A sermon preached October 1, 2016, based on Luke 17:1-10.
Luke 17:1-10 Common English Bible (CEB)
17 Jesus said to his disciples, “Things that cause people to trip and fall into sin must happen, but how terrible it is for the person through whom they happen. 2It would be better for them to be thrown into a lake with a large stone hung around their neck than to cause one of these little ones to trip and fall into sin. 3Watch yourselves! If your brother or sister sins, warn them to stop. If they change their hearts and lives, forgive them. 4Even if someone sins against you seven times in one day and returns to you seven times and says, ‘I am changing my ways,’ you must forgive that person.”
5 The apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith!”
6 The Lord replied, “If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you.
7 “Would any of you say to your servant, who had just come in from the field after plowing or tending sheep, ‘Come! Sit down for dinner’? 8Wouldn’t you say instead, ‘Fix my dinner. Put on the clothes of a table servant and wait on me while I eat and drink. After that, you can eat and drink’? 9You won’t thank the servant because the servant did what you asked, will you? 10In the same way, when you have done everything required of you, you should say, ‘We servants deserve no special praise. We have only done our duty.’”
Common English Bible (CEB)
Copyright © 2011 by Common English Bible
There's a lake near where I grew up, and on that lake is a place called Chimney Rock. I can remember being a kid, and I can remember going to Chimney rock for the very first time. I can remember seeing the kids - some of them about my age, some of them younger than me, some of them a lot older - all of them climbing up the rock and finding their handholds, and jumping off - they fell for what seemed like forever. I remember being so impressed and so incredibly awed by their bravery; as a kid I hated heights, but I saw those kids and I thought "I want to be cool like that." So I swam to the rock, and I climbed the slippery wet rocks. I remember getting to the top and looking out from the cliff at that at the water below. It was only about 30 feet up, but I remember being at the top, and I remember realizing that 30 feet, when viewed from the top down, is about 4 times farther it is when viewed from the bottom up. I remember easing my eyes over the edge, I remember that sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach, and I remember looking back at the walk I had just climbed up see if there was any way I could scramble back down. I remember realizing that my only goal for young life had become to get myseslf out of this stupid idea I'd gotten into.
I remember all those feelings as vividly as if they just happened. Because they did. Some 25 years after I first jumped off of Chimney rock, I found myself back at the lake with family this summer, and I rediscovered that old lead weight in my stomach. When we pulled up next to Chimney Rock this summer to I had to see if the magic was still there, so I put on my life vest; I jumped out of the boat, swam to the shore, and started my climb upwards. Jennifer was right behind me; she'd never jumped off Chimney rock before. Sure enough, we got to the top, and we looked down, and we looked at each other. Now in our second decade of marriage, we are fluent in speaking to each other with our eyes. We looked down from Chimeny rock, and then we looked into each other's eyes, and we were saying the exact same thing at the exact same time: "We've made a huge mistake."
Of course, we couldn’t back out. There were several other boats around, all watching as were standing there. And I knew in my head that it’s safer to jump than to try and climb backwards down the rocks. Not to mention, there’s a line of are kids coming up. Our own kids are in the boat cheering us on. Our own kids by the way, who are too scared to jump off the dock. Our own kids who wouldn't jump off of the boat. Our kids who run away from a 2 foot drop from the boat to the water as if it is the gateway into the abyss. These same kids are screaming at us, that they are so proud of us and they know we can do it, and “Come on already, why won't you jump?” Eventually Jennifer and I realize we are never going to be any more excited about this, so there's nothing left to do but to jump. We count 1,2,3 - and we go.
Falling happens so much faster when it's happening to you than it does for other people. Two seconds later, we are in the water and the bubbles are coming up all around us, and the feeling of exhilaration has replaced the feeling in the pit of my stomach, and I look around I think “That is awesome.” I have conquered my fears; I've done the most amazing thing; I hope someone got the full glory of that on video. Then I look back and there's a third grader jumping off right behind me. He's jumping like it's not a thing, and I realize I've made a huge, huge deal out of a thing hundreds of people do every summer, something this kid has gotten entirely used to. It's really not that big a deal.
It reminds me of that Chris Rock sketch, where he talks about folks who always want to get credit for things they are supposed to do. You know, like the guy who says "I'm a good guy; I take care of my kids?" and Chris Rocks says "You're supposed to take care of your kids. What, do you wanna cookie?"
When I was younger that was pure hilarity; now that I've got kids of my own... well, actually yeah. I *do* want a cookie. There are some days that I would really love an extra few cookies. There are days - let's be honest, more than a few - when I give myself a few extra cookies. That's one of the best parts of being an adult: giving myself cookies for what I'm supposed to do. Because I know now more than I did before not to take for granted that I'm going to do what I'm supposed to do. Every morning, we get up; we get the kids breakfast; we take them to school, but only after we’ve exhausted all the other options. There are days when I just look over at Jennifer and say "Gow about if we have the kids skip school today? How about if we just call in tired?" There are days when just getting through that every day routine seems like way more than I would ever choose to do, but then I start running through the options and realize there's not much choice. I can't really call in tired to the school. There comes a point every day when we were realize that something's got to happen, and we've got to be the ones that make it happen. We don't deserve a cookie for it; it's no great act of heroism. If there was anything else I could do, I would.
But there’s not. So I jump into the day. The reason I jump is not because there because God sends a groundswell of inspiring music into my life's soundtrack, and it is not because I have some great exhilaration or sense of adventure. The reason that I jump into the day is because there's folks behind me, and there's people waiting for me, and folks watching me, and the truth is I've exhausted all the other options.
Jesus tells his disciples "If your brother comes to you seven times in a day having offended you or having done the wrong thing, and if your brother says to you seven times "I am changing my ways," Jesus says "You must forgive him." The apostles hear this and they say "How is this possible? Jesus do you know what you are asking? That's an awfully big leap of faith you're asking. What kind of heroes do you take us for? Lord if this is what you would ask of us, you better do something. Lord, increase our faith!”
But Jesus makes it clear that he's not asking anything heroic - he's not asking for a tremendous feat of faith. Jesus commands them to forgive because there's no other option.
Jesus knows "Things that cause people to trip and fall into sin must happen." In the Greek, that is the double negative for emphasis: "it is impossible for you to not sin, to not fall into scandals and failures. But woe to you through whom they come!" The consequences of sin are real - we can't ignore them! But the inevitability of sin is real, too - we cant avoid it. If we are going to stick it out with God and with each other, we are going to sin, and we have got to deal with the sin that comes between us. We've got to forgive. We aren't heroes for forgiving; we don't deserve a cookie. We've just exhausted all the other options. There's no other way for us to be together with God and each other.
NowI want to be real clear on what forgiveness is. Forgiveness doesn't mean acting as if nothing ever happened. Forgiveness doesn't mean when someone breaks trust with you, that you act as if the offense never happened. And forgiveness doesn't mean that everything goes back to the way it was before. Forgiveness is nothing more and nothing less than relinquishing your claim on the one who hurt you.
We believe in a God who has every possible claim against us. We believe that in Jesus, God was exhausting every possible means to save us. In Jesus, God taught us; God healed us; God gave us an example of how to live and pray and be right with God. Jesus showed us God's anger and frustration when he cleared out the temple. But none of that was enough to win us over. When God had offered us the best of who we could be; we offered God our worst in return. We killed God - we nailed him to a cross. It was our sinful nature that led humanity to take the very Word made flesh and say to it, "no thanks."
At that point, what options did God have for salvaging a relationship with us? How could God be in relationship if we would not accept God? God could have held on to that claim, nursed God’s own anger against us – and that would have ended us. God could have just given up, but that would have ended us, too. Our very breath comes to us by the grace of God. Our very existence depends upon God's relationship with us, but every offer God made was rejected. Jesus had every possible claim against us.
But God cared more about us than about God's own claim. As we were rejecting God, there was only one possible way for God to keep the door of salvation open. Christ looked down from the cross at the crowd that demanded his death, and Jesus said "Father, forgive them, they know no what they do.'
Now, as it turns out, not everybody understood the full horror and calamity of what they were doing to Jesus. Being forgiven didn't mean that everyone was suddenly in a right relationship with God. It didn't mean that these people had put aside their pain and their fear in their hate and everything else that leads any of us to reject Jesus.
All that forgiveness means is that when we did the very worst that we could to God, God didn't hold it against us.
Every so often some one will come to me and they will say "Can God really forgive this awful thing that I've done?" The witness of the cross is the God already has. While we were still sinning, Christ forgave us. That doesn't mean that everything's okay; doesn't mean that we are fully restored into a right relationship with God. Just because you've been forgiven already doesn't mean, among other things, that you have accepted that forgiveness.
(Have you ever been forgiven of something you didn't want to be forgiven for? Let me tell you, there's nothing that gets my pride up more than when somebody tells me "it's okay; I forgive you" and I'm still convinced that I've done nothing wrong!) It may be you're convinced you don't need forgiveness; well, like it or not that’s the word I have for you today – you are forgiven. God isn’t willing to let your pride have the last word, and so God has already done the only thing to be done. Your sins are forgiven!
When we can accept that, we forgive, too.
Jesus gives us a command, and we respond by saying "C'mon Jesus! That's too much! You're asking for a miracle! Forgive 7 times a day, at the very least I deserve a cookie!"
If we had eyes to see, we would realize that forgiveness is the only option left. When we've exhausted our ability to pretend we are perfect, when we've exahusted our ability to pretend our sins aren't really hurting anyone, when we've thought a thousand times "I wish I could go back, and start all over" and realized a thousand times that we can't - when we've exhausted all our other options, forgiveness is the only thing left. To give forgiveness, and to accept it. We spend so much of our life faith asking for the power to do something heroic when God is just asking us to do the only thing left.
And if we do, it might just lead to something exhilarating. The day after watching her parents take the only possible way down from Chimney Rock, our 7 year old said she wanted to jump off the boat. By summer's end, she was jumping off docks, boats - we go up to Florala and she just wants to jump into the water all day long. And every times she does, I laugh at the wonder of it. She is becoming more human. There will come a day she can't think of another way to get into the water from a boat except to jump out. There come a day when she takes it for granted; it's what she's supposed to do. She won't look for a cookie; she'll move on, move forward to diving, maybe she'll learn the flips her dad never mastered. Maybe one day she'll climb a slippery cliff, and discover that it's taller from the top, but she'll jump anyway. Just jumping in from a boat will seem like the most obvious thing in the world. What other option is there?
Forgiveness is only the beginning, but it's the only beginning. You can choose it now, or wait til you've exhausted your anger, your pride, your self-righteousness. Once you get around to forgiving, I can't promise you'll get a cookie for it. But you will at least, be more truly human, which is to say, you will bear the image of God.