Fairfax Fair: Choosing to Be Captive or Free


The phone call came out of the blue. The men on the call, men whose son and daughter were married to one another, were cordial but not buddies, not pals. They lived in different towns: they led separate lives. If not for their young adult children, they never would have known one another.

Jack initiated the call. His son was still just a boy. Yes, he was married. True, he could buy a beer, vote, and legally sign a contract, but he really was still just a boy, still growing up, still maturing, still growing into the man he would become. Or not. Or not, because Jack's boy, his son, had metastatic cancer. The boy, the young man, wanted to live - oh, how badly he wanted to live - for his wife, for their newly-born child, for the hopes he had for a house that someday would be full of children, for a house that would be a gathering place for his children's friends and neighborhood kids. But none of that was apt to happen. Jack's son was dying.

Jack initiated the call that late afternoon. He was angry, very angry because his son had spurned his advice. Thunderstorms had crisscrossed the area the day before, the day Jack, Jr. was to return to the hospital. The boy - the young man - had elected for the couple and their son to drive back to the city instead of flying in Jack's light plane. The decision infuriated his father. The girl's father listened. Jack was unrelenting. He wanted the two of them - the two fathers - to confront their children together, to tell them how wrong their action was. The rant stretched on.

"Jack," the other man finally said, "Stop. Think how lucky you are to have your son. When you go down tomorrow for his birthday, don't fuss at your boy. Celebrate that he is alive to turn 25. Love him." But Jack persisted. His anger ran unabated. The other father kept trying. "Be grateful you have him. This may be the last birthday you get with him."

The next day Jack and his wife visited their son in the hospital. Double I-Vs ran into his chest and his arm, carrying chemo and hydrating fluids. His parents told him how angry they were. They blasted him for making the decision to drive instead of fly. Then they left. The young man's birthday was not mentioned.

Jesus tells a parable about a king who does some checking on his accounts receivable and discovers that a certain laborer owes him about a kazillion dollars, more than the combined national economies of all the G8 nations. The laborer is summoned. He falls to his knees and begs for mercy, for time to do the impossible, for time to repay what is owed. Inexplicably and without so much as a word, the king relents. The king as much as shrugs and says, "Okay. I forgive the debt."

And just like that, the laborer is free. His totally unpayable debt is vaporized, whoosh, like the sound of thousands of e-mails being deleted from the trash, one minute clogging the operating system, gone forever the next.

Picture the laborer, walking away from the castle, standing a little taller, shoulders back, whistling a merry tune. If this were a musical we might see him do a little jig, tap his heels together in the air. But this is a life-like story and the laborer sees a fellow worker, one who owes him a piddling sum, so the laborer stops in his tracks. He lapses back into bondage, back into bondage to spread sheets and accounts receivable and to a blind allegiance to what he sees as fair.

"Yo. You. You owe me five bucks. Pay up now. Right now." The co-worker falls to his knees. "Patience, man, patience! Friday's coming. I will get right with you." But no. That is not good enough. The man whose debt has been forgiven is hard. Immediately, he throws the man in prison. Really? Set free from an impossible debt, this man cannot look past the cost of a cup of coffee and a doughnut? Really? Your son is dying and, instead of celebrating that you get to spend another birthday with him, you want to chew him out?

So often our captivity is of our own making. So often our captivity is to a self-righteous sense of fairness that is corrupted by pride and arrogance and reinforced by a self-inflicted blindness to grace. So often our captivity is due to our refusal to accept the amazing freedom we are offered, the freedom to step beyond ourselves and into a realm that Christ opens to us, a realm where the unimportance of what trips us up is evident and the great expanse of abundant life can be claimed. Accepting Christ's freedom, our ego needs dissolve before the joy of what we are given.

God's forgiveness is freely offered us - see the parable - but gratitude is a learned trait that requires us to get outside ourselves. A toddler's perception that the world revolves around him is cute. Not so endearing is an adult's demand that the world center on him, his whims and insecurities. Gratitude requires recognition of another's grace-filled offering, of another's doing something for us and our accepting the gift with humility. Taking a gift for granted or receiving a gift with a sense of entitlement makes waste of what is offered and deprives us of the wonder and awe of the connection that unites us through a gift given and received.

Grace is like clear mountain air. Grace is a candle's light in darkness. Grace enfolds us in its warmth and gentleness. Grace lifts what weighs us down. Grace gives us freedom, the ability to breathe deeply, and it is a gift that is ours to share. Grace moves us beyond pettiness to acceptance of what we can never deserve but can pass on. Grace always catches us by surprise; if grace were rote, it would be routine and grace is never routine. Grace always exceeds expectations. Perhaps this is why the spurning of grace shocks and surprises us.

Many years ago, before I went to seminary, I was helping out with my church's Vacation Bible School. As an experiment, we set the schedule to run weeknights, one Monday through Friday from 5:30 - 8:30, so that whole families could participate. Each evening began with a light supper.

One day that week, just before time for the meal, I was in the pastor's office when a car, missing a muffler, drove up and rumbled to a stop in the parking lot. The car's windows were open - stray heads and arms protruded - all of which added credence to the reality that the car was stuffed beyond capacity. The father of the large family soon presented himself at the door to the pastor's study. "Preacher," he said, "we ain't had nothing to eat for three days. There's seven hungry kids in the back of my wagon and we wondered if you wouldn't give us some money so we can get us some food."

The preacher stepped across the room and extended his hand to the stranger. "Welcome to First Presbyterian Church," he said. "Your timing's good. We are having Bible School here this week and you and your family are welcome to come in and join us for dinner." "What cha servin'?" the stranger asked. "Well, let me see," the minister said, as he turned to look at the week's menu tacked to his cork board. "This is Thursday, so tonight is hot dogs with all the fixin's." "Hot dogs? We don't want any old hot dogs." The preacher looked surprised. "Well, I'm sorry, sir, but that's what we're having here tonight." The scruffy man turned on his heels with a harrumph and stomped back to his car.

Friends, the root of gratitude is grace. Why is grace so hard to accept? True gratitude changes us. It leads to more than a word of thanks or - once upon a time - a note. True gratitude leads to action and opens us to Jesus' math lessons, lessons that strike terror in the hearts of those who like to keep score. Jesus' system of accountability sounds like chaos because his system allows an infinite number of do-overs. Jesus' system allows second and third and fourth and fortieth and an infinite number of offerings of grace. That's another truth about grace. It is without limit.

Of course, it matters if we run up debts we cannot pay, if we fixate on perceived slights or take advantage of people. Of course, we know that anything goes only works when accompanied by a Cole Porter soundtrack, that civilization depends on limiting our appetites and excesses and being respectful of one another. Do we know that life in community means showing one another the grace and forgiveness we are shown?

Sonny and a bunch of his buddies had stopped by the local watering hole after work. Driving home a few hours later, he hadn't seen the kid on a bike, the kid who was dead before Sonny knew what he hit. The boy's family is one of those that gives us pause, one of those that causes us to marvel. The boy's family forgave Sonny, said they knew alcoholism is a disease. But the boy's family was surprised a couple years later when their younger son's errant baseball broke Sonny's kitchen window and he demanded payment for its repair.

Really? Really?

Do we stake claims on principle when blind self-centeredness is the actual cause of our rude or senseless actions? What blocks our acceptance of the freedom Jesus Christ offers us? Is ingratitude what causes us to walk on by, unmoved, unchanged?

God's gift is for us. It is the gift of new life. Why would we choose to stay locked in narrow bitterness instead of stepping into the wide-open freedom of forgiving and being forgiven?

Make no mistake: God's forgiveness is not fair; it is grace. God's forgiveness is not tit-for-tat, a penny placed on a scale, a penny taken off the scale. God's grace is freedom to live large, not to be hung up on one another's shortcomings but to rejoice in God's extravagant acceptance and share that extravagance with others.

Thank God, God does not weigh what is fair and what is not. Thank God, God forgives beyond measure. And thank God, we have the freedom to do likewise. To God be all glory, honor and praise, world without end. Amen.