Corpses in the Corridor, Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost – September 17, 2017

Proper 19

[RCL] Exodus 14:19-31; Psalm 114 or Exodus 15:1b-11, 20-21; Romans 14:1-12; Matthew 18:21-35

As you heard today’s gospel, did it make you uncomfortable, so that you shifted your weight from one foot to another, or perhaps gazed awkwardly into space?

That parable Jesus tells does not pack a dose of sweet comfort but challenges us outrageously in a spot where we are most tender: the trouble we have with forgiveness.

The story has two scenes: first, inside the throne room of a powerful king; second, just outside in a palace corridor. Moreover, the story tells of two worlds: the world as we know it, and the world as God wants it.

The throne room changes in a moment from the world as we know it to the world as God wants it. That palace corridor, however, starts out as the world we know but fails to become the world as God wants it.

The throne room, as I said, starts out as the world we know. It’s a world of calculation and control. The boss man is reviewing accounts, and somebody, a slave, owes him big time—really big time. The slave gets called on the carpet, but that’s only a formality. No way can this loser pay back what he owes. Might as well sell this guy, his house, his car, his boat, his wife, his kids, and get a couple pennies on the dollar. This guy is ruined. Financially, he’s dead as a doornail.

Everybody there in the throne room thinks his appearance is a mere formality. Everybody, that is, except him. Upon hearing the sentence imposed on him by the banker king, this guy drops to his knees, weeps, wails, and writhes around, crying out for mercy. He makes promises he knows he can never keep. What a pathetic sight. And so useless.

This is, after all, a bottom line world. The king’s guards are not soldiers in plumed hats, holding lances. No, they are guys in suits holding calculators. The cold steel is in their hearts.

Do you know this world of calculation and control? Have you ever been there, filling in one role or another? Are you there today?

Well, in the story Jesus tells, something unexpected happens. The king drops dead. No, I don’t mean literally, right there on the red carpet in front of the throne. But it might as well have been that way. The king drops dead to the world as we know it, that world of calculation and control. Against the advice his accountants and lawyers would have given him had he bothered to ask them, he goes with his gut and forgives the poor slob his astronomical debt.

To add to the excitement, the poor slob drops dead. Again, I don’t mean literally, though it might as well have been. He dies to the world of calculation and control, which a moment before had been like an entire mountain on his chest. He’s now living somewhere else. So too is the boss man.

There we are, my friends. If the cross of Christ and the Christian life mean anything, this is what they mean: that to this world, we are dead, and so is God. By forgiving us the sins we cannot make up on our own, God dies to the world of power and control. God’s not playing that game. God has taken a one-way trip out of there.

This is a part of Christianity that is scandalous, shocking, and hopeful. It’s good news, hot off the presses, for anyone who even suspects that God is the Great Bully in the Sky. Now God has died to all that; God’s throne room is not a center for calculation and control.

God is dead to that sort of world, and so are we. We are pulled out from under that mountain which was resting on our chests. We are dead to the world of calculation and control that once held us captive. We are out the door and down the street.

What happens next to the guy in the story? His learning curve is, well, pretty pathetic. He’s not even outside the building when he runs into somebody who owes him something. There in the palace corridor, he grabs the fellow by the collar and tries—unsuccessfully—to shake the money out of him.

Welcome back to the world of calculation and control.

This second debtor does his own song and dance pleading for mercy. Is anybody going to die this time? Will there be corpses in the corridor? You’d think it would be a no-brainer for the forgiven debtor to remember that as of a few moments ago, he was dead to the world of calculation and control and that he should act accordingly in dealing with his debtor out there in the corridor. You’d think that mercy received would result in mercy given.

But that doesn’t happen. He has a strategically-timed bout of amnesia, forgets he’s dead, and acts out the world of calculation and control as though it were his big chance for Broadway. He refuses to show mercy, he fails to help his debtor die to a world of oppression. Instead, he’s ready to boot him into the nearest prison for what will be, well, an indefinite stay.

The palace corridor remains stuck. It remains in the world of calculation and control.

Here we get to the heart of why forgiveness is hard. We suffer strategically-timed amnesia. We conveniently forget—or maybe we’ve never acknowledged—that we are forgiven sinners, debtors who have been let off the hook.

We don’t admit that the king has dropped dead, dead to the world of power and control so that we might have another chance, and another, and another.

We don’t realize that if faith means anything, it means we’re free from this world of control and calculation, dead to it and all it claims, thanks to a king who dies for us.

And so a debtor who crosses our path–even just outside the throne room–will get a taste of calculation and control, and it will be bitter.

Christianity states that forgiveness is necessary. It is not an option, but an imperative. Christianity also makes it clear that forgiveness is hard. It is costly. There is nothing soft and sentimental about it.

The one who forgives dies to the world as we know it in order to usher in the world as God wants it.

This death brings with it a challenge to the one forgiven. That one is then confronted with the imperative of dying to the world as we know it in order to accept forgiveness, an imperative to pass on the gift of forgiveness. By accepting and passing on forgiveness, such a one bears witness to the scandalous truth that, yes, everybody is a sinner, and everybody is forgiven by a mercy that is God-sized.

It’s easy to fall prey to strategically-timed amnesia and forget to forgive. That is why Christians gather Sunday by Sunday to celebrate the Eucharist. Here we present time after time, through prayerful word and action, how the king died on a cross, died to the world of calculation and control, died to the world as we know it, in order to set us free from a debt we could never repay.

We gather here in this throne room, and the king drops dead, and we drop dead too. We’re out of that world, out of that world of control and calculation that once held us captive.

Then the time comes to leave this throne room and go elsewhere. We meet someone who needs our mercy. Will we die again to the world of calculation and control? Will we die to that world, or will we fall victim to strategically-timed amnesia?

There’s the challenge. We can have the ancient pattern of the world as we know it, a life that feels like death. Or we can die to the world as we know it, we can have corpses in the corridor, and await our resurrection.

The Rev. Charles Hoffacker lives in Greenbelt, Maryland, with his wife, Helena Mirtova. He is the author of A Matter of Life and Death: Preaching at Funerals from Cowley Publications. Many of his sermons appear on sermonwriter.com. He can be reached by Email at charleshoffacker8@gmail.com.

Download the sermon for the 15th Sunday after Pentecost (A).

Forgiving 70 times seven, 14 Pentecost, Proper 19 (A) – 2014

September 14, 2014

Exodus 14:19-31 and Psalm 114 or Exodus 15:1b-11,20-21 [or Genesis 50:15-21 and Psalm 103:(1-7), 8-13 and Psalm 114]; Romans 14:1-12; Matthew 18:21-35

Five Amish schoolgirls killed, 11 wounded, by a shooter in Pennsylvania, the headlines cried in 2006. The Amish community not only comforted the shooter’s wife and children, they forgave him. The Amish were reviled by many in the press because they forgave even as they mourned the death of their own innocent children.

In 1948, Pastor Yang-Won Sohn’s two teenage boys were shot for being Christians by a rioter in Korea. Sohn not only forgave the shooter, but arranged his release from prison and adopted him.

Were these people crazy? How can people forgive such heinous crimes against innocents? It messes with our minds. Yes, Jesus said forgive, but there must be a limit, and these crazy people crossed it.

We want killers punished. But Jesus said, forgive not seven times, but 70 times seven. OK, let’s count it up; we must be way beyond that limit now. But if we’re honest, we know when Jesus said “70 times seven” he was using it to mean “always.” You must always forgive.

And then Jesus told a parable about the wicked slave who is forgiven a huge sum by his master, but then goes out and throws a fellow slave in prison for being owed just a fraction. We hear that the wicked slave then gets his just punishment. “Good,” we may say. He surely deserved that! We might forget that he was punished not because he owed money, but because he didn’t forgive. Jesus is very serious about this forgiveness thing.

Paul reminds the Romans about another side of forgiveness. His take on it was about how we treat each other because of our differences. Some eat anything, others are vegetarians; they must not despise each other. Well, that’s easy enough. We can do that.

Some may worship God on one day, some on another; do not despise one or the other. Another easy one – we can do that!

But then Paul asks, “Why do you pass judgment on your brother or sister?” meaning, why do we pass judgment on all others? Perhaps because we so often see immense hurt and evil in our world and we want to see justice done. We cannot imagine why people maim and kill innocent people. We cannot understand the sickness of domestic abuse, trafficking of young men and women and children, the horror of genocide. These evils need to be dealt with. They need to be eradicated from the earth and humanity deserves to live in peace and safety. Forgiveness? No! Maybe Jesus in his humanity couldn’t imagine the kind of evil that infects our world today. Maybe his “70 times seven” would have been tempered a bit.

But we must remember the heinous things that happened in Jesus’ time. They were actually not that much different from today – slavery, war, murder, genocide, abuse. It almost seems hopeless, as we have not learned a whole lot from Jesus’ time until now. But Jesus makes it very plain that we must forgive or we, too, will suffer punishment.

So, how do we start? We might look once again at the Amish. Their ability to forgive came from the center of their theology, which is the Lord’s prayer. They believe it when they say, “as we forgive those who trespass against us.” Over and over, Amish leaders tried to explain that to journalists and others who could not believe the parents of the dead little girls could forgive. What we may tend to forget, however, which the Amish people also made quite clear, is that forgiveness did not take away the burning pain of loss, the near despair of losing children. There is the crux of the matter. This is where we might find the ability to begin learning to forgive. That old cliché “forgive and forget” just doesn’t work.

Forgiveness doesn’t numb our minds and hearts to the pain we feel. Forgiveness doesn’t mean justice does not need to be carried out. Forgiveness doesn’t mean that perpetrators must not be stopped just because our hearts have gotten all warm and fuzzy with our forgiveness of them. Sadly, our world is not yet the fullness of the Kingdom. The wars going on in the Middle East, the genocide taking place in the name of God, the evils done to men, women and children because of lust – all need to be eradicated, the perpetrators punished. The victims will be forever changed, and that breaks the heart of God. The perpetrators may not even want our forgiveness. And many of these issues may not have touched us here. We might pray for conversion of the evil ones. We might pray that they are found and brought to justice. We might begin our practice of forgiveness here. We might offer the difficulty of our forgiveness to God. Pray that we might be able to hold the hurt of others in our hearts while we place those we need to forgive into God’s.

Then we might look at forgiveness closer to home. This, perhaps, might be harder. When we are the ones who have been hurt, we may find forgiveness even of family members difficult. How many stories have we heard about brothers and sisters not speaking to each other for years, or churches being divided over small incidents? Hurt goes deep.

Being the first to seek reconciliation is hard, but that’s what Jesus means when he says, “70 times seven.” The good news in all this is that we are not alone when we are called to forgive or to seek reconciliation. In it all, God is with us. God has shown us the ultimate image of forgiveness when Jesus died on the cross for us all, taking our sins upon himself and promising us resurrection. Forgiveness is only possible if we remember God is within and God is our strength. That promise upholds us even when our willingness to reconcile with another or forgive is rejected. God knows our heart – God is our heart. God has even promised that when words fail us, the Spirit will give us words.

Later, when we pray the Lord’s Prayer together, take the words “as we forgive those who trespass against us,” into your hearts. Only then, can we begin to understand what forgiveness is all about.

 

— The Rev. Dr. Susanna Metz is vicar of Petrockstowe in the Torridge Team, Diocese of Exeter, North Devon, England, and is the publisher of Tuesday Morning, a quarterly journal focused on lectionary-based preaching and ministry.

You have to be taught to love, Pentecost 13, Proper 19 – 2011

[RCL] Exodus 14:19-31 and Psalm 114 or Exodus 15:1b-11,20-21 (or Genesis 50:15-21 and Psalm 103:(1-7), 8-13); Romans 14:1-12; Matthew 18:21-35

You have to be taught to hate.

Little boys do not stitch together their own Klansman robes. Young girls do not look longingly at vests in shop windows with visions of being a suicide bomber. Yes, children will readily turn sticks into swords and guns for their play. But they do not name someone as “other,” the enemy, an object of hate. You have to be taught to name the ones to be feared and fought as “the Russians,” “the Vietnamese,” “the Iraqis.” And while the color of someone’s skin does not readily carry values, children can learn to hate based on the differing tones as easily as they can be taught to hate a group of people for the attractions they feel or the beliefs they hold.

The specific gravity of parents’ thoughts can tip the scales of a child’s heart very easily at the earliest age. Kids can barely grasp the meaning of “cat” and “cup” and “car,” and soon after are taught to use that God-given ability for speech to spew hate.

No one is immune to learning hatred. But the progress of a child’s path is much faster than an adult’s, and we are startled at a kindergartner who hates someone because he is a Jew, or because she is a Muslim, or because the family is Christian. The youngster is not clear on what the words mean, just that the person is “other,” and dangerous to all that is good – or so those he or she loves have said.

This same path to hate can be followed at any age. Teens with no hope of a future can readily be shown how to channel their hopelessness into hate. Grown men and women, too, can channel frustrations and fear into hatred.

How far hatred can carry the human heart was made crushingly clear ten years ago at 8:46 a.m., Eastern Daylight Time. American Airlines Flight 11 from Boston was bound for Los Angeles when it was hijacked 15 minutes into the flight. Loaded with fuel for the cross-country trip, the plane became a guided missile, slamming 91 people into the North Tower of the World Trade Center. Within minutes, the media was going live with news of a terrible accident in New York as firefighters and policeman rushed through Manhattan commuter traffic toward the shredded remains of the upper floors of the tower.

Around the city, eyes looked toward the World Trade Center. Seventeen minutes after the first accident, many more people saw the impossible happen: a second airliner disappeared into the South Tower. The situation came into focus: no accident had occurred. America was under attack.

Unimaginable tragedies piled one upon another, with a plane crashing into the Pentagon and another into a Pennsylvania field. The Twin Towers fell. Before night fell, the nineteen hijackers had killed 2,973 people and sent out waves of grief around the world.

The hijackers had been fed a steady diet of hate. They were consumed by that hate and fed a desire to lash out against the United States in an act of terror more important to them than their own lives.

The carnage of that morning gouged a deep wound in the psyche of the United States. Ten years later, the wound has not completely healed. We fought back, first against the Taliban in Afghanistan, and then against Saddam Hussein and those who supported him in Iraq. Seal Team Six took out Osama Bin Laden, the man behind the terror. Yet none of these actions has brought healing. The surface is scarred over. The pain remains.

On this day, when we remember the carnage wrought, we can recall with crystal clarity the effects of distilled evil. We bring that collective pain here to the altar. And on this day of all days, we hear in our appointed readings of scripture, a mixed message. From Exodus, we get the story of the Children of Israel at the Red Sea. God drives back the water, the people cross on dry land and then Pharaoh and his pursuing army is drowned. The Lord has triumphed gloriously, the horse and rider he has thrown into the sea. This wrath of God seems appropriate. Good destroys evil.

But that is not what followed September 11. God’s judgment still hangs in the balance.

On this day, we also read Jesus’ parable of grace and forgiveness. Jesus tells of a man who is not simply in debt; he faces an impossibly large mountain of money to repay. One Biblical scholar, Eugene Boring, has calculated that as King Herod’s annual income from all taxes from all his territories was a mere 900 talents per year, the 10,000 talents would exceed all of the taxes of Syria, Phoenicia, Judea, and Samaria as well. The parable is hyperbole; no servant could amass a debt so large. Then, when the king cancels the debt, the man, now free from the burden, goes out to demand payment from someone who owes him a debt equal to a hundred days’ wages.

The first debt was so great as to be impossible either to owe or to pay. That is, until we realize that in the parable, it is we who are the debtors. We owe a debt to God that we cannot possibly repay. God has not only given us life, but continues to love us and want what is best for us when our every action falls short of the glory of God. Our sins mount up higher and higher until there is no way we could begin to atone for them. And through faith in Jesus, the Christ, we can repent, turn back from our sins, and find the debt has been canceled. And then, like the merciless servant, we go expecting everyone else to pay up for the hurts they cause us.

Jesus’ point is well made. God has forgiven each of us so much that we should go out to forgive others. But aren’t some acts too great to forgive? On this day of all days, we know how great an evil can grow within the confines of the human heart.

And this one day does not stand alone. World history is packed to the brim with acts of evil. Even within living memory, many of us have seen the killing fields of Cambodia, the wholesale slaughter of Stalin’s iron-fisted reign over Russia, and the genocide of Rwanda. We have learned that once we are taught to demonize those we hate, then any act can be justified. In the death camps of Nazi Germany, we discovered that one can be raised on the poetry of Rilke, the prose of Goethe, the breathtakingly beautiful compositions of Bach, and the moving operas of Wagner, yet use the finest tools of human understanding in the attempt to systematically wipe out a people.

Looking to these acts of extreme violence, we must ask, Are there not some crimes to heinous to forgive? And on this day, we ask, Isn’t forgiving the perpetrators of September 11 too much to ask? How could those of us who remain alive even have the right to forgive?

The answer from scripture is two-fold. First, scripture teaches that judgment is for God alone. Second, we are to forgive as we have been forgiven.

In the reading from Romans, Paul says, “Why do you pass judgment on your brother or sister? Or you, why do you despise your brother or sister? For we will all stand before the judgment seat of God.”

We are, each of us accountable for our actions before God. We are not accountable for the injury done to us, but for our reaction to that hurt. We are then accountable for the actions we do in reaction to the pain we are caused.

Jesus, who taught us to pray “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us,” called out from the cross, “Father forgive them for they know not what they do.” Yet, forgiveness can be so difficult. This is true at the global scale with an act like the terrorist attacks we remember today. And forgiveness can cut just as deep for those not directly touched by 9/11, who wonder if they can forgive a father who committed incest, a business partner who stole money, and too many other private tragedies to name.

Yet, not forgiving, means holding on to the hate. Not forgiving someone is like drinking poison in the hope that the other person will die.

This does not speak to how a nation should react when attacked by another nation or by terrorists. Instead, we are speaking about how one might react to the very personal hurt and betrayals he or she has suffered. Will you let hurt fester until it distills into hate? Or will you pray for the grace to forgive?

Archbishop Desmond Tutu knows about forgiveness through the daring act of helping lead South Africa through truth and reconciliation after the end of Apartheid. This involved thousands of acts of confession and forgiveness. He has written of this process saying, “Forgiveness does not mean condoning what has been done. It means taking what happened seriously and not minimizing it; drawing out the sting in the memory that threatens to poison our entire existence. It involves trying to understand the perpetrators and so have empathy, to try to stand in their shoes and appreciate the sort of pressures and influences that might have conditioned them.”

Forgiveness does not have to mean forgetting, and reconciliation is not always possible. Forgiveness means trusting judgment to God, and this is only possible by the grace that comes from God alone. Archbishop Tutu writes, “Forgiving means abandoning your right to pay back the perpetrator in his own coin, but it is a loss that liberates the victim.”

God became human in Jesus of Nazareth. He lived among us, not just teaching about love, but more importantly, showing us the love of God. Jesus chose to show power through his powerlessness on the cross. Jesus continually gave the example of turning the other cheek, of offering mercy, love, and forgiveness. God came in Jesus and offered us the redemptive power of his blood. He also gave us a pattern for how humans can live godly lives.

Jesus’ example was vital, as men and women do not naturally let go of past hurts. We have to learn grace and forgiveness. Children do not learn to forgive unless they are shown by example.

You have to be taught to love.

Written by the Rev. Canon Frank Logue
The Rev. Canon Frank Logue is the Canon to the Ordinary for the Diocese of Georgia.

Real forgiveness, Pentecost 18, Proper 19 – 2008

[RCL] Genesis 50:15-21; Psalm 103:(1-7), 8-13; Romans 14:1-12; Matthew 18:21-35

The Old Testament scholar Gerhard von Rad wrote: “Real forgiveness is not a purely interpersonal matter, but it reaches deeply into the relationship of men before God.”

The three lectionary passages today, taken from the end of the book of Genesis, from St. Paul’s Letter to the Roman Christians, and from Matthew’s retelling of Jesus’ parable to his disciples, present us with profound lessons on tolerance and forgiveness.

In the very last chapter of Genesis we read the finale of the Joseph story. There is nothing easy or light or sentimental in the ending of this story, one that reads like an exciting short novel.

Out of jealousy and spite, the sons of Jacob had committed a grave crime against their brother Joseph. Years later they discover that their victim has survived and has become a great man in another land: Egypt. They, too, eventually go to this land to escape starvation, and their wronged brother is the only one who can save them and their huge clan.

Today’s lesson picks up the story right after the death of the patriarch, Jacob. Now that their father is dead, the brothers, filled with guilt, are afraid that Joseph will take revenge on them. They tell him, probably falsely, that it was their father’s last wish that Joseph should forgive them. Joseph’s answer is surprising, even today: “Am I in the place of God?” he asks. “Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good.”

This is the crux of the story. God takes evil and turns it into good in order to achieve God’s purpose of salvation. A human being cannot change this. We can hear Joseph’s thinking: What good would it do for me to take revenge on you, when God has changed your evil act against one person into a great good for so many?

Today, we are bound to wonder how different world history would be if all persons and nations thought this way: History is in God’s hands; how can we become gods and change it through war, revenge, and evil?

In the second lesson, St. Paul is not confronting evil but cultural differences that stand in the way of what is good for all. There is that marvelous verse that says, “Welcome those who are weak in faith but not for the sake of quarreling over opinions.”

This hits at all of us. We love to quarrel with others over attitudes, opinions, and customs, over petty things that ultimately have very little to do with who God is and God’s desire for us to live in communion and peace.

The same old arguments that the Pharisees used in their efforts to make Jesus stumble in his answers are now being confronted by Saint Paul in today’s reading. The Jewish converts to Christianity are scandalized by the Gentile converts who are used to eating meat and drinking wine, and who don’t have any traditional commitment to Sabbath observance. So they pick fights with one another. Who here is the weaker and who is the stronger, Paul doesn’t say, but we can guess. He seems to be comfortable with those who eat meat and who don’t agonize over all the minutiae of keeping the Sabbath, but he is also understanding about the differences and a bit amused with the pettiness. We can see him smiling under his beard.

Paul’s reaction is founded on tolerance of differences and respect for those who seem weak to the strong. This is an excellent lesson for us in this age of multicultural encounters and global concerns. Two thousand plus years ago, when people prided themselves on not being tolerant of strangers, comes this early Christian who urged us to respect and tolerate what today we would call cultural differences. We need to remember this urging as we contemplate the differences in our Anglican Communion.

The passage in Matthew delves much, much deeper into the realm of forgiveness, which is profoundly more serious than tolerance.

Like all parables, it is set in its own context, and portions of it may seem harsh to modern sensibilities.

Two points must be clarified about the context of this parable. The law of Moses as presented in the book of Leviticus says this about poverty and being sold into slavery: “If any who are dependent on you become so impoverished that they sell themselves to you, you shall not make them serve as slaves.” We see that being sold into slavery is allowed by the law but the mean treatment of poor people who have to sell themselves into slavery is forbidden.

The second point that must not be ignored is this: Jesus makes it clear that God’s forgiveness is unlimited; that’s what he means by seventy times seven. But the story also presents an obstacle to forgiveness and we will come to that in a moment.

The king in the parable acts with magnanimity and compassion. When the slave begs to be forgiven the debt and not to be sold, the king releases him and forgives the whole debt, which is enormous. The problem comes when the man who is forgiven does not have the same grace and compassion toward those who are indebted to him. This parable makes tangible the meaning of the pleading in the Lord’s prayer: “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.”

Like so much else in the life of faith, it is a paradox. God cannot forgive us until we forgive others. Instead of the Creator initiating the act, it is the creature who must make the first move in forgiveness. This is the only obstacle to God’s forgiveness: our own refusal to forgive.

Forgiveness is much more beneficial to the one who forgives than to the one who is forgiven. All of us know that this is not just theory but understand its truth from experience. Jesus told it as a story that fitted the context of his time. Centuries later, human understanding of emotions would assert this in psychology: forgiving, letting go of feelings of revenge and retribution, is a potent healing act.

As individuals, most of us have experienced the great release of being able to forgive. It has nothing to do with sentiment; it is a powerful act of will. As nations, we have failed miserably. As communities, we have not learned to forgive.

The last verse, with its harshness, is appropriate for all those who seek war instead of peace and who hold on to revenge and meanness instead of practicing forgiveness. “So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”

We, as individuals and as nations, need to take this very seriously indeed. “Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us.”

Written by Katerina K. Whitley
Katerina Whitley is an author and retreat leader. For more on her books, retreats, and workshops, visit www.katerinawhitley.net or e-mail katewhitley@charter.net.