Sunday, November 16, 2014

Sermon for the Twenty-second Sunday in Trinity

                                                                                    Trinity 22
                                                                                    Mt 18:21-35

            I’m going to start out a little differently this morning. Raise your hand if you have purchased something on during 2014.  Raise your hand.  It’s not surprising to look around and see all of the people who have used Amazon – after all, they had over 74 billion dollars in sales last year – up from 25 billion dollars in 2009.
            Amazon was launched in 1995, and as those sales numbers indicate, it has grown by leaps and bounds.  There are lots of us who use it because you can get many things there – especially books – for a good price.  You can get them shipped to you quickly, and if there are problems - in my experience and that of others with whom I have talked – you get good customer service.
            All of that describes the experience as a consumer.  If you are in a business where you have to deal with Amazon, things are little different.  Amazon’s CEO Jeff Bezos has developed a reputation of being a ruthless competitor in the business world.  As Amazon’s position and influence has grown, he has used that leverage to squeeze publishers and suppliers.
            In dealing with smaller publishing houses Bezos said that Amazon, “should approach these small publishers the way a cheetah would pursue a sickly gazelle.”  And in fact, the group that dealt with these publishers was called the Gazelle project … at least until Amazon’s lawyers demanded that it be renamed the Small Publishers Negotiation Program.
            Amazon executives pressure publishers to give them ever better financial arrangements.  They accomplish this by doing things like moving their books to full price, taking their books off of the recommendation engine in their computer system, or promoting competing titles until the publisher gives Amazon better terms.
            Now this is, of course, the business world.  In that arena people aren’t looking to make friends – they are looking to make money.  It is often a brutal world in which your success means that someone else suffers.  There isn’t all that much room for being nice to your competitors or people who owe money if you want to be successful.  As the expression goes that is used to justify actions: “It’s just business.”
            In our Gospel lesson this morning, we hear about a king who does something shocking.  He makes what can only be described as a terrible business decision.  His action is not guided by the bottom line, but instead by compassion for a servant.  In his parable this morning, our Lord Jesus teaches us that this is the way our heavenly Father deals with us. And because he does so, this is the way we are to deal with one another.
            Just prior to this morning’s text, Jesus had said, “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother.”  Jesus instructs his disciples that when wronged they are to go and tell what they have done – just between the two of them.  And lest you think that the only time you would go to another person is to confront them about some wrong they have done to you, Jesus says in the Sermon on the Mount, “So if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift.”
            Jesus speaks about the need for reconciliation – no matter whether you have been wronged or you have wronged another person.  You are not to let things fester.  Note that our Lord doesn’t say that you should wait until the other person makes the first move.  He doesn’t say that you should wait for them to apologize.  He doesn’t say that you should tell other people about it, and in doing so harm the reputation of the one who wronged you.  Instead says that if you have been wronged, you are to go and tell the neighbor – just between the two of you. The situation needs to be addressed so that peace can be restored. And of course the key element in this process will be forgiveness.
            Peter picked up on this fact.  And so in our text he asks a question: “Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?”  Peter asks a question which is based on counting and keeping score.  He asks about how many times has to forgive, and then suggests what seems like a very generous number: seven times.
            This is how things always go when they are run in the way of the law.  The law is about keeping count.  It keeps count in order to put limits on grace and mercy.  It says, “You only get so much, and then I am cutting you off.” And then the law can get back to what it does – telling you to do and earn. After all, there is no such thing as a free lunch.
            Yet that is not the way that Jesus and the Gospel run things. And so in our text, Jesus replies, “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy times seven.”  Peter says seven time and Jesus responds, “Think bigger.”  He provides a number that is not really a number but instead makes the point that Peter’s attempt to limit forgiveness is all wrong.
            To illustrate his point, our Lord tells a parable about a servant who owed money to a king. The kind decided to clean up the books and settle accounts.  It was discovered that there was a servant who owed him ten thousand talents.  To put this in some perspective, at the rate of a denarius a day, it would take more than a thousand years for the servant to pay this back.  It was impossible.  It was never going to happen.
            And so the king decided to cut his losses.  He ordered that servant should be sold into slavery, along with his wife and children, and that all his possessions should be sold.  After all, it was just business.
            The servant responded with a pathetic plea.  We hear in our text, “So the servant fell on his knees, imploring him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’”  It was an absurd statement.  But rather than laughing at the servant, the king did something surprising. He had compassion on the man.  And because he had compassion he released the servant and forgave the debt.
            This is a description of what God, the King, has done for you.  Your sins of thought, word and deed are all an affront to the holy God.  They all demand God’s wrath. And yet rather than directing that wrath against you, the Father sent the Son into the world in the incarnation.  He received that judgment and wrath in your place on the cross.  As Jesus said, “The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” 
            That forgiveness is now received through faith – faith in Jesus Christ who loved you and gave himself up for you.  And even that faith is not your own doing.  It is a gift of God as the Holy Spirit called you by the Gospel and enlightened you through Holy Baptism.  Your debt that could never be removed by you has been forgiven by God because of Jesus Christ.
            Our Lord continued the parable by describing how the servant went out and found a fellow servant who owed him  
a hundred denarii.  This was sizeable debt – about three months’ wages – but certainly not insurmountable.  However seizing him, he began to choke him, saying, ‘Pay what you owe.’ In the same words just spoken by the servant before the king his fellow servant fell down and pleaded with him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’ However, the servant refused and went and put him in prison until he should pay the debt.
            The other servants were very disturbed by what had taken place.  They went they and reported to their master what had happened. Then the king summoned the servant and said to him, “You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. And should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?”  In anger the king delivered him to the jailers, until he should pay all his debt.  And Jesus concluded the parable by saying, “So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.”
            I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. And should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?  There are people who hurt you; who wrong you.  Yet the parable reminds us that anything they have done is inconsequential when compared to your sin that God in Christ has forgiven.  The compassion; the mercy; the love that God has extended to you in Christ defies all measurement because it covers a lifetime of sin.  You were unlovable, and yet God loved you as he forgave you and claimed you as his own.
            And that fact changes everything.  It is not possible to receive this grace and love, and then refuse to share it with others.  God’s forgiveness is the commodity that you can only keep by giving it away.  You can only have it by sharing it.
            This means that you cannot choose to hold things against people.  You cannot choose to hate people.  You cannot choose to be angry with people.  It is true, your emotions may want to stay there. But forgiveness is an act of the will.  It is the recognition that you can’t knowingly continue to hold something against a person.  Instead you must forgive.  And then you pray that God through the work of the Spirit will move your emotions.  You receive the Means of Grace seeking this, knowing that you want to feel at peace with the forgiveness you have granted.
            This truth stands at the core of being a Christian.  The forgiveness you have received in Christ, is the forgiveness that you then share with others.  It is the way the Christian life has to work, or at some point you cease to be a Christian because you cease to be forgiven. That is what you say every time you pray in the Lord’s Prayer, “forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.”
            It is the truth that you live out in your marriage, in your family, at church, at school and at work. God’s forgiveness for you is the treasure that you share with others. And because you  share it, it will never run out.          


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