Wednesday, September 14, 2011

13 Pentecost Year A: September 11, 2011

Exodus 14:19-31; Psalm 114; Romans 14:1-12; Matthew 18:21-35
Preached by The Rev. Jason Haddox

The rabbis tell a story that, when the children of Israel had safely crossed the Red Sea and escaped from slavery in Egypt, as they stood on the shore and watched the waters roll over the Egyptian army, the angels around the heavenly throne wanted to sing and rejoice at the downfall of the Egyptians. But God stopped their singing, saying, “The works of my hands are drowning in the sea, and you wish to sing praises?!?”
The deliverance of the children of Israel came at a price. The Egyptians could have let them go—God knows, by that time, the Egyptians themselves had suffered from frogs and locusts and boils and the death of the firstborn. You’d think they’d have figured it out!
But no, again they came after the children of Israel, chasing them even into the sea. Did they mean to kill them there on the shore, or take them back in chains to slavery again? In any case, they pursued the Israelites intending to destroy them, but their destruction came back upon themselves.
God did not rejoice wholeheartedly that day. Some of God’s children went out to freedom, and for them there was a new beginning. But some of them went down to their deaths, driven by the merciless arrogance of a ruler whose powers had been thwarted. No, God did not rejoice in that.
We have to be careful, when we assume that God is always and forever on our side, to the exclusion of someone (or someones) who differs from us. Paul writes to the Christians at Rome this morning, cautioning them about how they deal with one another—and these are all followers of Christ! “Who are you to judge your sister or brother?” again and again he asks. If you keep feast days or not; if you eat or if you do not eat, give thanks to God and do not look condescendingly upon those who do differently—for none of us are in this alone. This work of being Jesus’ followers, of seeking to embody the work and witness of the Risen Christ in our own lives, is never a solo virtuoso act. “We do not live to ourselves; we do not die to ourselves…whether we live or die, we are the Lord’s. Christ lived, and died, so that he might be Lord of all—the living and the dead.” And so we say or sing these words at funerals—declaring in the very face of death, that death has not, shall not have, the last word.
Judge not your brother, or sister—because you do not know how to judge rightly.
Judge not—except in the way you wish to be judged by God.
“Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us” we will pray momentarily. In other words, Treat us, O God, as we treat one another.
Lord, have mercy upon us!

And guess what?
He does. For no reason at all, except that God is determined to love us into the kingdom of love, by love and love alone, he does indeed have mercy.
This is what it looks like, to be one of God’s people. This is what it looks like, to be a follower of Jesus.
In this work of being Jesus’ followers, Peter comes to Jesus with a question. Lord, if someone sins against me, how many times shall I forgive? As many as seven?
Try Seventy-seven times, Pete. Or how about four hundred and ninety…
Which is to say—stop counting. God has given up keeping the heavenly log books of who’s naughty or nice—why do you insist on keeeping score?
So he tells this outrageous story, just in case they still don’t get it.
Ten thousand talents is a sum beyond imagining. It is not possible that an ordinary slave, in Jesus’ culture, would ever have had access to that kind of money. Whole national economies would have not involved that kind of funding. Jesus is drawing the picture as big as possible, just to get the point across.
The master—the king—forgives the debt. And as soon as the slave is released from that debt, he goes and starts insisting that a fellow slave, who owes him roughly a few months’ wages—petty cash in comparison—pay up or get carted off to debtor’s prison.
The other slaves see this exchange and go running to tattle.
And the parable ends with the wicked slave being handed over, “to be tortured until he would pay his entire debt.”
What I want to know is, how’s he supposed to pay anything if he’s being waterboarded and electroshocked?

This is not a subtle parable. Jesus is hitting them over the head with the point: Forgive one another, as you hope to be forgiven yourselves.

I ddin’t pick these readings, friends. The lectionary appointed them for this Sunday years before today—before the events of ten years ago, when in the aftermath of September 11th, the temptation broke upon us as a nation to lash out in anger, to seek vengeance, to find someone (or someones) to blame. Clearly that temptation has been around for a while—several centuries at least—and when we succumb to it, God bids the angels to silence again. “Why are you singing, when my children are destroying one another?”

Unforgiveness damages everything it touches—most of all, the one who will not forgive. Forgiveness does not mean forgetting what has happened—as if that were possible. It does not mean that everything goes back to the way it was before. It does not mean “kiss and make up.” Rather, it means freedom…from the past, from old anger and resentment and bitterness and being “stuck”—or even “enslaved.” I don’t think it’s by coincidence that Jesus contrasts slavery—a common enough cultural reality in his day—with forgiveness, as a synonym for being set free.

“Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” (Last week—in fact, only three verses earlier!) Jesus gives his followers—that’s us, folks—the power to set each other, and ourselves, free.

The children of Israel went into freedom through the sea. Perhaps, in their haste and joy, they had forgiven their captors in Egypt for what they had suffered there. The armies of Egypt came in haste and vengeance to the sea, and went in to their own destruction. They had neither forgiven nor forgotten. They were willing to perish themselves rather than let go of the past. They became the agents of their own destruction.

Forgive us…as we forgive. Each one of us; and all of us together.
May it be so for us; may it be so among us. Amen.

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