Sermon for the Fifteenth Sunday After Pentecost, Year A

Sermon for the Fifteenth Sunday After Pentecost, Year A

Sep 13, 2020

Passage:Matthew 18:21-35

Preacher: The Venerable Chris Wrampelmeier


Sermon for Proper 19 (Year A)

St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church, Amarillo

September 13, 2020

My house has two models of forgiveness. One is my daughter Holly’s orange cat, Maya, a year and a half old. The other is my ten-year old white Labrador Retriever, Scout. Maya, the cat, does not suffer an insult, intended or not. If there is any threat to her person or her pride, including rubbing her belly when holding her upside down, there will be blood. Now, she is a sweet cat, but there are limits to what she will put up with. 

Scout, on the other hand, is a model of forgiveness. Once able to leap seven-foot tall fences in a single bound, she still loves her walks and will petition for them. She wonderfully and consistently shows understanding and tolerance when my schedule, laziness, or aversion to the weather puts off our strolls. The dog will simply position herself in my path, roll on her back, and hope I will pause a moment to give her that belly rub the cat so despises when done to her. While Scout shows disappointment, she shrugs it off and looks for the next thing to enjoy.

We see these differences in our family, friends, and school or business acquaintances. Sadly, we see it around the nation in how groups treat one another. Left and right demonstrators seek confrontations, some clashes resulting in injuries and loss of life. With each battle, the cries for revenge and intolerance grow.

As we heard last week in Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus instructs how his followers are to treat one another when one sins against another. We may remember how the offended believer is to confront the sinner in a manner that increasingly involves the community in an attempt to get the sinner to listen. If all else fails, the sinner is to be treated as a Gentile or a tax collector. So, at least we are getting something definite from Jesus, a rule for how to treat others. It comes down to three strikes. If the sinner refuses to listen even the third time in front of the whole congregation, then he’s out. We can consider him outside the church and ignore him. Thank goodness Jesus is giving us some clarity. 

Until we read today’s reading—the very next verses of the chapter. Peter understandably wants clear rules. How many times must I forgive my brother? He pitches a high number. As many as seven times?

Jesus’ answer, like so many of his answers, tosses our assumptions into the trash. Not seven times, but seventy-seven times. What must you do to keep track of seventy-seven acts of forgiveness? How genuine could you possibly be with a number like? How genuine can you be with any number? If you are considering how many times you have to forgive someone before you can stop, you have not forgiven that person even the first time. 

Jesus then tells a wonderful parable. To understand the parable, you need to know what ten thousand talents were worth. Ten thousand talents was an unimaginable amount of money. Ten thousand talents would have been greater than all the tax income to the Roman Empire from the territory that now comprises the nations of Israel, Lebanon, and Syria. It is a mind-boggling number, a number no servant or official of a king realistically could have owed his sovereign. As is so often the case, Jesus exaggerates to make a point.

In the parable, one of the king’s servants falls short this incredible amount of money. The disciples would have recognized that the servant was corrupt and had been for some time. The amount of money is too great for a clerical error or any other explanation. The king orders the servant, the servant’s family, and all his possession to be sold, but we know that their sale will not come anywhere close to covering the shortfall. There is simply no way the servant can pay, so the king’s command is entirely punitive; the king will never recover this fortune. The punishment is harsh, but it is justice. 

The servant begs his master for patience and promises to pay him back everything. We know—and we know that the king knows—that the servant’s promises are empty, because no amount of patience by the king and no amount of effort by the servant will be enough to pay the king back. The servant’s position is hopeless. Yet the king, abandoning justice and granting mercy, not only spares the servant and his family from enslavement but cancels the entire debt. What a turnabout.

The downfall of the servant lies in his response to one of his peers, one who owes him the more realistic, but still steep, amount of a hundred denarii. A hundred denarii is about what a laborer would earn in one hundred days. There is a chance the second servant could pay the hundred denarii debt. The forgiven servant imprisons the second servant to force payment. 

Whereas the king showed mercy to the first servant, the first servant violently rejects the pleas of the second servant, pleas that are identical to the ones the first servant made to the king. The first servant demands justice—the money is owed, after all—for a relatively small debt after begging and receiving mercy for a debt 600,000 times greater. The first servant’s demand for justice is itself unjust.

After the other servants report the injustice, the king jails and tortures the first servant “until he would pay his entire debt,” which will be never. The conclusion added to the end of the parable, possibly by Matthew, warns that the heavenly Father will treat each of us the same way if we do not forgive our brother and sister from our heart.

Boy, that is harsh. God is going to imprison and torture us forever if we are hypocrites about forgiveness. Who isn’t a hypocrite about forgiveness? And what is the big deal about forgiveness anyway? I think I can live without a relationship with my enemies or, to put it more mildly, those people I don’t want to know better. 

In the kingdom of heaven and in our psychology, we are hard-wired to want relationships with one another. Witness how we have been affected by self-isolation in this pandemic. Witness the simple joy we feel when we see one another face-to-face, even mask-to-mask. Yesterday evening, we ordained Tammy Breitbarth and Miriam Scott to the Sacred Order of the Diaconate. While not many could attend the service in-person, I was thrilled to talk to a few of my friends whom I have not seen in months. 

If this pandemic has a benefit, the separation it forced on us reveals how badly we need personal relationships. We have enough challenges to those relationships without this corona virus. As humans, we all offend and take offense. Forgiveness helps bridge these barriers.

But hasn’t the Internet given us the means to maintain relationships? With no physical outlets, many of us have turned to social media and Zoom or Facetime meetings to see people. In the process, many have reestablished relationships with friends long-separated.

There have been many blessings: relationships reforged and some contact maintained for our sanity. The negative side effect of social media and often of Zoom meetings is they match like with like. A process in full swing but now accelerated by the pandemic, we are confining ourselves to echo chambers, hearing what we are inclined to hear and missing the voices of those who differ from use. The narrowness leads us and our nation to extremism. In the melting pot of ideas, we have cut the recipe to a handful of ingredients. We miss the chance to see and learn from people who differ from us. 

For me, that mix has been one of the greatest strengths of St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church, Amarillo, Texas. At this church, parishioners of all types— country, city, cowboy hats, blue hair, pierced ears, pierced noses, coats and ties, blue jeans, gay, straight, young, old, liberal, conservative, Republican, Democrat—meet, share a meal, share a service, and respect one another as we live out our baptismal covenants. In the light of what we see on the evening news, this church may seem like an oasis in the middle of a dessert, but it is an oasis watered by the love we have for each other and the confidence that I will be there for you and you will be there for me no matter how we might disagree on lifestyle, social, or political issues. 

In her book “The Opposite of Hate,” Sally Kohn, a progressive commentator formerly on Fox News, talked about a group of Muslim and non-Muslim leaders in Nashville who met to understand one another. Over food, they built relationships. (Sound familiar, St. Andrew’s?) A Christian leader and a Muslim leader found a shared, passionate love of William Faulkner, which led to their table discussing shared, favorite movies, which led to discussions about all they had in common. As Sally Kohn stated, 

They came to understand that what we all have in common is more than—and more important than—any differences. And it’s how relationships are built.

While it is easy to hate the general, the abstract, it is difficult once you learn who a specific person is. It is easy to hate stereotypes—welfare queens, redneck bigots—but so much harder to hate individuals whose stories you hear. 

Former FBI hostage negotiator Chris Voss wrote of a time he was in a packed bar with other FBI negotiators and finally found an empty seat. When he tried to sit on it, a big, burly, drunk guy said, “Don’t even think about it.” When Chris asked why, the man said, “Because I will kick your [behind].” Chris stuck out his hand and said, “My name is Chris.” The man froze at this unexpected introduction. Turns out the would-be bully was a depressed veteran in a bar packed with happy people. All he wanted to do was fight. But once he learned Chris had a name, once he saw Chris as a person, the fight left him, and they could talk. 

Forgiveness allows us to listen to one another. Listening creates and sustains relationships. It creates the kingdom of heaven. 

We have some tough months ahead for our nation. People are on edge, and we can get swept up in the storm. At St. Andrew’s we don’t yet have our services in the nave, our common meals, and the normal ways we hear other voices. But we can try harder to listen, particularly to those different from us. We can still forgive when offended and ask for forgiveness when we err. On social media, we can press against the extremism. Even in this difficult and troubled times—especially in these difficult and troubled times—we can model what the kingdom of heaven looks like.