Sunday, September 14, 2014

Sermon for the Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Today I was with the people of Trinity Church in Shrewsbury. The Scripture readings appointed for today can be found here.

Have you ever been in an ecumenical setting when it comes time to pray the Lord’s Prayer? If you don’t clarify how you are going to do it, then the Roman Catholics will invariably stop at “…but deliver us evil…” waiting for the priest to interject something before continuing. And when you get to that part about trespasses, the Baptists and some others will be talking about debts. And even at the end it’s only us Episcopalians and the Lutherans who extend forever to “forever and ever…”

It’s a great image of our diversity and unity in the Body of Christ that we don’t even agree precisely on how to pray the one prayer that Jesus taught us all to pray. There is a solution, and that is to pray the contemporary ecumenical version – which may get you equally into trouble with everybody!

You know what Garrison Keiler says about those of us who ask for our trespasses to be forgiven? He says that “when you pray ‘forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us’ it sounds as if everyone is hissing at one another!” 

What is sin anyway? The image we get of sin when we pray using the English word “trespasses” is of a forest where the land is posted, and it says, “no trespassing.” To trespass is to “step over the line” - to transgress a boundary. Well, sin is like that sometimes, isn’t it? We cross the line and we go where we aren’t supposed to go, and when we do we hope the one upon whom we have trespassed doesn’t have a loaded shotgun. The goal is to get ourselves back on track as quickly as possible, back to a no trespassing zone.

Sometimes sin is like that. But when you talk about debt and debtors and a God who forgives our debt, a whole different notion of sin comes to mind. If you get into debt—I mean real serious debt—it can feel like you are drowning. If your credit cards are maxed out and the interest rate is something outrageous like 17%, then paying the minimum amount due every month is never, ever going to get you out of debt. So you start sinking deeper and deeper into what may feel like quicksand. That’s a very different image than trespassing, isn’t it?

The truth is that sin can be like both images, not either/or. Sometimes it is about crossing over a line and sometimes it is like being in a pit and not knowing how to get out of it. So it’s not about who is right and who is wrong, but rather about having both images before us when we think about sin.  The problem, though, is that we get locked into the habit of praying it one way. “Trespasses” just sounds more Anglican. We might almost even think that’s the word Jesus used until someone reminds us he was a first-century Jew who didn’t speak a word of English.

I wonder what it would be like to pray the Lord’s Prayer for a liturgical season like the Baptists do: forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors. We’d stumble for sure which is part of what change does to us – because old habits are familiar and they are hard to change and we might even have a whole lot of emotional energy around such a change. Don’t worry, I’m not going to impose that on you today or in this season. What I’m wanting to do is to raise the question of how language shapes what we believe. And to notice that the Bible, including Jesus in today’s gospel reading, talks a lot about debt and debtors.

So Peter asks Jesus about how many times he should forgive someone who hurts him. “Is seven enough?” he wants to know. Jesus tells him it isn’t nearly enough—and tells him maybe he should start to think about a far bigger number, something like seventy times seven…

And then he tells Peter a story, because stories are better than rules. Stories have the potential to change our hearts. And this story that Jesus tells about forgiveness today isn’t about trespasses but debts.

The thing is that we live at a different time and a different place than where it was first told. So before we can hear the story, we need to do a little math. (Are you ready? I bet no one told you there would be math today in church, did they?)

One talent equals approximately fifteen years salary. One denarius equals one day’s salary.

So we need to convert these amounts into dollars and cents if we are to have any chance of getting the point today. So let’s say that the median family income in a town is $92,000. In fact this is not some mythological town – I Googled median income in Shrewsbury, Massachusetts and that is the number reported by the last census. But I’m not great at math so let’s round it up to keep it simple and say that the median household income in this town is $100,000. For a person making $100,000 a year, one talent (remember: fifteen years of wages) is equal to $1.5 million.

But the guy in Jesus’ story owes his lord ten thousand talents. So he is in debt $15 billion.
Using the same median household income, a person making $100,000 a year is making about $2000 a week – or about $300 a day. So if the second guy owed the first guy 100 denarii – that is 100 days worth of work,  that’s something to the tune of about $30,000.   

Get it? The first thing we are meant to do is laugh, because Jesus is funny. He’s a first-century Jew prone to middle-eastern hyperbole to make a point. This guy, let’s call him Charlie, is in debt $15 billion. And his buddy, let’s call him Jack – he owes Charlie $30,000. And what happens? Charlie is forgiven a $15 billion dollar debt and then goes looking to collect from Jack.

The first debt is an absolutely ludicrous amount, a debt which even Bill Gates would have difficulty forgiving - $15 billion. And it’s forgiven! The second amount, while no small potatoes, is something far more reasonable by comparison—something that actually could be forgiven, an amount that it is reasonable to expect might be repaid- $30,000—a little over three month’s salary. The kind of debt some of you might accrue if you are not careful. So this guy is forgiven a huge debt with lots of zeros, and then goes after the guy who owes him $30,000. When you put it like that, what happens? I think we are supposed to laugh. Are you insane?

What Jesus is doing, of course, is turning the tables on old Rocky—Peter, the Rock upon whom the baptized community is built. Remember the story is another response to Peter’s question: how many times do I have to forgive someone. As many as seven? Seventy times seven?

But Jesus turns the tables Peter, and on us. He’s saying you can’t have it both ways. You can’t rely solely on God’s grace and mercy and forgiveness for yourself and then treat others by keeping score. You can’t say, as one pop star used to sing, “oops, I did it again” when you cause someone else pain and then turn around and demand “justice” and “an eye for an eye” when you are hurt.

Peter knows that conflict will be a part of our lives until the end of the ages: in our families, in our congregations, in our schools, in our workplaces. Until Christ sets things right and all is made new and every tear is wiped away, we will hurt each other and be hurt. So he’s wondering about how often he should forgive the jerk who hurts him. But Jesus invites Peter—and people in every generation—to ponder how much forgiveness we need in order to get through a week. All of us—if we paused to consider this parable and tried to live out the implications in our daily lives—would be forced to acknowledge that we have been loved and forgiven by God and by our neighbor for so much.

And yet very often we become miserly when we are the ones asked to do the forgiving. If we aren’t careful, we can tend to magnify the hurt done to us and we can tend to minimize the hurt we cause others. So Jesus is consistent in this parable with that old advice he gave about stopping ourselves from finding the splinter in someone else’s eye when there is a log in our own. The parable works in much the same way, I think. He invites us to turn that telescope around and to notice just how much we have been forgiven—by God to be sure, but also by others who have loved us in holy, life-giving ways. And then to live that way with others. Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.

In his short story, “The Capital of the World,” Ernest Hemingway tells the story of a Spanish father and his teenage son. It’s the story of a strained and eventually shattered relationship that causes the boy, Paco, to run away from home. Like the father of the prodigal son, this father in this story longs to welcome his son home, and so he goes in search of him. When he comes to Madrid he places an ad in the newspaper which reads:

Dear Paco,
Please meet me in front of the newspaper office at noon.
All is forgiven.
Love,
Father

The next day, at noon, there are 800 Pacos at the newspaper office—all apparently seeking forgiveness from their fathers.

We live in a world that is in desperate need of forgiveness. In a world of shrill demands for perfection, Jesus offers hope for the world. Nobody said it would be easy. But put the word out: Paco, John, Catherine, Ron, Susan, Jack, Louise—all is forgiven. All is grace.


Come then and eat: you are all invited guests at the Supper of the Lord, this great banquet table is set, and all are welcome. All is forgiven, and all are loved. Taste and see that the Lord is good and know that we have, all of us, been forgiven so much. And then go and forgive others, as you have been forgiven, with a glad and generous heart.