Sunday, September 14, 2014

Mapping Forgiveness.

MATTHEW 18:21-35
21Then Peter came and said to him, “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” 22Jesus said to him, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.
23“For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves. 24When he began the reckoning, one who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him. 25and, as he could not pay, his lord ordered him to be sold, together with his wife and children and all his possessions, and payment to be made. 26So the slave fell on his knees before him, saying, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ 27And out of pity for him, the lord of that slave released him and forgave him the debt. 28But that same slave, as he went out, came upon one of his fellow slaves who owed him a hundred denarii; and seizing him by the throat, he said, ‘Pay what you owe.’ 29Then his fellow slave fell down and pleaded with him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’ 30But he refused; then he went and threw him into prison until he would pay the debt. 31When his fellow slaves saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their lord all that had taken place. 32Then his lord summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. 33Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?’ 34And in anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he would pay his entire debt. 35So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”

So that crazy whipworm looking thing on your bulletins is actually a map. It’s a map of Laniakea, or “immeasurable heaven.” It’s a super cluster of galaxies that R. Brent Tully and his team from the University of Hawaii have mapped. It’s, essentially, a hunk of the universe. Using their best calculus and physics and measurements and imagination, they have mapped something which they cannot see, cannot go to, cannot even completely fathom or comprehend. This hunk of the universe measures 500 million light years across. It contains 100 million billion stars. And somewhere behind that red dot, is our solar system, our sun, our earth, the city of Pittsburgh, the Greenfield Neighborhood. 

Humans have been mapping what they cannot see, where they have not been, where they have no means of getting to, for millennia. 
It’s a crazy act of faith, really. To map what you have no real proof actually exists. But we need maps, to help us place ourselves, to find meaning, to gain perspective and direction.

Peter, wanting to show off his theological mapping skills, says to Jesus, “hey, how often should I forgive my brother or sister? Seven times?”

Now Peter is speaking in metaphors here - he is essentially asking/telling Jesus that he knows all about forgiveness. He’s figured it out. Seven, in Jewish culture, was considered to be the perfect number. So, here Peter is, coming off of the “who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven discussion, trying to show off his theological muscles, to be the teacher’s pet, in front of Jesus and the rest of the disciples. We should forgive others as many times as is perfect. Aren’t I great! Don’t I get a sticker! A pat on the back! Extra time for recess?!
Peter asks, “I should forgive perfectly and completely, shouldn’t I Jesus?”

And Jesus responds, “No. Peter. You should forgive seventy-seven times. Seventy times Seven times. (the Greek is unclear here) You should forgive more perfectly than perfect. Here, hold this dunce cap, sit in the corner, and let me tell you a story.”

Here is a story of where we have not been. Here is a story of hyperbole and exaggeration to help you get just a small taste of what God’s grace and forgiveness is like. Here is a rough map of God’s grace.

Once upon a time, there was a king. And the king had some slaves. And this one slave owed more money than he could ever repay in ten lifetimes. This slave owed a million gazillion dollars.  And the king came to him and demanded that he get his money back. All of it. Right now. And of course, the slave didn’t even have a million dollars, let alone a million gazillion dollars. So the king says, “well, if you can’t pay, I’m going to take you, your wife, your kids, and everything you’ve got. I’m going to lock you all up until you can pay back every red cent.” And the slave pleaded with him. Begged him for forgiveness. And the lord shows him mercy and forgives the whole debt. A million gazillion dollars wiped right off the guy’s credit history.

So the slave goes on his way. And, forgetting his great debt that was forgiven, he encounters someone who owes him a quarter. And he shakes him and chokes him and threatens him. Then throws this poor guy into debtor’s prison. Pretty hypocritical, eh?
When the poor guy’s friends hear about what happened, they go back and report to the king about the slave’s hypocrisy. And the king gets mad, throws the hypocrite to the torturers, and punishes him worse than if he’d been thrown in prison to pay off his debt in the first place.

We have so often taken this story to be a direct analogy - God is the king, and we are the slaves who owe everything we are and then some back to God. And I think this is true. But I think, at some point, the analogy breaks down. It breaks down and I don’t even think the writer of this Gospel realizes it completely. 

Forgive and forgive and forgive, Jesus says. Forgive perfect times perfect. Forgive and then forgive some more. 

But who in this story forgives perfectly?  No one. Not even the Lord/King. Does Matthew even get this? Does even he realize the incredible depths of God’s love? I don’t think so. Because the writer of this Gospel is trying to combine two different pictures of God. One where God forgives and forgives and forgives. And the other where God is the Lord who has a limit to his forgiveness. In the story, this king forgives once, and then hears of the slave’s hypocrisy, and then forgives no more. This king’s forgiveness is far from seventy times seven. It’s far from perfect. 

And maybe this story is just to tell us that there are limits to God’s forgiveness. Maybe there is one unforgivable sin, and that is to be forgiven yourself and then hoard it, to not pass that forgiveness on to others. To claim forgiveness for yourself but then refuse to share it. “Oh Lord, Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.” I think this is an important point worth seriously considering. And I think hyperbole is used to get this point across.
I also think this is an attempt to map somewhere we have never been. This story is an attempt to describe a kind of forgiveness that has never been seen or experienced before. This is radical forgiveness. Crazy forgiveness. It’s the forgiveness that is extra-terrestrial. Here’s this story. This is a place where we’ve been. We know it well. The place where people have been graceful and others have taken advantage. The place where people who have been forgiven refuse to forgive. This place is familiar. It’s been clearly mapped and visited and known to be true. But let’s go beyond this place. Let’s map something outside these lines. Let’s go 77 times beyond. 70 times 7 beyond. 

Somewhere behind that red dot is our galaxy, our solar system, our earth, our country, Pittsburgh, the neighborhood of Greenfield. 
The folks at the University of Hawaii will never see for themselves if their map was right. They’ll never know for sure if their calculations were correct, if their theories of physics were accurate. But they’ll map it anyway.

We will never see for ourselves the full, accurate map of forgiveness. We’ll never know for sure if our forgiveness was enough or right or healthy or anything close to how forgiveness really is. At least not in our life time. 
But, Jesus says, map it anyway. Tell stories about it anyway. Live into it anyway.

Maybe, someday, humans will find the technology to see the whole of Laniakea for themselves. But until then, we’re just tiny people, with tiny brains, soaking up vitamin D from one of the 100 million billion stars in our supergalaxy, trying to make a way out of no way, trying to map what we cannot see, where we cannot go, with only very rudimentary tools to help us.

But this is the act of forgiveness, too. It’s trying to map a way forward in a relationship that has hit the edge, that seems like it will fall off the edge of the earth into nothingness. The act of forgiveness is drawing a map beyond what you think exists. It’s believing the earth is round even though everyone else thinks it’s flat. It’s trusting that there is more beyond the beyond, that  there is something beyond that broken relationship, those hurtful words, those painful years, even when you can’t see it, have never seen it, even when you don’t think you’ll ever be able to get there.

Forgiveness isn’t going back to the old system or old relationship or old abuse again and again. It’s believing that something new, something out there, exists. It’s not going back to that abusive relationship or that hurtful system or genocidal regime and accepting what is. That’s just going back to the same worn path, the same worn out map, the same old place we’ve always been. Forgiveness is about transformation. It’s about demanding something beyond where you’ve been. It’s about refusing to go back to the old, the primitive, the way things have always been.

The scientists and the cartographers say there is still more. Jesus says, there is still more. There’s 77 times more. There’s 70 times 7 more. Just past the horizon. Just past where you cannot see. 

It takes a lot of faith to be a cartographer. To map what you cannot see, where you cannot go. 

But, Jesus says, be the cartographer. Stretch the imagination. Keep calculating and measuring and graphing. Trust that there is more - more beyond what we can see or where we have given up. THere’s more than our pain. There’s more than our sin. THere’s more. More. Just beyond. Out there. Believe that there’s more. And then live in to that more. 

Live in and trust the map that is Jesus Christ. That forgiveness is real and radical and a little bit crazy. 

Because our forgiveness is mapped after the forgiveness of the one who made Laniakea - and beyond. The one who made supergalaxies after supergalaxies and then came to us, travelled all the way behind that red dot to somewhere in Nazareth, to show us that there’s more than we can see, more than we’ve ever mapped before. 
More, just past that horizon. That boundary that we’ve created for ourselves. Beyond those walls we’ve put up and those divisions we’ve placed between us, beyond the end of the page where the map ends. More forgiveness, more love. More. A true whole, from a gazillion little parts. And we make up some of those parts. We are part of that whole. Take the forgiveness that is yours. Don’t hoard it. Share it. Help us draw a new map.

Thanks be to God.

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