Cross of Grace

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

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Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA)

Filtering by Category: Pastor Aaron

Faith that Makes Forgiveness Possible

Luke 17:1-2

“The apostles said to the Lord, "Increase our faith!" The Lord replied, "If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, "Be uprooted and planted in the sea,' and it would obey you.” 

Jesus said things that ticked people off. Sometimes we forget that about know, the whole fact that everybody got sick of him, turned on him, and crucified him. Often we, just like people 2,000 years ago, expect (or at least prefer) a far more complacent and underwhelming Christ figure than what is revealed in scripture.  If Jesus isn’t getting under your skin, you might not actually be paying attention to what he’s saying to you.

Such is the case with today’s gospel. Know that it is totally acceptable if your initial reaction at today’s gospel was to scoff or roll your eyes. “The apostles said to the Lord, ‘Increase our faith!’ The Lord replied, ‘If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you.”

Really? I can talk to trees and they’ll pick up and walk to the sea? All I need is just a little faith? 

That’s troubling, isn’t it. Maybe you have a different track record, but when I talk to trees they just stay there. I have never witnessed something as dramatic and implausible as inanimate objects coming to life and doing what I command them. Even it we sidestep the trap of taking Jesus’ words as literally true, he still posits a radical claim that we probably have not seen proven true in our lives. 

And if I haven’t seen literal or figurative trees uprooted and planted in the sea, than I assume it is because I do not have faith even the size of a tiny mustard seed...which makes me feel as small and unimportant as, well...a mustard seed. 

So, where’s the good news in these first few lines of today’s gospel? 

Let’s start a few lines earlier. After all, if you come across something in scripture that seemed wildly inaccurate or troubling, the best thing to do is look for some context to make sense of what’s going on. 

The disciples’ demand for Jesus to give him more faith comes in response to Jesus’ teaching regarding forgiveness. In the preceding verses Jesus says, “If another disciple sins, you must rebuke the offender, and if there is repentance, you must forgive. And if the same person sins against you seven times a day, and turns back to you seven times and says, ‘I repent,’ you must forgive.” (Luke 17:3-4).

What’s your initial reaction to that teaching? Probably something like, “You really expect me to be able to forgive someone even if they continually make my life a living hell? You’re going to have to give me superhuman spiritual strength to be able to do that!” Or, in other words, “Lord, increase our faith!”

Jesus’ reply is that superhuman spiritual strength is not a requirement for forgiveness. All that is required is the tiniest faith that God has first forgiven us. If we believe, even in the slightest way, that we are forgiven by God for no other reason than that God loves us, then we have an unlimited supply of forgiving words and actions to share with others. 

True forgiveness of another person is impossible without faith and trust that forgiveness is what makes the spiritual world go round. God’s love and forgiveness deserve a place on the periodic table of elements because they are the atomic building blocks of our lives. 

The great news is that you don’t have to wait until you feel like your faith is stronger than ever before you extend forgiveness with others. You can forgive even if you have the slightest inkling that the whole idea of God’s forgiveness and love is actually true. In fact, it is in the sharing of love and forgiveness that your faith grows; which takes all the air out of the idea that forgiving and loving others requires an impressive or gargantuan faith. 

If you are someone who has not realized or embraced God’s forgiveness, there are a few ways to dip your toes in that water. You’ve done one already. You have joined with other sinner-saints to confess your sins and hear the promise of God’s forgiveness. Later, as we celebrate the Eucharist, you can take time to savor the sight, smell, taste, and texture of God’s forgiveness in the bread and wine. Back home, in your daily life, you can read the pages of scripture and be reminded of God’s love and forgiveness. You can pray for an awareness of your forgiveness. You can trust that others are praying for the same thing for themselves and for you. And you can pay attention to the world in which you live. Really notice the trees, grass, leaves; the laughter of children, the taste of good food...take it all in and recognize that they are all gifts given to you by a good and gracious God who delights in you. 

A person who has even the faintest experience of having been forgiven can turn around and forgive others. Forgiveness does not require a superhuman amount of faith. It simply requires the desire to share something good and life-giving with someone else.

If you’ve watched the news this week you likely heard about one powerful instance of forgiveness in Christ’s name. Earlier in the week a woman named Amber Guyger was sentenced to ten years in prison for shooting and killing an unarmed man named Botham Jean. Amber mistook him for an intruder, even though she had mistakenly entered his apartment, thinking it was hers. At her sentencing, Botham’s 18-year old brother Brandt made a victim impact statement. To summarize what he said would be wholly inadequate, so please watch the entire the video  of his statement (have some tissues ready). Suffice to say, this is what is possible with faith of any size.  


Summer Synopsis

Well, this is it for a while. Next Sunday is my last Sunday with you and then my family and I step away for four months for a period of renewal leave; but today is my last sermon until the end of September. I wanted to take a little time this morning to explain what is going to happen this summer and why it is happening.

Much care, attention, and prayer has gone into designing a renewal experience over the summer that will enable you and I to engage with the creative arts and spirituality. We have a slate of artists lined up to come to Cross of Grace and lead you in this process.

You’ve already been given a taste of what’s to come through the recent adult forums: Rob Saler’s class on art appreciation and Tom Orr’s on poetry. But we officially kick off next Sunday when special guest Aaron Niequist will lead us in worship both in the morning as well as at a special service at 5pm. Aaron wrote an insightful book about his experience forming a faith community at the Willow Creek megachurch where he was a worship leader. This faith community, called “The Practice,” was designed around the principle that worship should be a springboard into daily discipleship. He created a worship format that included teaching about spiritual practices and then actually practicing them during worship.

Next Sunday morning Aaron Niequist will lead us in the spiritual practice of lectio divina (intentional and deliberate re-reading of scripture with an openness to revelation). At the 5pm worship he will introduce us to the Examen – a daily prayer of reflecting on the day’s events and what God might have been up to through them. I have spoken to many people who share in my excitement that he will be our guest and they often say, “How did you get him?” My answer is that I read his book and sent him an email in which I told him a little bit about what we’re up to here, I told him about my passion for spiritual practices that is being nurtured through my continuing education program, and told him about the summer’s focus on creativity and spirituality. It wasn’t a hard sell; he seemed genuinely excited from the beginning.

Over the summer look for additional ways to explore your creativity and spirituality. A fun and engaging book about the subject written by Rob Bell will be available to you. It’s called How to Be Here. Copies will be available for you to read, discuss, and share.

There will also be two arts workshops. On July 13 local artist Gary Schmitt will lead workshops on the art of felting. You will be able to create doves out of wool. I’m fascinated by the process and wish I could participate.

Through the month of August the church will look a little different as we will host an exhibit of artwork by acclaimed painter Kyle Ragsdale. Kyle works with the Harrison Center for the Arts in Indianapolis as well as Redeemer Presbyterian as their Coordinator of Liturgical Arts. Then in September he will lead a painting class that is open to the church and community.

I hope you will tend to the creative impulses that will call to you over the summer. When we return together at the end of September we will celebrate one another’s creativity and spiritual growth with an exhibit of our experiments in creativity. I would love to read your poetry, hear your music, view your oil paintings or doves sculpted out of wool, admire your woodwork projects, or whatever else you create of the summer. The evening will also include a potluck meal and a concert featuring our contemporary music minister, Kaitlyn Ferry.

Too often we lose sight of the importance of creative expression in our lives. If we are to grow spiritually, we must immerse ourselves in the things that reflect God. Given that God is a creator, we can grow in our connection to the divine by being creators, ourselves.

The arts are a centerpiece for my part of the renewal experience as well. Music is one of my spiritual languages, so I am looking forward to taking in a couple music festivals, singing at evensong services in historical English cathedrals, enjoying Broadway musicals, and also hand-crafting a guitar over the course of a couple weeks in Vancouver Island, British Columbia.

The renewal experience is about more than engaging in creative pursuits, though.

Someone recently asked me what I am most looking forward to regarding the upcoming renewal leave. Sure, there’s the travel, amazing food, quiet time to catch up on reading, and once-in-a-lifetime experiences that I am looking forward to enjoying; however, my answer was that I was looking forward to not being “Pastor Aaron” for a couple months.

Everyone who works faces the temptation to synchronize their identity with their vocation. Teachers start to think of themselves as teachers; CEOs start to think of themselves as bosses; doctors as doctors; farmers as farmers; factory workers as factory workers, and so on. A sense of call or vocation is important, but our jobs always fail us as a marker of identity. Anytime our understanding of ourselves (or others’ understanding of us) is dependent on what we do, we’re in dangerous territory. The truth followers of Christ lift up is that our true identity is as beloved image-bearers of the divine – “unceasing spiritual beings with an eternal destiny in God's glorious universe,” as Dallas Willard states.

Four months of intentional separateness from my vocation is an invitation to explore and lean into my true identity. I am not the sermons I preach, the pastoral care I show, the events I put on for youth, nor the teaching I offer; I am not what you think of me; and I am not the church I serve. I tell you, though, it’s hard to remember that. Much the same way that teachers likely find it hard to disentangle their identity from the academic success or failure of their students; or business owners struggle to disentangle their identity from the success or failure of their enterprise.

This summer I get to be dad, husband, a tourist, a guitar-builder, a worshipper, a friend, a son, and most importantly, an image-bearer of the divine whose worth is determined by God, not by what I do.

I want you to know that this summer is an incredible gift for my family and me; but also for you. Please make time this summer to reconnect with your own belovedness.

Pick up a paintbrush and reconnect with your belovedness.

Take a trip and reconnect with your belovedness.

Spend time with family and reconnect with your belovedness.

Practice a new spiritual discipline and reconnect with your belovedness.

Take a break from something, watch as life carries on without you, and reconnect with your belovedness.

Thank you for giving, being, and receiving this gift. Amen.

All Rights Reserved. Background image by Aaron Stamper. © Cross of Grace Lutheran Church.