Sunday, September 14, 2014

Jesus Is for Losers

sermon preached at St. Paul's Episcopal Church, Bellingham, WA
by the Rev. Josh Hosler

Today Paul writes, “Welcome those who are weak in faith, but not for the purpose of quarreling over opinions. Some believe in eating anything, while the weak eat only vegetables.” Hmmm. Sorry, vegetarians—the Bible isn’t being kind to you this morning! There is a story behind this, though, that you may find helpful, and I hope the handful of you who were present for Thursday morning Eucharist won't mind hearing the explanation again.

Passarotti, The Butcher's Shop
It was a regular part of Greco-Roman worship to offer meat in sacrifice to their gods, and then to sell such meat in the marketplaces. It was understood that to consume such meat was to participate in the worship of these gods. Furthermore, there was often no way to tell whether the meat you were buying had at some point been sacrificed to an idol. Those whom Paul calls “strong” Christians trusted that God, the creator of the universe, would understand this situation and would not hold it against them for eating such meat. But for Paul’s “weak” Christians, the thought of participating in idol worship, even by accident, opened them up to all sorts of spiritual danger, so they thought it best to become vegetarians and avoid the whole mess completely. When the two groups met together, you can imagine that all sorts of wrangling occurred, with the "weak" Christians trying to protect their piety, and the "strong" Christians wondering how these others could be so superstitious.

Paul's characterization of the two groups as “weak” and “strong” may sound judgmental to our ears, but I think his main point is that there are no second-class Christians. Our political differences, our liturgical and musical preferences, the way we understand the Bible, our decision to stand or to kneel, our feelings about the high altar and the priest’s position in relation to it … none of these things gives us license to judge one another’s standing with God. Christianity is not, nor has it ever been, a holiness competition. If anything, the Good News of Jesus makes the most sense among those who are not winners. The “weak” Christians inspire a special kind of divine love, a love that we can participate in by practicing patience and not needing to be right all the time. Never look down on someone for using a ladder that you yourself have kicked away. If you do, you're in danger of becoming one of the "weak" ones yourself.

The issue of forgiveness throws the matter of "strong" and "weak" into full relief. What is forgiveness? Does forgiveness make us appear weak? Does it open us up to being victims of those who try to make themselves look strong?

Look at the way Jesus treated those around him. He refused to be a winner. He counseled people to "turn the other cheek," and to give without expecting anything back--not exactly a conventional image of strength. People expected Jesus to come storming into Jerusalem on horseback and reclaim the city and the nation from the Romans. Instead, he rode into Jerusalem on a humble donkey, and within a week, the people decided he was a fraud. When a charismatic leader appears weak, crucifixion is a common result.

So Jesus died. By all eyewitness accounts, Jesus failed completely. Jesus was a loser. And when Jesus became a loser, he not only saved everybody, but he also established a wonderful paradox: To be rid of the burden of winning is to win. And that is why Christ reigns victorious from the cross. Because Jesus is for losers.

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A friend of mine once found herself in a verbally abusive relationship. She and her boyfriend fought constantly, but she insisted on being the bigger person, so she kept forgiving him. Over time, though, this just made her feel more and more like a weak loser. Then, one day, she asked him, “When we have a fight, what is your ultimate goal?”

Without a second thought, he shot back: “To win!”

At that moment, she knew their relationship was over, and she got out of it as fast as she could. She lost, and that was what saved her. It turned out that all her little forgivenesses for individual slights weren’t forgiveness at all: they were repeated attempts to change him, to win him over to her side. By trying to win, she made herself weak. So instead, she lost once and never had to go through it again. Only then could she work on forgiving him for real.

When winning becomes more important than forgiveness, there’s no point in going on. Today, Jesus tells us to keep forgiving time and time again … 77 times if necessary, and that means forever! Unfortunately, Christians throughout history have used this memorable aphorism to suggest, among other things, that wives should never leave abusive husbands. But these people aren’t reading far enough. To understand, we need to link Jesus’ “77 times” statement to the gripping parable that follows it.

A king wants to settle his accounts. One of his servants owes him a lot of money. To help us keep the characters straight, let’s call the servant Joe. How much money does Joe owe the king, exactly? For argument’s sake, let’s say the servant makes today’s minimum wage in the state of Washington. In that case, he owes his master 2.2 billion dollars! (No, really. I’ve done the math.) The king wants his money back now. Joe says, “I can’t pay now, but I promise I will pay you back someday.” This isn’t true, of course. But, out of pity for him, the king not only releases Joe but cancels the entire debt.

These are $100 bills. Joe owes the king 2.2 of these.
I imagine Joe is somewhat rattled by this experience, and maybe he’s also struck by the injustice of the situation. He’s just been given what must be the most significant act of debt forgiveness in the history of the world. How would you receive such a gift? Maybe Joe feels humiliated. Setting aside for a moment the question of how any average Joe could owe a king 2.2 billion dollars, let’s assume that Joe is a good, honest man, and he doesn’t want to be the ultimate charity case. What will his neighbors think? Or maybe Joe doesn’t take the king at his word—how could he? With a loss like that, surely the king will come to his senses and demand repayment sooner or later.

So Joe figures he’d better start scraping together as much money as he can. The first thing Joe does is find some poor schlub—we’ll call him Harry—who owes Joe $5000. Now, when you’re only making minimum wage, that’s still a lot of money! Like the king, Joe demands immediate payment. But Harry doesn’t have $5000, so Joe has Harry thrown in jail.

Now, let’s be clear: Joe hasn’t done anything illegal. Harry owed him $5000, and Harry couldn’t pay, so Harry went to jail. But when the king finds out, he calls Joe on the carpet to explain himself. What is Joe’s crime? Simply this: his failure to believe that he is actually forgiven, and his failure to become more forgiving in turn. The whole system of debt—the system the king has thrown out the window—still has a hold on Joe, so the king says, “Fine! If those are the rules you’d rather live by.” Now Joe will be tortured until the debt is paid. And really, now: how is torture going to help Joe pay off a two-billion-dollar debt? Torture can’t even get accurate information out of people, let alone money. But maybe Joe prefers the torture of debt to the torture of being forgiven.

What a loser! But I know his kind. I’ve been his kind. The world is full of Christians who are ashamed of things they’ve done and just can’t believe in God’s forgiveness. The world is full of people who would rather nurse a grudge than swallow their pride. Despite 2,000 years of the Good News that Jesus has forgiven our sins, somehow, we keep trying to earn God’s favor. But salvation can’t be earned by repaying our debt to God; it is God’s good pleasure to give us the Kingdom! To accept the help that is offered—and then to offer similar help to others—is to become a stronger Christian.

Will we admit before God that we can’t win? That no matter how hard we work, we’ll never truly be able to say, “This is the life I always dreamed of”? God doesn’t want us to have a comfortable life. God wants us to have abundant life, and that has nothing to do with money or power or security or victory or competence or even continuing to breathe! We can’t keep any of these things, so none of them can lead us to some ultimate victory.

Today, come lay down the burden of winning. Lay it down. Come give your body and heart and soul to the God who made them, and don’t expect to get them back the way you left them! Bring your anxiety over your job or your family. Bring that neurosis from childhood that you still haven’t gotten over. Place them on this altar. Bring the fight you had on the playground with your best friend. Bring that grudge you’ve been nursing for years—you know the one! Place it on the altar. Bring your salary and your schedule and your possessions and your retirement savings and your homework and your commute and hand them over to God, who actually owns them all anyway. Don’t try so hard to win! Today, in this place, you can sacrifice that charade on this altar. And God will transform it into something you don’t recognize, something that’s far better than you ever could have imagined. Take that forgiveness, that unconditional love, that source of fundamental human dignity, into your very body here today.

Buoninsegna's Last Supper
Some say, “Eat or be eaten.” That’s the motto of the winner, right? But to that, Jesus says, “OK, I’ll be eaten. Then I can nourish you.” Jesus is for losers, and that is the best news! Jesus has saved all of us losers. And the minute we admit that, to God and to ourselves, the labels "strong" and "weak," "winner" and "loser," can quietly fall away in the face of the words, "You are forgiven." Amen.

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