Memory

The Rev. Jimmy Abbott
15th Sunday after Pentecost
September 17, 2017

Matthew 18:21-35

Admittedly, I did not stay up past midnight to watch the Texas – USC game. And though it didn’t out the way I wanted it to, the game brought back many memories of that national championship game twelve years ago.

See, it was the end of the 2005 college football season and my Texas Longhorns had made it to the National Championship. You all remember that game – Vince Young, USC, the Rose Bowl. All that. Anyway, I was there, on the field, in the stadium, because I was in the Longhorn Marching Band.

And let me tell you, when we won, when the game was over, I remember these feelings that were unreal. Relief, joy, elation, happiness. I remember that was the loudest and fastest I had ever played my tuba. I remember the thrill of it like it yesterday.

Now, my cousin was also at the game. Oddly enough, my cousin’s name is also Jim. We aren’t that creative in the Abbott family. Anyway, Jim was at the game, he was also on the field. But you know, as far as I understand it, he has a completely different memory of that game. Because he was on the USC football team. My joy was his bitterness. My elation was his dejection. I remember a fourth quarter comeback victory, he remembers a fourth quarter collapse and defeat.

Memory is a funny thing. Here we are – in the same stadium, at the same game, we even have the same name and yet our memories, our memories couldn’t be any more different than Texas burnt orange is from USC cardinal and gold.

We remember things differently. If your house flooded during Harvey, you will remember the storm differently from a person who was high and dry. If this is your first time in this church, you will remember this service differently than if you’ve been here a thousand times. Memory is not equal. And that’s what has happened to Peter in the gospel lesson this morning.

Peter says, “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive him?” Peter’s assumption is that it’s only other people who will ever do the sinning. Peter’s question assumes that he is always right and righteous. Peter has forgotten, he does not remember, that he too has sinned.

Peter’s forgetfulness is our forgetfulness, we have the same spiritual amnesia. We remember and hold grudges against the people who have wronged us, but we explain away and justify the wrongs we have done. You need to come to me begging for forgiveness because I’m good and you’re wrong. It’s quite an assumption.

We forget that we have also wronged. We forget that we’re the ones who need to ask for forgiveness at least seventy-seven times. Ask your spouse, your family, your best friend – my guess is that there is some event in your past that you two remember differently. It was some offense that, let’s admit, was your fault. Same people, same event, different memory. You think that whatever you did was not a big deal, but for them, they can’t forget about it. And the person needing forgiveness of the sin is you. But since it was your fault, you whitewash the memory.

See, a wise old priest once told me that the memory of the oppressor is short, but the memory of the victim is long. The memory of the oppressor is short, the memory of the victim is long. This is Peter’s problem. He can only think, he can only imagine the ways and the times that he has been wronged, when he was the victim. He can’t remember, he can’t conceive of a time when he has done the wrong, when he was the oppressor. His memory of his own sins has been whitewashed.

This is also the reason why the national conversation about Confederate monuments has been incoherent. We have failed to realize that, depending on who we are, we remember differently. Same statue, same park, same name, different memory. We have failed to acknowledge that the memory of the oppressor is short, but the memory of the victim is long.

So we can go around and around about Confederate monuments. We can talk till we’re blue in the face about the Civil War, about slavery, about Jim Crow, about history. But we actually won’t get anywhere until we talk about memory; until we have the courage, as communities, as churches, as a country, to talk, but more importantly to listen, about how and why we remember things differently. Don’t make Peter’s assumption that all memory is created equal. It’s not.

What is equal, is that we are in desperate need of forgiveness. This is a pointed parable, as all of Jesus’ parables are pointed. And in each of the parables, God is a character, and we are a character. So this one is pretty easy to piece together. The king is God and we are that unforgiving slave. We have been forgiven and released from an insurmountable debt. Ten thousand talents is an enormous sum of money, adjusting for inflation since the time of Jesus, it equals about a bazillion dollars in today’s money. The king, in his mercy, releases the slave, releases us, from that burden. Through Jesus Christ, God gives us a new lease on life. God sets us free from our sins, from our past, from ourselves. You know what it feels like when you finally get out of debt, when you pay off that house, that car. Total relief. Freedom. Like it’s a whole new world. God cancels our debt so that we can be free.

But only if we remember. When we forget, that’s when we refuse to forgive others. After that slave is forgiven, notice how short his memory is. Immediately after being forgiven he demands that the other slave pay him back a few hundred bucks. He’s forgotten, he’s forgotten the forgiveness that was given to him. God has freed us from the weight of sin that held us down, and yet we refuse to release that burden from anybody else. Every Sunday morning we hear that God has forgiven us of everything. And by Sunday lunch, I’m back to judging and criticizing the waiter who is giving me crumby service. The lady who stole my parking spot. The panhandler who can’t seem to get his life together. We armchair quarterback somebody else’s life because they have incurred a small debt. All the while, forgetting that we were the ones who amassed an enormous debt.

Other than making us highly uncomfortable, the other things that Jesus’ parables do is cast a vision for a new society. For a new way of living together. Jesus speaks in parables to inspire us. The vision that Jesus casts in this parable is of a world that is merciful. The king says to the slave what God says to us, “Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?”

I am not Polly Anna. I’m not saying that we will ever create a society here on earth that is free of sin. I don’t think that possible, I’ve met enough humans to know that. I only need to look as far as the mirror to know that humans are broken. But what is possible, is mercy. We pray it every day: “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.”

I know this sounds silly. In the world’s calculus, forgiveness is unrealistic. Our economic system is built on the premise of retaining debts.The foundation of our penal system is punishment, not forgiveness. I have not heard a conversation in our national life in a long time that resembled anything close to mercy. Because we have forgotten, we have forgotten just how merciful God has been to us. We have refused to forgive our brothers and our sisters from the heart. We have refused to remember that we are the ones in need of forgiveness.

Finally, consider what this parable says about God’s judgment on us. The good news is that God will not judge us on how sinful we have been, on how much debt we have incurred. Ten thousand talents or a few hundred denarii makes no difference. The hard news, is that God will judge us on how merciful we have been. Remember to be merciful, because God has already been merciful.

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