Preacher: The Rev. Doyt Conn
Last Sunday I said, “We need to talk.” This Sunday I’d like to say, “I’m sorry.” I probably need to say that more often than I do though I don’t have any reason in particular to say it today. I bring up “I’m sorry” because it is a statement that acknowledges the reality of relationships. Along the way we make mistakes. We trip into transgressions—some known, and some unknown. Those transgressions in a paradoxical way, as only can happen in the kingdom God, can make relationships better when grounded in the wonderful, transformational words, “I’m sorry.”
Have you ever said those words?
There are a lot of different kinds of “I’m sorry.” They run the gamut from trying to get your mom off your back, to a real, authentic desire to wipe the slate clean, to start over, and to do it differently and to be different. That is the transformational “I’m sorry” we are talking about today.
We are entering a sermon series on the Book of Judges. I have been asked, more than a few times, why are we studying it, and why is it even in the Bible. It’s a terrible book after all, full of violence and destruction. Come on, isn’t there enough violence and destruction in the world already? Why do we need to hear about it in church? I get that sentiment, because our God is good, and the Gospel is about the Good News of Jesus. And yet, if our God is good and the Gospel is about the Good News of Jesus, then why is there so much violence and destruction in the world? I wonder if we have learned the lessons of the Book of Judges.
There is a pattern in the Book of Judges. It goes like this:
God says: “We need to talk.”
The people of Israel say: “I’m sorry.”
And God replies: “That’s O.K.”
It is a pattern that starts strong, and yet by the end it, has all but been forgotten by the people of Israel. “I’m sorry” seems to have slipped from their public discourse and in its place is a cycle of violence and destruction that gets worse and worse with time, piling one mistake upon the next.
It seems the people had forgotten or failed to learn the pattern:
“We need to talk.” That is listening for God.
“I’m sorry.” That is turning back to God.
“You are forgiven.” That is being reconciled with God.
I sometimes wonder if we haven’t forgotten the pattern ourselves.
When is the last time you heard a public figure apologize for anything other than an embarrassing personal indiscretion that they wouldn’t have apologized for if they not had been caught? I’m not sure why that is. It may have to do with pride, power, or posturing. Or it may have to do with our failure to teach the pattern of “We need to talk.” “I’m sorry.” “You’re forgiven.” It is a pattern of redemption and new beginnings. It is a pattern that keeps us from piling one bad idea on top of another. It is a pattern that allows us to wipe the slate clean, like cleaning the cache on our computer. If we don’t it slows down, then bogs down, and finally it shuts down. Sometimes I worry the world is slowing down, bogging down, and maybe even shutting down, like it did in the Book of Judges.
If I can teach my children one thing it will be to apologize. Now this lesson won’t come from me saying, “You need to apologize,” because we all know that really doesn’t work. Rather it will come from their observation of my personal, frequent, and necessary requests for forgiveness and their observation of my participation in a communal, “I’m sorry;” where they see me with you every Sunday turning back to God on our knees and saying, “Have mercy on me, Lord.” If we teach the next generation anything, I hope it is how to say “I’m sorry,” both personally and as a community. You see, what I am trying to say here is not that we won’t hurt each other again, because we will. What I am saying here is that I hope we learn how to stop hurting each other over and over again in the same way like they did in the Book of Judges.
Now I am going to give you an example. When I was at Cambridge this summer I heard Sir Tony Brenton, the former ambassador from the UK to Russia (2004-08). He talked about the Ukraine. Sir Brenton is a career diplomat and clearly a bright guy with tons of experience. He gave a studied assessment for why the Russians are acting as they are in the Ukrainian. It had to do, in his opinion, with how NATO acted after they won the Cold War, which he compared to what happened in Europe after World War I. Now I’m no political scientist or historian, but he seemed credible, thoughtful, and pretty objective. So I was buying what he was saying, until he came to the conclusion, which was roughly: “Military intervention wasn’t an option, so economic sanctions became our only alternative.” Then he said, “But we knew sanctions wouldn’t work and that they would only make Putin stronger at home, but we went ahead with them anyway.” I thought: “What?! That sounds like a game plan out of the Book of Judges.”
I raised my hand because, as my kids would say, I couldn’t help it and said something like, “Sir Brenton, so there were a bunch of really smart people with tons of experience working on this Russia Ukrainian issue, right?” He nodded, so I continued, “So isn’t there some other option or some new way of thinking that wouldn’t give the same old result?” Sir Brenton sort of shrugged, and then rambled on about Obama needing to look strong at home, and a line in the sand in Syria, and something about the Sochi Olympics.
Now those all may be real issues, but what in the world do they have to do with Russia and the Ukraine? It sounded like something out of the Book of Judges. It seemed like one unresolved issue piled upon another unresolved issue that left them spinning in a cycle of violence and destruction. Was there no one out there with the courage to wipe the slate clean? Who was listening? Who was saying: “I’m sorry”? Who was saying: “You’re forgiven?” Maybe that is just mushy church thinking. Maybe I’m just a softy church guy.
But the guy I follow, the guy I stake my life on wasn’t a softy church guy. He was a guy who had hands as hard as hammers. He was a guy who died on the cross. He was a guy who was afraid of nothing because he knew something that mattered more than anything else. He knew that God is here, this near. And that God loves us and will never leave. If that doesn’t give you and me the courage to wipe the slate clean, then nothing will because there is nothing greater. There is nothing more real and there is nothing more powerful than the presence of the living God. That is what we come here to remember, Sunday after Sunday, so we can be people of courage and change in our Monday-through-Saturday lives. So we can be people who live the pattern of “We need to talk,” “I’m sorry,” “You’re forgiven.”
Jesus, the master teacher, paints a picture of this pattern in today’s Gospel. There is a king. The king approaches a man to settle his account. The guy owes the king over 10,000 talents (7,272,000 denarii), which is a lot given that the average daily wage was one denarii. This 7 million number indicates either a pretty loose lending criterion, or something beyond the value of money. We know it is the latter because the king is God, and the man represents you and me. God has given us a grant, and it is wildly generous. It includes the sun by day and the moon by night and the stars in their courses. It includes the vigor of our youth and wisdom of our age. It includes our family, friends, and the random people we meet along the way. And yes it even includes: “We need to talk,” “I’m sorry,” “You’re forgiven.” That is the 7 million denarii grant we are given. Compare it to the value of our one-denarii-a-day lives.
The king asks for an account, which seems fair. Yet when faced with the enormity of the grant, the man in the Gospel crumbles. He falls to his knees and says, “I squandered it.” I get that. “I wasted it.” I get that. “I could have done so much more.” And I get that as well. When we really consider the magnitude of what God has done for us, it pushes up from our insides a deep and heart felt “I’m sorry.” God says what Jesus assures us God will say, “That’s OK. Your sins are forgiven.”
But there are a lot of different kinds of “I’m sorry.” Clearly the man in the Gospel forgot the pattern. He went out and did what was right in his own sight. He went to collect a 100-denarii debt. A debt is a debt is a debt, after all. At least that is what they thought in the Book of Judges.
Here is an overview of Judges. God saved the Hebrew people from the Pharaoh. For 40 years they lived in the desert with God. Then the old generation passed away, and a new generation came to power, and was led by Joshua into the Promised Land. This is where the Book of Judges begins. Joshua and the elders have now passed away, and, as we hear today, “a new generation comes to power who does not know the Lord.” So God raised up judges for the people to remind them of their 7-million-denarii grant and to educate them on the pattern of “We need to talk,” “I’m sorry,” and “You’re forgiven.” For a while things were OK, until, as the story says, “whenever the Judge died, the people of Israel would relapse and behave worse than their ancestors.”
I read the Book of Judges as a tragedy like Julius Cesar, The Death of a Salesman, or Romeo and Juliet. The nation of Israel came to ruin because they forgot that it was God to whom they owed the most, and God who they should listen for, and turn to, and say: “I’m sorry” to. Not because God needs to hear it, but because we have the most to gain when we turn our one-denarii-a-day lives over to the king who gave us a 7-million-denarii grant. The Book of Judges was kept in the Bible so we wouldn’t forget what happens to a people who forget the pattern: “We need to talk.” “I’m sorry.” “You are forgiven.”
Jesus the master teacher reminds us of this. It is not intuitive. It is taught. Which means it can be forgotten.