Endless Love, Boundless Mercy, Amazing Grace
Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; September 13, 2020
15th Sunday after Pentecost
On any given Sunday, as disciples of Jesus we gather virtually or in person to worship God, to encourage one another, and to be equipped to return to the world to fulfill our Lord’s command to love God with all our heart and mind and strength and to love our neighbor as ourselves. During worship, in response to God’s word for us, we pray The Lord’s Prayer. “Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name…” When we do so, when we call upon the name of our great and glorious God, are we cognizant of the sacred ground upon which we stand?
Pulitzer Prize winner Annie Dillard, who grew up in the Presbyterian Church, once wrote a book of essays entitled Teaching a Stone to Talk. In one essay, Dillard broaches the subject of holiness. In one of the best-known quotes from the book, she writes these words:
Why do people in church seem like cheerful, brainless tourists on a packaged tour of the Absolute? The tourists are having coffee on Deck C. Presumably someone is minding the ship, correcting the course, avoiding icebergs…watching the radar screen, noting weather reports…No one would dream of asking the tourists to do these things. Alas, among the tourists on Deck C, drinking coffee and eating doughnuts, we find the captain, and all the ship’s officers, and all the ship’s crew…The wind seems to be picking up.
On the whole, I do not find Christians…sufficiently sensible of conditions. Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may wake someday and take offense, or the waking god may draw us to where we can never return.”[i]
As seekers of the holy, should we proceed with caution? Is it hazardous to call upon the Creator of the Universe, willy-nilly? Is there danger in praying “Thy will be done,” if that is not what we really mean in our heart? In The Lord’s Prayer, we continue by asking for daily sustenance—daily bread—and then, then, things get dicey when we dare to speak the words: Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors. Oh, my! Now we are in deep water. We may be in over our heads.
In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus tells a story in response to Peter’s question about how forgiving we really need to be. In the story, a certain king realizes it is time for the end of year audit. He contacts the accounting experts in his kingdom. In no time flat, they realize there is an outlying account that needs to be settled. A certain man owes the king an exorbitant sum—one that could hardly be paid off in 100 lifetimes. The king calls the slave on the carpet. Realizing the man is in way over his head and will never be able to pay him back, the king instructs that the man, his wife, his children, and all that he owns be sold. The man falls on his knees and begs for mercy. In a shocking turn of events, the king shows him mercy.
The slave departs, grateful for the mercy that has been bestowed upon him. Or is he? All evidence is to the contrary for when he meets another slave who owes him the sum of 100 days of labor (a sum that could reasonably be paid back) he grabs the fellow by the throat. Even when the man falls on his knees and begs for mercy, no mercy is shown. Instead, the debtor is thrown into prison. Upon witnessing this tragic state of affairs, some of the fellow slaves report to the king what they have seen with their very own eyes. Understandably, the king is outraged. Now, any mercy that has been extended to the first slave is retracted—denied—refused.
Jesus concludes the story with: “So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”
As a Presbyterian pastor, I am eager to preach words of grace and joy and hope. But I would not fulfill my obligation to preach the entirety of the gospel if I did not also proclaim that one day there will be a reckoning. One day we will all stand before God to give an account of our words and deeds. So, it is in our best interest to take Jesus seriously in this matter, and to ponder those familiar words, “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.”
For most of us, passing judgment on others comes as easy as falling off a log. But Jesus does not call us to an easy life. Jesus calls us to a life of goodness and love—and, often, living in such a way is anything but easy. Forgiveness is hard—extremely hard. Peter knows that full well, which is why he approaches Jesus with the dilemma in the first place. And he may be quite proud of himself when he generously suggests forgiving someone seven times. But 77 times or as it is sometimes translated 70 times 7? That is nigh impossible. Surely Jesus is not serious. While Jesus may be using hyperbole—an exaggeration to make a point—he is still dead serious. The heart of his message is this: “Stop keeping score. The life to which I am calling you does not allow for small-minded, stingy behavior. Think bigger—think better—think endless love; boundless mercy; amazing grace!”
Through the life of Jesus, we are invited to move outside the law of self-righteousness and condemnation—into a great commonwealth of love. By telling the story of the king and the two indebted slaves, Jesus offers a picture of what it means to pray, “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.” It is a brave and risky prayer that begs each of us to consider: “How willing am I to forgive the person who wrongs me? And with whatever measure I “grade” other’s behavior—am I comfortable with God using that same measure on me?
Unquestionably, having a forgiving spirit, is not about sweeping bad behavior under the rug. There are times when we must hold others accountable. But there are also times when, empowered by the Holy Spirit, healing can begin—day by day—step by step.
Thankfully, God does not deal with us in the way we deserve. Instead, God offers us forgiveness beyond measure. And as followers of Jesus, rather than tallying up the errors of others, we would be wise to enter the throne of glory, giving thanks to God AND showing our thanks by forgiving others as we long to be forgiven. In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
[i] Annie Dillard, Teaching a Stone to Talk, 52-53.