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Sermon for September 17, 2023 – Proper 19

Program Transcript

Speaking of Life 5043Too Good to Be True
Jeff Broadnax

You’ve probably experienced a situation that just didn’t make sense to you. It was too good to be true, and you weren’t sure if you should believe it. Well, you’re in good company because Jesus shared a parable in Matthew 18 about God’s way of moving in the world that definitely sounds too good to be true.

The story begins with a slave in debt to a king for a lot of money, and he couldn’t pay it back. When the slave acknowledged his inability to repay and asked for more time, the king had a surprising response. Let’s read it together:

The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves. When he began the reckoning, one who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him, and, as he could not pay, the lord ordered him to be sold, together with his wife and children and all his possessions and payment to be made. So the slave fell on his knees before him, saying, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ And out of pity for him, the lord of that slave released him and forgave him the debt. But that same slave, as he went out, came upon one of his fellow slaves who owed him a hundred denarii, and seizing him by the throat he said, ‘Pay what you owe.’ Then his fellow slave fell down and pleaded with him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’ But he refused; then he went and threw him into prison until he would pay the debt.
Matthew 18:23-30 (NRSVUE)

If we look at the context of this parable, we see it’s a response to Peter’s question about how many times he was required to forgive someone. Though we don’t know why the first slave behaved as he did, we might speculate that his reaction was selfish human nature, accepting the forgiveness of his own debt, but being unwilling to do that for others.

We also could speculate that the first slave was afraid and didn’t trust the king. The slave couldn’t believe the forgiveness was true, and so he reacted out of fear. He terrorized those who owed him money because he didn’t believe the king would treat him so graciously.           

From this story, we might deduce that this slave didn’t know the king’s character, and as a result, he didn’t trust him. He wasn’t sure the king would keep his word about the forgiven debt. As a result, he transmitted his fear about his financial matters to those who owed him money, and he behaved as if his debt was not taken care of.

This parable from Jesus gives us a chance to consider how we feel about forgiveness. Do we believe we’re forgiven for our sins and brought into a loving relationship with the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit? If we do, then that belief will inform our relationships with others.

When we grasp that we’re known and loved despite our shortcomings, we’re more willing to love and accept others despite their shortcomings. Instead of acting selfishly or transmitting fear and behaving as if we have to earn the right to be forgiven, loved, and included, we can relax into the loving arms of God.

It might seem too good to be true, but if we believe Jesus came to show us God’s heart for humanity, we know we can trust that we’re forgiven and in the right relationship with God. And when something is that good, we have to pass it on to others. Rather than transmitting fear, we lovingly extend grace and forgiveness to others, trusting that there are some things that aren’t too good to be true. This helps them understand that they are also under the Father’s forgiveness.

May we believe in God’s goodness and love, trusting that it’s not too good to be true, knowing we’re forgiven, and extending the same grace to others.

I’m Jeff Broadnax, Speaking of Life.

Psalm 114:1-8 • Exodus 14:19-31 • Romans 14:1-12 • Matthew 18:21-35

The theme for this week is the power of loving acceptance, and as we consider the RCL texts, we can see how both receiving and giving loving acceptance is one of the foundational components of a life of faith. Psalm 114 provides the response of gratitude to the story of the exodus from Egypt, as told in the next reading, Exodus 14. The story of Israel’s deliverance from the Egyptian army shows how belief in God stems from knowing God’s acceptance, care, and concern. The passage in Matthew reveals the connection between our ability to forgive and our trust and belief that we have been forgiven for our own shortcomings. Our sermon text comes from Romans 14, which explores the way acceptance can heal us of our need to compare and offer us the freedom in Christ we were meant to enjoy.

Loving Acceptance: An Answer to Life’s Paradoxes

Romans 14:1-12 (NRSVUE)

As a general rule, we human beings don’t like paradox. We like black and white with no shades of gray. Unfortunately, much of human life involves dealing with paradox, which two business researchers, Wendy K. Smith and Marianne W. Lewis, have written a book about, called Both/And Thinking: Embracing Creative Tensions to Solve Your Toughest Problems. In the book, Smith and Lewis define paradox as “the interdependent oppositions that lurk beneath dilemmas and persist over time.” They cite several examples of businesses that floundered or flourished based on the way paradox was handled in their organization. The insights they developed from studying businesses who succeeded and failed can also be applied to our personal lives and even our churches. Because human beings make up churches, understanding how to handle paradox can help us improve our ability to love others and God.

Our sermon text today features Paul talking about some of the quarreling that was happening at the church in Rome. Let’s read Romans 14:1-12.

Read sermon text.

We can see that Paul was trying to help the church in Rome realize they were “sweating the small stuff,” and as a result, it generated a critical and judgmental attitude within the church. A judgmental attitude does not love others as Jesus loves us (John 13:34). Instead, the church at Rome was arguing about what was being eaten and what days were being observed (v. 1-6), and Paul was inviting them to look past their divisive, either/or thinking to the larger picture of being true to our individual consciences as led by the Holy Spirit. By understanding how to handle paradox and our tendency toward either/or thinking when it comes to problem-solving, we can improve our relationships with one another and create a loving environment in our church home.

First, let’s understand why either/or thinking doesn’t work.

  • Either/or thinking doesn’t help us solve problems. In fact, it can create downward spirals of intensification and polarization. Intensification, as defined by Smith and Lewis, means focusing solely on one side of an issue, to the point that we get “stuck,” unable to change and unwilling to hear another point of view. Hearing does not imply agreeing, it shows honor and respect for another that you are interested in them as a person, and you are desiring to hear a different point of view. Polarization happens when groups pick sides, ultimately dehumanizing the other side. Intensification and polarization keep us from reaching out to understand those who think differently than we do.

Some in the church in Rome were committed vegetarians, and others were despising them for their personal conviction (v. 1-4). We need to consider how we may have fostered judgmental attitudes within our churches over issues that involve personal conviction and personal liberty.

We also should think about how we have engaged in either/or thinking when it comes to other denominations or religions. Author Brian McClaren makes an important point in his book Faith After Doubt:

Jesus never said, when asked what is the greatest commandment: ‘You shall hold correct beliefs about the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall convert your neighbors who do not hold correct beliefs, and if they will not convert, you shall defeat them in a culture war.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets. Instead, he said something truly revolutionary: first, he said to love God with our whole being. Second, and equally important (which is the meaning of ‘the second is like it’), he said to love our neighbors as ourselves (Matthew 22:36–40). (124).

Rather than persuading others to our own point of view, we’re encouraged to think how we can respond in the most loving way toward those who differ from us.

Part of this loving response requires us to approach differences inside and outside the church by embracing paradoxical differences that are part of our human existence. But how?

  • We need to learn how to ask better questions. Often when we’re faced with a problem or disagreement, we frame the question in an either/or fashion. In Smith and Lewis’s research, they found that students were able to come up with more creative widgets when they were instructed to make them both “novel and useful,” rather than the student group that was told to focus only on one aspect, either novel or useful, but not both. Rather than rushing to defend or persuade, we serve others better when we embrace curiosity and assume that others have good reasons, maybe even personal convictions, regarding their choices. Saying, “Tell me more about that,” is a good start, and learning the skill of reflective listening can help us understand the real issue behind the problem.

For example, Smith and Lewis share a story about working on their book draft in a library study room. They weren’t the only ones in the study room; there was another woman there, too. She wanted the window open, but Smith and Lewis didn’t. This looked like an either/or dilemma. To solve the problem, however, Smith and Lewis asked more questions. Why did the woman want the window open? As it turned out, the woman wanted the window open for ventilation, whereas the reason Smith and Lewis didn’t want the window open was because their papers would blow around. By understanding the reasoning behind a particular stance, they were able to come up with another solution that met the needs of everyone: leaving the study room door open offered enough ventilation for the other woman, and their papers wouldn’t blow around.

Lastly, we must understand why God thinks judgmental attitudes need to be addressed rather than personal practices or choices.

  • We are responsible for our own choices and the ways we express our personal convictions and worship of God.

Who are you to pass judgment on slaves of another? It is before their own lord that they stand or fall. And they will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make them stand…Let all be fully convinced in their own minds. Those who observe the day, observe it for the Lord. Also those who eat, eat for the Lord…(Romans 14:4, 6, NRSVUE).

God understands our unique wiring and looks at the heart’s intent.

  • We belong to God, and our actions are held within the sacrifice of Christ.

For we do not live to ourselves, and we do not die to ourselves. If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s. For to this end Christ died and lived again, so that he might be Lord of both the dead and the living. (Romans 14:7-9, NRSVUE)

Rector and Dean of the Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary Mary Hinkle Shore writes:

Christ died and rose in order to create community across the most fundamental of differences: Jew/Greek, slave/free, dead/living! The acknowledgement that Jesus is Lord implies a critique of all other powers, even the power of our most thoughtful, considered judgment on how to honor our Lord.

Our unity within the church is not based on personal practices, but rather, on our inclusion in the Triune God relationship.

  • Loving acceptance is the answer to the paradoxes we face in human life and relationships, and our response is gratitude and praise to God.

As I live, says the Lord, every knee shall bow to me, and every tongue shall give praise to God. (Romans 14:11, NRSVUE)

Acknowledging the freedom in Christ we have helps us offer others the same freedom and grace to express their love for the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. We can trust in God’s goodness and grace, knowing that the Holy Spirit is leading each person into greater intimacy with God.

Paul demonstrates in Romans 14:1-12 that judgmental attitudes toward others’ different choices won’t promote the vision God has for humanity. Loving God and others begins when we work to build loving acceptance of people within our relationships and our church.

Call to Action: When faced with a conflict at home or work, instead of responding with a black or white answer, consider first asking God to help you see the person as he sees them – as someone created in his image. Then start by asking the question, “Tell me more,” or, “Help me to understand.” As the person explains, listen quietly, asking God for wisdom, and then practice reflective listening to see if you’ve understood them. If needed, take time to think of a loving response that can address the issue so that all involved feel heard and loved.

This is part of the new commandment, to love others as Jesus loves them.

For Reference:

McClaren, Brian. Faith After Doubt. St. Martin’s Essentials, 2021.
Smith, Wendy K., and Marianne W. Lewis. Both/And Thinking: Embracing Creative Tensions to Solve Your Toughest Problems. Harvard Business Review Press, 2022.

The Art of Neighboring w/ Geordie Ziegler W3

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September 17 — Proper 19 of Ordinary Time
Romans 14:1-12, “Legalism and Liberty”

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Program Transcript

The Art of Neighboring w/ Geordie Ziegler W2

Anthony: Let’s transition onto our next passage of the month. It’s Romans 14:1-12. It is the Revised Common Lectionary passage for Proper 19 in Ordinary Time, which is September the 17.

Welcome the person who is weak in faith—but not in order to argue about differences of opinion. One person believes in eating everything, while the weak person eats only vegetables. Those who eat must not look down on the ones who don’t, and the ones who don’t eat must not judge the ones who do, because God has accepted them. Who are you to judge someone else’s servants? They stand or fall before their own Lord (and they will stand, because the Lord has the power to make them stand). One person considers some days to be more sacred than others, while another person considers all days to be the same. Each person must have their own convictions. Someone who thinks that a day is sacred, thinks that way for the Lord. Those who eat, eat for the Lord, because they thank God. And those who don’t eat, don’t eat for the Lord, and they thank the Lord too. We don’t live for ourselves and we don’t die for ourselves. If we live, we live for the Lord, and if we die, we die for the Lord. Therefore, whether we live or die, we belong to God. This is why Christ died and lived: so that he might be Lord of both the dead and the living. 10 But why do you judge your brother or sister? Or why do you look down on your brother or sister? We all will stand in front of the judgment seat of God. 11 Because it is written, As I live, says the Lord, every knee will bow to me, and every tongue will give praise to God.  12 So then, each of us will give an account of ourselves to God.

Geordie, I’m a recovering legalist. Not arrived at the train station yet, but I’m working on it by the Spirit.

For the first half of my life, I took very seriously what meats I ate and didn’t eat, and what days I observed and didn’t observe, based on my religious convictions. And because of my zeal for these things, I admit, I quickly and harshly judged others who didn’t honor God in the same way I did. Oh, how I had to repent.

And it’s ongoing repentance. In light of that, this passage seems to point to the liberty we have in Christ and how we should accept others, but I wonder if it goes deeper. We live for the Lord and belong to God, verse 8, and therefore we don’t live for ourselves, verse 7. How would you exegete this section of Scripture?

Geordie: I think it’s interesting that in the Greek text, the word “for” is not present. There’s actually no preposition at all, and most of the nouns are dative. And my point about mentioning that is I think Paul is pointing us toward the union with Christ, which is our life in all of this. We can’t think of ourselves apart from him.

So, I am a “we.” “Myself” is a self in relationship with Christ. There’s no me alone. So, I can’t live for myself alone because that doesn’t even make sense. And so, I live in the Lord, and I die in the Lord because I belong to the Lord. So, I think that’s at least part of one way to unpack this is to recognize our union with Christ that he’s pointing towards.

Because Paul never wants to tell us, okay, God did all this for you, and you should do all this for him. It’s like quid pro quo. Be grateful, but the Christian life is not a response to Christ. It’s a response in Christ, in his response already for us that we participate in.

And living from that perspective then, that changes who holds the gavel really. We all kind of, I think, want to hold the gavel against ourselves, against others. I was talking to someone the other day, and they were describing this sense of judgment of others against them. And it was almost like an entire stadium filled with judges and trying to please everybody. And so that that’s our default, I think, is to hold that gavel against ourselves and against others.

I’d love to hear some of your thoughts on this since you grew up with such a strong legalism. How have you come to hear this text differently since being liberated from your legalistic judgmentalism?

Anthony: I think the way I view it now is wrapped up in what you just said, in that all of my doing as a beloved child of God is within the done—what Christ has already done. And now it is a happy participation, as opposed to me showing up at the end of the day and saying, hey, God, look what I did for you. And God [says,] okay, I didn’t ask you to this; I just want you to join me in relationship and watch what I’m doing.

Much like even the historical Jesus as a rabbi—as a friend, a disciple, I just do what I see my rabbi doing. And we get to do it together, and there’s such joy in that. So that shifting from for Christ to with Christ, that simple shift is cataclysmic as it relates, and I look back to my upbringing versus where I’m at today.

Geordie: Praise God. Yeah, we have to hear that. I think every sermon, every podcast, every book—that’s really my litmus test.

Does this message throw me back on myself or does it invite me, draw me into participating in Christ and with Christ? And if it doesn’t draw me into the life that Christ is living in and for me already, then it’s not the gospel that Jesus is wanting, inviting us into in Matthew 11. He invites us to come to him and share his yoke.

He hasn’t dumped something on us that he doesn’t wear himself.

Anthony: Yeah. I appreciated what you said, Geordie, about our identity, the “we” aspect, the communitas, the community. I was talking with some folks earlier today about the Zulu philosophy (the South African language of Zulu) the philosophy of ubuntu: “I am because we are.”

And it’s a powerful way of looking at things because we’re just so individualistic in the west. And I think we would find a richer experience with God if we thought in terms of community, because there is triunity in the Godhead, right? Father, Son and Spirit. And hallelujah, praise God that we’ve been included in that Father-Son relationship by the Spirit.

Geordie: And that’s a that’s a good thing to call out as we’re going through this as many, if not most, of the references to “us” in this are plural. So, it doesn’t always come out in the translation when it says yourself. But it pretty much is always “yourselves,” talking about this mixture of, I’m responsible, but I do this in community with others. It’s not just me alone. So, it’s me with Christ, and it’s me with Christ.

Anthony: Lord, forgive us for the idol of self.

Geordie: Yes.

Anthony: It says each of us will give an account to God in verse 12. Okay. So, Geordie, is that a threat, a warning, something we should be fearful of? How do you imagine giving an account to God? And if anything, how should it inform the way that we live today?

Geordie: Yeah. I think it all depends on what I think of the character of God. So, if God is a harsh master, then yeah, I should be afraid. But if God is love, if God is triune love, Father, Son, and Spirit, then while my accounting for everything that I’ll have done, is no doubt going to be painful in some way. It’ll be the kind of pain that I might feel when I go to the dentist.

My dentist only has my good in mind, and yeah, there’s a part of me that fears giving an account to her, but I know that she’s going to bring healing to my cavities and whatever else she finds because she’s for me. She’s not against me. No matter how bad my flossing habits might be or have been, no matter how bad my sweet tooth has gotten, I know that she’s on my team. She’s on my side.

And I think this has been one of the transformations for me in terms of seeing God’s judgment, which has largely come, I think, through reading George McDonald. This recognizing that the judgment seat of God is something that all of us are going to have to stand in front of. It’s not just for non-believers to get judged.

All of us will be judged, as he says every knee will bow and every tongue will praise him. And each of us will give an account, but it’s not for the sake of punishment. It’s for the sake of healing and purifying. It’s like going to the dentist or going to the doctor and saying, look here’s some things that I recognize are not what they should be.

Thankfully doctors have tests they can run and help even discover other things that we couldn’t name or couldn’t put our finger on. And I think God does that as well. And that’s all for this, for our healing.

And so, I think it also gives us a big degree of just being able to trust God with other people that we might be apt to judge. We can trust that they are going to face God someday about that. And so, I don’t need to run around and be everybody’s voice of judgment because that is going to come for them to the extent that he’s calling me to do that with a particular person.

I need to listen for that. And that always is going to be an expression of love because that’s how God’s judgment is from him as well. It becomes both something I think for us not to fear and also a model for us of the way that we would approach judging ourselves or judging others as well. It comes from a heart and a place of love.

Anthony: Thank you for that. We always go back to the character of God revealed in Jesus Christ. And as we’ve already said on this episode, God has a restorative love, not a retributive punishment. Sin does enough of its own punishment to us, right? And thanks be to God that we can trust him.

Small Group Discussion Questions

From Speaking of Life

  • We can speculate that the first slave in the parable didn’t believe that the king would really forgive his large debt because it was too good to be true. Let’s rewrite the parable, this time assuming that he did believe that his debt was forgiven. How then do you imagine he would interact with those who owed him money?
  • The video suggests that one possible reason for the slave’s disbelief was his fear that the king’s forgiveness of his debt was too good to be true, and he knew he didn’t deserve it. Have you ever had a wonderful experience, but in the back of your mind, you felt like you didn’t deserve it? Why do you think we struggle to accept God’s grace?

From the sermon

  • Why do you think we believe, consciously or unconsciously, that everyone should think and act like we do? What are the dangers of this type of thinking?
  • How does staying curious, asking questions, and practicing reflective listening help us foster loving acceptance for those who differ from us? Have you ever employed any of these techniques in your life, and if so, what was the outcome?

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