people understood each other, I could always get my eggs the way I want them at a breakfast place, when in fact, my not-so-picky egg preference only makes it to my table correct about a third of the time.

We mishear, misstate, misunderstand, misrepresent, misconstrue, misuse, misinform, and misspell.  It is no wonder we miss each other's meaning.  The writers of Genesis told the story of Babel to understand the basic fact that we just can’t get each other most of the time.

Men complain about not being able to understand women.  And women complain about . . . being able to understand men all too well.

The church has a problem being understood.  The Bible is not completely transparent; it can be confusing.  We have rituals and customs that may not communicate what we want.  Elders process down to the first pew, strange flags fly in the sanctuary, we say unfamiliar words.

One of the basic battles fought by our denomination was over how to be understood.  This church was founded by people who spoke Dutch.  When they came to worship, therefore, they spoke Dutch.  At some point, they had to decide if they were just talking to themselves, or whether God needed them to have other people understand.

The Miracle of Pentecost is that people understood.

In the face of all the potential ways that we can misunderstand each other, it is a miracle if it ever happens, especially if it is about something very important.  When we take away the hubbub and the flash, when the wind and the fire are taken out of the story, the miracle is even more clear.  Strangers understood each other about something important.  A miracle.

When the stakes are higher, when the issue is filled with emotion, the odds go down that the message will get through, unless God is involved.

This is not to say that at Pentecost everyone got it.  In every age, some will not be ready to hear God's tune and so will think it nonsense.

But our new hope is that the power that changes our lives can be shared with others.  Our faith is not such a personal thing that it is all bottled up inside us.  We risk talking to each other about important things with the new hope that someone else will 'get it.'  When we were young, we stayed up to all hours talking about what was important.  We can either get lazy or jaded and forget the spirit that brings new life.

Today we have brought in hope for our future in the form of a twelve new disciples who now share the Spirit with us.  We will all speak.  We will all listen.  And with God’s Spirit, we will sometimes hear something like the rush of a mighty wind and understand each other.

Just like the first Pentecost, when we understand, we wonder how it will work out: "What does this mean?"

I'm not exactly sure what Pentecost means for our futures.  On the interpersonal level, it may mean the reinvigoration of our efforts to understand and be understood.  Apparently it IS possible for men to understand women and for parents to understand teenagers.  It just may take more listening than we have been accustomed to.  Babble is understood when we gather in the Spirit.

On the level of our faith, it may require us to trust folks who hear alarms very dim to us.  Remember, other people can literally hear things we can’t.  We need to listen to voices of hope in people who sound very different.  Different languages, different music, different expressions.  Babble becomes holy when we gather in the Spirit.

As a congregation, this means we pay attention to our role in the spreading of the Spirit.  The disciples were gathered together in one place when the Spirit fell.   Being understood seems to require us to be connected with each other, constantly checking the status of the people around us.  Maybe Facebook and twitter have something.  The business of understanding and working with the Spirit is a rejection of the self-centered and self-satisfied life.

This community centered life is tough for a big church.  It’s easy and comfortable to be a spectator here.  It would be easy for us minister types to simply put on a good show on Sunday morning and leave it at that.  But there is more to be understood here.  There is more Spirit on the wind.  Bagabagabaga?  Bagabagabaga!

May 9, 2010 - Giving Peace

Preacher’s Preview
May 5, 2010
“Giving Peace”

1. What conditions get you anxious and excited?
2. What calms you down from those feelings?
3. Are emotions contagious?
4. When has someone else’s bad feeling infected you?
5. When has someone else’s peace affected you?
6. What do you do to calm down an overwrought child?
7. If you wanted to calm down a whole crowd, how would you do it?
8. How can you ‘give peace?’
9. How do you think of the Holy Spirit?
10. Have you ever had a distinct experience of the Spirit?

Read Passage

1. When do you remember hearing this passage? Why there?
2. Is the Holy Spirit related to Jesus ‘leaving peace?’

John 14: 25-27

25”(Jesus said) I have said these things to you while I am still with you. 26But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you. 27Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.

The word ‘advocate,’ has been variously translated as counselor, comforter, and advocate.
Verse 26: The “Advocate” does not bring teaching independent of the revelation found in Jesus’ words and actions. The Holy Spirit will not add any new revelation of his own, since that given by Jesus is complete.
Verse 26: “remind”: 12:16 says: “His disciples did not understand these things at first; but when Jesus was glorified, then they remembered that these things had been written of him and had been done to him.”
Verse 27: “peace”: More than the conventional meaning of shalom is intended. To give “peace” is a royal and a divine prerogative (see Numbers 6:26; Psalm 147:14; Isaiah 26:12; 45:7) which Jesus bequeaths as God’s Messiah, the Prince of Peace (see Isaiah 9:6 and Ezekiel 37:26). Worldly peace comes through coercion. [BlkJn] Isaiah 9:6 says: “For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace”.

Commentary on Gospel by Mary Hinkle Shore
In the last evening he spends with the disciples before his death, Jesus tries to show them two elements of reality that are difficult to hold together: he is going away, yet he will not leave them orphaned.
Throughout the farewell discourse, Jesus makes it clear that followers love him by serving others. (One could say that Jesus' love language here is "acts of service."1) Although we might distinguish between loving Jesus and keeping his word, and imagine that we can do one but not the other, Jesus does not recognize that distinction. The clause in John 14:23b is a condition of fact: "Those who love me will keep my word..."2 Love for Jesus simply is love in action.

Whether the disciples know it, to live that kind of love, they will need the constant presence of God in their midst. Jesus offers that presence with three different promises. First, he says of himself and the Father about those who love him: "We will come and make our home with them." From the first chapter of this gospel we know that prior to anyone's love for Jesus, "The Word became flesh and lived among us" (John 1:14). No one would be able to love Jesus if the Father had not first loved the world enough to send his Son into it. The cohabitation that Jesus speaks of is not a reward for good behavior. It is simply a statement of where God likes to spend time. It hearkens back to the first chapter of the gospel and forward to the reality envisioned in Revelation: "See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them as their God; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them" (Revelation 21:3).

The Son also announces the advent of the Spirit among the believers. During the time between his leave-taking and life in the new Jerusalem, the Holy Spirit "will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you" (John 14:25). I once heard a New Testament scholar speak of material written fifty years after Jesus' death as a relevant source for the life of the historical Jesus by saying, "My mother has been dead for thirty years. I think I understand her better now than I did when she was alive." The Holy Spirit accompanies the church as it remembers. The Spirit guides the disciples and the church as we think back over what we have experienced of Jesus, and as we seek to let our love for him show up in the ways we relate to others. The Spirit helps disciples to understand Jesus and his word and to love Jesus by keeping his word on behalf of the world.

Parish Based Social Services

A Manifesto for Parish Based Social Service
by Rev. Dr. Bill Levering

Once upon a time when Protestants were in control of the culture and everyone was in church, local congregations would gather to do good works together. They began cooperative non profit ventures that fed the hungry, housed the homeless, and counseled the troubled.

Things changed in the river cities in America.
• In an era of shrinking mainstream attendance, churches began competing more for members, often at the expense of a cooperative spirit.
• Urban churches declined to the extent that their existence demanded more of their attention, fewer church resources were available to support causes.
• The spun off non-profits began to develop a contributor and volunteer base completely separate from local spiritual communities. Few offered holistic services, but catered to niches where money was available from grants or donations.
Although the separation of social services from churches may have seemed like a good idea at the time, it created a certain ghetto of poverty services separated from spiritual communities. It was easier to think of the poor as 'them' when they were served 'over there.' The needs, conditions and stories of the poor got further and further away from the consciousness of church folks. As a nation, when we decided to shrink services to the poor, this meant that not only were vital services lost, but that there was no locus of advocacy.

The United States Nonprofit Sector found that, excluding foundations and religious congregations, there were 837,027 nonprofits in the United States in 2003, and that they had combined assets of $1.76 trillion. On the other hand, American Church Lists, who makes its business by knowing how and where churches are, says that there are about 380,000 active churches in America. While there will always be a need for human services delivered out of the context of faith communities, it appears the balance has been tipped so that now communities of faith often give up their active role entirely.

Contemporary spiritual people are looking for a faith that expresses itself in action, not another United Way at worship. If we do not provide opportunities for service that are connected to our congregations, our faith seems to be without concrete expression. We also need to remain attached to concrete situations that are different from our own and need to risk dirtying our hands with the real business of human need.

Because isolated non-profits are often at the mercy of governmental grants, their work has often been compromised by governmental requirements and they may chose to provide services where grants are to found rather than where need is to be found. We can do better.

Parish based social services use the local church or synagogue as the locus of oversight, funding and provision of services. We bring non-profits back into our buildings and our parishes. This can begin with the provision of the spiritual services that slipped away most seriously. Community chaplains can reach out to local institutions and begin the relationship of need to nurture. Without jeopardizing the mission of any agency, we can form cooperative ventures in which congregations provide staff that are still very connected to the local congregation or can use church buildings for offices and provision of services.

For example, instead of giving $20,000 to a local agency to fund a half-time social worker, we hire a social worker/chaplain and give them to the agency three days a week. The chaplain attends worship here and connects our congregation to the community of need in a much closer fashion. The chaplain would work with volunteers and help us learn from different folks as well as providing services. Another day or two a week the chaplain would work with some other agency, transcending turf battles and connecting the not-for-profit sectors as well.

Of course there are problems if this idea is carried to extremes. It is not intended to supplant the fundamental role of government in insuring the basic needs of its people. "Faith based initiatives" should go out of their way not to involve governmental subsidies so that there is not an unintended shift or reduction in services. We shouldn't use this as a tool of blatant evangelism, either. Participation in our brand of religion cannot be a prerequisite for receiving whatever we have to offer.

Financially stable urban churches are well suited to begin this re-attachment of human services to spiritual communities. They have the resources, contacts, and experience to understand and develop effective interventions. They have the political presence to understand how to get things done in the complex world of urban governments and funding. That being said, a congregation in any setting can begin to use this concept to be more engaged in the needs of the community.

Parish based social service is a new approach and will garner resistance, especially from those involved with institutions now receiving support from churches. This is why it is best developed in new proposals, leaving current funding programs alone. We need to reassure folks, however, that losing a bit of control may be balanced by closer relationships and expanded services.

The Missioner Process

First Reformed Church began to enact some of the concepts of parish based social services in its Missioner program in 2008. In brief, the following process was followed to involve the congregation in mission work.

1. Informal conversations with civic leaders and not-for-profit directors took a pulse of the needs of the community and the work already being done.
2. Mission leadership in the congregation developed a few short proposals for a position, funded by the church, serving in a mission setting. After the mission target was established, a role for the missioner in the congregations needs was nailed down so that they had a particular helping job on Sundays.

3. The congregation decides from among the proposals, in our case through the consistory.

4. The supervising mission site actually hires the individual with input and consultation with the congregation. It is vital that the mission site have full jurisdiction over their workers, but the person hired needs to be happy about serving in a congregational setting whatever his or her faith is.

5. The missioner is trained and supported in the congregational setting, enabling them to write newsletter articles and draft appropriate folks to help in their mission niche. This support takes place in weekly scheduled meetings with all the missioners and a pastor.

The Missioner Experience

First Reformed Church, Schenectady has had a very positive experience measured by:

• Congregational excitement, involvement, and empowerment in mission issues increasing.

• Funding continued for these positions from other sources at the end of the two year cycle. In each case below, the original vision became so vital to the community or the not-for-profit that other resources continued its funding. This ensures a checkpoint for the assessment of the community need.

• Public presence has increased. While we don’t blow our own horn, newspaper stories about our missioners increased our exposure as a caring institution and brought in worshippers.

Habitat for Humanity
In the summer of 2008, Randy Sparrow was hired to work in a very hands on way with the ‘stuff’ of housing. He worked with habitat for Humanity managing the ReStore. This new position was able to take this Habitat chapter to a whole new level of activity and generated income doubling our investment in his position.

The City Mission
In the spring of 2008, Art Hudak was hired by the City Mission of Schenectady in collaboration with First Reformed of Schenectady to promote and manage an Ambassador program involving a broad range of people in providing a welcoming experience to downtown Schenectady. Art also work directly at the City Mission and had a strong street presence.

The Damien Center
In the spring of 2008, Dan Butterworth was hired by the Schenectady Inner City Ministries in collaboration with FRCS to be the executive director of the Damien Center, a place providing care and support to those affected and infected with HIV/AIDS. Dan expanded the program and managed the move to a building donated for the ministry in 2009.

Stepping Stones Ministry
In the spring of 2010, Art Hudak was hired (half time) to work with a board of representative churches and communities to create a spiritual ministry for people in recovery groups. This worshipping community would be designed to use the language and forms of the many twelve step programs in our area.

April 25, 2010 - Rabbi Matt Cutler

Preacher’s Preview
April 21, 2010
Bill Levering

1. What is the worst crime that has happened to you?
2. When you were a kid and someone punched you, what did you do?
3. What are our natural impulses when it comes to punishing crime?
4. When are our impulses wrong?
5. When is forgiveness impossible?
6. Do people get what they deserve? Should they?
7. What should happen if I steal your car and wreck it?
8. What would the world be like if we forgave everyone?
9. Why is blasphemy bad?

Leviticus 24:9-22 (NIV)

10 Now the son of an Israelite mother and an Egyptian father went out among the Israelites, and a fight broke out in the camp between him and an Israelite. 11 The son of the Israelite woman blasphemed the Name with a curse; so they brought him to Moses. (His mother's name was Shelomith, the daughter of Dibri the Danite.) 12 They put him in custody until the will of the LORD should be made clear to them.

13 Then the LORD said to Moses: 14 "Take the blasphemer outside the camp. All those who heard him are to lay their hands on his head, and the entire assembly is to stone him. 15 Say to the Israelites: 'If anyone curses his God, he will be held responsible; 16 anyone who blasphemes the name of the LORD must be put to death. The entire assembly must stone him. Whether an alien or native-born, when he blasphemes the Name, he must be put to death.

17 " 'If anyone takes the life of a human being, he must be put to death. 18 Anyone who takes the life of someone's animal must make restitution — life for life. 19 If anyone injures his neighbor, whatever he has done must be done to him: 20 fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth. As he has injured the other, so he is to be injured. 21 Whoever kills an animal must make restitution, but whoever kills a man must be put to death. 22 You are to have the same law for the alien and the native-born. I am the LORD your God.' "

Matthew 5:38-50 (NIV)

38"You have heard that it was said, 'Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.'[a] 39But I tell you, Do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. 40And if someone wants to sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. 41If someone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. 42Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.

John 8:1-7 (NIV)
1But Jesus went to the Mount of Olives. 2At dawn he appeared again in the temple courts, where all the people gathered around him, and he sat down to teach them. 3The teachers of the law and the Pharisees brought in a woman caught in adultery. They made her stand before the group 4and said to Jesus, "Teacher, this woman was caught in the act of adultery. 5In the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?" 6They were using this question as a trap, in order to have a basis for accusing him.
But Jesus bent down and started to write on the ground with his finger. 7When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, "If any one of you is without sin, let him be the first to throw a stone at her."

Easter 2010 - Enjoying Mystery

Enjoying Mystery

Millions of people every year enjoy a good mystery novel. It is an American genre, formed by Edgar Allen Poe and developed in hundreds of pulp paperbacks. It was adopted by the British who added a touch of class, and eventually the stories became a touchstone of western culture: The Hound of the Baskervilles, The Maltese Falcon, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, The Big Sleep, Ten Little Indians, The Thirty-Nine Steps, The Name of the Rose, The Nine Tailors, Murder on the Orient Express.

In America we were probably raised on mysteries. We paged through blue Hardy Boys books, that still sell over a million copies a year. The Tower Treasure
The House on the Cliff, Secret of the Old Mill. We followed Nancy Drew. But most of all, since 1969, we watched that peak of the American mystery culture: Scooby Doo, the Great Dane of Mystery, Incorporated.

All these appealed to the American need for courage and curiosity and, ultimately, explanation. We learned to love the open ended question of whodunnit, or sometimes, we knew it right from the start and had to find out how. How did they pull it off?! The suspense of the unanswered question was a joy more important than the solution (which was often a disappointing unmasking or disingenuous trick.)

Mysteries engage us. They demanded our thinking apparatus, our "little gray cells", as Poirot would say.

Today we consider the greatest mystery ever. Obviously the divine mystery of the resurrection is fabulously more important than a novel, but the ways we engage a mystery may help.

Problems we have with religious mysteries.

We need some help in this because religious mysteries are not always very engaging. Our first reactions to religious mysteries aren't very helpful.

First we want to explain them. We want the answer to who what when and how before the first chapter is finished. We reach for logical or psychological explanations for this mystery using science and metaphor and anthropology. It's mostly what you want from me in a sermon: an explanation. But like the first Easter, there often isn’t an explanation. The women were perplexed, John was amazed and who am I to understand better than they did? Explaining truly mysterious things strains the fabric of words and logic or they wouldn't be mysteries to begin with. In other words, if I could explain it in 15 minutes, it wouldn't be much of a mystery now would it?

The second approach to religious mysery is to avoid it altogether. Some of us can't stand mystery novels or shows or mysteries at all. "They have too much tension or unresolved issues and I have enough of those in my life already, thank you very much. Why would I want more confusion??" or "I am afraid that a mystery will completely conflict with my logical view of the world so why should I consider it?"

At a deeper level our response to a mystery is fear. We fear the unknown, the unexplained, the dark at the top of the stairs. When we don't know what is coming, we can feel powerless and vulnerable. Through most of a Scooby Doo mystery, Scooby Doo is cowering in terror and he is a big tough dog. Imagine how we must fear the deep mysteries of our lives.

With these responses to mystery, it's not surprising that we don't tend to dwell on them, even at Easter. I'd like to help change that.

When you take a literature class, the teacher of course wants to impart some information, but usually also wants to impart a value, an appreciation, an enjoyment. In that same fashion, I'd like to get you to like mystery more today. I'm not going to explain the resurrection, make it more understandable or even applicable in the slightest bit.

What I would like to do is to help us all enjoy mystery more, and specifically, the mystery of the resurrection. I call it "The Case of the Risen Lord." The mystery is deep and thick. We have a missing body, contradicting witnesses, confusing verbal clues, and disappearing evidence. It's a real mystery!

In the Presbyterian tradition that I come from, we have formal creeds just like the Reformed Church does. You all have the Heidelberg Catechism which begins "What is thy only comfort in life and death?" The Westminster Catechism is a set of questions and answers like the Heidelberg. Ministers forget most of the questions and answers, but we tend to remember the first one. The Westminster's first one is "What is the chief end of man?" The answer is "Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever."

Not explain, not even serve, but to enjoy!

To enjoy this mystery, we must do three things: suspend judgment, see intent, and savor impact. If you keep track of these things, they all start with the letter S.

Suspend Judgment

There comes a point in any good mystery when we get the idea that things aren't really the way we thought they were. There is some very basic understanding of ours that is flawed. After reading mystery after mystery, we may begin to understand that a certain humility is in order. There are things at play that we do not now know. People turn out to be related. There is a hidden passage in the library. The guy who runs the agency actually works for the Russians. Sherlock Holmes usually gets around to telling Watson that "whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth." As we follow the intrepid detectives, we learn to suspend our judgment about the probability of things. Who would have guessed that there was a monkey involved? Who would have predicted that they ALL did it? If only I had remembered that remark about the cave from the first chapter!

We live in a world that is governed by the ordinary rules we have developed to deal with ordinary situations. Generally speaking, things fall down . . . except in space, but who has been to space? Our judgments are based on experience and that experience and often limited. To really enjoy a good mystery, we need to relish the fact that there are things we don't know or forget. We do know that there will be red herrings and false leads. A rush to judgment is dangerous in any mystery and in the greatest mystery we need the greatest patience.

See Intent

Usually mystery novels are about crime. A great crime has been perpetrated and it must be solved. A letter has been purloined, or a man has been murdered, or jewels stolen. But real mysteries of our life are often mysteries of grace. A child is born, a habit is broken, a love appears. Enjoying a real life mystery requires an additional dimension: Why?

In mystery novels why is often a minor point subsumed by who and how. But in life, why is a much more important factor. How do you explain falling in love? We may love our children imperfectly; we may not feed them exactly the right breakfast cereal, but the why of our mystery of love is that we really want what is best for them and that is most important. In the resurrection, however the hows and whens sort out, the why is the most important factor. For God so loved the world, that he sent his only Son.

Savor Impact

In school, whenever we had meatloaf, we called it mystery meat. My little secret was: I liked it. I didn't know what was in it, but I really liked the meatloaf at Hufford Junior High. The proof of some puddings is in the eating and the eating of mystery is in the effect. What does a mystery do for you? Sharpen your wits? Increase your attention to detail? Savor the flavors of mystery.

When you look up on a clear night and consider the mystery of the thousands of stars in the sky, do you need it explained to have it create a sense of wonder and humility? The mystery of the creation of the universe can be enjoyed for what it does to us.

The mystery of the resurrection can have an impact on you. You can change how you think people are. It can make us a bit more humble to think that we don't have all the answers of life and death.

Suspend judgment, see intent and savor impact of the mystery.


Finally, remember that "The Case of the Risen Lord" is incomplete. We have not finished the book, the dramatic revelation has yet to be made. We are still on page 146 of a 200 page novel. What shall we do? Stop reading? Be angry that we're not at the end? What are we reading it for anyway? We are in the midst of the greatest mystery, but we are not at the end. Can you stand it?

What we have here is a wonderful, impenetrable mystery. A puzzler, a cipher, a wonderment.

Let us proclaim the mystery of the faith: Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again.

Pallm Sunday 2010 - Curb Your Enthusiasm!

1.      Do you wear a cross?  Why?
2.      Would you wear a hat with a cross on it?
3.      Would you carry a sign saying, “Jesus is Lord!” at a parade?
4.      How do you feel about applause in church?
5.      What is the most excited you have ever been about religion or God?
6.      How does your excitement about matters of faith compare to other enthusiasms, say sports?
7.      How do you get a stone to shout?

1.      How much planning is there for a good party?
2.      How many hours do you suppose go into getting ready for a worship service?
3.      Would you rather your religious experiences be planned or spontaneous?  Why?
4.      What kind of religious experience is best unplanned?
5.      Can we plan too much?  Do we?

Luke 19:29-40
29When (Jesus) had come near Bethphage and Bethany, at the place called the Mount of Olives, he sent two of the disciples, 30saying, “Go into the village ahead of you, and as you enter it you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden. Untie it and bring it here. 31If anyone asks you, ‘Why are you untying it?’ just say this, ‘The Lord needs it.’” 32So those who were sent departed and found it as he had told them. 33As they were untying the colt, its owners asked them, “Why are you untying the colt?” 34They said, “The Lord needs it.” 35Then they brought it to Jesus; and after throwing their cloaks on the colt, they set Jesus on it. 36As he rode along, people kept spreading their cloaks on the road. 37As he was now approaching the path down from the Mount of Olives, the whole multitude of the disciples began to praise God joyfully with a loud voice for all the deeds of power that they had seen, 38saying, “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven!” 39Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, order your disciples to stop.” 40He answered, “I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out.”

text notes:
The word mathetes means "learner, pupil, disciple".  The same Greek work is used both for the two disciples who collect the colt for Jesus, and the "multitude of the disciples"

(c) William H. Levering 2009