sermon notes from the Vineyard Church of Milan 12/02/2012
video available at www.sundaystreams.com/go/MilanVineyard/ondemand
[Confession of sins at conference...]
You want to know what it's like to experience the presence of God? Confess your sins to someone and receive forgiveness. God is in the room whenever that happens, because all forgiveness is rooted in his forgiveness. (There's risk in it though - come to someone with your sin and experience them pulling away, now that's some serious pain...God's present then, too, but he’s with you as a fellow sufferer; that’s an experience of God we don’t often seek after.)
To follow Jesus is to be someone who is participating with him in the forgiveness of sins, learning from him and alongside brothers and sisters what it means to be a recipient and graceful extender of forgiveness. "Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us. Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us."
Matthew, the tax collector who recorded these words of Jesus teaching his disciples how to pray, was a man living in a world awash with debts, and well aware of the crushing weight an unpayable debt could place on the shoulders of a human being. In fact, when revolutionaries took over the Temple at the start of the Jewish war against Rome 30 years after Jesus' death and resurrection, the first thing they did was burn the records of debt. To have a debt cancelled, forgiven, was to be set free from crushing weight.
And so debt is one of the words that was commonly used in Matthew's time as a metaphor for sin. When you sin, when you miss the mark set by Love for humanity, you incur a form of debt. You become indebted to the one you transgressed against. A weight is placed on your shoulders. You feel it every time you think of them, every time you're near them, every time you look them in the eye. [engagement ring white lie...]
And since you and I all belong to God, every missing of the mark, every sin, incurs a debt both to the holy One who loves us and to the ones we wronged with our sin. Eventually, if the wrongs aren't righted, if repayment isn't made, that weight can become crushing. It cuts us off both from God and from those we've wronged. It cuts us off from life itself. [practical joke gone wrong...]
So when we pray: forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors, we are praying, "Father, forgive all of our sins, as we forgive everyone who commits sins against us. Mercifully cancel the debts that we owe you, as we cancel the debts that others owe us. Father, take this weight off our shoulders as we do everything we can to take it off the shoulders of others. Father, restore us to the life with you and each other that we have cut ourselves off from by our sins."
If we want to understand what it means to pray, "Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us," we need to see the vision of the Father's forgiveness that Jesus describes in the parable most commonly known as the parable of the prodigal son. The parable we might also call the parable of the running father. Because it is to the reckless, marvelous, shocking, phenomenal Father in that stunning story that we come, praying, "Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us." And it is that Father we are empowered to imitate when our prayer becomes the breath that gives life to our actions.
Here's how that story came about...
Jesus had been spending a lot of time hanging out with the wrong people. The sexually immoral, the homeless, the traitors, the lepers, the dirty, the ignored poor and the unrespectable rich. He'd been eating meals with them, laughing with them, attending their parties, even counting some of them as his closest friends.
One day, some of the pillars of the community criticized him for his behavior, challenged him, called him out. This fellow welcomes sinners, they harrumphed, within earshot of Jesus. He even eats with them!
So he told them some stories in response, the most powerful of which was the story of the running father. It went like this...
A father had two sons. One of them, the younger one, came to the Father and told him he'd had enough. He was fed up with living in his dad's house, fed up with his dad. I wish you would hurry up and die. I wish you were dead, and I could have my portion of your stuff now. Because if I could, I would take it today, and be done with all this. I would get out of here without so much as a tear, without looking back, and set off on my own and never have to think of you again or my brother or any of this again.
(Isn't that what we say sometimes, in effect, whenever we sin? You might as well be dead, Father. I'd rather make do on my own, taking as much as I can get my hands on before I go.)
No one expected what the dad did then. No backhanded slap from the dad. No harsh words. No, the dad did what the son wanted. Sold off half of the family business, took out a second mortgage on the family's house, in order to satisfy his son's heartrending request. No doubt the Father shed private tears, spent sleepless nights overcome with sorrow. Nonetheless, he gave him his inheritance and let him go.
(Isn't that how God treats us so often, in our sin? Rather than stopping us in our tracks, he lets us go freely, even when our leaving costs him and our brothers dearly? What's up with that? Is his love that reckless, or is his love that unafraid? Could it be that a love like that is the kind of love it takes to raise someone from the dead...?)
The son took off for Vegas, or Dubai, or an Al Qaeda training camp, or Amsterdam, or some place like that. Wherever it was, it was the last place on earth his dad ever would have wanted him to go. The son spent all the money, wasted it really, and had a riotously great time, or at least, what felt to him like a great time. You can imagine.
But then a famine came to that part of the world. And the son became destitute. He was forced by necessity into the most degrading work, feeding pigs who ate better than he did.
His sorry state served as a wakeup call. As Jesus tells the story, the son...
"...came to his senses. 'Just think!' he said to himself. 'There are all my father's hired hands with plenty to eat - and here I am, starving to death! I shall get up and go to my father, and I'll say to him: "Father; I have sinned against heaven and before you; I don't deserve to be called your son any longer. Make me like one of your hired hands.'" And he got up and went to his father..." (Tom Wright's translation)
Freeze the scene.
At this point, all of the power in the story has been in the hands of this younger son. He used his power for himself. He's used it to shame his father. To take from his father and, ultimately, from his brother as well. Causing great loss, economic and social and emotional. He then wasted his power in the foreign land, making his father's enemies richer and more powerful in the process. And now his sins have gotten too much to bear, they've pressed down on him, pushed him into the mud of a pig sty. The only power he has left is for a shameful, desperate journey home.
Who knows what awaits him? He certainly does not. All the son's power is spent.
Everything now hinges on the Father. The Father now is the one who holds the story in his hands. The father is in position to crush him, complete his shame, say I was dead to you, now you are dead to me. The father has the power to bury him with the weight already on his shoulders. That would only be fitting, wouldn't it? That would balance the books.
Keep the scene frozen for a little while longer.
We are, all of us, playing a part in this story. We are participants in it: some identifying with the son in his sin, or the Father about to be faced with the one who caused him so much pain, or the older brother fed up with having to carry the extra burden caused by his younger brother leaving him to do all the work of the family business on his own.
Imagine this is Prodigal Idol, and your prayers are votes. Text IDOL01 for DieHard style vengeance. Text IDOL02 for stern discipline and a 12 month restitution plan. Text IDOL03 for the kind of crazy twist that energizes us to pray with wild abandon, "Father, forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us."
What are we longing for? What are we rooting for to happen in the story? Pretend you don't know what happens next. What do you imagine the Father will do?
[Leave the stage. Return in an undignified manner.]
But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him.
The indignity! So wrong on so many levels. We don’t deserve this, we should be the ones to be shamed in order to return to him. But no, he is shameless in his love for us, so shameless that he’s willing to endure any shame, just to have us in his arms again.
Wrapped in his father's embrace, the son chokes out the first part of his prepared speech, confessing...
Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.
Truer words have never been spoken by the son, have they?
If any of us were in the Father’s place, this would be the sweetest moment, a moment to be savored. When we’ve been wronged, this is what we fantasize about, this is what we work towards. Finding some way to make the person who hurt us come to regret it, come to taste just some of the pain they’ve caused us. Yes, go on...
But not this father. He cuts him off, mid apology.
But the Father said to his servants, “Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let’s have a feast and celebrate. For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.”
Consider the freedom of this Father. He breezes right past the confession. Bitterness and anger have no hold on him whatsoever. No influence on his actions. He has no craving for the pain of those who’ve wronged him. It’s like he has some deeper source of satisfaction. It’s like he has some sweeter end in mind that he’s eager to get to. He is totally free, and he’s using his freedom to forgive.
Doesn’t that go against everything we know, against our every instinct? Maybe. But this Father, in this story, is meant to show us what God is like. This father is free to do as he pleases. And he pleases to forgive, Jesus is saying, whether it pleases us or not.
The greatness of the son’s sins, the depth of his shame, is drowned in the fullness of his Father’s love. The particulars of your apology don't matter - all that matters is that you've come home to the Father.
All that matters is that the Father has chosen to clothe you in his best clothes.
He’s chosen to adorn you with jewelry, to bring you into the family business.
He won’t have you barefoot as a servant; you wear the sandals of a son.
No waiting to eat until you’ve earned your keep in this household.
No, the Father is beside himself with happiness that you are home, alive again in his house, and a feast is on. A feast where you are the honored guest. The honored guest? Yes. Honored not for your actions, but for the joy you bring to the Father.
This is what’s happening right under your noses, Jesus is saying to all who are listening. The forgiveness of sins is happening. The Father is embracing sinners, restoring them to sonship, calling for a feast. The free one is using his freedom to welcome people into his freedom. Don’t you want to get in that game, dive into that river, swim in that sea, drink from that refreshing spring?
When we pray, Father, forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us, we are saying to God, let us into that freedom. Take the weight off of our shoulders that our sin has put on us and let us be part of taking that weight off of all our brothers and sisters, too.
Every part of me that's dead because of my sin, Father, may it become alive again because of your forgiveness. And may I use my life to breathe life on those who have been dead to me because of their sins against me.
1. Instead of using words, use your imagination in prayer this week. There is some sin in your life that has you in the mud, right...? Instead of working out your apology to God, just imagine yourself getting out of that mud and going home to your father. Imagine him embracing you, running out after you, kissing you, bringing you in for a feast, etc. And just say in your heart - That, God, is what I want. Would you do that for me.
And imagine someone who has sinned, or is sinning, against you. And imagine the famine they are living in, the mud they are getting stuck in. And picture yourself coming across them today, and they turn their eyes at you and something in their eyes tells you they'd ask for your help getting out of it if they believed you wouldn't spit at them. And imagine that instead of you, it's the Father that's there, and how he would scoop them up, muddy clothes and all, and embrace them. And just say in your heart - That, God, is what I want to want to do today. Would you give me the opportunity to do that today.
2. Pray for all of us and our sins, not just for you and yours. This is the prayer of a community, not just an individual. Many scholars, in fact, see the prodigal son as representing all in Israel who were unfaithful in Jesus' day, and the welcome of the Father as being extended to all in Israel who had run from the Father's house. And Jesus teaches his students to pray, forgive us our sins, as we forgive...
Maybe pray for your family's sins, since they affect all of you. Or our church's sins, since they affect all of us. And pray that "we" - whoever we is - would be together forgiving those who sin against "us."
3. Look. And Look again. Imitate the father's forgiveness by looking twice.
Look out for someone to forgive, so you can see them coming. It's human nature to try to put those who've hurt us out of sight, out of mind. It's God's nature to keep his eyes peeled. Ask the Holy Spirit to put someone on your mind to keep an eye out for them returning...
And look for a way to give robes, sandals, rings, and a feast to the people you are forgiving. A robe is a way of saying, "I won't let your shame go uncovered." Sandals are a way of saying, "You're not my servant, you're part of my family." The ring is a way of saying, "You've got all the rights and authority of a business partner." The feast is a way of saying, "I'm letting the whole village know that things are good between us; I'm going out of my way to be seen with you again."