Sermon: To Be God’s Sanctuary

Scriptures: Romans 14:1-12; Matthew 18:21-35

Preached: Online for Nottingham Presbyterian Church by Rev. Merritt N. Schatz

 


         “If someone from our fellowship sins against me, how many times must I forgive? As much as seven times?” Seven times? Why seven? Seven was considered a holy number, a perfect number. I am sure Peter thought this number was enough for perfection. Jesus did not.

         Jesus gives Peter the absurd answer of seventy-seven times. Even more absurd, yet an equally correct translation, is seventy times seven! A whopping four hundred and ninety times! Good grief, Jesus, that just sets me up for being a doormat, doesn’t it? Can’t you just see Peter’s face? Jesus does. Jesus immediately embarks upon one of the most absurd parables in the Scriptures to explain what forgiveness is.

         Imagine, if you will, what heaven is like, says Jesus. It is just like a magnificent realm in which the fabulously wealthy ruler decides to balance the checkbook. This ruler has been very generous. One person owes the ruler ten thousand talents! That is about 3.5 billion dollars in today’s money. It would have taken the slave 200,000 years to repay that loan (without interest!). One might wonder about the absurdity of a ruler loaning that much money to a slave. Indeed, I expect that Jesus wants us to wonder about such generosity! It can’t have surprised anyone that the man could not pay such an amount. According to the laws of that time, it was only right that the ruler orders the man, and his family and his possessions, to be sold to recoup at least some of the loan. The man begs for forgiveness, claiming he will repay everything. The ruler, knowing full well this is impossible, does forgive his debt. Incredible!

         As the slave is leaving the presence of the ruler, he comes across a fellow slave who owes him 100 denarii – about four months wages. Not a trifling sum to a slave, but within the range of possible repayment. The man whose loan had been forgiven now demands that the other slave repay in full. When the second slave cannot, the man has the debtor thrown in prison! The community is outraged! So is the ruler. The unforgiving slave is then thrown in prison until his debt is fully repaid. Not only is he thrown in prison, the unforgiving servant is given over to torture.

         ‘And that,’ says Jesus, ‘is what will happen to you if you do not forgive your brother or sister in your heart.’

Yikes!

         Absurd. Absurd number of times to forgive. Absurd figures of money owed. Absurd punishment. What does any of this have to do with us?

         Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection are all focused on what it means to be in fellowship with God and with one another. Jesus was preparing his disciples, including us, to be God’s sanctuary. Without using the word sanctuary, Jesus was explaining what it meant to be God’s sanctuary in a world full of strife and anger, in a world where forgiveness is in short supply and judgment runs rampant.

         In this parable of the unforgiving servant, Jesus points out the absurdity of God’s grace to us. Jesus turns upside down our expectations – of God, and of what we are each called to do for one another.

Jesus knew the temptations which would come to the people called out to be his Body, the Church. It is so easy for us, for all humans, to become self-righteous, to compare our sins to those of others. As Paul points out in today’s reading from Romans, we are heavily prone to judging, even judging God’s other servants. Even with our best of intentions, which clearly are not always on display anyway, we fall into patterns that allow us to think better of ourselves than we might find when we see through God’s eyes. On the other hand, there are those among us who only see our own faults. We have been crushed by the judgments of others; we may have been taught that we owe others. Both those of us who easily excuse our sins, and those who cannot see beyond our sins, will struggle to give holy witness to God’s grace. Even so, God calls all of us to be God’s sanctuary. God calls us to believe in God’s extraordinary grace which we are given and are told to show to one another.

The servant who is brought before the ruler has, perhaps, been lulled into a sense of security, even a sense of being necessary to the ruler. He thinks, ‘Why else would the ruler have loaned me such an absurd amount of money and then forgiven that loan? Surely I am valued!’ It is a short distance from this understanding to believing himself to have earned that money, to deserve that money! Indeed, as he left the ruler’s presence, the man might have been congratulating himself on his importance. Coming upon his fellow servant, he was basking in the power which he felt he rightly held. He exercised that power which was, after all, legally his. What the ruler had done was exercise his power with mercy. The servant exercised his power with judgment. Jesus makes it clear which he favors.

We may not have a lot of money, or be owed a lot of money, but we can have the same sense of entitlement. It is hard to see the injustices that do not hinder our lives. It is far easier to find injustice when we assume rights that others do not have, when we are injured or insulted. We do work hard. We give what we consider our fair share. To go beyond what is reasonable often sounds absurd, too much to ask, even for God. Yet, there it is: God’s call to us to be more than fair; God calls us to be God’s sanctuary, lives in whom God dwells.

The absurdity of this parable, especially with its stark statement at the end, reminds us that being God’s sanctuary is not about us. We are not too good to need God’s grace, too bad for God to want to reach us, or too broken to be mended by God. We are to be the sanctuary our redeeming God wants for God’s creation.

We are sanctuaries when we give witness to God’s glory, not our own. We are sanctuaries when we let God’s love, mercy, compassion and grace flow through us so that we forgive as we have been forgiven. We are God’s sanctuaries when we recognize that the sins against us pale in comparison to the astoundingly absurd love and grace God shows in Jesus Christ.

Neither God’s forgiveness nor our forgiveness are meant to condone abuse or other sins. We are sanctuaries when the lost, the fallen, the hopeless, the injured, the insulted, the oppressed can find their home, their safety, in the warmth of God’s love which they see and experience in our lives. Sanctuary is not about being God; it is about loving God and responding to God’s love with love for one another.

The unforgiving slave threw away God’s love. The unforgiving slave exchanged the beauty and loving grace of living in God’s holy presence for the short-lived exhilaration of having power over another human being. In the end, the unforgiving slave suffered humiliation, disgrace, and alienation from God, which is itself torture.

Living in the presence of our holy God is not always an easy experience. Serving as God’s sanctuary in witness to God’s absurdly generous power which redeems and upholds, can be challenging. We are required to carry the good news of God’s grace among people: good and evil, weak and strong, hope-filled and despairing. We are called to open our hearts and be vulnerable as we care for those deemed by society as the least of these. As God’s sanctuary we do not live complacently while others starve or go homeless. As God’s sanctuary we are not silent in the face of injustice or abuse. We do not congratulate ourselves on our good fortune while others suffer to provide for our comfort.

As God’s sanctuary, we magnify the beauty and fellowship of God’s whole creation, so that all may come to know the glorious love of God. Unity in our concern for one another does not require others to become like us, but celebrates the various gifts God has given.

In Jesus Christ, God has wiped away all debts that we owe. In Jesus Christ God sends us into the world, not to dominate, but to share that forgiveness; to free one another for fresh life in Christ’s name; to provide hope to the hopeless, to free the prisoner, to feed the hungry, to let the oppressed go free. If this sounds like absurdly too much, think of what you lose if you walk away from God.

God’s grace is freely given; we cannot earn it. We can, however, abuse it…at a cost to our souls. God does not grant forgiveness in order to increase our burden. We are given forgiveness and expected to share that forgiveness so that we might abound in gratitude and hope. Let us rejoice in God’s amazing love and grace and be God’s sanctuary! Amen.

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