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Matthew 18:21-35

Just your everyday apocalyptic back to school

            On Friday I dropped off my kids for the first day of school, which is meeting in person. There was all the nervousness and anxiety you would expect. Meeting a new teacher, meeting new classmates, meeting old classmates. It is also an exciting time. It was odd because it was the first September start during Covid, which meant packing a mask with the kids, dropping off kids on the perimeter of the school, but not walking onto school grounds as parents. All the parents and guardians huddled along the outer fence. No one knowing how the fall will go and how long in person school will last. On top of that the sky was a gray haze because of the wildfire spoke blowing over Victoria from Washington State. We see some of that smoke today as well.

            It’s not a stretch to say this is the oddest start to a school year many of us have witnessed. During the past six months people have made comparisons either to polio and TB pandemics, war time era, or the Great Depression to think about similar disruption to daily life. Today many of us better understand why our grandparents had enormous pantries of preserves and well stocked freezers in case of widespread drought or loss of income.

            The pandemic is disruptive and upsetting enough, not knowing whether school will continue one week to the next, depending on whether there is an outbreak at a school. Nevertheless it feels like we are taking Covid seriously in BC and throughout much of Canada. More people are opting to wear masks in public. Many businesses strongly encourage people to wear masks. We have taken dramatic action in a few short months in order to save lives and slow the spread of Covid.

            People move over for one another on the sidewalk. People are more self-aware of coughing or sneezing in public. There is better hand washing. You could say it reflects the graciousness Jesus talks about in the gospel lesson about forgiveness. To observe Covid protocols not simply seven times, but seventy-seven times. To be concerned about the lives of others. 

            However, there is another serious matter I need to share with you. Something not receiving the attention it deserves. Namely that the Toronto Raptors lost game 7 to the Boston Celtics in the NBA Western Conference Semi-finals. It is a moment of humility and taking stock.

            To be serious, the serious matter is the increasing threat of wildfires and the underlying causes of climate change. We are hearing this is the worst summer on record for wildfires in Washington State, Oregon, and California. If you look at a map of all the fires it is staggering to see just how many thousands of square kilometres the fires cover and already several people have died and countless homes and wildlife habitat destroyed. Scientists have warned us for decades that if we don’t address climate change in a dramatic way, we will be subject to increased and fiercer storms, drought, and wildfires. We already know that ice continues to melt in Northern Canada and the Arctic at an alarming rate and things are not trending in a good direction. We are not rising to the occasion. We are not taking protocols and precautions to turn the tide. Even though climate change threatens all of creation and future generations, we aren’t taking dramatic action to build a better future. Instead of seventy-seven times grace for the planet, we agreed to sort our recycling into seven different categories.

            I know I feel good when I recycle things. “There I did my part. I broke down those cardboard boxes and sorted glass from plastic like no one’s business.” These are all good things but we know it’s not enough. Often we feel paralyzed to take dramatic action.  

Peter as the example of what not to do

            In order to help think why it is we struggle with addressing climate change, let us look to our gospel reading for help. Let’s think about Peter’s response vs. Jesus’ response. Peter recommends small, incremental change that is individual. He proposes that if he forgives seven times that should be enough. I suggest that is similar to us sorting our recycling into seven categories. It helps. It does something. But on its own it is not a big, bold, gracious action.

            By contrast Jesus responds to Peter’s meagre offer, by saying we must forgive not seven times, but seventy-seven times. In other words, grace abounds and overflows. There needs to be a radical response of forgiveness, so much we couldn’t keep track.

                What is behind these contrasting responses? Audrey West reminds us that there is a significant gap between who Peter thinks he is and how he acts. Peter think he is a good disciple, but by the end of the Gospel of Matthew, Peter breaks his promise never to abandon Jesus. Peter doesn’t stick around when Jesus is arrested, he’s not there when Jesus is crucified, and he denies Jesus three times when witnesses call him a Jesus follower. Peter is in need of more than being forgiven seven ties. He is in need of overflowing forgiveness and grace, the kind Jesus describes.

            Peter’s story is our story as well. Often we think if we just do seven good things, forgive seven times, that is enough. Jesus reminds us that we need to reorient our thinking away from individual works, to abundant and collective grace. From abundant grace we don’t quibble whether we need to forgive or be gracious a small number of times. We act from a wellspring that believes all things are possible through God’s grace, through forgiveness, through abundant living.

            Climate justice from Jesus’ perspective of forgiveness means not arguing about who has already forgiven enough, who has been kind to creation enough. Instead it’s about a collective sense of urgency of wanting to be good stewards of this gift of life on Earth God gave for all of creation to enjoy. One reason we struggle with collective approaches is because we’ve been sold a bill of goods saying if we each do a small part it will be enough. But that’s not true. Collectively we need a big, bold action of abundant grace. Just like we are responding to Covid with abundant protocols and precautions, so too we need to mobilize resources to combat climate change.

            One image of God’s forgiveness and love is to think about the tide coming in. During low tide we see little pools with crabs, anemones and sea life that need salt water to survive. They are hanging on until the tide rolls back in. We are like those tiny crabs and anemones waiting for the tide of grace and love to come and bring in with fresh food and water. Without the tide we’ll just dry up, cut off from life.

            Too often we respond like Peter thinking we need a little bit of forgiveness but instead we need Jesus overflowing forgiveness and grace.

Unflattering Parable

            To send the message home Jesus uses a rather unflattering parable about human behaviour. Jesus tells the parable of the king and the enslaved persons. The specific details of the parable are problematic in today’s context considering how it assumes it’s perfectly normal for a king or leader to own other human beings as human property. We name this in the time of Black Lives Matter where we stand together with Black people and Indigenous people, demanding racial justice and ending centuries of systemic oppression. In fact it’s often because we dispossessed land from Indigenous people who trod lightly on creation that we’re in this mess, seeing the Earth merely as a bank account to make withdrawals from.  

            Audrey West reminds us that Jesus tells the parable in hyperbolic proportions. The king forgives the first enslaved person who owes 10,000 talents. A talent is 1000 denarii and one denarius is about a day’s wages of a labourer, so another we’re talking about 1,000,000 million days wages. This would take one person 2739 years of working all day, every day to pay off the debt, so impossible in other words. In today’s dollars working minimum wage that would be about $120,000,000. In other words it’s a massive debt no one but Jeff Bezos or Elon Musk could pay off. The hyperbolic number magnifies the graciousness of the king forgiving the debt.

            Then we hear the same person who had been buried in astronomical debt is owed by another enslaved person 100 denarii, 100 days wages, or roughly $15,000 today, so still significant but a much smaller debt. And yet the person forgiven the enormous debt shows no mercy to the person who owes much less. This parable has parallels with our current economic system that has wreaked havoc on creation. We know that energy companies often receive billions of dollars of tax subsidies and extended enormous grace, while poor people are belittled for their economic choices, and can lose their houses if a housing market collapses or a pandemic hits. We feel sorry for these individuals but rarely extend them the same kind of lifeline granted multinational companies. And yet when an energy company is on the ropes, governments often think nothing of giving them additional millions of dollars, banks extending vast lines of credit. Enormous grace that these companies and banks rarely extend to individuals with smaller debt loads. In fact if the larger companies fail, it’s the taxpayers usually left to clean up the mess, thinking about orphaned wells in oil producing areas.  

            The takeaway from the parable is that God, like the king, is infinitely gracious. We are called to extend similar grace to others. If God forgiveness our sin, all the ways we break promises, all the ways we collectively fall short caring for creation, then it’s up to us to live a life based on grace as well.

            We see the plight of the resident orcas in the Salish Sea suffering in search of food, the plight of forests and its creatures with the threat of wildfires and logging on growth forests. We know that by protecting creation, we ensure a future for ourselves and children. Individually we can do little, but collectively we can do much.

            Woe to the insatiable hunger for economic growth. Woe to governments giving preference to corporate interests over the needs of millions of people and all Gods creatures. We are already reaping our punishment of pursuing paths that lead to death rather than life. It’s not too late to turn the tide back towards grace.

            It’s not too late to take bold actions and live into God’s abundant grace. As a congregation we can be bold advocates for change. We can take up space together with other likeminded congregations together with Lutherans, Anglicans, United Church, Presbyterians, Roman Catholics, Baptists, evangelicals, Pentecostals. On our own we might feel small but collectively we are many and powerful.  

What do we tell our kids?

            Sending kids to school under skies filled with smoke, I know I feel accountable to answer their questions, “Why are the fires burning? Why aren’t we better caring for creation?” I don’t have good answers to offer my kids. Last year I was encouraged accompanying the son’s class trip to a student climate march to the provincial legislature. We walked down and we walked back. There were tens of thousands of school children and realization that although kids are small they are mighty.

            Collectively we can fight climate change with the same gusto we are finding to respond to Covid. But our kids shouldn’t have to do the work alone. We shouldn’t leave it up to them to clean up our mess. Instead let us abandon our individualistic thinking like Peter that we can only do very little. Let us embrace Jesus’ thinking of big, bold, abundant action of forgiveness and grace so that all God’s creatures may live. Amen.