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This Week's Sermon !

September 17, 2017, - "Back to Church Sunday"

Exodus 14: 19-31
Exodus 15
Matthew 18: 21-35

That Many Times, eh?

Mention the name of the fictitious, ultra polite, too good to be true, Constable Benton Fraser, to a real RCMP officer and you will get an enormous “eye roll”. Constable Fraser spends the most of his time fighting crime on the streets of Chicago, assisted by his deaf, white wolf, Diefenbaker. With his ultra polite manners and exceptional tracking skills he is a comedic contrast to his partner from the Chicago police, Detective Ray Vecchio who is rude and loves to cut procedural corners. Constable Fraser is just “too good to be true.”

These days very few TV shows present “clergy” or even “church goers”, committed or otherwise, mainline or evangelical, in a favourable or realistic light.

Very often those “outside” misunderstand those “inside” and dismiss most of us as a mixture of crackpots and hypocrites.

Yet, some of what we talk about a great deal in church is also important in the secular world. Forgiveness is one of those things that has an importance beyond the world of faith and of communities.

As a follow up to last week’s reading on the settling of disputes within the church community this passage deals with forgiveness. While the passage begins with Peter asking a question about the number of times he has to forgive someone who has sinned against him, the parable used by Jesus speaks of it in terms of “economic indebtedness.”

I was joking with the Credit Union manager a while ago about forgiving my mortgage when she retires! She did not think that she would be able to do that! Other investors were counting on the income from my mortgage, and the loans of others. If forgiving loans became common the whole economy would begin to unravel.

The first passage read today was about the people of Israel following Moses out of Egypt and into the desert. Some of the early laws they were given stipulated a regular time for the forgiving of debt. It was called “The Year of Jubilee” and I believe it was designed to periodically level the playing field and to give everyone a fair shake at a decent life. While it is outlined in the biblical record, as far as I know there is no evidence of it ever being observed.

Fast forward many generations to the time of Jesus and a couple of foreign occupations and military defeats later. Theirs was a society of both extreme wealth and abject poverty.

This is one of those passages were Jesus is ASKED one kind of question by a disciple but essentially changes the topic when he answers it. Peter’s question concerns sin. Jesus RESPONSE uses the economic system with which they would all have been familiar as a challenging example on unlimited forgiveness.

Perhaps Peter picked “seven times” as a high number, thinking it was a lot of forgiveness but Jesus challenged him with something much greater - seventy seven times.

Scholars tell us that Jesus did not pick the number seventy seven times out of his head but references a somewhat obscure biblical passage in which Lamech, a descendant of Cain, vows to exact vengeance that many times. In effect, Jesus is askinng the disciple to reverse the “curse of Lamech”!

In Jesus’ day the wealthy few held all the land, and the money was supposed to flow to these folks at the top. It truly was a situation where the rich got richer and the poor barely survived.

As far as I know, the system operated on a commission basis. A manager would agree to collect a certain amount from a certain list of the owner’s tenants or clients. If he wanted to earn a REALLY good living he charged more overhead than if he merely wanted a good living.

Since the amount owed was so large, it is most likely that the man portrayed in this parable was an “upper level” manager; a CEO. It was more than one person could ever possibly owe - 10,000 talents. The average wage was about 3 talents a year! He had to be “management”. We don’t know why he could not pay but he couldn’t. (Perhaps he had blown all the money on crack cocaine, or, at the casino!) He begged for mercy because he did not want to be sold into slavery along with his entire family.

The master grants him mercy?

This in an amazing outcome!! Why?

Wouldn’t this encourage others to squander their responsibilities? Perhaps?

But it also ensures his future allegiance because he now OWED the boss a big debt - his life and his freedom. The boss had bought his loyalty, for sure!

Yet this does not change him in any way; he does not “get it”. When he encounters someone farther down the pecking order in his business, and this man begs for mercy, he grants him none. This man who would have been a “lower level manager” owed about 100 days pay; a great deal of money in a subsistence economy but not all that big considering the debt that had just been written off for him.

When hearing of this the boss calls him into the office and hands him over to be tortured until he could pay. (How that could actually happen is left to our imaginations).

The implication is that since we have been forgiven, we should be forgiving. Parables always lead to more questions though. What if the human to human sin or injury is enormous? What if it is something that happened over and over, year after year?

Pauline Dakin, the daughter of a colleague, and former CBC reporter has just written, Run, Hide, Repeat: A Memoir of A Fugitive Childhood. It’s already a besr-seller! It’s also one of the few books in the last while that I have read cover to cover in just a few sittings.

The author tells us that how her childhood as spent: on the run. After separating from her alcoholic husband and the father of her two children, her mother moved them, without warning, half-way across the country and then once again, a few years later, the rest of the way! There was a lot of secrecy in her life; she and her brother were not permitted to reveal even the most innocent of things about their lives as a family. She and her brother, when they were alone, would often speculate on what was really going on in their weird family.

She was 23 before her mother told her that all those times they ran, they were running from the mafia, to whom her father had ties and were determined to do them harm. She was also warned that they were still potential targets.

The person who convinced her mother of this danger was their former minister and her mother’s counsellor. Throughout the years this man had remained a part of their lives, periodically warning them that either that danger was near, or had just been narrowly averted.

After a while Pauline, who had become a skilled reporter, ceased to believe the story behind their strange behaviour. She became very angry at this family friend for the lost childhood friendships, the toll on her mother, and the strain in and disruption of their lives.

The great mystery was “why”. Her mother, even when she was working as a minister in various pastoral charges, continued to believe that they were in danger.

It turned out that the whole family had essentially been hijacked by their former minister who had been able to convince her mother, an otherwise rational, strong minded person, who was “nobody’s fool,” that they had to flee for their lives and keep the details of their lives secret, especially from her ex-husband and his family.

Pauline began to research what could have motivated this man, she came across some literature on “delusional disorder.” She found out that those who suffer from this condition can be completely convinced of something (that is technically possible) like “the mafia is after us”, even if it is highly improbable and this person can be very convincing to others. In this man’s case it might have been triggered by a head injury in childhood.

As Dakin completed her research on this mental disorder it was as if a great weight had been lifted from her. She no longer needed to hate this man for what he had put her mother through; for what he had done to her family. It wasn’t done in a deliberate attempt to hurt anyone; indeed it was all meant to be helpful, to be life-saving.

Almost every time I read a paper or surf the internet I see stories of horrific crimes - school shootings, racial attacks, family violence, rapes and the list goes on and on! In these cases the hurt is deliberately caused.

Sometimes it seems as if our justice system is an injustice system; a slap on the wrist seems to trivialize the wrong done. Even in places where the death-penalty is an option it’s not always administered fairly.

Perhaps we are focussing on the wrong thing. Forgiveness has little to do with the “justice system”. Perhaps forgiveness is not about who gets punished or not - its not about someone “getting off”, perhaps its about those who have been wronged laying down their burden of hatred.

Corrie TenBoom was a middle-aged watch maker in Holland at the beginning of WWII. The Nazis invaded and started to round up the Jews in her country. The Ten Booms began working with the resistance and hiding Jewish people in a secret room in their house - it was, after all, the Christian thing to do. They are eventually betrayed and arrested. Corrie was the only one of her family to survive. Later she is recorded as having said, “To forgive is to free a prisoner and to realize that the prisoner was you.”

She had been beaten, made to do hard work on little food, her family were all killed, or allowed to die, and she saw many Jews go to their deaths, but still she was able to forgive. She was able to give up the burden of carrying that around.

Families and all human communities can be one of the most joy-filled organizations there are but they can also be some of the most frustrating, annoying and even hurtful. When humans interact, mistakes are made that hurt people both intentionally and unintentionally.

Ideally, the forgiven one repents and the two can begin a new life together but often that is not possible - to forgive does not make a right out of a wrong but it is a refusal to allow the burden of that toxic event or relationship affect the rest of one’s life.

To forgive someone is to be able to live in that paradoxical place where one does not forget but at the same time, it is not carrying it around like the enormous burden it could be.

Parables are meant to tease the mind and promote serious thought; they are not designed to give definitive answers to complex problems.

Seventy seven times, eh? That’s a lot. It could take us the rest of our lives. Maybe it’s meant to be a way of life. Or a way to life?

Amen!

1995- 2017 The Rev. Beth W. Johnston.





For some good stuff go to:
journeywithjesus.net-a weekly webzine for the global church
journeywithjesus.net

The United Church has a great online bookstore and here is the link. If you live in Canada they will even send you a book display for your event and people who dont get to see that many books at once can have a ball!


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