Sunday, September 14, 2008

Proper 19A

My friend "the Very" Chan is rector at Christ Church in Vicksburg, the oldest building for public assembly still standing in that town, her cornerstone laid in 1830. Chan's dear spirit fills the grounds there even when she is halfway across the country on vacation. There are lots of spirits in Vicksburg, I think, wandering the hills and walking along the river. It is a thin place. A churchman of an earlier generation once said, "When much the greater part of Vicksburg was a succession of wooded growths reaching down the sharp hill slope to the river, and clearing on the hilltops and in the valleys produced cotton and corn, Christ Church was built."

Genesis 50:15-21; Psalm 103:1-13; Romans 14:1-12; Matthew 18:21-25

Sometimes I think if it weren't for Peter, none of us would know what it means to have faith in Jesus Christ. Not because Peter was the rock upon which the church was founded, not because of the words he preached on the day of Pentecost, adding three thousand to the number of baptized, not because of the miracles he performed in Jerusalem in Jesus' name. No, I think if it weren't for Peter's, well, persistence in missing the point...perhaps we would all still be sinking in his same sea of incomprehension.

Peter more than once stepped out of the boat in his eagerness to understand who Jesus was. And though his first few steps were always sure, he would then quickly find himself in waters deeper and more divine than he had guessed at. Jesus, never-failing in his patience with Peter, would be his life preserver every time.

So it is in our gospel reading this morning. Jesus has been talking with the disciples about God's desire for those on the edge of faith to be welcomed, for the lost to be found, for the estranged to be reconciled. He has watched the disciples long enough to know that even within a community such as theirs, centered on the good news of God's love, there would be disagreement and division over injuries both real and perceived. Despite all that they had seen and heard in his presence about a kingdom in which grace, not greatness, was the rule, the disciples could not see beyond the way they had always known kingdoms to work. They could only look forward, then, to the day when Jesus would reveal his greatness to the world, make wrongs right, and mete out justice upon wrong-doers.

The disciples must have nodded their heads in approval when Jesus spoke of how to address wrongs committed within the community of faith. Try to resolve it between the two of you, he said, and if that does not work, take one or two others along with you as witnesses. If that fails, take the matter before the whole community, and if you still cannot be reconciled, treat that person as a Gentile or a tax collector.

Such instructions would have been understood by the early church to mean that a person who cannot be reconciled within the community of faith must be cast out of that community, as Gentiles and tax collectors commonly were. But Peter and the rest, gathered around Jesus that day, would have understood things much differently. In fact, as soon as Jesus uttered the words, Treat that person as a Gentile or a tax collector, all eyes must have turned to look at Matthew, himself looking gratefully at the grin on Jesus' face. They knew, none as personally as Matthew who had once taken taxes from them all, that the way Jesus treated Gentiles and tax collectors was to welcome them, and embrace them, and forgive them, and invite them to follow him.

So Peter understood that Jesus was talking about a change of heart, a change of mind, that Jesus was calling them to practice extravagance in extending forgiveness, even beyond what the law allowed. But in the kingdom Peter knew, in the kingdom we know, there were only so many chances before you struck out. Rabbinic teaching at the time stated that there were three chances – three times you could be forgiven before you had exhausted all forgiveness available. Peter weighed this teaching against what he had just heard Jesus say, and stepped right out of the boat into the swells of his own sense of generosity as he asked, How many times should I forgive? As many as seven times? Seven, Peter thought, was not only greater than three – it was a number that in Hebrew represented fullness and completeness. To forgive someone seven times, to treat them seven times as Jesus would treat a Gentile or tax collector, was indeed a change of heart and mind.

Except that it wasn't really much different than not forgiving someone at all. Jesus, never-failing but ever-tested in his patience with Peter, who is once again sinking like a stone, says No, Peter, not seven times, but I tell you, seventy-seven times.

It is an exaggeration, of course, a number by Hebrew reckoning far exceeding any expectation of being able to count to it. But that doesn't mean it isn't true in its entirety. In our family, we have come by way of a collection of stuffed animals to say to one another, especially as it includes our seven year old son, “I love you more than bunnies.” That statement is typically followed by, “Well, I love you more than a hundred bunnies.” And then, “I love you more than a million bunnies.” Before long we've reached “a million gazillion bunnies”, and then “all the bunnies that were ever made” and finally, the unsurmountable “I love you more than infinity bunnies.” An exaggeration of which we mean every word.

Scripture is full of exaggeration, full of hyperbole, of unimaginable images and experiences that far exceed expectation in order to teach us something about God. Or is it exaggeration? For God's promises and pronouncements are seldom small. Abraham and Sarah are told their descendants will number not two or ten or seventy-seven but rather more than there are stars in the sky or grains of sand upon the seashore. Joseph's wit and wisdom, more brilliant even than his coat, propel him from prisoner to prince and preserve the lives of those who sought to end his. Our psalmist this morning says that God removes our sins from us as far as heaven is high above the earth, as far as the east is from the west. Even Jesus paints fantastic pictures, such as it is easier for a camel to get through the eye of a needle than for a person to bring their possessions with them into heaven. Or that one should not judge the speck of another's sin without coming to terms with the log-in-the-eye of their own need for forgiveness. Forgive not seven times, but I tell you, seventy-seven times.

Jesus might as well have instructed us to forgive a million gazillion times. It was an exaggeration meant to imply limitlessness. This was a change of heart and mind, a sea change, one that would require an inordinate amount of strength on the part of people accustomed to counting the number of times we have been wronged, to counting the cost of forgiveness before we offer it. In the kingdom that we know, forgiveness is considered perilously close to permissiveness. In this kingdom, forgiveness is meted out in carefully measured doses. In this kingdom, we consider ourselves to possess the power to forgive.

It is not so in the kingdom of God, Jesus would go on to tell his disciples that day in a parable so filled with exaggeration he must have laughed as he told it. The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves. One slave, Jesus said, owed ten thousand talents. If you're measuring, that's the equivalent of 150 lifetime salaries. The king ordered him to repay the debt, although both he and the slave knew that was impossible. And so the slave fell to his knees and begged for mercy. The king, of whom it could surely be said that he was full of compassion and mercy, slow to anger, and of great kindness, forgave him, released the slave from his debt, and thus at great cost to himself set the slave free.

The slave hurried out and found someone who owed him a hundred denarii. If you're measuring, that's the equivalent of a fancy latte at Starbucks. The debtor fell to his knees and begged for mercy, but the slave was too concerned with counting to care. For his mercilessness, he was brought back to the king. I forgave you all that debt, the king said, his patience tested. Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you? And so the slave was ordered to repay his own impossible debt.

Peter and the rest perhaps struggled with this parable, as we still do today, for it seems to revoke forgiveness and thus place a limit where Jesus has said there is none. The hyperboles, however – the impossibly large and small debts, the incalculable mercy and mercilessness – suggest that the story has nothing at all to do with limits. The experiences are too exaggerated for that. What then, is Jesus teaching as he pulls Peter back into the boat?

We are a people who are at once forgiven and called to forgive by God, who is full of compassion and mercy, slow to anger, and of great kindness. Indeed, in the most unimaginable of all experiences, God came among us as one of us in order to release us from the burden of our sin. At the cost of his life, Jesus removed our sins as far as heaven is high above the earth, as far as the east is from the west. We did not have to ask. We are not expected to pay – it would be impossible to, anyway. Forgiveness is nothing more or less than a gift offered once upon the cross, offered daily in our earnest, wayward lives.

That the king would revoke this gift is not a punishment for the slave's unwillingness to forgive in turn – it is, instead, a statement of the reality of the slave's heart and mind, the reality of his experience of a kingdom in which there is only measurement of wrongs, only counting of costs, with no room for even a remainder of grace. Forgiveness truly received is forgiveness that transforms us, not simply by reducing our debt to nothing but by changing our hearts and minds. We cannot repay God for all that God has forgiven us. But we can be reconciled with God, and with others whom we have hurt. We can make restitution where possible. We can accept the consequences of our sins and vow to amend our lives, with God's help. These actions demonstrate our understanding of what it means to be forgiven, and yet they are responses, not precursors, to forgiveness, so extravagant is God's grace.

Where the kingdom of the world and the kingdom of God meet, we can acknowledge that there are terrible wrongs people do to one another, deeply wounding lives and relationships. Forgiveness is not a denial of harm done. It is not a condoning of sin. It does not remove consequences, nor does it ask that the wrong be forgotten. Forgiveness simply, and impossibly, means inviting God to extend such grace as we cannot measure, to remove the burden of the sin even if the hurt from it remains for a time. Forgiveness is hard work that are not able to do alone, and so by the same grace we may ask God, who loves us more than a million gazillion bunnies, who is full of compassion and mercy, slow to anger, and of great kindness, in whose image we are the same grace we may ask God to help us forgive. Indeed, it is only by the power of God that we can forgive, for forgiveness is a matter of grace, not of conscience.

Peter, do you love me? Jesus asked three times, after Peter didn't just step but leaped out of the boat and half-swam, half-ran to the shore to meet him. Peter, do you love me? With those words, Jesus forgave Peter for every misplaced step, every misunderstanding, every limit Peter tried to measure. Follow me, Jesus said, both despite and because of who Peter was. Follow me, Jesus says, both despite and because of who we are, loved, forgiven and called to forgive. Amen.

Artwork: Photograph of Christ Episcopal Church during war time; "Christ Saving Peter", by Stefan Daniel Bell; "Invocation", by Suzanne Schleck.

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