Pastor Bradley E. Schmeling picture

15th Sunday after Pentecost, Pastor Bradley E. Schmeling

Matthew 18:21-35

I’m in the steeple.  Every now and then I climb up here, even though it’s a little scary.  Mostly it’s to get away from what’s going on down there.  To find a bit of quiet; to be above the fray.  From here, everything seems peaceful. The neighborhood looks quiet. I can’t see the kids sitting at the kitchen table doing school; parents trying to figure out how Google Hangout works in Spanish; teachers doubling down to find their deepest creative reserves.  From up here, I can’t sense the foreboding that this week’s cold spell set into motion.  Winter’s coming, and we’re still cut off because of a virus.  I can’t see the rubble of the buildings still in a heap on University Avenue after the riots in May.  I certainly can’t see structural racism, or hear the political talking heads, or deal with the relatives that get convictions confirmed by Fox News or the Huffington Post.

It’s nice to be with God up here, in the sky, in the wind–Spirit in every breath.  There’s even sun today.

But in a short while, you’ll be driving up with your messy lives, and I’ll have to come down.  Come down to pass out Sunday school materials for a fall of online faith formation.  Come down to pass out hymnals so you can keep singing the hymns in the privacy of your living room.  I’ll come down to pass out a tree because the climate is dying, or to collect diapers and cereal because Francis Basket desperately needs us right now. I’ll come down and pass out a blessing because, God, I know you need a good word to carry home.  I’ll come down to smile the love of Christ to you, even though you’ll never see it behind my mask.

I’ll come down, because right now, church is down there, not up here.  In fact, this fall, we’re not even really coming here to do church.  The leadership of the church will be online, trying to support and encourage you while you’re in the church on the road, and in your school, and in your neighborhood, or in the hospital or clinic, in the office, at the bank or by the lake, by Zoom or by email.

Truthfully, the real reason I’m in the steeple is to avoid the gospel lesson for today.  This is a terrible parable for rally day.  Nothing inspires us to learn and grow and be compassionate and justice-seeking people like a warning:  figure out how God’s mercy works or else you’ll end up in with a tortured life.

Our Stewardship theme is, “Servant Church, Arise!”  With this gospel text, it just might as well be “Rise to the occasion, or else.”

At first, I wanted to figuratively stay up here and just change the reading.  Something nice.  But I remembered the story of Jacob wrestling with the stranger in the mist.  Jacob wouldn’t let go, insisting that the mysterious stranger that seemed powerful and threatening give a blessing.  Maybe it’s the approach to take with this parable.  Wrestle with it.  Make it be accountable to give us a blessing; wring out of it something good.

Which may not be a bad strategy for our lives right now.  This time of CoVid and racial unrest, and economic and political uncertainty is a really bad parable for what life can be.   We don’t have to venture far to hear the weeping and gnashing of teeth.

Usually this parable is thought of as an allegory, where each character represents someone in particular.  The king is God.  The slave with the huge debt is either me, if I have a struggle with esteem, or it’s that someone that represents all that’s terrible with the world.  But what if the parable isn’t trying to figure out which character I am or want to be but is a story about the logic of the Jesus’ way?

When Jesus comes down from the cross, and is raised from the dead, he meets up with the messy lives of the disciples.  His logic is surprise. Forgiveness is nothing more than Jesus’ surprising response to what’s wrong with the world.  Instead of judgment, or revenge, or quid pro quo, the response is love.  His death and resurrection don’t just provide us with another standard of judgment:  forgive or else.  They set into a motion a world that is beautifully free to be surprising.  I have a friend who says that following Jesus is zigging when everyone else is zagging.  The future will not be ruled by the past or by the present moment but by the door that God, in Christ Jesus, has opened for us.

What’s surprising to me in the parable is that by erasing this huge debt, he gives the servant the same kind of authority to live his own life.  He, too, has the power to wipe away all debts, figurative and literal.

One of my favorite prayers in Advent come from what are called the O Antiphons, a little refrain to be prayed each day before Christmas.  “Come, O Key of David, Come.  You open and no one can close.  You close and no one can open.  Come, and deliver us.”

The surprise is that Jesus hands us the keys, knowing full well that we just got our baptismal license and the driving could be a little messy. We have in our hands power to open, rather than to close.  And, unfortunately, we have the power to close, and not to open.  (That’s the definition of hell to me; having the power to open but we choose to close.  That’s just torture for everyone.)

So what am I saying from up here in my ivory tower?

You, children of God, servants of the Most High, have in your hands right now the full power of God’s love.  You have the full authority of Christ to bring goodness into the life you wrestle with. Each of us have multiple times a day when we are faced with the possibility of living and loving from this open-ended and extravagant grace, or we can choose to be small, living from our ancient wounds, our deepest fears, or our shriveled and partisan world views.

Sometimes we will be church in big and grand ways.  But mostly, we will do it in the smallest of ways.  Dropping a box of cereal in a bin.  Hanging a pinecone bird feeder in the backyard; planting one more tree. Holding our tongue when we would much rather shred and burn.  Even placing our enemy in the light of prayer is a choice that opens, rather than ongoing torture of reposting our rage and disgust.  Perhaps, it’s the surprise of forgiveness offered to someone who really hasn’t earned it.  Or maybe it’s just the decision to let go of a wound within so that we stop demonizing the perpetrator.  We let them go, rather than allow them to keep wounding us, opening both our futures and theirs.

Maybe the surprise is simply finding the grace to wrestle with one more day, convinced that there is a blessing to be had. And how often can we ask for enough grace for the day:  Seven times? No, I tell you.  Seventy-seven times.  Which still hardly seems like enough, but fortunately, it’s the way the Bible says without ceasing.

The Gospel is that the grace and Spirit energy unleashed on Easter morning is enough to fuel our feeble, halting, stodgy attempts to arise and be church, right now, in this world, even down there in the parking lot, and wherever it is the Spirit whispers to your soul:

Servant church, arise!