Do I Have to Forgive? Print E-mail
Written by Skip Jackson   
Sunday, 17 September 2017
A Sermon by Sydney V. (Skip) Jackson — September 17, 2017
Indianola Presbyterian Church, Columbus, Ohio
Texts:  Romans 14:1-13 & Matthew 18:21-35

And out of pity for him, the lord of that slave released him and forgave him the debt. — Matthew 18:27

Last week we heard those words from Jesus to Peter about forgiving your brother or sister “not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy times seven times.”  Effectively this means to forgive always, without limit—which raised one of those tricky theological questions for some of you.  I’ve made it my sermon title—“Do I Have to Forgive?”  Is forgiveness required?  On the surface it looks like it.  And the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant seems to hammer the point home with the torturing of that unforgiving servant and the dread warning that our heavenly Father will do the same “if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”  Really?  God would do that—God, who seeks out each and every lost sheep and desires unlimited forgiveness?  I think we need to look a little deeper.

Some years ago—actually, just after I was ordained in 1991—a pastor named Richard Lord explored that question—“Do I Have to Forgive?—in an article by that title in The Christian Century.1  A woman named Betty Jane Spenser had come to him asking, “Preacher, do I have to forgive a man who murdered my four sons?”  This is no grand, all-encompassing, general question.  This is where the rubber meets the road.  It seems that some years previously a group of young men broke into her Indiana farmhouse, murdered her four sons, and shot her, leaving her for dead.  Now, one of the murderers had written to Betty Jane from prison claiming he had “found Christ” and asking for her forgiveness.  She wanted to know if she was obligated as a Christian to forgive in this situation.  The murderer hadn’t said he was sorry, just “Forgive me.” 

Not wanting to jump to conclusions, Lord took six months investigating the issues involved, focusing primarily on two things—first, what victims of violent crimes and their families had to say and, second, how the Jewish and Christian traditions might apply.  The victims he talked to were very disturbed by the issue of forgiveness.  They were constantly being told, often by the church, that they must forgive.  But most found they could not.  One woman’s daughter had been killed by her son-in-law, who now said he had “found Christ” in prison.  So the mother concluded in anguish that he would go to heaven to be with her daughter, while she would go to hell because she could not forgive him in her heart.  I suspect that Bible passages like this morning’s parable, with its threat of torture until the debt is fully paid, contributed to her conclusion.
The Messiah Among Us Print E-mail
Written by Skip Jackson   
Sunday, 10 September 2017
A Sermon by Sydney V. (Skip) Jackson — September 10, 2017
Indianola Presbyterian Church, Columbus, Ohio
Text:  Matthew 18:12-22

For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them. — Matthew 18:20

Jesus knows just how hard it can be relating with others.  So he walks his followers through baby steps.  If someone offends you, first go in person to them.  If that fails, take one or two others.  Then seek the community’s aid.  But the main concern is always to patch things up, not rejection.  It’s all about trying to renew relationship.  Life is to be about communion with God and living in community with all people.  As Jesus makes clear in the Parable of the Lost Sheep, God is unwilling to let anyone be lost.  And when Peter wants to know how far he has to go—“How many times must I forgive?”—Jesus says, “Lots!  Lots and lots!”
According to an old story,1 there was once a monastery that had fallen on very hard times.  Only a handful of old monks shuffled through the cloisters, and in their large sanctuary they praised God with heavy hearts.

In the woods around the monastery, an old rabbi had built a little hut.  He went there from time to time to fast and pray.  And whenever he appeared, the word would be passed from monk to monk, “The rabbi walks in the woods.”  And their spirits would be lifted by his prayerful presence.

One day the abbot decided to visit the rabbi and to open his heart to him.  As he approached the hut, the abbot saw the rabbi standing in the doorway, his arms outstretched in welcome.  The two embraced like long lost brothers, smiling at one another with smiles their faces could hardly contain.

The rabbi invited the abbot to enter.  On a table in the middle of the hut, the Scriptures stood open.  They stood there for a moment, in the presence of the book.  Then the rabbi began to cry, and the abbot joined him in tears.  The two men stood there like lost children, weeping.

After the tears had ceased to flow and all was quiet again, the rabbi lifted his head.  “You and your brothers are serving God with heavy hearts,” he said.  “You have come to ask a teaching of me.  I have one for you, but you can only repeat it once.  After that, no one must ever say it aloud again.”  Looking straight at the abbot he said, “The Messiah is among you.”
Get Out of Godís Way Print E-mail
Written by Skip Jackson   
Sunday, 03 September 2017
A Sermon by Sydney V. (Skip) Jackson — September 3, 2017
Indianola Presbyterian Church, Columbus, Ohio
Texts: Mark 8:31-33;  Matthew 16:21-23

[Jesus] rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan!  For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” — Mark 8:33

[Jesus] turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan!  You are a stumbling block to me…” — Matthew 16:23

The term “Satan” appears in both Mark’s and Matthew’s version of this Gospel story—“satana” (σατανά) in the Greek from the Hebrew “satan” (שָׂטָן).  Satan is a really loaded name for us.  On the one hand there’s a lighter side where we make jokes about Satan—like the one where a demon stole Satan’s hair piece.  (Oh, you didn’t know Satan has a bald spot?)  Satan was furious.  “Whoever stole it better return it immediately!” he shouted, “Or there’ll be Hell Toupee!”  Yes, I’ll admit, puns are by far the lowest form of comedy.  But the temptation was just so great!  I don’t know what made me do it. Could it be… Satan?  Yes, that’s right; Satan’s to blame.

Once there was a little boy who just would not play in his own yard, no matter how firm his mother’s orders.  When she asked him why he was so disobedient, he blamed Satan—“Satan made me do it.”  So his mom told him that whenever he was tempted to leave the yard he should say, just like in the Bible, “Get behind me, Satan.”  But later that day she saw him outside the fence playing at the neighbor’s.  Hauling him home she insisted, “Didn’t I tell you to say ‘get behind me, Satan’ whenever he tempted you?”  “Yeah,” said the boy, “I said, ‘get behind me, Satan’ and he got behind me and pushed me right out the gate!”

Well, that’s a lighter side of Satan.  But of course there’s a darker, more ominous figure.  It’s there in the typical scary images of Satan, like the ones that gave me bad dreams from the Children’s Bible illustrations of my childhood.  It’s there in literature and art—Satan, the Devil, the Prince of Darkness, the Ruler of Hell, Absolute Evil in the flesh—fearsome images all.  And the church has often wielded such images to instill fear in believers and non-believers alike—as in one of the most famous of American sermons, Jonathan Edwards’ “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” from 1741.  Edwards dramatically pictured a wrathful God dangling sinners over the fiery pit of hell, their wrongs pulling them downward to their doom, with Satan eagerly awaiting them in the flames.  (Not all of Edwards’ sermons were like this, by any means.  One wag has suggested that Edwards preached this as his final sermon to a congregation that had just fired him.)
Besides Women and Children Print E-mail
Written by Skip Jackson   
Sunday, 13 August 2017
A Sermon by Sydney V. (Skip) Jackson — August 13, 2017
Indianola Presbyterian Church, Columbus, OH
Text:  Matthew 14:13-21

And those who ate were about five thousand men, besides women and children. — Matthew 14:21

The story starts, “when Jesus heard this…”  Heard what?  Heard that King Herod Antipas had John the Baptist beheaded.  John baptized Jesus, so in effect he’s Jesus’ mentor.  He’s also his cousin; he’s family.  And it’s not just that John died.  First he was thrown in prison and then executed during an over-the-top banquet because Herod’s stepdaughter asked for his head on a platter.  When rulers do whatever they want, it’s scary.  Jesus might be next.   The story says he “withdrew from there in a boat to a deserted place by himself.”  Perhaps alone he can figure things out, pray, and take time to remember John and to grieve.

Jesus wasn’t the only one to be distressed by the terrible news.  The crowds of ordinary folk flocking to Jesus because of his healing and teaching would feel threatened as well.  John was popular.  He had a large following.  He was a God-anointed prophet.  O God, save us from rulers who do whatever they want, especially when they feel threatened.  What about Jesus?  What might happen to us?  So in shock or anger or grief or a volatile mix of all three, the people set off from their towns, following on foot along the shore.  And so when Jesus lands at that “deserted place,” he finds himself far from alone.  Here are people, lots of people, and they’re in need.

One commentator suggests that it might be helpful for us not to picture Jesus serenely above it all, healing people left and right, and then miraculously generating an abundance of bread and fish.   Rather, here is Jesus addressing the hurts of the people in concrete ways from right out of the middle of his own deep hurt.  “Maybe we need to see Jesus,” this writer says, “as the one with red-rimmed eyes and tear-stained cheeks and whose hands are trembling for the sorrow of it all.  And yet out of his own scarcity, out of his own emotional train wreck, he manages to bring forth an abundance of life and joy.”
Wrestling with God Print E-mail
Written by Skip Jackson   
Sunday, 06 August 2017
A Sermon by Sydney V. (Skip) Jackson — August 6, 2017
Indianola Presbyterian Church, Columbus, Ohio
Texts: Genesis 32:22-32

The man said, “Your name is no longer Jacob.  From now on it’s Israel (God-Wrestler); you’ve wrestled with God and you’ve come through.” — Genesis 32:28 [The Message]

I’ve often said the Bible is more about asking questions than giving answers.  Yet clearly this brief story about Jacob offers three pretty direct answers to three unspoken, rather basic “Why?” questions.  They’re the type of questions folk tales often address.  First, why the name “Israel”? (It means “one who wrestles with God”)  Second, why the place name “Peniel”? (It means “the face of God”)  And finally why the dietary rule against eating a certain part of an animal’s thigh muscle? (Because that’s where Jacob was hurt)  If those answers were all this story was about, we might just shrug and move on.  But there is far more.  In fact, one Bible commentary says, “there is no more strange and perplexing narrative in the whole of the Old Testament” (Cambridge Commentary).

The strangest thing, I think, is just who or what Jacob wrestled with in the dark of night and what does it mean?  In the end, Jacob is sure he was wrestling with God, for his opponent renamed him “Israel (God Wrestler).”  He’s also sure he’s seen the face of God yet still lives, so he names the place “God’s Face.”  But the storyteller leaves things open as the story develops.  At first it seems to be a human being, a man.  The story says, “Jacob stayed behind by himself, and a man wrestled with him until daybreak.”  So who or what is this “man”?

Some commentators suggest that this is a way of saying that Jacob wrestles with himself—with his conscience and with his fear.  He’s about to approach his brother, Esau.  You might recall from my sermon two weeks ago how Jacob defrauded his elder brother, cheating him out of his birthright and then their Father’s deathbed blessing.  Jacob is not a good guy.  He ran for his life when he heard that Esau had vowed to kill him.  Now it’s many years later, and he’s headed home with his family (2 wives and 11 children), seeking to beg for forgiveness.  But he has received reports that Esau is coming to meet him along with 400 men.  Jacob is scared.  Is Esau still bent on revenge?  Jacob does what he can to make his family safe and then stays behind at the river ford by himself.  Even without such a threat, it can be a fearful thing to seek forgiveness.  We all dread letting ourselves be so vulnerable.  In the various 12-Step Programs like A.A., the scariest step is Step 9, which involves seeking to make direct amends wherever possible to all persons we have harmed. 

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