Note: The following was the sermon that was supposed to be given on March 10, but was not due to the weather. It now serves as the introduction to the 2019 Lenten theme.
Recently I was reading an article by Giles Fraiser, an Anglican priest and writer. He started off by talking about a wager by the French mathematician, physicist, philosopher and theologian Blaise Pascal. It’s a well-known thought exercise that called Pascal’s wager. The wager asks if we can believe in God or not. If you believed, then there was the promise of eternal life. If you didn’t there could be eternal damnation. Pascal believed it was better to believe than not to and since it didn’t really cost anything it was an easy decision.
But is it?
Fraser then shares the opinion of author Nassim Nicholas Taleb, a Greek Orthodox Christian who believes that Pascal doesn’t really understand belief. As Fraser notes Taleb thinks Pascal’s Wager is morally vacuous.
I would have to agree. Belief is not something that is cost free. Belief is costly and sometimes it can mean giving up your life. The Greek word for belief and faith is pistis, which also means trust. To trust something is not something one does lightly. Instead it is something you put your whole self into. Jesus tells the disciples that to follow him it means taking up our crosses. Belief is something that we put our whole selves into, belief is shaped by the cross. Taleb has written a book called Skin In the Game which talks about how our society is one where people are willing to make decisions affecting millions but don’t suffer for their decisions. In the background is this example of God, who became human, to have skin in the game in order to free creation from the bonds of sin.
To follow Jesus, to be a disciple, means having skin in the game. It means putting our whole selves on the line for the glory of God and for the good of the world.
A few weeks ago I was on Facebook doing what one normally does on Facebook, argue, talking with some friends about the essence of faith. One friend of mine shared that faith means giving up your lives. I understood what he meant, but the others in the conversation reacted strongly. People thought he was saying that people must allow themselves to die, Jim Jones style. When my other friend explained no he wasn’t advocating suicide, they were placated somewhat, but one particular friend wondered why we had to talk about sacrifice which seems rather harsh. It never occurred to this friend that we come every Sunday to talk about a God who came in the form of a human and suffered and died for us.
We need to talk about discipleship, what it means to follow Jesus. Too often, our culture reduces it to morals; calling us to be good and nice people. But that’s not what Jesus did and it is not what we are called to be in this world. Being a Christian, being a Christ-follower is something that costs. If it costs us nothing, then it isn’t faith.
That is the theme we will have over the next few weeks and we start with today’s text found in Matthew 18. Peter asks Jesus a question. How many times do you forgive someone? Peter asks. Seven times? Peter wants to have some limits on forgiveness. Yeah you forgive, but it’s limited and it is at no cost to you. But Jesus responds with an answer that is not really an answer. Not seven times, but seventy times seven. Jesus is not saying you have to forgive someone 490 times, Jesus is saying that forgiveness is something that has no limits. Jesus then tells a story to get the point accross. There is a servant that owes 10,000 talents to a king. Now the amount of 10,000 talents is really a ridiculous sum. It’s as if this servant owed the king billions of dollars. There is no way he could ever pay this sum back. The king decides to cancel the debt. So now, the servant is free; he has no debt anymore. He walks down the street and sees another servant who owes him maybe $100 or so. The other servant begs for time to pay back the debt. The first servant shows this person no mercy and throws the other servant in jail. When the king hears of the unloving action of the servant, he throws that servant in jail until the debt is paid which as we said earlier means nothing.
The Greek word for forgiveness is to let go. But the servant could not let go of losing the money, losing the debt. The king was able to give up the debt that was owed him, but the servant couldn’t do this.
Jesus is telling the disciples and us by extension that we have to be willing to forgive, to be willing to give up what keeps us from forgiving. God wants us to forgive, but that is costly. To forgive means that we have to give up the anger we might feel. But forgiveness means we pay a stiff price. It is easy when Jesus says we should forgive, but what does that mean when we have been hurt by someone? What does it mean when you have endured abuse? Can you forgive an abuser? What does that mean? What does that look like?
I’m not here to tell you that you have to forgive someone especially if you have faced domestic abuse or sexual abuse or other horrors. But even though I’m not saying that you have to forgive, God is and we have to sit and struggle with that. God calls us to forgive because God forgave. Again, the cross, the road we are heading towards with Jesus, is a symbol of how God forgave creation.
On February 12, 1993 Mary Johnson entered into a nightmare. That was the day the Minneapolis mother found out that her son, Laramiun, was dead. He was murdered.
Mary was beyond angry. When the police found the suspect, she was angry. She wanted the suspect to pay. It took two years before there was a trial and Mary held on to anger and bitterness. Oshea Israel, the murder suspect was 16 years old at the time of the killing. He was tried as an adult. During the victim impact statement, Mary Johnson talked about the loss she felt, and she also forgave Oshea. She didn’t feel like forgiving, but because she was a Christian and because God called Christians to forgive, she did it. Oshea was found guilty and went to jail. But that wasn’t the end of the story. Mary read a poem called “Two Mothers.” This is what she says:
“It was about two angels in heaven and, because of the crowns they wore, they both knew they were mothers on earth,” Mary said. “They began to talk about their sons and one mother said, ‘I would have taken my son’s place on the cross.’ The other mother fell on one knee and said, ‘Oh, you are she, the mother of Christ.’ The mother of Christ lifted her and kissed a tear from her cheek and said, ‘Now tell me of your son so I may grieve with you.’ She said, ‘He is Judas Iscariot. I am his mother.’”
After reading this story, she heard a voice saying: “I want mothers of murdered children and mothers of children who have taken lives to come together and heal together.”
She found this hard. She was still holding the anger and bitterness from the tragic loss of her son. After sometime she felt she had to see what was going on with the man who killed her only son. She contact the Minnesota Department of Corrections to see if she could talk to Oshea. The first time he declined, but the next time he said yes. She met him and that began a relationship. She loved him as her own son. They talked to one another and the pain of the prior twelve years melted away. A decade earlier she forgave even though her heart was not in it. Now, her heart had caught up to her words.
When Oshea was released from prison, Mary and other women were there to welcome him. Now, the two go to meet groups and talk about forgiveness. Mary treats Oshea as another son. It can’t be easy to love the killer of her only son, but forgiveness allowed her to do so. There was a cost for Mary, she had to be in relationship with her son’s killer. But forgiveness is not easy. But Mary took the way of the cross and was able to forgive and bring healing to herself and her son’s murderer.
Again, forgiveness is not easy and I am not saying go and forgive. That’s something you have to decide. But maybe giving up our anger and fear even though it costs might be worth it. God was willing to put skin in the game in order to heal and save creation. Our salvation rests on God's willingness to take a risk for the common good.
What skin are we willing to put on the line to make a difference in the world?