Forgive them their debts – a sermon

The audio of this sermon is available on the Christ Church website.


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I have a theory.  As you get to know me over the years, you will learn that I have many theories, most of which are useless.  Nevertheless, I have a theory that is relevant to our Gospel lesson today.  My theory is that much of the stress we feel in our lives is the result of frustrated forgiveness.  When was the last time you apologized to someone?  What was their response?  When was the last time someone apologized to you?  What was your response?  Did you say, “It’s ok”? Or “No problem”? Or “Don’t worry about it”?  If so, you short-circuited the forgiveness process.  If it really was ok, if there really was no problem, if it really was something not worth worrying about, then there would have been no need to offer an apology in the first place.  Instead, things were not ok.  There was a problem.  Something was worth worrying about, and because of that, forgiveness needs to happen.

In a world that seems to be addicted to conflict, it feels ironic to say this, but on a personal level, most of us are so conflict averse that even when a wrong has been committed for which forgiveness is required, we refuse to recognize it; choosing instead to brush it off, as if it didn’t matter.  Yet, it does matter.  Researchers at Johns Hopkins tell us that a unforgiveness can be bad for our health.  A lack of forgiveness leads to an increased risk for heart attacks, higher cholesterol levels and blood pressure, less sleep, and higher incidents of depression, anxiety, and stress.  The research is clear, unless we “forgive deeply,” we can suffer ongoing health consequences.  In order to forgive deeply, it can’t be offered begrudgingly, simply because Jesus told us to.  According to Dr. Karen Shwartz, director of the Mood Disorders Adult Consultation Clinic at Johns Hopkins, our forgiveness must be an active, “conscious decision to let go of negative feelings whether the person deserves it or not.”[1]

Jesus knew this reality two-thousand years ago.  In the second half of Matthew eighteen, Jesus teaches his disciples all about forgiveness.  He begins by teaching them how to handle sin in the community.  When someone sins, don’t be afraid to name it.  If they refuse to hear it, then take a few others to talk it out.  If they still refuse to listen, bring it before the whole church.  If even then they won’t repent and seek forgiveness, then Jesus says, “let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.”  Wouldn’t you know it, but Matthew is a tax collector, and Matthew’s church included many Gentiles.  Even when the other won’t seek forgiveness, it appears we are called to forgive.  Or, at least, that’s what Peter seems to have heard Jesus saying.

As our Gospel lesson begins, we find Peter seeking some clarification on this whole forgiveness thing.  “Let’s get real for a minute, Jesus.  How many times do I have to forgive someone when they sin against me?  Would seven times be enough?”  Peter thinks he’s really going out on a limb here.  The Rabbis taught that God would forgive three times for the same sin.  Since we are nowhere near as good as God at forgiveness, three times would have seemed next to impossible, but Peter’s been hanging out with Jesus for a while now.  He knows that Jesus always goes a step further, so Peter doubles that number and adds one for good measure.  Forgiving someone seven times is downright absurd, and yet Jesus responds by saying, “you aren’t even close.”  Depending on how you translate the Greek, it could mean seventy-seven times, or, more likely, seventy times seven.  Perhaps the best translation is the one Mark gave us last week, “forgive them for as long as it takes.”

There must have been a look in Peter’s eye that made Jesus realize that he didn’t quite get it.  He went on to explain by way of a fairly straightforward parable.  Well, it was certainly clear to Peter, but I wonder how clear all that talk of talents and denarii are to us today.  This story hinges on a servant who is deeply indebted to a king.  His debt was ten thousand talents.  A talent was a unit of measure, weighing about 130 pounds and, in this case, refers to silver.  A talent was roughly the equivalent of 15 years of wages for a common laborer.  This man owed the king 150,000 years wages.  In modern terms, if the average construction laborer in Bowling Green makes $30,000 a year, this servant owed the king 4.5 billion dollars.[2]   That’s a fairly insurmountable debt for man making thirty-grand a year.  Yet, the king forgave him the debt, free and clear.  Can you imagine the joy that slave must have felt in that moment?  I’m eleven months away from being down to one car note, and I’m already pretty excited about it.  There must have been tears and hugs and thanks flowing like a river as he left the king’s presence, but it didn’t last long.

The parable goes on to tell of the newly debt free slave seeing another servant who owed him a hundred denarii.  A denarius was a single silver coin, nearly four thousand denarii made up a talent.  It was worth about a day’s wage.  Returning to our friendly average construction laborer in Bowling Green, he or she would make roughly $115 a day, so this debt, a hundred days’ worth of wages was about $11,500.  This certainly isn’t a minor debt, but it is nothing compared to the $4.5 billion debt he had just been forgiven.  Rather than sharing his joy with this fellow slave and forgiving his debt as well, the forgiven slave had him thrown in jail until he could pay it off.  Obviously, the king didn’t take too kindly to his slave’s lack of forgiveness and the parable ends with him being tortured until he could pay the original debt.  That is, he would be tortured forever.  “So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”

From this teaching, we learn a profound truth.  Forgiving one another is a universal command for all who follow Jesus.  At least every Sunday, and hopefully multiple times each day, you pray the prayer Jesus taught his disciples.  In it, we pray “forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.”  Our willingness to forgive one another flows directly out of the forgiveness we have received from God.  As the Johns Hopkins study suggests, the necessity of forgiveness is hard wired into us.  Whether the other deserves it or not, whether they ask for it or not, when we fail to forgive, it is bad for our health both physically and spiritually.

Let me pause for a moment and draw a distinction between forgiveness and reconciliation.  Forgiveness is the conscious choice to let go of past hurts.  Reconciliation is the return to right relationship.  Forgiveness is a choice the offended can make without the offender.  Reconciliation requires both sides to be present to the forgiveness process.  Despite the universal Christian commandment to forgive, reconciliation is not always possible and in some cases, shouldn’t even be attempted.  The Church has not always been good at this, and we should be ashamed of the result.  Too many victims of abuse have been sent back to their abusers by clergy who have misunderstood what it means to forgive.  Sometimes, treating another like a Gentile or a tax collector means forgiving them, even as we remain in broken relationship with them.

As followers of Jesus, we should forgive whether forgiveness is sought or not.  When one who has sinned against us comes to offer an apology, we ought not short-circuit forgiveness by shrugging it off, but rather, we should do the challenging work of confronting the wrong directly by accepting the apology. We do so, not just because a lack of forgiveness is bad for our health, but because we have been forgiven so great a debt that the joy of forgiveness should overflow.  So, forgive them their trespasses, their debts, and their sins, for in the Kingdom of God, forgiveness never ends.  Amen.

[1] Healthy Connections, “Forgiveness: Your Health Depends on It” http://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/health/healthy_aging/healthy_connections/forgiveness-your-health-depends-on-it (accessed 9/16/2017).

[2] https://www.bls.gov/oes/current/oes_14540.htm#47-0000

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The New TEC Website is an Unpleasing Front Door

outside church in color

There was a time, not all that long ago, when the red doors of an Episcopal Church served as its initial point of entry. Americans lived, by and large, in the neighborhoods of their youth. Churches served those neighborhoods and new members came either from Episcopal parents or the rare new family that came to town. There was brand loyalty back then, so if you did find yourself in a new place, you found the red doors at 10am on Sunday, and you went in. Over time, the front door has had different iterations. As Americans became more mobile and technology advanced, the point of entry moved away from the red doors to the Yellow Pages, newspaper ads, and the occasional place mat at the local diner. Today, without question the first point of contact for someone looking for an Episcopal church is its webpage.  Whether a simple WordPress site, a Facebook page, or an elaborate web presence, the vast majority of visitors to your church will find you because of a Google search and subsequent review of your website.

Recently, The Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society of the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States unveiled a new front door.  Design decisions are always a matter of taste, so I won’t waste much of your time discussing them, other than to say that the bar was so low after the Dreary Stained Glass Window era that anything would be an improvement.  That’s not to say I like the choices they’ve made, but simply that they aren’t resolutely awful.   The new website is very mobile friendly, and since more than 50% of internet users access the web via mobile device, this is a very good thing.  It has a nice modern look, with good photography and clean lines.  Overall, it is very pleasing to the eye, and I applaud the Communications Department for that.  And, for what its worth, the giant drop down menus are a neat throw back to when the under construction gif was a thing.

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Ah, the good old days

My main issue with the new Episcopal Church website is that for our front door to the world, there is very little about it that makes me certain that my denomination is a Christian Church rather than the newest gym in town.  Yes, there is the ubiquitous reference to the Jesus Movement, the Presiding Bishop’s ongoing refrain, but beyond that, what do we see that proves us to be a Christian denomination that lives out its theology by way of common prayer?  This Sunday, in the Collect for Proper 19, we will acknowledge before God that without God, nothing we do is pleasing to God.  It seems to me, that by and large, this new front door is rather unpleasing.

A quick scroll down the page brings us to an opportunity to give money toward hurricane relief, which is good and necessary, but not any different than the websites of the United Way, CNN, or even Coca-Cola.  Moving further down the page, we come to the section titled “New to the Church?  Here’s what we value.”  In case you don’t believe what I’m going to write next, here’s a screen shot.

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There are three enormous flaws in this section.

First and foremost, there is an amazing lack of Jesus in our list of values.  In fact, if you look closely, you won’t see the name of our Lord anywhere in our values.  The Episcopal Church is indeed a spiritual home, but it is a spiritual home because we believe that Jesus invites us to be members of the Kingdom of Heaven.  Evangelism is a priority, but not in the “preach the gospel at all times, when necessary use words,” kind of way.  Evangelism, at least according to our Presiding Bishop, is actually telling people about Jesus, about the difference following Jesus makes in our lives, and then inviting other to become disciples.  We are committed to things like racial reconciliation and environmental stewardship because of our faith in Christ.  Our faith in Jesus is what sets us apart from the Rotary or Bowling Green Women’s Club.  Our faith in Jesus should be our core value, and without it, we are lost.

The second flaw comes immediately below the heading.  There we find something that looks a lot like a mission statement for the Episcopal Church.  You’ll note that Jesus is not a part of our mission, at least according to this particular statement.  I pay pretty close attention to what’s happening in the wider church, and like the ill fated scheme to re-brand ourselves as The Missionary Society, this new mission statement caught me by surprise.  I’ve seen no press release through ENS.  I’ve not noticed the Presiding Bishop mentioning it in any video or publication.  I’ve not read about its approval at an Executive Council meeting.  Instead, it seems that whoever was assigned the role of revamping the website took it upon themselves to describe the Episcopal Church as “a spiritual home free of judgment and inclusive to all,” and who ever approved its launch didn’t spend a whole lot of time poring over the copy.

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Despite what you may have read between the lines in my post on Monday, I am firmly believe that judgment has a place in the church.  Paul’s admonition that we ought not pass judgment upon our brothers and sisters doesn’t mean that the church should be a judgment free zone.  Instead, Paul argues that we should avoid casting judgement upon one another, only because we all stand in judgment under Christ. The Church, on behalf of and because of Jesus, must be clear in her judgment of sin, both individual and corporate.  Our Prayer Book, modeling nearly two centuries of baptismal practice, makes us live this out by requiring three renunciations of evil from baptismal candidates.  I know that our Presiding Bishop believes in judgment.  He has preached on the evils of racism, xenophobia, and fear-mongering.  He is willing to offer a prophetic voice (a term I use intentionally, and rarely) to call the Church and individual Christians into action against the powers and principalities which threaten to corrupt us.  The Episcopal Church is not Planet Fitness.  There must be judgment here.

My last main issue with the section on our values is the ever-growing list of priorities.  Following General Convention, it was clear that two things would occupy our attention during the triennium: Racial Reconciliation and Evangelism.  I was on the floor of Convention for every day of legislation.  I remember the budget amendment that brought an extra $2.8 million dollars for evangelism.  I remember making unequivocal statements against the evils of racism be it by flying the Confederate Flag or committing violence in Emanuel AME Church, and calling for study and prayer that would develop into “Becoming Beloved Community.”  At some point in the last two years, Environmental Stewardship was added to create the kind of three-legged stool of priorities that Anglicans adore.  I’m honestly not sure how this happened, but I know it didn’t come out of General Convention as a budget or thematic priority.  Environmental Stewardship is important, which is why no one has really balked at its ex nihilo addition to the priority list, but like so many other things in the church, it would have been nice if someone had talked about it.

The same goes for Inclusivity, which is apparently the fourth wall in the now also Anglican-friendly quadrilateral of priorities.  Again, I’m not going to argue against inclusivity, but I don’t actually believe the Episcopal Church to be “inclusive for all.”  I would argue that the story we have told ourselves for too long – the story of our political power as the church of the elite – precludes access to many who would see themselves as something other than a privileged, upper-middle class, white person.  I have also personally witnessed the exclusion of people who have prayerfully considered any number of political and theological issues and come down somewhere other than the platform of the Democratic Party.  Yes, love will win, as the website borrowed from Rob Bell, but let’s not pretend that love has already won, and that Episcopalians have perfected loving our neighbors as ourselves.

The Episcopal Church has much to offer the world.  We have an important voice in sharing the Gospel of Jesus Christ in a way that can be heard just a little bit differently than other interpretations of it.  I believe this to be true such that I wrote my DMin thesis about it.  I wish, however, that we would be more careful in how we define ourselves.  Rather than focusing so hard on not being like some other group that we see as judgmental or exclusive, let’s focus on what we have to offer to the honor and glory of God.  We must not be ashamed to be disciples of Jesus Christ, who lived, died, and rose again to save us from our sin, and who will come again to judge the living and the dead.  Let’s make sure our front door is an adequate and appropriate representation of who we are, never forgetting that without God, nothing we have to offer, not even a website, will be pleasing to the Lord.

Comfortable Words

It may seem morbid or a sign of the slow decay of Episcopal relevance, but I am of the opinion that the Burial Office is the best thing the Episcopal Church has to offer the world.    Its language is beautiful, though I think those who find the pronoun usage in the various anthems to be troublesome have a salient argument.  It balances well the tendency to err too far to one side or the other between “this should only be about Jesus” and “this should only be about the deceased.”  Even the rubrics, which yes, we should read and abide by, help make an Episcopal burial service an opportunity for reflection, prayer, and celebration.  For example, the requirement that the coffin “be covered with a pall or other suitable covering” ensures that whether prince of pauper, every soul buried from the church is brought in under the cover of their baptismal gown.  As and aside, for which I am well known, I have seen, on occasion, the use of the Episcopal or American flag as “other suitable covering”  I can understand the impetus for this, but would argue against so as to expand beyond “prince and pauper” to include “priest and solider” as well.  All are the same in death, for, as Paul writes to the Christians in Rome, “whether we live or, therefore, or die, we are the Lord’s.”

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Astronaut Gene Cernan’s burial at St. Martin’s Church, Houston, TX. Note the pall covering his coffin

If you were reading Sunday’s New Testament lesson and the middle portion sounded familiar to you, it is probably because you have attended an Episcopal Burial service sometime since 1979.  Romans 14:7-8 is an option among four anthems in both the Rite I and Rite II services.  Often strung together as one long anthem, said in procession, these words at the opening of the Burial Office set the tone for the rest of the service to follow.  These are words of comfort.  These are words of hope.  These are words of resurrection.  These are, in the parlance of our Rite I Eucharist, “Comfortable Words” meant to place the hearts and minds of the bereaved in the hands of the resurrected Lord through whom we all have access to the Kingdom.

In a world that seems to be disintegrating around us, these words might come just at the right time this Sunday.  With a major earthquake in Mexico, the 16th anniversary  of 9/11, Charlottesville, and Hurricanes Harvey and Irma weighing heavy on our hearts, it seems prudent that we hear these words from Paul and have the Burial Office brought to mind.  In the same way that, in death, all of us come to the altar under the garment of baptism, so too, in life, we are all here on earth because of the gift and grace of God.  As Fitzmeyer puts it in his Anchor Bible Commentary, “This passage implies the service of God in all things, and it is the basis of life in the true Christian sense.  In life and in death, the Christ exists to Kyrio, i.e. to praise, honor, and serve God” (p. 691).  So, whether we feast or fast, whether we keep the Kalendar or honor everyday as a Feria from God, our lives are to be lived under the banner of our baptism, to the honor and glory of God.

Making ourselves gods

Last year, I had the pleasure of leading a real-life Draughting Theology study of Paul’s letter to the Romans.  I had read it several times.  I had walked Romans road.  I felt like I knew the lessons embedded in Paul’s letter pretty well, but until one spends time really digging into a text, commentaries in hand, with the goal of being able to teach it, one can not even begin to fully comprehend the complexities of a Biblical book like Romans.  One of the key lessons that I learned early in my study came from Jay Sidebotham’s commentary on Romans from the Conversations with Scripture series.  The thesis, or at least one of them, of Sidebotham’s commentary is that, for Paul, the core sin of humanity is the sin of idolatry.  There are a myriad of ways in which we offer worship to something other than God, but more often than not, the focus of that attention isn’t work, money, sex, or power, but ourselves.  The most common idol that distracts our attention from God is the idol of self.

This sin is no more evident than when we judge one another.  When we judge our neighbor, we put ourselves in the place of God.  This is why, in Sunday’s Old Testament lesson, when Joseph’s brothers come to Egypt, hoping to escape a famine and full of lies, Joseph essentially cannot treat them harshly.  Instead, he makes it clear that judgement is not the purview of a faithful human.  “Am I in the place of God?”  This theme shows up in the New Testament lesson as well.  The lesson is from Romans 14 (hence the introductory paragraph to this post), and in it, Paul’s seems to wonder aloud why it is that human beings, all of whom stand under the judgment of God, work so hard at passing judgment on one another.

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This all leads to Peter’s question to Jesus in Sunday’s Gospel lesson, “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive?”  Jesus’ answer, which he expounds by way of a parable about an unforgiving slave, seems to broaden the expectation that we forgive rather than pass judgment beyond members of the church to all, who like us, are slaves, either of God’s grace or of the power of sin.  Forgiveness is the antithesis of judgmental idolatry because to forgive is to obey the command of God.  We don’t make the choice to forgive, which means we are not trying to control our own surroundings.  Instead, we obey by forgiving, allowing God to be God.

It seems that every year on or around the 11th of September, these lessons come back around.  Some sixteen years after the day on which terrorists attacked America, it is still tempting to put ourselves in the place of God and make judgments, not just on the men who planned and carried out these attacks, but on the entire religious system which these men perverted for their own selfish ambition.  It is hard to talk of forgiveness on September 11th, which is precisely why leaders of the Christian faith must do so.  We must warn our people of the temptation to make our country or our way of life the idol of our worship.  We must caution them against the more insidious sin in which we act as judge, thereby making ourselves as gods.  We must repeat the refrain that because we have been forgiven so much, we too must forgive, for it is not our choice to make, but the commandment of God that we humble ourselves and offer forgiveness to all who have sinned against us.

You want me to forgive how many times? – a sermon

Today’s sermon is now on the Saint Paul’s Website or you can read it below.

Peter is often impetuous.  He jumped out of a boat in the middle of a stormy sea to walk toward someone he wasn’t sure was actually Jesus.  On the night Jesus was arrested, Peter pulled out a sword and cut off the ear of one of the High Priest’s slaves.  When the crowds rushed in to see what was happening on that first Pentecost Day, Peter stood up and preached the Church’s first sermon.  When Jesus asked, “Who do you say that I am?” Peter shouted, “You are the Messiah!”  And when Jesus told him that being the Messiah meant dying at the hands of Rome, Peter was just as quick to shout, “God forbid it!”  Here, in the middle of Jesus’ teaching on what life is going to be like after he’s gone, Peter wants to be absolutely clear that Jesus is saying what he thinks Jesus is saying.  And so he asks, “Lord, how often do I have to forgive?”

Our Gospel lesson this week follows immediately after last week’s story.  Jesus has just finished laying out for his disciples how they should handle the inevitable conflicts that come when people gather together.  He has told them, “Treat that one as a Gentile and a tax collector,” and Peter thinks Jesus just commanded them to love even the unrepentant sinner.   Not being shy about confronting Jesus, he looks at his Rabbi and with all the chutzpah he can muster, says what the rest of the disciples were probably thinking: grace is easy to accept and really hard to give.  “Let me get this straight, Jesus.  You’re suggesting that we offer grace to those who have offended us, that we continue to love them and continue to seek reconciliation with them, even, or maybe especially when they won’t listen?  Lord, how often should we forgive?  … Seven times?”

I imagine a long and painful silence between “how often should we forgive” and Peter’s hypothetical suggestion of “seven times” as he racked his brain for a wildly irrational number. “Second chances?  OK.  Maybe even a third, but seven chances for the same person?  Not even Jesus could expect that from us.”  Unfortunately for Peter, and for us, Jesus wouldn’t let him off the hook that easily.  “Not seven times, but seventy-seven times” Or, as other versions suggest, “seventy times seven – four hundred ninety times.”  Peter is often impetuous.  It takes an awful lot to render him speechless, but Jesus has done it here by suggesting that mercy isn’t about keeping a forgiveness ledger for everyone in your life.  With only a blank stare looking back at him, Jesus goes on to explain what mercy really looks like by way of a parable.  Mercy is about forgiving because the debt that has been forgiven of us is beyond even our wildest imagination.

The main character in this parable is a slave who owes his king a considerable sum of money.  I mean a lot of money.  Ten thousand anything would be a lot for a slave to pay back, but ten thousand talents is like owing the king the Powerball.  One talent was roughly equal to three thousand seven hundred fifty denarii or fifteen years’ wages for the average laborer.  This slave owed the king ten thousand fifteen years.  That’s one hundred fifty thousand years’ worth of wages.  To put that in perspective, the average general laborer in Foley makes about twenty five thousand dollars a year.[1]  To match that debt, they would have to owe someone three hundred seventy five million dollars.  That’s a lot of money that this man owes and that the king, out of sheer pity, forgave him entirely.  Jesus says that’s what the Kingdom of Heaven is like.

If I owed a penny for every sin I’ve committed in my life, I might be close to three hundred seventy five million dollars by now.  Out of sheer pity on my human frailty, God has forgiven that debt.  In response, you’d think I’d be ecstatic – that I might go around everywhere forgiving everyone, but alas, I’m still a human.  We’re all still human.  So the story continues and this now totally forgiven slave runs across a man who owes him 100 denarii.  40% of an annual salary is not chump change, to be sure, but it is only twenty seven hundred thousandths of a percent (.00027%) of what the slave owed the king.  Do you think he’s going to forgive the man’s debt?  Of course not.  No, he is still human and so he has him thrown into debtors’ prison until the debt is paid.  Jesus says the Kingdom of Heaven is not like that.  Instead, those who claim to be of the Kingdom but do not forgive their neighbor from their heart, they will be cast out into the darkness where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.  Or worse.

As the parable comes to an end, Jesus has moved from suggesting we forgive seventy-seven or even four hundred ninety times to three hundred seventy five million times.  Which is to say, forgive until you can’t forgive anymore and then do it again.  Let’s be clear, Jesus is not calling his disciples to be doormats.  There are consequences to our hurtful actions.  Being treated as a Gentile or tax collector means being loved, but it also means being removed from the community.  Tragically, this text has been used to tell abused women to forgive their abusers and stay in their marriages.  Forgiving and staying are two very different things.  Jesus commands the one, but certainly not the other.

Still, Jesus does call on us to forgive those who have hurt us, and as a culture we are really not very good forgiveness.  Just a quick gloss of the news this week reminds of this.  Lord, do we really have to forgive Ray Rice?  Do we really have to forgive the Baltimore Ravens, Roger Goodell and the NFL?  Do we really have to forgive Osama Bin Laden, al-queda and the men who attacked us thirteen years ago?  Do we really have to forgive ISIS and Boko Haram? Yes, yes, three hundred seventy five million times, yes.

To forgive another doesn’t mean to excuse their behavior.  It doesn’t mean to let them off the hook for the harm they’ve committed.  It doesn’t mean to forget.  Forgiveness means to refuse the right to hold on to bitterness and anger.[2]  Forgiveness means refusing to allow the hurt to continue to hurt you again and again.  Forgiving your enemy, to borrow from our Romans lesson a few weeks ago, is removing the burning coals from your heart and heaping them upon their head, which if we’re honest with ourselves, is a really nice side effect because the reality is that forgiveness is really, really hard.

Which is why, most every Sunday, we do two things: confess our sins and pray the Lord’s Prayer.  We confess ours sins to God, making known the times which we have refused to forgive our spouses, our parents, our children, our friends and neighbors, our politicians, our celebrities, and our enemies.  We ask God to forgive us those times that we have failed to forgive.  And then, just before we receive our reminder of God’s love and forgiveness in the body and blood of our Lord, we pray in the words our Savior taught us, asking God to help us forgive as we have been forgiven.

Peter never lost his impetuousness, but in time, Peter learned what it felt like to be forgiven.  In time, Peter learned how to forgive without reservation.  In time, Peter learned to live in the Kingdom of Heaven even while still on earth.  And we can too.  As forgiven and beloved children of God, we are specially equipped to do the work of forgiving those who have trespassed against us: seven, seventy, seventy times seven, even three hundred seventy five million times. Amen.

[1] http://swz.salary.com/SalaryWizard/General-Laborer-Salary-Details-36535.aspx

[2] http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2165

Parables and Purgatory – a cautionary tale

UPDATE: I had my talents and denarii confused in the post below. The debt owed the king is not 40 years wages, but 150,000 years. Apologies for my currency conversion mistake.

Back in the heady days of mid-summer, I may have slightly overstated my love of Jesus’ favorite rhetorical device.  For every beautiful Prodigal Son story there is wicked tenants parable to make one feel just a little bit uncomfortable.  Or, as is the case with this week’s parabolic interlude, a lot uncomfortable.  The Parable of the Unforgiving Servant is an awful story that comes right on the heels of some powerful words from Jesus.

Our passage opens with an indignant Peter thinking that Jesus has lost his mind with this grace thing.  “Do you mean I’m supposed to forgive someone who sins against me as many as seven times?” He asks.  Jesus responds, “If you’re keeping count, you’re doing it wrong.  Forgive him seventy-seven times.”  It is a delightful exchange between Jesus and Peter that invites the preacher to wax poetic on the virtues of forgiveness in the abstract: a softball pitch for a nice, airy sermon here in the dog days to Ordinary Time.

But then.

But then Jesus tells a parable that I wish he would have never told: a parable full of bad people doing bad things that ends with perhaps the most judgmental words that Jesus is recorded to have spoken.  Click here to read the passage.  Go ahead.  I’ll wait.  Do you feel icky about Jesus saying “in anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he would pay his entire debt. So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.” The Unforgiving Slave was tortured until his entire debt, ten thousand talents, forty years wages, was paid in full.  Oh and the same thing will happen to you if you don’t forgive your brother or sister from your heart.  

While Jesus doesn’t mince words, he does open the door for a theological understanding that is largely foreign to the casual Protestant and Anglican (not mutually exclusive, mind you) readers: Purgatory.  Like the prophets who came before him, Jesus’ proclamation judgment is not without some grace, namely “until your debt is paid.”  Roman and Anglo Catholics will read this with an eye toward Purgatory, that place of waiting where the soul goes after death to wait until necessary penance has been paid.  Some Anglicans will see in the story a place called “Paradise,” which is understood as something like pre-heaven while we wait for the Second Coming.  More Reformed believers will argue that Jesus has paid our debt in full on the cross.  I tend to fall in the middle camp, but in the case of this particular cautionary tale of a parable, I can see a fairly well reasoned argument for Purgatory.

A lack of forgiveness can lead to a lack in forgiveness.  We pray in the Lord’s Prayer that God might “forgive us our trespasses/sins as we forgive those who trespass/sin against us.  It assumes that we are in the business of forgiving, and when we aren’t, it seems to suggest that maybe that prison of torture isn’t so far fetched a theology.  I’m not sold on Purgatory, mind you, but I think I’ll be working on my forgiveness this week, even if it requires 77 times before I stop keeping count.

What pleases God?

If you aren’t listening to the Collect Call, you should be.

I can hear it now. Brendan and Holli are not going to be fans of the opening clause of the Collect for Proper 19: “O God, because without you we are not able to please you…”  Certainly, they will raise smart objections to this clause.  It can be used in very damaging ways, to be sure, both towards those who do not profess the Christian faith, and even more dangerously, toward those who do, but with whom we disagree.  As was the case in last week’s Gospel lesson, it would be easy to use this Collect to excommunicate everyone we don’t like because if what they are dong upsets us they can’t possibly be in a true relationship with God.  I get that.

But on the other hand, it raises for me a much more helpful question than “what displeases God?”  Instead, I’d like to ask “What pleases God?”  It seems to me, in what is probably more Calvin that I’d like to admit, that engaging in activities that are pleasing to God are as good a way as any to figure out if I’m in right relationship with God.  This Sunday’s Gospel lesson seems to offer an obvious check mark on the “what pleases God” list.  Forgiveness.

Forgiveness pleases God.  Not just forgiving someone once or twice or even seven times, but forgiving as many as 77 or 70 times 7 times.  Truth be told, we’re to forgive our neighbor as often as God forgives us: always and without restriction.  The best part is that if forgiveness pleases God, then it totally undercuts that bad reading of the opening clause of this week’s Collect.  Rather than being an excuse to walk away from those who aren’t us, it is a call back into relationship.  If we are with God, then we are a people who forgive again and again and again.