Sermon for the Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost, September 13, 2020 – the Rev. Elaine Ellis Thomas

ASEP Sermons

Exodus 14:19-31+Psalm 114+Romans 14:1-12+Matthew 18:21-35

But the Israelites walked on dry ground through the sea, the waters
forming a wall for them on their right and on their left (Exodus 14:29).

The Exodus, freedom for the people of Israel following 400 years of slavery, is a formative moment in the history of a people and a nation. God liberated the tribes of Israel from oppression under Pharaoh, leading them with a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night, finally parting the Red Sea so that the people could walk through on dry ground.

But not the Egyptians. No, the Egyptian forces were swallowed up when the walls of water collapsed upon them. “Thus the Lord saved Israel that day from the Egyptians; and Israel saw the Egyptians dead on the seashore” (Exodus 14:30).

And while we rejoice over freedom from bondage, how can we rejoice over the deaths of hundreds of people that made it possible?

My Hebrew Bible professor from divinity school has had a running thread on Twitter over the past several weeks analyzing the text beginning at Genesis 1 and going through, so far, the death of Abraham. At one point, he digressed into a comment challenging a common argument that there was no chattel slavery in the bible. I sarcastically remarked that, if it were true that there was no chattel slavery in the bible, that whole “let my people go” stuff would have been a bunch of hooey, to which he replied, “MY people, not ALL people.”

There is a lot of ugliness in the origin stories of the bible. That it was used to justify slavery is no surprise at all, because slavery is condoned throughout. Enemies are slaughtered, and dead Egyptians lie upon the shore, a people are freed, but not all people are freed.

The bible is complicated like that. Case in point: our gospel for today. A king forgives something like a gazillion dollars in debt. It’s a laughably impossible amount of money to forgive. And then the forgiven one turns around and won’t forgive a pittance owed to him. Remember what I said to you last week: there is no limit to God’s forgiveness. The number seven is a number of completeness, of wholeness, in the bible, so 77 would be an infinite amount of completeness, of forgiveness. So when Peter wants to know the “statute of limitations on sin,”[1] Jesus is there to blow that limit out of the water.

This king, the one who forgave the infinite indebtedness of his slave, then turns around and has him arrested and tortured until he can pay it back, which would be never.

We often read “king” as “God” in the parables, but I don’t think we can do that this time, because that is not what God does. God forgives. God does not destroy. God does not send us off to be punished. Well known teacher and preacher Tom Long claims that when it comes to forgiveness, “the whole process is focused on the restoration of the offender, not revenge for the offended.”[2] Hoo-boy, that’s a lot to take in. Forgiveness isn’t about me, it’s about restoring the one who has done me wrong.

The old adage “be careful what you wish for; you might actually get it” is instructive here. Every week we gather and pray together the words Jesus taught his disciples, “forgive us our sins” or “trespasses” or “debts” as we forgive “those who sin against us” or “those who trespass against us” or “our debtors.” These aren’t just words that we say. We are praying for the grace to be forgivers, just as we are forgiven. And God knows we’re not going to be able to do this! God knows we have excuses and rackets and all kinds of ploys to get out of this obligation to forgive. And yet we pray it anyway. We pray it because Jesus taught it.

And every so often, we do get a glimpse of it in the mother who forgives the murderer of her son or the spouse who forgives an unfaithful partner or the victim of slanderous gossip who forgives the instigator. It happens all the time.

Maybe Tom Long has it right:

When one gets a sense of proportion, then, a sense of the size of our sinful debt and the immensity of God’s mercy, no one would dare attempt to ration forgiveness. We know too well that the little boat in which we are sailing is floating on a deep sea of grace and that forgiveness is not to be dispensed with an eyedropper, but a fire hose.[3]

Freedom and safety for the people of Israel came at a price, a steep price, for the Egyptians. It came at a steep price to any enslaved people left behind who surely suffered even more than they had before. And yet we still rejoice with these liberated ancestors of ours, whose costly freedom continued the fulfillment of the promise made to Abraham so long ago.

Our freedom came at a steep price, too. Our liberation was made possible by God’s willingness to be incarnate and to suffer and to die on our behalf.

The Exodus story is complex and nuanced, just as the parables sometimes are, as well. A king who forgives extravagantly and then takes it back again. Such a human response.

Yet In all these things, God invites us forward, invites us to seek the restoration of all people. We are going to fail as epically as that king from time to time, but every now and then, we’ll get it right, we’ll dispense forgiveness with a fire hose and not an eye-dropper, and in doing so, we’ll gain a glimpse of heaven.

[1] Tom Long, Matthew (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1997), 211.

[2] Long, 210.

[3] Long. 213.

ASEPSermon for the Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost, September 13, 2020 – the Rev. Elaine Ellis Thomas