Sermon: 15th Sunday after Pentecost 17 September 2017 Proper 24
St Andrews 160th Anniversary
Genesis 50:15-21 Psalm 103: (1-7)8-13 Romans 14:1-12 Matthew 18:21-35
Heavenly Father, we bow in your presence. May your word be our rule, your Spirit our teacher, and your greater glory our supreme concern, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.1
A man named John Oglethorpe, in talking to John Wesley, once made the comment, “I never forgive.” Mr. Wesley wisely replied, “Then, Sir, I hope that you never sin.”2
Last week we heard how Jesus addressed dealing with conflict within a congregation. We learned about the gift of community, of relationships, of reconciliation. There is a relationship between reconciliation and forgiveness, which Matthew makes clear in our Gospel reading today. Our passage starts where we stopped last week. Then Peter came and said to Jesus, ‘Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? Peter narrows the context to individual conflict. What if someone does something wrong to me?
Peter has hung around Jesus long enough to know that a higher standard will apply. So he suggests forgiving up to 7 times. After all, someone might get a 2nd chance, but 7 chances, well, that is pretty generous. Jesus says, no, you must forgive 77 times, or 7 times 70. In any case it is a lot. Immeasurable. Peter tried, he raised the ante by 133 percent, but he is still thinking of measurable mercy, not unlimited grace. Jesus’ answer is telling us that forgiveness is not to be measured, it is limitless. We are not to keep track. If we put a limit on it, we will be waiting for a line to be crossed and then – poof - no more forgiveness. If you are keeping track, it is not forgiveness.
Then Jesus does what he often did, proceeds to tell a parable to illustrate his point. A story full of exaggerations. And starts with, the kingdom heaven of heaven can be compared to….
A king is calling in the debts from his servants. A man is brought to him that owes 10,000 talents – equivalent to about 150,000 years of a labourers’ wage. A ridiculous amount. Gazillions. Impossible to repay. Well, says the king, then you and your family will have to be sold so I can get some of my money back. Oh, no, please, no, just give me some time and I will pay it all back. Please! Well, the king had pity on him, and, instead of giving him more time to pay, he forgave the whole debt! Wrote it off and the man was let go.
What did the man do in gratitude? Well, he ran into a fellow servant who owed him 100 denarii – about 100 days wages – and ordered him to repay the debt. Not only did he demand it, he physically assaulted the man. The fellow servant, said, please, just give me some more time and I will pay it all back. No way, and the man was thrown into jail. There were witnesses to this and they reported back to their master. The unforgiving man is hauled back up in front of the king and called out on his conduct. He didn’t pay it forward, in today’s parlance. Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant as I had mercy on you? And he is thrown into jail to be tortured until he repays his debt, a debt impossible to pay. Jesus says the same will happen to everyone who does not forgive from the heart. Harsh? Yes. But in his Sermon on the Mount, which took place before this conversation, Jesus also said, for if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; 15 but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.
What does it mean to forgive from the heart? How can we possibly guarantee that our forgiveness will be from the heart? God is a God of grace. Like the king in the story, he has compassion on our human failures, and like the king, acts more graciously than we could ever expect. The servant who owed an impossible debt simply asked for more time to pay but the king compassionately, and graciously, forgave the debt. When we experience such grace, truly, we are transformed in gratitude. Grace that is experienced as grace in turn begets grace.
If God’s grace has affected our lives, we will live differently in relation to others. This transformation through the experience of grace is not something mechanical or mathematical, rather it comes ‘from the heart.’
Joseph was terribly wronged by his brothers – sold into slavery because they despised him. He had a choice whether or not to forgive them. But over the years, despite all the hardships, he was transformed by God’s grace. Joseph forgave his brothers, to their utter amazement! Grace begets grace.
The relatives of the shooting victims in the South Carolina church forgave the man who killed nine people. Why? The relatives said that they lived in love. We have no room for hating, they said, so we have to forgive.
The father of the student shot in Taber, Alberta in 1999 forgave the assailant. Why? He recently said that if they hadn’t gone to the place of forgiveness, then they would be stuck in the place of bitterness, anger, resentment, and all that does is damage more people.
If Paul had preached judgement instead of understanding and harmony, would the new church have grown?
We are celebrating 160 years of worship in this place. This far by faith. For a good part of those 160 years, Episcopalian, Lutheran, Presbyterians and United congregations shared this building. They shared the cleaning, the maintenance, the expenses, the gifts, the problems and disputes. They came this far by understanding and harmony.
The path of forgiveness can be hard but a path without forgiveness is harder still. Pope Francis recently visited Columbia, a country under armed rebellion for 50 years. 250,000 people dead. 60,000 missing and millions more displaced. The government and rebels signed a peace accord a year ago but the Columbians are badly divided over the accord. In an appeal to the Columbians to begin the process of reconciliation, he quoted the country’s Nobel laureate: The solitude of being at loggerheads has been familiar for decades and its smell has lingered for a hundred years. Pope Francis then appealed to the young people to take the lead in promoting forgiveness, because they are more able than adults to leave behind what has hurt them and to look to the future without hatred. Commit yourselves to heal wounds, build bridges and support one another, he said. We don’t want any type of violence whatsoever to restrict or destroy one more life.
10,000 talents – an incalculable debt. So was the debt Jesus paid for with his life - for all of the sins - of all believers - in all the world - through all time. Each of us is the servant who was forgiven much but refuses to forgive little. It is not easy to forgive without condition, without limit. Forgiveness has to come from the heart. It means giving up our rightful resentment, surrendering our right to get even. Every time we fail to forgive from the heart, we pile up our debt. We are forgiven because God loves us. Failing to do so challenges the king to reverse his grace. If God’s grace has affected our lives, we are transformed and we will live differently in relation to others.
Joseph wept as his brothers begged for mercy. Forgiveness lifts the burdens we carry, whether guilt… or… grievance. It isn’t easy. When we have been wronged, we really take it personally. Grudges hurt. They hurt us, they hurt those around us. They hurt people we aren’t aware we are hurting. We have to find it in our hearts to forgive. We must not be like the forgiven servant who somehow put the king’s mercy aside, who gave no thought to extending a small mercy to someone else. Maybe he thought it didn’t apply to him? Well it applies to all of us. Think about it. Think about a lingering grudge with a friend. Think about that hurtful encounter with a family member. Think about forgiving.
Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.
We don’t have to do it alone. Christ has promised to be with us, to support us, to lift our burdens. We are forgiven children of God. When we truly see that, truly believe that….. we will forgive from the heart.
We are called to be the presence of Christ in this world. We have no choice but to forgive.
Thanks be to God.
1 Excellent Preaching, Logos, p67, prayer before preaching by John Stott.
2 Michael P. Green, ed., Illustrations for Biblical Preaching: Over 1500 Sermon Illustrations Arranged by Topic and Indexed Exhaustively, Revised edition of: The expositor’s illustration file. (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1989).
Sermon: Second Sunday after Pentecost: 18 June 2017 (Proper 11)
“You received without payment; give without payment” (Matthew 10.8b).
With these words, Christ sends his disciples as labourers into the harvest. Unusual directions for harvesters, no? “Give without payment?” Don’t harvesters expect to be gathering rather than giving? And the image of harvest early in the passage is so powerful – even for us non-farmers – that we end up reading the whole passage as instructions for gathering souls, for making converts to Christianity. But then this later detail easily slips by unnoticed: as he sends them out to work this harvest, Christ tells his disciples, they must “give without payment.” But what can that mean? What kind of a harvest are we dealing with if it’s gathered in by giving freely? What exactly are we harvesting and for whom?
To make sense of this, we need to think back a bit in the passage to what started this whole train of thought. “When [Jesus] saw the crowds, he had compassion for them because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd” (9.36). The crowds are the poor, the marginalized, the sick in mind and body, the emotionally and spiritually abused and neglected, those who hunger and thirst for justice – yes, it’s right to hear some echoes of the beatitudes here. Christ sees these crowds of God’s blessed ones and is filled with compassion, with gut-wrenching sadness and pity for people who are unfairly starved of the good things for which God created them.
“Then he [says] to his disciples, ‘The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few’” (9.37). He’s not talking about gathering the poor crowds of people as a harvest for God; this is about gathering God’s abundant blessings as a harvest for these people. Christ is moved with compassion for the poor crowds, but he also has hope for them because he knows that God’s goodness is a plentiful harvest, enough for all, only waiting to be distributed to those in need.
“The harvest is plentiful.” This is a hard outlook for us to adopt. We are so used to living with an outlook of scarcity: there’s only so much wealth to go around, after all; there’s only so much time in a day, only so much energy available. But God’s economy works differently. In God’s economy, there’s always enough for everyone; we only need to be willing to gather it up and hand it out. That’s because God’s economy is an economy of love. And unlike money, unlike products, even unlike time, love is not used up when it is used. In fact, the only way to use up love is to try and save it up: to store it away, to keep it safe or to budget it. But the more freely we love and the more freely we give it away, the more we have of it to give and the more there is to go around.
So Christ sends his disciples to the crowds of “lost sheep” with instructions to distribute God’s harvest of love, which is the kingdom of heaven come near.
Several years back, a movie came out called Pay it Forward, with a mostly forgettable plot but an inspiring idea. If, instead of paying back kindness as a debt to the person who has helped us, we were to pay the kindness “forward” to three others whom we find to be in need like we were, deeds of kindness and caring could spread like wildfire and make the world a better place. This seems like one good way to break out of our economy of scarcity and to test out God’s economy of abundance: “you received without payment; give without payment.” “Pay it forward” offers at least a picture of what it can be like for love to grow the more it is given.
To see the opposite image, of how love can shrink when it is stored away, budgeted and kept “safe” only for those who deserve it, we don’t have to spend much time paying attention to the news. Last week in England, Grenfell Tower, a 24-story apartment building went up in flames, killing dozens of people – they’re still trying to figure out exactly how many and who. As if tragedy weren’t enough, it turns out that the building was a public housing unit; that fire safety had been an ongoing, unaddressed concern of residents; that a sprinkler system was not installed – perhaps partly because of the cost; that the siding was flammable and not recommended for buildings of that height, but might have been installed partly to make it nicer for more wealthy neighbours to look at. Lost sheep without a shepherd. “When [Christ] saw the crowds, he had compassion for them.”
Or then there’s the unending footage of refugees trying desperately to cross into Europe. They walk for weeks; they allow themselves to be packed into suffocating cargo containers; if they survive the journey, they crowd into refugee camps. Perhaps the most gut-wrenching are the images of over-loaded rubber dinghies barely floating on the waves of the Mediterranean, certain to go under sooner or later, less certain to be rescued – filled with men and women of all ages, but it is the children that always set the tears flowing. Lost sheep without a shepherd. “When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them.”
There are so many crowds of these lost sheep. Our instinct is to pull back, to tell ourselves we don’t have enough resources to help them all, to budget and ration our love. But Christ tells his disciples, “the harvest is plentiful, but the labourers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest” (9.37-38).
By now, we should know that, like the first disciples, we ourselves are the labourers we’re praying for. We have freely received; we must freely give God’s love to all who are in need. To that end, we must look with the eyes of Christ to see with compassion the crowds around us.
In this passage, Christ sends his disciples specifically to “the lost sheep of the house of Israel,” and to no one else. He limits their mission to those who are most like them – in religion, culture, language and geography. Later on, after his resurrection, he will send them into “all the world,” but here, he starts them out with a smaller field of mission. Maybe it’s because these are people to whom they can already relate, to make it easier for them to start to see others with his eyes of compassion.
How can we practise seeing with Christ’s eyes of compassion? Where are the Grenfell Towers of our neighbourhoods, where people are living in danger simply because they are poor? Where in our communities are the “boats” of desperate people trying to cross from despair into hope, but looking in vain for labourers to reach out a helping hand to draw them to safety? “The harvest is plentiful, but the labourers are few.” May we have courage to be sent as labourers in God’s harvest of love.