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09:27:00 am, by Robert Arbogast , 1987 words  
Categories: Easter 2013

After Forgiveness

Sermon Preached by the Rev. Robert A. Arbogast
Olentangy Church, Columbus, Ohio
April 7, 2013

O God, you surround us every day with your love. You gather us into your holy presence. And the angels smile! You soften our hard hearts. You redirect our errant wills. You nourish our fledgling faith. And the angels sing! You speak to us. You shine before us. You lay your gentle hand upon us. And the angels dance! Keep on speaking. Keep on shining. Hold us and never let go. Amen.

Scripture Readings
Acts 5:27-32
Psalm 12
Revelation 1:4-8
John 20:19-31

To him who loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood, and has made us to be a kingdom and priests to serve his God and Father—to him be glory and power for ever and ever! Amen. Revelation 1:5b-6

What part of a Sunday morning liturgy do you think is the devil’s favorite? I know. It’s hard to imagine the devil liking the liturgy at all, never mind having a favorite part. And I don’t think the devil does like the liturgy as a whole. All those Bible words and Bible themes. They don’t fit with the devil’s agenda.

But there is the prayer of confession. I think the devil might like the prayer of confession. Some Sundays I think the devil might like the prayer of confession a lot.

The prayer of confession is our chance to come clean before God. To name our sins. To admit our guilt. To feel our shame. When we confess our sins, we realize all over again how desperately we need God to forgive us. And we realize that the desperate need never goes away. Because we have as much success giving up our favorite sins as we have giving up our favorite foods.

So let me ask you. What do you confess on Sunday mornings? What do you confess? Probably close-to-home sins. Close-to-home sins. What you were looking at on the internet last night. What you said in the car on the way here this morning. How short-tempered you’ve been the last few days. Close-to-home sins. The way you started daydreaming instead of listening to your son. The peek you took at someone else’s test. The gossip you spread about your ex-best friend. Close-to-home sins. Fill in the blank. The list goes on. You know that as well as I do.

It’s discouraging. And it can make us feel pretty hopeless, if we let it. As if Easter hasn’t made any difference at all. Not in us. And we’re supposed to be Easter people. People living a new life with Christ. The new creation was born! Born with Jesus and his resurrection. But sometimes, with us, the new creation seems stillborn. So we hang our heads. From guilt. From shame. If we have a conscience anyway. If we care what God thinks about our behavior.

And we do have a conscience. So we decide to do something about it. To do something about the sins we keep stumbling into. About certain character traits we can’t seem to shake. And because we do have a conscience and because we want to be good Christians, we keep praying. Praying not only that God will forgive us, forgive us again. But praying that God will help us straighten out. Praying that God will help us overcome what seems a lot like an addiction. And we keep working on it. With God’s help, we keep working on it. And that desire we have, the desire to straighten out, it gives us a focus, a focus for our discipleship.

Do you know what? I think the devil likes that focus. And that’s why I think the devil likes the prayer of confession. Because if we keep paying attention to our own personal flaws . . . if I keep paying attention to my close-to-home failings, my close-to-home sins . . . then I’m not going to see what’s really messed up about my life.

Close-to-home sins are a problem. They’re a problem when we keep on doing them. They’re a problem when we can’t get any traction to outrun them. And when we keep getting tripped up by them. But close-to-home sins are a bigger problem than that. Because while we’re busy dealing with our close-to-home sins—busy seeking forgiveness again, busy seeking God’s help to overcome them—while we’re busy dealing with our close-to-home sins, we’re not paying attention to the heart of our Christian discipleship.

Now, of course, Christians are not supposed to lie or cheat or commit adultery. We all know that. That’s basic stuff. Discipleship 101. In fact, it’s so basic that it isn’t the point. You see, the real heart of our discipleship . . . And this is why God has claimed us. This is why God has forgiven us. This is why God has given his Spirit to renew us. The real heart of our Christian discipleship is our hunger and thirst for God, our hunger and thirst for God and for the Kingdom and its way.

Jesus doesn’t say, First of all, be a moral person. He doesn’t say that. That’s a given. He says, Seek the Kingdom of God first of all. Seek the Kingdom and its way (cp. Matthew 6:33). This is what the Book of Revelation is getting at. It says that Jesus loves us. Then it says that he has freed us from our sins by his blood (Revelation 1:5). That’s forgiveness. But what is that forgiveness for? So that we can have clean hands? So that we can have a pure heart? No. It’s so that, with clean hands and a pure heart, we can be a kingdom and priests to serve [our] God and Father (cf. Revelation 1:6). That’s what comes after forgiveness. And that is the point!

It’s all about seeking God. And it’s all about living the way of God’s Kingdom while we are still in this world. And that is what the devil doesn’t want us to see. He doesn’t want our attention on what comes after forgiveness. He doesn’t want us ever to get beyond forgiveness. He’s quite happy if we focus on our moral failings. He’s quite happy if we focus on our close-to-home sins. He’s quite happy if we focus on how desperately we need to be forgiven for all that. He’s quite happy, because then we won’t notice the bigger problem we have. The bigger problem we have. Which is how much we live the way of this world instead of the way of God’s Kingdom.

Now I have an idea that maybe you’re wondering what the way of the Kingdom is. And how is the way of the Kingdom different from the way of the world? And I have an idea that you would like me to lay it out clearly for you. Here’s what the Kingdom way looks like; here’s what the world’s way looks like. But I’m not going to do that. I can’t do that. Because I struggle with it as much as any of you. So what I can do is tell you about part of my own struggle.

In 1974 my parents bought me my first electric guitar. Since then I’ve lost count of how many different guitars and amplifiers and electronic gadgets I’ve owned. But ever since 1974, I’ve been on a quest. I’ve been after a sound. A sound I heard in my mind.

I have bought and sold and traded guitars, trying to find that sound. I have bought and sold and traded and built and modified amplifiers, trying to find that sound. The sound I heard in my mind.

Over the years, I have gotten closer and closer to that sound. But to get there, I had to give a lot of myself to the search. I’ve given my time. I’ve given my money. I’ve given my ears. I’ve given my imagination. I’ve given my daydreams. And more.

And now, listen. Do you hear what this sounds like? [Musical phrase on electric guitar.] And now listen to this. [Musical phrase on electric guitar.] Do you hear the difference? I do. I can tell the difference. Because I have pursued the difference. Pursued the difference with my time and my money—and my heart. But why did I do that? Why do I still do it? It’s only a hobby. Only a hobby. A hobby that has become a habit. A habit served not by shadowy figures on street corners. No. A habit served by an entire design, manufacturing, marketing, and retail industry. It’s only a hobby. But it looks like a god. It looks like idolatry.

You may have a story of your own, a story like mine. Because there’s an industry for every interest. And human industry is very good at carving idols.

I have been seeking a sound. And I’ve gone too far. I’ve gone the way of this world. And, dare I say, the way of this world’s ruler. But I can’t quit. I can’t sell all my guitars. I did that once, when I was about to start my seminary career. I thought it was necessary. But I was denying my gifts. And God doesn’t want us to deny our gifts. He wants us to use them. But to use them in the way of the Kingdom. To use them for his glory. To use them for good.

Today I wonder. What if I had done things differently? What if I didn’t give so much of myself—my time, my money, my heart—what if I didn’t give so much of myself to seeking after a sound. What if I gave that much of myself to seeking God? What if I had devoted as much imagination and as much energy, to seeking the Kingdom? What if I had spent more of myself learning how to live the Kingdom way in this world?

I wonder. What if? But it’s not too late. It’s never too late. Never too late to love God. Never too late to seek God’s Kingdom first of all. I have been forgiven. God forgives me again and again. Even for my idolatry. And God will forgive me. God will forgive you.

The question is, What comes after forgiveness? After I’ve been forgiven, how am I living my life? Is there anything I seek with more of my time, with more of my money, with more of my imagination—is there anything I seek with more of my heart than the Kingdom of God? Is there anything I love more than God, more than the God who sent his Son to forgive me? If so, then I really have something to confess. And when I do that, when we do that, the devil is not going to like it. Not one bit.

In the Name of the Father
and of the Son
and of the Holy Spirit.

Prayer of Confession
Father, we praise you
for the good news,
for the happy news,
of the resurrection.
Jesus lives, and so do we!
Jesus lives, and so do we!
But so far we’re only living a half life.
We’re trying to shed our old ways,
all the ugly blotches on our character,
the ones we do our best to hide.
And we’re making progress on those,
a little here, a little there,
with a renewed inner life coming through.
All because of you,
all because of your generous Spirit.
Thank you, Father!
But even with our act cleaned up,
we prefer the worthless things of this world
to the priceless things of your Kingdom.
Father, forgive us our feeble half life.
Stir up a new hunger and thirst within us,
a hunger for your Kingdom,
a thirst for its way of life.
Form a heart of courage within us,
courage to seek you,
courage to hope to find you,
courage to be changed by you,
courage to have our lives disrupted,
turned upside down even,
by the ways of your Kingdom.
Father, lead us in ways we never knew.


01:34:00 pm, by Robert Arbogast , 1323 words  
Categories: Easter 2013

Sharing Jesus with Mary

Sermon Preached by the Rev. Robert A. Arbogast
Olentangy Church, Columbus, Ohio
March 31, 2013

O God, we love to tell the story, the old, old story of Jesus and his love. But we also love to hear that story. We need to hear that story. Because that’s the only way we know you. Because that’s the only way we know ourselves. Because that’s the only way we can get a grip on reality, the reality of your love and your mercy. So help us to listen. To listen and to hear. To listen and to hear and to trust. To trust your grace. To trust your grace for each one of us. To trust your grace for this congregation. To trust your grace for all the church. To trust you grace for the whole world. Amen.

Scripture Readings
Isaiah 65:17-25
Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24
1 Corinthians 15:19-26
John 20:1-18

The Gospel is the story of God’s love entering our world. A love that dares to speak its name. And its name is Jesus. God’s love is a love for the unlovable. A love for a world that isn’t worthy of that love. But at the same time, a world that, in God’s eyes, is worth loving.

God so loved the world that he gave his only Son (John 3:16). That’s the Gospel. God came to the world, came to the world in love. And the church has been believing it ever since it happened. Believing it and proclaiming it ever since it happened. Believing it and proclaiming it and singing about it ever since it happened.

I don’t know where the singing started. When Jesus was born, angels filled the night sky. You remember their words:

Glory to God in the highest.
Peace to his people on earth. (Luke 2:14)

But there wasn’t any music. And the angels didn’t sing. They spoke the words. They spoke together the way we speak together when we say a psalm. They probably were better at it than we are. They had been practicing for a long time. But, no, the singing didn’t start with the angels.

Maybe it started when Jesus was about six weeks old and his parents took him to the Temple. That’s when an old man named Simeon took the baby Jesus and held him in his arms. And out of his mouth came pouring what the church calls "The Song of Simeon":

Sovereign Lord, as you have promised,
you may now dismiss your servant in peace.
For my eyes have seen your salvation,
which you have prepared in the sight of all nations:
a light for revelation to the Gentiles,
and the glory of your people Israel. (Luke 2:29-32)

Only Simeon didn’t sing. He spoke the words. So, no, the singing didn’t start with Simeon.

Maybe the singing started later, much later. Maybe it started just outside the tomb, in the garden. Maybe it started when Jesus said, Mary! And the sound of his voice, falling on Mary’s ear, was so sweet, so melodious, that the birds hushed their singing.

Most of you recognize those phrases. They come from the song "In the Garden." A song written one hundred one years ago. A song brought to a wide audience first by Billy Sunday, then by Roy Rogers and Dale Evans, then by Perry Como and by Elvis Presley.

I don’t think I’ve ever selected "In the Garden" as a song for a Sunday morning service. Not in my thirteen years here. Not in more than twenty-five years in ministry. That’s because a long time ago, musical snobs poisoned "In the Garden" for me.

They started with the music. They said, The tune is schmaltzy, even when it’s sung well. And it’s almost never sung well. But they saved their harshest criticism for the words. They said, The words are sentimental and self-centered. They turn the church’s shared communion with Jesus into something private. And faith is not private. Faith is not individualistic.

What those snobs didn’t see, and what I never saw until Marilynne Robinson pointed it out, is that this song is not about my private communion with Jesus. It’s not about the joy Jesus and I share, a joy that none other has ever known. As if somehow two thousand years’ worth of Christians have failed to experience the closeness of Jesus the way I do. Which, of course, is ridiculous. But that is not what the song is about. Not even close.

Oh, sure, the song is about an experience of Jesus that is absolutely unique. An experience of Jesus unknown by anyone and everyone else. But it’s not about my experience of Jesus. It’s about Mary Magdalene’s experience of Jesus. There outside the tomb, there in the garden, Mary experienced something no one had ever known before. No one anywhere. No one at any time. No one. Ever.

There in the garden, Mary was the first person to come face to face with the risen Jesus. Which is to say that Mary was the first person to come face to face with the new creation. A long time before, God had promised to create a new heaven and a new earth. And now here they were, right in front of Mary.

The puzzle and the wonder of the Incarnation is that heaven and earth are joined together in the person of Jesus. To meet Jesus is to encounter heaven and earth together. And in his resurrection, Jesus is still the place where heaven and earth come together. Only now he is new. Only now he is the future. He is the future as a foothold in the present. He is the new heaven and the new earth together now.

And the first one to see it, the first one to experience it, the first one to hear the music, to hear the song of the new creation . . . The Bible says the morning stars sang together when God laid the earth’s foundation (cf. Job 38:7). Now there’s a new creation and a new creation song. And Mary hears it. And it’s the sweetest melody she has ever heard. And the first word of the song is, Mary.

And the sound of his voice is so sweet,
that the birds hush their singing.

Then, with the help of songwriter Charles Austin Miles, Mary sings too. She sings to us, and we sing with her:

And the joy we share as we tarry there,
none other has ever known.

Yet the Jesus Mary knew, knew in a way no one ever had before, the Jesus Mary knew is the Jesus we know.

We don’t know him standing in front of us, looking for all the world like a gardener. We don’t know him as someone we can wrap our arms around, as someone whose feet we can kiss. But we do know him.

We know him not by the smell of his breath. Not by the brush of his beard against our cheek when he kisses us. We know him not by the strength of his arms around us. We know him by the smell and the texture and the taste of a loaf of bread and a cup of grape juice.

We know him not because his voice falls on our ears saying our name in a beautiful melody. We know him by the words he has left us in Scripture. Words that sound out clearly with his grace and his justice and his humility and his power.

And we know him by the voice of his Spirit within us. Calling us by name. Calling us to believe and to trust him. Assuring us that we are loved and inviting us to love in return.

Mary was the first to see, the first to hear, the first to know. But we know too. And when we come to the garden, when we come to the Word, when we come to the Table, we’re never alone. Thanks be to God!

In the Name of the Father
and of the Son
and of the Holy Spirit.


12:18:00 pm, by Robert Arbogast , 1364 words  
Categories: Lent 2013

Deliver Us from the Evil One

Sermon Preached by the Rev. Robert A. Arbogast
Olentangy Church, Columbus, Ohio
March 28, 2013

Scripture Readings
John 13:1-17
Job 1:6-11
Psalm 34
Philippians 2:5-8
Matthew 4:1-11

In 1995, a song about God landed on the pop music charts.

If God had a name, what would it be?
And would you call it to his face,
if you were faced with him in all his glory?
What would you ask, if you had just one question?

Yeah, God is great.
Yeah, God is good.

What if God was one of us?
Just a slob like one of us?
Just a stranger on the bus,
trying to make his way home?

If God had a face, what would it look like?
And would you want to see,
if seeing meant that you would have to believe
in things like heaven and in Jesus and the saints and all the prophets?

Yeah, God is great.
Yeah, God is good.

What if God was one of us?
Just a slob like one of us?
Just a stranger on the bus,
trying to make his way home,
back up to heaven all alone?
Nobody calling on the phone,
except for the pope maybe in Rome.
          ("One of Us," words and music by Eric Bazilian)

I quoted some of those lyrics in a sermon back in 1995. And I got in trouble for it. People complained to me, God is not a slob! I suppose they wanted to defend the majesty of God. But at the heart of Gospel, God has no such concern.

A couple of Sundays ago, we read the prodigal son parable. At the center of that story is an older man. In this case, an older man who is publicly humiliated by his two sons. But an older man who isn’t about to hold that against them. An older man who throws caution to the wind to embrace both his “good” son and his “bad” son. An older man who doesn’t care about his own reputation or dignity. An older man who hitches up his robes to run, bare legs flashing in sun.

In the story, the older man plays the part of God.

Last Sunday, we considered God’s servant Job. Satan had a plan for Job. He would bring Job down, bring him very low, as low as life could take a person. Then Job would abandon his devotion to God. Then Job would curse God even. Because a person can only go so low and still hang on to God.

Satan doesn’t understand how things work. He may understand how things work in the day to day world, the world he has done his best to define. A world of ruthless competition. A world of rivalries and battles. A world where winner takes all and losers are, well, losers. Satan understands how that world works. But he doesn’t understand how things work in the Kingdom of God.

Jesus said, Those who lift themselves up will be brought low, and those who lower themselves will be lifted up. He said, The first will be last, and the last will be first. And he said, Whoever wants to be great must be everyone’s servant. That’s not how it works on Wall Street. That’s not how it works on Main Street. That’s not how it works in the board room. That’s not how it works in the locker room. But that is how it works in the Kingdom of God.

Do you doubt that? Then take a look at Jesus. He was in the desert, being tested by the devil. He had opportunities to prove himself, to lift himself up, to take what was rightfully his. After all, he was the Son of God. But he refused those opportunities. He would follow the path God had put in front of him. And it was a low path. A path that descended lower and lower, into the valley of the shadow of death.

Today is Maundy Thursday. Among other things, this is the day that we remember Jesus kneeling before his disciples to wash their feet. Some churches practice the ritual of foot-washing. I wonder about that. I wonder because for me to wash your feet or for you to wash my feet—that doesn’t capture the heart of what’s going on there in the upper room.

If we wash each other’s feet, it’s kinda weird. It’s kinda creepy. It’s an invasion of privacy, an invasion of personal space. I don’t let just anyone get near my feet. Certainly not to put their hands on my feet and to start caressing them with soapy water.

But in the first century, it was not an invasion of privacy to have someone wash your feet. It was a standard act of hospitality. An act of hospitality that was performed by the lowest member of a household. In other words, an act performed by a common servant or slave. So when Jesus kneels before his disciples to wash their feet, it’s a massive humiliation.

Peter gets this. That’s why he tries to stop the process. You, Lord, washing my feet? Never! You, Lord, the One who ought to be exalted? You humbling yourself, humiliating yourself before me? Me of all people? No. No! Never! That’s Peter. Peter in his usual role. I say “usual role” because of what happened before, when Jesus told the disciples that a cross was waiting for him in Jerusalem. Peter objected. No, Lord. Never! Not that way.

Do you remember how Jesus reacted? When Peter said, No, Jesus recognized the voice. So he turned and said, Get behind me, Satan! Peter, in the role of Satan, couldn’t handle the idea of Jesus going to his death. But Jesus knew it was the only way, because it was the Kingdom way. So he said, Get behind me, Satan! You’ve got the way of the world in mind, not the way of the Kingdom!

Always the devil pushed Jesus to exalt himself. To claim his throne. To reject the path of suffering. To come down from the cross. And always Jesus refused. Always Jesus stuck to the path laid out before him by his Father.

This is what Paul has in mind when he writes to the Philippians: By his very nature, Jesus was God. But he made himself nothing. He took on a servant’s nature. And he humbled himself. All the way to death. Death on a cross.

We think of the cross as painful. And it was. Excruciatingly so. But it was also humiliating. On the cross, Jesus was like the older man in the parable, only worse. The older man humiliated himself by running bare-legged for the whole village to see. Jesus was stripped completely naked and hung on the cross for the whole city, for the whole world, to see. Utterly humiliated.

It’s the scandal, it’s the shock of the Gospel. God utterly humiliated. But God willingly humiliated. So it won’t do for us to be troubled by the thought of God being one of us, of God being a slob like one of us. Because that’s the way God chose. Only Satan is troubled by the humiliation of God. God isn’t troubled by it at all. This is how God loves. This is how God saves.

And when we pray, Deliver us from the evil one— (Yes, this sermon is continuing the series on the Lord’s Prayer!) When we pray, Deliver us from the evil one, we’re asking God to deliver us from a concern for the majesty of God that has no room for the way of God, that has no room for the way of the Kingdom.

In the Kingdom, those who lift themselves up will be brought low, and those who lower themselves will be lifted up. That was true of Jesus. When he resisted the devil’s wilderness schemes. When he told Peter to shut up. When he kneeled before his disciples. And when he was stretched out on the cross. Those who lift themselves up will be brought low, and those who lower themselves will be lifted up. That was true of Jesus. It’s true of us, too.

In the Name of the Father
and of the Son
and of the Holy Spirit.


03:18:00 pm, by Robert Arbogast , 1720 words  
Categories: Lent 2013

Don’t Bring Us Into Testing

Sermon Preached by the Rev. Robert A. Arbogast
Olentangy Church, Columbus, Ohio
March 24, 2013

O God, you remain a great mystery to us. You are the mystery that surrounds us. You are the mystery that draws us together and shapes our common life. You are the mystery that leads us toward the Kingdom, which itself is a mystery. When you speak you reveal the mystery. When you speak you conceal the mystery. Speak to us, O God. Reveal what we need to know. And keep hidden what is beyond us. That we may always live by faith. Amen.

Scripture Readings
Genesis 3:1
1 Corinthians 10:12-13
Matthew 26:36-41a

We’ve come to the final petition in the Lord’s Prayer. Yet once again, the traditional translation is a bit off. Lead us not into temptation. That’s what we pray. And it sounds like we’re asking God not to lure us into some kind of bad behavior. Because that’s what temptation is all about. But is that what we’re asking from our Father? That he not lead us astray?

On Palm Sunday, Jesus was on his way into Jerusalem. On his way into everything that waited for him there. What do you think he was praying? Was he saying, Father, please, don’t tempt me? As if God would try to trick Jesus into some moral stumble? To see if Jesus might look at women with lust in his eyes? Hardly.

Something much bigger was at stake. Everything was at stake. Everything that God had ever done from the creation of the world. All of it was at stake.

Do you remember the story of Job? At the beginning of that story, Satan said to God, You think Job is special? Ha! The only reason he’s devoted to you is because you never let any trouble get near him. So God let Satan test Job. Test him to find out how deep Job’s devotion to God really was. Test him to find out if Job was devoted to God only because it paid to be devoted to God.

Job, of course, passed the test. Even though it was a horrendous test. A test that destroyed his wealth. A test that slaughtered his family. A test that tore out his heart and wracked his body. Job passed the test. Even though his wife helped proctor the exam for Satan. Go ahead, she said. Curse God, and die! But Job wouldn’t do it. Instead he blessed the Lord. And he continued to be devoted to the Lord, as hard as the test was.

That’s what we’re praying about when we say the Lord’s Prayer. It’s not about tempting. It’s about testing. Which is something we don’t want to go through. Because it’s terrifying and soul-crushing. And who of us could ever be a modern-day Job? So we pray, Father, don’t bring us into testing.

On Palm Sunday, Jesus was on his way into Jerusalem. On his way into everything that waited for him there. What do you think he was praying? Was he saying, Father, please, don’t tempt me? Not likely. That’s nowhere near serious enough. Considering what was waiting for him in Jerusalem, can’t you hear Jesus saying, Father, please, no test?

That’s what was going on that night in the Garden of Gethsemane. Three times Jesus prayed, Father, take this cup away. I don’t want to drink it. Please, take it away. In other words, Please, no test.

Nobody likes a test. Except maybe for nerds. Nobody likes a test. But testing is part of life. Each one of us gets tested. And we all get tested together. Some tests are pointless. It’s just that certain people have the power to make the rest of us take tests. So they do.

At physical therapy, I have to stand on my right leg and dip my knee as I move my left leg forward and to the side and backward. It’s an exercise. But it’s also a test. To see if my right leg is getting strong again. And to see if my ankle is getting more stable. It’s an okay test. It doesn’t hurt. And if I fail, I can keep trying.

Not every test is like that. When we pray, Father, don’t bring us into testing—that’s a pretty good way to translate it, by the way—when we pray, Don’t bring us into testing, we’re not asking to be spared the inconvenience of physical therapy. We’re asking to be spared the sorrows of Job. We’re asking to be spared the horrors of a cross.

Jesus prayed, Father, please, no test. But that was exactly where he was going, to a cross.

After Jesus was baptized, the Holy Spirit drove him out into the wilderness. Drove him out not to be tempted—not to be tempted to do something wrong, to do something less than morally perfect. No, the Spirit drove him out to be tested. Tested to see if he would listen to God. To see if he would listen to God, even if it cost him. Cost him a lot. Even when there was an easier way!

If you are God’s Son . . . That’s where Satan started the test. If you are God’s Son . . . Because that’s where God had started. When Jesus was baptized, the Father spoke to him. You are my Son! he said. Now here Satan was, calling that into question.

Did God really say, You are my Son? Because, if you are God’s Son, there’s no reason for you to go hungry. Just tell these stones to become bread. And if you are God’s Son, there’s every reason for you to take your rightful place as king of the earth, and to do it right now. Just bow down to me first. There is no need for you to go to Jerusalem. There is no need for you to go through all that waits for you there.

Satan tested. And Jesus resisted. Jesus stood firm. Jesus listened to the Father’s voice. Listened no matter what it cost.

Not that Jesus welcomed what he had to face. That’s why, in Gethsemane, he prayed, Father, please, no test! He prayed. But the next day, he was hanging on a cross. And the test continued. The test continued to the bitter end. The crowd taunted him. Like Job’s wife, they were proctoring the exam for Satan. If you are God’s Son, they said. If you are God’s Son, then come down from the cross. Save yourself! There’s no need for you to go through all this!

Which is what Jesus had prayed for in Gethsemane. Please, Father, take this cup away. I don’t want to drink it. Please, take it away. And why not? Should Jesus want to suffer? Should Jesus want to die on a cross? So he prays, Father, please, no test.

When your guts keep tying up in knots . . . When you can’t keep food down . . . When there’s blood where it shouldn’t be . . . The doctor orders tests. Tests that none of us like to take. Getting poked and prodded and stuck. Having tubes with little cameras on the end put in uncomfortable places.

Yet without those tests, it’s only guesswork about what’s going on inside you. And without those tests, it’s only guesswork if the doctor tries to prescribe a remedy. But after the testing, if the doctor has ordered the right tests—after the testing, we know what’s going on. And we may even have a pretty good idea of what to do about it.

Job was tested. And the test proved who he really was inside. The test revealed his character. Tests can do that. Though some tests can only reveal what something is by destroying it. Or almost destroying it.

One hundred fifty years ago, a horrible battle raged on the fields around Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. The slaughter was staggering. Men cut down by rifles and cannons and primitive medicine. It was a test. The whole war was a test. That’s how Abraham Lincoln saw it. We are engaged in a great civil war, he said, testing whether [this] nation . . . can long endure. This nation was being tested. And the test revealed something of the nation’s deep character. But it almost destroyed the nation. Some tests are like that.

The cross tested Jesus. And it revealed his true character. But only by destroying him. When Jesus was hanging there on the cross at the end of the test, hanging there shattered, destroyed—that’s when the Roman centurion said, This guy, not Caesar—this guy is God’s Son! The cross revealed who Jesus is.

But a cross is what we want to avoid. So that’s our prayer. Father, don’t bring us into testing. It’s the prayer Jesus teaches us to pray. Father, don’t bring us into testing. And why not? We don’t want to be tested. We don’t want to be destroyed or nearly destroyed. We want to be spared that misery.

But as much as we want to avoid testing—

Hasn’t this last year tested us as a congregation? All the losses. Could you ever have imagined how those losses would pile up? People moving away. People disappearing. People dying. It hurt. It hurt so bad. It still hurts.

But as much as we want to avoid testing, we know that sometimes testing may be unavoidable. That’s why we always need to say what Jesus said in Gethsemane. Father, please, no testing. But if it is your will for me to be tested, if it is your will for us to be tested, then so be it. And we need to say a little more. Father, give us the grace, give us the power of your Spirit, to endure the test and to remain devoted to you. Devoted to you, even if the test destroys us! Because that’s what it means to follow Jesus.

Jesus prayed, Please, no testing. But he submitted himself to his Father’s will. He was devoted to the end. That’s why we remember him today. That’s why we’ll lift up his body and blood at the Table to remember him. To remember his body broken for our sakes. To remember his blood poured out for us.

Father, we pray you, don’t bring us into testing. But we praise you that Jesus passed the test.

In the Name of the Father
and of the Son
and of the Holy Spirit.


03:15:00 pm, by Robert Arbogast , 2029 words  
Categories: Lent 2013

Forgive Us as We Forgive

Sermon Preached by the Rev. Robert A. Arbogast
Olentangy Church, Columbus, Ohio
March 17, 2013

O God, speak to us this morning. Speak to us in a way that we can hear. A whisper. A shout. Whatever will get through to us. There are so many other voices, all around us, every day, all of them trying to convince our minds, all of them trying to win our hearts. But only your voice lights the way. Only your voice reveals the truth. Only your voice leads us to life. So speak to us, and open our ears. Amen.

Scripture Readings
Isaiah 61:1-3
Psalm 143
Colossians 3:12-17
Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32

The next petition in the Lord’s Prayer is about forgiveness. Forgive us our debts. That’s what we pray. Or, in some traditions, Forgive us our trespasses. I think the first translation is better. Most of us don’t have much experience with trespassing. (I don’t even remember the last time I saw a No Trespassing sign.) But we do have experience with debts.

And let’s not get all “religious” here. We’ve been taught that when the prayer says debts, it means sins. Because sin puts us in debt to God. But that’s not what the prayer is about. Not first of all.

Do you know the first thing the Jewish revolutionaries did when they revolted against the Romans? (Actually it wasn’t just against the Romans. It was also against the Temple authorities who cooperated with the Romans.) Anyway, do you know the first thing those revolutionaries did? They broke into the Temple. And they burned the business records that were kept there.

Business records? Yes. Because the Temple system was corrupt. The Temple had become a commercial center. (Remember the money-changers and the pigeon-sellers?) The Temple was in the pocket of the rich and powerful, who exploited the poor, who trapped them in debt, who took their property as payment and sold off their families as slaves. So the revolutionaries burned the business records. Especially the records of loans and debts.

So when Jesus teaches his disciples to pray, Forgive us our debts, they know just what he’s talking about. A debt crisis has corrupted their world. And there is nowhere to turn but to God. God and God alone can undo the corruption. God alone can set them free.

If only it would happen! That would be good news. That would be a sign of the kingdom they were hoping for. The canceling of debts. And the freeing of slaves. That would be a clear sign of the kingdom’s Jubilee.

We could use a Jubilee of our own. Massive debt is still causing misery in the developing world. Debt cripples true development and replaces it with exploitation. Maybe the debt was entered into honestly. Never mind that. Maybe the debt was a product of local corruption and mismanagement. Never mind that either. Whatever the cause, the result is the same. An endless cycle of debt that weighs down developing nations.

Here at home, we have student debt, the debt burden of developing adults. Financial aid for college students used to be mostly scholarships and grants. Now it’s mostly loans. And so our young adults are in debt. Deep in debt. Debt is probably all they will ever know. And I don’t think it’s their fault.

Don’t you think the big banks love the current system? Think about it. Big debt is normal for today’s young adults. So normal that they will keep on borrowing money for the rest of their lives, borrowing money to get what they need and what they want. And who will that be good for?

It’s so different from my parents’ generation. They saved up to buy Christmas presents. They saved up to buy new living room furniture. They saved up to buy a new car. But now debt is the new normal. We expect to always be borrowing money. To always be going into debt. Why else would we care so much about our credit rating?

I don’t know about you, but I’m sick of being in debt. I’m fed up with being called a home-owner, when what I have is a thirty-year rent-to-own deal with the bank. And I’m frustrated that my kids have to live their young adult lives with thousands and thousands of dollars of student debt hanging over their heads. I don’t care if it is relatively cheap debt. It’s still debt. And I can’t wait for the day when it’s all over. The day when there are no more debts. The day when there is no more lending of money at interest.

Of course, that will never happen. Not without God intervening to do something about it. Not without God bringing the kingdom. Not without the coming of the day of Jubilee. So until then, we’ll keep praying, Forgive us our debts.

But what do we do in the meantime? That’s our always-question as Christians. What do we do in the meantime? What do we do while we’re waiting? While we’re waiting for the kingdom to come? While we’re waiting for the kingdom’s Jubilee?

Well, the prayer tells us what to do. Because we don’t just pray, Forgive us our debts. We also pray, as we have forgiven our debtors. Do you hear what we’re saying? Forgive us our debtsas we have forgiven our debtors. We’re asking God to do for the world and we’re asking God to do for us, what we already do for others. Our prayer is, God, send the Jubilee. Cancel the debts. Set us free! But there’s no point praying for Jubilee unless we practice Jubilee ourselves. That’s why the plan, call it a dream, of forgiving debt in the developing world—the plan was called Jubilee 2000. The idea was to jumpstart the Jubilee. The idea was to do what we’re praying for.

That’s what I’ve been saying for several weeks. When we say the Lord’s Prayer, the things we ask for from our Father in heaven, we commit ourselves to do here on earth. Your kingdom come, we pray, here on earth just as in heaven. And so if we’re going to pray for God to forgive our debts, and if we’re going to pray for God to cancel the debts that are crippling the world, then we’re committing ourselves to be forgivers of debt, too.

How would we do that? Well, for one thing, if we give money to a hungry person, we won’t ask her to pay us back. And not because we don’t think she ever would. No. We won’t ask because Jesus told us not to. We won’t ask because that’s not how Jubilee works. With Jubilee, debts are forgiven. The records are erased, burned to ashes.

What does this mean on a larger scale? I don’t know exactly. But I’m sure there are implications, big implications, for the whole church to figure out. For the sake of the developing world. For the sake of poor neighbors. For the sake of college students and graduates.

Maybe J.P. Morgan Chase will always conduct business the way it conducts business. Maybe Union Savings Bank will always lend money the way it lends money. But the church can talk a different game and even play a different game.

Now, of course, it will never work. It’s completely impractical. There’s even something unseemly about it. To go around forgiving debts? That only encourages irresponsible behavior. Because people never learn. Unless they experience the bite of debt, unless they have to pay a price for bad decisions, they’ll just keep making the same mistakes over and over again.

And are we all supposed to pay for that? Over and over again? Why should those of us who are careful and responsible have to bail out people who don’t bother? And if we keep doing that, won’t the whole system come crashing down? Then we’ll all be ruined! Maybe. Maybe.

That’s just what the older brother in the parable was concerned about. His younger brother had cost the family a bundle. Singlehandedly the brat had erased a big chunk of the family’s wealth. And he had insulted their father along the way. He had shamed their father. Give me my share now! That’s what he had said. In effect, he had stripped their father half naked. He had exposed their father to shame in front of the whole village. To have such a son! Such a scoundrel! Such an ingrate!

And now the old man has welcomed him back?! How can that be?! That can’t be right! That will only encourage more bad behavior! How is the little brat ever going to learn?! And what about me? I’ve been responsible. I’ve been respectful. I’ve looked after the family’s best interests. I haven’t shamed you, father. And this is what I get for it? The property gets divided again? The little brat gets a new share? That’s not right!

But the old man . . . The old man didn’t care about any of that. He wasn’t into calculating costs and benefits. He wasn’t into balance sheets. He wasn’t into rates of return. His son had returned. And that’s all that mattered. This father didn’t care if his actions disrupted the proper order of things. When he saw his son dragging himself home, this father left his dignity behind, hitched up his robes and went running to him.

Bad enough for him to welcome such a wayward son, a son who had in effect wished him dead, a son who had wasted everything the father had given him. To welcome him back was bad enough. To hold a party for him, that was even worse. Even the little brat himself knew better. He should have been welcomed back as a hired servant. Or he could have worked as a slave until he paid back every bit.

But this father didn’t worry about any of that. No. He put the best robe on the little brat. And he had the family ring, the ring of family authority—he placed it on the little brat’s hand. And instead of hiding it from the village, instead of slowly introducing the returned son: Oh, yes, he’s been home for a while now, instead of keeping things low key, this father threw a party. Because he said it was like having his son back from the dead.

And what’s worse, this father ran to his son. For everyone to see, he ran. Of all the undignified things to do! As if the little brat hadn’t shamed the father and the family enough. Now here the father is running. Something no respectable man would do. Here he is running, robes hitched up, half-naked, oblivious to the shame. Because as far as he is concerned, his son is back from the dead. And his son is free. And his son owes him nothing. All debts have been erased. The records have been burned up in the fiery passion of his love for the little brat.

And none of it makes any sense. None of it fits with the way things are supposed to be done. And none of it will teach the little brat the lesson he needs to learn. The lesson he came pretty close to learning. Until the father threw the lesson book away and taught him instead about mercy and forgiveness and love and Jubilee.

There’s something in this prayer, this prayer about forgiveness. There’s something really big in this prayer. About money and debts and setting people free. About never trapping people in debt to begin with. About leaving behind business as usual. About doing what looks like the kingdom and like Jubilee. And doing it without worrying about the cost or the consequences. Doing it without worrying about pride or shame or reputation. Such a little prayer! But it could change the world, if only we did what it says.

If only we did what it says. Imagine what a picture of the kingdom that would be! Imagine what a picture of Jubilee that would be! And what kind of party would our Father in heaven throw to celebrate that? Imagine.

In the Name of the Father
and of the Son
and of the Holy Spirit.

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