Forgive Debts

Some of you have heard me describe the time that I visited Yellowstone National Park. It was the summer of the year 2000. A serious forest fire had burned in the park the previous summer which had been let to burn out of control. I attended a Park Ranger’s lecture on forest fires where I learned some fascinating things about fires, wildlife, trees and plants—how some even benefit from a fire. 

The thing that struck me at the time, and has stayed with me ever since, was the Ranger’s discussion of the Park Service’s policy regarding the fighting of fires. He said that if the fire was caused by nature (primarily lightening), then they let it go and only fought the fire enough to protect structures that might be in its path. On the other hand, a human-made fire was fought as soon as it was discovered, because it wasn’t “natural.” And I thought, “Since when are people not natural, not a part of nature?”

Although the fire-fighting policy has changed since that time, the thinking about the separation of humanity from the rest of nature has not.

We have separated ourselves from the natural world. Humanity over here and nature over there. And then we’ve convinced ourselves that we’re free to do whatever we want with nature since it’s different from us. This is a complete contradiction of the Creation story in Genesis 1 where our species is created right along with all the rest of Creation. And if you would rather have a more contemporary, scientific, take on it, human beings are made of the same elements as all the rest of the Universe. We’re made of stardust. We and nature are one.

But some, most of us, have misunderstood that God’s admonition that we have dominion over the earth and its creatures has given us precedence rather than stewardship. That kind of thinking has brought us to the brink of disaster. 

We owe it to God, to the rest of Creation, and to ourselves to repair the breach. A place to start in our thinking is with the concept of sin. In our Catechism in The Book of Common Prayer (page 848) is the following question and answer:

Q. What is sin?

A. Sin is the seeking of our own will instead of the will of God, thus distorting our relationship with God, with other people, and with all creation. 

Our distorted relationship with creation is the very definition of sin. The distortion starts with the denial that we’re natural.

The Gospel reading this morning recounts the time that 

Peter came and said to Jesus, “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” Jesus said to him, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times. 

At that time, the thinking was that one forgave up to three times. So Peter, who had heard Jesus talk about forgiveness many times, was giving him the benefit of the doubt by extending the number to more than double—seven times. Jesus replied, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.” 

There’s some dispute as to whether it’s “seventy-seven” or “seventy times seven.” It’s different in some of the early manuscripts. But the point is not to be missed. In Biblical language, the number seven means “complete.” It’s a large number and refers to the in-exhaustible grace of God.

Then Jesus told the story of the unforgiving servant who, although he’d been forgiven a massive debt, refused to forgive the much smaller debt owed to him. 

What I want to call attention to here is the word “debt.” We Episcopalians, in the Lord’s Prayer, said “forgive us our trespasses” or, more recently, “forgive us our sins.” But the Presbyterians say “forgive us our debts.” And the Presbyterians, at least in this case, have it right. The Greek word in the New Testament that is often translated “trespass” or “sin”, actually means “debt”, and it refers specifically to financial “debt.” 

Our distorted relationship with the earth and the seas and the atmosphere is the result of our abuse—as we have borrowed and borrowed and borrowed time and again with little thought to repaying the massive debt we’ve accumulated. We’ve given short shrift to living in sustainable ways. And we continue to borrow as the planet continues to warm. Almost every week there’s a new tragedy as we’ve seen in Libya and China and, at this moment, on the coast of Maine and the Canadian Maritime Provinces.

The devastation is especially dire in the poorest countries and places in the world. There is a moral imperative that we begin to seriously cancel the debts we are owed and to begin to atone for the massive debt that we owe to God’s earth—the beautiful and fragile garden we have inherited and that we hope to pass on to those who come after us.

There are little things that you and I can do—in terms of reducing our use of fossil fuels and recycling and living more lightly on the earth. But these are minor compared to the major changes that governments and corporations must do to create a sustainable planet. 

And that’s where people of faith—here and abroad—have a role. It’s why the Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Anglican and other members of the World Council of Churches are observing this Season of Creation. It’s why Muslims and Jews and Hindu’s and Sikhs and people of other faiths and people of no faith are joining together to sound the alarm. 

We in this country have an especially difficult problem in that many of our corporations and politicians and leaders in every level of government deny the fact of our sin – our debt – deny that there’s even an issue. Lobbyists and judges and senators and legislators and county and city commissioners and you and I who collect our pensions and paychecks – pretend that there’s no debt and it will all go away. 

We need to stop. Ask God’s forgiveness. Repent . . . turn away from adding to the debt . . . and demand that people with power to make the massive changes that are needed do so . . . or we will refuse to buy their products, give them our loyalty and our votes. 

For you see, what happens to the air and the water and the soil – happens to us. We’re part of the natural world. We have created the debt but we are also owed the debt. 

An Orthodox monastic story told by Elder Joseph the Hesychast (1897-1959) An elder is distracted in his morning prayer by the dawnchorus of frogs from a nearby marsh and sends his disciple to tell them to be quiet until the monks have finished the Midnight Office. When the disciple duly transmits the message, the frogs reply, ‘We have already said the Midnight Office and are in the middle of Matins; can’t you wait until we’re finished?’

Do you see? Do you understand? What happens to the birds and fish and the bees and the frogs—happens to us! 

Let us rise up together to start the process of forgiveness: seven times, seventy-seven times, seventy times seven. For it is our commitment, our promise, our baptismal vow to follow in the way of Jesus, to truly be the Body of Christ.


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