the kingdom of heaven may be compared to…except when it can’t!

preaching, 1-22-17a sermon, based on Matthew 18.21-35, preached with the people of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, on the 15th Sunday after Pentecost, September 17, 2017

To be human is to live in relationships. To live in relationships is to know the joys of love and acceptance and the sorrows of disagreement and disappointment, hurt and anger with others and with one’s self. To know sorrow is to face, at times, to fight with the need for forgiveness of others and of one’s self.

Peter raises (unbeknownst to him, on our behalf!) this life-essential issue of forgiveness with Jesus. He proposes a limit of seven times; a magnanimous act, doubling an ancient standard of three, adding one for good measure! Jesus, as we’ve grown to expect, takes the matter to another, supernatural level, expanding the economy of forgiveness beyond the bounds of human imagination: “Not seven times, but seventy-seven” (meaning infinite) “times.”

I visualize Peter’s face, perhaps ours, too, frozen in shock as he and we struggle to comprehend limitless forgiveness. Quickly we might object: “Jesus, are you crazy? The world, yours then and ours now, doesn’t work this way! Our relationships are built and balanced on scales of give and take and our judgments of right and wrong, and, frankly Jesus, some things are terrible and can’t be forgiven and, if so, only after a long time!” But before we can stammer out our protest, Jesus holds up a calming hand, saying, “For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to…”

Jesus tells a parable of a king who forgives a pleading servant unable to pay a massive debt. That servant then condemns a fellow servant who owes, in comparison, a pittance. Other servants report this ingratitude to the king, who furiously reverses his decree of amnesty, sending that unmerciful servant to his doom.

Parable of the Unmerciful Servant (1556), Jan Sanders van Hemessen (1500-1579), University of Michigan Museum of Art

A traditional Christian interpretation considers this parable a symbol of God’s grace. The king represents God who, in the life and ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus, has forgiven our sinful debt of disobedience that we could not pay. Therefore, we are to share the kindness of God’s forgiveness with our fellow human beings, whose wrongs, no matter how great in human terms, from heaven’s standpoint, cannot compare.

However, there are problems with this view…

Chief among them, the king, in revoking his pardon of the unmerciful servant, implies that there are limits on God’s illimitable forgiveness, which, at best, is a conundrum and, at worst, a contradiction…

And even if we view the torture of the unmerciful servant through a psycho-existential lens, perceiving it as the ill of bitterness that we inflict on ourselves when we refuse to forgive (though I believe that’s true!), it remains a penalty initiated by the king, who, again, represents God…

And the parable is built on a foundation of earthly inequality of authority and power between the king and servant and between servant and servant…

And, from there, the parable progresses on a worldly arc of the injustice of servant to servant and the vengeance of the fellow servants, desiring punishment, reporting the misdeed to the king who, again, revokes his pardon, therefore, imitating the cruelty of the unmerciful servant.

Limited forgiveness, inequality, injustice, vengeance. No, no, no, no! This is not, cannot be a depiction of the God Jesus reveals. This is not an image of love. Therefore, as I believe the kingdom of heaven may not be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his servants, this parable is a correction, verily, a condemnation of a world, our world where we humans limit forgiveness and worse, when hurt and angry, oft fall prey to the temptation to make God in our image as one whose judgments are like ours, thus not set on a scale of gracious and merciful love. (How many times has someone done another wrong and the offended party or a sympathizer said words to the effect: “God has a day of reckoning in store for that person!” or more bluntly, “God’s going to get that person!”)

Yes, some things in this life are terrible. And when terrible things, especially when wrought by human hands, happen to others and to ourselves, we would do violence to the souls of others and ourselves to demand that forgiveness, theirs and ours, be swift and absolute. Sometimes forgiveness takes time. Yet forgiveness alway is our calling that we, as God, may live in unlimited liberty, unfettered by the bonds of bitterness.

 

Illustration: Parable of the Unmerciful Servant (1556), Jan Sanders van Hemessen (1500-1579), University of Michigan Museum of Art. Note: The painting depicts the moment in the parable when the king (on the left, pointing, his countenance creased in anger) scolds the unmerciful servant (on the right, gazing at the king, his brow furrowed, his hands clasped in a pleading gesture, his mouth partially open as if speaking, seeking to make his case): “You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. Should you not have had mercy on your fellow-slave, as I had mercy on you?” (Matthew 18.32b-33). The two other figures in van Hemessen’s portrayal of the parable are the king’s record keepers; one counting coins piled on the table and the other, with pen in hand, looking to the king for direction. In the background, a man is being dragged into an underground chamber by soldiers, representing the soon to come fate of the unmerciful servant: In anger his lord handed him over to be tortured… (Matthew 18.34).

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restless ease, a poem

thinking

Prologue: I am one, from my time in this world as far back as I can reckon unto this very day, given to untempered and unfettered swings of mood from highest jollity and raucous laughter to nadir-depths of sadness, deep discordant sighs my only song; the shift, sometimes sudden, spurred by life’s griefs, yes, mine own, yet largely those of others, some whom I know, most I do not, for I, provoked, I believe, by the Spirit, embrace – not always willingly, but nonetheless unavoidably – creation’s pain, which clings irremovably to my heart’s hands. As a follower of Jesus, I pray, I trust that in his life and ministry, death and resurrection, he hath broken – and hath made possible the bearing of – the curse of care. In that faith, amid another, the latest of these anguished spells, during the small hours of this morn, the following words were given to me…

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In my days, a weighted, unbreakable chain of restless ease

decrying the world’s ceaseless woe,

advancing, retreating to sleepless nights of supplication endless

my mind and heart, soul and spirit tossing hither, then yon,

I lean on the love of Jesus,

the One who lived and died for us

forsaking safety from the storms of human sin

seeking alway to enter in

our very blood and breath,

our pain of flesh,

our experience of life to share;

His heart to care,

His body to bear

the cross of our indignities

that One dare die to set us free.

good grief

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Mom’s cancer, with relentless, rapacious appetite, spread from her lungs to her brain, then to her brain lining. Her decline, swift, over the sparest number of weeks, and savage, instant by inexorably passing instant, stripping her of bodily function and proffering only pain.

On April 28, 2017, Geneva Theodosia Reynolds Mack Watkins, the mother of my wife, my mother in law, a proverbial force of nature, yea, verily, nature itself in the immensity of her love, died.

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Since then, I have watched and continue to watch Geneva’s daughter, my wife, Pontheolla, grieve, embracing her sorrowing, weeping heart and soul…

through those initial moments of her acknowledgement of the inevitable; the oncologist saying those dreaded, yet essential and candid words, “There is nothing more we can do”…

through the calling of family members and friends, receiving, responding to their questions, “How?” “When?” “Why?”, accepting, answering their expressions of concern with a  gracious “Thank you”, a slight and earnest nod, a sympathizing falling tear, soon followed by a pitying flood…

through the planning of mom’s funeral, truly, justly a celebration of her life supremely, freely, fully, faithfully well lived; the testimonials from persons from ev’ry path of her earthly being and doing; the songs of praise and the prayers to God, all bidding, believing in her gladsome greeting in the heavenly habitations…

through engaging mom’s affairs – initiating probate, closing accounts, and cleaning her home, sorting through the years of the daily accumulations of living, but more, existentially, spiritually, moving through her space still warm and welcoming with the manifold memories of times spent luxuriating in the wealth of her hospitality…

and through every day and counting since, Pontheolla hails as blessed her ev’ry reminiscence, honors as the bounty of her holy sorrow her ev’ry tear, holds fast to her ev’ry thanksgiving for the nonpareil grace of God incarnate in the life and love of her mother…

Hers is good grief.

my birthday tributes

June 8, 2017. My 65th birthday. As humans reckon time, an important historical, social, and personal benchmark.

I am in a contemplative, and, in part, melancholy mood.

Yes, I am happy (not a word, given my intense early-in-life-and-unto-this-day-awareness of an inner shadowy specter of sadness, I oft employ) to be alive at this time in this world with, all things told, a preponderance of blessed memories, present contentment, and future hopes.

Yet, thinking of my immediate family, I ponder being an orphan and wonder why, beyond the reality of my being the youngest of the four, I am alive, whilst they are not.

WRA 1976

My brother Wayne. Between the two of us, the finer human being. Daily he abides with me in the harrowing (sorrowing) absence of his presence and the hallowing (sanctifying) presence of his absence. I love you, Wayne. Because of you, I have a resident, resonant sense of my better self.

Lolita & William c 1940My father, William, and my mother, Lolita. It took quite the while for me, well into my forties, to see through the veil of my childhood and adolescent disappointments, ever looming, actual and imagined, as haunting reminiscences of the deprivations of my want and need, to behold and honor how rich and real was your love for me. I love you, Dad. I love you, Momma. Because of you, I am.

“after these things” – a meditation for Holy Saturday

Joseph of Arimathea and NicodemusAs John the evangelist tells it, “After these things” – the arrest, trial, condemnation, crucifixion, and death of Jesus – Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus rendered homage; Joseph providing the tomb and Nicodemus, spices to anoint Jesus’ body for burial.

In Christian tradition, Good Friday focuses on Jesus’ suffering and dying. Easter Day, his resurrection. Holy Saturday, the “in-between day,” his being dead; which (as I remain alive, thus, not yet having the experience of being dead, and when I will be dead, not knowing whether I will be conscious of the experience) leaves me to contemplate the sorrow of the living.

For Joseph and Nicodemus, as far as they knew, the darkness of their grief at the forever-there-after-death of their friend would last as long as they lived. Still, I behold in them the light of something else that would endure. Their love. For their final act of devotion to Jesus truly was the threshold, the beginning of the rest of their lives…

Joseph, in fear, was a secret disciple; following Jesus along the confined and hidden corridors of his heart. In asking Pilate, the Roman governor, for the body of Jesus, Joseph “blew his cover,” exposing himself as a believer. He was a secret disciple until his public profession of devotion to Jesus crucified his secret. No longer could, would he be undercover…

Nicodemus, a Pharisee, a revered observer of God’s Law, “first came to Jesus by night” (John 3); “night,” a metaphor for skeptical curiosity and outright unbelief. In his encounter with Jesus, Nicodemus came to believe; his loyalty shown in his defense of Jesus before his fellow Pharisees (John 7.50) and, at Jesus’ death, in the costly outpouring of a hundredweight of embalming spices.

I believe that Joseph and Nicodemus, somehow, somewhere along the way had made a commitment to follow Jesus; in their sorrow, lovingly dedicating themselves always to revere his memory.

What they could not know was that the first Easter Day, that would transform their sacred sorrow into holy hope and their discipleship of true and loving, though mere blessed memory into the power of their living reality, was soon to dawn.