TO LISTEN ONLINE:
Peter came and said to Jesus, "Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?" Jesus said to him, "Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.
I want to begin by introducing myself and saying what a pleasure it is to be with you this morning at Emmanuel. My name is John Newton, and I serve as the Bishop’s Canon for Lifelong Christian Formation. And it’s truly an honor to be with you this morning – and to preach the Gospel on this day in particular, as the attacks of September 11th, 2001 are no doubt weighing on our hearts.
Ten years ago to the day, 19 hijackers took control of four commercial airliners. Both towers of the World Trade Center were destroyed. The third plane crashed into the Pentagon, and the fourth on a farm in Pennsylvania after a few passengers heroically rebelled. In total, 2,996 people died in this horrific event that we now know as 9/11.
I don’t know what you remember about that day – what you were doing when you heard the news or what you felt as you processed the experience. But I do wonder what we’ve chosen to remember – the 411 ER workers who died trying to save others, or perhaps the churches that overflowed the following Sunday morning – maybe that’s what we remember. Or perhaps we just remember the darker emotions – our desire for revenge, for whoever did this to pay. I remember feeling that emotion quite well.
You see whatever 9/11 was to us personally, there’s something it was to us all – a clear and undeniable reminder that all is not right in this world. We were not meant to live in a world where people crash planes into buildings. We were not meant to live in a world where wildfires destroy our homes. We were not meant to live in a world that hurts, injures and violates us. And yet we do. That is exactly the world in which we find ourselves.
And that, more than anything, is what 9/11 is to me – a reminder that all is not well in the world; it’s a reminder that we’ve been hurt, that we’re scared, and that we’re desperate for Someone to fix things. And it matters little what makes us feel scared and hurt – a terrorist, a parent, a friend, a spouse, a child, our divorce, the media, our mortality, our health, the wildfires, politics, the economy, our loneliness or our dwindling IRA – what’s significant is that we know what it is to feel broken and to long for wholeness. Each one of us has been hurt. Injured. Violated. Wronged. And with this experience of being wronged comes, if only subconsciously, a desire for revenge – for whoever did this to pay.
Well, it’s this desire we have for revenge – this idea we have that to fix pain we need to dish out more pain, that to fix hate we have to out-hate the haters – that Jesus addresses in today’s Gospel. And what Jesus would have us understand – the whole point of the parable – is that there are only two ways to respond to the hurt and pain we experience in this life. There’s the way of revenge and the way of forgiveness. In other words, to live in a world where all is not well means that it’s a guarantee that we’ll get hurt, injured, violated and be wronged. And when that happens, Jesus says we’ve only got two options. We can absorb the pain. Or, we can return it. We can pray to the Judge or we can play the judge. We can choose forgiveness or we can choose revenge.
Now, there’s something we just need to name. Our world has chosen the way of revenge. “Getting even” – that, we think, is how we’re going to fix things. A desire for revenge was behind the attacks of September 11th, and, at least partially, behind our nation’s response to those attacks. It’s also present in every divorce, every cold shoulder, and every uncharitable word. And it’s this desire for revenge, Jesus says in today’s parable, that is absurd – that is absolutely absurd from the perspective of God.
And so let’s take a quick look at Jesus’ parable, which Jesus tells to respond to Peter’s question about forgiveness. Because what Peter wants to know – isn’t that what we all want to know? The attacks of September 11th – do we really need to forgive whoever did that? I mean, at what point do we stop forgiving? When is enough, enough?
Well, to respond to this Jesus tells a story about a slave. We’ll call him John. And John owed the king 10,000 talents. Now, 1 talent was about 7 years’ wages in Jesus’ day, and so 10,000 talents, if you do the math, is about 3.5 billion dollars. And so when John can’t pay his 3.5 billion dollar debt, the King forgives the debt out of sheer pity – because the King is good. Now, justice demanded that John and his family be sold. But the King in Jesus’ parable loves mercy, and so he releases John. Well, John then remembers that his buddy Frank owes him 100 bucks, and when Frank can’t come up with the money, John seizes him by the throat and throws him into prison.
Now, the entire scenario is obviously absurd. Who, after being forgiven a 3.5 billion dollar debt, would ever ruin another person’s life over 100 dollars? But here’s what I think Jesus is trying to say. We would. And we do. That from God’s perspective, we look just like John whenever we hold onto our anger, to our grudges, or to any other desire we have for someone else to pay.
You see the point of Jesus’ parable is that each one of us has had a massive moral debt cleared, and that rather than receiving the justice we deserve, we receive the mercy we don’t. What Jesus is trying to show Peter is that in light of the unmerited pity he’s been shown from the King of heaven, His question about forgiveness doesn’t make sense – that compared to the debt he’s been forgiven by God, Peter is essentially owed nothing.
Today we as a nation we remember 9/11 – but there’s always the question of what we’ll choose to remember, of what we will choose to place at the forefront of our minds as we acknowledge that we’ve been hurt, that we’re scared, and that we are desperate for Someone to fix things. And here is what I believe faithfulness to the Christian Gospel demands – that the first thing we remember about the events of 9/11 is the King in Jesus’ parable.
You see the entire point of Jesus’ parable is that it’s the King that absorbs an enormous loss. More than anyone else, it is the King that is hurt, injured, violated and wronged. After all, when the King forgives the debt, that debt doesn’t just disappear, and the King’s forgiveness doesn’t come cheap. No, forgiveness comes with a price tag, and it’s only the King – who must absorb the entire debt himself – that will ever fully understand that cost.
What will we choose to remember on this tenth anniversary of 9/11? My prayer for we who call ourselves Christian is that at the center of our mind will be the King of Creation nailed to the cross – paying the entire debt of sinful humanity himself.
As John Ortberg put it, “On the cross, the entire weight of the un-payable debt owed by sinful humanity would fall on Jesus. He would pay it all. This is why the cross is at the heart of Christianity. It shows us the heart of God. He chooses to pay the debt we never could. He longs to forgive.” In other words, the cross is that place where Jesus took the collective hurt, injury and wrongness of the entire world head on. On the cross Jesus absorbed all of it. The pain of the victims. The pain of their families. The pain of the terrorists. And the pain of their families. The pain of the people who lost their homes in the wildfires this week. The collective pain of humanity. On the cross, Jesus absorbed all of it. And Jesus invites us, his disciples, to do is the same.
You see returning the pain inflicted on us – or what some call revenge – that’s what cowards do. But absorbing the pain of the world with Jesus and for Jesus – that’s what disciples do.
And so let me end by saying this. It is a wonderful and Godly thing to remember the events of September 11, 2001. We need to remember. But as disciples of Jesus Christ, we are called to remember all things in light of the coming reign of God. And so as you go out into the world this week, here’s what I hope you’ll remember.
First, remember the cross. 9/11 in particular and all violence in general, is first and foremost an offense against God. We all owe a massive debt, and on the cross Jesus Christ absorbed all of it.
Second, remember those who gave their lives to save others, and who did so willingly, and remember the many smaller sacrifices people made in the weeks that followed. God created us to pour out our lives to serve other people. We need to remember and celebrate the times we do that well.
Third, remember that Jesus commands us to pray for our enemies – for those who wish us harm – and that in praying for us on the cross Jesus was praying for his enemies, for it is we who crucified Him. The cross reconciled us to God. Jesus intends us to be reconciled to our enemies.
Finally, and this is by far the most important – remember that all pain and death and disease and decay and terrorism and revenge will all come to a decisive end when the Kingdom of God arrives in its fullness. Christ had died, Christ has risen, and Christ will come again. And when that happens, Jesus will bring with Him the world we were made to live in. But in the meantime, it matters tremendously how we live, how we treat people, and whether or not we choose to forgive the people that hurt us.
Let us pray. O God, the Father of all, whose Son commanded us to love our enemies: Lead them and us from prejudice to truth; deliver them and us from hatred, cruelty and revenge; and in your good time enable us all to stand reconciled before you, through Jesus Christ our Lord. AMEN.