May the words of our mouths and the meditations of our hearts be always acceptable in thy sight,
O Lord, our strength and our redeemer. AMEN
I am privileged to be part of Epiphany School, an Episcopal school many here have been involved in for years. Humility is one of the themes embedded in today’s lessons, and working as I do with middle schoolers provides a fair share of humiliation. Now, I am bragging, But I went to Harvard College and to Harvard Divinity School, and I have an honorary doctorate from the Berkeley Divinity School at Yale.
You might, therefore, think that school was easy for me, but actually I am dyslexic and couldn’t really read with fluency until 5th grade.
Once, trying to reassure one of my struggling students, I told him how I myself couldn’t read until 5th grade.
I don’t know what I expected to hear.
Maybe something like, “Wow, Mr. Finley. You’re such a hero.
If you couldn’t read until 5th grade then I feel so much better.”
Well, instead, he looked me straight in the eye and said, “Man, Mr. Finley, you were dumb.”
Humility is a problem for many of us, and humility was often a problem for the disciples.
Today we join the story as a not-so-subtle storm is brewing among the disciples over which of them is the greatest, about how to deal with their weaker members, and about how to discipline those who fail to meet expectations.
As usual, Peter’s the eager student and first to raise his hand.
This time he asks a question that challenges even today.
When can we stop forgiving someone?
How many times do we have to forgive?
Jesus’s answer has been translated as either seventy-seven times or seventy times seven times, but either way since the very earliest days of the church his meaning has been clear.
When can we stop forgiving someone?
The answer is…never. We can never stop forgiving.
God forgives completely, and we, the body of Christ, are called to do likewise, but…even God’s forgiveness has its limits.
God cannot, it seems, forgive those who are not humble.
God will not, it seems, forgive those who fail recognize their own need for forgiveness.
Jesus explains all this parable.
A servant owes his king an outrageous amount the poor servant cannot possibly repay.
The king’s first reaction is to sell the servant and his family.
Terrified, the servant begs for mercy.
This moment, the moment when the servant is confronted with the magnitude of his problem is important.
God’s grace is not cheap.
To be forgiven, one must appreciate just how serious the problem is.
The theologian John Calvin put it this way.
“Being roused in fear…we learn humility.”
When we see ourselves as we truly are we know ourselves not only to be without merit but in fact deserving of punishment. That is tough stuff.
That is Jonathan Edwards’
“Sinners in the Hands of an angry God” stuff, but there is no cause for despair.
That’s not the end of the parable.
Faced with the true consequences, the servant begs for mercy, and the king in his mercy forgives the servant entirely.
His debt is erased.
The text is silent on the servant’s reaction, but presumably, he is wildly relieved.
He has gone from owing a ton of money to owing none at all.
He has escaped being sold into slavery.
You might think he’d be changed like Scrooge on Christmas, but like a lot of us he is quick to forget.
In the very next moment, just as he is walking out, he sees a fellow servant who owes him a comparatively trivial sum.
Does he follow his master’s example?
He tries to choke the man! Like many of us, he’s quick to forget a favor and never forgets a slight.
He’s not unlike the man circling the parking lot Christmas Eve.
Desperate for a spot, he prays, “Please God, if you help me now, I promise to go to church every Sunday.”
Miraculously, a spot appears, and man looks up and says,
“Hey God, it’s me again. Never mind. I’m all set.”
Some part of the Bible are hard to understand, but this isn’t one of them.
God’s forgiveness depends to some extent on our own forgiveness.
We are forgiven when we know the truth, the truth about ourselves.
We are forgiven when we are humble.
In the words of the Lord’s Prayer,
we ask God to forgive us our sins
just as we forgive those who sin against us.
Personally, I don’t hear much about virtues of humility
in the public square.
In a world divided between winners and losers
most of us want to be winners.
Instead of humility,
we celebrate self-esteem and self-confidence.
We want to be proud of who we are,
and we forget the power in humility.
In thinking this week about the strength and dignity in humility,
I remembered the story of Lady Godiva,
the noble English woman with the long flowing hair
who rode naked on her horse down the street.
Records of her story date as far back as the 13th century
and may actually refer to a real 10th century Lady Godiva,
who was married to the Earl of Mercia.
Legend has it that the Earl was a greedy man
who imposed harsh taxes on his hapless citizens.
His wife, Godiva, however, was a pious woman,
and she begged her husband to relent for the sake of the poor.
The cruel Earl offered Godiva a cynical deal
forcing her to choose between her pride in her womanly virtue
and her concern for the less fortunate.
He blithely said he would lift the taxes
but if his bride would only agree
to ride naked through the streets.
Godiva was proud of her virtue as a lady.
The Earl knew his wife would never say yes…but she did.
This brought the Earl to his knees.
Her humility humbled him.
He stopped his onerous taxes.
Lady Godiva was a hero.
Because she saw herself not
as a wealthy woman of privilege and status,
but as simple and humble servant of God,
No better than anyone else.
Like everyone else, she needed God’s mercy and God’s grace.
St. Paul asks us today,
“Who are you to pass judgment on the servants of another?
Why do you pass judgement on your brother or sister?”
Tempting as it may be to judge,
if instead we humble ourselves before God
that will change hearts and minds starting with our own.
If we are prepare to humble ourselves,
God will forgive seventy-seven times.
In humility, we give ourselves up to God
whose service is perfect freedom.
Like the prodigal son, once we realize the depths
to which we have sunk and return home humble and penitent,
God rushes out with open arms to carry us into the banquet.
One final bit about Lady Godiva…
The story goes that all the townspeople
were so moved by her example
that they shut themselves up in their house
and closed their shutters.
No one watched her naked ride,
except for naughty Tom the Tailor
known to you and me today as…Peeping Tom.
Unaware of his sin, Tom has not been forgiven even now.
Let’s consider putting a little bit less emphasis
on our self-esteem and focus more on humility
so that nothing can come between us and love of God.
Lady Godiva was not an exhibitionist,
but in humbling herself she saved the people of Mercia.
Her story is not entirely unlike John Newton, the slave trader who became an abolitionist and who wrote “Amazing Grace.”
We seem to have a choice.
We can pretend that we are winners with nothing to apologize for, or we can acknowledge our sins and be forgiven and be loved which passes all understanding. AMEN