Boundless mercy

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Watching for the Morning of September 17, 2017

Year A

The Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost:
Proper 19 / Lectionary 24

164,383 years and 205 days – that’s how long it would take the servant in Sunday’s gospel to pay back his debt if he received the standard daily wage, worked 7 days a week and never spent a penny. Since this would include something like 41,095 leap years, but also 411 leap centuries, he would have this debt worked off sometime around August 3rd, in the year 166,286. It’s hard to think of that as an actual date. It’s 164,269 years from now. All of human recorded history is a mere 5,000 years.

It’s an unpayable debt.

If we tried to convert 10,000 talents to an 8-hour day at $15.00/hour, it would amount to some $7.2 billion. The hundred denarii debt he is owed, by contrast, would be a mere $12,000. $12,000 is a lot of money to people working for $15 an hour, but these are not common laborers. This is a story about a king and his agents plundering the colonies for taxes and tribute – and to be short $7.2 billion means we are probably talking about friends placed in power who live too large and pay too little attention to the running of a province.

There is hyperbole here, of course, but it’s closer to reality than we might expect. Ancient empires were talented at bleeding their dominions. Modern ones, too. And the wealthy houses were talented at spending.

What is disturbing in the parable is the hypocrisy or callousness of receiving great mercy and giving none. It makes a mockery of the faithfulness of the king who does not treat the servant as he deserves, but as a friend. It brings shame upon the king. It makes him look as though he has been played. He is made the fool. Honor requires mercy – but honor also requires that he throw the merciless servant into prison.

As a parable it works brilliantly, drawing the crowd along in mockery of the corruption and folly of the powerful. But then, suddenly, the light shines on our own lives and the dire warning about making mockery of a generous and merciful God.

So we should shift in our seats, a little this Sunday, as we hear Joseph forgive the brothers who sold him into slavery, as we sing the psalm of praise to God who “does not deal with us according to our sins, nor repay us according to our iniquities,” as we hear Paul remind us of the practical realities that must flow from our “continuing debt to love one another,” and as we hear Jesus tell us to live boundless mercy.

The Prayer for September 17, 2017

Holy and Gracious God,
you choose to deal with a fallen world by your Word of Grace.
Wrap us in your mercy
that, abiding in your Grace,
we may live the forgiveness we have received;
through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

The Texts for September 17, 2017

First Reading: Genesis 50:15-21
“Realizing that their father was dead, Joseph’s brothers said, ‘What if Joseph still bears a grudge against us and pays us back in full for all the wrong that we did to him?’” – Doubting the sincerity of Joseph’s forgiveness, his brothers concoct a scheme invoking their father’s name. But Joseph reassures them and declares, “Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good”

Psalmody: Psalm 103:1-13
“[The Lord] does not deal with us according to our sins, nor repay us according to our iniquities.” – A hymn of praise for God’s mercy and forgiveness.

Second Reading: Romans 14:1-12
“Who are you to pass judgment on servants of another?” – Paul speaks of life in the community.

Gospel: Matthew 18:21-35
“Then Peter came and said to him, “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” Jesus said to him, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.” –
The parable of the forgiving king and the unforgiving servant.

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Reconciliation

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Watching for the Morning of September 10, 2017

Year A

The Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost:
Proper 18 / Lectionary 23

Our first reading on Sunday sets the wrong background for the words of Jesus we will hear. The prophet takes up the image of a sentinel. If a sentinel gives warning of raiders sweeping down upon the land and the people ignore the warning, the people are responsible for whatever losses come. But if the sentinel fails to give warning, and the people are unprepared for the invaders, it is the sentinel who bears responsibility: “their blood I will require at the sentinel’s hand.” As so often with the prophets, Ezekiel has the crowd’s attention. They are nodding in assent, when suddenly the prophet turns the tables and Ezekiel himself is the sentinel warning the people of impending doom. Suddenly the sins of the nation are at issue; destruction is bearing down on them because of their failure to keep God’s way of justice and mercy. If they do not repent, their blood is on their own hands.

Such a word of warning is far different than the injunction given by Jesus that begins with the words: “If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault.” It sounds the same, perhaps, but it is not. Jesus is not calling us to warn the sinner; he is speaking to the one who has been sinned against. And the sins at stake here are not the failure to live God’s care for the neighbor; they are the assaults on the honor of another. Jesus inhabits a culture where every insult or dishonor must immediately be met with a corresponding insult – all very public – in order to right the balance. A person’s job was to defend his honor and the honor of his family in the eyes of the community. Any insult must be matched. Any challenge met directly and immediately. Jesus is not worried about a fellow believer’s transgressing of a moral code; he is concerned that we understand what it means that we have become members of the household of God. We are a single household in Christ. Any insult must be dealt with privately, as in a family.

But it is not the honor of the community that must be maintained. This is the trap into which churches fall when they sweep grave sins beneath the rug in the name of protecting the church. It is the tie between us that matters. It is reconciliation that is the goal, not honor. Secrets are not being kept; relationships are being mended.

Jesus isn’t concerned with the system of honor rankings; he seeks reconciliation. This is where this whole chapter began. The disciples came to Jesus to ask who was the greatest. And then Jesus is putting a child in the midst and talking about taking up the lowest station. He is talking about plucking out your eye rather than diminishing another. He is talking about the shepherd going after the one and leaving the ninety-nine. And in the verses that follow, that we will read next Sunday, he is talking about 77-fold forgiveness rather than 77-fold revenge.

We are not sentinels for one another – or for society. We are brothers and sisters seeking to live reconciliation. We don’t demand that our honor be restored when offended, we want our relationship to be restored. It is a challenging path. And so we will pray with the psalmist “Teach me, O Lord, the way of your statutes…Give me understanding… Turn my heart to your decrees, and not to selfish gain.” And we will hear Paul write that all the commandments “are summed up in this word, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.” And we will realize that, while sentinels matter, reconciliation is the kingdom.

The Prayer for September 10, 2017

Almighty God,
you call us to walk as children of the light
and set before us the command to love one another.
Turn us back when we stray
and lead us in your pathways
that, clothed in Christ, we might bear your grace to the world;
through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

The Texts for September 10, 2017

First Reading: Ezekiel 33:1-11
“As I live, says the Lord God, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from their ways and live.” – God compares the prophet to a watchman against hostile enemies and charges him not to remain silent when God has given him a message of warning for the nation.

Psalmody: Psalm 119:33-40
“Teach me, O Lord, the way of your statutes, and I will observe it to the end.” – Another segment of this magisterial psalm celebrating the gift of God’s Law/Teaching.

Second Reading: Romans 13:8-14
“The night is far gone, the day is near. Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light.”
– Paul urges his hearers to live the life to which they have been called in Christ where love (the solidarity of regarding others as members of your own family/kin) is the heart of God’s commands.

Gospel: Matthew 18:15-20
“If another member of the church sins against you…” – Following the Parable of the Lost Sheep and the declaration that God does not want any to be lost, Jesus instructs is followers on seeking reconciliation in the community.

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Seventy-sevenfold mercy

Friday

Matthew 18

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Rembrandt, The Unmerciful Servant

23”For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves. 24When he began the reckoning, one who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him; 25and, as he could not pay, his lord ordered him to be sold, together with his wife and children and all his possessions

1,643 years and ten months. If the servant had worked for an ordinary day’s wage, it would take him 1,643 years and ten months to pay off his debt. That, of course, presumes that he worked seven days a week without stopping and that every portion of his wage went to the master – and that there was no interest. It is an unpayable debt.

The hundred denarii, on the other hand, is a hundred days wages. It was a payable debt.

Jesus is telling a story, of course. And like a good yarn it involves hyperbole. A fish is never a fish; it is a monster fish. There is a twinkle in Jesus’ eye.

A story that involves 10,000 talents is a story about the rich elites who govern the land. Even the mightiest in a small country like Judea are bound in some form of service to another. Herod may be “Herod the Great” but he still depends upon the favor of Augustus for his title of King. If he should not please Caesar, his kingdom can always be given to another. And there were no golden parachutes in those days.

So the crowd is laughing at the image of this high and mighty prince groveling at the feet of his master. And they are laughing at the debt. They recognize the ruthlessness that can fawn for the mighty and crush the unmighty. They all know landowners like this who are forgiven great debts but merciless with the poor. The crowd cheers when this man of influence and luxury who has never labored a day in his life is handed over to the inquisitors. ‘Jailors’ is too kind a word. Torture is the standard means of examination. He is not exactly “handed over to be tortured” – he is handed over to the interrogators who question in the routine fashion: by torture. They will know how to extract the necessary information about whatever funds this man has hidden.

The crowd likes the ending of this story, just as we take a vicarious satisfaction when the mighty fall. Except that Jesus then coldcocks the crowd: 35So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”

Suddenly this is not about the 1%; it is about us. And it is not a story; it is daily life.

35So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”

Forgiveness is not an option. It is the defining reality of the realm of God.

There is a reason Jesus uses this number seventy-seven when Peter asks how often he should forgive. Lamech, the father of Tubal-Cain who first devised weapons of bronze and iron, vowed seventy-seven fold revenge should anyone harm him. The world runs by the principle of revenge, getting even. The realm of God is defined by forgiveness, forgiveness born of God’s infinite mercy.

We cannot come to the king’s wedding feast and mock him by refusing to wear the wedding garment he has provided. We cannot claim the name of Jesus and refuse to forgive. This doesn’t have anything to do with tolerating abuse; it just removes the concept of harming others as we have been harmed from the table. The rule is not “Do unto others as they have done to you,” but “Do unto others as you would have them do to you.” There is a big difference in those two statements, the difference between the way of the world and the way of God, between the world of Lamech and the world of Jesus.

“Once you were darkness, but now in the Lord you are light. Live as children of light.”
–Ephesians 5:8

An icon of grace

Watching for the morning of September 14

Year A

Holy Cross Day:
(Proper 19 / Lectionary 24)

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Saint Helena finds the Holy Cross: Inuentio sanctae Crucis, Illumination from the Passionary of Weissenau (Weißenauer Passionale); Fondation Bodmer, Coligny, Switzerland; Cod. Bodmer 127, fol. 53v

An image of judgment becomes an icon of grace. The cross was a brutal instrument of Roman power. It was used to make clear the cost and futility of resisting imperial rule. But bearing the body of Jesus it becomes a sign of redemption and the means for our healing.

We don’t get to talk much about the crucifixion apart from the season of Lent and Holy Week. But in CE 326 Saint Helena, the mother of emperor Constantine the Great, while on pilgrimage to the Holy Land, found what she believed was the true cross of Christ and on that site they began the construction of the church of the Holy Sepulcher. It was dedicated on September 14, 335 and became a feast day of the church.

It is for us an opportunity to remember and reflect on this central reality of Christian faith: God took an instrument of imperial power and made it a sign of the reign of God. God used a tool of oppression and torture to reveal the poverty of violence and the wealth of his redemptive love.

So this Sunday we read about the bronze serpent impaled upon a gibbet that the Gospel of John uses as an image of Jesus lifted up upon the cross. And we hear Paul declare that this cross that seems so unthinkable to us as a revelation of the divine is in fact the power and wisdom of God.

But in our celebration of the cross of Christ, we cannot skip the appointed Gospel for this Sunday (proper 19/lectionary 24) where Jesus answers Peter’s question about the limits of forgiveness – for the answer to that question takes us to the priceless sacrifice and grace without end worked upon the cross.

The Prayer for Holy Cross Day, September 14, 2014

Gracious God,
who by the mystery of the wood of the manger and the wood of the cross
brought redemption to all,
keep us ever mindful of your boundless compassion,
that with love and mercy
we may be faithful sons and daughters of your reign of grace and life;
through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and forever.

The Texts for Holy Cross Day, September 14, 2014

First Reading: Numbers 21:4-9
“The Lord said to Moses, “Make a poisonous serpent, and set it on a pole; and everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live.” – God overcame the army of Pharaoh and led the people out from bondage in Egypt, but the people rebelled in fear when faced with the challenge of taking the land of Canaan. Sent back towards Egypt to approach the promised land from another way, their poisonous speech towards God comes back upon themselves in the form of poisonous snakes. But God uses the image of a serpent on a pole as a means for their healing. An image of judgment becomes an icon of grace.

Psalmody: Psalm 98:1-4
“Sing to the Lord a new song, for he has done marvelous things.” – A song of praise to God who has delivered the people and reigns among them as Lord.

Second Reading: 1 Corinthians 1:18-24
“The message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.”
– writing to his troubled congregation at Corinth to call them back to a life shaped by the grace of God revealed in Christ Jesus, Paul begins his letter by focusing their attention on the cross of Christ. God’s unexpected work in the cross defies our human expectations of the divine, but in the cross is made known the grace and power of God.

Gospel: John 3:13-17
“God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” – In conversation with Nicodemus, Jesus uses the image from our first lesson to anticipate the cross: those who “see” (see with understanding) Jesus on the cross will be “saved” (a word that also means healed) as those who gazed upon the serpent were made whole.

Sermon text: Matthew 18:21-35
“How often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” – Having taught reconciliation rather than “getting even” as the fundamental principle of life in the Christian community, Jesus is asked about the limits of forgiveness.

Brothers

Wednesday

Matthew 18

15If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault.

© dkbonde

© dkbonde

© dkbonde

© dkbonde

I understand why the editors of the New Revised Standard Version chose this translation, but it distorts the text. Wanting to avoid the problem of gender specific language, they chose a neutral term with which to translate the Greek word ‘brother’. But the phrase “member of the church” brings to our mind the local congregation with budgets and meetings and called or appointed pastors. It doesn’t call to mind the mutual obligation of a household or extended family. It doesn’t remind us here, at the beginning of this teaching on sins, that we are bound together in the household of God. It doesn’t evoke the power of the word ‘love’, the mutual concern, solidarity and bond across time and distance that defines the ancient ties of kinship. Before Jesus says anything else about handling ruptures in our relationships, he reminds us that we are brothers and sisters.  It is your brother, of whom we are speaking; not a rival, not an enemy, not a competitor in the field of social honor. It is your sister. It is one with whom you share an eternal bond in Christ.

We are far from this in the normal worshipping congregation. On the scale between a family and a theater crowd, we are more like the theater. We tend to come as consumers of a religious ‘show’ than as a family gathering for Thanksgiving dinner. We listen to the preacher with critical ears. We scowl at the families of children who make too much noise as if they were talking during the movie. We feel free to discuss the appearance or behavior of other patrons as we do of strangers. We do not typically see the Sunday congregation as our extended family. It is why we are content to let others cook rather than coming to the kitchen to help carve the turkey. It is why we have a guild set the table and wash the dishes rather than ask what we can bring and how we can help.

But the vision Jesus has for his followers is a community that reflects and anticipates the dawning reign of God. It is a community that bears witness to a redeemed world. It is a community where breaches are healed rather than perpetuated. It is a community where the breaking of bread gathers us into the presence of God.

The word ‘brother’ is not from an inherent sexism in the faith, but from the facts of life in the ancient world. It was men who dealt with one another in the public sphere. It was men whose words and actions would sometimes dishonor one another – an honor challenge that required a prompt and zealous response. Every slander must be met with slander. But such is not the kingdom of God. Such is not the world redeemed. Such is not to be the pattern of life among Jesus’ followers.