If you are listening to this sermon from California or the middle and southern part of Cascadia – Cascadia being that the massive watershed that extends from British Columbia down through Oregon – you have spent a good part of this week underneath an orange and terrifying sky. Folks have described this sky as apocalyptic, as the unveiling of the end of the world. And I get why. The sight would be distressing enough in any year. But then you drop it into 2020 – into the middle of pandemic; into the middle of wildly polarized election; into an economy filled with chaos and loss that we haven’t seen since the end of World War II; into the struggle against police violence and for black dignity – and that orange sky feels like a perverse sacrament, an outward and visible sign of everything that is hurting and broken and wrong.
Underneath that sky, in the middle of all of this turmoil, there is the wee corner of the world that we call Grace Memorial. And in this wee corner, our ministries continue. We continue to worship, to feed the poor, to work towards redeveloping our campus.
And my question for us this morning goes like this: given the enormity of the world’s hurts, do these little things matter?
You don’t have to spend long on Twitter or on TV to encounter folks making that argument about this moment.
Sure, Portland City Council has banned the worst kind of tear gas from our streets, but if a police officer is inclined towards violence they still have rubber bullets and truncheons and other flavours of gas. It doesn’t really matter. Sure, solar panels are nice, but the oil barons are belching smoke into the atmosphere at a pace that we cannot even comprehend and so the forests will keep on burning. It doesn’t really matter. Sure, we could put 80 or 100 units of affordable housing on Grace’s block. But the people living in cars and tents and on the pavement are beyond counting. It doesn’t really matter.
What does Jesus have to say about that?
Today Jesus tells a folk tale about this question. It goes like this.
Once upon a time, there was a man who was heavily in debt. And the person to whom this man was in debt was his boss. He owed his boss ten thousand talents. There are varying estimates as to how much ten thousand talents in today’s dollars, but all of them have a lot of zeroes in them. Folks doing the math reckon that this guy owed his boss somewhere between 3.5 and 9 billion dollars. That’s a lot of talents, an inconceivable amount of money. It would be a defensible paraphrase of Jesus’ story to say that the man owed his boss a gazillion dollars. So, more money than he could pay back in a lifetime, more than he could pay back in ten lifetimes.
The man fell on his face in front of his boss and he made a promise that both of them knew he could not keep: Have patience with me, he said, have patience with me and I’ll pay you back.
What did the boss do then? Did he set up a payment plan? Did he ask for something awful, the way that bosses do sometimes in folk tales? I want your soul? Or I want the life of your first born.
No! The boss forgave the debt in its entirety. He tore up the 4.5 billion dollar promissory note, the pieces of paper fell to the ground like snowy possibility.
The newly forgiven man left high-rise tower where his boss lived, a spring in his step that had not been there in years. I’m free! he sang. Listen birds in the sky, I’m free! Listen trees in the field, I’m free! Listen ground underneath my feet, I’m free! Listen guy I know from work –
But then the man stopped. And looked hard at the guy he knew from work. Wait a minute, he said, Guy from work: you owe me money. You owe me a hundred denarii.
(A hundred denarii, again depending on who you ask, being worth maybe $8700 in today’s dollars.)
The Guy from Work said, Have patience with me. Have patience with me and I’ll pay you back.
This is the same scene that we saw a moment before, except that the man is now in the role of the boss.
No way, he said. You’re going to jail!
And he got out the handcuffs and called the paddy wagon, and things were looking good until his boss came out of the high-rise tower and saw him.
The man stared at his boss in horror. And like a child with his hand in the cookie jar right up to his elbow, he said,
It’s not what it looks like.
And because this is a folk tale gives Jesus gives it an ending that the Brothers Grimm with their love of slapstick violence would approve of. The boss said to his employee:
To the dungeon with you. Where you will be tortured!
What is the moral of the story?
Here’s one possible answer to that question.
Let’s assume that the boss is God. And the employee – that’s you and me. And we owe this debt to God, we owe God a gazillion dollars. This body to walk through the world: God gave it to us. This mind to think: God gave it to us. This heart to love: God gave it to us. The stuff to use, the money to spend: God gave it to us.
We go to God and we say:
I’ll pay you back, I promise. I just need ‘til the weekend.
But God says:
Forget it. Your debt is forgiven.
It is a cosmic, earth-shaking, impossible act of generosity. A debt that we couldn’t pay back in a lifetime, in ten lifetimes: gone.
Now, in addition to all of the other stuff that God has given us, God has given us one more thing. And that is the opportunity to be generous, to give stuff away, free of charge. To imitate God. Now, the stuff that we have to give away isn’t on God’s scale. God has $4.5 billion to forgive. We’ve got something more like $8700.
But here’s the thing that Jesus sure seems to be saying in this folk tale. Even though what we have got is tiny, even though it is a drop in the proverbial bucket, being generous, giving as we have received: this matters. It matters to God. And it matters for our souls. Not because God will torture us if we don’t – that’s a folk tale ending, God is not in the torture business, God never was – but because there is holy freedom in this generosity.
To go around with clenched fists saying, this is mine and you can’t have any: it distorts our souls, it holds us back from the joy of being people with open hands. There is a kind of torture in selfishness. But we are the ones torturing ourselves.
We have the opportunity to be generous. To create just a little housing in a city that needs it so badly. To create just a little community in a city that needs it so badly. To create just a little beauty in a city that needs it so badly. It’s tiny what we can do, tiny compared with what God has done for us. And it matters. It matters to us, it matters to our neighbours, it matters to God.
This is what Jesus does across his life. He lives under brutal occupation, and maybe he is tempted to say that healing a handful of people doesn’t matter. But he heals them anyway. He lives in a time when hunger is known by so, so many, and maybe he is tempted to say that healing a few doesn’t matter. But he heals them anyway. He lives in a time, just like now, when there is no shortage of religious authorities insisting that God is petty and small, and maybe he is tempted to say that telling a story of freedom doesn’t matter. But he tells the story anyway.
Here’s the thing about this folk tale that Jesus tells us today. Jesus gives it an unhappy ending. And in doing so, Jesus is inviting us to rewrite it, to create our own happy ending.
The man comes out the front door of the high-rise door. I’m free! he sings. Listen birds in the sky, I’m free! Listen trees in the field, I’m free! Listen ground underneath my feet, I’m free! Listen guy I know from work… who owes me money.
The two of them look at each other for a second.
And then the man says.
Forget it. Your debt is forgiven.
And The Guy from Work smiles and says thank you. And they he goes on his way. And maybe, he forgives someone else, and maybe they forgive someone else, and maybe they forgive someone else. Maybe this act of generosity begins a virtuous cycle, a holy cycle. But we don’t know about that. Because the camera stays on the first man, the man who owed his boss a gazillion dollars and now owes him nothing. The man who a second ago, was owed $8700, and now is owed nothing.
You’d think it would sting to be out that money. $8700 isn’t $4.5 billion. But nor is it nothing. But the man realizes that in forgiving this debt, there is, somehow, impossibly, even more spring in his step than there was a second ago. He goes on his way whistling a tune. He goes on his way, free.