1.  Accounts Payable & Accounts Receivable…

I’ve been thinking about “Accounts Payable”—and specifically about whether a person who works in “Accounts Payable” would get along with a person who works in “Accounts Receivable.”   Would one of them, for example, take the other one out to lunch?   And would they have any scruples about putting the bottle of wine on the expense voucher?   I pondered this for a full fifteen minutes until I realized, as per this morning’s passage, that all of us understand very early and very well how to pay people what we think they’re worth.   Let me say that again:  whether we’re shopping at Macy’s Department Store, or whether we’re simply talking to the alcoholic child of divorced parents, all of us understand how to pay off those who supply us with what we need, and each of us imagines what we believe the other person owes us.  

 

“You’re an errand boy, sent by grocery clerks, to collect a bill…”   When Marlin Brando offers this impromptu line as the warped Colonel Kurtz in the film Apocalypse Now, he’s not trying to be flippant.   He’s suggesting how the special agents, working for the CIA, during the Vietnam War, are really being manipulated by the system, and that system includes all of us.   We are errand boys, sent by the laws of supply and demand.   We are errand girls, sent by the needs we have to be affirmed and appreciated by our parents.   And, of course, if someone doesn’t get paid the respect or the love that we desperately need, we try to collect any way we can.  

 

“For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves…”

I remember paying for my hamburger and fries in junior high school.   I was standing in line at the cash register, next to this latch key kid named Bobby Hanes.   We had been friends in grades one through six, but in seventh grade I set my sights on a different class of friends.   So, along with the dollar and fifty cents that I gave to the check-out lady, I gave to Bobby the abuse that I thought would elevate my own worth in the eyes of others.   It wasn’t worth it…

 

You see, the question that falls into our laps today is why the king in the parable chooses to settle accounts with his slaves.   Is it because he doesn’t think they can handle the job of calculating our debts and debtors?   And is it because the cumulative responsibility that we have for recognizing what a person’s worth is simply too heavy for us to bear?   I believe it is.   I believe that Matthew 18:24 declares that one day there will be a reckoning and on that day we will learn how we have failed to appreciate the precious relationships that we’ve been given.

 

2.  The Departmentalized Life

This month marks the second sad anniversary of the death of Kenneth Lay.   You may recall that in July of 2006, following his indictment for fraud and conspiracy, the disgraced CEO of the famously bankrupt Enron Corporation suffered a fatal heart attack.   And essentially what got the son of a poor Baptist preacher in trouble involved his uncanny ability to dump his own plummeting stock in the company while simultaneously telling his employees to buy more.   In effect, he departmentalized.   

Kenneth Lay, the personal investor, could do what he liked with his 42.4 million dollar salary.   I guess he felt as if he earned it.   But, you see, as the public officer of the company, he had no problems letting over 20,000 of his employees believe that everything was fine.   And did I mention that Kenneth Lay had been the son of a poor Baptist preacher?   And did I mention that over 1,200 guests attended his funeral and that all of them said this prayer out loud:

“Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.”

Or, actually, they conducted the memorial service at one of the largest United Methodist churches in Houston, Texas, which means they probably prayed it like this:

“Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.”

 

Whatever the words—the point I’m trying to emphasize is no one is able to pay.   No Presbyterian.  No Methodist.   No CEO.  No poor minister’s son.   No latch key kid.   No fashion model.   No rock star.  No disabled vet.   No drug addict.  No slave, no servant, no satrap from Matthew 18, verses 22 to 32.   No one is able to pay.   But are we able to forgive?    That’s one of the questions that this story of Jesus leaves twisting in the wind.   Would we do it differently?   If the slave in verse 27 is forgiven the amount of 10,000 talents—if he is forgiven an amount equivalent to the revenue of a small country—and if he and his entire household can now go about their lives totally free of debt—and if he can then turn around and NOT forgive his fellow slave 100 denarii—WHAT ABOUT US?  

3.  What We Owe God:  Change!

I once knew the Dean of the Pharmacy Department at small town university.   He had attended church occasionally, usually on Christmas and on Easter, but after some kind of conversion moment in the Atlanta Airport things changed.   First, we noticed this department head in the front pew on almost every Sunday.  Second, he volunteered to teach the fourth graders for a week of Vacation Bible School.   Third, he came to me with a confession.   Long before becoming the head of the department and long before he graduated high school and received all his diplomas and degrees, this man had a been a young hood on a banana seat bicycle.   He had been that smart-mouthed wisenheimer who, just for kicks, would steal other kids’ milk money.   And he had also been that lost soul who broke into a church building and lifted a few dollars from the offering tray.   This last bit, of course, is really what bothered him the most.   And so, even though we prayed and even though I did my best to declare his forgiveness, this head of the department choose to write a check.   He sat there in my study and calculated the years of interest on the few dollars he had swiped as a child.   He filled in the amount, signed his name, placed it in an envelope and later sent the check. 

 

Now, I’m telling you this story because I’d like to take this opportunity to clear up any misconception.   You and I can never begin to pay God back.   In fact, from the very beginning of Jesus’ parable, that’s the first thing that we should get through our thick hearts.   What we owe God, through the Spirit of Jesus Christ, is not pay-back, but deep and abiding change.

4.  Bearing Fruit For All Depts.

You and I must change in such a way that all the departments of our lives bear the fruit of God’s overwhelming grace.   No category of people, no division of labor, no layer of bureaucracy should be able to deflect the potency and the power of the forgiveness we experience in Christ.   And if we’re ever in doubt of that, simply re-read what the king says to the slave who headed up his own department.   He says, “Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?”  

 

Bear fruit for all depts.   That’s the dynamic that we don’t often see.   We see forgiveness in worship or while people are studying the Bible together.   But somehow, in the heat of the moment, we build these walls which are intended to keep God’s grace more manageable.

 

In David Kinnamon’s book, Unchristian, there’s a sub-section by Jonalyn Fincher where she reveals how she tried to manage things prior to her wedding to her fiancé, Dale: 

“One afternoon we were sorting out the next twenty tasks to complete.  He hadn’t called the bakery about the cake, and he still hadn’t finished his guest list.  With annoyance dripping out of every pore, I cut into him with all the shame and blame I could conjure up.   How dare he drop the ball and ruin my afternoon.  Now I would have to pick up after his incompetence!  

 

After my verbal assault, he sat quietly with disbelief and pain in his eyes.  I expected he would scold me for my tirade, but he didn’t.   All he said was, ‘Jonalyn, is that how you talk to yourself?’   I was silent, stunned. 

 

Then, slowly, I nodded and began to weep long and hard, realizing that this wasn’t the good life, it wasn’t the abundant life Jesus offered.   But it was the only way I knew to be a model Christian woman planning a model wedding…  To get anything done right, to be holy, to stay pure, to walk the straight and narrow, I condemned myself into obedience” (p. 203-4).

 

But, you see, maybe that’s not obedience after all.  

Maybe the only obedience that counts, truly counts, is the obedience that spills over our neat and tidy categories.   Maybe the only genuine obedience to God is the obedience that gushes out of the audacious accounting that balances every budget on the face of the earth.   We are a forgiven people.   10,000 times over we are forgiven, and so when we’re working or when we’re vacationing or relaxing with our friends or planning a wedding, we don’t have to get it exactly right.   We don’t have to insist that people pay us every ounce of respect that we deserve.   We don’t have to make people love us because we feel so worthless.   We don’t have to look for ways to be honored or to ‘redeem ourselves.’   (That’s a really unfortunate phrase.)

 

5.  Latah Valley Will Produce Fruit That Will Show Grace In A Variety of Settings

 

What we do have to get right, by contrast, is the grace.   There’s a scene in the Broadway production of Les Miserables, in which a paroled convict steals some silverware from a church.   The police capture Jean Valjean and take him back to the priest, who says that he’s been worried about Valjean, even since he forgot to take the candlesticks with him as well.   The police are beside themselves.   But when they leave, Valjean discovers the abundance of something that worth much more than silver.   “You no longer belong to evil.   I have ransomed you from a life of fear and hatred,” says the priest.   “Now I give you back to God.”  

 

And so, here we are at Latah Valley.   Would you like a candlestick?   Amen.

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1.  Me And My Soul

 

On a slice of sand, next to a mountain lake, a small child approached a group of college students.  His mother was unmarried, and young like us; that’s all we knew.   So, trying to make the kid feel welcome, I teased him.  I teased him by pointing to his belly button and saying, “What’s that?”   This is the callous way that I had been hazed by my older siblings; so it seemed only fair for me to coax this impressionable toddler into looking down at his stomach and when he did, whamo!   Ever so gently I’d tweak his nose.   Well, not so fast.  As it turned out, his young mother had clued his son into the nature of these shenanigans.   She had even trained him in a response that would leave us dumbfounded.  No sooner had I pressed my fingertip against the stub of his umbilical cord, no sooner had I asked the question, did he declare without equivocation, “That’s My Jesus!   That’s My Jesus!  That’s My Jesus!”  

 

Of course, any pediatrician will tell you how children of that age are developmentally only capable of thinking in concrete terms.  The ability for abstract thinking and for drawing analogies comes along later.   And yet, knowing what I knew about his birth and about the odds that he might never meet his father—knowing all that—somehow inspired me.   And it still inspires.   What might it mean for the life, death and resurrection of Jesus to emanate not just from our thoughts, not just from our lips, but from “all that is within me.”

 

All that is within me.  That’s the original Hebrew definition of the word, nephesh or soul.   The ancient Greeks had a view of the soul that came along later.   Their idea was more abstract and more philosophical.    Folks like Plato and Aristotle, for example, thought of the soul as somehow detachable from the body.   The soul had to do with the immortal essence of the individual, usually a man of some standing in that society.   By contrast, for the Hebrew people,

the souls of each and every person had been created by God.   And even animals had souls.  Moreover, the nephesh  might even include the unique relationships that all living things have with one another—every  breath of experience, every spark of genuine emotion, every physical ounce of blood, sweat and tears—and all of it ordered and orchestrated by the act of the will. 

 

Montreal neurologist Wilder Penfield once performed an experiment.   The patient for the experiment remained conscious and alert while the scientist probed the brain with an electrical stimulus.   Every time Penfield touched an area of the brain, the person would respond by moving a limb or by recalling a memory.   Everything seemed to be right there, so easily manipulated by the tools of the research, mere biology at the mercy of machinery and medicine.   And yet, what fascinated Penfield was how the patient could tell whether or not his brain functions had been triggered from the outside.   He would say, for example, “You did that.  I didn’t.”  

 

“Bless the Lord, O my soul, and all that is within me, bless God’s holy name.” 

2.  Who Is The Lord Whom The Soul Blesses

 

So, where, we might ask the writer of Psalm 103, did that come from?   Is that blessing stimulated by an electrical stimulus?   Is it something that we say or pray willingly or under duress?  Did we really decide to bless the Lord all on our own?   Today’s passage answers YES.   Without any prompting or external pressure, the soul summons the soul to bless the Lord.   Blessing the Lord, in fact, is what the soul has been made to do from the very dawn of time.   But for almost that long, the soul has also been free to decide who it wants to bless and who it wants to curse.  

 

Death Cab For Cutie is the name of a group of musicians who stumble upon this scenario without really trying to bless at all.  The lead singer croons about a loved one who may soon die.   He compares “heaven and hell” to a chain of hotels who may have illuminated their NO VACANCY signs.   He’s disappointed in the “Roman Rule” of the “ladies in black,” who taught him that “fear is the heart of love.”   But then comes this passionate promise:

“If there’s no one beside you when your soul embarks, I will follow you into the dark.”  

 

Now, at first glance, someone listening to that song on the radio might assume it’s not about God at all.   But, you see, that’s where your soul joins the melody.   And that’s where my soul joins in the chorus.   Bless the Lord, O my soul.   All that is within me bless his holy name.   In Christ, no soul is abandoned to the dark.  

3.  Benefits We Are Prone To Forget

 

Think of it like a binding contract.   In the Bible, of course, ninety-nine percent of all the blessing that happens in the world comes at God’s initiative.   God confers the power of life upon Abraham and through him all the families of the earth will be blessed (Genesis 12).   In Deuteronomy 28 this one-sided arrangement is clarified.   Yahweh will indeed bless the nation of Israel, but only insofar as the Hebrew people will remember what God has already done for them.   Sadly, Psalm 103 has been written because the solitary individual is prone to forget.   Individual souls, who experience separation or a severing of relationship forget the benefits of being a community of God’s blessed people.   And now, through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, you and I must make no mistake.   These benefits are for us:  

  • The Lord Who forgives—The Moral Benefit
  • The Lord Who heals—The Physical Benefit

 

  • The Lord Who redeems—The Existential Benefit

 

  • The Lord Who satisfies—The Fringe Benefit

 

 

I have designated this last one as fringe for two reasons.  First, because I think it’s a strange benefit to be “satisfied with good.”   And second, it’s not exactly clear how good might be defined.   Who actually determines the good by which we’re satisfied?   Is it good to go sailing in a yacht?   Sure it is.   But it also may be good to feed a homeless person.   Something like that might be God’s fringe benefit.

4.   Bless From Our Own Angle of The Universe

 

But here’s another one.  Gordon Atkinson describes how he watched a little girl in blue shoes cross the street while the traffic jam of commuters waited.  “She stepped off the curb with exaggerated caution,” he writes,

“like she was sticking a toe in cold water.   Halfway across, something on the ground caught her eye, and she bent over to look at it.  The crossing guard had to beep her whistle and give her a head jerk to keep her moving…  And then I swear she used three different walks to get to the other side.  There was a skippy little pony-walk, a bunny-hop or two, and finally some kind of slap-happy thing that I’m pretty sure is from a Bugs Bunny cartoon… Little blue shoes girl, you do not know who you are, but we know and we are struck dumb…  Some of us do not believe in souls and do not like to throw words like ‘eternal’ around carelessly, but we can’t deny that you are the most amazing thing we have ever seen…” (Real Live Preacher, p. 96, 97). 

 

Now, at this juncture, someone may accuse Gordon Atkinson and me of being overly-sentimental—of reducing the profound idea of the soul to something as trite as a little girl going to school.   Is that really the fringe benefit that’s supposed to satisfy us as long as we live?   Well, it depends.   I guess it depends upon whether we decide to offer to God our own particular angle on the universe.   I guess it depends upon whether we imagine God to be interested in little girls with blue shoes or little boys who conceal Jesus beneath a belly button.   I guess it depends on whether God’s interested in the morally confused or the diseased or the disabled or the depressed or the dying.   And I guess it depends upon whether we can summon up enough soul-filled vision to see what the Lord God of Israel and the Covenant God of the Universe would like us to see and to recall for him day after day and night after night.

5.   Latah Valley Will Bear Fruit that Re-calls

 

Last week I went to visit Chuck Gulick at the hospital.   He was right in the middle of a chemotherapy treatment and I could tell he was tired and little nauseous.   Chuck, as many of you know, has been through this before.  Up until last February or so, he had been receiving treatment and we thought the lymphoma had gone into remission.   We thought it did.   But it didn’t.   And so, I sat there with his wife, Pat, and together we prayed for strength and for peace and for endurance.   We prayed about the present and the nurses in the room and we prayed about the past and we prayed about the future.   And when we had finished praying, Chuck wept and I excused myself.   Later, two days after that prayer, I called.   Chuck had been sent home and was feeling better.  

 

He said, “I’ve been thinking about my role at this point?”

 

“Your role?”

 

“Yeah, about what I should be doing, about what’s important… what my resources are…”

 

I started to say something but stopped myself.   And then, from the receiver of my wireless cell phone, I heard someone’s soul.   “Grateful…”   Chuck recalled how God had brought him through the previous round of chemo.   He recalled what God had done.  Amen.

1.  Training the Brain To Bear Fruit

The human brain plays tricks on us.  And to insure that I haven’t been duped already, let me repeat that:  The human brain plays tricks on us, and these tricks are premised on the way our thinking organ has been trained through things like the environment, the culture and the family upbringing we’ve received.   For example, suppose we’re shown a pot of boiling hot water.   The human brain tells us that if we touch that pot we’ll burn our fingers.  So we invent oven mitts and other utensils in order that we handle the pot and not experience that pain.   The over-arching category for the oven mitt is what we call technology.   The human brain, among other things, is known for its use of technology to avoid pain and inconvenience and to maximize comfort and personal safety.   But, suppose, once we’ve been trained in this way, someone comes along to suggest that sometimes we ought not to avoid pain.   Sometimes, what’s comfortable is not the best way to go.

 

There’s a scene in the Harry Potter series, in which a teacher at the Hogwarts school attempts to train the young wizard in the art of defending himself mentally.   Professor Snape is concerned because he has seen Harry Potter’s thoughts invaded by the Dark Lord, Voldemort.   So, as a means of training, the teacher repeatedly intrudes upon the teenager’s most private and pleasant memories.   When Harry remembers kissing a girl, there’s Snape.  When Harry remembers a tender moment with his parents, there’s Snape.   And it seems that no amount of training will be able to prevent both the outside interference and the inner conflict.  

You see, I’m bringing up this magical mind-game because I think it pertains to the mental conditioning that we’ve received for over two hundred years of United States history.   For instance, right there in our founding document, the Declaration of Independence, we read that we have been “endowed by our Creator with certain inalienable rights and that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”   This is the training we have received—that God has all but guaranteed us a lifetime in which we ought to pursue own our personal happiness above all else.   Moreover, within that happiness, it is assumed that we need not contemplate death, nor consider the possibility of being anyone’s slave.   Again, this is the way our brains have been trained for over two-hundred years and that training is not all bad.   But what if, over two-thousand years ago, someone offered up an entirely different sort of training:

“Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves.  Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.  Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus” (v. 3—5).  

 

2.  Having the Mind of Christ

In the Anne Rice novel, Christ The Lord; the Road to Cana, the author of horrific vampire books tries her hand at the mind of Christ.   She actually imagines the possibility that Jesus of Nazareth had grown up, day-dreaming about a young woman in village.   Her name is Avagail, and every time Jesus considers marrying her and living happily, the world’s problems intrude.   There is the severe oppression of the Roman Empire.   And there is the violent behavior of the bandits who live in the hills of Judea.   And yet, why should Jesus let these harsh realities steal his own pursuit of personal happiness?  

This seems to be the question that Anne Rice wants to raise, especially as she re-frames the familiar story of Jesus, turning water into wine.   You and I may read John, chapter two, and not blink an eye.   But when Anne Rice reflects upon the wedding at which Jesus performs his first miracle, she wonders who’s getting married, and did the young carpenter know her personally?   Could this have been Avagail’s wedding?   And if so, the miracle of the water’s transformation pales in comparison to the anguish that Jesus may have experienced in saying goodbye, in actually renouncing what his own brain had conditioned him to desire.   He would have done this, of course, in connection with his temptations in the wilderness and with lots of other painful moments, all of which will culminate on the cross in Jerusalem.   And so, with the help of Anne Rice and Harry Potter, we can map out the neurons of what it might mean to bear fruit with the mind of Christ.  It means, when we’re empty—God can fill us.

·        When We’re Empty

        And here’s a quick quote on that first part from Sue Monk Kidd:

        “We’re containers filled with an ego elixir we’ve brewed ourselves.  When the heat is      turned up inside and the old begins to burn away, we must offer God the handle and                 the spout of our lives.  God tips us over and pours us out… We’re emptied so that we       can be re-filled with new and living waters” (When The Heart Waits, p. 150).

 

·        God Can Fill Us

        Now, what needs to be emphasized about this filling is that it’s         supernatural.  God doesn’t fill us with more ideas or with better    ideas, but with an ability to hold two opposing ideas in tension.  For     example, “work out your own salvation” AND “God is at work in you    to will and to work for his good pleasure.”  

3.  No Competition

You see, it’s perfectly natural for you and me to pit those two ideas against one another.  The human brain has been trained in this kind of competitive ritual for generations.   Every other generation there’s some famous person who says that the survival of humankind is all up to us, that we have to work harder at ushering in God’s kingdom.   Alternatively, every other (other) generation, there’s some famous person who says that there’s nothing to be done, that I’m okay and you’re okay and that we really shouldn’t get too worked up about anything…  But what if God fills us up with the supernatural ability, not to resolve that tension?   What might that look like if we learn to live, or to lose ourselves, in that paradox?   In a kingdom that’s coming whether we like it or not?   And in a kingdom that won’t come without us?

 

In ninth grade, Kenny Pitts and I ran track.   We were both in pretty good shape, but Kenny could outrun me on the mile.   At an early season practice, the coach had us do some training, in which a bunch of us would take turns leading the others around the quarter mile oval.   We would take turns, but the guys behind us would have the option of pushing us to dig deeper.   So, imagine my surprise and my gut-wrenching, side-splitting pain, when Kenny Pitts came up on my heels and said, “Pick up the pace.”   He said it so matter-of-factly, without showing any strain whatsoever, almost like he was walking his dog.   On the other hand, my brain was playing tricks on me.  I could not go any faster without busting an abdominal muscle.   Surely, Kenny would let me coast.  But, alas, he didn’t. 

4.  Almost Famous

“Pick up the pace” came the message again over my right shoulder.   And I am almost ashamed to tell you what happened next.  What happened next, to my surprise, was that I did go faster.   In fact, as a team, we burned our way to the finish line, with Kenny prodding and pushing us to go even faster.  We did it and the coach cheered his approval, his good pleasure.   But, after that painful practice, I quit.   I quit because I knew that I wasn’t the best.   And I quit because I didn’t want to do all that work and endure all that agony if I couldn’t be the natural athlete that Kenny Pitts seemed to be.   So, in the spring of my ninth grade in high school, I stayed home, ate chips, drank soda and watched television.  

 

And, you see, my point in relating this incident is the comparison that we might make with bearing fruit in the name of Christ.   To be sure, Jesus Christ is now famous, and millions of Christians worship and adore him to this very moment.  Moreover, it’s also true that many non-Christians and so-called seekers revere and respect him.  But the victory of the mind of Christ is not his fame.  It’s that he endured when he was almost famous.  It’s that he persevered and used his own God-given freedom to make himself a slave and to suffer a slave’s death.   What about you?   Can you hear the message that comes in the wind as you make the turn toward home?

“Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who though he was in the form of God did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited…”

 

 

5.  Latah Must Lose in Order For God To Infuse With Power

Thursday night, a group of us fanned out among the streets and sidewalks of the Eagle Ridge community.   We carried door-hangers, with literature about Latah Valley.   And we began the evening with a prayer and some instructions.  The instructions involved sticking to the highlighted streets and making sure the good side of the pamphlets were visible.   Anyway, after dropping off Philip and Robbie Mimms, I realized that I didn’t have my map.   Sheryl called me and said that her cell phone was losing battery power.   I drove back to the site to look for my map but couldn’t find it.   Everything seemed so confusing.   And I thought to myself, What’s the use!   Won’t all these pieces of paper just find their way into the waste basket?   Why am I knocking myself out?  

 

So, eventually I got in gear and started distributing the door-hangers on my route.  Others were doing the same thing.   When we were half-way done, I saw someone else who told me he was finished.   Finished?  How could you be finished?   I kept going.  Brian Hiller helped me complete my section on the map.   But here’s the moment I really want to emphasize for you.   As I approached a doorway, this man I had met last year came outside with a glass of whiskey in his hand.  I mentioned the new church and he held up his hands as if to say, keep that kryptonite away from me.   Then, it dawned on me.  “You’re the guy who worked for the tel-evangelist, Benny Hinn…  You’re the guy I talked to last year.”   He nodded and let out this big sigh.   “God bless you, brother,” I said.   And leaving his packet on the doorstep, I kept going.  

In the contest to save souls and heal bodies, Latah Valley may lose to Benny Hinn and to a host of other flamboyant folks.  But that just may be how we finish the race.