A Lutheran Says What?

Sermons and random thoughts on God, the world and the intersection of the two

“You’re so vain, you probably think this sermon is about you.” Matthew 18:18-35, 14th Sunday of Pentecost, Year A, Sept. 14th, 2014 September 15, 2014

So, I’m a child of the 70’s and I love 70’s music. You’ve heard me say before that being in the car a lot I like my XM radio (if you hold out long enough, it comes down to a cheap monthly rate). The 70’s station is my favorite, a time when talented singer/songwriters such as Carly Simon were common. One of her hits was “You’re so Vain.” It’s a classic breakup song that regals us, with sarcasm and wit, the damage this former boyfriend (and the speculation of who that was) did to her. We all identify with her plight, as we all know people who only think of themselves and don’t really give much thought to how their words or actions might possibly affect someone else. We all have people in our lives who annoy us, lie to us, or wound us in some way and somehow belting out the words “You probably think this song is about you, don’t you? Don’t you?” as you roll down I-25 is slightly cathartic.
Carly Simon puts into a three minute song the microcosm of life with other people. It’s messy, complex and humans tend to be self absorbed. I don’t think that it’s a coincidence that in Matthew 18 we move from “where two or three are gathered in my name,” to Peter asking how many times he has to forgive these other people who are ostensibly gathered in Jesus name. I’ve been saying all week, “where two or three are gathered…you’re gonna need forgiveness.” We are focused on ourselves and so we bump into one another in ways we’re not even always aware we’re doing and we leave scars to show for it. We wound each other in small and large ways. What are we to do when this happens? Do we forgive the person who gossiped about us? Probably. Do we forgive the person who stole $20 from us? Again, probably. But what about my friend who asks me if she should forgive her ex-husband who killed their children? Honestly, I don’t know. Or what about a victim of abuse, should they forgive their abuser? I don’t know. I guess it depends what we mean by the word “forgive”. Is it to forgive and forget? Is is a clearing of the balance sheet of wrongs done to you by someone or wrongs that you have committed? Is it a second chance? Or is it something else entirely?
Peter is wrestling with this too apparently, and I bet he had a specific incident in mind when he asked Jesus about how many times to forgive someone. Peter must have had a repeat offender in his life. Jesus’ initial answer is frankly a little too school yard playground for me: you should forgive over and over. Well, that’s great if someone just takes your juice box and cookie but I’m not sure that speaks to some of the real abuse and damage that people can inflict on one another.
But Jesus doesn’t stop there with that seemingly oversimplified response. He continues and tells Peter and the others, this over the top parable of the “unforgiving servant.” It’s so steeped in ridiculousness that we know it’s not to be read literally. So we pay attention to the theme of the parable. The amount of debt this slave owes the king is more than a servant can actually ever rack up in a life time. It would be like you or me garnering a billion dollars in debt. We would actually have to work really hard at accumulating that amount of debt. This slave that owes so much, throws himself at the mercy of the king and the king responds out of pity-he feels bad for him and releases him from his overwhelming debt. The slave is free.
What’s the first thing the slave does with his newly found freedom? He takes a fellow servant by the throat and threatens him. In his freedom, he chose to continue worrying about himself. The other slaves told the king of course, who was furious. This slave, who for a brief bit of time, had it all, and lost it all just as quickly and is handed over to be tortured. And then Jesus, not being the touchy, feely, pacifist that I prefer, says that this is what will happen to us if we don’t forgive from the heart. Ok, about now all I’m hanging on to is that this is just a parable.
See here’s the thing. We all hear this story and immediately start to worry about ourselves. So, I have to forgive or lose God’s grace? I have to forgive no matter what the circumstance? How do I know if I’ve really forgiven someone? But I’m still mad, broken and hurt! We want forgiveness to be easy, clear, and neat. I forgive you and the pain goes away. You forgive me and I stop feeling guilty. I forgive myself and I can finally have peace.
But that is not our human reality. Forgiveness doesn’t necessarily end the damage that has been done to each other. God forgives us completely and unconditionally each and everyday; more than the 77 times Jesus talks about, unless you’re under 2 months old. God knows that forgiving us is actually about acknowledging and entering into our brokenness and pain of our past and present, and offering us radical hope for a different future. God walks with us into that future. God also calls us to walk together into that future. When we can offer forgiveness to someone else, we are being honest about our pain; not burying it, not denying it and not ignoring it. We are also calling out the other person’s real brokenness that affects us. Forgiveness is a new way to be in relationship together, built on the grace and hope first offered us by God through Jesus over and over.
We are created for community, to be gathered together to reflect and reveal the loving presence of Christ wherever we are. The kingdom of heaven is God’s mercy for all God’s people and God’s desire for her people to fully live in hope, love and grace at all times and in all places. But this kingdom of heaven is not yet fully here, so we continue wound each other and must struggle with our human frailties of thinking only about ourselves, realities of violence, cheating, lying, and all of the other ways that we unfairly deny each other abundant life. Forgiveness doesn’t excuse any of our harmful behavior or means that we have to allow harm to be done to ourselves or others. Actually, in community we are compelled to call out wrong when we witness it and stand with those in harms way. But there is also this difficult reality that because of our interconnectedness, when we withhold forgiveness, when we deny anyone hope, we ultimately deny it to ourselves. It can feel like torture to live without hope for a tomorrow filled with the promises of God.
God extends to all of us radical forgiveness that is difficult for us to even receive because it is rooted in the very heart, the very being, of our unconditional loving God. If we truly receive this forgiveness, it compels us to offer it to someone else because it’s too important, too meaningful and too life giving to keep it to ourselves. We will want with our whole heart, with our whole being, for our neighbor to have this gift. Because ultimately, this forgiveness is about you and about all of us rooted in God’s mercy and love. Thanks be to God.