It may be being 71 but I’ve been remembering lots of things lately; that I went to dancing classes in the early spring of 1958 when I was 12 years old at the Crocker Dance Academy on 38th and Jay Street in Sacramento, California during my first semester in the 7th grade and there was a girl named Virginia Otwell attending from my school and there was at least one diagram of something called a box step painted on the floor of the main studio.
My understanding is the box step was invented and even patented, by a man named Arthur Murray, who, with his wife Katherine, founded a worldwide chain of Dance Studios, all with the box step, at least one, painted on the floor; so we may have had an unauthorised version.
Now the box step consists of six moves, left foot forward, right foot moving alongside, but not too close, then the left food joining together with right foot, the right foot moving backwards, the left foot moving alongside, but at a distance, and then both feet finally together again. The diagram helped for awhile, but it also tended to box you in, make you think there was only one way to do this, which is not the whole truth about dancing, but is what you have to get beyond in learning to really move, and that I think tells us something about the tension between following the law as compared with following love.
Now it’s important to note the diagrams, the blueprints, the rules and laws and standards are not wrong, for they, and the kind of knowledge they stand for, tell us how much, how many, where and when; gives line, outline, location and that’s very important. But other ways of knowing go deeper into questions of who and how and why; get you moving better, swivel your hips, so to speak, get your hands going, push your breath a bit. And that second way of moving into life differs from the legal and diagrammatic knowledge as recipe and formula differs from bread and wine, as studying a road map from beginning a journey, as looking at a house plan from building and moving into a new home. And I think in the long run we need to leave those first steps behind and dance more freely with the deeper stories — the ones that stop us in our tracks and turn us around, gasping for new air and wide-eyed, looking at who and where we are as if we are seeing everything for the very first time.
That’s where we meet today’s story from Matthew’s gospel. Three acts: a slave owes his king lots of money; king orders the slave and his belongings be sold for partial payment could be made; the slave pleads for patience, king feels compassion, and forgives the whole shebang. Second act: slave sees another slave who owes him less and demands payment; second slave pleads for mercy but is thrown in prison. Third act; Fellow slaves report this to king, who summons slave saying: "I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I did on you?" And hands him over to be tortured until he pays the entire debt. And Jesus summarises, “God will do the same to every one, If you do not forgive your brother or sister in your heart."
The truth is the gospel is full of nasty stories with tough endings and Jesus tells them to shake up our tendency to diagram, to destabilise our rigid accounting and conceptual structures. Because Jesus wants, I think, to break them open at precisely the right time to give us a new angle and insight on what is right in front of us and how we can start again. So the tough truth is that looking head-on at a bad ending can serve as a way to begin again. Quoting Ecclesiasticus: "Remember the end of your life, and cease from enmity, Remember destruction and death, and be true to the commandments."
So here’s another memory: in the mid eighties there were several TV shows about the effects of a nuclear holocaust: terrible pictures of the light and the wind and the fire that would follow dropping those big bombs. And even if we survived, it would be a silent world where bees, birds and the “dumb” animals had been blinded by that false light. So the spring following would have fewer colours, less song after that infernal grey blossom had fallen.
I was in seminary then and whenever I would hear the campus bells striking the hour I would stop what I was doing and look at the possibility that it all might end. To look around while the bells were ringing, and people, animals, plants and trees were moving and breathing together and think: "It could all be over, vanished, finished." And when the bells stopped ringing and the sounds of everyday came back I would look around and think; "There is a chance, we are not dead yet."
We need to forgive each other because we are not dead yet — and there is a chance in a mysterious and graceful way, that we are newborn, like children, full of possibilities, full of innocence and promise, full of beginning. We have that choice.
The man in the story Jesus tells makes an error when he doesn't take the chance to renew himself and the world where he lives. Instead, he looks to get it for half-price, accepting the fact of mercy and forgiveness given him but not passing it on to others. And that’s what ends up cutting him in two!
For Jesus says that the measure you put out is the measure you receive. Like the Lord’s Prayer, “Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us,” like the Beatle’s White Album, “And in the end the love you take is equal to the love you make.” We are called to be coworkers in the harvest, spreading forgiveness and blessing based on how much we give and how much we give up. For, I think, in forgiving others we allow them the chance to be born anew: we assent and assist in the birth of God in this daily world; allowing the possibilities of the mystery and forgiveness and renewal of God's life to begin once again: in them, in us.
This is not to say that you need to check your mind at the gate. This does not mean you lose all your choices. You don't have to keep patting the dog who bites you, but you need to know what you can share with each other on the deepest level of it all, where we can all begin again.
And that’s why the truth of forgiveness does not fit on a diagram or a flowchart; because the real actions of life are both bigger and finer than that: we are born to move and to dance in the middle of a moving mystery that will always, by Gods grace, be beyond what we know.
So in late March of 1958 I attended the Spring Dance at Kit Carson Junior High School and danced with Virginia Otwell. The decorated gymnasium was crowded and hot and the music was loud and there were no diagrams on the floor. I think I stepped on her feet several times and she may have even stepped on mine. But we got through it, making mistakes, making progress, forgiving each other, dancing a bit closer and faster, moving on. I don’t know whatever happened to her, haven’t thought of her for over fifty years, but I am glad to be dancing with you today.