Sermon preached by the Reverend Nicholas Lang
St. Paul’s on the Green, Norwalk, CT
The Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost – September 14, 2014
+May the gentle Christ speak through us, the creative God expand our lives unexpectedly, and the Holy 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 arrogant 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 the store manager who promptly had her arrested.
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, seeing the opportunity of a lifetime, jumped up and shouted, “Your Honor, she also stole a can of peas!”
You do the math.
Yes, that’s what Jesus suggests to Peter today. “You do the math!” Our newer translations simplify the answer Jesus gives to Peter about forgiving to read “seventy-seven times. Earlier accounts rendered this as “seventy times seven,” which seems closer to the infinite forgiveness of God.
“I have my calculator right here, Peter,” Jesus says “so let me check that out. Seven times seventy. Four hundred ninety times. And I’m keeping track.” So Jesus dismisses the number Peter suggests as ridiculous. Yet Peter didn’t just pull the number seven out of a hat. He thought he was being quite generous. The rabbis at the time taught that you only needed to forgive someone three times at the most.
What is the background for this exchange about forgiving one’s brother? Jesus had been teaching the importance of gaining back your brother—or sister—who has sinned against you. We heard that in last Sunday’s reading. So now Peter and the disciples are thinking this matter over. Jesus uses a bit of humor here. Whether seventy times seven or seventy-seven times, his response to Peter’s question is clearly “tongue in cheek.” His point is that it is not a question of how often we forgive, but rather why should we forgive at all. Forgiveness is not a matter of heavenly arithmetic but rather an attitude.
To make his point he tells the story about a servant who is forgiven an enormous debt by a king. Some scholars estimate that ten thousand talents is roughly the equivalent of several billion dollars. Can you imagine anyone so generous as to loan his servant that kind of money? When the guy couldn’t pay up, the king ordered that his entire family be sold. That seems severe and yet he must have been a very wasteful servant to squander it all. But he is no dummy. He drops to his knees and begs for mercy and, in a burst of great compassion, the king sets him free and cancels the whole debt.
The nasty twist to this story is that this forgiven, freed, scoundrel of a servant refuses to release a fellow servant of a very small debt and has him thrown into prison. His peers promptly blow the whistle on him and tell the master what he has done and the king hands this creep over to torturers until he pays back every cent he owes. This parable paints a picture of us. Jesus holds up a mirror in order that we might see ourselves. We are the servant who has been forgiven a vast and staggering amount of debt, and God is the great king that has forgiven us. Forgiveness is a virtue we most enjoy, but least employ. We love to be forgiven but we struggle to forgive.
Summer is almost behind us and we have begun a new program year week. Much has happened outside our doors over this summer. Russia’s aggression against Ukraine happened, threatening a resumption of dangerous tensions between Moscow and Western democracies. Thousands of people have died of the Ebola virus. The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria happened, raising the dreaded specter of a take-no-prisoners war on reason, progress, women and other faiths.
Ferguson has happened, revealing deep fault lines between White experience and Black experience. The 113th Congress happened, mired in systemic dysfunction while the poor, the marginalized, and our veterans desperately seek basics like medical care. The two-tier economy happened, with one tier doing extraordinarily well and a much larger tier falling further behind, leaving a sense of gloom about the future among all age groups. Border wars between terrified migrant children happened, challenging us to examine American core values as a nation amidst the realities of our resources. ISIL videoed the barbaric executions of two Americans happened, threatening the important work of journalists and renewing post 9/11 fears about the realisms of terrorism and yesterday news of a third, this time a British subject.
But that’s the world we’ve been handed, isn’t it? Polarization of our differences as in Arab-Israeli, Catholic-Protestant, Christian-Muslim, conservative-liberal, old-young, rich-poor, Republican-Democrat, Black-White, Gay-Straight—treadmills of misunderstanding and dissent with seemingly no escape. The enormity of these outside-our-walls developments considered in the context of this Gospel suggests that it’s time for church people to stop their usual fussing about the stuff that it is just not worth fussing about—stop quarreling over opinions and stop judging others. People are desperate for Good News and for the truth of the Gospel. They are hungry for justice and peace.
Can all people of faith—any faith—get over themselves and truly serve a desperate society? Can churches put down their sociopolitical and theological swords and work together among people walking by their closed doors? Can church communities become neighborhood centers of peace and justice—people helping people? Can churches set among the shrinking middle class stop remembering the 1950s and live into the call of Jesus for disciples healing and restoration in 2014? Can we stop pleading for scraps to improve on the way we do God’s work through mission and ministry and echo Jesus, who commended radical generosity, radical sharing, radical self-denial?
So let’s bring this full circle and close to home because that is where it matters first and foremost. I cannot help but wonder if Peter was not literally thinking of his family, maybe his own brother, Andrew. In the biblical world, the word “brother” was a generic term for extended family, like cousins. Perhaps Andrew was always taking his fishing gear or some other manifestation of brotherly mischief or rivalry.
Our minds may have gone to the struggle around forgiving the really bad people in the world like terrorists who cause major national tragedies or with the agents of headline-worthy offenses. Peter’s question—and Jesus’ answer—had more to do with those who are up close and personal. The fact is that it is much harder to deal with forgiveness with friends, family members, partners, co-workers and members of 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 someone we don’t know or care to know. He is talking to the Christian community in Rome and he’s asking why sisters and brothers in Christ are not practicing mercy and forgiveness toward one another. Jesus and Paul are talking to us and to the church wherever it exists. These texts say, “If you can’t make peace and restore relationships in your own family and community of faith, how will you bring that to the world?”
If this parable is a story about the kingdom of God and if God is represented by the king who reneges on forgiveness because we have failed to forgive—you and I are in deep trouble.
Forgiveness does not come easy and history bears witness to the truth that as a people in general we’re not so good at it. However, there is good news. 19th century German poet and essayist Heinrich Heine is said to have uttered on his deathbed—when a priest told him that God would forgive his sins—“Why, of course he will forgive me. That’s his business.”
Today we are reminded that it’s our business as well. Jesus has a news flash for us: The world is desperate for reconciliation, restoration, and peace. We need to step up. If not us, who then?