Sermon September 13 2020: Sacrifice (Matt 18:21ff) Rev. Betsy Hogan
Here's a thing to wonder about. If I preached a sermon right now that I didn't write, that was actually written almost a hundred years ago by another United Church minister, and preached almost a hundred years ago in a United Church not here but in Hamilton Ontario.... would you know? Would you be able to tell the difference?
There'd be a difference in language, for sure. I'd have to tidy up some of the words and phrases that would sound obviously archaic and clearly not natural, not quite right. But in terms of the tone? In terms of the message?
You might be surprised. It wouldn't be the case just randomly, obviously. Different people preach differently, each of us has our own kind of WAY of approaching the Bible stories and building a sermon and trying to bring the message to bear on everyday life...
But with a bit of picking and choosing, you might be surprised. At how easily a sermon from the late 1920s or early 1930s could actually be preached almost word for word by me now... and you might not be able to tell the difference.
I'm not going to actually do that, of course. I do think it'd be kind of interesting as an intellectual exercise... but if I were ever going to actually preach someone else's sermon I'd totally tell you it was someone else's sermon.
There is, after all, as the lawyer who lives in my house would tell me, such a thing as intellectual property. Even if the clergyman in question has died.
But the clergyman in question was Crossley Hunter. Sort of a minor luminary in our United Church firmament back in the olden days of mid-last century – he was a good friend of Dora Stinson's father! He was his ministry supervisor when Dora Stinson's dad was a student intern.
Which I didn't even know when I found his old sermons in the United Church Archives and started reading them – it was just a bonus that I found out from Dora –
But almost a century later notwithstanding, I'd happily preach one of his sermons – if not exactly word for word, pretty close – and I think they'd stand up. Even if it seems like a completely world now than it was then.
And I say that because after struggling all week to find a way into this sermon, in the end it was good old Crossley Hunter who saved the day for me. And remembering just one piece of one sermon that he preached in his church in Hamilton way back in the day, in the early 1930s.
A sermon that actually had NOTHING to do with today's reading. At least, on the surface. In fact, I don't even remember what the actual preaching text WAS for that particular Crossley Hunter sermon, and I hope you'll forgive me that my desire to go look it up in my great big pile of Crossley Hunter sermons was approximately this big. ( )
And it doesn't matter anyway. Because the reading that WE heard deserves its own attention.
It's a conversation between Jesus and Peter, one of his disciples. And although it seems to be just a conversation between the two of them, it actually arises in a larger context in which Jesus has been talking to ALL his disciples, about how to deal with conflict.
How to deal with hurt and harm and wrongdoing. Debts and trespasses. All the different words we use that all get rolled up into "sins". Not Sin with a capital S, like a philosophical category that encompasses brokenness and disconnect and wrongness – but "sins".
As the Anglicans put it, sins of commission and sins of omission – what we've done and what we've left undone. The wrong things. Hurts and harms and mean words and thoughtlessness and WE do them to other people, and other people do them to US – and what Peter wants to know from Jesus is....
How many times do we have to forgive. It's interesting, isn't it, that we always want to know how many times WE have to forgive – we never think of it in terms of how many times other people have to forgive US –
But at any rate, Jesus' answer is essentially "infinity". Infinity times. In biblical language, the number seven represents wholeness and completion, and seven times seven, seventy times seven – it's just a sort of poetic way of saying infinity. All the times.
Which does not mean that we're somehow required to stick around to TAKE it infinity times, because we're not. Turn the other cheek and get outta Dodge – we are too precious in God's eyes to be harmed and harmed and harmed. Jesus is speaking here in exaggerated language to a STANCE of forgiveness that's infinite.
And it's forgiveness that's VERY specifically identified – because of the parable Jesus follows it up with – it's forgiveness that's VERY specifically identified with "erasing a debt". Forgetting, setting out of your mind, what someone owes you.
Forgetting, erasing, setting out of your mind, whatever's needed to "balance the books", as it were.
In the parable, the king who forgives the slave's debt of 10,000 talents – a talent being a gold coin of huge value in those days – that king is essentially erasing that debt off the books and saying "It's good. You owe me nothing. Fresh start in balance."
And you'd think... that the slave would be so overwhelmed with gratitude that he'd be moved to do the same with someone else who owes HIM –
And of course that's exactly the point of the parable. Jesus wants Peter, he wants us, to FEEL how despicable it is that the slave who's been forgiven SO MUCH, such a HUGE debt, by the king...
Has the temerity, the sheer GALL, to call in the debt of one of his peers. It's absolutely outrageous. And we would NEVER be like that. Probably.
It's very straightforward traditional theology, this passage. We can never repay what we "owe" God for life and love and beauty and creation and food and contentment and grace – but God doesn't expect us to. That "debt" is written off. Now, go and do likewise, Jesus says. If your huge debt's been written off, surely you can write off whatever debts are owed you by those around you.
Whether that's seeing them humble themselves and apologize. Or it's seeing them suffer in equal measure. Or MAKING them suffer, getting back at them, in equal measure.
Surely you can write it off, Jesus is saying here. Infinity times. Because you're not like this despicable slave... are you?
It's a tough reading. At the same time, though, I actually find it quite a helpful reading. Because the one thing it DOES do is that it frames the idea of forgiveness in a way that's less emotional than how we usually think about it.
Because we usually think of forgiveness as kind of having to sort of reshape how we FEEL about the other person. It's very much about inside, and our spirit, and a change of heart. But in this parable? It's kind of an intellectual exercise.
It's saying "I no longer need, I'm willing to give up, my 'right' to what you owe me – whether that's your sorrowful contrition or it's you suffering the same amount of pain you caused me. I don't need it. Maybe I used to! Maybe I used to really want that payback! But I'm choosing now to say the books are balanced. Over. Done. All good."
There's an intellectual distance there. I find that quite helpful. I'm not saying it's magic or something, and learning how to be forgiving is pretty much the epitome of "God being our helper" – but I do think there's a gift in this parable of a framing of forgiveness that can make it more accessible to us, because it's less fraught.
In effect, it's pretty much math. Or accounting! It's writing off an amount owing. It's being willing to write off that amount owing. Or, you know what it is? It's being willing to sacrifice that amount owing. On purpose. Because it's better. For a greater good, as it were.
Which brings me to Crossley Hunter. Who probably wrote sermons about forgiveness and how hard it is, and if he did they'd be excellent and I'd want to preach them word for word – But what he DID do, in a sermon in the early 1930s, and this is why it popped into my head this week while I was struggling away at trying to land somewhere –
What he DID do, in a sermon in the early 1930s, from his pulpit in Hamilton, is he preached a sermon that was really straightforward and honest and firm... about the need for sacrifice. Toward something better. Toward a greater good, as it were.
He was speaking at the height of the Depression. At the height of drought in the Prairies, and hunger and unemployment and major labour unrest with wages too low to live on and a lot of uncertainty and a lot of fear and a lot of despair.... and racialized hatred and violence and fascism on the rise.... yes, all of it in Canada too....
But what he said to his comfortable and affluent congregation in Hamilton, and speaking to his own self too, was this. That healing and better and more fair and more just HAD to happen. They were necessary. And they COULD happen. They were possible.
But it would mean some sacrifice. It would mean some willing faithful deliberate sacrifice. A writing-off, as it were, of some of what they'd carried around in their minds, what we've carried around in our minds, as sort of owed and expected.
Which is quite a sea-change, and he wasn't being flip about it at all. The language of sacrifice CAN'T be flip – not when it's sacrificing our secret desire that a person who did us harm will somehow suffer for it, and even less so perhaps when it's sacrificing the sense of security we've built up on a certain degree of comfort or stability or even enough for a rainy day.
It's difficult language, it's biblical language, but sometimes it's necessary we get pushed by it. At the height of the depression, Crossley Hunter said to his congregation "there's only one way out of this, and we're going to have to be willing to make sacrifices, we just are". And all this past week, watching California and Oregon and Washington burning, that's what I kept hearing. Around and around in my head.
We're going to have to be willing to make sacrifices. We just are. There isn't any way to live faithfully on this planet -- as literally made all by the same God, all of the same stuff, as the soil and the water and the trees and the animals – and just let it burn. There's only one way out of this, and it can't involve what's been our very best thing that we all depend on. It just can't.
The earth is howling in pain. But our faith is a faith in God's capacity to heal, and resurrect, and regenerate, and reconnect. Harm gets done and hurt gets done and Peter says to Jesus "how many times do I have to forgive?" –
And Jesus says to him "Let me tell you about deciding, on purpose, to sacrifice what you think you deserve, what's owed you, what you've maybe been wanting or even expecting – Let me tell you about deciding on purpose to make that sacrifice. Because it's better. For the greater good. Because surely," he says to Peter, "you're willing. God being your helper?" Amen.