Sermon for 15th Sunday after Pentecost, September 13, 2020
Read Pastor Julie's sermon as shared on Facebook Live. Visit https://www.facebook.com/saronstrasburg each Sunday at 8:30 a.m. for a brief live service of scripture, prayer, and a sermon by Pastor Julie.
Genesis 50:15–21 | Romans 14:1–12 | Matthew 18:21–35
Your brain has quite a few gigabytes of storage space (acc. to scientific american), similar to my MacBook Air, which has 8 gigabytes. BUT, you also have a billion neurons combining to help with many memories at a time, exponentially increasing the brain’s storage capacity to about a million gigabytes. Or 3 million hours of TV; which would be running the TV for 300 years straight. That is, you have all sorts of possibilities for thinking yourself into a frenzied mess. In Romans today, we hear about the early Christians being worked up about different traditions and thinking around food that they bring to the new community. In Genesis, it’s the brothers of Joseph who are panicked because there’s drought and the head of their clan and father, Jacob, has died. They are dependent on a brother whom they know still remembers how they once sold him into slavery. And finally, in Matthew, Jesus addresses Peter’s question about not being able to forget how a person has wronged you—and maybe you keeping thinking about it, or maybe they do it again. The word “re-member” (Lt. RE-memor) means: to bring to mind or think again; to focus on what is in your memory/ stored in your brain. It’s all in there somewhere, so what now?
Note what happens with memory in the story Jesus now tells: The slave/servant who owes and cannot re-pay this impossibly large sum of money (for who knows what reason—bad management? drought? market downturn? an unjust system?) is about to lose everything—position, wife, children, possessions—and can only plead. There’s hyperbole here: 10,000 talents is 60 million denarii, or the GDP of a small country. The debt is impossible and really, unforgivable. Nevertheless, the king/ lord has pity, and doesn’t just give him what he asks: more time to repay. But forgives him the debt! It’s both ludicrous and amazing! But then we are perplexed by what happens next: This same man walks out of the door and apparently forgets what just happened. Or does he choose not to re-member the fear and desperation he also knew and felt—now writ large in this other man… who owes him a paltry 100 denarii? Did he stuff the memory away—or perhaps never quite see and therefore remember the desperate-ness of his circumstances?
Jesus begins the story: “The kingdom of heaven is like…” And this “ain’t it.” Brené Brown talks about humans being wired for connection and how our skills for Empathy are critical in doing this: Empathy requires some practices, however, like 1) Taking the other person’s perspective or 3) trying to understand what she or he is feeling—which requires some emotional literacy about yourself. And isn’t it ironic, the First Debtor WAS JUST THERE. How could he NOT be empathetic?” Hence, the hyperbolic (overstatement) of the consequence of this Empathy Miss; the “torture” when we don’t remember with humility how much we have been given; with our attitude of forever deserving (entitlement), how we hold punishment over the heads of others whom we deem undeserving. And the disconnection that it creates.
Bryan Stevenson, a Harvard-graduated lawyer, wrote “Just Mercy: A Story of Redemption and Justice” in which he tells about the years-long process of trying to get a man in Alabama off death row in the late 1980s whom everyone knew had not committed the crime. (Scapegoat.) Stevenson, in all his work with incarcerated people and their families, says that it became apparent that distance—physical, social, and spiritual—allows injustice to flourish. Proximity, on the other hand, allows for fair sentences because that person’s humanity is “more urgent and more meaningful… including my own” he adds. “Proximity allows me to see the scattered traces of hope and humanity—the seeds of restoration…” He has learned this freeing and humbling truth: “Each of us is more than the worst thing we've ever done.” The king or lord in our story seems to get this: When the slave is pleading to him, he finds that he just can’t condemn him, because the slave will never pay it off and there’s just no point. This does not mean that a crime doesn’t need an appropriate consequence, but the gospel begs whether poverty, perhaps, is really a crime. Will putting this man in jail and impoverishing his family really change anything?
So, the slave’s debt is “forgiven”—in Greek this word also means “let go,” “be released.” The lord has acted justly and graciously. But somehow, in the next scene, we see that the slave himself has not lived into this freedom. He has himself has not let go. He now demands from the other that which he had been given abundantly and freely, forgotten about his own debt and does not connect it to the man now in front of him…. I think this is why we “remember” every Sunday that Jesus gave himself to us for the forgiveness of sin. It’s a call to take the healing and salvation into our own memories and stories, weaving it into all the hurt we’ve felt and experienced until it becomes a testimony to God’s Story working in and through us, giving light and hope.
Joseph sees this tapestry: To his brothers, “You meant it for evil, but God meant it for good.” In Hebrew, the word “forgive” is nasah. It is not so much to release as to—literally—“lift, carry, bring forth, bear.” Sin is too heavy for us. Joseph could have called to mind his years of imprisonment and suffering to bolster his revenge. He knows God has carried this for him, and will continue to. Something beautiful can be brought forth: New relationship and provision. Joseph, second to Pharaoh in Egypt—can remove his own self as a threat: “Do not fear; I myself will provide for you and your ‘little ones.’” Unnecessary punishment will not only harm the offenders, but also those who are vulnerable. He can now show up as a good and wise leader; gracious and kind in the way of the King of All Creation. Thanks be to God. Amen.