Preached @ St. Christopher’s E.C., Roseville, MN, 9/11/11, Matt 18:21-35
Ten years ago today was a beautiful Tuesday morning in New York City. I had gotten up at my usual early time, walked the dogs, gone to the gym, said Morning Prayer, had a quick breakfast and had left home a bit earlier than usual so I could go vote in the primary elections that were taking place that day. I arrived at work in downtown Manhattan at the usual time, approximately 7:45 AM or so. I was sitting in my office, doing I don’t know what, when I noticed something floating down past my windows. Looking, I saw it was bits of paper, and I thought “It’s too early for a ticker tape parade up Broadway.” Being a bit confused I looked again and noticed that most of the papers were either burning, or singed. Logging onto CNN on my computer I learned that the newscasters were surmising a small plane had struck the north tower of the WTC. I remember them showing a picture of a sizeable hole in the north side of that north tower. A very short while later, my staff and I heard the roar of the second plane and the crash and thunderous noise it made when it struck the south tower. We not only heard, but could actually feel the impact in our office. We were two blocks away and on the tenth floor of an office tower. Looking down at the street, we could see people running, hordes and hordes of people running: it reminded me of one of those bad Asian horror films of people running in the streets trying to escape the terrors of whatever beast was chasing them.
That was the beginning of a long morning where each moment will be forever etched in my memory. It is one of those times in life that has not faded, and probably won’t fade: one that I can call up details, as if it were yesterday and not ten years ago, today…..And by the working of the Holy Spirit we are provided a Gospel passage that may prove challenging for many of us….How do we forgive the trauma, loss and horrors of that day?.....How do we forgive?
Our Gospel selection for today is challenging and can be easily misinterpreted. Peter is once again given the role of foil to Jesus’ wisdom when he begins our passage today by asking Jesus how many times we must forgive, seven? Peter was being clever here, because the ancient and historic rabbinic teachings instructed to forgive three times: Peter more than doubled that teaching. And Jesus says no, not seven but 77, and then he launches into the story of the king and the slaves
This story of the king who forgives the slave a debt of 10,000 talents and that same slave’s inability to forgive a debt of 100 denari is one that needs some explanation in order to bring understanding and relevance to our ears. 1 talent was roughly equivalent to 15 years’ wages for the average worker. So this king’s forgiveness would equate to 150,000 years’ worth of wages being forgiven. That is quite a debt for the king to forgive this slave. 1 denari was roughly equivalent to 1 days’ wage. So this no longer indebted slave refused to forgive 100 days of wages. 100 days vs. 150,000 years worth of wages is the unbalanced scale the first hearers of this Gospel would have understood upon hearing Jesus tell this story…
Who does the king represent? God? Or us? If it is God, this makes the end of the story troublesome, because that forgiving king turns vicious when he learns of the forgiven slave’s actions, and that viciousness seems to run counter to the point at which Jesus is driving. But if the king is representative of us, all of us, then the king’s actions bring to light something different. The story illustrates and instructs us to pay heed to the importance of having a forgiving nature, a forgiving heart. The story also highlights how bad the lack of forgiveness truly can be, for us and for those for whom we refuse to grant forgiveness. This story is telling us to not be like the forgiven servant, but also to not imitate the king’s anger, for the king never really forgave the servant. We cannot forgive someone and retain resentment in our hearts….that lingering suspicion and dislike can so poison our relationships with one another.
Jesus is doing something remarkable today and something not at all popular in the culture of our nation. Jesus is pointing us away from revenge, away from resentment and the holding of grudges and toward a forgiving nature: which is the nature of God. Jesus is pointing us to have an unlimited forgiving nature, which is the nature of God. Today’s Gospel gives us a seemingly impossible challenge: to emulate God in this forgiving nature.
How can we effectuate that kind of attitude and mindset today? How does this forgiving nature we are called to embody have any relevance to us here at St. Christopher’s this September 11th…..this tenth anniversary of those terrorist attacks? How does this have anything to do with St. Christopher’s opening day festivities, this first day of our program year…..this first Sunday of your new rector’s tenure?
Over the past ten years, this anniversary has become to me like a funeral. For something important was lost that day ten years ago, and I’m not referring to the thousands of lives taken from us that morning. And funerals, in most people’s psyche’s and understandings can be sad, morose occasions. But in our Episcopal lives, we know that funerals are actually celebrations. The rubric found on page 507 of our BCP says (in part): The liturgy for the dead is an Easter liturgy. It finds all its meaning in the resurrection….The liturgy, therefore is characterized by joy….This joy, however, does not make human grief unchristian. The very love we have for each other in Christ brings deep sorrow when we are parted by death….So, while we rejoice that one we love has entered into the nearer presence or our Lord, we sorrow in sympathy with those who mourn. That statement provides a guideline for the richness and complexity that this anniversary can be for us, and can and does provide guidance in regard to this forgiving nature we are called to embody.
A question that always arises is, How is any of this fair? This idea of fairness is not the right focus because God’s love is basically unfair by our standards…..for it is for everyone, available to everyone. And it is from that basic, life-altering place, that we can begin to live into and embody a forgiving nature as a rooted-center to how we approach and interact in the world. Think about the talents and denari imbalance and the unfairness of the nature espoused by the servant character. St. Augustine opined that Jesus is referring to an unlimited amount of forgiveness by his choice of the number 77. Augustine pointed to the genealogy of Jesus in Luke; there being 77 generations listed going back to the creation stories. Augustine’s belief was that Matthew picked this number so as to prove the point that all generations have been forgiven through Jesus.
We are instructed by Jesus today to live into the unbalanced nature of forgiveness. We are to fall on the side of the 150,000 years, not the 100 days….we are to strive to forgive all the way back through every generation, not just three or seven times. This is an astounding thing to be asked to do.
Throughout all of scripture we find imbalance and unfairness, as we define those principles…. God’s definitions are far different. What we are called to today is an acknowledgement that God’s forgiveness, God’s forgiving nature outstrips every act we are called upon to forgive. An acceptance of that principle can allow us to upend our tangled-selves and straighten into a forgiving nature that controls who and what we are as a people and control how we operate in the world.…..Not at all easy…In particular when we are immersed in a national day of remembrance for acts that seem unforgiveable. But for God, and as demonstrated by Jesus today, nothing is unforgiveable. For us? The simple truth is we have our marching orders today….to approach the world with God’s forgiving nature imbuing all that we do.
The crashing discordance that may seem to be this anniversary of 9/11, the joyous celebration of the beginning of St. Christopher’s program year, and the grateful acknowledgment that a new rector has appeared here at St. Christopher’s, are really not disharmonious. Similar to the celebratory nature of a funeral, today can and does embody the richness that is our lives as the Body of Christ in the world today. There is the deep sadness and confusion of what occurred ten years ago, mixed with the joy of new life, a new year with new leadership. Anxiety and joy mixed together, as they always are in life. All rooted in love: love of this holy place, love of each other, love of God and God’s love for us…. and the knowledge of resurrection moments all around us. Jesus is showcasing for us in this story of the king and slaves that forgiveness brings about resurrection moments in our lives. And from that place of love and joy and excitement and unsettledness, we can find the strength to forgive, embody a forgiving nature that is transformative to each of us individually, as a community and will be transformative to all those we encounter. Amen.
Copyright 2011, The Rev. John F. Dwyer, All Rights Reserved.
Art: Orange and Silver Cross, 2008, jfd+