Welcome to the first Sunday after the unofficial end to summer!  I know I’m probably the only one among us who can say this, but I’m really not that big a fan of summer.  Once it gets over about 75 degrees, I’m pretty miserable, for one thing.  Staycations beat vacations because all my stuff is at home, and if I had to go on a vacation, I’d want to go to Boston anyway, so . . . .  I also like routines, which get disrupted in the summer.  And, not least, I love family.  Which means I love this – being here together again, a big parish family gathered after all our sundry summer travels and diversions. 

The Bible is a record of God’s propensity for working in and through families.  In the OT, he revealed himself to Noah, to the Patriarchs – Abraham, Isaac and Jacob – and in the NT he chose Joseph and Mary to be his way into the world.  God tends to reveal himself to a family, and to bless that family in order for them, in turn, to be a blessing to others around them.  That’s one reason we focus so much on families here at the Advent – God is still changing the world in and through one family at a time.  So the mission of the Advent includes building strong, healthy families, which is why we were happy to open our doors this past week to “Park Street School at the Advent,” two kindergarten classes that meet every day upstairs in our church school rooms.  It’s why we have a family community group, why we’re starting a junior and senior high youth group this fall, why we are all going to pray together for our church school teachers in just a bit. 

But first – Matthew’s gospel has something to say to families, specifically to church families.  Matthew was very deliberate about how he structured his gospel:  An infancy narrative at the beginning, a passion narrative at the end, and in between five blocks of teaching from Jesus.[1]  Chapter 18, where we read from today, is the fourth of the five teaching blocks, and it deals specifically with what life looks like inside the family of God, inside the local church.  And a distinctive, indelible, necessary mark of a healthy parish family, according to Jesus in chapter 18 of Matthew, is forgiveness.  Not just any kind of forgiveness, either, but a kind like the world had never seen.  And today I want to ask three questions about forgiveness:  (1) What is it?  (2) Why do we do it?  And (3) How in the world do we do it?

First, what is forgiveness?  Let me suggest a working definition:  Forgiveness is “absorbing the cost of the breach of a relationship.”  The kingdom of heaven is like a king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants.  As he began the settlement, a man who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him.  Since he was not able to pay, the master ordered that he and his wife and his children and all that he had be sold to repay the debt.  (Matt. 18.23-25)  Notice, first of all, that the debt the servant owed was real, not imagined.  This wasn’t just a legal fiction; the relationship between the servant and the king had really been breached; the servant really did owe the king this astronomical sum of money, and wishing the breach away or pretending he didn’t owe the debt wasn’t going to change the situation. 

One of the objections I sometimes hear to Christianity, what some people find unpalatable, is the necessity of the cross.  Why can’t God just forgive and forget?  Why all this stuff about sacrifice and dying for the whole world?  Well, Christians believe it’s because of the fact that sin breached our relationship with God and created a debt.  If humanity hadn’t sinned, then the cross wouldn’t have been necessary, at least not in the way we understand it today; but when we sinned, we breached our relationship with God, and because he is just, somebody has to pay that debt, to absorb the cost of that breach.  Here’s an example of how this works in the case of a household lamp:

 When someone really wrongs you, a debt is established that has to be paid by someone . . . .  What if a friend of your accidentally smashes a lamp in your apartment?  One of two things can happen as a result.  Either you can make him pay – “That will be $100, please” – or you can say, I forgive you, that’s okay.”  But in the latter case what happens to that $100?  You have to pay it yourself, or you have to lose $100 worth of light and get used to a darker room.  Either your friend pays the cost for what was done or you absorb the cost.[2]

The breach of the relationship is a real cost, and just imagining that it doesn’t exist won’t make it go away.  Somebody had to absorb the cost, and the king decided it would be him.  The gospel tells us God took into himself the cost of our breach of relationship, and now he adopts us into a family where the only way in is to let him forgive you, to let him absorb the cost for you.  That’s what forgiveness is.

Second – Why do it?  Two reasons:  Forgiveness is (1) a test of genuine faith, and (2) the gateway to healing and joy.  The servant, who had been forgiven a very great debt, goes out and has a fellow servant, who owed a very small debt, thrown into prison to be tortured.  Verses 32-33:  “Then his lord summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked servant!  I forgave you all that debt because you besought me; and should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?’”  The Greek in verse 33 actually says “was it not necessary that you forgive him like I forgave you?”  If you want to know the genuineness of your faith in Christ, there’s no better barometer than how well you forgive other people.  Back in chapter 6, Jesus said “If you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.”  (Matt. 6.15)  Forgiving and receiving forgiveness are inextricably linked.  Forgiveness is test of genuine faith, and it is also the gateway to healing and joy.  The first Sunday of every month we have healing prayer and anointing in the chapel following each mass, and since I’m praying for people to be healed, I’ve been reading a lot about healing ministry in the church.  One book I read recently by a Roman Catholic with a vibrant healing ministry said, quite bluntly, “most sins do not block God’s healing power to the same extent as does a lack of forgiveness.”[3]  If you don’t want to take the word of a Roman Catholic healer, just look at the passage we read today from Ecclesiasticus:  Does anyone harbor anger against another, and expect healing from the Lord?  (Ecclus. 28.3)  Failure to forgive can block physical healing from taking place, and (very briefly) it can also keep us from experiencing true joy.  Anne Lamott puts it in a way only she could:  “[N]ot forgiving is like drinking rat poison and then waiting for the rat to die.”[4]  And yet forgiving is, in a very real sense, godlike.  Forgiving is what God does for a living.  So when we forgive, we participate in that part of the divine life and get the joy and bliss that comes with it.[5]

Last point:  We know what forgiveness is, we know why we do it, but third: how can we pull it off?  Forgiveness is hard.  I’m not naïve; I know what I’m telling you to do isn’t easy.  In Ephesians 4, Paul wrote:  Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice. Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you. (Eph. 4:31-32)  Now, imagine you lost your wife ten years ago today in New York City.  Or your child.  Or a brother.  Your mom.  How can you “get rid of bitterness, rage and anger” about that?  How can you forgive that?  I think the only answer is in the difference between the two debts in the parable.  Did you know that if you added up total annual revenue of the wealthiest Roman province in the world when Jesus told this parable, it wouldn’t amount to ten thousand talents?  Ten thousand talents would be like tens of millions of dollars today.  And yet weirdest part of the story is how the servant wouldn’t forgive a debt of just one hundred denarii, something like 20 bucks.  When you’ve been forgiven much, you should find that you have vast resources from which to forgive others, “from the heart,” as Jesus says at the end.  Look at the last line of the reading from Ecclesiasticus:  [R]emember the covenant of the Most High, and overlook faults.  (Ecclus. 28.7b)  Remember the covenant.  Remember what it cost God to keep his promise to make us his family.  And discovery the healing and joy that being forgiven and forgiving others brings.

In the Name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

[1] Raymond E. Brown, S.S., An Introduction to the New Testament (New York: Doubleday, 1997): 137.  See Michael Green, The Message of Matthew: The Kingdom of Heaven, TBST (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity, 2001): 30; Robert H. Mounce, Matthew, NIBC (Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson, 1985): 3.

[2] Timothy Keller, King’s Cross:  The Story of the World in the Life of Jesus (New York: Dutton, 2011): 100.

[3] Francis MacNutt, Healing, rev. & expanded (Notre Dame, Ind.: Ave Maria Press, 1999): 137.

[4] Anne Lamott, Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith (New York: Anchor, 2000): 134.

[5] “At Sunday worship, as in every dimension of our existence, many of us pretend to believe we are sinners.  Consequently, all we can do is pretend to believe we have been forgiven.  As a result, our whole spiritual life is pseudo-repentance and pseudo-bliss.”  Brennan Manning, The Ragamuffin Gospel (Sisters, OR:  Multnomah, 2000), 132.