Monday, September 26, 2011

Sermon for Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost, God Values: Authority, Year A, Matthew 21:23-32


Sermon 9/25/11
Matthew 21:23-32

God Values: Authority


The process of becoming an ordained pastor is pretty long and involved. From start to finish, it took me nine years before the bishop laid hands on me and said, ʺtake thou authority.ʺ But before a candidate is allowed to get too far along in the process of becoming a pastor, she must undergo a battery of psychological tests, including a review of the results of these tests with the conference psychologist. The tests involve hundreds of questions as specific as whether you preferred President Washington or President Lincoln, and as vague as whether you hear “voices” – always a tricky question for those answering a call from God! I’ll admit I was suspicious of the testing process – wondering what some of these questions could possibly tell anyone about me, and frankly, not wanting someone to feel like they  knew me so well because of some multiple choice test I filled out rather than because they actually took the time to get to know me. When I met with the conference psychologist to review my results, my skepticism shone through – the test revealed among other things that I was a defensive test-taker, guarded in my answers! Another thing it revealed was that I also have a tendency to question authority figures. Apparently, I have authority issues. My reaction to the news, was, as revealed, to be a bit defensive and skeptical. Oh please. I don’t have issues with authority figures. What does this psychologist know?  
            But, my mother might tell you a different story. Not about issues between the two of us, but about my relationship with my sixth grade teacher, for example. Apparently, though I barely have a recollection of it myself, apparently I had gotten into the habit in sixth grade of publicly correcting my teacher when he was wrong. Surprisingly, he didn’t like this, and I got a note home about it. Now, I liked my sixth grade teacher a lot. I still remember him as one of my favorites. But I figured he was into sharing authority since he purposely left the answer book out for us to check our own homework responses. He gave an inch, I took a mile. I figured he wouldn’t mind a little help when I saw him giving a wrong response. Turns out, was the one who was wrong in that situation! OK. Maybe I have a small issue with authority figures.
            But, I think we all have some authority issues, or at least, questions about authority. Should someone have authority solely because of the position he holds? Does someone earn our respect and deference just because she is in charge of something? Over the years, I have had a deep admiration for some of my professors and teachers and mentors – but not because of their titles. Instead, I’ve admired and respected them because of an authority earned by intelligence, scholarship, compassion, dedication. Still, though, I certainly have learned since sixth grade that some authority figures simply have to be followed, obeyed, simply because of the position they hold, and that’s that. It won’t do me any good to argue with a police officer because I don’t respect her authority, right? The reality is that in our society, some people have authority simply because of the position they hold, and because we, as a community – a social community or a faith community – we have decided together to give them such authority for the good of the whole. So, have authority in this church on some matters, not because of who I am personally, but because of the role I fill – I am the pastor. Hopefully, over time, I have authority here because I earn it – you have known me for a couple of years now, and theoretically, by now you trust from experience and relationship that you can entrust me with the authority of being your pastor. But when I first arrived, and you didn’t know me at all, you still were asked as a congregation to trust in my authority, weren’t you – just based on the fact that I was sent here through a denominational system in whose authority you put some trust? So many authority issues!
Authority is a key element in today's gospel lesson. Our scene takes place very near the end of the gospel of Matthew. In fact, it occurs during the last days of Jesus' life – he is already in Jerusalem, after being welcomed into Jerusalem with triumph and palms waving. The time is short. In this text, Jesus has entered into the temple, and is teaching. And the chief priests and elders come up to him and say, ʺhey, who gave you authority to do these things?ʺ In other words, what gives you the right to come in here and teach as if you knew what you were talking about? Maybe you have been asked, or even asked someone that before in the heat of a conflict. What gives you the right to do that? Who put you in charge? Or: you aren’t the boss of me!  
            Jesus isn’t willing to just play their game and answer their questions. Or, maybe you could say he just plays the game better than they do, because he turns it around on them, and says he will absolutely answer their question – if they can answer his first, which is also about authority: The baptism of John, cousin of Jesus – did that come from heaven, or was it of human origin? The leaders debate; if they say from heaven, from God, Jesus will say, ʺthen why didn’t you believe him?ʺ But if we say of human origin, the people will be mad at us, because they think of John as a prophet. And they definitely didn’t want to risk the anger of the crowds. So they are trapped, and have to answer: We don’t know. Jesus has managed to make these people who are supposed to be religious authorities look pretty silly – they have to admit before all these people in the temple that they don’t know the answer – they can’t say whether John was legit or not. And so, Jesus concludes, I won’t tell you about the source of my authority either.
            Then Jesus tells them a little mini-parable. Two sons are asked by their father to go and work in his vineyard. One son says no, but then later changes his mind and goes to work anyway. The other says yes, but then never goes to work. Which did the will of the father, Jesus asks? Of course, his audience must admit, the one who actually made it to the vineyard, regardless of what he said he would do, was the one who did his parent's will. Jesus concludes saying that prostitutes and tax collectors will get to the kingdom of God before the priests and elders, because they believed, but the religious leaders won’t change their behavior or beliefs even when it becomes clear that they are in the wrong. In fact, when Jesus says that they won’t change their minds, the word he uses is what the bible usually translates as repent. The religious leaders just won’t repent, even when they realize they are wrong.
            The chief priests, the elders, and the other religious leaders Jesus comes into conflict with in the scriptures, like the Pharisees and scribes – Jesus isn’t saying that their authority shouldn’t be respected, in principle. In fact, in places in the gospels, he urges people to listen to what they teach, just not to follow what they do. No, I think Jesus respects the role they are meant to play – studying God's words, carrying out the rituals of the faith handed down for generations. But, eventually, their lives have to bear out the authority with which they’ve been entrusted.              
            I remember my mother once telling me about a friend of hers whose daughter had gotten in trouble on the bus at school, along with another young person. The woman’s daughter was a church-going child from a fairly well-to-do family, and the other child in trouble was just the opposite. When relaying the story, my mom’s friend said, ʺWell, at least I know that my daughter knew better, so that gives me comfort.ʺ My mom said to her, ʺBut doesn’t that make it worse? If the other kid didn’t know better, he can hardly be blamed for his behavior. But your child knew what was right, and still chose to misbehave.ʺ Naturally, my mom's wisdom did not endear her to her friend. But she had a good point, no? I think this is how Jesus feels about the religious leaders – they are supposed to know better! They have been given authority. And yet, they are like the son who says yes to hard work, but doesn’t actually carry out on the good behavior.  
            Whenever we read about the religious leaders in the gospels, we have to put ourselves in their roles to hear Jesus' message for us, because they, like it or not, are who we are most like, rather than the prostitutes and tax collectors! We are the church-goers, who have learned the stories, heard the gospel, have taken membership vows to say we believe certain things, and so on. So we have to answer Jesus' tough questions.
When have we made commitments to God, only to fail on the follow through? How many times have you made promises to God that for one reason or another, you have not kept? And how often do you find yourself responding to God when you had already told God “no?” Probably, if we are honest, we have more examples of saying yes to God and not acting than saying no and acting out a yes. Why is that? The chief priests knew the right answers in their hearts, but were unwilling to act because of image, because of stubbornness, because they wanted to keep their power. But in the end, Jesus made their supposed authority look pretty silly.
What about us? Why do we not follow through on what we say we will do, both in our human relationships and in our relationship with God? Is it really a case of good intentions gone awry, as I think we want to believe, or is something more at work here, some deeper issue emerging that we need to confront? Theologian Søren Kierkegaard wrote, “When you say “Yes” or promise something, you can very easily deceive yourself and others also, as if you had already done what you promised. It is easy to think that by making a promise you have at least done part of what you promised to do, as if the promise itself were something of value. Not at all! In fact, when you do not do what you promise, it is a long way back to the truth. Beware! The “Yes” of promise keeping is sleep-inducing. An honest “No” possesses much more promise. It can stimulate; repentance may not be far away. He who says “No,” becomes almost afraid of himself. But [those] who [say] “Yes, I will,” [are] all too pleased with [themselves]. The world is quite inclined – even eager – to make promises, for a promise appears very fine at the moment – it inspires! Yet for this very reason the eternal is suspicious of promises.”(1)
            For Jesus, things, as usual, come back to a question of words and actions. One pastor reminds us that “Jesus doesn't divide people up into believers and atheists. Jesus divides people into those who act and those who don't act.” (2) The religious folk in the temple had a lot to say about what was right. They were careful to study the scriptures, and they spent a lot of time in the temple, and they tried to figure out, in great detail, how to apply to scriptures for daily living. Yet, they were so sure they had things right, that they became unwilling to examine their lives to see if they were living what they were teaching, practicing what they were preaching. And they were unwilling to repent, and get back to work. Their words said yes, and their lives said no, as somehow they managed to overlook real ways to love God, active ways to love neighbor.
Jesus says that it isn’t the religious folk who are first in the kingdom of heaven. It is those who are most open to turning their lives around who are first in line, those who take action when Jesus says, “follow me.” Jesus doesn’t say ʺbelieve in meʺ - he says, ʺfollow me.ʺ As people of faith, do we have authority? What will our actions, our living say about us?
A parent had two children. The parent went to the first and said, “Child, go out and work for me today.” The child answered, “I will not,” but later, had a change of mind and went out and worked. The parent said to the second child and said the same, and the child answered, “Of course, I’ll go and work,” but then did not go after all. Which of these two did the will of the parent? They said, the first.
Amen.


(1) Søren Kierkegaard, “Under the Spell of Good Intentions,” 




Monday, September 19, 2011

Sermon for Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Year A - God Values: That’s Not Fair!


Sermon 9/18/11
Matthew 20:1-16

God Values: That’s Not Fair!


            A couple weeks ago, I told you all that I had a lot more to say to you about God and fairness. Well, today is that lucky day! Let me tell you a little story from my childhood. I am blessed to have a family that is well-educated. My mother, working as a nurse, always had a job, if not two, and by the time I was say, in junior high and high school, my family had a fairly stable middle class financial situation. But it took us a long time to get there. My early years were spent in the small country village of Westernville, and my father was out of work off and on from the time I was two until I was in fifth grade or so. That is another story to tell, but the point is, we were a poor family. We used food stamps, we received help from my grandparents, and we received one of the food baskets we helped put together at church. Westernville was too small for its own elementary school – we were bused to Rome for school, and as geography would have it, relatively poor Westernville kids went to school with kids from some of the wealthier parts of Rome.
            Somehow, it doesn’t take many years of life to learn the different between rich and poor and to assign value judgments – and poor is definitely not cool. The most popular girl in school, Kelly, child of a former professional baseball player and one of the teachers at school, who lived in a house that had more floors than I could count – well, she made my life pretty miserable sometimes. I remember most vividly that for my sixth grade birthday, my brother Jim took me to the mall and let me spend $100 of his hard earned money. It was a huge gift to me. In addition to Mariah Carey and Wilson Phillips single cassette tapes, among other things, my major purchase was a new outfit – a Skidz brand t-shirt and shorts. Anyone remember those? They were all the rage, and I knew, for once, I would be at school with the right clothes. When I arrived at school the next day, Kelly immediately made fun of me – because even though I had the right brand, I had purchased them from JCPenney, and not Tops N Bottoms, the cool store. I just couldn’t seem to win.
            The worst thing was though, that I was a kid who attended church every week, and I read my bible, and knew it pretty well, and I knew about this parable, and I knew pretty much what it meant. I knew this parable meant that Kelly, as mean as she was, as bad as she made me and other people feel – I knew Kelly was just as loved by God as I was, and that Kelly could live her life as she was and still get God's grace and all the benefits of our generous God if she wanted them. I actually thought about that a lot. And I knew that that was just. not. fair.
This parable, sometimes known as the Parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard, is taught by Jesus following another familiar scene. A rich young man had approached Jesus and asked about getting into the kingdom of heaven. Jesus told him to sell all his stuff and give it to the poor, and the man went away disappointed. Jesus then said to the disciples that it was harder for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God than for a camel to go through the eye of a needle. But, Jesus said, with God, anything is possible. Then Peter says, in reply, the scriptures tell us, ‘Look, we have left everything and followed you. What then will we have?’ Peter wants to know what exactly the disciples are in for. Jesus tells them they will receive eternal life, but that the first are last and the last are first. And then he tells this parable.
A landowner goes out in the morning to hire laborers for the vineyard. He offers them “whatever is right” for a day of labor. He goes out again at noon and at 3 and at 5, and hires more and more laborers. At the end of the day, the landowner pays them all a day’s wage. All of them. That means that the workers who have worked 10 hours, 8 hours, 5 hours, and 2 hours all get the same paycheck at the end of the day. Naturally, this upsets some of the workers. The workers who worked all day were suddenly less happy with the wage they had received, because those who worked only one hour also received the same salary. But the landowner won’t hear it: “Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree me for the usual daily wage? Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?” Jesus concludes, “So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”
This parable goes against everything we stand for and value in a society like ours. Here, you get what you work for, or at least we value such an ideal. We like things to be fair. We care about equality and equity. We know it isn’t right for people to get the same pay for such drastically different amounts of work. Who would agree to such a thing? Who wouldn’t be resentful of others who had it so easy, who hardly had to do anything to get such a reward. “I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you.” Do we feel the same sense of outrage if we remember that this parable is about the kingdom of heaven and about God’s grace?         
I think we have two responses to this parable that we don’t want to admit to ourselves. The first is this: I think we would say that we know what grace is. Goodness knows I talk about it enough, and talk about what it is, and our hymns are about grace, and our liturgies and our prayers and our sacraments – all about grace. And what do we know about grace? I hope that you have learned that grace is God's gift to us, it is free, without price, God's unconditional – that is without conditions! – love, which is poured out on everyone. That is grace. I hope that sounds familiar! But, the thing is, I don’t know if we believe in grace. Oh, I think we believe in it in an abstract way. We believe in it as a concept, a theory. But in practice? I am not convinced we really believe in grace – not fully, anyway.
I think, in our hearts, in our behavior, we are really trying, still, to earn grace, to make sure we are doing what is good enough to be loved by God. Maybe we don’t feel that we are good enough to be loved. So we try hard to be good enough. And somehow, we feel like, if at least we are better than the next person, if we are better than someone, than somehow we are a bit closer to God. We end up trying to get close to God by pushing others farther away, instead of by actually drawing close ourselves. We know from our own experience that love is inexplicable – who can explain why we love who we love? And yet, we can’t accept that God loves us. All of us.   
            So here is our second response to the parable. If we are finally convinced, at last, that God is gonna give the made elementary school rotten for everyone Kellys of the world as much love and grace as the awesomely well-behaved, life-long, faithful, didn’t even have delinquent college years Beths of the world, which, as we have established, is so unfair, then I think we start to have this creeping-into-our-minds question. Why do we bother trying so hard to be good and to live a good life? Why do we struggle so much to follow God's plans for us, God's commands for us, when other people seem to do what they want, and end up with the same reward as we do? If we get God's grace either way, why not live a little? Party a little? Go a little crazy? Why this struggle for following God, if God will ultimately find us and lavish us with grace anyway?
            Again, our response reveals what we really believe: that we see grace as a reward for good behavior and not an outright gift. Grace is not a prize that we get, but sometimes it seems that the only reason we are following God is because of the reward (or fine, gift, we might get out of it at the end.) When Jesus talks about abundant life, living water, bread of life, all that he offers, he is talking about what we can claim, the life we can live not in some distant future, but right now if we will walk with God who loves us. But don’t we sometimes treat these offers like chores we must complete to get to the end of the game and win the prize?     
            We are getting mixed up. The life God offers is meant to fill us up, fulfill us beyond our imagining. When push comes to shove, even though being a disciple is sometimes hard and challenging and seemingly impossible, I wouldn’t trade it in for a minute. I would never want to struggle with that emptiness, with that search for meaning, without knowing the love of God. I would never want to feel so groundless. The life God offers us is truly good and abundant. Laboring longer in God's vineyard is not a punishment, but in itself a blessing, being part of God's kingdom now, right here, today, on this earth, in this time.
            No, God is not at all interested in being fair. God is interested in justice. God is interested in mercy and compassion. God is interested in our abundant lives. God is interested in loving each and every single precious person in creation. But God definitely does not play fair. Thanks be to God. Amen. 

Lectionary Notes for Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Year A



Readings for 15th Sunday after Pentecost, 9/25/11:
Exodus 17:1-7, Psalm 78:1-4, 12-16, Philippians 2:1-13, Matthew 21:23-32


Exodus 17:1-7:
  • "wilderness of Sin" - great image.
  • Human nature is so perfectly exhibited by the Israelites, isn't it? We tend to find things to gripe about no matter what is going on in our lives. "They are almost ready to stone me," Moses admits. Perhaps pastors sometimes feel that way when trying to lead congregations out of the wilderness and into the vision which God has laid before the people. How can we get over our griping, count our blessings, and forge ahead?
  • The name, Massah and Meribah, is summed up as indicating the question of the people, "Is the Lord among us or not?" Hopefully, that should be a rhetorical question: the answer is yes. And if God is among the people, then the people should respond, live, with faith.
Psalm 78:1-4, 12-16:
  • "I will open my mouth in a parable" - I hadn't realized that the word 'parable' appeared in the Old Testament. But it reminds us that in Jesus' day, the people would have related to Jesus' style, more, perhaps, than we are able to relate today.
  • "We will not hide them from our children; we will tell to the coming generation" - I like these verses that convey a sense of the necessity to tell the story of a people, to make sure the history is known through time and generations. We have a tendency to forget whole chunks of our history, don't we, until we are repeating it!
  • Verses 12-16 refer to the Israelites being led through the Red Sea, into the wilderness, and receiving water to drink from the rock, which ties in with our Old Testament reading.
Philippians 2:1-13:
  • "if then there is any (fill in the blank) in Christ . . . be of the same mind, having the same love." Paul says that whatever in Christ there is, we should be like-minded. A good strategy!
  • "did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited" I find this such a unique statement. Imagine if Christ had used his equality to exploit? What would that look like? Perhaps this is what the devil was tempting Christ to do in the wilderness - to exploit his equality.
  • "emptied himself" Emptying ourselves.
  • "every knee should bend . . . every tongue should confess." Hm. This is one of those passages often used by people who are seeking to convert non-Christians and those of other faith traditions as proof or encouragement about the task at hand. Frankly, it makes me a bit uncomfortable. If the idea is that people will ultimately be moved to worship Jesus even against their will, I'm not sure I'd want to see that display...
  • "work out your own salvation" - this ends up being a very Wesleyan sentiment - obviously, Paul does not mean that we save ourselves, but he means to remind us that we are active participants in the justifying and sanctifying grace that should mark our lives as people of faith.
Matthew 21:23-32:
  • "by what authority" - the priests and elders want to know why Jesus thinks he "has the right" to teach as he's teaching. Who is he? Who's 'backing' him?
  • I love this, this trick Jesus sets them up for. Jesus himself knows the answer to his own question, doesn't he? But he traps them in a way that makes it impossible to answer. I think Jesus was having a good time here.
  • Jesus says - it is more important what you do than what your lips claim you believe. Did you hear that?
  • "change your minds" from the Greek metemele^the^te, which means "to repent" - this is not the typical word used for repentance/"change of minds" in the New Testament. It is usuallymetanoeo^, but the gist of the meaning is the same. But typically, NRSV translates the meaning as "repent" as opposed to this more literal rendering (preferred to me) of "change your minds."

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Sermon for Pentecost 13A, “God Values: Forgiveness”


Sermon 9/11/11
Matthew 18:21-35

God Values: Forgiveness

            Where were you when it happened? That is a question you might have been asked this week. Where were you on 9-11-01 when you head the news? I was in seminary. I had just started my internship at our United Methodist interfaith agency, located in the Upper West Side of Manhattan – I worked on Mondays and Fridays, and had put in just two days before September 11th. I was feeling pretty brave about going to work in the big city, riding the trains and the subway, being part of the commuter crowd. Thankfully, I was not in Manhattan on 9-11. I had been the day before.
            On the morning of the 11th, I, not surprisingly to those of you who know me well, was still asleep when the first plane hit the towers. Soon after, I was up and at the bookstore, when I heard a radio report saying something about a plane and a building, but I didn’t pay it much attention. I then went to the library, where I overheard a woman telling a work-study student that it was ok if he didn’t feel like working that day. And I couldn’t log onto cnn.com on the computers. But I still didn’t know what was happening. It wasn’t until I made my way to Seminary Hall, and began talking with other students, that I realized exactly what was happening. And so eventually the fear set in, the sadness, the anxiety. In the coming weeks, I found it hard to get over my fear of going back to the city for work, hard to relax on public transportation, hard to operate through fire drills at my office building there. And I found it hard to watch how we reacted as a nation, and as a world community to these events, how quickly the climate of the world changed. Today you’ll still hear the phrase, “in a post 9-11 world . . . ʺ
Into the midst of this day, ten years later, our lectionary, our schedule of scriptures, brings us a passage about forgiveness, and it is hard for me not to marvel at the mystery of how God is at work even in which Bible text we are meant to read when. It is certainly no mistake. Our passage from Matthew today comes in the middle of a series of teachings from Jesus. The disciples have asked Jesus some questions, and he has responded, teaching about not being stumbling blocks for one another, talking about it being better to enter God's kingdom without a foot or hand rather than to stumble and stray because of it. He speaks about conflict in the community, recommending a course of action if someone has sinned against you. And then, perhaps in response to this teaching, Peter asks Jesus: ʺLord, if another member of the faith community sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?ʺ Now, the way Peter asks his question gives you an idea that he thinks he is being pretty broad in his suggested response. As many as seven times? Peter asks and lets Jesus know he thinks seven times is a lot. See, Peter is learning, even though he stumbles. He is learning from Jesus and has learned that Jesus is pretty extravagant sometimes – not when it comes to having things and possessions and money. But extravagant about his relationships with others. Jesus is pretty extravagant with his compassion, justice, and mercy. Always going farther than anyone else was prepared to go. Peter, I suspect, thinks he will impress Jesus, by saying he suspects you might need to forgive someone up to seven times if they sin against you! Seven times!
             Jesus replies, “Nice try, Peter. Try seventy seven times. Seventy seven.” In other words, stop counting how many times you have forgiven, and then you are on the right track. And then Jesus tells a parable, about the kingdom of heaven, saying, “It’s like this. A king wanted to settle his debts. He called forward a slave who owed him 10,000 talents. The slave could not pay, so the king prepared to sell the slave, his family, and his possessions to make the payment. But the slave begged for mercy and patience, promising to pay. The king had mercy and cancelled the entire debt and released the slave, beyond what the slave asked for. But later, the same slave encounters a peer who owes him a small sum of money, a hundred denarii. He violently demands payment, and when his peer can’t pay, and begs for mercy, the slave denies him mercy, and has him thrown in prison. When the king finds out about it, he calls the slave before him. ‘How could you not show mercy to your fellow slave, as I showed you mercy?’ Finally, the king hands the slave over and requires payment for the debt.” Jesus concludes, saying that this is how it will be with us if we do not forgive one another.
            When we say the Lord's prayer here at First United, we say, ʺforgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.ʺ We say it that way in particular to honor our Presbyterian heritage, as we honor our  Methodist history in other ways, like through our hymnal choice. I grew up saying trespass and trespasses in the Lord's Prayer, and it took me a while to get the hang of saying debts and debtors, especially when I am still often at conference events that require me to switch back to trespasses! But I have to tell you, having to remember where I am and which words I am supposed to say each time I pray the prayer has helped me to think about it more deeply when I pray, instead of running quickly through familiar words. I have to really think about what I am saying every time. And what am I saying? Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.
            There has certainly been enough talk about debt, lately, hasn’t there? We know a little more about national debt and debt ceilings and all that than most of us probably ever knew before. Or at least we've worried about it more than usual. But the debt we are probably most familiar with is our own. Who are you in debt to? And is anyone in debt to you? We probably know that pretty well too. But think particularly about to whom you are in debt – who do you owe? Most of us, unless we are extraordinarily lucky, are in debt to someone financially. Student loans – I am pretty sure I will have those until I am too old to remember what I even studied in college. Car payments, or mortgage payments. Credit cards. Taxes. Utility bills. Rent. To whom are you in debt, and for what? And then, imagine, imagine that your creditor, whoever you owe simply cancels your debt. Not that you suddenly have so much money you can pay off everything you owe. No, but imagine that your debt is just gone, cancelled. What does that feel like? Can you feel the weight that is lifted? The anxiety, the stress, the worry that would be just gone. No more burden.
How often should I forgive? Cancel someone's debts? Forgiveness is a tricky thing, isn’t it? We’re willing to go only so far before we start wanting to know about limits – how much, how often, who must we forgive and in what circumstances? Today’s world demands answers to these questions. Can we forgive even when forgiveness entails life and death situations? Do you believe such extreme forgiveness is possible? What shapes will forgiveness take when we think of the tragedy of September 11th? And all these questions about human forgiveness lead us to God’s forgiveness. Can God forgive us? Does God forgive all sins from all sinners? What are the conditions of forgiveness? Are there conditions? Are there conditions to God canceling the debt of our sinfulness? Our believing in the possibility of forgiveness works both ways. If we believe that human forgiveness is possible, then forgiveness from God is certain. And in order for us to believe that we are truly forgiven and reconciled people, truly forgiven by God and given the chance, again, for right relationship with God, then we must also believe in the possibility of human forgiveness, reconciliation in human relationships.
            How should we forgive? Let me say briefly but clearly what I don’t think Jesus is saying here about forgiveness. His call for our compassion and bottomless forgiveness is not a call for people to remain trapped in abusive relationships, or a call for victims of violence to remain victims of violence. God wants wholeness for all of us. Forgiveness comes in the simple and complicated form of canceling the debt of wrong-doing done against us, letting go of what is owed to us by another.
            But let me tell you what else I really don’t think Jesus is talking about. Jesus isn’t really addressing his teaching to those who need to ask for forgiveness. This passage isn’t about, primarily, those who are sinners (although that is really all of us, mind you), those who stand in need of forgiveness (again, all of us, really.) Jesus has lots to say about our sinners and how we sin, but this isn’t it. This passage is about those of us who feel someone owes us something, those of us who feel someone is in our debt, those of us who feel someone needs to seek out our forgiveness. Peter wants to know how much forgiveness he has to pay out. That is what prompts Jesusʹ teaching. Ultimately, we can only be responsible for our own actions. You can only decide whether or not you will forgive. You can’t control whether or not someone feels sorry for wronging you, whether they have done enough to make up for hurting you, or even how they will behave in the future, if they really mean their apology, if they will hurt you again or not. Jesus doesn’t really make comment on any of these questions. Because you can only choose how you will behave when someone is in your debt. How often do we forgive? Seven times? Seventy-seven times. Jesus is calling us to forgive like he does, like God does – extravagantly, recklessly, without counting up the cost and how much we were owed and how much debt we cancelled.
            In these next few weeks, we are looking at what I have been thinking of as God-values. God has a way of taking our values and turning them inside out and showing us how much we have missed the mark, how much richer our lives would be if we could begin to see and act with God's eyes and heart. I think we look at someone owing us a debt, and we think of that as power – when we are owed something, it gives us a sense of power over, even if we have that power because we have been wronged. But Jesus finds power, strength, life in letting go of one kind of power to take up another. Jesus, instead of trying to show off his strength, always makes himself more vulnerable. Even on the cross, dying, at his most vulnerable, Jesus exposes his heart to the world even more, speaking of forgiveness even as he is put to death. There is a different, deeper kind of strength and power in laying our hearts bear, emptying our souls of the resentment we feel toward those who have harmed us. Forgiveness is a God-value, a gift from God to us, and a gift that continues to bless us when we share it with others.
We’re given a reminder, even as we pray familiar words: God, forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors. God asks for us to share with others the same forgiveness with which God blesses us. Is it easy work? No. Like Peter, we want to know – have we done enough yet? But God promises us that practicing forgiveness is life-giving, where withholding forgiveness only hurts us. There is much in this world to forgive. There is much for which we seek forgiveness. So we struggle, we try harder, both in forgiving those who have sinned against us, and in asking forgiveness where we have caused harm. But wherever we find ourselves in our struggles, we can trust that we find ourselves free of debt, completely covered by God’s boundless forgiveness. Let us go, and live likewise. Amen.