Today we pick up on the story of Moses again. Since we last visited this story, Moses has grown up, asked the Pharaoh to deliver the Israelites, the Pharaoh refused, the plagues came to the Egyptians, the Pharaoh reluctantly freed the Israelite slaves, then changed his mind and sent the armies after them. As they were being chased they came to the Red Sea, trapped between this body of water and those chasing them, the seas parted and the Israelites crossed to the other side while the Egyptian army was caught in the waters. A pillar of cloud leads the Israelites by day and fire by night and food is provided for them to eat. So, by all accounts, you would think the Israelites would be grateful for their freedom and feeling blessed by the food they are receiving. But, no. In todays’ scripture we hear that the Israelites are complaining again. This time they are thirsty. So they go to Moses and say, “Why did you free us from Egypt? Did you just bring us here to die of thirst? We were better off before. Why did you free us?”
Now, remember, the Israelites had been slaves in Egypt. They had been worked hard by their masters, given food and shelter, but not much… just enough to keep them healthy enough to do the manual labor they were forced to do. They had no freedom, and were used to harsh conditions. Now they are on an extended wilderness trip, walking through the desert, their needs being met by God, but still they complain. Why didn’t you leave us there to die? Why did you bring us into freedom? This isn’t what we signed up for!
I do wonder how many years this was into their journey. We are told they are wandering through the wilderness for forty years before reaching the promised land, so if they had been walking around for years already, this complaint may make sense. The new lives that would have been born in the wilderness having known no slavery, the memories of harshness faded to a fairy tale re-telling of their lives in Egypt, the many lives that would have been lost with no place to be laid to rest. All impacting the people. And the fading memory of how bad it had been replaced with the day to day reality of surviving while following this guy who was making promises about a land that was full of milk and honey…. Empty promises of plenty for all that were beginning to sound like lies when all they had to eat was manna in the mornings and quail in the evenings…. And, presumably, they would get meat from the flocks they had with them too. But this would get boring after a while. Where was the sweetness of the honey? Where was the creaminess of the milk? Where was this place where enough turned to plenty and roots could be laid down, crops grown, lives rebuilt with a sense of stability? And who was this Moses who kept talking about this land that felt far away? Who had put him in charge? And who was this God he claimed to keep talking to?
As they complained once more, Moses listened and turned once more to God. What shall I do God? I want to take care of the people, but they are testing you once more. They are ready to stone me. They are thirsty for more. And once more God answered, told Moses where to go and what to do, and in his faithfulness, Moses listened and followed the instructions, hit a rock with his staff, and water flowed, enough water for all the people and all the animals alike.
And we know this is far from the end of their complaining. As the story continues to unfold, they complain about the ten commandments, they complain about the idols they are told not to worship, they complain about the leadership, it seems that all they do is complain as they travel for these forty years through the wilderness.
All this leaves me to wonder how much better their lives would have been if they had expressed gratitude instead of complaining. If, when they had arrived at the camp where they were thirsty they simply said, Hi God. Thank you for all you have given us. We are grateful for the food, the freedom you afforded us, the ways you are guiding us and are never far from us during this time. We know there must be water in this place.. can you show us where it is please?… Thank you God!
For when our hearts are filled with gratitude our whole attitude is different and we begin to notice the blessings of life, rather than what is absent. And this is counter cultural, for the world loves to tell us what is missing from our lives. Consumerism tells us all the time that we don’t have enough. That if only we had this or that product, our lives would be better and we would be happy. If we buy this cereal, we will be filled for the whole day. If we buy this make up we will be beautiful. If we buy this car our lives will be filled with adventure and romance and new things. Even the right toilet paper will make your life better! Every time we turn on the radio or tv or open a newspaper, we are told what we are lacking, what we need to buy to be and feel better. And this can make us complain about what we are missing, rather than seeing the abundance of what we have.
I have a friend who began to take this seriously over a decade ago. It was spurred by an unfortunate Thanksgiving, where she had invited some people to come and eat with her family. She had a middle school daughter at the time, and life was chaotic and hard, with the two of them butting heads often. And when their friends cancelled coming for Thanksgiving, she felt let down and angry and upset… Surely it must be her own fault that the friends had cancelled after she had spent time and energy into planning a great feast. And I think there was much complaining in the house that week! She says, “I was a wreck. My daughter was a wreck. And my husband couldn’t ‘fix’ anything that was happening. Clearly, we lost sight of what Thanksgiving and the upcoming Advent season were supposed to mean so I decided, in that moment, that we would not sit down to dinner until we each stated 1 thing we were grateful for.
It wasn’t a moment of glory.
They had no idea where I was coming from. It was a challenge that none of us were really ready to be open to and it came off as more of a punishment than an opportunity for spiritual growth.”
But, it was the start of a conversation between her and God, one that planted seeds over several years, seeds that began to grow as she listened to what God was cultivating in her heart.
She says, After a few years, I realized I needed more. This is the point that I began to understand that: 1. gratitude is different from thankfulness, and 2. it’s personal – it has to grow from within.
I knew I was missing something – that still, small voice whispered, “Why be grateful on “that one day”
And instead of just demanding one thing that her family was thankful for on Thanksgiving Day itself, she began to name things she was thankful for in the week leading up to Thanksgiving Day. Soon she was giving thanks each day of November, journalling what these were so she could look back upon them. And soon the nudge from God was why limit your gratitude to Thanksgiving. What about the other days? Why wait? And so, since then, she has practiced gratitude each day, journalling through the good days and the hard days, the ones where joy is easy to find and the ones where grief and chaos and doubt swirl. What is there to be grateful for in the midst of all of life! And it has been a transformational practice for her.
This practice has led her to some deep lessons, including her saying:
there is a difference between thankfulness and gratitude. Thankfulness is a social act, an outward response, to honor and appreciate the efforts of another.
Gratitude, while expressing appreciation, is more importantly an emotional state of being. Gratitude grows from within and then needs an outward expression.
Gratitude is not the same thing as Joy. Gratitude may be the spark for Joy, but in real life we are asked to find gratitude in order to find balance in the worst of moments where joy is the last feeling that would be reasonable. Grief and gratitude go hand in hand just as naturally as it partners with peace and joy.
Gratitude is understanding that while the world seems so crazy, I have an anchor that holds me in balance.
Gratitude allows us to glimpse the Eternal in the Everyday and we begin to respond to the Divine rather than the tunnel vision that narrows our focus onto the single moment that is causing our distress. The more we rely on gratitude we begin to replace negative responses and begin to feel at peace.”
These deep lessons have continued to be transformative for her life as she moves through the difficult times and the times where peace and joy are more easily seen. It now comes more naturally to her, the gratitude rises from deep within, and sometimes finds an outward expression, but sometimes really is just an inner attitude that brings strength and a different way of looking at and feeling into the world, and brings about more glimpses of God at work in every day life.
These days it may seem like we have a lot to complain about…. Our nation is unsettled, we don’t know what November will bring, we have lost a great advocate for women with the death of Ruth Bader Ginsberg, justice feels far from being served, people are taking to the streets to make their voices heard and some are using the protests as an excuse for violence, many have lost income during CoVid, and some say complain freedoms are being taken away. But what we if can change our attitude and see what we have to be grateful for?
So, right now, I invite you to feel a sense of gratitude. Find that sense of gratitude that resides deep within you. If you are struggling to find it, return to the things that caught your attention as Kitty played Surely The Presence of the Lord is in this place. Find that place of gratitude within you. You need not have a specific thing that you are grateful for, but just the feeling of gratitude. Picture it like a light, a small flicker of candle light. And as you sit with this, picture the light getting stronger, glowing brighter, allowing that sense of gratitude to grow and spread with the light’s brightness. See if you can allow it to fill your whole body, your whole being, allowing the gratitude to flow, to spread, to build, to glow and warm your whole self. Sit with this sense of gratitude, just letting it be. If a feeling of fear or doubt or anxiety tries to come in, set it aside for now and just let the light fill you, the gratitude to become you.
As we go through these tumultuous times, let us turn complaints into gratitude. It may start with naming what you are thankful for, but it may be sitting with that feeling of gratitude and allowing it to build and spread. Watch how it transforms you, gives you strength, allows the grief and pain to be held in a different way. Allow gratitude to become your anchor, and give you glimpses of the Eternal everywhere you are and in all you meet, and pay attention to how it transforms you over time.
This verse from the Gospel of Matthew has been translated in different ways. Are we supposed to forgive 77 times or 70 times 7 times? The difference of 413 instances of forgiveness is huge. But how did we get there?
The common thinking in Jesus' day was that you only had to forgive three times, so Peter obviously thinks he is being very generous by saying he will forgive seven times when someone has hurt him. This is double the teaching plus one and is also the perfect number in Hebrew thought….. think the 7 days of creation! But Jesus refers back to the scriptures he knew well, the Torah, the scriptures he grew up studying, back to the book we know as Genesis, and the story of Cain and Abel. After Cain had killed Abel he was filled with remorse and had a conversation with God, saying,:
“My punishment is greater than I can bear! Today you have driven me away from the soil, and I shall be hidden from your face; I shall be a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth, and anyone who meets me may kill me.”
Then God said to him, “Not so! Whoever kills Cain will suffer a sevenfold vengeance.”
Some seven generations later, Lamech was born, and, after killing a man who had attacked him, said, “If Cain is avenged seven times, then surely Lamech must be avenged seventy seven fold.”
So when Jesus is asked this question about forgiveness, he turns the vengeance to forgiveness and says, “Not seven times, I tell you. But seventy seven fold.” So this could be seen as 77 or seventy times seven. And I think the ones who are keeping count are the only ones really worried about which number it is… for both translations tell us that we have to forgive often…. Probably way more often that we want to!
Jesus then shares a story about forgiveness, which shows us that forgiveness really needs to change both the person that is receiving it and the one offering it… the slave whose debt was forgiven did not allow this to happen. He was forgiven and then refused to forgive a fellow slave. But when the forgiveness does not change the behavior of the one forgiven, does the forgiveness count?
I think this is freeing to us in a lot of ways, and can be different from the ways the world can expect. For so often we hear we should forgive and forget… and this can lead to thinking we have to stay in relationship with someone who hurts us over and over again. But when the offering of forgiveness does not lead to a change of behavior, then I don’t think Jesus is telling us to stay in that relationship 77 times over, let alone seventy times seven. When the act of forgiving keeps allowing trust to be broken, forgiveness is not an act to repeat for the other, but it may be time to repeat it for oneself. For the slave whose debt was forgiven, but who did not allow this act of generosity to change him and refused to forgive another’s debt, was taken and punished, until he could repay his original debt.
As a survivor of abuse, and someone who works a lot with people who have experienced abuse, this is a really important lesson to remember, especially when the abuse happens within a family system. Many times the abuser or abusers keep on violating trust, and the abused one forgives, often because they need the family structure in order to survive. This can be especially true when they are children, where the adults in their life are the ones who are vital for their daily needs, even when they are also abusing the child. There is no other option than for the child to keep turning to the adults for food, shelter, scraps of love and kindness. And the forgiveness the child offers each time that a crumb of hope is thrown their way is purely a survival tactic. Eventually, the child will come to believe that they are the one at fault, and self hatred begins to build, for these adults who feed them must be ok, and that these adults do not change their behaviors, even after the child forgives them, means the hurt must be their own fault, and that is unforgiveable: self esteem drops and self loathing builds.
All this begs the question about what forgiveness actually is then. If forgiveness is not meant to be returning to the same patterns for forgivee and forgiver, if it means that a cycle should be broken, what does forgiveness look like? And who is forgiveness for?
Sometimes, absolutely, the forgiveness is for the one who has wronged. There is a great story that was going around that is probably not true, but was a beautiful illustration of forgiveness, healing and transformation. It said that there is a tribe in Africa where, when someone does something wrong, they are brought to the center of the tribe. The tribe circles up around them and begins to speak, not of the wrongdoing of the individual in the center, but of all the gifts and love they have to share. Thus the wrongdoer is surrounded by words of Love and reminded of who they are at the very core of their being. It reminds me of how we forgive our children, over and over, for the things they do as they are learning what it means to be a kind and loving human being in this world. We forgive them for their wrongdoings while reminding them of the good person they are.
But most often the forgiveness is for the one who has been wronged, for the very one who is offering the forgiveness. It serves to free them from the pain, to change them, to bring them healing. And it does not even have to include the person being forgiven. Someone once wrote, “I never knew how strong I was until I had to forgive someone who wasn't sorry & accept an apology I knew I'd never receive...” and this is true. We can forgive without the other person even being aware we have forgiven them, and, most importantly, this leads to self forgiveness too. In these cases, forgiveness can look like cutting ties to the relationship, but, more that this, a sense of freedom in the one forgiving. When they think of the incident, or incidents, that need forgiving, a sense of peace will be there, replacing the shame or anger or frustration or pain. It’s an inner change that the other may never know, and it only requires the self to do the forgiving.
A friend and colleague of mine, Liza, did a lot of work with prisoners in a process called reconciliation circles. She would go into the state prison once a week, and meet with a dozen or so men, all sitting in a circle. And the aim was to have these men come to terms with the crimes they had committed and discover the deep, inner reasons they had done them. It was found that the men, after doing this work, were far less likely to commit new crimes after their release, with less than a 10% recidivism rate. Most of the work these prisoners do is to come to terms with their own demons and pain, the ways they have been hurt, often from a very young age. Liza said, “Because the groups are at least 12 months long meeting weekly, the formation of trust within the group and the learning of speaking about personal things, even taboo things was critical. More than focusing on the crimes, the groups focused on the psychological and sociological reality that children must adapt anyway they can in families that are abusive and neglectful, and those adaptations, usually unconscious, taken into adulthood can lead to emotionally dysfunctional interactions. The men could only think about forgiving themselves after they had processed what happened to them before they committed their crime, and how their crime impacted others. Self-forgiveness was accompanied by the gradual development of a new identity as a person who could and would make different choices, and a recognition that forgiving their young emotionally volatile self was a part of moving on.”
Once these men had learned to forgive themselves, once they had found the healing that comes from telling their stories and exploring the deep hurts, Once that transformation was complete, then they could work on receiving the forgiveness offered to them by the victims of their crimes. And in hearing their stories and their process of transformation, the victims, in turn, were transformed and were able to offer forgiveness to the men, allowing them, too, to find healing, seeing the perpetrators as a broken human being rather than a monster.
This self forgiveness is, perhaps, the most important factor in living a forgiving life. Desmond Tutu said, “Learning from the past is not the same as being held hostage by what we have done. At some stage we must let go of the past and begin again. We have said repeatedly that no one is undeserving of forgiveness. When we forgive ourselves, we also free ourselves from a cycle of punishment and retribution directed at ourselves.”
I believe this is what the Romans passage we heard is pointing to.
Why do you pass judgment on your brother or sister? Or you, why do you despise your brother or sister? For we will all stand before the judgment seat of God. For it is written,
“As I live, says the Lord, every knee shall bow to me,
and every tongue shall give praise to God.”
So then, each of us will be accountable to God.
For us to truly stand before God, we must practice self awareness, and self forgiveness. We must allow ourselves to be transformed by this. We must become so aware and so humble that we fall to our knees before God in thanksgiving for the million ways God forgives us, heals us, welcomes us and loves us. For once we are forgiven by God, which we are daily, then how can we fail to fall to our knees in awe!
As we daily pray those words Jesus taught us, forgive us our trespasses as we forgive others…. Let us always be aware of our trespasses, begging forgiveness form God, from the other, and from ourselves. Let us have the courage to stand in circles of reconciliation, to seek the deep, inner healing that each of us needs, to listen to our confessions, to hear our gifts and the love others have for us pouring back into our hearts. Let us allow forgiveness to transform us at our very cores. And then let us fall to our knees in gratitude and praise!
There is a story that goes:
A stranger stops Nasrudin at the city gates. "Will you tell me," says the stranger, "what this place is like? I have to move to a city and I'm worried." Nasurdin replies, "Tell me about the place you came from." "Oh, it was a wonderful place! Neighbors were kind to one another, we looked out for the children, people shared and were generous and happy!" "Ah! said Nasrudin. "You will love it here. Don't worry at all, and welcome!"
Later on, another stranger stops Nasrudin at the city gates. "Will you tell me," says the stranger, "what this place is like? I have to move to a city and I'm worried." Nasurdin replies, "Tell me about the place you came from." "Oh, it was a terrible place! Thieving and fornication and children noisy and running wild. People are selfish and distrustful." "Ah!" said Nasrudin. "You will dislike it here. You'd better move on to another city!"
The stories we tell ourselves about the communities we live and worship in are important. Our past can inform what we think of the present, our attitude can determine all we know and all we can imagine that is possible.
As a newbie, I have not heard a whole lot of stories yet about this church community… I know it was started in 1857, that this building was built in 1881, that you, all, built the fellowship hall, that the first woman pastor ordained in this conference was appointed here for a time….. But I know there are many, many more stories to be heard! And I know that each of you loves this community, and in turn, feels loved by it. And, I have heard some fears about the future of this congregation, sadness over the people who left, a tiredness when you think about what needs to be done, a desire for growth.
One story I have heard is both a lamentation and a joy that we are a small congregation, for this brings great gifts of welcome, of feeling the spirit of being a family, of allowing close friendships between people. But it can also bring a story of lack… not enough people to do things, not enough money or fellow worshippers or singers or…. That list can get long if we allow it to.
Yet today’s scripture tells us where two or three are gathered Christ is among us. This is something we have heard many a time, where two or three are gathered…. And I’m sure all of us have felt this at some point in our lives. Where just a small group of people are together, the Spirit is moving among them and something extraordinary is happening.
If we tell ourselves this story, this can become the reality, but if we tell ourselves that our small church is too small, not what it used to be, a place where we feel the lack of a Sunday school, of families, of missions, of energy and people, then this can be the story we begin to believe.
So, for a moment, I want you each to name something you love about this congregation, right as it is now. Not comparing to the past or worrying about the future, but what do you love about Clearwater United Methodist Church today?
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When two or three….. or 25 are gathered, Christ is present!
The scriptures today challenge us to believe this by talking to us about behavior, especially behavior in community. The Roman’s scripture reminds us of the commandments, and then that we are close to the day of judgment, compelling us to put on the armor of light, and then the Matthew scripture tells us what to do when others are not doing this! Speak to your friends, compel one another to do what is right, to have hope and to work for what we long to bind here on earth, a binding of goodness and love and hope.
There is a story I heard recently, that fits in with this:
A monastery had fallen on hard times. It was once part of a great order which, as a result of religious persecution lost all its branches. It was decimated to the extent that there were only five monks left in the mother house: the Abbot and four others, all of whom were elderly.
Deep in the woods surrounding the monastery was a little hut that the Rabbi from a nearby town occasionally used for a hermitage. One day, it occurred to the Abbot to visit the hermitage to see if the Rabbi could offer any advice that might save the monastery. The Rabbi welcomed the Abbot and commiserated. “I know how it is” he said, “the spirit has gone out of people. Almost no one comes to the synagogue anymore either.” So the old Rabbi and the old Abbot wept together, and spoke quietly of deep things.
The time came when the Abbot had to leave. They embraced. “It has been wonderful being with you,” said the Abbot, “but I have failed in my purpose for coming. Have you no piece of advice that might save the monastery?” “No, I am sorry,” the Rabbi responded, “I have no advice to give. The only thing I can tell you is that the Messiah is among you.”
When the other monks heard the Rabbi’s words, they wondered what possible significance they might have. “The Messiah is among us? One of us, here, at the monastery? Do you suppose he meant the Abbot? Of course – it must be the Abbot, who has been our leader for so long. On the other hand, he might have meant Brother Thomas, who is undoubtably a holy man. Certainly he couldn’t have meant Brother Elrod – he’s so crotchety. But then Elrod is very wise. Surely, he could not have meant Brother Phillip – he’s too passive. But then, magically, he’s always there when you need him. Of course he didn’t mean me – yet supposing he did? Oh Lord, not me! Please, not me!
As they contemplated in this manner, the old monks began to treat each other with extraordinary respect, on the off chance that one of them might be the Messiah. And on the off off chance that each monk himself might be the Messiah, they began to treat themselves with extraordinary respect.
The forest in which the monastery was situated was beautiful, and people occasionally came to visit the monastery, to picnic or to wander along the old paths, most of which led to the dilapidated chapel. They sensed the aura of extraordinary respect and love that surrounded the five old monks, permeating the atmosphere. They began to come more frequently, bringing their friends, and their friends brought friends. Some of the younger men who came to visit began to engage in conversation with the monks. After a while, one asked if he might join. Then another, and another. Within a few years, the monastery became once again a thriving order, and – thanks to the Rabbi’s gift – a vibrant community of light and love.
In addition to the respect, I believe these monks had put on the armor of light, they had managed to re-narrate their story from a story of sorrow and loss to one of love and respect and hope. They changed their beliefs from worrying about the future to looking for glimpses of the Divine among them at that very moment, and they began to see these glimpses, see this binding on earth in the ways they knew it would be in Heaven.
And this is what God calls us to do…. in a world so filled with fear and worry, we are called to put on an armor of light and become people of hope, to tell the story from the point of the resurrection rather than the crucifixion, to share the good news! This does not mean bypassing the hard part of following Christ, it doesn’t mean we don’t recognize Good Friday, it certainly doesn’t mean we turn our backs onto the brokenness of the world, and it doesn’t mean we don’t, at times, fall into the pit of despair and grief. Rather it challenges us to face these things knowing there is more, that this is not the end of a story, but just a chapter in it. It challenges us to shine a light, or bring a light, into the hard parts of life. It means we always search for that kernel of hope in the midst of the darkness, that we seek the Divine in each person and challenge we encounter.
And part of this means changing the common narrative we tell about ourselves as a congregation. To celebrate what we have that is good. To tell the world about what we love about this church, this congregation, one another. One example of this might be sharing a story about church when you are with non church people… talk about what inspired you from a sermon, what touched you from a conversation, and invite someone to come to church with you check it out, share a copy of the sermon (they are on our webpage). Another example may be if someone asks, “Do you have a kids program?” Instead of lamenting that we don’t, or saying, “well, we used to have one, but…..” and tapering off, say, “Right now, everyone is welcome to stay in the service during church and we are thinking of preparing an area in the sanctuary where children can play during the service. We have a dedicated time for children during the service, and encourage them to be in leadership roles in the church.” You are still telling them that we don’t have anything for kids yet, but it’s telling them in a welcoming and hopeful way.
Another example is if someone asks how big the congregation is, you could reply, “we are small,” in a sad voice, or, “we are a small, dedicated group of people who are always ready to welcome new people into our family community.”
The changes in how we tell our story can be subtle, but life altering. Like the first two people who inquired about what it was like to live in in the new city, the first was expecting something friendly, the second, not so. The beliefs we have over who we are change how we see the world, and change how we move through the world. When we can stay in the present feeling the hope for the future, but present in what is right now, when we can seek the divine among us, recognizing it in each one, when we can speak from a place of reality clothed in an armor of light, then the world will see are something they want to be a part of.
So as you go about your week, catch yourself if you find a narrative coming forth that is not bathed in light, try to speak to people the good word about who we are, see the divine in each one, and bring hope to all you meet!