God of comfort and strength, who embraces us in our darkest moments, break in among us. As we gather around Your Word, transform us with Your power. Guide us each moment…for us, for the world. Amen.
I heard the phone ring again and rolled over. I had gotten up early for a bible study with the youth I was working with, and had come home to crash until my 11am class. The phone in our apartment rang once around 9:15, then again a few minutes later, then again. After the third time I stumbled to grab it, and my friend Jen said, simply, turn on the television. By then the towers were burning, and I raced to Columbia as we gathered in the lounge at the seminary to watch the television, as we stared in silence at the massive buildings billowing smoke; as we gasped and held each other as we saw the first tower go down. After the seminary community gathered in the chapel for a time of impromptu readings and silence, hymns and prayer, we went to a friends’ apartment to watch. For the whole day we sat – as I would imagine many of you did – into the evening, watching heroic first responders rushing in, watching others run out, run away, covered in soot. The feeling just sat there, lodged in your gut, like it has again this week already, as we grieve and remember, hearing stories of both tragedy and remarkable courage. And, again the questions come: How? Why? What does this fateful day mean for us, together? We had some sense, even that first morning, that everything was different…
In chapter 18, Jesus and his disciples are wondering about community, wondering who they were to be. They began with an awkward question: "Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?" They were being human, jockeying for position, yet Jesus called them higher. He yearned for them, the disciples, the church, to be a laboratory of sorts where important virtues were tried out, practiced, so we might be equipped to live them more fully out in the world. It’s not about power or smarts Jesus said, at first. Become like a child. Then he told them not to put a stumbling block before anyone – they were to help one another. Be like the shepherd who went out after the one sheep. The sheep shouldn’t have run off. But Jesus said we have to go after them. If one member of the church sins against you – get this – sins against you – you have to do something about it. You have to reconcile.1 As Taylor said last week, you have to get down there, in the thick of it, and work, even when it hurts.
As today’s text begins, Peter asks for clarification. If someone sins against us, how often do we forgive? How about seven times, he says, which anyone who has worked to forgive knows is an awful lot. No, Jesus says. 77 times. And while the crowd is trying to figure out how that is going to work, Jesus tells them a story about a king deciding to settle accounts with his slaves. He began with one who owed him 10,000 talents. The crowd would know this was a comically large number, like us saying someone owed us a zillion dollars. The annual tax income for all of Herod the Great’s territories was only 900 talents per year.2 In the face of this hopelessly large debt, the slave begs. He pleads. He hears the words come out of his mouth even though he knew he couldn’t pay: ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ And, simply, the text reports: out of pity, compassion, the king forgives.
But Jesus cranks up the drama even further. This same slave, moments later, walks out, debt-free, and comes upon a fellow slave who owes him 100 denarii. This is 100 times the daily wage for a laborer, which is nothing to sneeze at, but so small compared with what he was just forgiven. He lashes out, ignoring the same pleas he just made, throwing the other in jail. You can feel the listening crowds’ fury, and we cheer as the king soon berates him: ‘You wicked slave! I forgave you because you pleaded with me. Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?’ The question hangs there in the air for a moment, as he is taken away to be tortured. And then, as he has drawn the crowd in closer, as he has gotten us excited that justice will be done, he turns and says that this is about US. "So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart."
And we react, stunned, back in our seats. We were having such a good time, Jesus. The cruel and unforgiving slave got what he deserved – at least what we thought he deserved – and now you tell us this is about US? No matter what others have done, to you or anyone else, Jesus reminds Matthew’s community to not forget who they are. They are a people with a reason to hold a grudge, they have been separated, kicked out, perhaps, of the synagogue that was their home. And Jesus, yet again, redirects their frustration and anger. You must not, he says, forget that you are a forgiven people yourselves. That acknowledgement serves a leveling function, especially in situations in which we think ourselves better, higher, above someone else. He needs the church to know they are to be a laboratory of sorts, where we practice these core values, here, with each other. And that is tough enough amidst these events and meals as we pray over these teachers and youth sponsors, as we must remember to practice this kind of faithfulness when one someone’s behavioral problems make Sunday School hard, when someone leaves you out at youth group. When small conflicts fester and remain untended. We practice these things here, Jesus says, in the church, so that when it really matters, we will be a people to model grace. Living with grace is a difficult thing to think about on this anniversary, when we see these images that not only bring tears but fury. And it is hard to figure out what to do with the emotions, especially with those who are on the front lines: spouses who got up to go to work and never came back; first responders who spent months digging through rubble; kids, who out of their deep sense of patriotism joined the military and came home deeply scarred. Christ challenges us, as individuals and as communities of believers, even today, to be more than we are, to lean into that grace in our grief and our anger. No matter what politicians do, no matter what the media or anyone else does, no matter when Muslims or Jews or Christians or anyone with any significant difference from us are made scapegoats in the midst of these geopolitical conflicts. We will know who we are. We must remember the One who claims us.
The seminary community mirrored many in the wake of the attacks. We paused for a day, then slowly began our routines. We kept going to class, and some of my classmates got a little cranky about that. The unity held as long as it did in our country, soon to shatter amidst partisan rancor from which we are yet to recover. Some of those students expressed their thoughts on a board in the main classroom building called the wailing wall, a place where the community can place articles or thoughts that pertain to the life of the seminary or the church. A few notes were posted criticizing the administration’s decision to continue with classes, folks complained in the cafeteria. After a couple of days of squabbling, we left class on Thursday to find a note from one of our professors: "Martin Luther said, ‘If I knew the world was going to end tomorrow, I would plant a tree."3 WE, he wrote in all capital letters, ARE PLANTING TREES.
And so we plant. Bit by bit, tree by tree. We rally on this rally day, just like we always do this Sunday after Labor Day. We settle into our routines in Sunday School and youth group, choir, MP2, with a really timely adult class on world religions that starts in the morning. We serve shelter meal. We visit each other in the hospital. We call someone we haven’t seen in awhile. We practice these values here, we struggle with them and teach them to our children here, so that we might be a community that bear’s Christ’s light to the world as things get much harder. That, even in the most horrible of moments, we remember we are called to be a people of a defiant hope, that comes from the One who is our refuge and our strength, who is a parent welcoming the prodigal home, who challenged us to love our neighbors, who, after telling a powerful story, looks us in the eye and challenges us to forgive. We are pushed back into those difficult relationships in our lives, pushed back to those dark, dark moments as a nation. Jesus – and remember he is talking to the disciples, to the faithful gathered – says to them: whatever it is like out there, YOU must remember who you are. How YOU have been offered grace, and how YOU are called to extend that grace to others, even when it hurts, so that we might be a part of the transformation of the entire world, of the remaking of what has broken, even, perhaps especially, in these most difficult of days. And he points us to the God who meets us in the darkness with grace. Again and again and again. Practice, Jesus says. Plant, maybe even a tree. Let’s go out and see what grows…
- Some of this summary comes from Roger Lovette’s "Reflections on A Scottish Church," in William H. Willimon’s Pulpit Resource, Vol 36, No 3, Year A, July, August, September 2008, p 47.
- The New Interpreter’s Bible, Volume VIII, (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1995), p 382.
- The quote is apocryphal, though frequently attributed to Luther: "Even if I knew that tomorrow the world would go to pieces, I would still plant my apple tree." http://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/authors/m/martin_luther.html