This is the sermon that I gave at Church of the Saviour in Clermont, Iowa on September 14, 2008. It was on this weekend that the Church of the Saviour hosted a diocesan wide youth camp out with nearly 50 youth attending.
It is we, 'Christians', who know the magnitude of our debt to God. As we stand before the Cross of our Lord and Savior we know how much it has cost God for our redemption. We know that the cost of our redemption cannot be measured in terms of gold or silver, for it has cost a life, the life of the one and only son of God. So this parable from Matthew, addressed to Peter, is addressed to us. It is not a prescription for others to take to make the world a better place - it is fairly and squarely directed at us and all who call themselves 'Christians'.
It tells us how readily God forgives us - and by extension all people, for there is no distinction between us if we don't forgive others and others who don't forgive either.
The parable tells us that we are not to spend our lives repaying our debt to God as each of the servants pleads for time to do. God forgives and forgets. God remits our sins entirely. We owe God nothing in return - provided only that we do likewise to others.
Now as I've gone through my life being exposed to many different types of churches – it has often come across to me that God must be finicky about worship - it has to be done in a correct way or it will be entirely unacceptable. In the 'high-church' type of liturgy the only kosher worship is where the priest uses vestments and there are 'bells and smells'. In the so called 'low church' type of worship it is where the minister's emphasis is on the Bible and preaching. In the charismatic or pentecostal side of the church the emphasis is on the sincerity of the praying by the people in the congregation during worship. Each is valid in its own right, but many times each looks to others as deficient – that others owe God something that their own members don't. The 'god' they worship is essentially unforgiving towards others.
How have we have turned around this Gospel passage to avoid it speaking to us? We only assume it is speaking to others.
In each and every church that I've ever seen, that church has been proud of their building, of their people, and of their programs. And one gets the impression that the only difficulty that they face is that more people don't join in. And this is where the priest or pastor comes in. It is his or her job to get others involved - not to change anything but to admire the building, to delight in the welcoming committee, the efforts to raise money, attract young people, have fellowship groups and bible studies. And, surprise, surprise, suddenly God has got nothing to say to these seemingly devout people - the only words are for those outside of their walls.
In a conversation I had a while back a non denominational church pastor was admiring the system other denominations have (including the Episcopal Church) of having rules and regulations so that clergy could avoid stepping on people's toes. In his church the rules weren't written down so one spent time wondering how to proceed. I think that the reality is that changing anything, anywhere is essentially forbidden.
Sadly, of course, often parishioners have spent their lives 'busting their guts' for the church. To suggest change is perhaps to imply that they haven't done enough, or what they have done is wrong. They have been fed a tradition of 'do it this way and you'll be saved'. I know from my own experience how difficult it is to free myself from this and to learn to think for myself and discover my own spirituality. I would not claim to have achieved this yet, now or at any time in my life. In many ways this is why I study the lectionary and write sermons, even when I won't have a chance to give them anywhere. They are not actually for anyone else. They enable me to extricate myself from simply not going through the motions to an appreciation that God loves me without theological, moral or academic credentials. My sermons to others are, I pray, how God speaks to me.
I was interested to hear recently a radio program on historical denial - like the denial of the holocaust. And I suddenly realized that this is perhaps why I continue to kick myself for the stupid things I did and continue to do - even though I know that God has long ago forgiven and forgotten them. It is a far more healthy place to be to have sinned and been forgiven and continue to berate myself, than to be in denial - suggesting that the things I did were someone else's fault or didn't happen at all. Denial is downright dangerous.
So too the church has to recognize that it has got things wrong in the past and continues to do some things wrong some times in the present. People are not saved by doing things by the church's rule book. Salvation is about how we are loved as we are, and how loved other people are as they are, not because we or they have necessarily followed the rules.
So difference is basic to the Christian community, as it is for the community at large. So if God is so forgiving of difference within the Christian community, why would God be less forgiving of difference outside the Christian community? Indeed if forgiveness of difference is fundamental to our faith as these words of Jesus suggest, why should we restrict them to members inside the Christian community – where, presumably, there is less cause of difference and so less need to forgive?
So is God unforgiving of others if they call on God by a different name to us? Do other people owe us anything if they don't worship in precisely the same manner as we do? And if they do owe us something aren't we bound to forgive and forget any debt, on pain of having to pay back to God all we owe?
It seems that each and every time people find themselves face to face with the Almighty, they fall flat on their faces, and each and every time God lifts them to their feet. Our primal dignity, to stand before the Almighty and to think for ourselves is not taken from anyone. God does not want people to grovel eternally before the divine presence, and God certainly doesn't want us to spend our lives trying to repay all we owe the divine - this would indeed be hell here on earth. God wants us to forget the times when we have offended God and get on with loving our brothers and sisters. God wants us to forgive and accept the differences of those around us - the differences between genders, sexual orientations, ethnic, racial, and religious differences. For it is only in doing this that we can claim to have a Gospel for all of humanity and we stand any chance of avoiding the fate of the unforgiving servant in our reading of Matthew for today. Indeed in the light of these words - the acceptance and forgiveness of difference is the only rule we have to follow.