Here is a sermon I was to preach at Covenant Community Church here in Louisville. Worship was cancled due to a major storm that rolled in here and left hundreds of thousands without power for up to two weeks.
I offer it to you in its slightly modified state. The Text is Matthew 18:21-35.
When I read this passage I am filled with terror, the kind of terror that invades my normal sense of decency and causes wide spread panic. Have I forgiven enough? I need to find all of those I have wronged and seek forgiveness. What debt am I holding on too? Some serious questions pop up in my twisted little mind, inspired by this passage.
I came across numerous commentaries offering this passage to teach forgiveness. As I read the commentaries I wondered if forgiveness all that this passage is about. I find myself gliding over the parable and around the first verse where Peter asks his question and I arrive at verse 35 with its, “So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”
I am not sure about y’all but forgiveness is not the first thing I am inspired to do upon hearing of torture. I am very uncomfortable with the way this text is presented. This is where I try and find the errancy in the inerrant divinely inspired word of God. Surely there is a deeper agenda here. The original author intended to guide us somewhere other than, “his lord handed him over to be tortured until he would 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.” What do you do with that?
This passage has some crazy theological trip-wires in it. You have slaves, debt, torture, wickedness, and judgment. I am not too crazy about engaging any of these. When I encounter passages like this I want to turn tail and run. What do all of these things mean to a culture wrought with grave financial loss, losses that move folks to murder, suicide, and hopelessness.
I imagined myself in the story. I was not sure of my place in it. I imagine the hurt, the hopelessness that swims around in the heart. I mourn my inability to live as I hoped too. I mourn the circumstance I am in. I lament to God the unjust actions that rain upon me. I isolate myself. I withdraw from my community. I am alone. I cease speaking and communing with God. I am lost.
I begin to walk back to now, to these days. I start to lift my head and gaze upon the here and now. I search for that new and improved, government back recession-proof Jesus, with the ATM grip. I search for relevancy in these divine words. I meditate on the parable.
I find myself in one of my favorite films, The Big Lebowski. I imagined myself as the Stranger, the narrator played by Sam Elliot, as he witnesses events unfold as he dispenses the needed wisdom to move the story along towards conclusion.
The longer I stayed in this world between the Gospel of Matthew and the Gospel of Cohen I wondered what this parable would look like if melded into the tale of Jeffery Lebowski, sorry The Dude.
Begin scene…Donny. “Hey Dude.”
In the back ground I hear Walter on a tirade. He is ranting about the league scheduling a tournament on Shabbats. He is pontificating on the preferred nomenclature of a given culture. Walter then confidently offers, “it really tied the room together.”
The dude stammers on about this guy he knew, let’s call him Joel…Joel worked for this wealthy guy. This wealthy guy was into some kind of commodity trading. What ever it was he was rich. Well Joel worked for this guy. Joel borrowed money from him. Joel got caught up in the rock star life style.
Joel bought cars, jewelry, and company. Joel traveled all over the place. Joel dinned out in the hippest restaurants. Joel frequented the late night hotspots and clung arm and arm with the most fabulous of people.
One problem…Joel could not afford this lifestyle. One day the wealthy guy called Joel in to his office. Joel approaches this massive desk where the wealthy guy is seated. Behind him is two rather large and ominous looking fellows wearing dark sunglasses. The wealthy guy requests that Joel pay him back.
Joel panics. He does not have the money. He looks around for a way out. Where can he go?
The wealthy guy notices the desperation on Joel’s face. And in a moment of compassion the wealthy guy forgives Joel of the debt and sends him on his way.
Joel runs into Ethan, who also works for the wealthy guy. Ethan owes Joel ten bucks and Joel wants it now. Ethan does not have it so Joel lays the smack down.
The wealthy guy catches wind of what Joel did. He calls him into his office again. He says to Joel, “Why did you rough up Ethan for the little he owed you after I forgave you of your enormous debt to me? You should have relaxed on the debt like I did for you.”
Then the wealthy guy had the goons in the dark glasses take Joel to the backroom for a little lesson.
Right about now I hear Donny say, “What is he talking about?”
Then Walter chimes in, “Donny you’re out of your element! Dude, forgiveness is not the issue here!”
I agree with Walter here. Forgiveness is not the issue here. How can we get to forgiveness without looking for that essential component that ties the room together?
We live in a world much like that of Walter, Donny, and the Dude. We are moving along in our routine, minding our business. Then something happens that propels us into a detective story, a comedy of errors, or even into the desperate act of ransoming ourselves to pay a debt.
I want us to look at our community and that room in the Dudarino’s little abode. What really ties us together as a community?
Relationships. Our rug is relationships.
Far too often we grow weary of the constant demands placed upon us from the relationships we participate within our community. This is not something that is strangely specific to this little corner of God’s mighty Kin-dom. The individual demands of the faithful often drown out the communal callings of Jesus the Christ as he calls us to live for the other.
We demand from our religion a place that meets our needs and offers us a place to be, to connect, and to feel safe. We slowly sink into a posture of complacency. We may enter into a time of individual freedom and venture no farther than our safe harbor of self. We may close down the avenue of conversation and turn from our protected left away from community. Some of us may secretly contend that our brand of Christianity is the most like what Jesus would have practiced.
The danger of an individual without relationships is the pink elephant in this passage. The slave and our friend Joel both find themselves in a bind. A bind that exerts force upon them that can only be relived by others that are in relationship to them. For the slave in this passage, his debt is forgiven by the rich lord. He exits the economy of debt to taste freedom in this new relationship with the rich lord. He no longer owes that money.
We too are like this slave and Joel. We fall into the trap of self, and lose focus of the relationships around us. We discover that we can no longer continue on in life with out a little help from our friends. We reach out into others hearts, to seek a place to rest, a place for counsel, or a place to just be.
It is here that we form communities. Would you be you absent of relationships? Look around at each community you are part of. Look around your space now. Study the details of the faces you see, the memories of faces seen. What would community be if it did not have relationships with each other?
We could not walk with each other with out these relationships at the base of our community. We could not be a faith community absent of a relationship with Jesus the Christ. It is in this most beautiful relationship of all, that we are transformed as we strive to be in relationship with Jesus.
Jesus is not solely for you and for me. Jesus is for us, for that relationship. A relationship with Jesus is for any and everyone. I do not own the key to relationship with Jesus. You do not own the key to relationship with Jesus. The Presbyterian Church does not own the key to relationship with Jesus. Jesus is not a commodity to be bought and sold at the market rate, plus a small administrative fee. There is no Jesus outside of relationships. For Jesus is the relationship between Creator and creation!
Relationship with Jesus is freely given and freely received.
It is in relationship that healing, forgiveness happens. It is in our relationship with Jesus the Christ that we are transformed and become a part of the active, working Body of reconciliation that seeks to embrace the world. Our relationships forge communities. Communities like this virtual one. Communities like denominations, clubs, social groups, and churches. Communities like Louisville, Los Angeles, Austin, Boston, Tampa, and all points in between. We are a global community embraced by the love of our divine Creator, witnessed in the divine incarnation of Jesus and in community with the Holy Spirit. This shite matters! Jesus matters!
Ever since I have been here in Louisville I have had conversation after conversation about connections and our place with in the network of spiritual homes seeking to serve the least of us in Louisville, in the nation, and globally. I arrived here in Louisville a mere 19 weeks ago. I arrived a bright-eyed recent graduate of seminary, recently married, and utterly displaced from my norms and sources that feed me and guided me. I was led here to witness a community that inspired inquiry within me.
I was impressed at the questions that were being asked of many communities in Louisville. I heard “Who are we? What are we to be? How do we get from here to there? What is our purpose for existence as a community?”
I stand here in awe at what we are seeking to do in Louisville. I sense a fire moving over the heads of every conversation partner that I have engaged. There is passion boiling over to serve this city, just as our political climate is violently in action so too is the ecclesiastical movement in this nation seeking a place to nest.
There are thousands of Gospel hungry people searching for that transforming Word, many of us fell in love with in our life. We chat it up and make our best sales pitch to offer this life giving Gospel to them. What we miss out on is the relationship that comes with it. We fear to move beyond our comfort zone. We would rather jut forget about the Asian-American gentleman that just pissed on the rug. “it really tied the room together!” It sure did. Relationship really ties the Kin-dom of God together.
Here we are…in relationship…part of a community…seeking to be a part of a larger community…seeking to be the visible Kin-dom of God to Louisville, to the nation and to the world.
Why do we need Jesus? Why must we have a relationship with Jesus? If it is just about fire insurance for you, then I say, “You are out of your element.”
It is in relationship that we as creative creatures of a divine and loving Creator participate in the divine will of God. In relationship we are connected to each other. In community our communities are connected to others. In this relationship we move across the spiritual waters of life and participate in forgiveness.
Forgiveness is visible in the relationships, between you, me, us, them, he, she, and the other. Forgiveness is only possible to live in community.