A United Methodist Pastor's Theological Reflections

"But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory (nikos) through our Lord Jesus Christ." - I Corinthians 15:57

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Sermon (September 14) by Rev. Robert McDowell - "But Who's Counting?"

     How many of you like math? Great! Two of you!
      For some reason, there are a lot of us who don’t like math all that much. Math can be frustrating.
     Here’s a little math trivia. Do you know how to make seven an even number? You just remove the letter, “s.” That will make it “even” just by doing that.
     Why shouldn’t you do math in the jungle? Because if you add 4 plus 4, you get ate!
     Why is 6 afraid of seven? Anybody know? Because seven eight nine!
     Where do two math teachers go on vacation? Times Square.
     I know, I know. I’ll keep my day job.
     Today’s reading from the Gospel of Matthew requires a test of our math knowledge. And that math problem is, “How many times should I forgive someone who has hurt me?”
     This is the question that one of the disciples asked Jesus. It’s a math question. How many times should I forgive someone who has hurt me?
     Actually, it’s not that difficult of a math problem because Peter already knows the answer to his own question. You were expected to forgive someone up to three times.
     Forgiving somebody for something they did to you was seen as a noble thing. To forgive somebody two times, was seen as the gracious thing to do. And to forgive someone three times was viewed as being very generous. To forgive somebody that many times meant that you were going above and beyond.
     Notice that when Peter answers his own question about how many times somebody should forgive, he goes with a totally different number. He throws out the number seven. Wow, seven is more than double what the answer should have been.
     You got to hand it to Peter. He has been paying attention to what Jesus has been teaching. He knows that forgiveness is central to who Jesus is. He remembers that Jesus has already taught them to love their enemies and to pray for those who persecute them. He heard Jesus say that if someone wants you to walk one mile, you should go the extra mile.
     By going with the number, “seven” Peter is thinking that this will show Jesus that he is one of his brightest students. Peter could have gone with an answer of four or five to prove his point, but he want all the way up to seven times. To Peter’s credit, he did expand the idea of forgiveness by 133 percent.
     Peter thought he got his own math problem right, but actually, he was still way off from the right answer. Jesus responds by saying, “Not just seven times, but rather as many as seventy-seven times.”
     It wasn’t that Peter wasn’t on the right track. He was.  I think Jesus was aware of this. It’s just that Jesus wanted Peter to see that forgiveness is not bound by arithmetic. Forgiveness is not an exercise of crunching some numbers in your head. Forgiveness is about the heart. We are to forgive others freely from our heart.
     And then Jesus drives his point home by offering us this parable about a man who was in debt. He owed a ridiculous amount of money to a king who wanted to settle his accounts.  One bible commentary I read suggested that the amount owed was probably equivalent to around 150 thousand years of wages. Sometimes, Jesus likes to use wild numbers like this just to get our attention.
     The king demands to be paid immediately or he will sell this man’s family and all his possessions. The man pleads for the king to be patient. Out of pity, the king forgives him of the mammoth debt that was owed to him.
     Can you believe it? The king forgave this man of 150 thousand years of wages! What would you do if you were that man? Kiss the king’s ring? Go home and write him a thank you note? Volunteer to polish his crown everyday for the rest of your life?
     You would be so relieved, that you would probably do something to show your gratitude for freeing you from your debt. What does this man in the parable do? Immediately after he leaves the King’s palace, he runs into a friend of his who owed him some money.
     He owed him what was equivalent of half a year of wages.  Now, for sure, that would be a sizable amount of money, but compared to the millions of dollars that he had just been forgiven, it was small change.
     You would think that out of gratitude for what the King had just done for him, he would have been gracious toward this man, but that’s not what happens. Instead, he demands that this guy pay up immediately.
     This man pleads with him to have patience, just like he had done just a few minutes earlier with the king who had forgiven him for his debt. We’re thinking that this man who has just experienced the largest bail out ever will reciprocate and pass it on, but he doesn’t. Instead, he throws this man into prison until he pays every penny that is owed.
     As we hear this story, we are in disbelief that this man would do such a thing even though he was this close to never seeing the light of day again. How can someone who has received so much grace, turn around and not offer some of that same grace to somebody else?
     Evidently, this man doesn’t understand the concept of “pay it forward.” Paying it forward means that we share the gifts we have received with others.

     Eric Law is an Episcopal Priest and he has written the book, Holy Currencies. His book is based on four fundamental assumptions about life and faith:
#1 – God owns everything. #2 – God gives abundantly. #3 – We are not to keep God’s resources; we are to circulate these resources. And #4 – God’s blessings are then recycled to create more blessings.
     In his book, he says that the word we often use for money is the word, “currency.” Currency is a word that means to run or to flow.  There is movement. In other words, money is not meant to be stagnant. It’s meant to move in such a way that it will not only bless you and me, but it will also be a blessing to others. That’s how our economy is supposed to work.
     The problem is when we become like the man in the parable who received so much but was unwilling to share even a small fraction of it with his friend who was in need of a helping hand.
      Eric’s parents started a music school  in Hong Kong in the 1960s which has continued to this day in New York City with the same business model – a sustainable business that never makes much money, but has helped their family to make a lot of friends and has provided livelihood for many people over the years.
     Eric’s father started out as a furniture maker and he assembled pianos. His mother noticed early on that it was very expensive for a child to learn to play the piano especially if a family had to buy the piano and also pay for the lessons.
     She also noticed that children didn’t have a lot of places to go after school and that their parents didn’t have a lot of time in their busy schedules.  This is when they decided to build soundproofed rooms in their apartment and they put a piano in each room and hired teachers to offer piano lessons.
     The parents were charged a very modest amount each month and in exchange, the students received a thirty minute lesson each week and they were allowed to practice there five times a week.
     The fee that they collected was shared with the teachers. Even though, their company never made a lot of money, it ended up creating jobs for piano tuners and other workers. Eric says that this is why his parents’ business is still going strong to this day. Their business is designed to be a blessing for others.
     This idea of money needing to flow and to not become stagnant is what Jesus is talking about in our Gospel reading this morning. The king’s generosity in forgiving the man’s large debt saved him and his family from going to prison and it helped him to get a fresh start. Just as this act of grace was set into motion, it ended abruptly by the man who was on the receiving end.
     The man who had received a huge blessing from the king was unwilling to forgive the smaller debt of his friend. He didn’t understand that generosity is meant to be shared with others. He didn’t understand the meaning of currency.

     If this is true of money, it’s also true of forgiveness. Forgiveness is like currency. It’s meant to be offered and shared again and again. The problem becomes when we treat forgiveness like we do a math problem. We set limits on God’s grace. That’s why Jesus told Peter, “Not seven times, but seven times seventy. That’s how many times you’re supposed to forgive.”
     Of course, we all know that forgiving someone is easier said than done. We might want to offer forgiveness once, twice, or even seven times, but the painful memory of past hurts can become too strong to overcome.
     Maybe this is the whole point of Jesus’ parable. Instead of focusing on the past hurts, maybe we should focus instead on the graciousness of the king. Maybe we should focus on how God has been gracious to us.
     In a matter of minutes, the man who had been forgiven millions of dollars had already forgotten the King’s graciousness. He was only focusing on what was owed to him. He forgot that forgiveness is meant to be a way of life and something to be shared with others.
     Think of forgiveness like the breath you take in any given moment. Your lungs can only breathe in so much air in one breath. At some point, we need to exhale. Just think how silly we would all look if we walked around trying to hold in the breath we just took. We’d all have great big puffy cheeks.
     Breathing works so much better when we breath in and when we breathe out. When we breathe in God’s grace and forgiveness in our lives, we are to also breathe out God’s grace and forgiveness. God’s forgiveness is meant to be shared.

     Today is an important day on the church calendar. It’s September 14th. It’s Holy Cross day. It’s a day for us to give thanks for what Jesus did for us when he died on the cross for the sins of the world. It’s a day to be grateful. It’s a day to celebrate God’s love for the world.
     The cross is the ultimate symbol of forgiveness. It reminds us that God went to great lengths to free us from our debt of sin. God didn’t just forgive us seven times. God forgave us seven times seventy times.
     I’m glad that Jesus doesn’t count up to a certain number of times that he will forgive us and then say to us, “I reached my limit. You’ve sinned one too many times.” Jesus knows that we are as dependent on forgiveness as we are on needing to take our next breath.
     When we think more about the cross than we do the past memories of how we have been hurt by others, we are able to be forgiving and gracious people. When we turn forgiveness into a math problem, we’ll end up with an answer that doesn’t even come close to how much God has forgiven us.
     A few months ago, a church member came up to me and handed me a little note that had a math problem on it. I think this sums up what we’re talking about today. It said, “1 cross + 3 nails = 4 given.”
     It’s when we focus on the cross, that we are able to forgive others. We might be surprised that we can forgive somebody once, twice, three times, or even as many as seven times seventy times.
     But, who’s counting?

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