The readings on which the sermon below is based can be found at:
s057g08 Sunday 24 14/9/08
Ten thousand talents' Matthew 18.24
It is we, 'Christians', who know the magnitude of our debt to God. As we stand before the Cross of our Lord and Saviour we know how much it has cost God for our redemption. We know that the cost of our redemption cannot be measured in terms of gold or silver, for it has cost a life, the life of the one and only son of God. So this parable, addressed to Peter, is addressed to us. It is not a prescription for others to take to make the world a better place it is fairly and squarely directed at us and all who call themselves 'Christians'.
It tells us how readily God forgives us and by extension all people, for there is no distinction between us if we don't forgive others and others who don't forgive either.
The parable tells us that we are not to spend our lives repaying our debt to God as each of the servants pleads for time to do. God forgives and forgets. God remits our sins entirely. We owe God nothing in return provided only we do likewise to others.
Now as I've gone through the church my part being the Anglican Church - it has often come across that God is finicky about worship it has to be done in a correct way or it will be entirely unacceptable. In the 'high-church' the only kosher worship is where the (often male only) priest uses vestments and there are 'bells and smells'. In the 'low church' it is where the (often male only) minister's emphasis is on the Bible and preaching. In the charismatic side of the church the emphasis is on the sincerity of the praying by lay people during worship. Each is valid in its own right, but each looks to others as deficient they owe God something that their adherents don't. The 'god' they worship is essentially unforgiving towards others.
How we have turned around this saying to avoid it speaking to us? We only assume it is speaking to others.
In each and every parish I've been called to, the first and most important thing has been for me to admire the building, to delight in the welcoming committee, the efforts to raise money, attract young people, have fellowship groups and bible studies. And one gets the impression that the only difficulty is that more people don't join in. And this is where the priest / minister comes in. It is his or her job to get others involved - not to change anything but to admire the building, to delight in the welcoming committee, the efforts to raise money, attract young people, have fellowship groups and bible studies. And, surprise, surprise, suddenly God has got nothing to say to these seemingly devout people the only words are for those outside.
In a conversation I had a while back a 'free' church minister was admiring the Anglican system of having rules and regulations so that clergy could avoid stepping on people's toes. In his church the rules weren't written down so one spent one's time wondering how to proceed. I think that the reality is that changing anything anywhere is essentially verboten! In the Anglican Church the unwritten rule is don't bother trying to change anything.
Sadly, of course, often parishioners have spent their lives 'busting their guts' for the church. To suggest change is perhaps to imply that they haven't done enough, or what they have done is wrong. They have been fed a tradition of 'do it this way and you'll be saved'. I know, for I've been fed this same tradition and I know from my own experience how difficult it is to free myself from this and to learn to think for myself and discover my own spirituality. I would not claim to have achieved this yet even now. In many ways this is why I continue to prepare and publish sermons. They are not actually for anyone else. They enable me to extricate myself from simply not 'blotting the copy book' to an appreciation that God loves me without theological, moral or academic accoutrements. My sermons to others are, I pray, how God speaks to me! One of the best things has been for me to become a hospital chaplain so that I can do this exploration without worrying how it might be taken by a congregation or a Bishop :-)!
I was interested to hear a radio article on historical denial like the denial of the holocaust. And I suddenly realised that this is perhaps why I continue to kick myself for the stupid things I did and do even though I know that God has long ago forgiven and forgotten them. It is a far more healthy place to be to have sinned and been forgiven and continue to berate myself, than to be in denial suggesting that the things I did where someone else's fault or didn't happen at all. Denial is downright dangerous.
So too the church has to recognise that it has got things wrong in the past and continues to do sometimes in the present. People are not saved by doing things by the church's rule book. Salvation is about how we are loved as we are, and how loved other people are as they are, not because we or they have followed the rules.
So difference is fundamental to the Christian community, as it is for the community at large. So if God is so forgiving of difference within the Christian community, why would God be less forgiving of difference outside the Christian community? Indeed if forgiveness of difference is fundamental to our faith as these words of Jesus suggest, why should we restrict them to members inside the Christian community where (presumably) there is less cause of difference and so less need to forgive?
So is God unforgiving of others if they call on God by a different name to us? Do other people owe us anything if they don't worship in precisely the same manner as we do? And if they do owe us something aren't we bound to forgive and forget any debt, on pain to having to pay back to God all we owe?
I often comment that each and every time people find themselves face to face with the Almighty, they fall flat on their faces, and each and every time God lifts them to their feet. Our primal dignity, to stand before the Almighty and to think for ourselves is not taken from anyone. God does not want people to grovel eternally before the divine presence, and God certainly doesn't want us to spend our lives trying to repay all we owe the divine this would indeed be hell here on earth. God wants us to forget the times when we have offended God and get on with loving our brothers and sisters. God wants us to forgive and accept the differences of those around us the differences between male and female, straight and gay, ethnic, racial, religious differences. For it is only in doing this that we can claim to have a gospel for all of humanity and we stand any chance of avoiding the fate of the unforgiving servant in our 'gospel' for today. Indeed in the light of these words the acceptance and forgiveness of difference is the only rule we have to follow.
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