Nearly 20 years ago, on October 15, 1997, NASA launched the Cassini spacecraft. Cassini traveled for seven years to reach the planet Saturn, which it did in 2004, and has spent the last 13 years orbiting and exploring the moons around Saturn. Cassini’s mission was to study the giant planet, its rings, moons and magnetosphere. The data it collected and images it sent home led to many discoveries about our solar system. No other spacecraft has ever been so close to Saturn.
On Friday, September 15, Cassini completed its mission. The mission had lasted longer than planned and scientists were afraid that the craft would run out of fuel. If it had, Cassini would have crashed into one of Saturn’s moons, and contaminated the planet. So, as an NPR reporter said: “With Cassini running on empty and no gas station for about a billion miles, NASA decided to go out Thelma & Louise-style. The plucky probe took a final, intentional dive into the object of its obsession.” Cassini’s scientists deliberately sank the craft into Saturn’s upper atmosphere at a high speed. Cassini burned up as it plunged into the planet. The final signal and last bits of data reached Earth about an hour and a half later. NASA confirmed the spacecraft’s demise at 7:55 ET Friday morning.
The photos that Cassini sent from Saturn are stunning. I’ve watched several videos and photo montages about this story. My favorite video is 90 seconds or so of control room footage. The control room looks like you’d expect: several computers arranged in concentric circles; technicians with headphones. Like a doctor beside a deathbed, Flight Director Julie Webster called out “loss of signal” at about 7:55 a.m. Friday, and Project Manager Earl Maize announced, “end of mission.”
I don’t know why I find this so moving. This very scientific thing—all about math and science and years of research—it seems so spiritual to me. I feel affection for this machine, which orbited Saturn 293 times, took 400,000 photos, collected 600 gigabytes of data, and discovered at least seven new moons. They will be analyzing all that data for years to come. The mission has ended, but the work continues. And it’s such a great story.
There is always a tug-of-war, isn’t there, between hard data and quantifiable evidence on the one hand…and interpretation and spiritual, Big T “truth” on the other hand.
In today’s reading from the Gospel of Matthew (Matthew 18:21ff), Peter asks Jesus this famous loaded question: How often do I have to forgive? As many as seven times? Of course, Jesus’ response to Peter’s question is typical…the answer is bigger than the question: No, not seven times. Seventy-seven times. This is also sometimes translated “Seventy times seven,” which is an even greater number.
But you know it’s not about the math, right?
Forgiveness is part and parcel of the Kingdom of Heaven. It’s a given, a constant. Forgiveness not optional. It’s not a choice. We want it to be optional—we want to be able to control and choose it. This is what is at the heart of Peter’s question. This question—how often must I forgive—sets our memories in motion. It prompts us to start quantifying, making lists. I start remembering people I am reluctant to forgive, and those whom I don’t think I can ever forgive. Furthermore, what about those wrongs which are unforgivable? And there are many.
Paul Simon has a song about a divorced couple who has made some peace with each other. They get together every once in a while to “speculate who had been damaged the most.” Peter is trying to pin Jesus down on the limits of forgiveness, to quantify forgiveness. Like Peter, we want life and relationships to be quantifiable and transactional. But God doesn’t work this way.
Our resistance to forgive is based in our resistance to believing that we ourselves are forgiven. Let’s switch our attention away from Peter’s question—our question—and take a look at Jesus’ answer, Let’s hold our lists of hurts and offenses up to the light.
Jesus tells a story about the servant who is forgiven his debt, and then refuses to forgive the other. The king forgives the first slave a debt of 10,000 talents. I know it’s not about the math, but get a load of this. A single talent was about 130 pounds of silver and would take about fifteen years to earn. This means that the servant owed the king about 150,000 years of labor. He would never, ever be able to pay this debt back. A denarius, on the other hand, was worth about a day’s wage, which meant that the second servant owed the first about a hundred days of labor – no small debt, but certainly do-able.
We are certainly called to forgive—we will talk about that another time, make no mistake. (I have heard it said that not forgiving someone is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die.)
I’m not going to talk to you about being forgiving. What I want to talk about is how forgiven YOU are. Our incalculable debt has been forgiven. How can we accept this? How can we believe it? The failure of the first servant isn’t JUST that he won’t forgive his comrade. David Lose says “His failure is that he has just experienced an utterly unexpected, completely beyond-his-wildest-dreams, life-changing moment of grace and seems absolutely untouched by it. He exhibits no sense of gratitude. His whole life changed…and he didn’t even notice.”
We have all suffered storms and disasters and hard times. And it is hard to clean up and get rid of the debris that is left. How often do we leave the old hurts, our old sins…how often do we leave those things lying around where they keep getting in the way, where we keep tripping on them? We have a hard time forgiving ourselves for having made this mess, and so we drag the wreckage behind us forever. This is why we say the confession when we gather as a community…this is why we need to confess. I like the prayer of confession that offers to God “things known and unknown, things done and left undone.” We need to confess our sins, and we need to hear God’s absolution. God loves you. God forgives you. You are forgiven.
If God is to be relevant, the God of the sunny days is there in the storms. The God of the mountaintop is with us in the valleys. There is no way of getting to God without starting with, and going through, our own messy and beautiful humanity. You could say forgiveness starts at home. It’s not about the math, about transactions and who owes whom what. We are loved, in the midst of our very messes and disasters. We are loved, and we are forgiven. God is not far away, God is near.
Unlike Saturn. Saturn is 746 million miles from Earth. It took the NASA spacecraft Cassini seven years to get there, and then it faithfully stayed in Saturn’s orbit for 13 years, weaving in and out of Saturn’s 53 moons like a Celtic knot. The craft’s mission was to explore Saturn, stay close to it, learn all it could. And it did. It did what it was made to do. And when it had done all it could, Cassini gave its life to the mission. The way it went out in flames sounds like something out of the Revelation to John.
Not to push the metaphor beyond the breaking point, but our mission is to orbit around God, study God, to be drawn into God’s magnetosphere. Augustine of Hippo said: “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.” Our hearts are restless until they rest in God.
We have been made to know and love God, just as God knows and loves us. We are made in God’s image, made to lose ourselves in God’s love. And the closer we get to God, the more readily we can grasp God’s mercy, and forgiveness.
Pentecost by William Blake (1757-1827)
Unless the eye catch fire,
The God will not be seen.
Unless the ear catch fire
The God will not be heard.
Unless the tongue catch fire
The God will not be named.
Unless the heart catch fire,
The God will not be loved.
Unless the mind catch fire,
The God will not be known.