This sermon is mostly written by Pastor Lyndon. He was scheduled to preach and had begun preparing his sermon before becoming ill. I will share a story and Pastor Lyndon’s reflections on the Gospel reading today as well as some brief thoughts on Holy Cross Sunday and the other readings.
Pastor Lyndon wrote: “Earlier this summer I travelled to Saskatchewan to visit family, together with kids. Unfortunately, our flight was canceled and then I saw our aircraft taxi on the tarmac and take off, empty of passengers. There was a crew shortage so while they obviously had pilots, they couldn’t load the aircraft with passengers. That’s always disappointing when you’ve been waiting at an airport with kids. And as we found out, smaller airports like Saskatoon don’t exactly have a lot of spare seats on flights. We had to delay our trip by 24 hours, but thankfully the airline gave us a hotel and meal vouchers, so we lived it up in a mostly empty business hotel next to the airport. We were the only ones in the hotel pool and gym. We made the best of it. And I appreciated the server’s patience as we redeemed every $15 voucher to pay for the meal. And, finally, after a day, we were ready to board our flight. And thanks be to God, our flight left on time. There is nothing unique about a flight delay. It happens all the time. But what left an impression on me on the day our flight was cancelled, and we all queued up to rebook flights at the counter, was one man who threw a fit. One of my kids described him as looking like a very angry version of Mr. Clean. Shaved head, muscular, wearing a sleeveless shirt. He strutted around screaming at staff with words laced with misogynist and racist remarks. He looked ready for a fight and airport security were tailing closely behind him. At one point he re-entered the screening area and starting yelling at staff. He looked on the brink of punching someone. I can’t imagine many airports where a passenger could get away with this outrageous behaviour before being slammed on the ground and handcuffed. Police had been called but the man was outside having a smoke as we got a ride out of there.
The next day when we arrived back at the airport, my jaw dropped when we sat down for lunch in an airport restaurant. There was Mr. Clean in the booth next to us. Not only was he not arrested for his violent behaviour, he was allowed back in the airport and was boarding a flight with the same airline! I went to the airline desk and talked to someone who I recognized from the night before. I needed to know what happened in the end and how this guy was allowed back. It turns out the man changed his tone after the police arrived. He was told in no uncertain terms that he would be banned from flying with the airline if he didn’t immediately apologize to the airline staff. Apparently realizing that he would be stranded in Saskatoon, he allegedly apologized to staff. I said, “Seriously?” And the staff member rolled her eyes and said, “I know, right?” They had been given the choice to ban him from flying, but instead chose to forgive him and let him fly the following day. I noticed there was an officer in the terminal watching him until he boarded his flight to help avoid another incident.
My first reaction was not a charitable one. I sincerely doubted the authenticity of this man’s apology. Someone who went from yelling hate speech and ready to punch someone to saying he was sorry a half hour later. He only apologized because otherwise he would be put on a no-fly list. To me. it seemed like an entirely instrumental apology.
And so, I find today’s gospel reading a challenge - Jesus’ parable about radical forgiveness. How do we make sense of this when at times we are ready to weaponize forgiveness? What I mean by that is using Jesus’ call to forgive others in a manipulative way. In the case of this man, I believe he is unconditionally loved by God, but I also believe he was a real and present danger to fellow passengers and staff. I don’t know if forgiveness was the right call in that case. I would seriously have to think if I would have boarded our flight if he had been on it. Thankfully he was not.
I share the example of our experience with Mr. Clean and the flight because this is how some non-Christians view the Christian call to forgiveness. At times they see us as using it as a means to manipulate others into forgiving bad behaviour. For example, we think about the trauma churches have inflicted onto queer, Indigenous, and racialized communities and being quick to expect forgiveness. And we also know in this congregation working through issues of reconciliation and inclusion that it’s a long path. It’s not just about cheap grace, using forgiveness as a way to continue bad behaviour without really changing.
The parable helps us unpack forgiveness in a more robust way. We meet the servant who is so burdened with debt it seems impossible they’re ever going to escape this heavy weight. Suddenly the king shows compassion without bounds and forgives this mountain of debt. Imagine the relief we might feel if your over-leveraged home is about to be repossessed by the bank and suddenly the bank comes back and says, “You know what, you keep it. You’ve been through enough already. It’s yours, debt free.” I know I would be elated and overjoyed. But as the parable expresses, forgiveness comes with duties. The servant fails to recognize the enormous gift as an invitation to direct his love to neighbours. After being freed of the enormous burden, he falls back into old ways and demands the other servant pay what he owes or be thrown into prison. Soon after other servants blow the whistle to the king, who rescinds his forgiveness and severely punishes the servant.
Whatever we might think about the image of God in this parable, Jesus is letting us know that forgiveness is not an individual benefit. It’s a way to live communally. It’s a way to structure our entire lives with our neighbours.
Thinking about my experience with Mr. Clean and my desire for him to be placed on a no-fly list, I know I can’t see into this man’s heart. I don’t know if he experienced some radical regret and begged forgiveness from the airline workers. It is within the realm of possibility. And the reality is that we live together in a world with a lot of people with whom we may not get along. There is an invitation to reflect upon the incredible grace which we are given by God. That is the overwhelming emphasis of the gospel reading. Remember that every one of us has been given this immeasurable gift that we can never repay. That God has forgiven our enormous debts, so much more should we be willing to show mercy and forgiveness to others. Put in this context, it does force me to examine my own hang-ups. I do think that that the safety of others needs to come first.
It’s entirely possible to forgive someone for a violent outburst, while still placing limits around their behaviour. It’s for the same reason that we run criminal record checks for sexual abuse or harm to children. We may forgive people their past mistakes, but we also take precautions to protect vulnerable people.”
Pastor Lyndon’s story and reflections hold similar mixed feelings in the readings for today. There is holy redemption, the Israelites pass through the parted waters to freedom by God’s hand, and there is punishment, the pursuing Egyptian army are all drowned by the same waters flooding over them by God’s hand. As Sabine remarked, it is too close to what happened to so many people in Libya this past week to not feel the terrible loss. Paul writes of practical challenges in community of eating meat or not in a debate that could be about the climate crisis in our time and eating lower on the food chain or not to save the planet. And the Gospel speaks of abundant forgiveness and harsh punishment. With all of the readings raising the question, is this what God’s redemption and God’s community look like?
We celebrate the Festival of Holy Cross on this Sunday to recognize and reflect on Jesus’ Holy Cross as a community of “the cross.” We consider together the “foolishness” of what the cross means, an instrument of torture and death for God’s anointed that we look to for hope of new life in Christ and ultimate sign of God’s so loving the world. Images of the cross are everywhere and can be both sign of love and welcome, and symbol of hate used against others like our Jewish siblings, trans and other queer kids, Indigenous people and those seen as outsiders, evil, and vulnerable and who are told, “they should forgive.” Today we are invited to contemplate the Holy Cross of Christ as God’s great counter-sign of radical, limitless love for all, completely freeing us from every weight our own failings, faults and fears push down upon us - and pushing us to true and authentic repentance and forgiveness with our neighbours in radical community together for the redemption, the saving, the freeing of one another, all creatures, and this earth. The Holy Cross, God’s counter-sign of radical grace and community, marked on us with waters of Baptism, with ashes of mortality and forgiveness, and in commendation at our death, that we and all would know God’s eternal forgiveness and life! Let it be so…