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Wed, Mar 14, 2018

Embracing Freedom

Duration:30 mins 18 secs

Tonight is the fifth week of our Lenten series on forgiveness. We began Ash Wednesday with the parable of a Father who had two sons and quickly recognized that forgiveness is complex, never simply between an isolated individual and God. Then with Psalm 51, Nadine invited us to examine ourselves, to seek the places in our own lives where we need forgiveness and to lift them up to the Lord in confession. The third week brought us questions about who was on our list of sinners and how we might begin to love our enemies and pray for them. Last Wednesday, Bob brought us to the cross and Jesus’ prayer even there to forgive those who do not know what they are doing.

Today we seek to understand the potential freedom that is offered to us with this gift and what the limits of forgiveness might be. Thus we read a dialogue between the disciple Peter and Jesus in the Gospel according to Matthew, chapter 18, verses 21-35. Let us hear this Word of God.

21 Then Peter came and said to him, “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” 22 Jesus said to him, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy times seven.
23 “For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves. 24 When he began the reckoning, one who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him; 25 and, as he could not pay, his lord ordered him to be sold, together with his wife and children and all his possessions, and payment to be made. 26 So the slave fell on his knees before him, saying, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ 27 And out of pity for him, the lord of that slave released him and forgave him the debt. 28 But that same slave, as he went out, came upon one of his fellow slaves who owed him a hundred denarii; and seizing him by the throat, he said, ‘Pay what you owe.’ 29 Then his fellow slave fell down and pleaded with him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’ 30 But he refused; then he went and threw him into prison until he would pay the debt. 31 When his fellow slaves saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their lord all that had taken place. 32 Then his lord summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. 33 Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?’ 34 And in anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he would pay his entire debt. 35 So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”

I hope that you are aware that today is National Pie Day. Many will celebrate with a slice of apple or cherry or pecan pie. I have even seen some who extend the celebration to chocolate mud pies and even pizza pies. So I hope that if you not yet enjoyed some pie today that you might make a stop on the way home.

And yet, while we celebrate this day with the eating of pie, it actually honors a different kind of pie. This one is spelled “pi” or more often represented by the Greek letter π. Yes, as the ancient Greek mathematician Archimedes first described, π is the ratio of a circle’s circumference to its diameter. It is a constant, so no matter what size your circle, the ratio or “π” will be the same. One of the unique features of π, which you may remember from your high school geometry class, is that it is an irrational number whose decimals are infinite and do not repeat. It is a popular trick in our house to ask Amazon Alexa to give all the digits of π. You can listen to Alexa go on and on until finally someone tells her to stop. Yes π has infinite decimal places, but it begins 3.14 - thus Pi Day is celebrated each year today, on March 14th.

It the infinite, patternless decimals of π that interest me tonight in relation to our scripture text. Because Peter is interested in the math of forgiveness, right? He is looking for a finite, definite, calculated answer. So he asks, “Jesus, how many times do I need forgive? How about seven times? That seems pretty generous.”

But Jesus responds not seven times, but seventy times seven. Peter, put your calculator away because forgiveness is a lot like π.

I have to admit, I find that a bit troubling and somewhat uncomfortable. It is kind of like listening to Alexa rattle off the infinite digits of π, eventually it just gets annoying and you want it to stop. I don’t want to speak for you, but I, like Peter, want finite limits for forgiveness that can be calculated. In Jesus’ parable that follows his unreasonable guidance to Peter, I understand the slave who demands the small debt be repaid. He was owed 100 days salary – that is a sum we can calculate. However, I am not quite sure what to do with the king forgiving the slave’s debt at the beginning of the parable. The slave owed the king 150,000 years of salary. Yes, 150,000 years-worth of salary! Throw the calculator away on that one. Professor Karoline Lewis puts it this way:

We live in and feel more comfortable with a way of being with each other that is quantifiable and transactional. We like knowing how much we have to give and what we will get in return. This seems especially true when it comes to forgiveness. We should ask ourselves, why is it that we want and need forgiveness to be computable and calculable? We want confines and controls for forgiveness; parameters and strictures; conditions and qualifiers. Yet, that’s not usually what we want, right? We treasure our freedom. We resist situations and systems that would curtail our choice and autonomy. How ironic.

Presbyterian Pastor and writer Michael Lindvall shares a fictional story which I think illustrates this irony. He writes of a pastor of a Presbyterian church in a small Minnesota town who is walking home late one night after a meeting at church when he passes the home of one the church members, Alvina Johnson. The house is immaculately kept, the yard is weed free, and the entire property is surrounded by a picket fence about three feet high.

Yet, in the darkness, the pastor finds Alvina dumping the contents of a basket over the fence into her neighbor’s yard. Recognizing that her actions were discovered by the pastor, Alvina says,

They’re the Ludins’ leaves. They’re off their big oak over there. The slightest breeze from the west and half of them blow into my property. I know they belong to them because I only have the one maple in the back. I sort them out, of course; I mean, I keep all the maple leaves. I figure they’re mostly mine. But the oak leaves are theirs. It’s only fair, Pastor.

Yes, it’s only fair to keep an accurate accounting of whose leaves are whose, right?

As the story progresses, we discover that Mr. Ludin returns the leaves that Alvina had dumped over his fence. Alvina goes to the police chief to see if there is a law about whose leaves were whose. But unfortunately there is not. So she comes to pastor’s office to see if there is any scripture that might help. She says, “I know that the Old Testament has lots of rules about sheep and goats and whose fields are whose. But is there anything that might apply to my leaf situation?”

The pastor is about to make a comment (who knows what to say to what a request), when Alvina goes on to announce that she had hired a young man from the church to go up in her maple tree with a Magic Marker this past summer and mark all of her leaves with a big X. That’s how she knew which maple leaves were hers and which were the Ludins’. But next year she was going to ask the young man to do it later in the summer so that the X’s would not fade quite as much.

In the end the pastor had no scriptural ammunition for her to aim at Mr. Ludin and Alvina left the church most unhappy.
My friends, this evening I do not want to leave you with the message, “just forgive” or even you should “forgive more.” What I want to do is invite you to think and pray about the freedom you really seek in Christ. Because it is not fair for Alvina to have to rake extra leaves when she has only one maple tree in her back yard. It is not fair for the king in the parable to forgive an unbelievable debt. It is uncomfortable for us to even contemplate infinite forgiveness as we throw out our fairness calculators. But how much freedom do we truly enjoy when we spend so much time putting X's on our leaves?

Thanks be to God. Amen and Amen.

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