Cross of Grace

A community of grace sharing God's love with no strings attached.

Sunday Worship:
8:30am & 10:45am

Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA)

"Loving Animals = Awakening Souls" - Matthew 18:21-35

Matthew 18:21-35

Then Peter came and said to him, “Lord, if any member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” And Jesus said to him, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.

“For this reason 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, his lord ordered him to be sold, together with his wife and children and all of 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.

When his fellow slaves saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their lord all that had taken place. Then his lord summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?’ And in anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he would pay his entire debt. So my heavenly father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”


I heard a quotation, just last week, that I knew would be meaningful for today’s occasion:

“Until one has loved an animal, a part of one’s soul remains unawakened.” The words come from a journalist, Anatole France, about whom I know next to nothing else. But this little gem was enough to make me believe I would have liked the guy. “Until one has loved an animal, a part of one’s soul remains unawakened.”

I’ve told myself before – and maybe even said out loud more than once – that I’m inclined to like most people – to give anyone and everyone the benefit of the doubt. But, you have an even better chance with me, if you like dogs and can appreciate the music of the Indigo Girls. We’re good, either way, don’t get me wrong – and Jesus still loves you no matter what, of course – but for my money, a love for dogs and/or an affinity for the music and message of the Indigo Girls say a lot to me about the nature and character of a person. But since we’re blessing pets this morning, I’ll leave the Indigo Girls for another day.

“Until one has loved an animal, a part of one’s soul remains unawakened.”

And, in keeping with the appointed Gospel for today, loving an animal – particularly, perhaps, a dog- or a cat- kind of animal – is good practice at the work of forgiveness, right?

Our house is filled with reminders of all the ways and reasons we have to forgive, Stella, the pound-puppy we rescued at Christmas-time about 8 years ago:

The kitchen chairs are still splintered enough to snag your socks from where she chewed them, that first Spring. There’s a bald spot on the carpet up the stairway, from another chewing fit she had sometime just within the last six-months. And, of course, there aren’t enough candles or essential oils or scented wax burners to convince Christa that our house doesn’t smell like a zoo, thanks to Stella. (Of course, I think Max and Jack are as much to blame for that as the dog is.)

Still, all of it – the constant reminders of Stella’s sins and the imperfection of life with a pet – is an invitation to either keep score and carry a grudge, or to let go and forgive her transgressions, with thanksgiving, instead, for the joy and companionship she brings, in spite of all the rest.

“Until one has loved an animal, a part of one’s soul remains unwakened.”

Because we need all the practice we can get when it comes to forgiveness, don’t we? And animals like Stella give us practice for what really matters when it comes to forgiving our human brothers and sisters in the world. Just like Peter, we want to know how much forgiveness is enough. How little of it can we get away with? How much grace is too much grace, lest we be made a fool, or be taken advantage of, in some way?

Well, Jesus seems to say there’s no such thing as too much forgiveness. There’s no such thing as too much grace, where God is concerned. Which is easier for the Son of God to say, then it is for most of the rest of us, you have to admit. And he tells that story about the slave and the Lord and the debt he was forgiven, to remind us that each of us is, or has been, or will be forgiven prolifically in this life and the next, so that we might be inspired – if not commanded – to extend the same kind of abundant grace and prolific forgiveness to others as we go.

Back to that quotation: “Until one has loved an animal, a part of one’s soul remains unawakened.”

As much as I love that – and as true as I believe it to be – Jesus’ parable makes me want to turn it around to say even more:

“Until one has been loved by an animal, a part of one’s soul remains unawakened.”

What I mean is, I think the Gospel of God’s kind of grace and mercy and forgiveness is there, somewhere.

“Until one has been loved by an animal, a part of one’s soul remains unawakened.”

Because no matter how much Stella, the hound at my house, is scolded... No matter how contrite and sad and shamed she feels when she has done wrong... No matter how guilty we make her feel for his misdeeds – or how long we make her wait for dinner; or how much time she spends waiting for someone to come home; or how boring it must be to be a dog in our house a lot of the time, Stella’s love for her people is consistent, constant, unconditional and unwavering in ways most of the humans I know are incapable of offering.

To be loved that way – to be loved by the cats and dogs and creatures that surround us now – is an image of the kind of love Jesus describes and lives and dies for and is raised to new life to inspire in those of us who try to follow him.

We are to receive the fullness of God’s grace and mercy – we are to know we are loved so fully by our creator – that we offer the same measure of that grace, mercy and love to the world around us.

And when we do – when we receive that kind of love in ways that inspire us to offer it up – not just to our pets when it’s easy, but to each other and to all of God’s people, especially when it is not – our souls will be awakened; our lives and the lives of others will be transformed; and our world will change for the glory of God, thanks to the grace we share in Jesus Christ our Lord.

Amen

"Law, Gospel, and Dreamers" – Romans 13:8-14

Romans 13:8-14

Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. The commandments, "You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not covet"; and any other commandment, are summed up in this word, "Love your neighbor as yourself." Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law. Besides this, you know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers; the night is far gone, the day is near. Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light; let us live honorably as in the day, not in reveling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarreling and jealousy. Instead, put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.


One of the most fundamental facets of Christianity is the theological understanding of law. I’ll do my best to distill two millennia of teaching on the subject and then I’ll show you how it applies to a current controversy in our country.

In theology, the concept of “law” can refer to two things: 1) the way things are; and/or 2) the way things ought to be.

Gravity is an example of law in the sense of “the way things are.” If you lift an item with a mass heavier than air high into the sky and drop it, it will fall. That’s the way God created it. It is law and this law should inform your decisions. In other words, you shouldn’t jump off a 20-story building expecting to float or fly. This would be a bad decision because going against the law would lead to suffering and death.

We do well to allow science and mathematics to define the laws of the ways things are. 

Science and mathematics; however, are not as helpful in defining the laws of the ways things ought to be. For insight into this second part of law, we turn to God’s Word.

God’s Word is the divine force that created the universe and declared each aspect of creation “good.” Our creation stories in Genesis tell us that human beings are not just good, but we are actually made in the image of God. And yet, as represented by the story of Adam and Eve, humans are continually tricked into looking elsewhere to become like God. 

We are inherently distrust of God’s laws of the way things ought to be; and so we are tempted to look in places other than God’s Word to determine parameters of human flourishing. We look to physical strength, accumulation of wealth, self-preservation at all costs, limited compassion, principles of scarcity, any number of “-isms,” artificial boundaries separating people who are in from people who are out, and so on. 

There are natural consequences to our lawlessness. Scripture tells many stories of how disaster falls on people who are unable to follow the law of the way things ought to be. Recall all the stories of floods, conquest, slavery, terrible leaders, and retribution delivered on future generations. 

God, however, is not punitive in nature. Instead, God continually seeks new ways to impress upon us the importance of following the law of the way things ought to be. For example, we have the Ten Commandments – a framework meant to keep our attention on God’s role as our sole provider. The Ten Commandments are not punitive but rather instructive. 

And yet we continually disregard God’s Word in favor of short-sighted solutions that benefit our personal well-being over and above the well-being of our fellow humans. Let’s call this the “law of the way we want things to be.” Or you could call it by a more familiar name – sin.

This is where the gospel comes in. The good news is that God is one of us – a fully divine, fully human known as Jesus – the way, the truth, the life. One who came into the world not to condemn the world but to save it by showing the way to move beyond our original sin and instead tap into the original divinely-proclaimed original goodness of all people.

The great irony is that Jesus, grace incarnate, was convicted of breaking the law and was put to death under the law. The one who came to remind us of the law of the way things ought to be, was killed by people who instead chose the law of the way we want things to be – a perversion of the law that seeks self-preservation above divine revelation (a.k.a., sin).

Suffice to say Christians have a complicated relationship with laws. Christ-followers are subject to the human laws of whatever country they reside, only insofar as they do not conflict with the divine law of the way things ought to be.

The history books are full of stories of Christians standing up against unjust laws. And tragically, the history books are full of stories of Christians dreaming up, enacting, and enforcing unjust laws. For example, for every one Christian that fought against racial segregation in the United States, there were dozens more Christians who had a role in the origination and enforcement of that law.

I felt it necessary to start with that systematic theology primer because I think it could help you make sense of something that might have surprised you this week.

Earlier this week President Trump terminated the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA. The original initiative was an executive order from President Obama in 2012 that sought to take away the threat or possibility of deportation for people who were not born in the US but while under 16 years of age had been brought to the US illegally. Eligibility requirements included being full-time students or workers, as well as a clear criminal history. To date, approx. 800,000 people have been accepted into this program and are working or studying.

Today these people fear that in six months they will be deported to countries wholly unfamiliar to them, forced to leave behind their education, employment, dreams, and families.

For many people, the issue is cut and dry, black and white. These “dreamers” as they are referred, are not legal citizens and therefore are simply not allow to be in this country. Critics of DACA see the initiative as a subversion of the rule of law. 

As news of the program’s termination broke, I wonder if you were struck by how many religious institutions came out with statements condemning the decision. Did you wonder what was behind the swift and poignant responses coming from traditionally conservative as well as traditionally liberal Judeo-Christian denominations and agencies?

This morning I wanted to present a couple of these statements to you so that together we can try to understand the principles on which religious institutions are basing their pro-DACA stances.

The US Conference of Catholic Bishops call DACA’s cancellation “reprehensible,” “unacceptable,” a step backwards, and “un-American.” They say the repeal of DACA is an “absence of mercy and good will, and a short-sighted vision for the future.” They posit all this from the perspective of a church who has ministered to and with DACA youth whom they characterize as hopeful, hard-working. They cite Mark 9:37 as a foundational concept for their outrage.

President Trump has a team of spiritual advisors composed entirely of conservative evangelicals, most of whom advised him to keep DACA in place. Here is a statement from one of his advisors, Samuel Rodriguez.

“As a pastor, I cannot sit idly by while the federal government threatens to forcibly separate families by deportation. In the Scriptures, we read the timeless words, ‘Therefore, what God has joined together, let no one separate.’ (Mark 10:9) It is no individual’s or government’s place to rip families apart, let alone millions of them. The scope of this crisis is simply breathtaking.”

So too,  the statement from our Bishop, Elizabeth Eaton, lays out the sanctity of family as a foundation for preserving DACA. She also acknowledges that the Dreamers are people who enhance churches, schools, and entire communities. 

Here’s another statement from another conservative. He cites the Biblical legacy of migrants and the expectation for hospitality that it set.

There are many more statement, but you hopefully get the point. Faith leaders across the spectrum identify in God’s Word various reasons for our country to make every effort to keep the Dreamers in this country. They cite the importance of welcoming of youth, showing hospitality to strangers, preserving the sanctity of the family unit, recognizing the Biblical legacy of migrants, exiles, and immigrants, as well as the value of the dreamers as human beings. 

Institutions who take a stand against the President’s actions do so with a recognition that the value of these human lives is a matter of law of the way things ought to be – a divine law that trumps human law.  

Or, in the words of Paul from today’s lesson in the Book of Romans, “Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law…. [the commandments] are summed up in this word, ”Love your neighbor as yourself.””

Love is the reason why faith leaders insist that the Dreamers should stay. Love is the reason why I join my voice to theirs in standing with the Dreamers. 

So, in case you were wondering what all the fuss was about this week, it was because faith leaders felt compelled to speak out against a decision that will have disastrous consequences on the lives of human beings who are just as valuable in the eyes of God as you or I.  

You might be offended that I addressed this "political" topic at all during worship. This issue, however, is profoundly theological and requires us all to wrestle with it and I can think of no more appropriate place than here to do so. So let's have a conversation. If you disagree with me, tell me where you think I've gone off the rails. I will listen to you as you have done for me this morning. This is a conversation that needs to take place and I think Cross of Grace can model constructive dialog for the rest of our community.

Amen.

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