Sermon for the Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

One element of this morning’s Gospel which I think we rarely focus on is just how much money Jesus is talking about in the parable. We learn that the slave owes ten thousand talents to his master and that the same slave is owed one hundred denarii by one of his fellow slaves. It’s easy enough to leave the story knowing simply that the slave owes more than he is owed, but we miss an important element if that’s all we know.

In reality, we are dealing with measures of currency here which we can estimate. We know that the wage for a day’s labor in the first century was one denarius. This means that what the slave wants from his compatriot is no small sum. It’s almost a third of his annual income. It’s not like he had just spotted his friend a fiver. I think most of us would be more than a little concerned if somebody owed us this much and couldn’t pay up. So, at first we might have some sympathy for the slave.

But then, look at how much debt had been forgiven. Ten thousand talents. A talent is a measure of weight rather than a currency, but most scholars of the period in question have determined that a talent was worth roughly six thousand denarii. So ten thousand talents would be sixty million denarii. That’s sixty million days worth of wages- 164,383 and a half years, not counting Sabbath days.

If that’s hard for you to get your mind around, we can look at it a different way. Like I said earlier, a talent is not a currency but a measure of weight. It was roughly thirty-three kilograms or about seventy-three pounds. When used as a measure of debt and credit in the ancient world, the assumption would have been that gold or silver was the basis of determination (there was no such thing as fiat money until very recently). So, if the slave owed his master ten thousand talents, he would have owed him 330,000 kilograms, or 350 tons of gold, or about seven or eight percent of the gold in Fort Knox. What we’re talking about here is an amount of money equivalent to not thousands not millions but billions of dollars.

Of course, this is ludicrous, and that’s the point, I think. Nobody would lend one’s slave billions dollars. This parable is meant to make us realize just how ridiculous such a proposition seems. How could one get so bent out of shape about a few thousand dollars when he just had multi-billion dollar debt forgiven?

Well, as ridiculous as it seems, we do just that. We have been regenerated—given new life and the forgiveness of sins—through Baptism. Christ died for our sins that we might live, but what do we do if somebody says something nasty about us? What do we do if somebody cuts us off in traffic or cheats us out of a few bucks or acts rude to us? We don’t forgive. We do what the enemy of the psalmist is described as doing:

He put on cursing like a garment*

let it soak into his body like water

and into his bones like oil;

Let it be to him like the cloak which he wraps around himself,*

and like the belt that he wears continually.

We love cursing and take no delight in blessing. We let our petty beliefs about what we deserve push us to clutch tightly to our resentment until we are defined by it.

I get very discouraged, as many of you know, when the misfortune of somebody, even a monster, causes us to feel warm and fuzzy about “justice being done”, about one getting one’s just deserts. I get very worried when state executions are presented as justice being done. Setting aside the fact that I happen to be pretty firmly opposed to it, I think Christians of goodwill can disagree about something like the death penalty. What concerns me, though, is public reaction, and I think it’s safe to say that mercy is not a virtue which our society values terribly much these days. I’d say the same thing about multiple consecutive life prison sentences and the little “are you a felon” box on job applications and the like, not because punishment at the hands of the state is never appropriate (it certainly is), but because so often it seems about letting the rest of us get our jollies out of retribution rather than disinterestedly administering justice. Here endeth my mini-rant on that topic.

Jesus calls us to forgive our brothers and sisters. There is a translation issue in Jesus’ response to Peter. He might have said “forgive seventy times” or “seventy seven times” or “seventy times seven” (that’s 490 times, but the way). How precisely one does that math doesn’t matter so much, though, because it seems that what he meant was “keep on forgiving”. There’s no limit.

There’s a lovely prayer attributed to St. Francis in the back of the prayerbook (page 833 if you’re interested), and it seems to sum up what Jesus is saying to us today: “it is in pardoning that we are pardoned.” The greatest gift we’ve ever been given is pardon, but this gift comes with an expectation. Being forgiven we are obliged to forgive.

It’s hard sometimes, particularly when we are sinned against in ways more brutal than a rude word or being cut off in traffic. Unless we get around to forgiving, though, the Cross is emptied of its practical meaning for us. When we fail to show mercy, we are even more ridiculous than the slave who demanded his hundred denarii. When we confuse justice with revenge we may as well be nailing Christ’s hands to the cross ourselves, because we’ve forgotten what that sacrifice was all about to begin with. But when we forgive, we start to become just a little more (though never perfectly) worthy of that label which we give ourselves. We become a little bit more worthy of being called Christians.

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Sermon for the Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

It is good to be back. I remain grateful for this parish’s graciousness in making it possible for me to take all of my annual vacation in one go rather than a week here and a week there; I might have said before that I realized years ago that this was the only way in which I could actually manage to take all of my vacation time. In any event, it will be no surprise that the greater part of our time away was taken up with visiting excellent museums, listening to serious music, and (especially!) visiting churches.

One of the most unexpected interactions we had came in visiting a church in Bergen, on Norway’s western coast. One thing that surprised me in all of the Scandavian countries is just how many weddings were taking place in churches seemingly every day. It was encouraging when all the doom-saying out there suggests that both marriage and religion are on the decline. Sometimes it meant that one had to come back an hour or two later to see a particular church, though that minor annoyance is greatly overshadowed by the aforementioned boost in optimism this reality gave me. (As a side-note, the reality that one can have a church wedding in the middle of the day and only require the church building for an hour or two rather than taking over every possible room for hair-and-makeup, floral arranging, photography opportunities and so forth for the better part of a day suggests, perhaps, a healthier view of the liturgical and sacramental nature of a wedding, though I suspect this is not a battle I’m going to win.)

Anyway, we were in this church in Bergen and noticed that the priest was rehearsing a couple up by the altar for their upcoming wedding. We looked around quietly and then I went to the narthex to ask a question of the docent who had greeted us when we entered. The pulpit was surrounded by carvings depicting the cardinal and theological virtues, but not the traditional seven. Justice had been replaced by truth (a close cousin, no doubt, but not the same thing precisely), fortitude by penitence, and the carving depicting temperance was not on the pulpit itself, but on the wall next to it. So I asked the docent what that was about, and he quite rightly reminded me that while the three theological virtues (faith, hope, and love) are clearly enumerated by Paul, the other four have always been fluid. Then he told me that he had just been reading one of the Greek Fathers whose name he couldn’t remember (it was Peter Damascene, I later discovered) who had listed 228 virtues while acknowledging that this was not an exhaustive list. He mentioned how often chastity came up (not among the seven, either, but one could class it as related to temperance), and in the middle of this conversation the priest and the couple had finished their rehearsal. The couple left, and the docent asked the priest how it went. He just shook his head and muttered “fire barn.” I am not conversant in Norwegian, but I understood that. Just in case, though, the docent turned to me and said “the vicar says they have four children.” “Better late than never,” I replied, “and what were you just saying about the virtue of chastity?”

Now, that docent shouldn’t have translated that for me. Neither should I have taken delight and made a joke about it. It was not the most malign example of gossip ever, since we both knew that I was just a tourist. Even so, it reminds me that delighting in gossip is a vice from which I am not immune. I hope it goes without saying that I would never imagine sharing privileged information known to me by virtue of my pastoral role; that is a serious violation and a line I’d never cross. But to hear a juicy bit of gossip still naturally gives one a literally sinful pleasure, and we must all be on guard against that. Hearing gossip can easily lead to sharing it, and even worse this can itself lead to intrigue and taking sides and manipulation and it can–as Jesus knew when he spoke the words in this morning’s Gospel–to fractured relationships and even schism.

And so, Jesus gives us another, better way. If we feel somebody has mistreated us, talk to him or her in private. If that doesn’t work, take a friend or two and try to hash it out. If that doesn’t work, bring it to the church, which is to say discuss your grievance openly with the authority of the community in which the accuser and the accused wish to maintain bonds of affection.

This is a great deal more effective than whispering insults to those uninvolved. We do not always wish to rectify the situation, loving the opportunity to gossip more than we desire to live in love with our brothers and sisters. The important thing about Jesus’ mandate here is not that it is more effective (though it is!) but that it is more Christian. If we love our brother or sister, which is our obligation, then we should avoid what the Old Testament called “murmuring in the tents” and which today we call malicious gossip.

There may be more in the psalms about malicious gossip than any other sin. Do you know what led God to declare that the generation of Israelites who left Mount Sinai would wander in the desert until only their children and grandchildren were left to enter the Promised Land? It was neither idolatry nor sexual promiscuity nor any other sin which we are quick to denounce. It was because the Israelites were “murmuring in their tents”, gossiping, that they were forbidden from entering the land which had been promised.

We must be careful about gossip, then, because it is deadly serious. We must catch ourselves, because we can do it without even thinking about it. We must examine our intentions before sharing information about another, because sometimes our intentions are hidden from us. Is something we say meant to encourage prayer and concern or is it meant to share a bit of juicy information?

This may be even more difficult and even more important in the age of social media, where “oversharing” is ubiquitous and bad enough, but also often leads from an ill-considered post to casting aspersions, ganging up, and “cancellation.” My brothers and sisters, avoid this. It’s not just a matter of propriety; it’s a matter of Christianity. Living in love with our fellows means speaking with love about them. Only in doing this within can Christ’s Church be prepared to weather the storms which beset her from without.

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Sermon for the Feast of the Transfiguration

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

When I was a teenager I attended several events aimed at young Episcopalians, like church camp and “Happening” (which is like a youth version of “Cursillo”–a sort of three-day spiritual retreat). These things certainly helped form me as a Christian, and I remain grateful for that, though there was always one element that left me cold–namely the sort of music that we were made to sing at such events. Your mileage may certainly vary in this regard, but even as a teenager I always found traditional hymnody accompanied by organ to be more edifying than contemporary praise choruses and the like. That’s still certainly my preference, though I’ve become less stuck-up about it (at least I hope so). Anyway, one song which particularly rubbed my adolescent grandiosity the wrong way was the 1987 Graham Kendrick worship song “Shine, Jesus, Shine.”

This, is no doubt, a divisive one. I was shocked several years ago when the BBC program Songs of Praise, which I’ve always loved, named this Britain’s tenth favorite hymn. Conversely, English journalist Damien Thompson declared it “the most loathed of all happy-clappy hymns.” So whether you love it or hate it, you’re not alone.

Like I said, I’ve mellowed as I’ve grown more mature in the faith. If that sort of music floats your boat, then that’s great. Even so, I think its unqualifiedly cheerful tone misses the rather more ambiguous nature of being exposed to Christ’s glory and I’m particularly troubled by the implications of its final verse, which says “As we gaze on your kingly brightness, so our faces display your likeness, ever changing from glory to glory.” I think that sentiment gives us way too much credit and muddies the distinction between our Creator and us as fallen creatures.

We learn in today’s Gospel that on the holy mountain, Peter, John, and James do not exactly cover themselves in glory, much less do they themselves shine with the radiance of their Lord. They fall asleep when they ought to be keeping watch. Peter profoundly misses the point in seeing this as an opportunity to avoid the terror of Golgotha and retire from the Apostolic mission. And of course, as is a theme we see over and over in the Gospels, the first reaction of these mortals to being exposed to the unfiltered glory of God is to become terrified. The Israelites in our Old Testament lesson become afraid to get just a little taste of God’s glory, when Moses’ face shone. How much more then must the disciples have been frightened by the recognition that their friend and teacher was none other than very God or very God in seeing Jesus transfigured?

On this feast of the Transfiguration I want to focus on two implications of this event in the life of Jesus and the disciples for our own lives as Christians.

First, though perhaps this is obvious, it’s increasingly necessary in our skeptical age to say that this really happened. It is not myth or metaphor, but a real event in which the overwhelming glory of the divine broke into human history. What Peter is essentially saying in this morning’s Epistle is “folks, this really happened!” I say this not just to make it clear that we should have a high degree of trust in the reliability of scripture, though I do believe that. I say it because this makes it clear that our God is ready and willing to break into our world in dramatic and miraculous ways.

I read an article several months ago which attempted to explain why Christianity, often reckoned as being in decline in the West, is growing by leaps and bounds in Africa and Asia. Among the most striking data was the fact that converts to Christianity in the Global South were far more ready to recognize God at work around them and identify apparent miracles as honest-to-God miracles. I believe our tendency as modern Western people to chock this up to superstition should be a scandal, not only because, to be blunt, it seems more-than-a-little racist. It also suggests that many of us have traded in a robust, supernatural faith for functional deism. I’m by no means faultless in this regard. I think, though, we should all bear it in mind.

Second, the Transfiguration, is one of several examples of how the light of God’s glory is not essentially about feeling warm and fuzzy. It’s not about some inner light that we naturally possess giving us gentle nudges toward discerning God’s will, as a Quaker might have it. Still less is it about the Spirit’s transforming us via moral progress alone (as much as we might pray that this is a fringe benefit, as it were, of our justification). Experiencing God’s glory is, rather an awesome and terrible thing, in the older senses of both of those words. It can be overwhelming, frightening even, because we are not accustomed to that gulf being bridged by the very person of Absolute-Being and Perfection and Love. We see this not only in the Transfiguration, but any time men and women in scripture are exposed to the light of divinity. We see it at Mount Sinai. We see it every time an angel appears in the Gospels. Most powerfully, it is experienced by Mary Magdelene and then by the Apostles when our risen Lord meets them.

This is not to say that there is not consolation to be found in the presence of the Almighty. There certainly is, but so too is there conviction. The most important thing, I think, is that the fruit of this conviction is not about being better under our own steam. It is, rather, on learning to rely more-and-more on the infinite Grace of God in Christ Jesus. It is about recognizing that the Law will always condemn us, but conversely the Gospel will always save us.

We recapitulate this pattern every time we gather on a Sunday. We call to mind and confess what we have done amiss or left undone and then proceed directly to receiving unearned, objective, salutary Grace in the Sacrament of our Lord’s Body and Blood. So, be not afraid. Approach the throne of Grace here. And steel yourselves to do the same on that last great day, when finally God’s glory will no longer be veiled under the accidents of Bread and Wine, on the day of judgment, remembering that that same day is the day of triumph for all who love the Lord and pray ceaselessly for his appearing.

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.