Wednesday, March 10, 2010

"The Calculus of Forgiveness" - March 10, 2010 (Matthew 18:15-22)

[Speaker enters sanctuary down the center aisle, wearing college-themed hoodie or sweatshirt and blue jeans, carrying a backpack. At the center of the chancel sits a school desk, the kind with the desk part attached to the chair. Speaker sits in the chair and pulls a notebook with the word “Calculus” on it.]

Maybe it was a mistake to sign up for this professor. It’s very likely I could fail. Of all the calculus professors I’d heard about on campus, this one was supposedly the best. As an instructor, he has a reputation for being very demanding, with a good grasp on the material he is teaching. However, he is also one of the most unpopular instructors. For, out of all the calculus and advanced math professors here at the university, he is the only one who offers no partial credit on assignments or exams. Not even a little bit. That is, if the final answer at the end of your four-page solution is wrong—even by a small fraction—he counts the entire problem as wrong.

[face the “front of the class” and act as if responding to a role call]

For those of you who have been lucky enough to escape the purgatory that is calculus, you must know that receiving partial credit is often the only hope of passing a calculus class. Like I said, solutions to problems can go on for pages. It’s not like arithmetic—two-plus-two equals-four, and there you have it. Here, one little misplaced negative sign or one small misstep early on in the process can completely skew the final result. Every step of your logic can be correct and well-thought-out, but the final answer can still be wrong.

Other professors will look at the process you used to answer a problem and grade you on that, overlooking the fact that the end product is off. Other professors will give your thought and intent the benefit of the doubt, saying, “well, up until this point, your solution was on-track,” and reward you for it. In other words, you can take an entire test and still pass without ever getting an answer technically right.

[pause and face the front for a few seconds, as if listening to the instructor]

But this professor doesn’t allow that. He is adamant. He sees no point in partial credit, and it is not uncommon for an entire section of his class to receive a failing grade for the semester. This is not gracious, at least in the eyes of most students, but I’m going to give him a try, anyway.

I suppose I should introduce myself at some point. I’m Peter, college student.  Willing disciple of the academy, going for that degree. My fellow classmates know me as the one who speaks out a lot and gets myself into trouble with some of the questions I ask. Even though it might be foolish for me to be taking calculus from this professor, I suppose I’m drawn to him because something tells me that only someone with truly firm and complete grasp of how to communicate the subject matter can demand such a high standard from his students.

You know, in that sense, calculus is a lot like the business of forgiveness, which I understand is your focus during Lent. It, too, involves grueling work. Like a math problem that goes on and on for pages in search of an undetermined figure, forgiving someone is often a lengthy process striving toward and end result you won’t know until you get there. That’s one of the more frustrating aspects of it. You often have to keep working and working at it and at some point you might even think forgiving someone and re-establishing trust is an unsolvable problem.

Forgiveness can be very complicated. At one point in speaking with his disciples, Jesus lays out quite an extensive, multi-step pattern for how to address sin and brokenness between fellow believers. You begin by going to the offending party alone and address the situation that way. If that doesn’t lead to apology and reconciliation, then you bring a few witnesses along with you the next time. If that still doesn’t help, the larger community gets a say in negotiating the details of the facts and emotions involved. That’s, of course, where it can really get tricky, but the effort of the community in reaching out is powerful. In the end, if the offender still is not regained, Jesus surprises us with the conclusion that “such a person shall be to you like a tax collector or a sinner.” Well, we all know how Jesus treats tax collectors and sinners. Never saw that answer coming!

No matter what occurs, however, Jesus promises that he will be present on the side of whomever is honestly seeking reconciliation. “Where two or three are gathered in my name,” he says, “I am there with them.” That would be gathered in the name of forgiveness. All of this is surrounded in prayer of hearts that are earnestly seeking to do their Father’s will.

Let me tell you: calculus requires an awful lot of prayer, too. Especially in the high standards of this professor’s class.

[pause, as if taking notes]

By the way, a freak accident occurred in the city last week that came up in class. At one of the local malls where a lot of people shop, the parking deck collapsed unexpectedly in the middle of the wee morning hours. For no reason at all the thing just pancaked, each floor of concrete and steel dropping to the next one below it. Thankfully, no one was injured because it happened at such an ungodly hour, but if it had occurred during peak shopping hours, there is no telling how many people could have been killed.

As you can imagine, mall officials and contractors were all over the news, trying to explain the catastrophe. We came in for class the next day and do you know what our calculus professor said? He said, “I bet the engineer who designed that parking garage got partial credit in his calculus class.”

As it turns out, there’s no partial credit in forgiveness, either. Jesus has high standards, too, and he means to hold us to it. The standards for its practice must be high because the stakes are also high. The option, I suppose, is to live in a world that collapses like a parking deck under the weight of everyone’s sin and under the stress of everyone’s pursuit of revenge for every wrong done. The standards are high because if the community who follows Jesus can’t dedicate itself to practice complete forgiveness, then the world will just opt for the partial-credit versions it already has.

When Peter, my biblical namesake, wants specifics and asks Jesus if seven attempts at forgiveness is enough, Jesus sets his standards even higher. Like a master math professor, Jesus comes up with an even more terrific number, saying not just seven times, but 70 times that amount.

Well, you and I could calculate 70 times 7. It’s 490. Talk about an easy calculation! But that’s not the point of that number Jesus gives. You see, 70 times 7 is an ancient biblical way of saying “always,” or “the perfect amount,” or “until it’s done. And then some.” Jesus actually reaches into a story in the Old Testament to come up with that outlandish number. There’s a story in Genesis where a man named Lamech pronounces vengeance not seven-fold, but seventy-seven fold, or seventy-fold times seven. He is really forceful about it, as if this mode of eye-for-seventy-seven-eyes will rule his world.

Jesus’ response to Peter, then, is like the kingdom of heaven’s antidote to an unlimited system of revenge. How many times do we forgive our brother or sister? Until the problem is solved. Unlimited, if that’s the case. We put our energy in the vulnerability of forgiveness rather than the power of revenge. We always remain open—truly open—to the fact that God will bring about reconciliation between two or more parties. That doesn’t mean we lay down at the foot of our abusers and enable their harmful behavior. It doesn’t mean we let people walk all over us, but it does mean we take seriously that revenge-seeking and being utterly closed to a future of hope and reconciliation is not an option for those who follow Jesus.

It is something we are compelled to do, you see, because we are part of the Forgiving One. By virtue of our baptism, we’re all in this calculus class section, you might say. We have literally been made a part of his body here on earth, and the practice of forgiveness is the very blood that courses through its veins. He forgives, so we forgive. And there is no partial credit to it. Thankfully, the Spirit is given to aid us in the pursuit of these seemingly incalculable solutions.

Like I said earlier, only someone with a clear and complete grasp of the subject matter could hold us to such a high standard. I think Jesus pretty much proved that on the cross. There’s nothing really “partial” about that event. It may not sound like grace the first times we hear it—to have a professor who will demand so much from us—but it is.

It really is grace. It is grace to be involved in this world-changing force. Costly, incalculable grace. Grace that we first receive.

[pause and listen to front of class again, as if it’s about to come to a close. Begin putting book into backpack.]

Well, I suppose I’ve probably talked too long already. Class is about over, and he’s already handed out homework. As demanding as it is, I’m thankful for another opportunity to learn at the foot of the master, I presume you could say. Another chance, ears open and pencil ready, leaning forward to hear what he might say. Thankful for another day to have my own errors corrected, my own misperceptions of this calculus straightened out.

[leaving chancel, pausing to speak:]

Just like it’s another day to be forgiven. Yeah, that's it: forgiven. One more time.

But who’s counting?


1 comment:

  1. Great! I remember all those events from your days at NCSTATE. I can just imagine watching you deliver the sermon as described. Those drama experiences from RJR High helped too!