We begin with the Parable of the Unforgiving Slave. This parable is spring-loaded. It has contradictions within it. At first, the king is extravagantly merciful to the slave, and at the end, he has the slave tortured because of the slave insulting his mercy.
Okay, but is Jesus really saying that God the Father is like that with us, both extravagantly merciful and also extremely vengeful and exacting? The church has taught just that. You know, “Jesus loves you more than you can ever know, and if you don’t believe that, he will roast you forever in hell.” That doesn’t add up. It doesn’t hold. That’s what I mean by the parable being spring-loaded.
As I wrestled with the parable, Melody advised me that it was comic, and I should read it as if the king were Tony Soprano. One of his capos comes to him and says, “Tony, I’m in trouble, I gotta deal.” Tony says, “I get it, these things happen. I can be very generous. You show me respect, and we can deal.” Then Tony hears that this capo shakes down a junior underling for not a lot, and Tony is furious and sends his guys to torture him. It’s not just generosity, it’s honor, it’s what’s in your heart. “So you better show respect, or you might find my heavenly Father like Tony Soprano, know what I’m sayin’?” So the last line of the parable is not a doctrine, it’s a punch-line, it’s a wake-up call.
What’s in your heart? You can always count offenses against you. Forgiving another person is not about keeping count. It’s about respect, it’s about respect for God and the mercy of God. You have to have a heart for mercy, that you know in your heart the mercy of God to you, how God is merciful to you beyond your reckoning or measure. Your practice of forgiving another person has to take place within your heart. Because you’ve got to forgive some fellow Christians who don’t even want your forgiveness.
You have to forgive in your heart because you might have to stay away from that person for the sake of your own safety. Because it’s not just every new sin you have to forgive, but the same sin, and it caused you such damage that every time you deal with the damage you have to forgive him all over again, in your heart, countless times. You have to renew your forgiveness like you renew your Metrocard. Renewing your forgiveness is part of the renewal of your mind which is the transformation we address today, the transformation of a broken heart into a heart for mercy.
How do you achieve this transformation of your heart? By exercise? By practice? By self-improvement and self-discipline, by the discipline of forgiving others? By mindfulness of others? All these, but not chiefly these. The most important mindfulness is not what you achieve but of what you have received, that you have received mercy. By believing that you have received more mercy than you can account for. That you have been surprised by God, jostled by God, pushed by God. You have been rescued, you have spared, you have been protected, you have been saved.
Do you think the Children of Israel would ever have entered that Red Sea if there were not chariots behind them? Do you think they’d ever have fled Egypt unless they’d had to? Like it or not sometimes, you have to receive salvation. You don’t achieve it, you receive it, it’s mercy, it’s rescue. Christian transformation is believing how fearfully you are rescued.
These poor Hebrew peons had never been to the beach. They’d never seen the sea before. They knew the ancient geography, that this Red Sea was an invasive arm of the great encircling sea that was at the rim of the world, the cold, dark boundary of life on earth. Here before them, jutting into the world of life, was an arm of that great and deadly deep. This sea was death to them. They will have been terrified. What about their children? How did they even drag their animals into it? Just so, your own salvation is more fearful rescue than it is self-improvement.
As for the Egyptians, they were both thrilled and frustrated. The Israelites were trapped. But chariots can’t fight when they’re in a column. They have to race around the flank of the army on foot to attack from the side. And the Israelites were protected by the walls of water. But the Egyptians are blood-thirsty, they want revenge, and into the trap they go.
As I said last week, I’m not concerned how historical you take this story. But you can take it as one of the great informing stories of the world, the defining image of salvation for Jews, and for Jesus, and for the renewal of your own minds and how you see yourselves and what is the ground of your transformation. The salvation is how you pass through death into this life, this life right now, your life right now.
You live your lives right now as rescued, protected, and spared. Your transformation is knowing yourselves as saved. Not for judging others as unsaved, but that you know yourself as the subject of great mercy, behind you and beside and before you.
Just so, the parable invites you to believe that the deep truth about yourself is that you are a debtor who is pardoned, a trespasser justified, a criminal rehabilitated, a slave redeemed, that you live and die as the constant beneficiary of an expansive and undeserved mercy which is the love of God.
You like to be self-reliant and competent. But you can believe that you’ve been granted salvation, that you’ve been made right with God, not from your competency but out of sheer grace. Your belief tells you how to see yourself and also other people, especially those who are in your debt. You express your belief in your behavior which is also grace. Which makes for a community who express our transformation, a community with a heart for mercy and for love.
In the gospel lesson it’s expressed in forgiveness. In the epistle it’s expressed as hospitality and welcome. You welcome the person whose religious practice violates your own. You welcome the person whose very identity contradicts your own. The conservative welcomes the liberal and the liberal welcomes the conservative. You are showing respect, respect for the welcome of Jesus who has welcomed you. You find yourself within this little community of diversity not on your own for you are not your own, you belong to the Lord, who has claimed you by rescuing and sparing and saving you. So you show respect. So you open your heart.
You and your children are assaulted daily but the true facts of a world today, the clash of civilizations and the posturing of politic, the burden of indebtedness and the compounding of interest and the exacting of fees, the fear of the future of the planet, a world of aggression and ideologies. Strange that the strategy of God to counter this, the strategy going back to Jesus and St. Paul, is for small communities of transformation. But that’s how you serve God in the transformation of this world. That’s our mission.
And part of our mission is to teach these children who have registered for Sunday School this week. To pull these children with us into the Red Sea before they know any different, that they get comfortable walking between the walls of water, to get used to knowing themselves as saved and rescued and protected, that they know the prayers and the rituals which confirm the mercy in which they find themselves, so that in all the pollution of the hatred and violence in the world they can practice breathing into their bodies the Spirit of God. You might not think of this what we do here today as world-changing. But apparently God does. So respect it, honor it, bless it, support it.
Your transformation is immediate, it is always now, it exists out of time, because it is the work of God in you. The mercy of God is the compulsion and the freedom of God’s own nature, which is love. The mercy in which you exist is God’s extravagant love for you.
Copyright © 2014 by Daniel Meeter, all rights reserved.