Sermon – September 13, 2020 – Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Have Mercy!

                Forgiveness can be a tricky thing.  We all know there are times when we need to give it and times when we need to receive it.  And most of us are pretty good at dealing with the small stuff that comes our way in the course of an ordinary day (remember those?).   After all, is anyone really still upset about that kid who stepped on our toes in the lunch line in second grade—what was his name anyway? No, there are the ordinary times when we happen to transgress against someone else, when what we want or need bumps up against what they want or need.  And we work it out—or at least that’s what we’re supposed to try to do.  We say we’re sorry and figure out what to do to make things right and then we do it and go on with our lives.  In those cases, forgiveness almost seems like too big a word for such a little thing.

                But then there are those times when it is a big deal—when whatever has happened, whatever has gone wrong, is so big and so high and so deep and so wide that we don’t think there can possibly be any way over or around or through.  Forgiveness and the fresh start it brings seems completely and utterly impossible—not today, not tomorrow, not ever.  And whichever side of the equation we are on—whether we are the ones who committed the wrong or the ones who have been wronged—it hurts to be there.  Oh, we may bluster and deny our part and try to run away if we are ones who transgressed, but those are really just cover-ups, really just ways to keep from having to tell ourselves the truth about what we have done and how it impacts another.

                The servants in today’s parable literally find themselves in that kind of impossible situation.  Let’s start with that first one.  The debt he owes the king, his master, is astronomical—scholars say the amount is equal to more than a day’s wage for a million laborers back then.  Now if you do the math, a million days comes to a little more than 2739 years.[1]  The likelihood of his paying off this debt is about the same as that of one of us suddenly sprouting wings and flying over Champaign-Urbana while scattering sunshine and roses behind us.  In fact, this debt is so enormous that is seems likely that the only way this servant could have racked up such a score is by doing something truly nefarious—embezzlement on a major scale, or worse. And now he and his wife and his children are all about to have to pay the price.  Mercy—forgiveness—is really his only hope.  But that’s not what he asks for.  “Have patience with me,” he says, “and I will repay you all I owe.”  Self-deception dies hard when we are in the wrong.

                But then, in an amazing development, the master reconsiders, lets himself be moved by pity.  Maybe it’s the thought of that wife and her children who have been caught up in the net of this servant’s wrong-doing through no fault of their own, or maybe it’s pity for the servant himself, locked into a hopeless future—who can say?  But somehow, some way, this master finds enough empathy, enough sympathy, to be able to let go of his rights, to let go of what he is owed, to let go of the hurt done to him, and to open the door to a new life for this servant.

Notice what he doesn’t say, however.  The master doesn’t tell this servant that what he has done doesn’t matter, that it’s okay.  And he doesn’t say, “I’ll see you in the morning at your usual place, in your usual job.”  He doesn’t try to dismiss the wrong that has been done, doesn’t say that the servant can keep on doing whatever he has been doing.  It’s important in situations where harm is being done, where abuse of any kind is happening, that the hurt be acknowledged and the hurtful behavior stopped.   

What this master’s action does say is this: “The past is over.  Now go and create a new and different future.”  That opens the way for a couple of things to happen.  The master sets himself free from worrying and fretting over the rights and wrongs of the situation so that he can live in peace—he doesn’t need to keep score any longer (unlike Peter wanting to know how many times to forgive in the first verses of today’s reading).  And even as he does that for himself, he offers the hope of transformation to the servant, who no longer needs to live in fear of discovery or the consequences it will bring, who no longer needs to keep making excuses to and for himself about the damage he has done.  The servant has been set free, too, set free to choose a new and better way of living in the world.

                That kind of freedom to change, to be transformed, can be scary.  We grow accustomed to how things are, even when those things are deceitful and wrong and damaging to others and to ourselves.  And to let go of the way things have been for the sake of an unknown future can be so hard, so frightening.  Forgiveness when we have been the transgressor means the same old, same old, isn’t enough anymore.  But sometimes that feels like a loss of everything we have figured out about ourselves and about the way the world works, no matter how imperfect that knowledge might be.  The ground we have stood on so long seems to shake beneath our feet, and we feel like the next step to take is far from certain, no matter how clearly we can see what we need to do to make things right, to stop the hurt, to build something better. 

For some of us, this moment in history feels like that.  We just want things to be the way they used to be.  That feels familiar.  That feels safe—at least for those of us who enjoyed the benefits of our position in society, those of us who have resources available to us to insulate us from so much of the suffering around us.  

                But, friends, hear the good news: God calls us to something new, something better, something more life-giving.  God calls us to leave fear behind and walk into the future with faith.  And God sends his own Beloved, sends Jesus to show us how to do that.  Fear wants to trap us; love wants to free us.

                Maybe it’s fear that keeps this servant from embracing the gift of change and transformation the master has offered him.  Maybe it’s fear that leads him to be so harsh to the second servant, the one who owes him a much less significant debt.  Confronted with the mirror image of the situation he himself has just experienced, that first servant just can’t take the step the master did.  He has trouble transferring the lesson he has just learned in his own life to the life of someone else, even though his fellow servant uses exactly the same words he used: “Have patience with me, and I’ll pay you what I owe.”  Maybe he can’t follow in his master’s footsteps because he is so scared of what the future holds, too scared to risk the transformation that embracing great forgiveness calls for from us.  He falls back into the old ways of accounting, unable to imagine new ways of being in relationship that mercy and grace might bring, and so he traps himself in the prison of hardheartedness and the failure to forgive.

                Well, you know what happens next.  The other servants are outraged and report what has happened to the master, whose retribution is swift.  The first servant finds himself right back where he started, with an impossible debt to pay and absolutely no way to ever “work it off,” especially now that he has been thrown into prison to be tortured until the debt is fulfilled.  And so, Jesus tells his listeners (and that includes us), it will be for you if you fail to show mercy to those who need your forgiveness.

                This parable, of course, is meant to remind us of the great debt we owe to God for God’s steadfast loving kindness, God’s grace and mercy, that comes to us in Jesus Christ.  God has always shown that kind of love to God’s people, from the first moment of creation to the moment when time shall be no more, and then on beyond into eternity.  And, God, knows, we need it.  No matter how good our intentions, no matter how pure we believe our motives to be, we cannot seem to do the right thing, cannot seem to keep from straying from God’s law of love, cannot seem to keep ourselves from hurting one another, in ways both large and small.  Every day brings the need for us receive forgiveness from God and from one another; every day brings the opportunity to offer it to another.

                Step back for a moment and take a long hard look at your life as it is, right here and right now, this very moment.  Pray that God will help you be honest with yourself.  Then ask yourself: Who am I in this parable?  Am I the first servant, forgiven much but unwilling to forgive a lesser wrong?  (And yes—I know that none of us wants to be that person.  But admitting it to ourselves, and to God, is the first step in walking out of the prison we make for ourselves through making excuses and covering up our own transgressions.  To let go of our self-deception is necessary if we want to be transformed into the persons God intends us to be.) 

Or maybe you’re that second servant, needing mercy from another.  If that is the case, then I invite you to reflect on what it would mean to receive that mercy, and how you can still be merciful to others in spite of your own need, even if it never comes for you.  After all, we cannot change what anyone else will do, but we can allow God’s own grace to transform us anyway.  

Maybe you’re one of the other servants, eager to report another’s failures while conveniently glossing over your own faults and failures.  I’ve been there, I know.   Maybe you have, too.

Or you might even see yourself as the master, the one to whom much is owed but who chooses to walk into a new and different future, made possible through forgiveness, maybe even—though this parable doesn’t get there—maybe even finding reconciliation with the one who has wronged you.  That, after all, is the example Jesus sets for us, calling us to follow him, to walk in his footsteps.

                Who are you in this story?  What does this story ask you to do?  Even when it’s hard, even when it’s scary, transformation awaits, if only we are brave enough to trust the God who loves us and carries us all our days. Remember: fear wants to trap us; love sets us free.

                Thanks be to God for this indescribable gift of love.  Amen.