The text for this sermon is Matthew 18:21-35.
This lesson in Matthew puts forward a trickle down theory of forgiveness. A lot of forgiveness from the top is supposed to work its way down and spread out to become a lot of forgiveness shared between all of us. God showers grace on us. We let that love drip off us onto our neighbor. The world is saturated and new life grows up. God’s plan to fix and transform our broken world is for the forgiven to become the forgiving.
In Jesus’ parable, the King, at the top, is being robbed blind by his head treasurer, below him, obviously. In royal courts of the day, unfortunately like governments today, skimming off the top was a part of life. The royal treasurer seems to have gotten a little too greedy. In Jesus’ hyperbolic absurd tale, he stole over 150,000 years of wages for the average worker of the day. So when the guy promises the king that he will pay him back by working extra hours, it is understandable for the king and for us to shake our head in disbelief. Yet, unexpectedly, the king forgives him, knowing the most he can hope for is a small percentage of his stolen money returned.
In a royal court, riven with stealing and dishonesty, the surprising gracious forgiveness of the king makes news. Everyone figures it is open season on admitting what you stole and being forgiven. This is like those tax holidays that the state of Ohio declares every so often. Moving down the pyramid, the guy just forgiven barely leaves the throne room before someone who works for him rushes up to confess what he had stolen and now owed. What he owes is a lot less, 100 denarii, about 100 days worths of work. Here though that trickling grace from above hits a jam. The one given so much grace cannot be moved to give another even a small amount.
The King, so gracious in the first part of the story, hears about the actions of his royal treasurer and takes back his forgiveness. He decides to torture him until he can be repaid. This is an absurd idea since A)he can’t work on repaying him while he is being tortured and B)there is no way he could repay him anyway. The anger of the king is so great it destroys the pyramid of forgiveness The grace that had marked his household dries up and something desert like, riven with vengeance and violence replaces it.
Grace that leads to forgiveness is the center of God’s plan to reconcile the world, to fix what is broken. The Church is the instrument God has chosen to get that love out into the world. We are the distribution warehouse for God’s grace. In God’s trickle down economics of love, grace comes to us in our baptism, then we diffuse it out to the world. If like the royal treasurer in the story, we receive it but don’t share it, then all the hope for knowing God’s amazing grace in our little part of the world dries up. The drip, drip of love never waters the ground and brings new life.
The church is to be the first place this wet and wonderful grace is received. It must not dry up here before it ever has a chance to leak out our doors and saturate our world. When we have conflict, it should be all hands deck to reconcile. Reconciliation is achieved when the one who has been wronged forgives. When Peter asked well geez Lord, what if the same guy in the pew keeps doing the same thing to me over and over again. How many times do I have to play out this scenario seeking reconciliation. Seven times? Jesus’ answer, seven times seventy, is a Greek sort of way of saying, Forever because you always seek reconciliation in the church if there is a conflict. Reconciliation is achieved when forgiveness is given.
Our churches were meant to be wet, tropical places, from God’s trickle down love. Sometimes, though, they can feel like dry deserts. Paige and I visited Messiah in the early 1990’s before I was a pastor, when we moved here from the Detroit area. Some of you might of greeted us as warmly then as you would greet a visitor today. The pastor was young and his sermons were interesting. Something was amiss, though and we only stayed a month. It wasn’t a wet wild place, but a dry desert place. We had no idea what was going on, but we knew something was wrong. We moved on to another Lutheran church in the area. Years later we learned that we visited right in the midst of a tough road for Messiah, that resulted in that young pastor being asked to leave.
I have been a leader in churches since the mid 80’s and a pastor of churches since 1999. From experience, I can tell you that when we have conflict in the church, that conflict dries up a place, like a drought that kills the farmer’s field. The conflict becomes the focus of the leaders, the hushed gossip of others. Everyone is exhausted from the fight. The work of the church gets lost. God’s love splashed upon us in our baptisms, doesn’t leak out our doors because forgiveness is not freely shared behind them.
Conflict is going to happen. We are all human. Yet, a church cannot survive if they don’t have a way to overcome that conflict, reconcile and forgive. This is what we need to work on constantly. When we let conflict linger, hard feelings harden, dislike turn into hatred, disrespect turn into abuse, the air of the church turns putrid. Grace and forgiveness, perfumed odors of a healthy church, are replaced with the sour smells of distrust and grudges.
Before conflict even happens, we must be people who like being wet, showered with God’s forgiveness. Before we can become people who forgive often, we need to be clear that we are people who need to be forgiven often. Unlike the royal treasurer, we must value the gift of forgiveness we have received in order to richly share it with someone who needs our forgiveness.
Let’s get wet and make it rain right now. Truth be told, if we could remember all of the ways we have fallen short of God’s hope, our debt for our sins would probably need 150,000 years of hard labor to repay. Pray now with me for the rain of God’s love and forgiveness to fall upon upon us, starting the trickle down of God’s grace. Bow your heads, please. In the silence ahead, confess before our king, who has the power to condemn but the unbelievable inclination to forgive.
Here this absolution. Your huge debt has been forgiven. Take that forgiveness and share it with your neighbor, especially anyone in this congregation who is waiting to reconcile. Fill our air in this sanctuary, in our halls, in our church with the moist air of love, chasing out the stale putrid air of hate, revenge and distrust. Let God’s love that is trickling down upon us like rain, be thrown just as generously and extravagantly on our neighbor. Amen