Sunday’s sermon: Capitol Reef National Park – Reconciliation

Text used – Matthew 18:21-35

  • There’s a classic children’s book that’s currently in the rotation at my house. It’s a book that my mom read to me when I was a kid, and now, I’m reading it to my kids. In fact, it’s one of Julia’s current favorites. It’s a book by Margaret Wise Brown called The Runaway Bunny.[1]
    • Story about a little bunny who tells his mother he’s going to run away from her
      • Begins with bunny saying, “I am running away.” → his mother’s response: “If you run away, I will run after you. For you are my little bunny.”
      • Tells her he’s going to run away to someplace else or to be something else
      • Every time he comes up with a new scenario, his mother comes up with a way to find him in that scenario
        • “I will become a fish in a trout stream and I will swim away from you.” → “I will become a fisherman and I will fish for you.”
        • “I will become a rock on the mountain, high above you.” → “I will be a mountain climber, and I will climb to where you are.”
        • And so on and so on. The little bunny tells his mother he will become a crocus in garden, a bird in the sky, a boat sailing on the ocean, even a little boy running into a house. And every time, his mother comes up with a way to find him again until finally the little bunny gives up and decides that staying home with his mother isn’t so bad after all.
    • And as I was reading this book to Julia a few days ago, I was thinking about it in terms of this week’s theme – reconciliation. The restoring of relationships. Making one thing – one person, one life, one action, one belief – compatible with another again. You see, know matter how hard that little bunny tried to run away from his mother, she was always ready to reconcile – the find him and help him and be with him and protect him and love him. And it made me wonder what it would be like if we pursued reconciliation in the way that that mother bunny does. What if we sought out restored relationships with that kind of determination? What if we were that focused on putting things back together again?
  • Sermon series this summer = road trip through the beauty and grandeur and spiritual inspiration of a number of National Parks using America’s Holy Ground: 61 Faithful Reflections on Our National Parks by Brad Lyons and Bruce Barkhauer[2] → today’s travels take us through reconciliation as viewed through the lens of Capitol Reef National Park
    • [READ 1ST PART OF REFLECTION – pp. 56-59]
    • Image on the front of the bulletin = some of the cliffs surrounding the Waterpocket Fold → you can see some of the different stripes of rock formations along the ridge … some of that “sleeping rainbow” as it arcs its way through the rock. And as you look at those different layers of rock and how persistent they are from one formation to the next despite such minor interruptions as millennia of erosion and geological shifting, I can see reconciliation in that.
      • Reconciliation = not about make things perfect again … not about making things exactly as they were → Reconciliation is about putting things back together in a way that both honors and heals the separation and brokenness of the past. To use a slightly altered version of a common phrase, reconciliation is about forgiving but very deliberately not
        • Forgetting implies that whatever caused that break, that rift, that separation was unimportant → But by the very fact that it caused the rift in the first place, that makes it important. So forgetting is not only impossible but also disingenuous. Unless you undergo some sort of memory wipe like something out of science fiction movies, you’re not going to forget.
        • Forgetting = also counterproductive → It’s from our mistakes and our missteps and our broken places that we learn. We learn what not to do and say. We learn how not to be. We learn about the ways that our actions or inactions, our words or our painful silences affect other people. If we say we’re going to forget, then we’re erasing the lesson. We’re erasing whatever path to reconciliation has already been forged.
        • Forgiving requires remembering → But it requires a remembering colored not by resentment and anger and misunderstanding but remembering colored by repentance and communication and understanding. Forgiveness requires remembering colored by reconciliation.
          • Scholar: Forgiveness means to release, to let go of the other. Forgiveness is not denying our hurt. When we minimize what has happened to us, gloss over it, tell ourselves that it was not really that bad, we cannot really forgive. Forgiveness is a possibility only when we acknowledge the negative impact of another person’s actions or attitudes in our lives.[3]
  • See this played out in our Scripture reading this morning → Jesus’ parable of the unforgiving servant
    • Story Jesus tells in response to Peter’s question about how many times he’s supposed to forgive – text: Then Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, how many times should I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Should I forgive as many as seven times?” Jesus said, “Not just seven times, but rather as many as seventy-seven times.”[4]
      • Part of larger portion of Mt’s gospel that seems aimed at humility
        • Jesus asking the disciples who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven → answering his own question by bringing a child into the disciples’ midst as the e.g. of how to be in order to enter heaven[5]
        • Jesus’ warning to the disciples about their actions causing others to sin[6]
        • Parable of the lost sheep → leaving the 99 to seek after the 1 and rejoicing in finding that one again[7]
        • Jesus’ lesson about how to handle a sibling in faith who sins against you → speaking to them first in private, then with a few others if they refuse to hear you, finally before the whole church[8]
      • And into this discussion of humility and lostness and sinning and forgiveness, Peter asks his question. “But how many times, Jesus? A whole seven times?” And I can’t help but imagine Peter both exasperated and a little self-righteous in this passage.
        • 1st part = exasperated (“Sure, Jesus. I can forgive. Once or twice. But where’s the cutoff point here? I mean, how many times am I supposed to keep on forgiving??”)
        • 2nd part = self-righteously magnanimous → I just envision Peter asking this thinking, “Wow, I’m going to impress Jesus with such a high number! Wait for it! ………… Okay, Jesus, how about I forgive seven whole times?” Impressive, right?
    • But instead of congratulating Peter on his forgiving-ness, Jesus humbles him all the more: “No, Peter. Not just seven times. Seventy-seven times. At least, that’s a good start.” And to drive his point home (as he so often does), Jesus tells Peter and the rest of the disciples a parable.
      • Story of a king who wanted to settle his accounts with his servants, wanted to clear his ledger
      • In this process of settling accounts, one of his servants is brought before him → owed him an astronomical amount of money – text: they brought to [the king] a servant who owed him ten thousand bags of gold[9]
        • Gr. = “ten thousand talents” → But even this isn’t really an actual measure – scholar: Ten thousand talents does not mean just ten thousand talents, since both “ten thousand” and “talents” serve in Greek as the largest possible number. The amount is so striking that some early Greek manuscripts reduce the number. However, the absurdity of the amount is crucial to the story.[10] → Suffice to say this servant owed the king a mind-boggling among of money – so much money that he would never, ever, ever be able to pay it back.
      • King’s first order is to sell the servant and his whole family and everything he had → Which sounds like a harsh and uncomfortable suggestion … maybe even more so because we hold in our minds the knowledge of our own nation’s history and how so much of our society and economy today was built on thousands upon thousand of just such barbaric and heartless transactions – slave families bought and sold and separated with no regard to their cries and pleas nor to the lives they had already established together.
      • This king = compassionate à hears the pleas of his servant to spare his family and not only decides not to sell them but forgives the servant’s debt entirely à This is a really important point. The king doesn’t just say to the servant, “Okay, you and your family can stay … but you still owe me this money, so start working on paying it back.” He doesn’t even say, “You and your family can stay … but you still owe me a portion of this money, so start working on paying just 5% or 10% or 25% of it back.” This king forgave the debt. Period.
        • Gr. is clear → “forgave” = cancelled, released, abandoned → This servant’s massive debt no longer exists. Not a single penny of it.
      • Instead of rejoicing, servant goes out to find a fellow servant who owes him a mere fraction of what he himself owed the king not 10 minutes ago – text: He grabbed him around the throat and said, ‘Pay me back what you owe me.’[11] → when fellow servant can’t pay him back, he uses the exact same phrase that the first servant just used with the king in regards to his own massive debt – ‘Be patient with me, and I’ll pay you back.’ → first servant refuses and has his fellow servant thrown in prison until debt can be repaid
      • King finds out about this egregious injustice, becomes outraged by the fact that, despite the mercy shown to him, the first servant refused to show such mercy to another in return, and king has the first servant thrown in jail until he paid off his entire debt
  • It’s a difficult story to hear, especially in the context of the gospel – the good news that proclaims to us the love and grace and mercy given to us by God through the life and death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. But I think this is also one of the truest-sounding parables that Jesus tells. As painful as it is, we can imagine this happening today, can’t we?
    • Imagine one person’s struggle to reciprocate forgiveness given to them by another à bring to mind times in our lives when we’ve been every person in that chain
      • Been the king: giving out the forgiveness
      • Been the first servant: recipient of forgiveness who couldn’t manage to give it to another
      • Been the second servant: one pleading for forgiveness that isn’t given
    • [READ 2ND PART OF REFLECTION – p. 59] → There’s an important point that I want to make here. This reflection talks about reconciliation – about rifts mending and wounds healing. And our gospel passage this morning talks about the importance of forgiveness. But in all of that, it needs to be said that first and foremost, the reconciliation and healing and forgiveness need to happen within yourself, and sometimes, that’s the only place where that reconciliation and that healing and that forgiveness will happen. And that’s okay. (touched on this last week, too, but it bears repeating)
      • Some relationships are too broken or too unhealth to mend
      • Some wounds, once healed, will still leave a scar – will leave us forever altered
      • Forgiving someone doesn’t mean you are beholden to opening yourself up to pain again
        • Forgiveness doesn’t have to come with full trust
        • Forgiveness doesn’t necessitate a relationship again
        • You can forgive someone and still walk away if that’s what you need to do to protect your body, your mind, your spirit. But the good news of the gospel remains that the one place that you can always find renewed relationship after reconciliation is with God. God will always welcome you back. God will always offer healing and forgiveness and life on the other side of the rift.
    • Want you to hear these questions from the end of the reflection particularly in the light of your relationship with God this morning: Where have you reconciled in your life? What reconciliation would help you most, and how do you think that might happen? How can you create reconciliation in your community and your family? Amen.

[1] Margaret Wise Brown. The Runaway Bunny. (New York: Harper & Row), 1942.

[2] Brad Lyons and Bruce Barkhauer. America’s Holy Ground: 61 Faithful Reflections on Our National Parks. (St. Louis: Chalice Press), 2019.

[3] Charlotte Dudley Cleghorn. “Proper 19 (Sunday between September 11 and September 17 inclusive) – Matthew 18:21-35 – Pastoral Perspective” in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary – Year A, vol. 4. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011), 70.

[4] Mt 18:21-22.

[5] Mt 18:1-5.

[6] Mt 18:6-9.

[7] Mt 18:10-14.

[8] Mt 18:15-20.

[9] Mt 18:24.

[10] Lewis R. Donelson. “Proper 19 (Sunday between September 11 and September 17 inclusive) – Matthew 18:21-35 – Exegetical Perspective” in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary – Year A, vol. 4. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011), 71.

[11] Mt 18:28.