Sunday 13 September 2020 Fourteenth After Trinity
The Very Revd Nicholas Papadopulos, Dean of Salisbury
13 Romans 14: 1-12
Matthew 18: 21-35
Last week I enacted an annual seasonal ritual that not even the Rule of Six will do away with. Out on a walk I gathered some conkers. I remember the first time I ever did that. I was 8 years old. I was walking to the bus-stop after school when I spotted a conker lying half buried among some wet leaves in the gutter. I was thrilled. Playing conkers was all the rage at school and, not possessing a conker, I had never been able to join in. That conker was a beautifully glossy brown. It was smooth to the touch. And, no doubt, swinging on the end of a string, it would be my passport to instant classroom popularity. I took it home and did what I had heard one should do. At least, I persuaded my mother to do what I had heard one should do. Namely: bake the conker in the oven. I proudly took it to school the next morning. I had barely got in through the gates when I was challenged to a contest. Within seconds my conker was smashed to smithereens.
Through the summer, the Cathedral clergy have been preaching on the wonderful exhibition that fills the Cathedral and the Close. Jesus was not a sculptor, but he was an artist who worked in a different medium. He was a storyteller. The Gospel reading we have heard comprises one of his stories. He introduces it with very specific words: “The kingdom of heaven may be compared with”. Those words are important. If we don’t keep them in mind there’s a risk that when we hear the story we’ll focus unhelpfully on its gory details - the dramatic scenes in which the slave seizes his colleague by the throat, and in which the king orders that he should be tortured.
What Jesus does here is set out what the kingdom of heaven may be compared with, what the kingdom of heaven looks like, what it might mean for God’s rule to be perfect and immediate and uninterrupted. He is setting out what it might mean if our prayer “thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” was answered. What he doesn’t do is create a scale blueprint that imitates reality in every particular. It’s a sketch. So what does the sketch reveal?
It reveals a place where a king forgives a slave an eye-wateringly huge debt. It reveals a place where that slave goes and does the same for those who are in debt to him. In other words, the kingdom of heaven looks like a place where people let go of stuff; where they let go of really important stuff.
There’s a risk that I’m over-simplifying this. It might be reassuring if the kingdom of heaven were a more intellectually challenging prospect, or if maintained a more discriminating approach to membership. It might be. But all we have to go on are the words of Jesus. “How often should I forgive?” asks Peter “Seven times?” “Not seven times” Jesus replies, “but, I tell you, seventy-seven times”.
We hear the word ‘forgiveness’ and, accustomed as we are to associating religion with moralizing, we think of wrongs being acknowledged. But when Jesus uses it, he speaks of rights being surrendered.
The king in the parable lets go not only of the huge sum of money that is his lawful due. He also lets go of a sizeable chunk of his royal dignity. He gives up both: money and pride. Forgiveness of this kind is on St Paul’s mind when he writes to the Roman Christians. He urges to let go of their critical judgements of their neighbours’ eating habits. That’s what the kingdom of heaven looks like.
So: how are we doing? We as a nation; we as a city; we as a cathedral? Are we a community of people who are letting go of important stuff?
We might think about our treatment of God’s creation. Last week Climate Assembly UK published its report on how we might achieve net zero emissions by 2050. It named some of the stuff our generation might need to let go of: frequent flying, a throwaway culture, meat-heavy diets. Vegetables can no longer be only for the weak, whatever St Paul writes. We might think about the Black Lives Matter protests. It named stuff that our generation most definitely needs to let go of: injustice, prejudice, and inequality. The 15,000 complaints about a BLM dance routine on last week’s Britain’s Got Talent suggests we’re not quite ready to do so.
Or we might think about the conditions under which our generation is being compelled to live. I mentioned the Rule of Six when I began. Six months have passed since the lockdown was imposed, and many of us find the ongoing restrictions irksome. Social distancing in the High Street is a chore. Facemasks in shops are a nuisance. And in our churches while the choirs can sing, members of the congregation can’t. There is frustration about all of this; there is resentment; there is anger. I have heard some of you express it. While there is undoubtedly a discussion to be had about what constitutes the common good that these restrictions on our liberty are designed to protect, we need to be clear that a community which privileges individual liberties over the common good is not a community which is letting go of stuff. It is a community which is holding onto it and asserting it.
Jesus was a storyteller, not a sculptor. There’s no evidence that he ever played conkers. But if he had, might he have said this? “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a game of conkers in which you offer up the first conker you ever find, the conker you treasure, the conker that you believe will catapult you to unimaginable classroom fame. And that conker is smashed to pieces before your eyes.”
One of my great Christian heroes of the 20th century is the American monk and mystic, Thomas Merton. He writes this: “…if we could let go of our own obsession with what we think is the meaning of it all, we might be able to hear the Lord’s call and follow him in his mysterious cosmic dance’”.
“Why do you pass judgement on your brother or sister?” writes St Paul. “Or, why do you despise your brother and sister?” If we are prepared to let go of some of the stuff which we think is important, then we just might stand a chance of discovering what God thinks is important.