17 September 2017 – 15th Sunday after Pentecost

The Rev. Dr. Austin Leininger
Sermon of Proper 19
15th Sunday After Pentecost
17 September 2017

Exodus 14:19-31
Psalm 114
Romans 14:1-12
Matthew 18:21-35

Today, as we offer prayers for continuing healing and support for the victims of this year’s hurricanes, we have a poignant reminder in our first reading of the power of water to not only cleanse and redeem, but also to tear down and destroy.

Taken as a story of faith that demonstrates God’s abiding love, care, and protection of the Israelites, our first reading is a powerful story of Israel’s deliverance from slavery in Egypt. Taken as a reminder of the devastation, destruction, and human suffering wrought by the waters of hurricanes, tsunamis, and torrential rains, it is a disturbing and familiar story of loss and tragedy.

In our stories, of course, the only adversary has been the water itself, and the only celebrations and victories: the rescues of those stranded, the reuniting of loved ones feared lost, and the overcoming of loss as communities have worked and continue to work to rebuild and restore what was swept away in the deluge.

As we watch communities seeking ways to help each other in the news today, what has come of the devastation is a renewing of community that connects us to the Exodus through the Red Sea. The families that entered into the encounter with the waters were a frightened, beleaguered, and only loosely connected people. Those who came out on the other side were a united community, renewed in their extended kinship to one another, and in Israel’s case renewed in their common faith, and united in a collective experience that has been celebrated as a single event in the Passover that marked the beginning of their collective exodus in last week’s first reading.

While our kinship is one of our common humanity, and our collective experience may not be commemorated for centuries to come, what we are witnessing in hurricane stricken areas is a familiar experience from last’s years flooding and land slides here in Santa Cruz—a closeness in extended communities of care that drew us together in one spirit as we worked together to overcome, to rebuild, to sustain, and to renew our commitments to one another in our ongoing relationships of solidarity, mutuality, and empathy.

Paul’s writing from this morning’s portion of his letter to the Romans ties into this community ethos as he continues his encouragement of the young multicultural Christian community in Rome. Last week’s portion of this teaching ended with the exhortation not to make any provision for the flesh, which in Paul’s use refers to that self-centered human proclivity to draw in on the self and seek refuge behind our walls. This week he continues by expanding on what he means, to describe self-giving, mutual compassion, love, and tolerance in relationship with one another. Drawing us back to the theme of authenticity from two week’s ago, he stresses being accountable to God for our relationship with God rather than judging the faith of others and quibbling over the ways in which we each respond faithfully in relationship to God’s call in different ways. Again, this ties back to the condition of our hearts as we engage one another and God in relationships of integrity and authenticity.

These same themes of relational integrity, solidarity, support, and the state of our hearts in relationship with God and one another are expressed in this morning’s gospel in parable form.

Last week’s gospel expanded on just how deeply our emulation of God’s love is intended to go, teaching us that the same love that proclaims God’s abundance and brings God’s kingdom into the here and now, loving and forgiving unconditionally, also brings with it the duty to love one another so deeply and completely that, when the necessary time comes, we too can care enough to confront those in our communities that are living destructively and bring them back into a state of health in their lives and relationships.

But what of those who don’t listen?  Are we really to treat them as no longer brothers and sisters in Christ as the end of last week’s gospel seemed to suggest?

This week, Jesus answers that question, teaching us, as the story continues to unfold, that the flip side of caring enough to confront is also having the fathomless compassion, forgiveness, and mercy to allow people to be human.

In this morning’s parable, the debt that is forgiven of the first slave is 10,000 talents. To put this into perspective, the typical pay for a day’s labor in the field was one denarius. If one worked and saved every day’s wages for an entire year, one would have earned a single talent, so to a day-laborer in the fields, the talent represents a year’s wages. This means that the debt forgiven by the king was equal to ten thousand year’s wages, which even if one could work for a hundred years, would still require a hundred lifetimes to pay back.  The debt owed to the forgiven slave by his fellow slave, in turn, was 100 denarii, or 100 days’ wages.

The comparison is meant to be as absurd as it appears – a hundred lifetimes’ wages forgiven by the king, compared with the one hundred days’ wages that that wicked slave refused to forgive his fellow, and for which he had him thrown in prison.

The incredible mismatch demonstrates the contrast for us between the abundance of God’s love and forgiveness for us—what seems almost reckless or absurd by human standards—and our relative mistreatment of one another, holding onto the hurts and emotional debts we attribute to each other with what seems almost absurd impunity in comparison to God’s absurd forgiveness.

As Christ teaches us today, we are to forgive as the king forgave, as God forgives each of us. Not literally seven times, nor even seventy seven times, but as the number seven represents perfection in biblical symbolism, we are to forgive doubly perfectly. We are to forgive as though forgiving a hundred lifetimes worth of debt, a forgiveness that neither keeps count, nor even conditions forgiveness on change or repentance.

It is this last part that bears explanation, since I believe Christ’s warning at the end of the parable is one that speaks not of God’s requirements of us, suggesting that God will withhold forgiveness if we fail to forgive our brothers and sisters, but rather speaks to a profound truth of the human condition.

As we’ve heard and explored throughout this past summer, God’s passionate longing and love for us is as unconditional as it is uncompromising, and as such there is nothing that can separate us from God’s love and forgiveness. It is simply a part of us, at our deepest core, to be God’s beloved children. We, however can and do separate ourselves from God, and when we hold resentment, anger, fear, and hate for another in our heart, we distance ourselves from God to the point that we become estranged from God’s presence and alienate ourselves from God’s love and forgiveness. It is in this light that we must come to understand both repentance and forgiveness.

I very much believe that Repentance is for us. God does not need it in order to forgive us—indeed God has already forgiven us and continues loving us no matter what. We, however, who have alienated ourselves from God, who have built up walls to protect ourselves and who have cut ourselves off through our own self-centeredness and through our unwillingness to forgive, need repentance in order to turn around and see that God has not moved away from us, but that we have turned our backs on and moved away from God.

Jesus exhortation at the end of this parable is a message speaking to the necessity of the human heart to forgive in order to heal and to fully accept God’s love and forgiveness for us.

Just as the first servant could not fully appreciate and experience the forgiveness shown to him because of his own callous heart, we cannot fully appreciate and experience God’s love and forgiveness for us when we hold onto resentment of others.

The truly lasting detriment in any act that violates or exploits our human vulnerability, beyond the physical healing, the clearing of rubble, and the fading of outward scars, is the state of brokenness in which it leaves the victim.

Growing up as an abused child, I have experienced, first hand, the kind of woundedness that can last a lifetime. Growing up with my father, living in the nightmare of undiagnosed PTSD, was frequently enough an exercise in terror and pain that I lived in fear of him for the first thirty years of my life. It was the emotional abuse that was particularly spirit crushing. I was terrified of him and yet I had to live with him practically every day. My mother, after enduring fifteen years of emotional abuse, finally took my brother and I away when I was about ten years old, and I continued to resent both my father and the time we were still forced to spend together by the courts for another decade.

Illustrative of Christ’s teaching for today, although the abuse had stopped, I continued being a victim both through my own resentment and through the trauma I had experienced in the verbal abuse and physical punishment that haunted me. I was twenty years old when I finally found forgiveness for my dad. There would be no repentance, nor any seeking of forgiveness on his part for another decade, but through God’s grace, I experienced forgiveness for him in my heart and it made a world of difference in who I was and who I am today.

For me forgiveness came within a couple of years of experiencing the profound love and forgiveness of God for the first time at Happening—that profoundly life changing youth retreat I’ve spoken of before. At that retreat I experienced God for the first time as close, personal, and actively involved in my life. I also received a love letter from my dad, who had retired and moved back to South Dakota, and who had been invited to participate in that deeply moving part of the retreat by my best friends. There was no admission of guilt, nor any hint of apology, just a reminder of his love that in that setting may have been the first time I felt safe enough to actually contemplate its truth outside of my resentment and fear. A year or so later, as part of the staff for a confirmation class, I was asked to give a talk on faith at the confirmation retreat. In writing that talk, I realized how much my father’s faith had impacted my own understanding of God. I also finally named and came to terms with the abuse. I accepted the better parts of my father’s influence, and I forgave the worse parts. It would be another ten years before I completed that work of forgiveness by speaking with him directly about my childhood and the thirty years I had spent terrified of him, but deeply encountering that sense of God’s love that Jesus’ parable illustrated as having been forgiven the debt of a hundred lifetimes by God, I found the forgiveness necessary to begin building a healthy and reconciled relationship with my father, no longer as a victim, but from a place of wholeness and healing. As many of you may recall the end of that particular story, when I did finally speak with him thirteen years ago about my childhood experiences, he did apologize, and has for the past few years now been receiving treatment for PTSD. Today he is a healthy and important part of my life, and I can say with both relief and gratitude that he is a wonderful grandfather to my three children, who adore him.

Until I gave up the resentment and anger I held in my heart, I continued to be the victim in relationship with my father, and I continued to separate myself from God and others in relationships that I held at arms length.

It is not always the case that we are able to speak openly with those who have wounded us. It is not always the case, nor, indeed, even a good idea, that we are able to find true and healthy reconciliation in relationships characterized by abuse. But, as Christ teaches, forgiveness in these cases is no less, or perhaps is even more profoundly essential to our own healing and return to wholeness. It is this kind of forgiveness, compassion, and love that Christ speaks of today. The kind of forgiveness that frees the heart and soul of the victim to once again become truly human – to once again find themselves free to accept God’s love, forgiveness, and compassion, and to once again trust that the world, imperfect as it may be, is yet God’s sacred creation, and is Good.

In the final chapter of Christ of the Celts, John Philip Newell captures the intersection between today’s gospel and our community experiences of healing after being painfully vulnerable and wounded before the devastation of storming waters.

“Given what we now know about the oneness of the body of reality, what does it mean to seek healing and salvation?” (109). Our tendency is to seek it in isolation, in personal prayer, or within the protected walls of the church, but it can’t come in isolation. “We are so deeply part of one another, and of all things, that it is meaningless to speak about wholeness in separation. Wholeness comes in relationship, not in fragmentation. Until we move together again in harmony with the hymn of the universe, our songs of salvation will sound like broken cadences torn from the whole.” (109-110).

May God be with those suffering from abuse, with those rebuilding their lives and hearts in the aftermath of the hurricanes, and may God grant us the courage to risk loving as Christ loved, to forgive without apology, to reach out in solidarity and compassion, and to reclaim the wholeness that awaits us outside our walls.