Proper 19 (September 11-17)
Texts: Matthew 18:21-35;
Gen. 50:15-21; Rom. 14:1-12
IMMIGRATING TO A WORLD OF GRACE
I’d like to begin with a show of hands for everyone who’s seen The Wizard of Oz. Is there anyone who hasn’t? I remember it being on every year when I was growing up, and it was always a big event for our family to sit down together and watch. I hope younger folks here today have had the opportunity to see it. But I also remember watching it the first year when we finally got our first color TV set. Any one else remember that? I had always heard about it but never seen it on our black and white TV’s. I’m talking about that magical scene when the black and white movie becomes a color movie.
Perhaps you can even close your eyes for a few moments and imagine it. Dorothy in Kansas has been a drab black and white experience. But her house is whisked away high into the sky and she lands with a terrible thud. She moves slowly through the house to the front door. You see her hand reaching for the doorknob, and she opens the door to a dazzling technicolor world. As Dorothy steps out into that world and events begin to unfold, she makes one of the grandest understatements in movie history: “Toto, I don’t think we’re in Kansas anymore.”
I’d like for us to think about this morning’s parable in a similar way. The master of the servant isn’t just forgiving a debt. In a very real way, I think he’s inviting his servant to step over the threshold into a whole new world. A world where unpayable debts are forgiven such that a whole family is saved from slavery? That kind of an act of grace is more like stepping into another world. “Toto, we’re not in Kansas anymore.”
We can enjoy imagining that kind of world, too, can’t we? I’m tempted to ask you to close your eyes again. Imagine a world where all your creditors say, “You’re forgiven. You don’t owe us a single penny anymore.” Imagine a world in which you hurt someone and he or she didn’t keep a running tab on those debts of hurt, plotting for revenge, a chance to hurt you back. Imagine a world in which everyone gave gifts without expecting anything in return, with no unspoken obligations for you to return the favor with a gift to them. What would it be like to live in a world of complete and utter grace? “Toto, we’re not in Kansas anymore.”
The servant in Jesus’ parable for today is given that kind of opportunity. He is invited to step into a world of grace, where unpayable debts are forgiven. Experiencing the Gospel in this way is important for what’s happens at the end: what to our eyes looks like a punishment. To our ordinary way of looking at things, the servant has broken a rule — forgive others as you have been forgiven — and so he suffers the punishment of having his debt put back into place.
But think about the ending in these terms of be invited to step into a whole new world. It isn’t, then, a cut-and-dry matter of breaking rules and getting punished. For one thing, the fact that this servant’s master forgave an unpayable debt breaks the rules of this world’s finance in the first place. No, such forgiveness was more like be invited to step into a whole new world of grace, where you begin to live by new rules derived from love and forgiveness. So when the servant refuses to forgive the small debt held against a fellow servant, it’s not just a matter of crime and punishment. It’s a matter of him turning around and stepping back into the world of debt, our ordinary human world. He has spurned the invitation to live in a world of grace and, by his refusal to forgive someone else’s debt, returned to living in a world of debts. There, in that ordinary human world, he has a jail cell waiting for him.
For our Tuesday/Wednesday Bible Study beginning this Tuesday we are going to read and discuss together a book by “Emerging Church” spokesperson Brian McLaren. It’s called A New Kind of Christian: A Tale of Two Friends on a Spiritual Journey. The subtitle tells you the plot. It’s about a pastor who’s having trouble with his calling as a pastor because he’s not understanding the huge changes going on around us as our culture is moving from the “modern” period of the past 500 years or so, to what is being called the “post-modern” period of this new millenium. He is being counseled by a teacher at his daughters school of Jamaican descent: “Daniel, he says to this pastor,” I think you’re suffering from an immigration problem, something I have a bit of experience with, you know? You have a modern faith, a faith you developed in your homeland of modernity. But you’re immigrating to a new land, a postmodern world. You feel like you don’t fit in either world. … You need a sponsor — someone who has already settled and acclimated, who can help you do the same.”
Brothers and sisters in Christ, I think we are called at this very challenging and exciting time in history to sponsor one another. To help one another step into a whole new world and navigate new challenges and new harrowing problems. “Toto, we’re not in Kansas anymore.” We are straddling the boundary between the modern and post-modern periods, and we need to help one another to navigate the new territory.
And we have a wonderful resource to guide us, that of our Jewish-Christian faith. Ever since Abraham and Sarah, our God has been calling us to immigrate to new lands. Ever since Moses and Miriam and the people of Israel being freed from slavery, God has been leading us, coaxing us into new territories. Ever since Jesus came to proclaim the Kingdom of God coming into this world, we have been invited to step into God’s world of grace, God’s world where things happen like being forgiven an unpayable debt.
What’s this business of changing from a modern to post-modern world all about? Well, I’m not going to go into detail this morning. I invite you to take up the “Call to Renewal” that I extended in this month’s newsletter. Take advantage of opportunities to study further, such as the Tuesday/ Wednesday Bible Study. And I’ll be saying more over the coming weeks.
But for this morning let me suggest that part of the difference between modern and post-modern is illustrated in the two ways of interpreting this parable. The modern way is to see it as an allegory about the afterlife. God forgives us an unpayable debt on the cross, so we have to forgive others or get punished in the afterlife. Isn’t that a familiar way to look at it? But the newer post-modern way — enabled partly because our culture around has already been changing and so on this boundary we live in two worlds at once — the different way to see this parable is as God’s kingdom, God’s new way of doing things in Jesus Christ, is already coming into the world. So now we have a choice? Are we going to step fully into this world of grace? What would that be like to live in a world where we didn’t hold debts against one another? Or are we going to step back continually into the ordinary human world of debt-keeping? And the consequences of making that latter choice is that debts are held against us, too.
And the biggest difference between these two ways of reading this parable, I want to say, is that of grace already offered us in the cross of Jesus Christ, which stands for all time. It’s not about becoming frozen into some fate or destiny that awaits us in the afterlife. It’s about making a choice each and every day about whether to live in a world of grace or in a world of debt-keeping. When that co-worker or fellow student offends us this week, do we plot revenge, or do we forgive? When that big new purchase faces us this week, are we more compelled by the score we keep with our neighbors on who has more stuff, or do we look at the bigger picture of what’s best for caring for God’s earth and our human family? In the political decisions facing us this fall, what kind of values are most focused on? Values that involve score keeping of other people’s sins? Or values that imagine what could happen in a world of suffering people in poverty that is moved by God’s grace? In other words, as we asked last week in talking about homelessness, do we believe that grace and forgiveness are powers that can really make a difference in this world now? Do we believe that God’s Kingdom is breaking into this world and has been since the life, death, and resurrection of God’s Son, Jesus Christ?
It is a gracious choice that faces us each and every day. It is a gracious choice offered us each and every week as we come to this table: This is my body broken for you. This is my blood poured out for you for the forgiveness of sin. You have been forgiven an unpayable debt. Please step into this new world of grace together and go out to serve this week in a world so sorely in need of grace. Amen
Paul J. Nuechterlein
Delivered at Prince of Peace Lutheran,
Portage, MI, September 14, 2008