The debt of love I owe
The scene is twenty-five years ago in Normandy, France. An elderly man kneels before a tombstone in a cemetery full of tombstones to mark the graves of soldiers who died in World War 2.
The man looks at the inscription on the tombstone.
Captain John Miller
June 14, 1944
The man kneeling is Francis Ryan and his family is with him. All of a sudden he starts crying and asks his wife, “tell me…am I a good man.” “You are” she replies.
It is the opening scene of the movie “Saving Private Ryan” and as the movie unfolds one sees and hears the story of how some fifty years earlier during World War II, Captain John Miller is sent with his men to save Private Ryan because his Private Ryan’s other three brothers have been killed in the war. And a certain General Marshall does not want a mother to lose all her sons in battle.
Captain Miller eventually finds Ryan after much searching and struggling, and with loss of some of his men. There is yet a battle to be fought and at the end of it Miller is mortally wounded. Ryan is saved by Miller is about to die. His last words to Ryan are “Earn it.”
I don’t know if someone has ever saved your life. I don’t know if someone has ever done something for you and you feel that you are indebted to them.
Maybe, what they have done for you, was so great, that you couldn’t pay them back.
I feel that with my mother. The debt of love I owe to her is beyond anything I could do to repay.
Her sacrifice, her love, her giving, her willingness to always understand, to make peace, to reconcile.
I am sure as children and teens and sometimes as adults, we three boys did things that hurt her, scared her, shocked her and disappointed her…but her love was unwavering and unconditional and I am eternally indebted to her.
When I was a student at Knox College, on the weekends I worked as the youth director at Knox’s Galt Presbyterian Church in Cambridge Ontario. I would leave Knox College on a Friday and drive the hour and a half to Cambridge. I had about 30 kids in the youth group and I taught the high school church school class which met an hour before church on a Sunday morning. I also used to do hospital visitation on Fridays for the church and that is where I met Fiona. She had her appendix out and I met her in the hospital. She is still recovering from that encounter.
I boarded with the Taylor family for a while. They charged me seven dollars a day or $21 for the weekend.
I boarded with them one winter and spring on the weekends and I ran up a bill of about 600 dollars. I remember going in to pay my bill, and Ruby and Cam told me that the debt was paid in full. Who paid it?
They paid it. They didn’t charge me. They decided to help a poor student. A debt forgiven. I debt of love I owe.
Then I moved in that summer with a family by the name of Peter and Helen Braes. They were charging 15 or 20 dollars a week for room and board. That was probably a third of the going rate.
And I paid back that kindness by marrying their daughter and taking her away with me.
And then when Fiona and I were married and we were expecting our first child, we moved in with them for my last year of seminary.
I can never repay that debt of love.
And so, for a bit of soul work, you can think of those to whom you are indebted.
Those you cared for you, loved you, helped you out financially and in many other ways, beyond your ability to repay because it was unconditional love.
The debt of love you owe.
Debt. Our gospel lesson today is about debt.
Debt was a huge problem in Jesus’ day. Most people in Jesus’ day had lost the family farm so to speak. Taxes were high and those who had farms inevitably took out loans to see them through the tough times, often loans at extravagant rates that they were not able to pay back and they would lose their land.
The land would be sold to wealthy landowners who mostly lived in the cities, and they developed huge farms. Often the families that lost their farms would be hired servants on the land that was originally theirs.
And who ran the farms. Managers were hired to oversee these huge estates.
The Manager was the go-between, between the owner and the workers. It was not always an easy job.
The Manager had to make a profit for the owner or the manager would be in trouble. But the Manager while being tough on the workers, couldn’t be too tough or the workers might sabotage the farm or even rebel. The manager wanted to keep the workers productive.
And then the Manager was very interested in making sure he got a healthy cut of the profits. Some managers were kind to their workers I am sure, but the majority of them were all about a buck and often mistreated workers and cheated them and lined their own pockets with money and goods that should have maybe gone into the worker’s wages.
The workers were not paid very well in general.
This is the context of the story. The managers and the owners were often resented by the workers.
And then Jesus tells this bizarre story. It is bizarre in some ways because it doesn’t make sense.
An owner finds out that his manager his cheating him, so he goes to the manager and accuses him. The manager is about to be fired and he knows it.
So, if this is the case why wasn’t the manager escorted out by security right away, instead of giving him time to do some more cheating and shenanigans.
That is bizarre.
And the next thing that is bizarre is that the manager realizing that he is about to be out on his ear comes up with a plan to write down the debts of all the people who owe the boss money.
'How much do you owe my master?' He answered, 'A hundred jugs of olive oil.' He said to him, 'Take your bill, sit down quickly, and make it fifty.' Then he asked another, 'And how much do you owe?' He replied, 'A hundred containers of wheat.' He said to him, 'Take your bill and make it eighty.'
Why I find that bizarre, is that is that if a manager is going to cheat some more, why doesn’t he line his own pockets, instead of being nice to all the poor farmers who are working the land for the owners.
The real kicker is at the end where the dishonest manager is actually praised by the boss.
Is Jesus commending dishonesty and cheating?
Well as you can imagine the story is not really about a financial institution and financial transactions and Jesus is not really commending those managers who cheat.
Jesus is talking about something else. So, for a little background let us just briefly remember the three stories that come before this story of the dishonest manager.
They are the stories of the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the lost son, also known as the prodigal son.
And I think you could make the point from these stories that Jesus went out figuratively into the wilderness to find those who were lost. Not always good people, but people who were criminals and outcasts and considered bad because Jesus’ love extended to all people, even the losers
You see, the Pharisees and the Religious leaders were grumbling about Jesus showing love and mercy to the losers, the outcasts and the ne’er-do-wells.
So, Jesus tells them the three stories of the lost and makes the point that he really has come for the lost and the losers.
And I wonder if we really do take Jesus seriously and extend our love out to everybody, including enemies and bad guys, whoever we think the bad guys are…
But in this week’s story Jesus is talking to his disciples, the faithful. Maybe even figuratively, the church, the family of God.
And here is what I think is going on…
The disciples too, have also questioned Jesus reaching out to the losers and the outcasts.
They, the disciples that is, are beginning to think like the Pharisees and the tax collectors.
It isn’t fair to extend love and grace to criminals and losers and persistent sinners and the like. We are all for love and forgiveness but you have to deserve it.
And you know what, I understand the disciples’ thinking. Most of the time I am like the disciples…and the Scribes and Pharisees and a lot of Religious and Political Rulers everywhere in this world.
I am all for grace and love and forgiveness when I have screwed up. God forgive me a miserable sinner.
I am all for grace and love and forgiveness for my children, my family, my friends, my loved ones, the people I like.
God forgive them, they know not what they do.
But when it comes to my enemies and the real lowlifes of the world.
When it comes to those who don’t give a blank about God or Jesus or love or kindness.
When it comes to those who habitually hurt others abuse others…
When I see the depth of evil in this world sometimes…
Well now, grace and forgiveness are ok, but only if they truly repent. But secretly I want them to go to hell.
So, I will be perfectly honest. There are people in this world I probably don’t love or forgive, because I don’t think they are worth the effort to try. They are too bad, too prejudiced, too evil…too something…
My love can go a long way but it seems to have limits.
And so, the word of God, Jesus words, are always, always a challenge to me.
And so, Jesus tells the disciples, and us, the story of the dishonest manager…
You see we are the owners. We are the ones who rule the world and make the decisions.
We are the ones who mostly decide what is right and wrong and who is in and who should be out.
We represent the world and the way of the world.
And we bring an accusation before Jesus the dishonest manager.
Jesus you are dishonest when it comes to managing grace. You are dishonest Jesus when it comes to managing love. You are dishonest Jesus when it comes to managing forgiveness. You are dishonest Jesus when it comes to forgiving debt.
You are accepting the unacceptable. You are loving the unlovable. You are forgiving the unforgivable.
We have set the rules. We accuse the people who are bad, find them guilty and get rid of them.
Every family every clique, every organization, every culture, every church, every congregation, every political group… has a set of rules of who is in and who is out. Who is included and who is excluded?
Jesus, you just don’t get it. You are just letting everybody in the kingdom. You are just shouting out. “Come on down, everybody’s welcome.”
You are squandering the love of God, on people who have squandered every opportunity to be good.
This is how we control the world, and control our lives, and control our church, and control our country. We let in the ones worthy and keep the riff-raff out.
We love the ones who are worth loving.
Everybody knows that Jesus, but you…
And because of that Jesus we are going to accuse you. We are going to exclude you.
Pick up your cross on your way out the door.
And Jesus doesn’t complain.
He knows he doesn’t follow the way of the world. He is guilty of breaking the world’s rules.
So, he goes to the door and picks up his cross…
And we nail him to that cross…
But what does he do?
From that cross he yells out to the people in First Church.
Joachim you have a hundred sins. I am writing them down to zero.
Matt, you have a thousand sins. I am writing them down to zero.
Harry, you have a million sins. (Actually a million and one, but who’s counting.)
And I am writing them down to zero.
And Jesus lists every person in the world alive or dead or yet to live.
Father forgive them.
Not Father forgive them some years from now when they finally get their act together and come to their senses and do what they are supposed to do.
Father forgive them.
And what does God do?
God commends Jesus.
Jesus is the one who forgives extravagantly, loves unconditionally, extends grace universally.
Jesus is the dishonest manager who throw grace around like a little boy splashes his father’s cologne when he gets the chance,
Jesus is the woman who pours out ten thousand dollars worth of expensive perfume on someone’s dirty feet, holding back nothing from making that person clean.
Jesus is the merchant who gives everything to get the pearl of great price.
He gives his life to get life’s biggest treasure. Sinful you.
Today I read a particularly poignant scripture from Jeremiah, who like every good Old Testament prophet likes to tell the people how much they have sinned and that they need to straighten up, get with the program and do justice and be kind and love mercy.
And that is a message of scripture too, just not the primary one. It is the secondary one, the one we need to hear after we hear that we are loved and nothing can separate us from God’s love. And Jesus proves that.
But then good old Jeremiah has a turn of heart. And he starts crying.
He cries for his people who are hurting, and in pain and in exile.
His words are exactly what I, Harry feel when I don’t forgive, when I accuse another, when I don’t reconcile with another.
You see I have a debt of love to Jesus for his extravagant love, his unconditional love, and his universally grace.
And when I don’t forgive, or love, or extend grace, this is what I feel:
My joy is gone, grief is upon me,
my heart is sick.
Hark, the cry of my unforgiven people
from far and wide in the land and in the church:
"Is the Lord not in Harry?
Is forgiveness and love not in him?"
("Why have I provoked God to anger with my machinations, my gossip, my ego defenses?")
"The harvest is past, the summer is ended,
and I have not forgiven."
I mourn, and dismay has taken hold of me.
Is there no balm in Gilead?
Is there no healing and forgiveness for Harry?
O that my head were a spring of water,
and my eyes a fountain of tears,
so that I might weep day and night
for the poor people I have slain by not forgiving them!
The world and I, we are indebted to Christ, yet we hold our love and mete it out to the deserving. That’s how we control our lives.
But that is why we have trouble completely healing.
But Jesus is the dishonest manager, because he freely gives away the very thing the world and I hoard in order to control others. Jesus gives away forgiveness, mercy and love.
In doing this, Jesus reveals a deeper wisdom about sin and debt.
And that is simply this, the Balm of Gilead we need to heal ourselves, our congregation, our church, our community, our world….
is to forgive
extravagantly, universally and unconditionally. Amen.