Monday, September 15, 2014

The Kingdom of God is like an accountant who spills coffee all over his ledger…a sermon on Matthew 18:21-35

A.Hanson, Estes Park, CO 2014
A sermon preached at House for All Sinners and Saints on Sunday, September 14, 2014. 

When I looked at the Gospel text for this week, I have to admit that I was not at all thrilled.  “Forgiveness” is not one of my favorite topics. If I actually get honest with myself, my own standards of forgiveness are even more rigid than Peter’s.  While Peter asks Jesus if he should forgive up to seven times, the same is not true for me.  I might offer a second chance if I am feeling exceptionally generous, but very rarely am I willing to forgive any more than that, once I have been wounded. Because I REALLY like to hold onto my resentments.  Sometimes it feels really good to let that righteous indignation fester.   Author Ann Lamott describes holding onto resentments as eating rat poison and hoping the rat dies. It’s not good for us, but that doesn’t stop us from doing it anyway.  Because these resentments help us to build a wall that might prevent us from being hurt in the future, because living among other humans sucks sometimes.
In this text, Peter is asking Jesus for a sort of prescription for how to live in community.  For as long as humans have existed in proximity to one another, we have been hurting each other. Peter wants to know if there is a limit on the granting of forgiveness.  Kind of like a “seven strikes and you’re out” rule.  Jesus answers that the disciples are called to forgive seventy-seven times, which in the original Greek is shorthand for something like “infinity.” 
Yeah…no thanks, Jesus. I’m good.
Forgiveness is REALLY, REALLY hard. It makes us vulnerable, both in the asking and in the receiving.  When we are the ones asking for forgiveness we have to admit that we are jerks and we screwed up.  When we have been asked by another for forgiveness, we have to admit that we have been hurt. Forgiveness can indeed be a tool for repairing relationships.  My friends Peter and Kate are working on this with their three year old son.  When he hurts someone he is supposed to say, “I am sorry.  Will you forgive me?”  While we could probably all take a lesson from this preschool forthrightness and humility, Jesus’ command to forgive doesn’t always come that easily. And while asking for and receiving forgiveness help us to live together with a bit more harmony, forgiveness does not imply relational obligation. And beyond the everyday slights for which we nurture righteous anger, are those things that hurt us so deeply that we cannot ever imagine being able to forgive. 
In a world where domestic violence, abuses of power, racism, and homophobia are tragically common, calls from Christians to “forgive those who wronged you seventy-seven times” perpetuate a sickening sort of victim-blaming. Forgiveness is a bit more complex than this interaction between Jesus and Peter would have us believe. 
Forgiveness is not about absolving someone of their wrongdoing.  It’s not about helping someone clear their conscience.  Forgiveness absolutely does not mean embracing the violence perpetuated against us. Sometimes forgiveness is about your own heart becoming free. Sometimes forgiveness is not about repair, but rather about letting go.
My friend Katherine was murdered by a stranger seven years ago.  I thought my anger at this horrific act of random violence would never go away.  Hating the man who needlessly took her life felt good.  Until it didn’t anymore… The weight of this pain was crushing. This is not how God would have me live.  This is not how God would have any of us live. Forgiveness in this case is not about repairing a relationship that was broken.  It is about repairing my own broken heart. Forgiveness meant placing a burden of pain and grief that was too much for me to bear into the hands of God. We all have these sorts of situations in our lives.  Relationships where we have been hurt or deeply hurt someone else.  Situations where we have been oppressed by unjust systems of power.  And maybe the hardest person to forgive is ourselves. God wants us to be free, but we can’t do this alone. So now what?
The parable that Jesus tells the disciples is intended to shine some light on this command to forgive, but like most of the parables that Jesus tells, leaves us more confused than enlightened. Let’s attempt to break this down.  A king is attempting to settle debts with his slaves.  One of those slaves cannot pay his debt, which is astronomical, and is going to be sold, along with his family.  He begs for mercy and he is granted it.  Then the newly forgiven slave goes out to a fellow slave who owes him money and “seizes him by the throat” and has him thrown into prison. When word gets back to the master that this is taken place, the first slave is handed over to be tortured until he can repay his debt, which may never happen because it is so large. Then follows a bit of oh-so-helpful commentary, “So my heavenly father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”
It is tempting to turn this parable into an allegory, to dissect it to find the hidden meaning. And that is a favorite thing to do among Christians everywhere.  To cast God as the king, and to see ourselves and our neighbors as slaves owing this God something. And if we don’t do that thing, we will be tortured for all eternity. God is not some heavenly accountant, tracking our sins against a savings account of good deeds.
Beloved people of God, the kingdom of God is NOT like a king who wishes to settle accounts with his slaves.  The Kingdom of God is a bit more like an accountant who spills coffee all over his ledger and decides to throw it away because he can’t read it anymore. The cross is God’s final statement that puts to death all our earthly accounting systems.  We don’t start our relationship with God from a place of having our debts paid off through our own actions, and hoping to keep a positive balance by forgiving those who sin against us and managing to avoid hurting anyone else.  That’s an exhausting race that we will never win. Rather, we start from a place of love.  God so loved the whole world and the people in it, that despite their myriad imperfections, came to live among us and die for our sake on a cross.
Jesus knows that we will hurt each other.  That’s part of what it means to be human. We are not commanded to forgive because it makes us better people.  We are not commanded to forgive because it’s eternal fire insurance.  No…we are commanded to forgive because we have first been forgiven by a merciful God who wants nothing more than to love us.  We start our relationship with God as fully forgiven people, there is no debt to pay.  With that knowledge, we live to care for and forgive our neighbor for their sake, not because we are trying to satisfy a debt to God.  So go live boldly in the knowledge that you are loved, forgiven and freed.  Thanks be to God.