14 September 2008

Sermon for 14 September 2008: "From the Guts, or From the Heart?"

Every week I spend a few hours on Monday or Tuesday reflecting on the texts for the upcoming Sunday’s worship sermon. I look through some of the books on my shelves for commentary and I check out a website where one woman indexes sermons, articles, historic commentary and modern thoughts in one gigantic internet preaching clearinghouse. This week a particular quote by Ed Krentz, a Lutheran pastor, caught my eye: “A Christian curmudgeon or misanthrope is an oxymoron, a paradox, an impossibility, an ultimate denial of the forgiving grace of God. Sweet reasonableness, openness to all, are the hallmarks of the Christian faith.” [1]
At first I didn’t like that quote one bit. I’ve known plenty of dedicated, faithful Christians who aren’t necessarily sweetly reasonable. But then I got to thinking about those words Pastor Krentz used. My dictionary defines “curmudgeon” as “a crusty, ill-tempered and usually old man” and “misanthrope” as “one who hates or mistrusts [humankind].” The more I thought about those words, the more I realized that Krentz was right. Then I remembered that one guy who proves he was right.
Normally I don’t like to talk about others like this, especially in light of Paul’s words from Romans today, but the question keeps coming back to me: what is the image of true forgiveness? What is the image of a church that actually lives well together? And sometimes I find myself realizing that not discussing the negative parts of who we are as people of God doesn’t do us any favors. So, here we go:
It was my first or second year in ministry. We are required to attend First Call Theological Education with other first call pastors at certain retreat centers around the country, and my group met in January at a camp in northern Minnesota. There was one guy at that retreat who just wasn’t right. He outright hated the people to whom he was ministering, and said so many, many times. He was rude, arrogant, and if I remember right, he actually referred to himself as a misanthrope. I have no earthly idea if he’s still in the ministry or not, but I remember walking away from one conversation thinking, “wow, that guy’s an ass.”
Being a Christian, of course, is far more than just being a nice person. But Paul makes the argument that how we treat others reflects the way we feel about God and the Body of Christ, the Church in which we live. "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." We serve a Lord and Master who demands forgiveness and humility toward one another even more than worship and sacrifice. As the prophet Micah said,
‘With what shall I come before the Lord, and bow myself before God on high?Shall I come before him with burnt-offerings, with calves a year old? 7Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with tens of thousands of rivers of oil?Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression,the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?’ God has told you, O mortal, what is good, and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?" [2]
Worship and praise are not the hallmarks of Christian faith: justice, kindness and humility are the way of the Christian, and Jesus taught these things also.
So with justice, kindness and humility in mind we approach the parable of the unforgiving servant. I'll admit that my own interpretation of this story changes almost every time it comes from Jesus' mouth to my ears through Matthew's gospel. Today it seems to me that this parable on forgiveness is not particularly forgiving. In the end, not one character gives evidence of any kindness or humility, and the justice which is described is a particularly punitive style of justice. If we are to read the parables with an eye for ourselves as one of the characters portrayed, then we are in for a rough time dealing with this parable. The servant at the heart of the story is just as bad as he looks. The amount of money he owed was more than King Herod received in tribute from all his territories for an entire year. Yet this same slave refused to forgive a debt that was 1/500,000th of what he himself had been forgiven. The debts have probably been exaggerated for effect, but I don't think Jesus is exaggerating the hypocritical actions of the unforgiving slave. We know better, don't we? We can be wonderfully hypocritical when it suits our purposes.
Yet the unforgiving slave is not the only problematic person in this parable. At first glance, the king appears to at least be the sort of kind, benevolent king who forgives his debtors. But perceptions can be deceiving. The Greek word which begins v. 27 is splagcnivzomai, "from the gut," and to me that implies that this act of forgiveness was not the kind, gracious response of a king who loves his people: it's the hurried, unreflective, knee-jerk reaction of a tired king who doesn't want to be bothered with a slave who will never, ever pay back what he owes. Further evidence for this un-thoughtful response comes later when the king revokes his forgiveness of the debt. True forgiveness is like name-calling in elementary school: try as you might, you can't ever 'take it back.' What the king offered was the cheapest form of conditional parole; a human life thrown away in laziness and recaptured for angry, punitive vengeance. This is not the act of a king: it is the spiteful rule of a tyrant.
It is here, again, that I struggle with this parable and the implications it brings, because Jesus seems to be suggesting that this spiteful, punitive king is in fact God the Father. I struggle because I don't like the idea that God the Father could be so angry, so inconsistent, so unbalanced. Like many of you, I've been taught that God is fair and just, "slow to anger and abounding in lovingkindness," as the prophets and the psalmists say. I don't like the thought of worshiping a God who forgives only to revoke that forgiveness over such a small thing.
But one thing has changed since the last time we saw these texts for a Sunday morning worship service: I've become a parent, and with that I've become a victim to all the unbalanced, inconsistent anger that rises when my children are hurt or neglected. And if we read this parable with God the Father and Jesus the Son in mind, remembering the crucifixion that is to come in Jerusalem, then perhaps we can understand the anger and rage that rises when the king's forgiveness is insulted by the unforgiving slave. I can guarantee you that when my child is hurt, my reasonable nature, such as it is, goes right out the window. I am not a reasonable man when it comes to my children; you mess with my girls, you will see me get mean and nasty. So take that reaction, and see if God's reaction to what is coming for Jesus doesn't fit into this story just a little bit. When God the Father forgives the monstrosity of the crucifixion, and we in turn refuse to forgive the small injuries of daily life, then God's anger makes sense, and is perhaps even justified.
So we see that forgiveness and emotions don't mix well. This is perhaps the greatest question the parable poses: does forgiveness come from the guts, or from the heart? Well, let's ask the question in a slightly different way. When you've been wronged, when someone has really done a number on you, when you're so angry that you feel as though your guts are just going to jump right up your throat, how likely are you to forgive? If you look at people the way my former colleage, the Misanthrope, looked at people, are you likely to see mistakes with any kind of grace whatsoever? No, because forgiveness is not emotional and not a feeling: it is an action.
Forgiveness is not something that happens through a gut reaction. Forgiveness is a way of life, a determined outlook, a spiritual practice which requires daily effort and the humble understanding that, try as we might, even our best efforts will fall woefully short of the forgiveness we ourselves have received through the mercy Jesus gives to us through the power of the Holy Spirit. Even the most reasonable, kind, merciful person you've ever known has had those moments of unreasonable, gut-wrenching anger; in those situations, our guts will lead us astray every single time. When Peter asked Jesus how many times he must forgive his neighbor, he was asking how the accounting for sin works. Jesus, on the other hand, told Peter that forgiveness is not a matter of accounting at all: it is a matter of heartfelt determination before any sin is committed. Delayed or postponed vengeance is NOT forgiveness: forgiveness is real only when vengeance is utterly denied for all time.
Where does this leave us with God as the angry king, though? It's still hard to be hopeful for mercy from a God who gets angry like that, isn't it? Here, again, we are called to remember the story of the crucifixion. Jesus came to forgive sins, and it angered us so much that we crucified him for it. Think of the anger, the anguish that God the Father must have felt in that day, and yet no blow of punishment ever fell for that monstrous sin. God the Father chose instead to withdraw, to walk away from anger and pain, and to return with new life for Jesus on the third day. God's heart was determined to deny the gut reaction of vengeance on us for what we did to Jesus – that is forgiveness which comes from the heart. That's the kind of heart-felt forgiveness we have been given, and the heart-felt forgiveness to which we are called as Jesus' followers. So may the forgiveness of God, which passes all human understanding, keep your hearts and minds and guts in Christ Jesus our Lord, to forgive as you have been forgiven. Amen.
[1] Edgar Krentz, from The Christian Century © 1996. http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m1058/is_n25_v113/ai_18666024
[2] Micah 6.6-8

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