Antabuse reaction

Matthew 18:21-22

How many of you have found yourself weeping this week?

How many of you have found yourself turning off your televisions and radios, turning past stories in the newspaper, skipping the Facebook comments …

… because you just can’t go there again?

Ten years after the horrible tragedies of 9/11, many of us, myself included, are still filled with grief.

We have moved on from the immediate shock, from the numbness, from the piercing pain that came with the attacks.

But we are still filled with grief.

• • •

This morning’s Gospel lesson from Matthew – chosen years and years and years ago, long before September 11, 2001 – is about forgiveness. In it we hear the story of Peter – poor, befuddled Peter, who never quite gets it but never stops trying – asking Jesus how many times he has to forgive.

“As many as seven times?” he asks, knowing that seven times’ worth of forgiveness would be wildly extravagant.

No, Jesus replies. “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.”

This is, I tell you, a lesson in extravagance, in the extravagant, wild, radical, never-ending love of God that Jesus proclaims in his preaching, in his teaching, in his healing, and in the end, with his own life.

We are, Jesus says, to forgive extravagantly. More than we want. More than we can imagine.

And yet, on this morning, on this tenth anniversary of terror and murder, that kind of forgiveness seems … well, it almost seems out of our reach.

It almost seems as if God is asking us to do something far greater, far grander than we can possibly imagine, much less accomplish.

And yet … it is what God is asking of us.

Forgive.

More than you want.

More than you can imagine.

I don’t know about you, but I need to admit something, I need to put something out on the table:

I am not certain I know how to do this.

I am not certain I can forgive as extravagantly as Jesus asks.

And I think that is why I am still weeping, 10 years after the fact.

Like you, I remember that day.

I remember hearing the plane fly over my parish in Annandale and saying to the secretary, “Wow, that guy is way off course.”

I remember hearing the plane hit the Pentagon and saying to her, “Man, that guy just dropped a load,” because I thought it was a construction accident.

I remember returning hours later to my apartment, less than a mile from the Pentagon, and finding it filled with dust and ashes … because I had left the windows open – it was such a beautiful day, wasn’t it?

I remember being unable to keep my apartment clean or to sleep soundly for weeks afterwards, because the trucks carrying the debris – the dust and the ashes – drove by my place, day after day, night after night, constantly spreading more dust, more ash, constantly rumbling along.

Like you, I remember the military jets that flew overhead night and day, watching as they left lazy contrails in their wake.

I remember the fear … the grief … the loss …

I remember …

And because I remember … so vividly … so profoundly … I think I cannot fully forgive.

Not as Jesus asks.

Not seventy-seven times.

Not yet.

• • •

And yet …

I want to forgive.

Really, I do.

I want to forgive because it is what Jesus taught us to do. It is what we pray for when we pray in the very words that Jesus gave us: Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.

I want to forgive, because I think if I don’t, my very soul may be in danger.

But I’m not certain I’m there yet.

Which is why, especially this past week, I have cried.

• • •

You know what is that I cannot forgive?

It’s not the hijackers, Mohammed Atta and those 18 others who turned airplanes into missiles.

And it’s not Osama bin Laden and all who have followed his misbegotten ideas of faith.

No, what I cannot forgive is the hatred that fueled those men to do commit these atrocities.

What I cannot forgive is anyone bastardizing the love of God for all of God’s beloved children.

And what I cannot forgive is the suffering that these men caused, all so they could – they thought – have their own way.

I agree with Anne Morrow Lindbergh, who wrote, in 1955:

“I do not believe that sheer suffering teaches. If suffering alone taught, all the world would be wise, since everyone suffers. To suffering must be added mourning, understanding, patience, love, openness, and a willingness to remain vulnerable.”[1]

The hatred they rained upon us, the deliberate misinterpretation of God’s will, the suffering they caused … for what? I ask you … those are the stumbling blocks on my path to forgiveness.

From conversations I have had with others, from news stories I have read and the very few news shows I have watched or listened to, I think I am not alone in this pain.

And so I think that perhaps now, on this day, the tenth anniversary of that awful day, which we cannot escape no matter how hard we try, I think that perhaps today is a day to … let go.

A day to … set my feelings free.

A day … for release.

For that is what the word forgive means, in the Greek. It means release. To let go. To set free.

Because only by releasing, by letting go, by setting free, do we have a chance … a chance … not of moving on, but of moving forward.

Author and priest Barbara Brown Taylor, writing in 1998 – again, years before 9/11, proclaimed:

When you allow your enemy to stop being your enemy, all the rules change. Nobody knows how to act anymore, because forgiveness is an act of transformation. It does not offer the adrenaline rush of anger, nor the feeling of power that comes from a well-established resentment. It is a quiet revolution, as easy to miss as a fist uncurling to become an open hand, but it changes people in ways anger only wishes it could.[2]

I want fists to uncurl today. Not just my fist, but all fists. I want our hands to be open … to the possibility of transformation … to the possibility of peace … to the possibility of love.

The Rev. David F. Sellery, a priest in Bay Shore, N.Y., wrote about forgiveness in a reflection for today:

Forgiveness, he says, “is the essence of Christian love. … It is not a largesse we dispense by power of our innate superiority [but rather] the grace of God transmitted through us. It is,” he says, “the ultimate witness of Christ’s love in the world.”[3]

Sellery knows that the pain of 9/11 remains. And he is clear that forgiveness is not a “get-out-of-jail-free card for perpetrators.” God, he says, “has not issued an easy-pass for evil in the world to benefit the bad guys.”[4] There is to be justice – as long as it is not revenge.

Sellery concludes: “The choice is ours. We can live in love or we can live in hate. Both are transformative forces. We can become what we value and love or we can risk becoming the evil we obsess upon.”[5]

Forgiveness, it seems, really is about opening our fists to the possibilities of new life.

Writing in The Washington Post last Tuesday, Lynne Steuerle Schofield, whose mother, Norma Lange Steuerle, died on American Flight 77 when it flew into the Pentagon, suggested the same kind of transformation, the same willingness to open our fists to release. She said that with every anniversary, it is as though she is being asked to go to her mother’s funeral over and over and over again. Instead, she wrote:

What if we all spent the 11th anniversary of the attacks (she is speaking of next year) reflecting on what we admired most about our lost loved ones and trying to emulate those ideals? Or what if we spent time building not another structure in memorial but, instead, building our relationships with others? Or raising money for our favorite charity?[6]

If we want the world to be more compassionate, safer and more equitable, she writes, we have to work to make that happen. We all have to be on board. We should reflect on the characteristics of our loves ones that we want to keep alive, and then we must behave that way.[7]

Our Gospel today, my friends, teaches us about forgiveness. It teaches us about extravagant forgiveness, which can only come from extravagant love.

Not our love.

For our love is, sadly to say, far too often far too small.

But God’s forgiveness?

God’s forgiveness is extravagant. It is overwhelming.

Because it comes from God’s extravagant love.

And it is what God is calling us to.

I may not be there … yet.

But if I can’t forgive extravagantly, perhaps I can love … just a little bit more extravagantly. Perhaps I can, as Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori says, be “more inclined toward peace,” at least a little bit more extravagantly.

Perhaps I can relax my hand on the pain that still grips me – and in that moment, release the pain as I reach out to others still in pain, still in mourning.

I think that this morning, I am more like Peter than I realize: I haven’t quite gotten it yet, I still can’t quite go to where Jesus wants me, but I am still trying to understand. Still trying to be extravagant with my forgiveness, my release, my love.

My prayer for us this morning … for those of us here, for the Church as a whole, for this nation and for the world … is that we relax our hands, opening them as much as we can. My prayer is that we focus on the extravagance of God’s love for us, and in the releasing of our pain and sorrow, we set that love free for the whole world to see and know and hear and feel.

We do not have to forget.

We cannot forget.

But perhaps … just perhaps … with the help of our Lord, we can forgive.

Amen.

Sermon preached for the Service of Remembrance on the 10th Anniversary of 9/11, at St. Gabriel’s Episcopal Church, Leesburg, Va., Sept. 11, 2011. (Proper 19, Year A)



[1] Anne Morrow Lindbergh, Gift from the Sea, 1955.

[2] Barbara Brown Taylor, Christianity Today, Feb. 9, 1998.

[3]The Rev. David F. Sellery is rector of St. Peter’s By-the-Sea Church and Day School in Bay Shore, New York. http://www.episcopalchurch.org/80050_129713_ENG_HTM.htm

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Lynne Steuerle Schofield, “A 9/11 event that embraces the future,” The Washington Post, Sept. 6, 2011, http://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/a-911-event-that-embraces-the-future/2011/09/01/gIQAm6np7J_story.html?fb_ref=NetworkNews&fb_source=profile_multiline.

[7] Ibid.

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The Dishonest Steward

Luke 16:1-13

Jesus is in the middle of telling a series of parables about finding that which once was lost – parables of the lost sheep, lost coins, a lost son, all of which were easy to understand and cause for rejoicing – when he launches into yet another story, this time about a rich man’s steward caught with his hand in the till, and once again, we are set back on our heels and left to wonder:

Did he really just say what we think he said?

Did Jesus really just lavish praise on a thief, on a crooked manager, on a cheat?

And did he really just instruct his disciples – did he instruct us – to live by sly cunning in order to get ahead?

When you listen to Luke, it sure sounds that way.

The Parable of the Dishonest Steward – that’s what this story is called. It’s also called one of the most problematic parables in the Gospels, because the message is mixed and makes us feel … uncomfortable.

It’s the story of a steward, a manager of a rich man’s estates. The rich man hears that the steward was cheating him … we don’t know exactly how, other than the fact that the steward was squandering his master’s property. The rich man is royally upset by these reports – for who wants to hear that someone you trusted, somebody you put in power, is wastefully throwing away your money?

Squandering, remember, means to be wasteful … reckless … decadent. But its first definition is to be extravagant … which can be both positive and negative. As we hear this story, we need to remember: The main charge against the steward is that he is extravagant …

At any rate, when the rich man learns of this, he hauls the steward in and says, a la Donald Trump, “You’re fired! Give me an account of all you’ve done, and get out.”

The steward reacts as any of us would, with great dismay and extreme worry. “What am I going to do?” he asks himself. “I can’t dig (like all those poor people over whom I’ve had authority for all these years). And I refuse to beg – that’s too just too shameful.”

So the steward thinks for a while, and then he goes right back to what he’s been doing all along: He becomes extravagant again.

He calls in all those who owe money to the rich man and asks, “How much do you owe my master?”

[Now here’s something to think about … why would the steward, the man charged with keeping the accounts, not know how much each person owed? Could this be the reason he’s being fired? Not because he’s stealing, but because he’s stupid? A good steward should know these things off the top of his head … he should at least have some books, an accounting … he should be ready for an audit, at the drop of a hat. That’s what good stewards do … they do more than keep an eye on the business. They run the business. But not this steward. He’s been so extravagant with the master’s business that he doesn’t even know what’s going on!]

So he asks the first person he calls in: “How much do you owe?” The peasant says, “One hundred jugs of olive oil.” Now, my friends, you know that olive oil is expensive, right? Good olive oil runs up to six times what regular vegetable oil costs. So if this man owes 100 jugs of olive oil – gallons and gallons of it – he’s probably in hock to the master for the rest of his life! He’s an indentured servant and owes everything – every teeny, tiny thing of his life – to the rich man. There’s no way he can get out of this debt – because that’s how the system was designed.

And what does the steward do? Does he demand payment? No. Does he threaten the man (which is probably what the peasant was expecting; after all, this steward is the rich man’s representative, which gives him life and death power over the peasant …)? So does he do that? No.

Instead, he says, “Write down 50 jugs …” Half of what you say you owe. Which suddenly makes the debt reasonable. Which gives the peasant hope that one day, perhaps, he can get out from under this brutal debt, meaning his children and grandchildren won’t have to suffer from it as well …

Every person the steward calls in finds their debt cut … some by half, some by one-fifth …

In order to make his own life better, in order to make the peasants who probably have feared him forever now think better of him, perhaps even like him, the steward acts extravagantly, forgiving their debts by slicing them down to size.

Oh, he doesn’t erase the debts. That would be going too far – if he did that, the rich man would come back and say, “No way. I won’t stand for this.”

But by cutting each person’s debt to a reasonable size, by forgiving the outlandish portions of those debts, the steward makes the rich man look good. He makes himself look good. His own future suddenly looks good again, too – remember, the rich man ends up praising the steward.

All because, in sheer desperation, out of unbridled terror and unremitting pride, the steward forgave debts.

It’s important here to step back a bit and examine what this means to Jesus. Before Jesus told his disciples this parable, he taught them how to pray. In what we now call the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus teaches us to say, “Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who owe us.” Translated another way: As we forgive everyone who is indebted to us. This is not how we translate the prayer. In the King James Version, we say, “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.” And in the so-called “modern” translation, we say, “Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us.” But neither translation is accurate, for in both Matthew and Luke’s gospels, Jesus says, “Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who are in debt to us.” Jesus balances our sins against others’ debts … So Jesus is telling us, right in the prayer he taught us, that we are to forgive debt. Which is exactly what the steward did: He forgave debts.

• • •

I have a friend, a theologian, who spent more than a year working with this text. She thinks that the key to today’s Gospel is forgiving those who owe us.*

It doesn’t matter, Dylan says, how the steward got to that forgiveness, or even why he forgave. It doesn’t matter that he was only forgiving a portion of the debt, or that the debt wasn’t even owed to him.

What matters is that he forgave.

Forgiveness

That is what Jesus wants us to do: Forgive.

Jesus tells this parable, and praises this steward because, even though the steward did it for all the wrong reasons, he still showed mercy. He still forgave people.

And forgiveness is key to how we are called to live as disciples of Jesus. Not to hold on to debts, but to let them go.

How many times have we been in situations where a little forgiveness would go a long way … and we didn’t do it? And the situation got worse?

How many times have we been in situations where we didn’t feel in the least inclined to forgive, but we did so anyway, even just a little, with only half our hearts, and life was better, for us and for the people we forgave?

Jesus is very clear about this: We are called to be extravagant in our forgiveness. To squander our forgiveness. To scatter it hither and yon, when we want to, and when we don’t want to.

It simply does not matter how we get to forgiveness.

It does not even matter why we forgive.

It only matters that we forgive …

… the big things that get in the way of us living our lives fully devoted to God and God’s beloved creation: those times when our loved ones hurt us … when our friends fail us … when we are forgotten … when we are not appreciated …

… and the little things as well which, taken on their own may not mean much, but put together with all those other little things – squeezing the toothpaste from the middle … tossing our clothes on the floor … leaving dirty dishes in the sink … when those things combine to suddenly make our lives seem like nothing but an uphill struggle …

… all of these things and more …

… we are called to forgive.

Extravagantly.

With as open a heart as we can muster, at that given moment, with that particular person.

There’s a reason Jesus tells this particular story; there’s a reason Jesus showers praise on the steward.

Not because he was the best example out there.

But because even though he was a lousy example … he was dishonest, he wasn’t paying attention, he squandered his boss’ money … even though he wasn’t someone we want to emulate ourselves, he still managed to forgive.

Extravagantly.

And if someone as incompetent and dishonest as this steward can manage to do this, Jesus says, how much more can we – we who are his disciples, we who are children of the light – how much more can we forgive?

If the steward can be extravagant in his forgiveness, for all the wrong reasons, how much more can we be extravagant in our own forgiveness, for the right reasons?

“It boils down to the same thing,” my friend Dylan the theologian says. “Deluded or sane, selfish and/or unselfish, there is no bad reason to forgive. Extending the kind of grace God shows us in every possible arena … can only put us more deeply in touch with God’s grace.”

Even in the darkest of times, we who are children of the light are always called to forgive, and to do so extravagantly.

That’s really what Jesus wants to teach us today.

Amen.

* I am deeply indebted to Sarah Dylan Breuer’s exegesis, found sarahlaughed.net, http://www.sarahlaughed.net/lectionary/2007/09/proper-20-year-.html, and http://www.sarahlaughed.net/lectionary/2004/09/proper_20_year_.html.

A sermon preached on 19 September 2010, Christ Church, Millwood, Va.

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