September 18, 2017 – Fourteen Pentecost Proper 19
Genesis 50:15-21; Psalm 103:(1-7), 8-13; Romans 14:1-12; Matthew 18:21-35
The Rev. Jamie Osborne
It’s good to be with you this morning. Last Sunday, we were gathered here together in the nave of the church, unsure of what would happen as Hurricane Irma approached. There was the possibility of high winds, damaged buildings, and even the loss of power, but thankfully we came out relatively unscathed by the storm. We’re safe now, but things weren’t so sure last Sunday. And something happened here in the nave last week that has stuck with me as I’ve thought about today’s Gospel.
And I just want to be sure we all know what we’re talking about when we say the word “nave.” It’s a wonderfully strange word we use in church, and it’s a word we don’t use very often outside of it. And like a lot of church-words, it’s something that we can hear, and even say, while still being unclear as to what exactly it means. The nave starts at the main front of the church at the doors back there, and goes all the way up to the chancel, where the steps begin.
You may already know this, but the word “nave” comes from the Latin word navis which means ship. And a powerful image that has emerged in our tradition is that of the church as a ship, like Noah’s ark, keeping us safe from the stormy waters outside. I Peter says that there were eight persons saved on Noah’s ark, and this is a picture of our baptism in which we are also saved through water.
This idea has had a wide influence on church architecture throughout the centuries. And if you look up, you’ll notice that the nave’s ceiling resembles the hull of a ship with its vaulted roof and braces.
So back to last week. After the 10:30 service, Mike told Candice and I there was a family in the nave that wanted prayer. There was a grandmother, two older sisters, and four children mostly high-school aged from what I could tell. They were from Florida and had evacuated their home in Naples because of the hurricane. They were staying across the street when they heard the church bells, and they wanted to pray because they were distraught. They were afraid of what would happen to their home, and they were concerned for their families and friends.
They were Serbian Orthodox Christians, and Candice and I had the opportunity to pray with them. It was an ecumenical movement, right here in St John’s. Episcopalians and the Serbian Orthodox praying together. We all gathered up near the altar, and it was quite a moving experience hearing them pray through many different psalms in the Serbian language, along with the Lord’s prayer among others.
Later on, Candice offered a short homily, and then she and I prayed for them and anointed them with oil. And then there came an incredibly beautiful moment at the end when they sang Kyrie Eleison, which is an ancient prayer that means Lord have mercy.
So there we were, praying for God’s mercy in the middle of the ark, protected from the storm waters outside. It was an extension of what we had already done at the 7:30 and 10:30 services, and a beautiful picture of what it means to be the church: The people of God gathered together asking to receive God’s mercy.
And this is a picture of what happens in today’s Gospel from Matthew. A king wants to settle accounts with his slaves. And there is one who owes the king ten thousand talents. It’s an outrageous number that Jesus’ hearers would have recognized as totally ridiculous. A talent was worth a year’s wages and there is no way a servant would have been able to create that large of a debt. But just as outrageous as the amount of the debt is what happens next. The king forgives the slave of all his debts. The king was going to sell the slave and his family and possessions, but the slave asks for mercy, and the king releases him and forgives him of the debt. The king has mercy on the slave.
But that’s not all. The slave who is forgiven this impossibly large debt, finds a fellow slave who owes him pocket change compared to his own forgiven debt. And the forgiven slave grabs this other slave by the neck and demands his money. And when he can’t pay up, he then has the slave thrown into prison.
And what is so powerful about this parable is that you and I are the slave who has been forgiven an impossible debt. What Jesus is showing and confronting us with, is the absurdity of receiving God’s forgiveness for our own sins, while at the same time refusing to extend it to others who have sinned against us.
You and I are in the church, the place where we learn to receive God’s mercy. You and I huddle up on the ark, and we learn to trust and give thanks for the great mercy God has shown us in forgiving us all that we have done and left undone.
The church is the place where we receive God’s mercy, but it’s also the place where we learn how to practice forgiving one another when we sin against each other. Because sooner or later someone in the church will hurt or disappoint us. It’s bound to happen. We can’t forget why Jesus tells us the parable of the unforgiving slave in the first place. It’s because Peter asks him how many times we are supposed to forgive members of the church when they sin against us.
Poor Peter says seven. Jesus says seventy-seven. Some have never made it to one. And I think it’s because some are surprised that anyone in the church would ever sin against them. And they never recover from it.
But what else can we expect from the church? We are a group of people who get dressed up every Sunday morning, gather here, and then all kneel and confess how we have sinned against God and our neighbor. Where else does that happen? We all come as the slave, asking for mercy because we struggle with sin that separates us from God and others. We are all in need of the healing forgiveness of Jesus. And it’s in this collection of all the different types of the beloved children of God that there is bound to be disappointment and hurt. It isn’t always pleasant in the ark.
I love how Frederick Buechner describes the church as the ark. He says “just about everything imaginable is aboard, the clean and the unclean both. They are all piled in together helter-skelter, the predators and the prey, the wild and the tame, the sleek and beautiful ones and the ones that are ugly as sin. There are sly young foxes and impossible old cows. There are the catty and the piggish and the peacock-proud. There are hawks and there are doves. Some are wise as owls, some silly as geese; some meek as lambs and others fire-breathing dragons. There are times when they all cackle and grunt and roar and sing together, and there are times when you could hear a pin drop.
So here we are, all piled together in the nave. Our roles change. Sometimes we are the meek lamb, sometimes we are the peacock-proud, sometimes we are the fire-breathing dragon. And depending on the day, we can be all three. It isn’t always pleasant on the ark.
And maybe the best answer to the question of how many times to forgive members of the church when they sin against us is to look around, all of us gathered together in this ark for protection from the storms outside, asking for the Lord’s mercy.
And when we catch a glimpse of God’s mercy being extended to all of us, maybe we’ll see that the only sane thing to do is extend that mercy to each other.