Sunday, 7 September 2014

Matthew 18.21-35 (NRSV)

Matthew 18.21-35 (NRSV) (SERMON)

21 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?’ 22Jesus said to him, ‘Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.

The Parable of the Unforgiving 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;25 and, as he could not pay, his lord ordered him to be sold, together with his wife and children and all his possessions, and payment to be made. 26So the slave fell on his knees before him, saying, “Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.” 27And out of pity for him, the lord of that slave released him and forgave him the debt. 28But that same slave, as he went out, came upon one of his fellow-slaves who owed him a hundred denarii; and seizing him by the throat, he said, “Pay what you owe.” 29Then his fellow-slave fell down and pleaded with him, “Have patience with me, and I will pay you.” 30But he refused; then he went and threw him into prison until he should pay the debt. 31When his fellow-slaves saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their lord all that had taken place. 32Then his lord summoned him and said to him, “You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me.33Should you not have had mercy on your fellow-slave, as I had mercy on you?” 34And in anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he should pay his entire debt. 35So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.’

I am indebted to the work of William Barclay  and Suzanna de Dietrich for inspiration for this reflection.

My text this morning is written in Matthew 18:27:

And out of pity for him, the lord of that slave released him and forgave him the debt. 

Forgiveness is one of the most important virtues; but at the same time it is the most difficult to attain. Even when one struggles through the problem and gets to the point where you think you can forgive – even utter the words – it does not always work. Rabbi David Nelson tells a humorous, but true story of two brothers who went to their rabbi to settle a longstanding feud. The rabbi got the two to reconcile their differences and shake hands. As they were about to leave, he asked each one to make a wish for the other in honour Yom Kippur, the Jewish New Year. The first brother turned to the other and said, "I wish you what you wish me." At that, the second brother threw up his hands and said, "See, Rabbi, he's starting up again!"

The South Africa I was born and grew up in, descended into violence and bloodshed. Both the state police and the African resistance movements did the most despicable things to each other. When democracy eventually dawned there was a great deal of hatred. Then, the Archbishop of Cape Town, Desmond Tutu, revived the African (and I would contend Christian) notion of ubuntu.

What is ubuntu? It is the idea that a person is only really be a person (a self) through other persons. It claims that the idea of a solitary individual is a contradiction, because we only really become fully human when we are in relationship with others. As Desmond Tutu put it (and I paraphrase): “I need you with all your giftedness and weakness, so that I can be me with all my giftedness and weakness.” At the core of ubuntu is the idea of restorative justice, because we need justice – acknowledgement of wrongdoing – but we also need each to forgive each other so we need to be restored to each other. How we relate to others defines who we are. Ubuntu might be an African concept, but I am convinced that it applies everywhere. Forgiveness is at the core; without it, there can be no hope; no way forward.

In our reading, Peter once more acts as the spokesman for all the disciples asking: ‘Must one pardon seven times?’ which is just another way of saying always. Matthew is referring back to Genesis where Lamech avenged himself 77 – fold (Genesis 4.24) and as de Dietrich comments, ‘... to the absolute of vengeance is opposed the absolute pardon.’

Jesus goes on to illustrate this point be using a parable about a debtor who had absolutely no chance of paying off his debt, who is released from his responsibility, but who refuses to be as merciful to those who are in his debt. To put it into context, in today’s money the difference is between £3 million and £5. How can any Christian, who has received so much from God ever crush another by refusing to forgive them? Nothing can compare with the graciousness of God; this means that there is nothing any person can do to offend us so greatly that means we ought not to forgive them, because ‘... one who does not pardon his neighbour excludes himself by that fact from communion with God.’ Jesus repeats this teaching several times and, as de Dietrich concludes, makes the point that ‘... he who shuts out mercy shows that he has understood nothing of the love of God, of the extraordinary pardon of which he himself is the object’ (see 5.7, 43-48; 6.12-15).

This is hard ...

The words are relatively easy, and in our minds we know that they are true, but when people have been hurt and degraded in the deepest way, like black people under the Apartheid government in South Africa, where loved ones were brutally tortured and killed, where others were murdered by necklace killings and other horrors, we realise that what Jesus is talking about here is also the fact that, this is all impossible for humans. Here too, we are totally reliant on God’s unmerited and deserved grace, for otherwise it will never happen.

One also thinks of that horrific defining historic moment when the terrorists flew Jumbo Jets into the Twin Towers in New York. I heard about it just before taking a GCSE Religious Studies lesson. Two lovely, but naughty boys came to me saying that I needed to go into the Geography department to see the television, because someone had flown a jet into a building in New York. I chided them for yet another of their attempts to delay the start of the lesson; but this time they were telling the truth. And the world has never been, and will never be the same again. It must be so hard for those who lost loved ones, so many of them, in the prime of their lives, to forgive; and it would be churlish to understate how difficult this must be. But, in the interests of the people who have been hurt, they must.

Corrie Ten Boom, the Dutch woman who suffered so heavily at the hands of the Nazis in a concentration camp gives some insight as to ‘How?’ She writes of how she had been unable to forget a wrong that had been done to her. She had forgiven the person, but she kept rehashing the incident and so couldn't sleep. Finally Corrie cried out to God for help in putting the problem to rest. "His help came in the form of a kindly Lutheran pastor," Corrie wrote, "to whom I confessed my failure after two sleepless weeks." "Up in the church tower," he said, nodding out the window, "is a bell which is rung by pulling on a rope. But you know what? After the sexton lets go of the rope, the bell keeps on swinging. First ding, then dong. Slower and slower until there's a final dong and it stops. I believe the same thing is true of forgiveness. When we forgive, we take our hand off the rope. But if we've been tugging at our grievances for a long time, we mustn't be surprised if the old angry thoughts keep coming for a while. They're just the ding-dongs of the old bell slowing down." "And so it proved to be. There were a few more midnight reverberations, a couple of dings when the subject came up in my conversations, but the force -- which was my willingness in the matter -- had gone out of them. They came less and less often and at the last stopped altogether: we can trust God not only above our emotions, but also above our thoughts."

We owe so much to Peter’s weakness of rushing into speech and being impetuous, because it always resulted in our Lord explaining things so well and clearly in order to deal with Peter’s folly. At the time, Peter’s suggestion of 7 times would have appeared generous, because it was Jewish custom to only forgive 3 times and there is good biblical precedent for this, especially Amos chapter 1. The implication is that on the 4th offence, the offender must be punished. It was not thought that if God decreed this and behaved in this way, humans could not be expected to do more!

Peter had got what Jesus was saying and wanted clarity; so he thought he was exaggerating generosity toward sinners – he takes the Rabbinic idea of 3, doubles it and adds another one for good measure. He expected to be praised for his depth of insight and graciousness. There is a sense of eager self-satisfaction in Peter’s behaviour.

Jesus replies that Peter is miles off the point; because Christians ought to be willing to place no limit of their forgiveness. Jesus goes on to teach into this situation using a parable and Barclay suggests that this parable taught certain lessons that, as Barclay suggests, ‘... Jesus never tired of teaching ...’ and I refer to Barclay’s commentary to explain these points:

Firstly, Jesus taught that people must forgive in order to be forgiven. We all recall the Sermon on the Mount where Jesus taught: ‘Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy.’ This is of course central to the Lord’s Prayer: ‘Forgive us our sins, as we forgive the sins of others.’ James also writes: ‘For judgement will be without mercy, to anyone who has shown no mercy.’

Secondly, we have already seen how massive the debt of the first servant was. Kennedy explains that nothing that any person can do to us can compare with the debt we owe to God; ‘... and if God has forgiven us the debt we owe Him, we must forgive our fellow-men the debts they owe to us.’ Barclay adds: ‘Nothing that we have to forgive can even faintly or remotely compare with that which we have been forgiven.’

We have been forgiven a debt that is impossible to pay, and so we must forgive as God has forgiven us.

We know that it is impossible if we try to do this in our own strength, but God’s grace is sufficient for us; God’s grace made it possible for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission to work and for people to do the impossible and forgive each other. Let us pray that the hurt people remember today because of the 9/11 horror, can also be put to rest, because God’s love and grace releases people from it as they are enabled to forgive.

But what about ourselves? I am sure I am not alone in finding it most difficult to forgive myself. Karl Menninger, the famed psychiatrist, once said that if he could convince the patients in psychiatric hospitals that their sins were forgiven, 75 percent of them could walk out the next day!

I close with an illustration (see that I have found most helpful in my own journey.

In A Forgiving God in an Unforgiving World, Ron Lee Davis retells the true story of a priest in the Philippines, a much- loved man of God,  who carried the burden of a secret sin he had committed many years before. He had repented but still had no peace, no sense of God's forgiveness. In his parish was a woman who deeply loved God and who claimed to have visions in which she spoke with Christ and he with her. The priest, however, was sceptical. To test her he said, "The next time you speak with Christ, I want you to ask him what sin your priest committed while he was in seminary." The woman agreed. A few days later the priest asked., "Well, did Christ visit you in your dreams?"  "Yes, he did," she replied.
"And did you ask him what sin I committed in seminary?"
"Well, what did he say?"
"He said, 'I don't remember'"
What God forgives, He forgets.

Today Jesus provides comfort and hope to all – sinner and sinned against alike as we read: ‘And out of pity for him, the lord of that slave released him and forgave him the debt.’ Amen.

Wednesday, 3 September 2014

Romans 13.8-end

Romans 13.8-end (NRSV)

Love for One Another

8 Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. 9The commandments, ‘You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not covet’; and any other commandment, are summed up in this word, ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’ 10Love does no wrong to a neighbour; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.

An Urgent Appeal

11 Besides this, you know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers; 12the night is far gone, the day is near. Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armour of light; 13let us live honourably as in the day, not in revelling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarrelling and jealousy.14Instead, put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires. 

What a wonderful passage ... with the focus on love. Here Paul repeats the essential Gospel message of Jesus, where if our aim is to love God and others with the agape love of God, then everything else will fall into place. If one loves one’s wife, the thought of adultery will not even enter one’s mind; if one loves others, we will not want to steal from them, or hurt them in any way we will honour parents and do everything we can for the best for our children. If we love others, we will be focused on their best interest and so not be too concerned about their position, status, language, race culture – all things the world deems of significance and therefore importance. Just a brief thought on the essence of the 10 Commandments makes one realise that Paul has got it.

There is the sense that the second part of this passage (entitled here as ‘An urgent appeal’) takes this further. When one loves others, it is like being awakened from sleep. To love is to live in the light, happy for all to see because what we are doing and being is something to be proud of and not ashamed of. There is a sense that when one is confronted with choices, we need to ask: ‘Is this honourable?’ and if so – do it.

God has given us a conscience and we know when we have got things wrong; when we feel ashamed. But it does not come easily because we are weak and frail and we so often fail. So we are also given the ability – we can ‘... put on the Lord Jesus Christ ...’ for Jesus gives us his Spirit and his grace so that we can overcome our weakness and temptation and  live in the light that he gives us, and bask in his love.

A few thoughts from Barclay on verses 8-10 ...

If a couple allow their physical passions to sweep them away, the reason is, not that they love each other too much, but that they love each other too little. Real love means that a person has respect and restraint which saves them from sin. If people discharge the debt to love they will also never kill, for love never seeks to destroy its enemies by killing them but always by trying to make them friends. In the same way people will not steal, because real love is more concerned with giving than getting. Real love cannot be associated with being covetous because this is an unhealthy desire for something forbidden – for something that ought not to be desired - real love cleanses the heart until the desire is gone.

There is a famous saying: “Love God and do what you like!” This echoes what Tillich said – for real love makes all other laws unnecessary.

And verses 11-14 ...

Paul was concerned about the shortness of time because he was expecting the Second Coming of Christ to happen soon. While Paul and the Early Church got this wrong, the principle that one should live in expectation of this event is a good one; because it will ensure that we do not waste time, for it could be at any time and so begs the question: ‘Are we ready?’

I always think of it in this way. Death can come at any time to anyone; and when this happens the reality of the Second Coming becomes real for that person. It is a real challenge to always be ready.

Verses 11-13 huge a huge impact on Augustine, and therefore also on the history of the Christian Church. Augustine details its significance to him in his Confessions. He was walking in a garden and was much perplexed because of his failure to live what he thought was the ‘goof life’. In his time, like today, people thought that if you enjoyed all the material comforts and the pleasure that money can buy; this was really living. I attended a funeral a while back where what seemed like a rather selfish man was eulogised because ‘at least he took life by the scruff of the neck and lived it ...’ I do not want to appear judgemental, but I did not get the impression that he was really happy. Augustine realised this truth deep down, and as he walked in the garden, kept crying out: ‘How long, how long? ... Why not this hour and end to my depravity?’ Then he heard the voice of a child saying: ‘Take and read; take and read.’ Augustine tried to remember a child’s game that involved these words, but failed to do so. He hurried back to where his friend Alypius was sitting, because he had left a copy of Paul’s Letter to the Romans there. Augustine writes: ‘I snatched it up and read silently the first passage my eyes fell upon ...’ and it was these verses (11-13).

Barclay reminds us of how Coleridge had a high regard for the Bible because, as Coleridge put it, ‘... it finds me ...’ God’s word speak to each of us individually and personally if we open our lives to receive his message to us.

Barclay comments on Paul’s use of particular words: (i) revelry: The Greek word used is komos and it originally referred to a band of friends accompanying a victorious friend home from the games. It later became a reference to a noisy band of revellers who moved through the streets at night causing a disturbance. (ii) drunkenness: this is more obvious and even in the most ancient times was considered to be a most shameful thing. The same holds true (or should do) today. (iii) immorality: here the Greek word is koite which literally means bed and so is a reference for the desire for a forbidden bed. From the earliest times it referred to more than sexual immorality, but to the idea that it is okay to take any pleasure where and when one wills – a lack of self-control. (iv) shamefulness: Aselgeia according to Barclay is one of the ‘ugliest words in the Greek language’. It does not only describe immorality, it describes a person who no longer has any shame. Most of us try to hide our sin, but there are some who are happy to flaunt their immorality.

There is here, the condemnation of placing oneself at the centre of everything and is wrong because it is the complete opposite of agape love.

We are all prone to these sins, and it is with shame that I acknowledge that I still so often get things wrong. But I rejoice that when I do, I feel a deep shame and so am content that God’s Spirit is alive and working in my life, all by His wonderful grace.