Sunday, September 13, 2020
Lectionary 24, Year A
Prayer of the Day
O Lord God, merciful judge, you are the inexhaustible fountain of forgiveness. Replace our hearts of stone with hearts that love and adore you, that we may delight in doing your will, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord. Amen.
Readings and Psalm
Exodus 14:19-31 Israel’s deliverance at the Red Sea
Romans 14:1-12 Accepting diversity in the community of faith
Matthew 18:21-35 A parable of forgiveness in the community of faith
Title: Grateful for Death, Resurrection, and Forgiveness
Are you someone who engages the wise practice of making a gratitude list? Some start each day with a moment of thanksgiving. Others do this for the sake of managing their sobriety. Still others use a gratitude list to lift them out of feelings of hopelessness, sorrow, grief, and/or the blues. With the current pandemic and the necessary distancing and quarantining resulting in a deprivation of beloved things, activities, and people that we typically enjoy to the point of taking for granted, perhaps more are making use of gratitude lists to help them keep from sinking into despair and looking with hope to a brighter future.
Whether or not this list making is a regular practice for you, please take a moment to create a quick gratitude list either in your mind or on paper. Short list, top tier items. It won’t be exhaustive.
I’m guessing that at the top of many lists were friends and families, those who we love and those who love us. Perhaps also on your list were those things that sustain life: whether physical or spiritual. And maybe there were even a couple items that we might classify as luxury items, things we know we can live without but are sure grateful that we have them, can enjoy them, and maybe even share them with others.
I’m curious, did anyone put God’s forgiveness on their gratitude list? No points off if you did not. Sometimes it is the things that are solid givens that we forget to be grateful for. Afterall, did anyone put the air that we breath or the water we drink on your gratitude list? Essentials indeed. But not things we might think to be consciously thankful for.
But following Jesus’ lead in this morning’s gospel reading from Matthew and exploring this gracious gift of God that we call forgiveness more fully, we might gain a deeper appreciation and a richer understanding of why it belongs not just on our gratitude list, but at the top of our gratitude list. Not because we are so bad, but because God is so good, so merciful, so gracious.
Last week, the Vicar did a beautiful job unpacking the three-fold model of reconciliation and restoration laid out by Jesus in the verses right before this morning’s reading. But now Peter either did not listen to the sermon or he is such a concrete thinker that he just needs more details. Because after Jesus finishes this teaching about life in community, which, I will add, was preceded by the story of the lost sheep that causes the good shepherd to leave the 99 and do whatever it takes to find the one – a clear story confirming the value God places on each one of us, and a message for the community as well – so Peter, having just heard the story of the lost sheep and the love-filled practice of truth telling and reconciliation, goes to Jesus with this question: So how many times do I have to engage that three-fold practice after someone wrongs me numerous times? (Now, I’m thinking Peter really wanted to say three times. He could see forgiving the person up to three times and then they are cut off. But of course, he’s asking Jesus, so he’s thinking: probably should shoot high. So, he not only doubles his number, but adds one for good measure.) As many as seven times? He says proudly. (Score one for Peter, he’s thinking.) But of course, there is that famous response from Jesus: not seven times, but seventy-seven times. (Some translations say seventy times seven. Either way, I think the point is that it is a number so big that we loose track and just keep forgiving.) And to prove his point, Jesus tells the shocking story of the unforgiving servant.
Yes, shocking. Shocking because this king is a law and order king. He keeps accounts. He knows what each slave owes him. (Not sure how smart he was because he allowed slaves, who by definition have nothing, go into debt. But okay, Jesus is telling the story.) So, the king declares it is time for folks to pay up. And this poor slave comes before him and is told he owes 10,000 talents. If telling this story today, Jesus might have said: The slave owed the king a bazillion gazillion dollars. You see, we understand one talent to be equal to 15 years of wages. So, do the math. 15 times 10,000, and you will find that it will take the slave 150,000 years to pay the debt. Sounds like an eternity doesn’t it? You get Jesus’ point. Even selling him and his family and their goods won’t come close to satisfying the debt. The man pleads, promising the impossibility of paying off his debt.
But shockingly, the king forgives the debt. Wait, what happen to all those records, all that accounting? What has happened to law and order under this king’s rule? You gotta figure that everyone standing in the throne room that day was shocked themselves. Who is this king and what happened to the one we have been serving for so long? It was as if the law and order king had died and a new king, gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, had risen in his place. Truly a shocking day at court. I’m guessing every slave that followed also had their debt forgiven by this new king. Maybe the king commanded that all those accounting books just be torn up.
Shocked, the forgiven slave goes on his way. The courtiers saw what happened. But did the forgiven one see it? Or did he walk away thinking “SUCKER!”? Did he miss the death and resurrection of the king? Did he miss the birth of a new reign, a new order, a new life for the king and all the subjects if they would join in the death and resurrection themselves? If his encounter with his fellow slave is any indicator, I’m guessing he did miss the death and resurrection. And the first piece of evidence is the fact that he grabs the guy who owes him a few bucks by the throat. Like the old king, the dead king, he exerts power and instills fear in the poor guy. (Economic note: this debt could have been paid in a few months.)
Shocked were the other slaves that they ran and told the king that the forgiven one had totally missed the new order, the new example set forth by the king. They told the king how he refused the new life the king had offered the slave through the king’s own death and resurrection. And as we see in the ending scene, if you block out the new life, you condemn yourself to life in the old order.
Born out of the death and resurrection of Jesus the Christ, forgiveness is a gift from God for which we can be most grateful. It is beyond debts erased. This forgiveness means new life, a new way of living, a new way of being. And as with any gift from God, be it time, talent, treasure, forgiveness; we are called to share it with others. It is one of the ways that we show our gratitude to the giver of the gift. We appreciate it so, we rejoice in it so, we live the new life of it such that we want others to experience the shocking joy of it. This is God’s work, we do it with our hands, our hearts, and our minds. But this is one time where it is best not to figure out percentage giving or even tithing. This is one time where all that we receive with gratitude from God, we give in Jesus’ name, through the power of the Holy Spirit
(A footnote – some will experience wrongs that are very difficult to forgive, especially when it comes to abuse of any kind. Our compassionate God does not ask us to sacrifice our well-being, our mental health, or our safety, or put ourselves in any kind of danger to practice what we think might be forgiveness. For those we cannot forgive, turn them over to the mercy of God, and pray that God will grant them the forgiveness you cannot. And by doing that, you will in a sense, have shown them the mercy Jesus is calling us to. And it may help to free you to move on.)
One last thing about gratitude lists. In a few minutes we will again say the Nicene Creed, that there is sort of a communal gratitude list at the end of that. It concludes with us being grateful for the church – the community of faith bound in love. Grateful for baptism – the death and resurrection of Christ that is ours so that we might live this new life. Grateful for the forgiveness of sins – a new way to live. Grateful for all that is to come – there is our hope, of which we share a foretaste of the feast to come in the gift of the Eucharist. So much to be grateful for. So much newness of life. Thanks be to God.
The Rev. Mark Erson,