Saturday, September 20, 2014

As Many as Seven Times?

Scripture for the 14th Sunday after Pentecost includes Exodus 14:19-31; Romans 14:1-12; Matthew 18:21-35

As many as seven times?

It doesn’t take long for the first-century Gospels to present the good news that conflict is not an alien force to be ducked or denied. Last Sunday, we heard our Lord instruct that first generation of disciples (and all subsequent generations) to deal with it head-on.

“If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. .. But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses… a section of Matthew’s Gospel that ends with the promise, “For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.”

Yes, but how often are we to practice this approach with the same individual? As many as seven times?

How many times does an organ student or a trumpet student practice scales?

No, not seven times, but I tell you, seventy-seven times. Or, as the ancient texts of Matthew have it, seventy times seven. That’s a lot. Just ask the mothers of the organ student and the trumpet student… It takes a lot of practice to get good at anything, doesn’t it?

And isn’t there a poet who writes about practicing the scales of love? Isn’t that precisely what any covenant calls us to do? Covenanted love between two people, the kind that marries two lives into one lasting partnership, provides daily opportunity and daily requirement to sing the scales of love, to get in tune with one another. The baptismal covenant we renewed here last Sunday likewise provides endless opportunity (and, most fortunately, the grace required) to grow not just up but into the full stature of Christ.

From that perspective, whoever counts has not yet forgiven, has chosen rather to keep track of the offences, and not give way to the uncalculating, incalculable grace, the power that undergirds our covenants.

What makes a covenant different from lesser agreements and contracts we enter is that a covenant—at least as it is understood in a spiritual context—entails God, involves God, a power higher and far greater than the human beings involved in the agreement. There is always promising in a covenant—two people pledge fidelity to one another, an individual at the font pledges (or parents and Godparents pledge their intention to help their child be able one day) to trust, love, and follow Jesus Christ. There is always a plural nature to covenant, that two-or-threeness that Jesus promises. And truly, what is most promising about our covenants is not what we bring to them, but how God helps us keep our covenants. The Book of Common Prayer doesn’t expect us to promise fidelity by responding, “Sure, I’ll do that!”, but by responding, “I will, God being my helper.”

So when we screw up in our covenants—and who among us does not?—we count not just on what’s in the human buckets that we bring to the relationship but on what’s in God’s deeper well of mercy and grace, where the bucket can never hit bottom.

Unconditional love is not what we bring to one another in our relationships, but it is what undergirds and frees our best practices with one another.

Even in the face of death? St. Paul answers that question about how far the baptismal covenant extends, and how durable it is: “If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s.” Unlike your next car, or your next ipad, the warranty on God’s love does not expire, ever. And you can’t buy this unconditionality: it is sheer gift of God. And it is the Word that wants continually to be made flesh, in our marriages and our families, in our church and in our world; so it requires practicing our scales.

I don’t find unconditional love in the parable Jesus tells today. The king is an eye-for-an-eye sort of fellow, perfectly ready to punish anyone who crosses him. In fact, his final version of justice exacted against one of his slaves involves torture. I wussed out when I read the story this morning and brought to you the paraphrase version from “The Message”. If you followed it in the New Revised Standard Version, you heard Jesus promise similar punishment to anyone who fails to forgive a brother or sister from the heart. I’m confessing to you that after four decades preaching it’s still well above my pay grade to make good sense of that troubling promise. Bible scholars assure us that this gruesome piece of theology belongs to Matthew and not to Jesus, but still…

It’s overkill in the cause of a theme worth considering. Jesus appears to say that it is futile for us to ask for forgiveness if we are not willing to forgive. This is the point of his parable, isn’t it? The man who owes much is saved, along with his family, from going to the auction block, because his plight reaches down deep into the well of the king’s pity. I imagine a great shockwave moving through that royal audience, as people wonder what’s come over their king, who has just acted in a most extraordinary uncharacteristic way. Perhaps he surprised even himself, taking a chance on someone who has run out of chances, someone who has screwed up bigtime.

That describes the first debtor. 10,000 talents at that time would exceed the yearly tax revenues from Syria, Phoenicia, Judea, and Samaria combined. That number is meant to sound fantastic (the way a million dollars used to sound to us). His debt is uncountable, and more to the point, unpayable. This is no household slave: this is upper management, or upper mismanagement. This is a first-century Bernie Madoff.

And then this debtor puts the screws on a lowly household slave who owes him about three months’ wages—one serious crisis-worth of borrowing, you might say. “Pay what you owe!” growls the first debtor, as he seizes the second by the throat. Both these men are slaves, in the great scheme of things equals; but it’s as if the first debtor looks upon the second as if he belonged to a different race (and perhaps he did), and the lack of fellow-feeling is shocking. Though their debts are dramatically different, the words of their prayer, their desperate hope, are identical. “Have patience with me, and I will pay you.” Words that paid off for the major debtor fail to stir his pity for this lesser debtor, and the next sound we hear is the clanging shut of the prison door.

Big mistake. Picture all this happening in the public square, where eyes and ears noticed it all. Both debtors are slaves, and their fellow slaves, appalled by the betrayal they have witnessed, report it to the king. The dissonance of the big debtor’s latest screw-up grates against the scales of compassion; his outrageous demand topples the scales of justice.

That common sense binds the moral perception of slaves and king. By failing to forgive the small debtor with even a single note of the mercy that had been sung to him, the big debtor forfeits his future. In Matthew’s Gospel, the Lord’s Prayer reads, “Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.” Those are the scales to be practiced.

There’s one scriptural voice I haven’t mentioned yet. Moses.

We heard today the foundational story of the covenant binding Israel to God. What happens to the Hebrew people at the Red Sea is not just a dramatic rescue of slaves: It is an equally dramatic transformation of their status from slaves to free men and women. This was neither simple nor magical.

Not simple in that as slaves they had a predictable life, one they were reluctant to leave. They knew what to expect. In later seasons, during their wanderings as refugees in Canaan, they would grumble against Moses because at least in those old days back in Egypt they had leeks and onions and garlic in their stewpots. They had to give up what they knew. The institution of slavery is pernicious in its fostering co-dependence across generations, addicting slaves and masters to The Way Things Are, reinforcing worst habits, worst practices that glued the system together.

Their transformation was not magical in that the Hebrew slaves had to choose to reach for freedom. What faced them at the Red Sea was certain death, or so it looked. Pharoah’s horsemen closing in on them, what choice did they have but to enter the sea?

Elie Wiesel writes of this moment, “Yet, according to one commentator, Moses suddenly ordered everyone to a halt: Wait a moment. Think, take a moment to reassess what it is you are doing. Enter the sea not as frightened fugitives but as free men and women and children! And everyone obeyed. They paused in their rush toward the sea. And Moses turned to God with a prayer. But God reminded him that this was not the right moment to pray: Tell the people of Israel to hurry! And the people, united as never before, swept ahead and crossed the Red Sea, which drew back to let the Jews go through. When they had passed, those same waters rushed back and swallowed up the Egyptian troops, their chariots and horsemen, with great loss of life.”

The Exodus story shows that our survival depends on how we behave, how we act; and that in turn depends on what we believe about ourselves.

What is required of us in this day is to practice our scales of forgiveness and mercy, finding the harmonies that will help center us as we face conflict with courage and hope. And, as we face a hostile sea of threats and challenges, recognize the urgent call to claim freedom from slavery to the old brutalities and futilities, even the familiar status quo, freeing us to take our part in God’s fulfilment of promised grace.

From Matthew’s first century to our own twenty-first, people of faith have believed that God’s passion, compassion, and purpose extend well beyond church, synagogue, and mosque. On into the marketplace, the workplace, the courtroom—in short, on into civic life on all frontiers where conflicting values and visions constitute sharply divided beliefs about what justice demands and what love requires.

We cannot speak for synagogue or mosque, but for twenty centuries the church has been shaped by the Bible’s understanding that the common life of the faith community is given to us by God so that we may learn those scales of mercy and become tuned to the harmonies of peace. What we do here is meant to have influence and bearing there on the social frontiers of our wider, broader world.

There, where debtor nations struggle in futility, as unpayable debts curtail domestic growth. And here, where a new Gilded Age ensures not a tide that raises all ships, but a rising tide of personal debt, bankruptcies, and pay disparity.

May the God of covenant faithfulness preside here and in every congregation, that what we do, and who we are, be shaped by what we believe about ourselves.

(I have paraphrased from Elie Wiesel’s “Messengers of God”, Summit Books, 1976, pp. 191-194. I found M. Eugene Boring’s commentary on Matthew helpful, in Volume VIII of “The New Interpreter’s Bible.)