September 17, 2017

15th Sunday after Pentecost, Pastor Bradley E. Schmeling

Matthew 18:21-35

Click Here for Audio: 170917_001

There’s an ice-breaker game in which a group of people stand in a circle, and then everyone comes to the middle, reaches in, and grabs two hands. It’s a big knot. Then the group has to untie the circle without letting go of hands.  Needless to say, it’s a complicated process. It involves a lot of twisting and turning, a lot of crawling through spaces, stepping over arms and legs, a great deal of conversation.  Sometimes someone across the way can see better what needs to happen. There are usually moments when it all seems impossible, when the whole group is really stuck.  Miraculously, however, it always turns out.  When you’re finished, the group is in a circle.  Some people are facing different directions; some facing in, and some facing out.

Keep that game in mind.  It’s the perfect metaphor for the work of forgiveness.

The root of the Greek word for forgiveness is about untying a knot.  It might have been used first for animal.  “Untie the goat and let it go.”  Forgiveness is to let something go; to set free; to put things as they were before they were bound.

We announced it this morning, “Your sins are forgiven.”  It’s the church’s starting point, the place where new life comes, when past failure is released; where old pain is healed; where all gets put right.  It’s actually why we start the service so often with confession and forgiveness.  We even put it before the first hymn so everything’s out of the way before we get started.

Someone once said to me, “Do we have to start by reminding everyone that they’re sinners?”  Most of us don’t need a reminder.  We’re fully aware that since we left the church last week after the Rally Day picnic, forgiven and free, things haven’t gone so well.  Some us didn’t make it to the car without complaining about something.   I was on my way home later in the afternoon, and the traffic in Highland Village and then the Ford Parkway bridge was jammed.  And I was behind a guy who was extremely cautious, inching his way along.  I was so frustrated, right up behind him, when I noticed the bumper sticker, “Respond in love.” Well, shoot.  I’d only been out of church for 15 minutes, and I needed confession. I was driving behind Jesus.

On that same day, some of us went home or to work or school to the same difficult relationships that always pull us into our darkest places.  Some of us were singing that little ear-worm song, “Go on your way with joy my friends.  Go on your way with joy my friends.  Go on your way with joy my friends.  Let your left foot say glory and your right say, Amen.”  We really did leave with joy, laughing about singing that song with two left feet.  Then we turned on the news, and immediately despair returned.  Some of us left, still carrying burdens of things we’ve done long ago that haunt us at night or secrets that cheat us out of our value.  It wasn’t long before we felt like frauds, embarrassed by the realities of our lives, living over and over in the darkness those behaviors that we really don’t want anyone else to see.

We don’t need to be reminded that we’re in debt, but we do need to be reminded about God’s extravagance in the face of our debt.  That’s why we start with the announcement of God’s forgiveness.  I think we actually have the confession backwards. We should announce forgiveness first, then make confession.  Because we’re free, we’re able to be honest.

This is the power of today’s parable.  We miss the shear magnitude of the forgiveness in the parable because we don’t understand first-century measures.  But the amount owed here is astronomical.  In today’s terms, ten thousand talents would be as if this one man owed trillions of dollars, so much that there was simply no way to figure out a payment plan, no way to be transactional like, “I’ll do this, if you’ll do that.”  No way to imagine a life without the work of repaying the debt.

The guy tries.  He falls on his knees and pleads, “I’ll repay the debt.”  But the request is simply ridiculous.  There’s no way he can.  The king forgives the debt.  Wipes it way.  No repayment plan.  No terms of agreement.  No strings.  No nothing.  Just freedom.  His future now untied from the burden of the crushing debt.  He was literally set free to live a life he never thought he would have.

Peter asks his question like he’s trying to figure out the right payment plan. How often should we forgive?  7? Jesus answers from another world. 77; which is a way of saying “without ceasing.”  Always!  Peter and the disciples are being invited to live from another world, to live from the extravagance of God’s love, to forgive as many times as God does.  To reach in to life, grab hold, and begin the sometimes torturous and difficult work of untying the knots, those ones inside ourselves; the ones we’ve tied all by ourselves, and the ones the world ties around us.

This is where our metaphor is helpful.  We tend to think of forgiveness as transactional.  I say words, “I forgive you,” and suddenly everything is alright.  “Whew, now we can all just move on.”  Maybe it works that way with little things like putting an empty ice tray back in the freezer or driving away and forgetting to close the garage door.  Real life is a bit more twisted and convoluted.  Forgiveness is more of a process, an attitude, a way of grabbing life.

We twist and we turn to understand exactly what forgiveness means, which if we’re honest isn’t always clear.  It doesn’t always mean forgetting, although sometimes it does.  It doesn’t mean putting ourselves continuously at risk of being wounded, although likely it calls us to a different kind of vulnerability, one that is fueled by bravery and determination, our faces set toward abuser and oppressor with a different strength, determined not to let them hurt again. It may mean letting go of something in ourselves that has kept us tied to the wound.

Over and over again, we tie ourselves, not to our past, but to the Jesus Way of mercy and love.  Last week, Jesus promised, “What you bind on earth will be bound in heaven.  What you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”  One way to understand this is to say that the world you bind yourself to is the one you get to live in.  Tie yourself to the way of Jesus and your life will fill with the love of Jesus.  Tie yourself to a world of grudging and judging, denial and hate, and you’ll receive it fully.  It’s a version of reaping what you sow.

This is what happens to the guy in the parable.  Rather than extravagant grace, the other world, he chooses the repayment plan, choking the one who owes him so little, demanding to be paid.  So that’s the world the king gives to him; that’s the world he has to live in.  He builds his own prison.

We’re all in this game.  We’re all reaching in, deciding which hand we’re going to grab, which world will be the one we trust, which attitude we will take toward those who have done us wrong.  We live every day at that turn in the parable.  We live every day in that moment after the announcement of the forgiveness of sins.

Matthew is tough because he never lets us off the hook, even while he reminds us over and over again who God is:  gracious and merciful, forgiving and loving.  God who is for us and not against us.  Maybe that’s why we keep coming back every week, even after it didn’t go so well.  We need to hear that, in the end, it always works out.  The circle is unbroken, and some of us are totally turned around, facing in new directions.

In the end, it’s really a mystery how it all works out.  Maybe it’s because Jesus is in the circle.He’s the one who is holding our hands, pulling us through the tightest of places, whispering loving advice, laughing when we’re stuck, giving us spirit when we’re about to give up, raising us when we’re dying, giving us a future we never thought we could have.

I have no idea how it does, but it always works.