Sermon preached by the Reverend Nichlas Lang
St. Paul’s on the Green, Norwalk, CT
The Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost – September 11, 2011
+May the gentle Christ speak through us, the creative God expand our lives, and the Spirit write the Gospel in our hearts every day. Amen.
She had forgotten a few things she needed at the grocery store, hastily got in her car, and went back to purchase them. As she picked up one of the items from the shelf, she realized that she had left her purse at home. A bit haughty, and confident that she could get away with it, she pocketed the items and left the store. To her chagrin, she was stopped in the parking lot by a sharp-eyed and zealous store manager who promptly had her arrested.
Later, in court, the judge, who was in a particularly foul mood, passed sentence. “Madam,” you stole a can of tomatoes. You broke the law. I think you should spend six nights in jail—one for each tomato in that can.” She gasped loudly. Whereupon her husband, clearly seeing the opportunity of a lifetime, jumped up and shouted, “Your Honor, she also stole a can of peas! You do the math.”
The Gospel today begins with mathematics as well. Peter wants to know how often he should forgive a sister or brother who mistreats or takes advantage of him. “Seven times?” he asks. Doesn’t that sound pretty reasonable? Apparently, not to Jesus. He gives Peter a different mathematical formula: seventy times seven. Translation: Stop counting! You can never forgive enough.
Today we observe the tenth anniversary of a day that is stuck in our individual and collective memory. Is there anyone here from about the age of ten or older who cannot remember exactly where they were, what they were doing and the emotions they felt on the morning of September 11, 2001?
The reading from the Gospel is a parable of Jesus about forgiveness. I don’t give any weight to theories about coincidence; God didn’t “plan” to have us read three scripture readings that speak in some way of forgiveness this week. It’s just that the core of our faith is heavily, and unavoidably, filled with the hardest stuff. Forgiveness, the credible and genuine kind anyway, is way up on that challenging and tough list.
Real forgiveness, like traveling to outer space, is something far easier to consider than it is to practice. Our rational brain might understand the idea of forgiving but our human—often stubborn—will has a huge time actually doing it. The Greek word for forgiveness which would have been the word the earliest Christians heard is αφιéμι (aphiemi) and it means “to release from one’s grasp.” Forgiveness is like letting a small bird escape from your cupped hands—only it isn’t a bird but the person who has offended you. We may have grown accustomed to the idea of forgiveness in a religious sense in terms of forgiveness of “sins.”
Actually, “forgiveness” in the Gospel pertained to debt as we can see from the story Jesus tells today. “To forgive” meant “to end a debt.” Just as the taxes the poor might owe to the temple were cancelled in the Gospel, Jesus commands his disciples in turn to cancel the debts of others—to release them from their grasp. What we might glean from both of these insights about forgiveness—other than the fact that Jesus would have made a terrible banker—is that forgiveness on our own doing is darned near impossible.
How are the loved ones of all those killed on 9/11 to “release” the now dead Bin Laden or his terrorist network from their grasp? How about the parents, spouses, children, and siblings of those who have been killed in the wars that are directly related to 9/11? How does one relinquish that kind of enormous debt?
How are the kids abused by pedophile clergy—some multiple times and threatened if they were to tell anyone about it—how are they supposed to “release” their abusers. How are they and their parents to forgive the bishops who allowed that abuse to continue by just moving these priests from parish to parish?
How are the parents of Matthew Shephard to release their son’s murderers from that debt? Or the parents of the many teens killed in Columbine or by the Christian fanatic in Oslo last month? Forgiveness is much more palatable as a nice idea than an actual practice. Just ask anyone who has been wronged as profoundly and horribly as the people I just referenced. We are being far more human—and, perhaps, honest—when we cry out for retribution and vengeance. Yet it is clear today from God’s word to us that forgiveness is a requirement for being forgiven.
Is God is demanding something we just cannot deliver? Take the story in the Gospel. We’re loving this king when he is generous and, truth be told, we’re loving him when he sticks it to the mean-spirited servant who won’t forgive his fellow servant even after his huge debt was cancelled. We love a story in which what goes around comes around, where accounts are settled. “That’s fair,” we say. It’s justice. That’s what we’ve been taught in our society about payback—eternal cycles of vengeance and repayment: Arab-Israeli, Catholic-Protestant, Christian-Muslim, rich-poor, Black-White, Gay-Straight—treadmills of reprisal with seemingly no escape.
What are to make of this serious matter of forgiveness about which Jesus is so clear in this and other passages of the New Testament? When Jesus tells Peter to forgive “seventy times seven” he does not mean we should carry a calculator. No math is intended here. What Jesus is telling us here is that forgiveness has everything to do with New Birth—recognizing and claiming as our own the unmotivated, undeserved, unconditional love that God never withholds from us even in our worst times and in our wickedness.
How are we to forgive when what has been done to us seems unforgivable? Well, we don’t pretend that the pain isn’t real. Forgiveness does not imply amnesia. Even Jesus bore the scars of his offenders as evidence of their brutality—but they were mended wounds after his resurrection. And the kind of wrong endured by the families of the victims of 9/11, the wars fought in its aftermath, the kids abused by pedophile priests, the loved ones of those killed in any of the several horrible killing sprees we have seen, may require years and years of hard work in order to open a finger or two to release even a tiny bit of the grasp they hold on their offenders. The debt may be too enormous to cancel.
But in terms of the smaller stuff, can we not practice even a small modicum of mercy in our own backyard? In our relationships with our spouses and families and friends and neighbors and coworkers and in our church community? Paul’s letter to the Romans asks us very pointedly, “Why do you pass judgment or despise your brother or your sister?” He is not talking about some anonymous source of evil. He is talking to a Christian community in Rome—the church community—and he’s asking why sisters and brothers in Christ are not practicing mercy and forgiveness toward one another. It’s like the commentary on a long-standing feud between two farmers: “They buried the hatchet, all right—but they left the handle sticking out.” Too often we’re like the husband who wants the judge to count all the peas in the can.
In the end, there is Good News: forgiveness, while contrary to our nature, is an integral part of God’s nature. The Gospel story is meant to illustrate the great gap between our ways—even when they seems just—and God’s extravagance when it comes to mercy. The foolish servant in this parable doesn’t get it—his unrepayable debt was wiped out by the king not because of his artful protestations and high drama but simply and categorically out of grace.
Mother Barbara Brown Taylor, one of my favorite preachers, has this to tell us: “When you allow your enemy to stop being your enemy, all the rules change. Nobody knows how to act anymore, because forgiveness is an act of transformation. It does not offer the adrenaline rush of anger, nor the feeling of power that comes from a well-established resentment. It is a quiet revolution, as easy to miss as a fist uncurling to become an open hand, but it changes people in ways anger only wishes it could.”