A Sermon for the Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost

First, it’s good to be back with you, people of St. Mary’s — I met many of you when I preached here last summer and a few more of you during the Lenten evening series which David invited me to help lead. Everyone says it’s an honor to be invited to preach somewhere, and that’s true. But as someone pointed out to me, if you think about it, the real honor is when a church, having heard you preach, invites you back! So, it truly is an honor to be here this morning with you. I do hope you all realize how fortunate you are to have David and Kilpy as your clergy. Even though I now serve as the Upper School Chaplain at St. Christopher’s, I was in parish ministry for 28 years, of 26 of them in this diocese, and so I got to know a lot of clergy, and truly, you have two of the very best.

Years ago, the author Glennon Doyle wrote a blog piece that became one of her most-read posts. That day, she had posted a picture of herself in her kitchen, and almost immediately, she started getting advice from readers on how to update her kitchen — people pointing out and even sending pictures of how her kitchen could look if she only put a little money and effort into it. She said she had always loved her kitchen, but after seeing the pictures people sent her, she found herself looking at her kitchen through new, critical eyes. “Maybe it is all wrong,” she wrote, “maybe the 1980’s counters, laminate cabinets, mismatched appliances and clutter really were mistakes I should try to fix. . . I stood and stared and suddenly my kitchen looked shabby and lazy to me. I wondered if that meant I was shabby and lazy, too. Because our kitchens are nothing if not reflections of us, right?”

So, she decided that the next day, she’d make some calls about updates. “But as I lay down to sleep,” she wrote, “I remembered this passage from Thoreau’s Walden: “I say beware of all enterprises that require new clothes and not a new wearer of the clothes.”

“Walden reminds me that when I feel lacking, I don’t need new things, I need new eyes with which to see the things I already have.” So, she said, when she woke up the next morning, she walked into her kitchen “wearing fresh perspectacles.” Posting photos of each thing she was writing about she wrote, “You guys. I have a REFRIGERATOR. This thing MAGICALLY MAKES FOOD COLD. I’m pretty sure in the olden days, frontierswomen had to drink warm Diet Coke. Sweet Jesus. Thank you, precious kitchen. Inside my refrigerator is FOOD. Healthy food that so many parents would give anything to be able to feed their children. Almost 16,000 mama’s babies die every day from malnutrition. Not mine. When this food runs out, I’ll just jump in my car to get more. It’s ludicrous, really. It’s like my family hits the lottery every freaking morning.

“THIS CRAZY THING IS A WATER FAUCET. I pull this lever and CLEAN WATER POURS OUT EVERY TIME, DAY OR NIGHT. 780 million people worldwide (one in nine) lack access to clean water. Mamas everywhere spend their entire day walking miles to and from wells just for a single bucket of this- and I have it right here at my fingertips. I’m almost embarrassed to say that we also have one of these in each of our two bathrooms, and one in the front yard with which to WASH OUR FEET. We use clean drinking water to WASH OUR FEET. Holy bounty.
“This is the magical box in which I put uncooked stuff, push some buttons, and then a minute later pullout cooked stuff. It is like the JETSONS up in here.”
And so, she said, instead of feeling lacking, she decided to feel grateful. “I will look at my home and my people and my body and say: THANK YOU. THANK YOU, THANK YOU, THANK YOU. THIS IS ALL MORE THAN GOOD ENOUGH, ALL OF IT. Now. Let us turn our focus onward and outward. There is WORK TO BE DONE and JOY TO BE HAD.”

The point of my sermon today is quite simple: just as generosity comes from gratitude – our own feelings of being blessed — mercy and compassion come from forgiveness – our own feeling of being forgiven. In other words: in order to exhale generosity, we need to inhale gratitude. And in order to exhale mercy and compassion, we need to inhale forgiveness.
In today’s Gospel, we see that Peter, like most of us, approached Jesus with a shortage mentality. Peter wanted to know what the limits, the outer bounds, of forgiveness are.
“How often do I need to forgive someone, Jesus? As many as seven times?” he asks. “Not seven, but seventy-seven,” Jesus answers. And what’s interesting is that the Greek that is translated “seventy-seven” can also be translated seventy-times-seven. So, when Peter says, “do I really have to forgive seven times,” Jesus says no, 77 or 490 times!

The point is, especially as we get into the parable, we aren’t supposed to do the math. No, the point of course is to get away from that mentality altogether: that mentality of scorekeeping.
You see, Peter wanted to keep score. Now in some areas of life, it makes sense to keep score. Tennis, and baseball, for example. But there are huge areas in life where scorekeeping does not make sense. Where it is destructive, even. One of the fastest ways to ruin a friendship is to start keeping score: Who called who last, who paid for coffee last time? In marriage, scorekeeping is not a good idea. Who took the recycling out or initiated affection or changed the oil or balanced the checkbook last time?

And – as today’s lesson demonstrates – scorekeeping and forgiveness are incompatible. When Peter asks Jesus how many times he must forgive someone who has sinned against him, and
he is looking for a finite number, an outer limit, as a response, Jesus instead tells him that forgiveness is beyond calculating, beyond scorekeeping. To reinforce the point, Jesus tells a story, a story of a king who summons a man who owes him 10,000 talents.
● One talent is around 15 years’ wages for a common worker…and so 10,000 talents is 150,000 years’ wages.
● If someone makes $40,000 a year, one talent is $600,000, and $600,000 times 10,000 is 6 billion dollars.
● 6 billion… if you wanted to repay that in one year, you’d have to make over 16 million dollars a day, every day.
So, it’s deliberately a huge, exaggerated amount, making the point that it is impossible to repay. The man who is forgiven this amount falls to his knees before the king and pleads with him, “have mercy on me, and I will repay you everything!” Again, Jesus’ original listeners would have realized that’s impossible, so it is all the more poignant when he says that. And it is all the more remarkable when the king not only pardons him from imprisonment but forgives the debt!

Can you imagine the gratitude this man would have – should have – felt? But something goes wrong here…he’s not filled with gratitude. Because the second he walks out of his master’s presence, he runs into someone who owes him a hundred denarii, with a denarii being a day’s wage, at minimum wage, we’re talking a little over $6,000, not a trivial amount, but – here’s the important point – a relatively small amount, an amount that could, in fact, over time, be paid back.

But instead of looking at this person who owes HIM money and thinking “there but for the grace of God go I” – or better yet, “there go I,” and returning the favor he had just been granted, he grabs the poor guy by the throat and says, “pay back what you owe me!” When that man falls to his knees and say, “have pity on me, and I will repay everything,” he doesn’t recognize his own words and he has no sympathy… he throws the man in jail.

Here’s what Christianity believes: When God went to settle accounts with humanity, Jesus said, “have pity on them, and I will repay everything.” Part of what God was doing in Jesus Christ – a major part of what God was doing in Jesus – was “paying the debt” incurred by the debt of original sin, a debt we all, by the very fact that we are human beings, contribute to. That’s what redemption means. It means to pay a price to secure the release of something, or someone. So, when we say that Christ is our redeemer, we mean that Christ paid the price, wiped out the debt, eliminated the deficit that stands between humanity and God. The question is, do you believe that in more than general terms? Do you believe that personally? Do you believe that whatever stands between you and God has already been taken onto the cross, down to the grave, and up into heaven?

Because the key to this whole story is the attitude of that first slave upon leaving his Lord’s presence… and we are that servant. Having received pity, having received mercy, having tasted freedom from debt, reconciliation not because of anything he had done, or we have done (and in fact in spite of what he’d done, or we are doing), but having received mercy from God simply because God is merciful, what is his attitude?

–having received mercy from God simply because God is merciful, what is OUR attitude? –
–having received mercy from God simply because God is merciful, what is YOUR attitude?
Do you fully, deeply feel God’s tenderness, love, and compassion for you? Do you fully, deeply feel God’s UN-conditional love?
Have you ever really allowed yourself to feel forgiven? — again, not because you’ve managed to work yourself up into a sufficient state of sorrow or repentance – (the debt is too large, we can never repay it) – but to stand before God exactly the way you are and to hear God say, “forgiven.”
Forgiven. Forgiven!
To the degree you can feel that — to the degree you have absorbed God’s love and compassion and grace toward you — is the degree to which you will be able to look at someone who owes you – someone who is indebted to you – someone who has sinned against you – and say “oh my gosh, please don’t worry about it, I forgive you. Not seven times, but seventy times seven…even 490 times would be nothing compared to the debt that has been paid for me…I’m grateful for all I’ve been given, I HAVE NEW PERSPECTACLES — when it comes to how much grace
I’ve received, I’ve hit the lottery — so here, have some of what I’ve been blessed with… here, please, have some of what I’ve been given, because there is plenty of grace, compassion, and forgiveness to go around.

The Rev. John Ohmer, Upper School Chaplain, St. Christopher’s School