“The Apostles’ Creed, A Lover’s Quarrel: the Forgiveness of Sins”
A sermon by Rev. Aaron Fulp-Eickstaedt
At Immanuel Presbyterian Church, McLean VA
On September 22nd 2013
Our scripture reading for today comes from the 18th chapter of the Gospel of Matthew beginning with the 21st verse. It seems a fitting passage to hear as we reflect on the line from the Apostles’ Creed which affirms that we believe in “the forgiveness of sins.” This passage, like several others in Matthew’s gospel, reminds us that there is a deep connection between the forgiveness we receive from God and the forgiveness we are called to show to others. Notice how the parable is set up by Peter asking Jesus how often he should forgive another—as many as seven times?—to which Jesus responds, no, too many times to count! That is when Jesus tells the story of a person who had been forgiven an impossibly large debt not being forgiving to one who owed him. Hear now God’s word for us:
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?’ Jesus said to him, ‘Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.
‘For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves. When he began the reckoning, one who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him; 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. So the slave fell on his knees before him, saying, “Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.” And out of pity for him, the lord of that slave released him and forgave him the debt. But 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.” Then his fellow-slave fell down and pleaded with him, “Have patience with me, and I will pay you.” But he refused; then he went and threw him into prison until he should pay the debt. When his fellow-slaves saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their lord all that had taken place. Then his lord summoned him and said to him, “You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. Should you not have had mercy on your fellow-slave, as I had mercy on you?” And in anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he should pay his entire debt. So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.’
There’s a deeply moving video, an ad made in Thailand, that’s being widely shared on social media right now. It tells in 3 short minutes the story of how a kindness expressed, a debt canceled, can have a ripple effect that extends years later. A young boy, who has apparently tried to leave a shop without paying, is dragged into the street by the female shopkeeper.
“Come out here, thief! What did you steal? Let me see,” she says. She looks in the bag. There is pain medicine, and a bottle of some sort.
“What are you going to do with this?” she says, as she shoves his head.
“Give it to my mom,” the child answers, with eyes downcast.
A man across the street, another shopkeeper, who is watching all of this unfold, blurts out, “Hold on second!” He comes over and asks the youngster “Is your Mom sick?” The boy nods meekly. The man pays the female shopkeeper for what the boy has taken. But she can’t resist a parting shot, yelling at the boy, “Don’t do it again!”
The other shopkeeper turns to his own young daughter, who clearly helps him in his shop, and asks her to get a bag of veggie soup, which she does, and with a look of compassion he nods to the boy, and places the soup in the youngster’s bag. The boy runs off.
The next scene you see is 30 years later. The merchant, who had been so kind to the boy, is shown handing a beggar who has come to his store a bag of food. You get the feeling that this generosity is a regular occurrence. Just then the shopkeeper falls over. He’s had a stroke or a heart attack or something.
Cut to the hospital, where the merchant is attached to tubes and whirring machines. His now grown daughter sits beside his bed, looking at an enormous medical bill: 792,000 Baht. I’m not sure that’s quite the equivalent of the biblical 10,000 talents, but it’s much too large to pay.
She’s shown agonizing over it. A sign is placed on the shop—“For Sale By Owner.”
Later, back in the hospital room, a new bill has arrived. She opens it with trepidation. The same line items are there, Summary of medical expenses: Total: 0 Baht. All expenses paid 30 years ago with three packs of painkillers and a bag of veggie soup.
She flashes back to her memory of that long ago event and interspliced with those memories you see images of that boy, now a grown doctor, working away, looking at brain scans.
Small acts of kindness can have large and lasting effects. We don’t fully appreciate just how much such gestures matter. There’s a beautiful message, a Gospel message, in that.
The story of the kind merchant and the boy, who later becomes a doctor, stands in marked contrast, of course, to the parable Jesus tells of the unforgiving servant (the NRSV version puts it, perhaps more accurately, slave, but I like the word servant better, what about you?)
In both stories, great mercy is expressed. In one, the boy is let off the hook, his bill is paid, and he is sent off with veggie soup to boot. In the other, the servant is forgiven an impossibly large debt— 10,000 talents would be the equivalent of 10,000 years wages.
But in one situation, that mercy’s impact changes a life for the better. In the other, there is a fundamental inability to see how having received mercy should impact how we treat others whom we believe are indebted to us.
Whenever we dust off the Apostles’ Creed and affirm in community that we believe in the forgiveness of sins, we are saying a mouthful. We’re saying much more than that God is a forgiving God, as important and true as that is. We are acknowledging that we actually need forgiving, that we do sin. And here’s the rub, we are affirming that we are called to forgive as well.
Jesus, especially as he is portrayed in Matthew’s gospel, is pretty clear about that last part. In the Sermon on the Mount, he says, “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.” In the Lord’s Prayer, he says, “Forgive us our debts (sins), as we forgive our debtors (those who sin against us).” “How often should I forgive someone,” Peter asks, “As many as seven times?” No, seventy times seven. As you have been forgiven, so also you must forgive.
Forgiving others is very easy to talk about, but it’s much harder to live. So how do we begin to do that? The first step is to begin to understand ourselves as sinners, to name that this is part of the reality of being human.
Now some of us recoil at this sinner language, because we have tapes in our head of confessional booths, and guilt manipulation, and never feeling good enough, always feeling like a miserable worm. We’ve seen how the concept of sin has been used to control others.
Then there’s the doctrine of original sin. A number of us have a negative reaction to that idea, at least as it is popularly understood. We don’t like the idea that babies are somehow born flawed because of how they were conceived. I get that. I don’t either.
I think a more nuanced view of original sin is to say that we are all of us born with a tremendous capacity to be selfish, a capacity that we can and do realize fairly quickly in life and never seem to quite fully shake.
G.K. Chesterton once said that it is surprising that people have rejected the doctrine of original sin because it is the only doctrine that can be empirically verified.[i]
We have evidence of human beings self-involvement and inhumanity to others all around us, not just in big things like shootings and terrorist acts but also in the small and big things we don’t do that we know we should, and the things we do that we know we shouldn’t.
One way we try dodge the concept of sin is by thinking to ourselves, well, my sins are all misdemeanors. There are others who commit felonies.
So we tend to scapegoat and ostracize the ones who do what we consider, rightly enough, to be truly heinous things. But when we do that, we protect ourselves from acknowledging that given the right set of circumstances, the right imbalance in our brain chemistry, the right combination of environmental stresses, we could be capable of great inhumanity as well.
A clear-eyed view of human nature, our own capability as individuals and societies to harm one another, to make decisions that are destructive of ourselves and others and the world in which live, suggests that sin is something all of us need to take seriously, to acknowledge that we ourselves participate in it and are impacted by it.
By the way, I have to tell you that I love the new pope. He’s my favorite pope of all time, Francis. He keeps saying and doing these wonderful things that sound like Jesus.
He was asked in a recent interview how he would describe himself, and he replied, “I am a sinner.”[ii] That was his way of saying that he is no better or no worse than anybody else in the whole world. All of us are human. All of us are dependent on God’s grace. We are all on level ground at the foot of the cross. We are all sinners. But what does that mean, really?
Well, there are a number of words used to describe sin in the Old Testament.
The classic one is drawn from the language of archery. To sin is to miss the mark. To say that we sin is to say that there is a target to hit, that there is a standard of loving kindness for which to aim and we do miss the mark. Who hits the bull’s eye every time?
Sin is also described in terms of alienation from God and others. Who hasn’t at times felt that? Who hasn’t felt inside a sense of distance from the divine? A gap between us and the holy?
The Hebrews tried to bridge that gap with their sacrificial system, slaughtering sheep and bulls and pigeons to try and make themselves right with God. And we have our own ways of doing so.
Another Old Testament way to describe sin, and one that Jesus uses in his parable, is through the language of economics, debts and debtors. So that to sin against God or someone else is to somehow be indebted to them.
To say that we are all sinners is to affirm that none of us gets it right all the time. It’s a way of naming that alienation we all feel. The truth that we don’t always live out of our best selves. That we are all indebted to God’s grace.
One of the voices who writes compellingly of God’s grace currently is a woman named Nadia Bolz-Weber. I’ve heard her speak. She’s as tall as I am, covered in tattoos. She is a former stand-up comic, a recovering alcoholic and addict, and now a Lutheran pastor in Denver.
When I heard that her memoir, Pastrix-The Cranky Beautiful Faith of a Sinner and Saint had been released, I had to get it this week. Here’s one of the things she writes about grace in that book:
“God’s grace is not defined as God being forgiving to us even though we sin.
Grace is when God is a source of wholeness, which makes up for my failings. My failings hurt me and others and even the planet, and God’s grace to me is that my brokenness is not the final word. My selfishness is not the end-all. Instead it’s that God makes beautiful things out of even my own “mess”. Grace isn’t about God creating humans as flawed beings and then acting all hurt when we inevitably fail and then stepping in like the hero to grant us grace—like saying, “Oh, it’s OK, I’ll be a good guy and forgive you.” It’s God saying, “I love the world too much to let your sin define you and be the final word. I am a God who makes all things new.”[iii]
How do we respond to a grace like that? One way is to really work at, to be intentional with, extending grace to others, to love them too much to let their sin (or ours) define them and be the final word. We practice being intentional about forgiving others for their failings.
This week I read a woman named Susan Basham’s account of how she did just that.[iv] Susan had gone to Starbucks and she was in a tremendous hurry. Do you know how that feels? Waiting in her car to get in line at the drive through, she wondered why it was a dozen cars deep. There was another lady across the parking lot in a Suburban. She too was waiting to get in the line so Susan motioned to her as if to say, “Are you next or am I?” Either one would have been okay. But the other lady misinterpreted the gesture as trying to steal her spot of next in line. So she gunned her Suburban ahead, and then rolled down her window and started yelling at Susan, giving her the finger and showering all sorts of verbal abuse on her.
Susan told her to go ahead please. That she wasn’t sure who was first. But that didn’t stop the abuse, the name-calling. Then Susan said a strange thing happened. Instead of getting mad or yelling back at her, she started to empathize with her. Susan imagined what it would be like to be in her shoes. Looking at her in the Suburban, Susan’s own vehicle of choice when she had three kids at home and a carpool. Susan saw the woman with her puffy eyes and natty pony tail looking down every few seconds at a cell phone, and imagined that the woman might be getting a text from her husband, complaining that she hadn’t picked up his dry cleaning. She was looking at herself ten years before.
So when she pulled up to the loudspeaker behind her, she told the barista that she wanted to pay for whatever the woman in front of her had ordered, “And please tell her I hope she has a better day.” She meant every word.
The woman idled in front of her for a good long time, talking to the barista, then handing over some money and driving slowly away.
When Susan pulled up to the window, the barista let her know that the woman couldn’t believe she wanted to pay for her drink after all the names she’d called her. “She said she couldn’t allow it, and said to tell you she was sorry. She felt really bad.” When she asked, “Did you tell her I said I hoped she had a better day?” The barista replied, “I did, and she told me her day was better already.”
Maybe part of what makes forgiveness of others possible is imagining what it’s like to be in their skin. When we manage to do that, great healing can occur.
Another thing that might help us be forgiving of others is recognizing that forgiveness is not only a gift we give others, it is a gift we give ourselves. There is a cost to hanging on to resentments and grudges.
Our Jewish brothers and sisters have just been through their high Holy Days, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. It’s a season when they reflect on the need to be forgiven and to forgive.
I read of a rabbi who told her congregation to imagine the things we fail to forgive as if they were a sack of potatoes that we carry around over our shoulders. The sack gets heavy after a while as we carry those potatoes around. And not only that, after a few weeks the potatoes start to get smelly. Eventually, the rabbi said, we have to set down those resentments for our own good, before we get sick.
I have to tell you that the one part of Jesus parable of the unforgiving servant that I really don’t like is the way it ends. The master, who had forgiven the servant such an enormous debt when he hears that he in turn will not forgive a fellow servant, decides to throw him in prison, where he will be tortured until he can repay the full price of the debt. I don’t like that. I don’t like it one bit.
But maybe it’s not so much about the master actively torturing and imprisoning the debtor.
Perhaps what the parable is trying to say is that there is a cost to holding on to resentments, to not forgiving— so that in the end, the torture is self-inflicted.
We have a choice, you know. We can forgive, or not. We can be kind, or not. We can work for reconciliation, or not. We can understand that we are all connected, or not.
By the way, Chris and I came up with a great exercise that we were going to have all of you do- passing a ball of twine to each person here to show how extending forgiveness connects us in a web of human compassion. But we thought better of it, because we realized we might not ever get untangled from each other. (Though that would mean you would be stuck here for next Sunday’s evening service!) We might not ever get untangled from each other. There’s a message in that, too, eh?
We can understand that we are all connected, or not. What we choose has consequences. We need to remember that, in the end, what really matters, what really, really matters, is how we love.
Dianne Forburger sings, “How We Love” by Beth Nielsen Chapman
[i] G. K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy (Chicago: Moody, 2009), 28.
[ii]Pope Francis. “A Big Heart Open to God.” Interview by Antonio Spadaro, S.J. America: The National Catholic Review. (Rome, Italy: Sept. 2013), 14-38.
[iii] Bolz-Weber, Nadia, Pastrix-The Cranky Beautiful Faith of a Sinner and Saint. (New York, New York: Hachette Book Group, Inc., 2013), 51.
[iii] Basham, Susan. “She Yelled and Called Me Names.” Prodigal Magazine. Prodigal Press, LLC., Sept. 2013. Web.
Basham, Susan. “Who’s on First?” Susan Basham. Susan Basham. 12 March 2012. Web.