The Other Side

The Rev. Jimmy Abbott
Fifth Sunday after Pentecost
June 24, 2018

Mark 4:35-41

“Let us go across to the other side.” Jesus had been teaching the crowds, he had been preaching the good news of the Kingdom of God. So many people had gathered to listen to him, the crowd had been so great, that Jesus had to climb into a boat to get some space. They sat on the lakeshore and he used that fishing boat for a pulpit. Then it says, evening had come after that long day of preaching and teaching. Jesus turns around and looks out across the lake. He says, “let us go across to the other side.” 

What an absurd command. To cross the sea, in the evening, with a brewing windstorm out there on the horizon. Why not stay there? On the safe side of the lake? Why go sailing at night with the wind and the waves after that long and grueling day?

It’s absurd, “Let us go across to the other side.” There were plenty of people on that side, their side, the safe side, that Jesus could spend his time with. Why waste the time and the energy to go to those other people, on the other side?

I think what we see here is Jesus using his imagination. He imagines people out there, on the other side, who are in need of what he has to offer. It’s on the other side, over there, that even more people need to hear about the Kingdom of God. Still others need to be healed. Even more are afflicted by demons. He has the ability to imagine that his work is not done, he can imagine the plight of those souls on the other side. He imagines them, held captive in helplessness. And so they set sail, in the dark, with the windstorm brewing, to cross to the other side.

The other side. Can you imagine the other side? It seems to me that we, as a culture, have lost the capacity to imagine the other. Or, even simpler, we have lost the capacity to imagine. We have surrendered our imaginations to television and movies, because they visually stimulate and imagine things for us. We have lost our love of poetry, and with it the ability to imagine new meanings for old words. We have become seduced the brutality of data and statistics. We have ceased to wonder, to imagine what life could be like on the other side.

Imagine, imagine for a moment, what it would be like to live on less than a dollar a day. Imagine if you lived with violence every night and day; if drug cartels dictated your life. Imagine life on the other side. Imagine fleeing with your family to escape that horror-scape. And imagine those same children behind bars. As disturbing as it may be, imagine life on the other side.

Imagine waking up in places like Flint, Michigan, knowing that your water is poisoned. Imagine waking up with nothing in the refrigerator and a hungry family to feed. Imagine being sick but not having the money to see a doctor. Imagine life on the other side, and we imagine what Jesus imagined. Remember, right after this passage is when Jesus confronts the man who is possessed by a legion of demons. Jesus sets him free, releases him from his bondage. This is precisely the point of crossing to the other side – so that those who are bound by the evils of this world can be set free. 

And when evening came, the disciples set sail with him across to the other side. It says, “a great windstorm arose, and the waves beat into the boat, so that the boat was already being swamped.” Sailing to the other side is risky business. You must leave behind the safety of what you know and enter the danger of the unknown. You must confront your fears.

And that is the key to the Gospel of Mark. Fear. Fear is all over this story. Notice that it’s not that faith and doubt are opposite from each other. No, it’s faith and fear that are opposite. “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?” Have you still no faith to imagine crossing to the other side? Are you still afraid of what you might find there?

I tell you, the world will continue to sell us fear as long as we keep buying it. They will give us all the fear we want and it will be fear that shrivels up our imaginations for what could be. Fear will shrink our minds and our souls so that all we think about is ourselves. Fear will so twist our minds and our hearts that somehow, we will turn our backs, even to children.. We will not care that the water is poisoning our communities. We will not care about anyone except ourselves. Fear will drive us to trust not in God, but to trust only in our money and in our weapons. Instead of imagining the other side we will be afraid of the other side.

In our fear, Jesus turns with steely resolve, and he looks at you. He looks at me. He looks at the church and he commands us to cross over to the other side with him. Can you imagine if we actually did that?

Can you imagine what life would look like if we all hopped in that boat with Jesus? Imagine if we actually cared about the people on the other side? Imagine if we woke up everyday, and instead of scheming of ways to make ourselves richer, we found ways to enrich the world. Imagine having the courage to cross over to the other side.

Admittedly, I have a hard time imagining this kind of life. Because this side of the sea seems just fine to me. I tell myself that it’s too dangerous to sail at night, into the wind, into the waves. I tell myself that life on this side is okay, and maybe the people out there, on the other side, don’t even need my help. I tell myself that, if they really wanted help, they would figure it out. I tell myself that I’m too busy, that I don’t have what it takes. I tell myself that I’ll do it in the morning, when the weather forecast is better and when the wind has died down. But by then I’m too enamored by this side of the sea and I stay right where I am. In my comfort zone. I have surrendered my imagination. I stay on this side.

We can come up with all the excuses in the world, but still Jesus says, “Let us go across to the other side.” If we truly want to follow Jesus, if we want to be Christians, we will have to go out there. Where the wind is blowing and the waves are crashing. We will have to go out there, in the dark, beyond safety and security, we will have out there to where the other people are. Yes, we are sailing far from the shore and leaving behind what we know. Make no mistake, our voyage will be treacherous, we will get wet, the wind will whip our hair. The critics will say that Christianity should just be about Jesus and little me. The crashing waves will say that we should let the other side take care of itself; that there are plenty of people here, on this shore. The wind will say that we should only care about life after death. But it seems to me that plenty of people are living death out there, on the other side. And they will say that this sermon sounds too political. They will say that we should stick to religion. 

You know, the world would be all too happy if we did. The world would be all too happy if Jesus were to set sail in that boat and drown in the waves. Because then, we wouldn’t have to deal with Jesus’ absurd commands to be with the poor and the oppressed, the resident alien and the forgotten. We wouldn’t be bothered by his silly notion of loving one another as he loves us. If Jesus would just go down with the boat we could get on with our lives. Then the world could keep on with its ugliness and no one would call it to account. Remember, it’s fear that is swamping our beat. Fear of speaking truth to power. Fear of what other people might say about us. But Jesus never said the voyage to be with other people was going to be an easy one. Fear swamps our boat every time the Church loses its courage to stand up for the people on the other side. Or, as the Bible puts, the poor, the oppressed, and the resident alien. Fear is drowning us.

Swamped by our fear, with the boat going down we turn to Jesus, “do you not care that we are perishing?” Do you not care that people are saying bad things about us? Do you not care that people are dying, actually dying, because this world is so broken? Do you not care that we are going down? Jesus is asleep. When you think about it, this is an image of Good Friday, of when he died on the cross. Jesus was dead to the world, dead to our cares and concerns. Jesus is asleep, on a cushion, in the stern of the boat.

But you know what’s in the stern of the boat, don’t you? It’s the rudder. What appears to us as sleep is actually the Lord God navigating us through the storm. What seems to be death is only the path to resurrection. The cross looks like defeat, but it is actually victory. The storm looks frightening but it is only there, in the middle of the sea, that we witness Jesus calming the wind and waves. Caring for the poor, the alien, the oppressed looks like weakness but it’s actually the strength of God. Standing up for the little guy looks silly but it’s actually the only way to follow Jesus.

And so the captain turns to us, and commands us to go across, to other side. Will you follow the calloused ways of the world or will you follow Jesus? Will you harden your hearts or will you use your imagination? Will you hate the people on the other side, or will you love them? 

Will you drop anchor or will you set sail?


Six Little Words

The Rev. Jimmy Abbott
Day of Pentecost
May 20, 2018

Acts 2:1-21

Little did I know that six little words would chart the course for my life. I mean, how could have I known, I was only in fifth grade when I uttered those fateful words: “I want to play the tuba.” I mean, what a crazy thing for an eleven year old to say. All the other kids in my fifth grade were choosing instruments for sixth grade that were, verifiably, much cooler. Drums, saxophone, trumpet. I had to go and pick the tuba. 

Now, it wasn’t so much actually playing the tuba that defined my life – it was the people I was introduced to through playing the tuba that defined my life. My best friends throughout middle school, high school, and college all played the tuba. And from where I sat in college concert band I had the perfect line of sight to the French Horn section, where this girl was sitting. I ended up marrying her. “I want to play the tuba.” Six little words that charted the course of my life.

On this Day of Pentecost, we hear again Saint Peter’s first sermon. After being inspired by the Holy Spirit, Peter stands to speak and gives the first Christian sermon. Peter just had a few words for the people gathered there that day. Quoting from the ancient prophet Joel, Peter preaches, “In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh.” Peter is saying, this, what you are seeing here and now, the joy and mutual love of being a Jesus follower, this is the Spirit that has been poured out upon all people. Like the rush of a violent wind, like divided tongues of fire, the Spirit has come upon God’s people.

And that short, little sermon, has defined history. Sometimes I wonder if Peter knew what he was saying. Could Peter have imagined that his little sermon would set the world on fire with the gospel? Could he have known that his little sermon, inspired by the Holy Spirit, would change everything? Here we are, two thousand years later, thousands of miles away – we look different than Peter, we don’t speak the same language, we have totally different lives – and yet we listen to what he has to say. Could he know that his little words would reverberate throughout history?

So I wonder, do we take our words that seriously? Do we realize that even just six little words that we say today could chart our future? Are we aware that our little actions and little words now have enormous consequences in the future?

There’s a subtle lesson here. Be careful about what you say. Your words change the world, for good or for ill. Your little actions now will have tremendous consequences long into the future. Do not be so naive as to think that what you say, what you do, is in a vacuum. As that great old priest said, “No man is an island” (John Donne, Meditation XVII). Every single moment of every single day we can choose to speak with the power of the Holy Spirit for good, or to speak against the Holy Spirit for evil.

I cannot emphasize this enough. Our society continues to use words that are not good for us, not good for our relationship with God, not good for our society. Slurs, derogatory remarks, outright bullying only tear us and each other down. Those words benefit no one. We speak so casually of warfare, we speak so casually with racial overtones, we speak of other people as if they were mere objects and not humans. These small little words, though we may not think much of them, do in fact impact the world. And as we saw all too horrendously on Friday morning in Santa Fe, Texas, we reap what we sow. When our society is built upon words of hate, of violence, of anger – hate, violence, and anger will return to us. I say clearly and emphatically, that when we use those evil words we are tearing down God’s Kingdom. The Holy Spirit has been poured out upon all flesh, and in the power of the Holy Spirit, evil words must not and cannot be uttered against one other. Though you might find those racial slurs definitive, though you might think the misogynistic off-hand comment is funny, though you may only utter them under your breath, though you may only type them in as a comment on Facebook, they are destructive. Those words destroy your capacity to see the good and the God in other people. Those evil words tear down God’s Kingdom that is built up inside you. Even just a few brief words have the potential to change your world for evil. This whole day, the Day of Pentecost, is about how we use our language. 

See, on the Day of Pentecost, the Holy Spirit gives the apostles the gift of new language. I don’t think the gift is so much that they can speak in other languages, it’s that they can speak in the power of love. As Peter opens his mouth for that first sermon, it doesn’t matter what language he speaks, it matters that his words are about God’s love for all people. This is not so different from what we all saw yesterday morning as Presiding Bishop Michael Curry preached at the royal wedding. Like he said, imagine if the whole world actually spoke with this power of love. Imagine that world. Imagine a world in which words of hate have passed out of our vocabulary. Imagine a world in which our politicians, our business leaders, our church leaders, all of us, all of us – only spoke with love. Imagine what that world would be like. I say, it would be the world that God imagines. 

And imagine if we loved each other enough to actually put down our weapons – the real ones and the verbal ones. If we loved each other enough to speak with compassion instead of vulgarity. Imagine if we loved each other enough to see each other for who we are – beloved children of God. It would be Pentecost all over again. The gift of the Spirit would wash over the whole creation with reckless abandon. And even the little words we use would be words of love, and those words would chart a course for a bold, new future.

Today we at Holy Comforter get to experience just a small taste of that power. We are invited to sign our names on a steel beam that is being used in the structure of our new church. That beam will go above the altar. And as we sign our names on this beam, I also ask you to write words of hope, words of love, words of peace, and grace. Remember that the words we write there will always be with the people of Holy Comforter. The words we write there have the capacity to be words of great love. So that even that beam and the very bones of our church sing praises to God. And even as our prayers and praises come and go, those prayers and praises will always stand there.

The capacity for great good is within you, the capacity for a more beautiful, more loving world is possible, because we have been given the great gift of the Holy Spirit. Just like Saint Peter, the potential is within you for every word you speak to be a word of love. 

And I wish, I wish I could say that if we all spoke in the power of love, that the whole world would be pleased with what we say. Sadly, the world is not that way. Our world is so accustomed to hate and bigotry that love sounds foreign. I wish I could say that everybody around the world loved Bishop Curry’s sermon yesterday, but they didn’t. Though he talked passionately and truthfully about love, they say it was too long, too energetic, too emotional, too un-British for their liking. Some of them liked it, but you could see them squirming in their seats at Windsor Castle. But I say that the world needed that sermon, the world ought to squirm when confronted with the power of love. And I wish that everybody in Spring, Texas was inspired and grateful for the work of love we are building out there. But they’re not. No one is happy when we’ve had to close down Spring Cypress Road to haul in dirt, to deliver steel, to set up that giant crane. I’ve seen the impatient drivers, honking and driving through the ditch to zoom by. But I say it’s worth it, because Spring, Texas needs a sanctuary, a church, a community for all people – all people. Because, as Peter said, God’s Spirit has been poured out upon all flesh. Love will be rejected and ignored, love will be ridiculed. Be that as it may. For that is what they did to the Lord of Love when they crucified him. Our call, as Christians, as followers of Jesus is to love regardless of the cost, even if it means opening our arms upon the cross.

Even if your words are not great, or grand, or long; even if you will never preach at St. George’s, Windsor Castle for a royal wedding, even if you will never stand up like Peter and preach a sermon that sets the world on fire, that same Spirit has been given to you. You too have the power to build up in love. You have the potential to build up for the Kingdom of God in love. Open your lips in the Holy Spirit, and your mouth shall proclaim God’s praise.

Fan or Follower?

The Rev. Jimmy Abbott
The Fifty Sunday after the Epiphany
February 4, 2018

Mark 1:29-39

One employment firm has estimated that 14 million people will call in “sick” tomorrow. And for those who do make it into work tomorrow, productivity will be abysmal. See, while you’re fighting the indigestion of scarfing too much quest and too many wings, you’ll be talking about the Super Bowl. There will be a buzz, a running conversation tomorrow about what will happen tonight – what was your favorite commercial? What did you think of Justin Timberlake? Can you believe what the quarterback said after the game?

To me, that is always fascinating. The winning quarterback is swarmed by a scrum of reporters, and with cameras and microphones shoved in his face, the quarterback has to answer inane questions like, “how does it feel to win?” “Uh, great, duh.” “What are your plans for next season?” “uh win again, duh.” Just watch, tonight, whether it’s Tom Brady or Nick Foles, the reporters will swarm, hundreds of articles will be written, the sports radio airwaves will be on fire – our ears will be tingling with what was said in the post-game interviews.

What happens tonight in Minneapolis is not so different from what happened in Capernaum two thousand years ago. Earlier in the day, Jesus had cured Peter’s mother-in-law of a fever. The gospel story from Mark says that she was “raised up,” she was “resurrected” from her pain and illness and given a new lease on life. And just before that, Jesus had confronted a man with an unclean spirit and the spirit had left the man. And the whole town of Capernaum was on fire with the news. Like the scrum of reporters who will gather around the winning quarterback tonight, the gospel story today says “the whole city gathered around the door” where Jesus was. They were desperate to hear what he had to say.

The next morning, Jesus went to go get some alone time, like a banged up running back will ice down his weary muscles after a long game. Jesus snuck away to find some time to pray early in the morning while it was still dark. But the town, the people were still buzzing with the excitement from yesterday. They gather around the proverbial water cooler and talk, replay, rehash what happened yesterday. The newspapers, if you will, had huge headlines about Jesus. The radio commentators couldn’t stop talking about it. It was all over Facebook and Twitter. After these great deeds, all the people could think and talk about was Jesus. “Can you believe he cured that guy? Did you see that when he healed that sick woman? I mean, he cast out demons!” You’ll go into work tomorrow talking about commercials and touchdown passes – the people of Capernaum woke up talking about Jesus.

Still buzzing themselves, Peter and his companions go looking for Jesus that morning. And when they find Jesus, they say those beautiful words, “everyone is searching for you.” Everyone is searching for Jesus.

So we have to ask ourselves the most basic question – why? What was it that Jesus said or did that made them so excited? What did Jesus have to offer that they couldn’t find anywhere else? Were they simply gawking at him like a miracle worker, or did they want to know more?

Those same questions are turned to us. Why are we here? What are we searching for you? What have you heard, what have you seen that has caused you to search for Jesus?

This is the hard edge of the Gospel of Mark. This is the question that Mark will continue to ask us. Why are you here? Are you listening to Jesus because he’s like a celebrity quarterback, or are you listening because he’s the Holy One of God? Notice, that even the demons know who Jesus is, but not all the people do. It’s a subtle criticism of us – how can the demons get it and we still don’t? Are we followers of Jesus, or are we fans of Jesus?

Take the Bible for instance. The Guinness Book of World Records estimates that five billion bibles have been published, bought or given away since 1815. Five billion. You can find bibles in every hotel room, in secondhand bookstores, on Amazon. I probably have at least fifteen bibles of my own. But the mere fact that we own a bible is meaningless. You would think that if there are actually five billion bibles floating out there, that we would know what it says. More often than not, we are fans of the holy scriptures. We crowd around the bible with passing curiosity, we cherry pick what we like and then move on to the next thing. As Marilynne Robinson says, “the Bible today is much thumped but little pondered.”

Or, take Church. It used to be that church was the place for community. If you wanted to grow your business, if you wanted to find a good doctor, if you wanted to run for political office, you had to be part of a church. That’s not the case any more. If you want to find a job, you sign up on LinkedIn. If want a doctor, you ask your insurance company. If you want to run for office, you raise money. Churches were packed, sure, but to what end?

And I’ll go on record as saying this – I am glad those days are over. I am glad that the days of church as country club are over. Because it means that for us who are here, we are here for the right reasons. We are not searching for Jesus because it will further our careers, we are searching for Jesus because Jesus has the words of eternal life.

So that question is turned to us again – why are we here? Why do you have a bible at home? Why do you go to church? Are we followers of Jesus, or are we fans of Jesus?

And it’s that “why” that I ask you to ponder. Why are you here? Why are you searching for Jesus? It is not enough to simply go through the motions of a life of faith. It is not enough to simply own a bible and belong to a church. By themselves, those are meaningless.

And this is actually what Christians can learn from the Super Bowl. No player out there tonight is just going through the motions. No one out there on the field thinks it’s just enough to be there. You know that Tom Brady and Bill Bellichik have been thinking about, studying, practicing, planning for this game for the entire year. Every single one of those players has an intent. A reason to be there that will drive them to play their hardest. Everyone of them wants to win the Super Bowl.

Could the same be said of us? That we are here because and only because we are searching for Jesus?

As we approach our Lenten journey, I ask you to set aside those forty days as a time for figuring out the why – why are you here? Why do you search for Jesus? Why do you want to be a disciple? So often during Lent we get wrapped up in the how, the when, and the what. By all means, during Lent, commit to reading the bible more, commit to be in church more. But those are only the means to the end. It’s the “why” question that matters. And I cannot give you that answer – that is an answer that you have to discover for yourself.

Everyone is searching for Jesus. And the good news is that Jesus is also searching for you. Jesus says to his disciples, “Let us go on to the neighboring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do.” What Jesus came to do, is to find you. To open your heart to love. To cleanse you from what ails you. To bring you into God’s loving arms.

I pray that tomorrow you wake up with some indigestion, indigestion because you have eaten at this holy table and you have met Jesus here. I pray that tomorrow your proverbial water cooler is buzzing about Jesus, and what Jesus has done. And then I hope you go beyond the simple things; do not be a fan, be a follower.

Where We’re From

The Rev. Jimmy Abbott
Second Sunday after the Epiphany
January 14, 2018

John 1:43-51

America is the great experiment in modernity. See, the whole presumption of modern life is that we can choose. We have the freedom of choice. We have the freedom to choose what kind of TV we want to buy. We have the freedom to believe that Whataburger makes the best fast food hamburger in Texas, though I do believe In-n-Out is better. We have the freedom to prefer the Longhorns or the Aggies, though I have no idea why you would choose the Aggies.

But as theologian Stanley Hauerwas says, we also believe to have the freedom to choose our own story. I’ll use myself as an example. Somebody asks me where I’m from, and I choose my story. I can choose the story in which I’m a native of Los Angeles, born and raised in southern California. That is true. Or, I can be a Texan. I went to the University of Texas, I’ve lived here most of my life. For goodness’ sake, I even have a set of longhorns hanging in my office. I choose my own story. I can also choose my heritage. My last name is Abbott, and when I want, I’m English. But my mother’s family, the DiPietro family, were Italian Catholics who came straight through Ellis Island and settled in New York. In this land of freedom, we choose our own stories.

This freedom, as beautiful and as wonderful as it is, also has a shadow side. We believe that we have the freedom to tell other people what their story must be. And rarely do we choose stories for other people that are better than our own story. When we feel threatened, when we are hurt, we tell negative stories about the other. Our country is full of peoples who were given stories that were not accurate, stories that were meant to be demeaning.

A certain story from my own family is by no means the worst story ever told about someone, but it helps to paint a picture. I remember my grandfather telling me how he hated, he hated that all the kids at school assumed his family was part of the mob because his last name was Italian. Nothing could be further from the truth – my great-grandfather was a dressmaker. And I’m sure that this feeling, this anger at being given a story that is not true, has been felt by many communities throughout history. Judging by last name, by skin color, by accent, by birthplace, we choose other people’s stories for them, and usually they are bad stories. Including the story chosen for Jesus.

Jesus calls Philip to be a disciple of his. Jesus says, “Follow me.” Then, as Jesus found Philip, Philip goes and finds Nathanael. Philip says, “We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth.” Now Nathanael, a proud Israelite – proud of his heritage, his story, his people – turns up his nose at Philip. Nathanael sneers, “can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Can anything good come out of Nazareth?

You know, in all the other ancient writings leading up to the time of Jesus, no one ever mentions Nazareth. That’s not because Nazareth didn’t exist. It did. It’s just that nobody cared about it. For the people of the time, Nazareth was a nowhere.

So Nathanael has made up his mind. Nazareth, a little backwater provincial town. Nazareth, way out in the boonies. Nazareth, they aren’t real Israelites. Nazareth. This Jesus guy is a nobody from nowhere. There is no way he’s the one God has sent. Can any thing good come from Nazareth? Nathanael has chosen his own story with pride. Nathanael has chosen Jesus’ story with contempt.

A contempt that we have all known and seen. A contempt that still lives with us. It was a contempt that Martin Luther King, Jr. knew all too well, this contempt is, in part, what we remember this weekend. This contempt, its names are Legion – racism, xenophobia, chauvinism. In our pride, in our contempt, we look at the other and we sneer, “can any thing good come out of Nazareth?”

The delightful answer is, yes, of course. In fact, the best thing comes out of Nazareth. This little town, this little nowhere, this bumpkin village is precisely the place where Jesus is from. His story, the story of the gospel, the story of God’s irresistible grace comes from Nazareth. The story of a God who loves us so much that nothing, not even death will stand in the way, comes from Nazareth. Can any thing good come out of Nazareth? You better believe it.

So how on earth do we can we get to a place where we listen to each other, instead of telling each other who they should be? How does Nathanael get over his contempt to see the grace that is right there before him? How does God open our hearts to see the beauty and the truth in each other?

The answer is extraordinarily simple. It’s a phrase that runs throughout the beginning of the Gospel of John. “Come and see.” Nathanael’s contemptuous sneer is met with Philip’s gentle invitation, “come and see.”

Philip doesn’t spout off Jesus’ resumé. Philip doesn’t give Nathanael the story of Jesus’ birth, his credentials, his story. Philip’s gentle invitation, the invitation to come and see Jesus, is the only thing that will soften Nathanael’s hardened heart. “Come and see,” Philip says. Come and see this extraordinary man, this Jesus of Nazareth, who knows everything about you. Come and see this Jesus of Nazareth whose very life is the embodiment of love. Come and see the man from nowhere who is everything.

Nathanael, you may think that you know Jesus’ story because you know where he came from. You may think you know his background, his people, his education level, his sensibilities. But really, Nathanael, you know nothing. And in fact, it’s the other way around. This nobody from nowhere knows everything about you. And this nobody from nowhere, this Jesus of Nazareth, he is the one who will give your life meaning. At the end of the day, it’s Nathanael who is given a new story. Nathanael comes to know, to believe, to live with Jesus. Nathanael is given this great gift, this gift of talking with Jesus about the glories that are to come. Nathanael has come and he has seen. And now Nathanael’s story is Jesus’ story.

Part of the challenge of today is that we are too isolated – in our little communities, with our finely curated news feeds. The gospel challenge for today is to “come and see.” Rather than trying to formulate their story, sneering if anything good can come from Nazareth, the gospel challenge is to open our hearts to hear a new story. We do have freedom – the freedom to not dictate a story for anybody else.

And God, God also had the freedom to choose. It would have been no thing for God to choose that Jesus came from some place nice, some place decent. Perhaps from Jerusalem. This surely would have helped Jesus’ credentials. In that scenario, he would have been trusted and revered. His resumé would have been immaculate. He could have gone to the best schools, come from a respected family, he could have been a wealthy man, he could have the right name and the right birthplace and the right pedigree. This would have impressed Nathanael.

But God does not care about impressing. No, God only wants to change our hearts. To change our hearts of contempt, of pride – and to change them into hearts of grace and humility.

We have the freedom to choose. To choose our cars and our hamburgers. We have the freedom to choose our story. We are a sort of chameleon people, crafting our own stories in a way to impress others. Either by our humble beginnings or by our vaunted positions.

But always remember, remember that the stories we tell ourselves are rarely the whole story. God’s story for you is so much more than what you can choose on your own. And the story we tell about others is rarely accurate, and usually demeaning. And as it turns out, a nobody from some backwards bumpkin village is the Son of God, the King of Israel.

Come and see. Put away your contempt, your pride, your polished credentials. They have no place here. Come and see Jesus, and you will be given a new story.


The Rev. Jimmy Abbott
15th Sunday after Pentecost
September 17, 2017

Matthew 18:21-35

Admittedly, I did not stay up past midnight to watch the Texas – USC game. And though it didn’t out the way I wanted it to, the game brought back many memories of that national championship game twelve years ago.

See, it was the end of the 2005 college football season and my Texas Longhorns had made it to the National Championship. You all remember that game – Vince Young, USC, the Rose Bowl. All that. Anyway, I was there, on the field, in the stadium, because I was in the Longhorn Marching Band.

And let me tell you, when we won, when the game was over, I remember these feelings that were unreal. Relief, joy, elation, happiness. I remember that was the loudest and fastest I had ever played my tuba. I remember the thrill of it like it yesterday.

Now, my cousin was also at the game. Oddly enough, my cousin’s name is also Jim. We aren’t that creative in the Abbott family. Anyway, Jim was at the game, he was also on the field. But you know, as far as I understand it, he has a completely different memory of that game. Because he was on the USC football team. My joy was his bitterness. My elation was his dejection. I remember a fourth quarter comeback victory, he remembers a fourth quarter collapse and defeat.

Memory is a funny thing. Here we are – in the same stadium, at the same game, we even have the same name and yet our memories, our memories couldn’t be any more different than Texas burnt orange is from USC cardinal and gold.

We remember things differently. If your house flooded during Harvey, you will remember the storm differently from a person who was high and dry. If this is your first time in this church, you will remember this service differently than if you’ve been here a thousand times. Memory is not equal. And that’s what has happened to Peter in the gospel lesson this morning.

Peter says, “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive him?” Peter’s assumption is that it’s only other people who will ever do the sinning. Peter’s question assumes that he is always right and righteous. Peter has forgotten, he does not remember, that he too has sinned.

Peter’s forgetfulness is our forgetfulness, we have the same spiritual amnesia. We remember and hold grudges against the people who have wronged us, but we explain away and justify the wrongs we have done. You need to come to me begging for forgiveness because I’m good and you’re wrong. It’s quite an assumption.

We forget that we have also wronged. We forget that we’re the ones who need to ask for forgiveness at least seventy-seven times. Ask your spouse, your family, your best friend – my guess is that there is some event in your past that you two remember differently. It was some offense that, let’s admit, was your fault. Same people, same event, different memory. You think that whatever you did was not a big deal, but for them, they can’t forget about it. And the person needing forgiveness of the sin is you. But since it was your fault, you whitewash the memory.

See, a wise old priest once told me that the memory of the oppressor is short, but the memory of the victim is long. The memory of the oppressor is short, the memory of the victim is long. This is Peter’s problem. He can only think, he can only imagine the ways and the times that he has been wronged, when he was the victim. He can’t remember, he can’t conceive of a time when he has done the wrong, when he was the oppressor. His memory of his own sins has been whitewashed.

This is also the reason why the national conversation about Confederate monuments has been incoherent. We have failed to realize that, depending on who we are, we remember differently. Same statue, same park, same name, different memory. We have failed to acknowledge that the memory of the oppressor is short, but the memory of the victim is long.

So we can go around and around about Confederate monuments. We can talk till we’re blue in the face about the Civil War, about slavery, about Jim Crow, about history. But we actually won’t get anywhere until we talk about memory; until we have the courage, as communities, as churches, as a country, to talk, but more importantly to listen, about how and why we remember things differently. Don’t make Peter’s assumption that all memory is created equal. It’s not.

What is equal, is that we are in desperate need of forgiveness. This is a pointed parable, as all of Jesus’ parables are pointed. And in each of the parables, God is a character, and we are a character. So this one is pretty easy to piece together. The king is God and we are that unforgiving slave. We have been forgiven and released from an insurmountable debt. Ten thousand talents is an enormous sum of money, adjusting for inflation since the time of Jesus, it equals about a bazillion dollars in today’s money. The king, in his mercy, releases the slave, releases us, from that burden. Through Jesus Christ, God gives us a new lease on life. God sets us free from our sins, from our past, from ourselves. You know what it feels like when you finally get out of debt, when you pay off that house, that car. Total relief. Freedom. Like it’s a whole new world. God cancels our debt so that we can be free.

But only if we remember. When we forget, that’s when we refuse to forgive others. After that slave is forgiven, notice how short his memory is. Immediately after being forgiven he demands that the other slave pay him back a few hundred bucks. He’s forgotten, he’s forgotten the forgiveness that was given to him. God has freed us from the weight of sin that held us down, and yet we refuse to release that burden from anybody else. Every Sunday morning we hear that God has forgiven us of everything. And by Sunday lunch, I’m back to judging and criticizing the waiter who is giving me crumby service. The lady who stole my parking spot. The panhandler who can’t seem to get his life together. We armchair quarterback somebody else’s life because they have incurred a small debt. All the while, forgetting that we were the ones who amassed an enormous debt.

Other than making us highly uncomfortable, the other things that Jesus’ parables do is cast a vision for a new society. For a new way of living together. Jesus speaks in parables to inspire us. The vision that Jesus casts in this parable is of a world that is merciful. The king says to the slave what God says to us, “Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?”

I am not Polly Anna. I’m not saying that we will ever create a society here on earth that is free of sin. I don’t think that possible, I’ve met enough humans to know that. I only need to look as far as the mirror to know that humans are broken. But what is possible, is mercy. We pray it every day: “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.”

I know this sounds silly. In the world’s calculus, forgiveness is unrealistic. Our economic system is built on the premise of retaining debts.The foundation of our penal system is punishment, not forgiveness. I have not heard a conversation in our national life in a long time that resembled anything close to mercy. Because we have forgotten, we have forgotten just how merciful God has been to us. We have refused to forgive our brothers and our sisters from the heart. We have refused to remember that we are the ones in need of forgiveness.

Finally, consider what this parable says about God’s judgment on us. The good news is that God will not judge us on how sinful we have been, on how much debt we have incurred. Ten thousand talents or a few hundred denarii makes no difference. The hard news, is that God will judge us on how merciful we have been. Remember to be merciful, because God has already been merciful.