Bulletin cover from this morning’s service. Presbyterian bulletin covers are not usually this cool.
I normally wait until after church to post my sermon, but I’m doing it early today, given it’s time-sensitive nature. The recording will be up later.
My text is Matthew 18:21-35.
To be perfectly honest, I’ve been dreading this sermon all year, ever since I learned that today’s date would fall on a Sunday and I would have to get up into this pulpit and say something meaningful. I wasn’t sure whether I should just ignore the day and preach the lectionary text from Matthew or cut whatever else we had planned for today and just focus on what I know is on everyone’s mind. After agonizing over it all year, I can’t really think of any other way to begin except by coming right out and saying it:
Today’s date is the 11th of September. And we’ve come together this morning to remember something important that happened. Some of us remember exactly where we were and what we were doing when the news of this event first struck us speechless while others have simply grown up hearing about it. It was a great injustice. It was a horrifying spectacle that still leaves us in shock and awe. For days afterward, people could do little else than huddle together behind closed doors and drawn curtains. They held each other and sobbed, knowing that, whatever else they had hoped their future might be, it had now changed forever. It was a watershed moment that defined who we are as people. The very worst in the human race came face to face with the very best in the human race. The events of that day brought us together as a community like nothing else ever could. More than any other before or after it, this event taught us to admire and respect and love those individuals who lay down their lives and make the ultimate sacrifice for the benefit of others. Because of that which we remember this morning, none of us will ever be the same ever again.
The event that I am describing here is not the attack on the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and Flight 93 that took place ten years ago today. The event that I’m describing here is the crucifixion of Jesus Christ.
Before I go on, I feel like I should pause and tell you that I’m not trying to be flippant or witty about the events of September 11, 2001. Nor am I trying to disrespect the memory of a national tragedy by twisting it into an opportunity for religious proselytism. What I’m trying to do is reflect on who we are as Christians and human beings on this particular day. I want to take the smaller events of our personal stories and understand them in the larger context of God’s big Story.
The cross is one of the most universally recognizable symbols in the world. Ask almost anyone, regardless of their religious affiliation, to name one Christian symbol and most people will probably mention the cross. More than any other event in history, what happened on the cross shows us who we are as followers of the way of Christ.
On the night of his wrongful arrest, Jesus assured Peter that he had the power to call down legions of warrior angels to annihilate the world in his defense. However, we know that Jesus didn’t do that. Instead, Jesus looked down from the cross at his executioners and prayed, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.”
Most of us who read that story with the benefit of two thousand years’ distance find this gesture admirable but also pitiful. “It’s a generous sentiment,” we say, “but you can’t live that way. It wouldn’t work! People would walk all over you!” We don’t believe there is any actual power in Jesus’ prayer, so we dismiss this noble gesture as a product of his divinity and proceed to hide behind a comfortable curtain of systematic theology in which we benefit from the effects of that forgiveness without ever actually having to experience it.
But Jesus doesn’t let us off the hook that easily. Teaching about forgiveness in today’s gospel reading from Matthew 18, Jesus assures us that the only way to remain assured of God’s forgiveness is to give forgiveness away. “Blessed are the merciful,” Jesus says, “for they will receive mercy.”
The passage begins with a legitimate question from Peter about the reasonable limits of forgiveness. He says, “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” Jesus’ response is ridiculous and shocking, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.” He then tells a cautionary tale about two people: one with an impossibly large debt and another with a trivial one. The first debtor owes ten thousand talents to the creditor. How much is that in today’s terms? Well, a “talent” is a term of measurement. The parable doesn’t tell us exactly what was being measured but, for the sake of argument, let’s assume that we’re talking about talents of gold. Let’s use today’s gold price ($1,855.15 per ounce) times 16 ounces in a pound times 71 pounds in a talent times ten thousand talents, and we end up with a debt of $21,074,504,000. That’s how much this first person owed. That’s how much debt the creditor forgave!
The second debtor owed one hundred denarii. A denarius was equivalent to a day’s wages for a laborer. Let’s put that in today’s terms using New York state’s current minimum wage. That’s $7.25 an hour times eight hours in a workday times one hundred days, and we get $5,800. This person’s lending firm received a twenty-one billion dollar bailout yet foreclosed on a debt of less than six thousand dollars. According to Jesus, those are some messed up priorities.
The unmerciful servant in this parable was a person who was adamantly unwilling to look at the smaller issue of the debt he was owed in relation to the massive debt he was forgiven. He would not understand the smaller events of his personal story in the larger context of God’s Story. Forgiven people have an obligation to spread their amnesty over as wide a field as possible. Otherwise, they are only robbing themselves. The paradoxical irony of heaven’s economy is that those who keep forgiveness for themselves will lose it while those who give it away will keep it forever.
But forgiveness is also a dangerous business. It is demonstrably true that one cannot guarantee economic security or national defense on a consistent doctrine of forgiveness. Just look at Jesus himself. When he prayed, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing” he did not speak from the comfort of heaven’s glorious throne. No, he forced those words out as he hung from the cross, bleeding and dying. Jesus was a failed revolutionary who was branded as a “terrorist” by those who were fighting to protect their own national security and traditional family values. One can imagine the Centurions and the Pharisees laughing at Jesus when they heard him say this. His position at the time would have served as incontrovertible proof that forgiveness “does not work” as a strategy. A few may have admired him for it, but everyone still walked away shaking their heads after this forgiving Messiah finally fell silent.
But you and I know that’s not the end of the story. That night, they laid his body in a tomb and rested on the Sabbath. Then, on the first day of the week, early in the morning, a few brave women made their way to Jesus’ tomb and when they got there, they couldn’t believe their eyes! The stone had been rolled away from the entrance, the soldiers had passed out from fright, and angel stood in the entrance and asked, “Why do you seek the living among the dead? He is not here.”
Why not? “He is risen.” Today is the day that everything changes. Death itself has begun to work backwards. The dead come alive. The blind see. The deaf hear. The mute sing. The lame dance. The weak are strong. The foolish are wise. The first are now last and last are now first. The whole world is turning upside down. Or is it right side up?
We know for a fact that forgiveness does not work. Yet we believe in the truth beyond the facts. We believe it when the Bible says that “mercy triumphs over judgment” and “love covers a multitude of sins.” We believe it because that failed revolutionary who died in disgrace with forgiveness on his lips is now hailed as the most influential person in human history. His ridiculous message of forgiveness outlasted the culture that gave it birth and the Roman Empire that tried to suppress it. That message of forgiveness has now reached the shores of every continent on this planet and continues to spread as people like you and I choose to take our smaller personal stories and understand them in the larger context of God’s big Story. We take the small debts that we must forgive and hold them up next to the huge debt that has been forgiven us.
It is true that September 11, 2001 changed us. It was a horrifying spectacle and a tragic injustice. It brought us together as a community. We saw the very worst and the very best of humanity in action on that day. Our future will never be the same because of it. But September 11 does not dictate who we are. If we take the events of that one story and look at them in the context of God’s big Story, then we will be able to see that it is the cross of Jesus Christ, seen and understood in the light of his Resurrection, that shows us who we really are. As we move from our smaller stories to God’s big Story, which is what we do each week here in church, we will find all the strength we need for healing and yes, even forgiveness.