Sunday, September 14, 2008

Keeping the Books

Here's today's homily. The readings are Exodus 14:19-31 and Matthew 18:21-35.

This one was an emotional and theological challenge for me, and I hope I didn't get too personal at the end. I'll be interested to see how the congregation responds!


Three years ago, I preached on today’s lectionary readings. In 2005, these readings fell on Sunday, September 11, when New Orleans had just flooded after Katrina. I talked about the horror of drowning: about how, after Katrina, it was difficult to take any pleasure in the death of the Egyptians, even if they were supposed to be the bad guys. In my discussion of the Gospel, I talked about the difficulty of forgiving terrorists and of forgiving FEMA: of forgiving those whose acts -- both of commission and of omission -- resulted in thousands of deaths.

It’s three years later, and once again, it’s storm season. We learned some lessons from Katrina, and the current crop of hurricanes in the Gulf has resulted in less damage and fewer deaths. But there’s as much tragedy in the world as there’s ever been, as much hurt and rage, as much desire to see those who have wronged us destroyed. The need for forgiveness never goes away, and it never gets any easier. The more necessary it is, the more difficult it becomes.

I have a hunch that when Peter asks Jesus if he needs to forgive “as many as seven times,” he hopes that Jesus will let him off lightly. Maybe he expects Jesus to praise him for being willing to perform the herculean task of forgiving seven times. “Why, Peter! Matthew spilled his coffee all over your best robe, and then had the nerve to snap at you for getting in his way, and you’re willing to forgive him seven times? What a saint you are!”

But Jesus rarely does what anyone expects, and this time is no different. Instead of giving Peter a pat on the back for being so generous, he raises the stakes. “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven.” However much we’re willing to forgive, Jesus says, we need to multiply that number by eleven. He illustrates this concept with a rather frightening parable about debt, book-keeping, and forgiveness. If the king -- an obvious stand-in for God -- has forgiven us our debts, we must forgive others exactly the same way. Otherwise, not only will our full debt be restored, but we’ll be handed over to be tortured. Thanks, Jesus. How very reassuring.

I’d like to think that this is a figure of speech, a metaphor for the internal torture we go through when we refuse to forgive, when we’re consumed with anger and desire for revenge. As writer Anne Lamott reminds us, “Refusing to forgive is like drinking rat poison and waiting for the rat to die.” When we forgive, we can move on. We can stop brooding on how we’ve been wronged and begin to rebuild damaged relationships. Forgiveness restores our freedom.

There is a danger here, though, vividly illustrated by Episcopal preacher Barbara Brown Taylor in her book Speaking of Sin. Taylor attended Yale Divinity School, and became furious when she could never find the books she needed in the library. “When I asked the librarian what was going on,” she says, “he told me that the Divinity School had the highest theft rate of any graduate school in the university.” Shocked, she asked why. He said: “Grace . . . . You guys figure all has been forgiven ahead of time, so you go ahead and take what you want” (52).

I don’t think Jesus died on the cross so his followers could steal library books. But as long as there have been Christians, some of them have used Jesus as a “get out of jail free” card, as an excuse for bad behavior rather than as a model of good behavior. This is why forgiveness is nearly meaningless without genuine repentance. To be forgiven, we have to admit what we’ve done wrong, and be willing to stop doing it. In the parable Jesus told this morning, both of the slaves who owe money fall on their knees in front of their debtors and say, “Have patience with me, and I will pay you the debt.” They know what they owe and plan to repay it, even if it takes them a while. They’re keeping books, not stealing them.

Grace, the theological concept the Yale librarian blamed for the high theft rate, is defined as an “unearned gift freely given.” The book thieves at Yale didn’t wait to be given anything; instead, they took what they wanted. If they came back to the library and said, “I owe you $150 in late fees for this book; have patience with me, and I will pay you the debt,” the librarian would have the choice of dispensing grace, of saying, “Your debt is forgiven.” Because they haven’t confessed their crime, they are instead banking on what theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer calls “cheap grace,” the expectation of forgiveness without repentance and amendment of life. In other words, I expect you to keep forgiving me even though I keep doing things wrong and don’t even own up to them. Your forgiveness becomes my license to sin.

Anger in the church is sometimes seen as a sin, as a refusal to forgive, a failure of Christian practice and patience. But I think it’s important to remember that, when people are misbehaving and refusing to admit what they’ve done, anger is important. Anger is the gift that fuels prophecy, that gives us the energy and strength to stand up and say, “This is wrong, and it has to change. You can’t just keep stealing library books.” When those who have wronged us, in the church or outside it, refuse to say that they’re sorry, forgiveness is not only misplaced but potentially dangerous. If no one stands up and talks about the problem, soon there won’t be any books left at all. Forgiveness frees us, but accountability has to come first.

This is, as some of you know, a painfully personal topic for me. Over the past several years, I’ve had run-ins with several church officials -- not at St. Stephen’s, let me emphasize -- who have treated me and others badly and refused to admit it. I’d love to forgive these people. I want to forgive these people. But for me to forgive them, they need to say a simple “I’m sorry” and take their share of responsibility for what went wrong. They have, more or less point blank, refused to do this. As a result, I’ve struggled with feeling trapped in my own anger. I’ve found other ways to try to move past what happened, but the process has been much more difficult than it needed to be. My letting go has been less a matter of forgiveness than of grief, sorrow, and resignation. Forgiveness would have been so much more pleasant for everyone involved.

It’s of course possible -- and the individuals involved would, I suspect, heartily embrace this theory -- that my wounds are all in my own head, that these people behaved perfectly properly. But the fact that they know they’ve hurt me, and don’t seem to care, is a red flag.

I pray for these people, wish them well, would help them however I could. But I’ve stopped hoping that they’ll change, which in itself is a cause of grief. Instead, I’ve promised myself and God that to the extent I am able, I won’t be the cause of keeping anyone else trapped in anger. If I’ve hurt someone, I’ll do my very best to recognize and confess my own sin. If I own up to what I’ve done wrong and do my best to change, that will give the other person, and God, the chance to forgive me. My wrongdoing will then become, not an intolerable burden -- the stone sealing the tomb of my own conscience -- but an opportunity for true grace, for the unearned gift of renewed and unending life as that stone is rolled away.

I’m sure I’ll have plenty of chances to practice this noble resolution, and I’m also sure that there will be plenty of times when I’ll fail miserably at it. But as Christians, we are called first and foremost to love our neighbors, to care when we have hurt them and to make amends. We’re called to return our library books, even when they’re decades late. If we can get the courage to walk up to the desk, we may just find that we’ve been forgiven. But we need to remember that grace is neither cheap nor free. We have been forgiven our debts by God, who keeps His own books, and who will happily pay our fines as soon as we admit that we owe them.



  1. That's a nice homily, Susan. The way you put yourself out there in it speaks of how much you have faith in your acceptance in your church home. That's wonderful!

    My priest today did the same scriptures but he revolved the story around the movie/book "Dead Man Walking" and then tied it into some Serbian prisoners coming home after 10 years in prison, without trial, and how the communities used a public court to begin the process of reconciliation. It was very moving too.

    At Ultreya today some of us were doing palanca for Kairos, the prison cursillo ministry. It was interesting that the women and presumably men too, value the palanca letters more than just about any other possession and pack them first when their time is up.

    Peace! Hope! & Joy!

  2. Thanks for some good thoughts!

    Many Blessings.



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