Wednesday, September 07, 2011

In the Lord's Hands -- a Lectionary Reflection

Exodus 14:19-31

Romans 14:1-12

Matthew 18:21-35

In the Lord’s Hands

This coming Sunday, as we venture to church, it is likely that most will have in mind the tenth anniversary of the attacks of September 11, 2001.  This day has defined life in America for the past decade.  It defines our politics and our religion.  It impacts our travel and the way we look at the world.  For those who gave Islam only a passing glance before 9-11, Islam, the second largest religion in the world has consumed out attention.  Fear has become a primary emotion for many, leading to suspicion and anger.  No longer do we look for communists hiding under the rocks the way we did when I was growing up, but rather it’s the possibility that Muslims could take over.  Indeed, so prominent has this feeling been of late that it has fed rumors about the President and led to efforts to pass laws that would ban the use of Muslim law as a point of reference in American courts.  It has spawned two wars and other forms of violence toward the other.  At the same time, some have chosen to use this as an opportunity to learn more about their neighbors whose faith and practices are different.  

Yes, this weekend as we gather for worship, we will have in mind the events of 9-11.  That day will color the way we read these texts that lay before us – texts that speak of God’s deliverance of Israel from the armies of Pharaoh, or a word from Paul about judging those whose perspectives might seem odd to us, and finally a word from Jesus about forgiveness.  Each of these words has something to say to how we think about our place in the world and our relationships with others.  

The Exodus story is a continuing drama of deliverance.  The people are first enslaved and then lost, but all along the way, God is present.  As with most of these Exodus stories, our vision of them is formed by having watched DeMille’s The Ten Commandments.  We may have even experienced the parting of the waters of the Red Sea while on a Universal Studio’s Tour.  Of course, when you go on the tour the dramatic nature of this separating of the waters isn’t nearly so grand as portrayed in the movie or in this text before us.  The point is that the people have fled and the armies of Pharaoh are in pursuit.  They are trapped between this army and the sea.  There is no hope of escape, except that Yahweh is on their side, and descending in the form of a cloud, the divine presence stands between the armies, while Moses is instructed to put his hand above the sea, at which point it divides, and the people begin crossing the dry sea bed.  As they make their way across, the army is allowed to follow, only the army of Pharaoh suffers confusion as a result of the presence of the cloud and then their chariots get stuck in the muck.  Once across, the Lord instructs Moses to set his hand above the waters, and they return to their normal depth, wiping out the armies of Pharaoh.  And the people cheered.  Of course they cheered.   We always cheer when our enemies are destroyed – correct?  The point here is that Yahweh had saved the day, and when Israel saw what God had done they “feared and believed in the Lord and his servant Moses.”  Of course, this fear, which might be better rendered as reverence didn’t last very long – but that’s another story.  

We, especially those of us who find it difficult envisioning God tossing the armies of our enemies back into the sea so they would drown, might find this scene difficult to comprehend.  It might not sit well with us, and probably shouldn’t.  But even we can take something from this word at a time like this – we can recognize that God is present in our time of trial.  Perhaps the key to our understanding of this passage is found in a verse that stands just prior to this lectionary reading.  In verse 13, as the people cry out in fear and ask why Moses had taken them out to this point only to die, Moses replies: “Do not be afraid, stand firm, and see the deliverance that the Lord will accomplish for you this day . . .”  Don’t be afraid – don’t let fear keep you from walking in faith.  And then, at the end of the passage we see that fear transformed.  No longer afraid of dying at the hands of Pharaoh, they give their “fear” – reverence – to Yahweh who saves.

From the story of the Israelites facing impending doom only to be delivered by Yahweh, we turn to Romans 14, where Paul deals with something much more mundane.  There is division in the ranks, with people taking up sides over what they should eat and when they should worship.  The elephant in the room is the Gentile/Jewish debate over how much of the law to keep.  You can see where Paul comes down on the issue – he’s on the side of openness, but he cautions the church, a church he’s never met, to not judge the other.  

The key phrase here is “Welcome the weak in faith.”   Not being a vegetarian, I had to chuckle at Paul’s words about those who are weak in faith and thus who eat only vegetables, but I’m not supposed to judge!  The word that we often use for debates such as this is adiaphora.  It’s not as if we’re never to challenge another on a belief system, but when it comes to those minor issues where there is room for differences, then the advice is – don’t get caught up in quarrels.  If this is important to you, then fine – don’t eat or eat if that is helpful to your faith.  If one day makes a difference to you, then fine – whatever the case, honor the Lord and give thanks for that.  Ultimately, we all stand before God’s judgment – the one who makes the judgment is the Lord, the one to whom every knee shall bow and ever tongue shall give praise.  We are all accountable to God.  As we consider this word from Paul, another set of words comes to mind.  It’s a formula that has long been popular in my own tradition and goes back to a Lutheran theologian known as Rupert Meldinius, who sought to bring Protestants together in unity in the early 17th century.  The word is this: “In essentials unity, in nonessentials liberty, and in all things charity.”  For Paul matters of food and day of worship are considered nonessential, and thus there is liberty.  Ultimately, what matters, however, is the God who has invited us into to the realm of God.  

What is the nature of forgiveness?  Is there a limit to the number of times we must forgive another person?  In an age of zero tolerance and three strikes laws, we seem to have little appetite for offering forgiveness to another.  Maybe that’s why people today are so tense.  They are afraid of making a mistake and paying for it the rest of their lives.  It may also play a role in our need for instant gratification and impatience with our political leaders and leaders in general.  There is simply no room for error, even if the error is a matter of perception – unless, of course, you’re a Cubs fan, and Cubs fans seem to understand so very well the message of forgiveness.  There’s always next year, even if they’ve been saying this for more than a century.

The Gospel text for this week maybe welcome news to many, but it’s also a word that we likely have difficulty comprehending.  I’m always taken by Peter’s question – how often must I forgive my neighbor?  Actually the context here is church membership, but cannot we take this outside the confines of the church, especially since the church doesn’t really come into existence until after the period portrayed in the Gospel.  This is especially true if we wish to see the church having a missional vision.  Peter’s suggested answer seemed pretty expansive to him, and by the looks of things is much more generous than anything we would offer today.  Jesus counters this generous offer with one of his own – not seven times but seventy times (or seventy times seven). But, as Eugene Boring and Fred Craddock suggest in their The People’s New Testament Commentary on this passage, the point isn’t the difference in math, but the difference in understanding of forgiveness: “Whoever counts has not forgiven at all but is only biding his or her time (1 Cor. 13:5).  The kind of forgiveness called for is beyond all calculation, as the following story communicates” (p. 76).   

And the story that Jesus tells is one about the boundlessness of God’s forgiveness.  You know the story of the king who seeks to settle accounts with his slaves, and when the slave comes in who owes the master 10,000 talents (or more money than Warren Buffett can dream about), this slave begs for forgiveness.  The king, who has the right to cast the slave into prison, generously forgives this debtor.  Though asking only for patience, the king offers complete freedom of debt.  With this word of forgiveness the one who owed more than can be conceived goes out of the court jumping with joy.  What a wonderful day that was – until he saw another of his fellow slaves heading into court.  Knowing that this “colleague” owes him money (a measly three months wages), he demands payment.  When this debtor asks for the same terms as the one who is owed the money asked for from the king, the one who had been forgiven much rejects the pleas and demands payment immediately.  When such can’t happen, the debtor is cast into prison.  Well you know what happens next – the king learns of this act of ingratitude and ungenerous behavior and hands him over to be tortured – another of those unfortunate sentences that doesn’t sit well with our theology.  Nonetheless, the point is clear.  The expectation is that having been forgiven without calculation, we should treat our neighbor in the same way.  What a word for our day, where we keep a close tally on our debts, even if we have tasted divine forgiveness.  But again, as Paul reminds us – we stand in the gentle hands of God, who alone is our judge.  

So, what is the word that we hear this anniversary weekend?  Is it not a word of forgiveness, a word of reminder that God alone is judge, and ultimately it is God who saves?  Therefore, in an era of ingratitude, impatience, and fear, we may express gratitude, patience, and confidence in God!  

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