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Tuesday, August 30, 2011
Lectionary Scriptures: Exodus 12:1-14 AND Psalm 149:1-9 OR Ezekiel 33:7-11 AND Psalm 119:33-40, Romans 13:8-14, Matthew 18:15-20

For inspiration and challenge I often turn to Frederick Buechner, widely-acclaimed American writer and theologian, a Presbyterian minister. In “A Room Called Remember,” he writes, “We have survived, you and I . . . After twenty years, forty years, sixty years or eighty, we have made it to this year, this day. We needn’t have made it. There were times we never thought we would and nearly didn’t. There were times we almost hoped we wouldn’t, were ready to give the whole thing up. Each must speak for himself, for herself, but I can say for myself that I have seen sorrow and pain enough to turn the heart to stone . . . To remember my life is to remember countless times when I might have given up, gone under, when humanly speaking I might have gotten lost beyond the power of any to find me. But I didn’t . . . And each of you, with all the memories you have and the tales you could tell, you have not given up. You also are survivors and are here. And what does that tell us, our surviving? . . . Who or what was with us all those years? Who or what do we have to thank for you survival?”

There are survivors groups of various sorts, identified because they have survived this or that—transplant survivors, cancer survivors, abuse survivors, holocaust survivors. Battlefield (and other) survivors often struggle with why they made it home when the buddies next to them didn’t. Beuchner reminds us that all of us who are alive are survivors. Others along the way have died, whatever the reasons for their deaths. Every day of life is another day of survival.

What are the stories we tell about our survival, the reasons we give for it, the ways in which we interpret it? At the age of 15 I survived the crash of a car which was crushed nearly flat after flipping through the air and landing on its top. I pried the bottom of the door open and squeezed through unscratched. It didn’t become a defining story for my life, but it sobered me for a time, and I cannot deny that I am a survivor. Things are different, for me and for others, because I survived. The outcome made a small difference in history.

In biblical history, we are, among other things, survivors. Why is it, though, that surviving often leads to a story that says we are chosen? Why do we have to tell stories of the destruction of our enemies to make sense of our survival?

The Hebrew people escape from Egypt and ever since the story of that escape/deliverance has been central to their religious observance and identity. It is a story of “passover” described in this week’s reading from Exodus, chapter 12, ending with the words, “This day shall be a day of remembrance for you. You shall celebrate it as a festival to the Lord; throughout your generations you shall observe it as a perpetual observance.” (Exodus 12:14) The choosing of a lamb for slaughter is described (vss. 5-6), including what to do if a whole lamb will be too much for one family—“join the closest neighbor in obtaining one . . .” (vs. 4) Blood from the lamb painted on the doorposts and lintel will protect the firstborn when God strikes down Egyptian children as an act of judgment upon Egypt. (vss. 7 & 12-13) The lamb is eaten hastily in preparation for fleeing. “This is how you shall eat it: your loins girded, your sandals on your feet, and your staff in you hand; and you shall eat it hurriedly.” (vs. 11)

The story has carried over into Christianity, with Jesus as the sacrificial lamb whose blood provides protection. It is a story of chosenness. We are survivors who have made it because our enemies have been defeated.

I find it an uncomfortable, even offensive, story. I refuse to believe in a God who goes around killing firstborn children of any nation, who demands blood as a sign that I “deserve” protection.

Yet, by the very fact that I am alive today, I am a survivor. Like the battlefield survivor, I am troubled by those who have dropped by the wayside as we’ve traveled together. Nevertheless, like the battlefield survivor, I am a survivor and life goes on. How am I to interpret my survival and what am I to do with it?

If you think I’m going to give you an answer, you’ll probably be disappointed. What you’re getting is what today’s readings triggered in me. Some of the same tone continues in others of the readings. Psalm 149 is a call to celebration, but includes the lines, “Let the high praises of God be in their throats and two-edged swords in their hands, to execute vengeance on the nations and punishment on the peoples . . . to execute on them the judgment decreed.” (Psalm 149:6-9) The reading from Ezekiel speaks of the wicked dying “in their iniquity.” (Ezekiel 33:8) It is true that they are given the chance to turn from their ways and be saved. (vs. 9) It is true that God says, “I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked . . .” (vs. 11) The general tone, however, is that the good survive and the wicked die. Survival is a reward to those who are good. Any casual observer of life knows that we who have survived have often been no better than those who didn’t, sometimes even worse. It doesn’t work for me as a way to tell the story of my survival, if there is any story that can adequately interpret such a momentous reality. I am alive. I have survived. Why?

The second reading from the Psalms continues with the undercurrent of finding and following the right rules so that “disgrace” may be escaped. (Psalm 119:39—See also vss. 36-37 as well as the entire reading) The Gospel lesson also focuses upon the punishment of wrongdoing. Granted it offers a series of steps in which the wrongdoer is given chances to change his or her ways. If he or she will not listen to the one who has been wronged, others are brought into the process. (Matthew 18:15-17) Finally, though, if the wrongdoer does not listen, he or she is cut off from the community. “Let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector,” that is to say, an untouchable. (vs. 17) These verses and a few similar ones have become the basis for the “shunning” practiced by some groups. One who is shunned is treated as if he or she no longer existed. To survive is to follow the rules. It’s another narrative that I find inadequate for the interpretation of my survival.

We’re still doing it far too often, in our individual stories, in our national politics—treating our survival as giving us special privilege, a sign that we are better, more righteous than other individuals or groups or nations. I don’t want to offend you by being so negative. I’m sure if we worked hard at it we could come up with reconciling interpretations that draw on these strains in biblical history. I know that many have worked on it for years and that there are theologians out there bringing new perspectives to old stories. This week, though, it just seems like it shouldn’t be so difficult. Is that what God really wants for us? Is the divine word for the human situation that difficult to understand?

The epistle reading from Romans seems to blow fresh air on stale legalism. All that matters is loving one another. The one who has done that “has fulfilled the law.” (Romans 13:8) All the commandments “are summed up in this word, “Love your neighbor as yourself . . . love is the fulfilling of the law.” (vss. 9-10) Of course, loving is not simple, but it moves us to another level in dealing with what it means to survive. However we work out the details of love, to survive is to keep on loving—and, by the way, we can look at Jesus and find out a lot about what it means to love. There’s still a bit of the old tone of judgment in the contrast between “the works of darkness” and the things of light (vss. 11-13), but the center is putting on “the Lord Jesus Christ.” (vs. 14)

Finally, survival, for me, means that each day is a gift of grace. I don’t know why I survived and someone else didn’t. All I know is that I am here and today is a gift to be filled with love—love received and love given. Frederick Buechner puts it this way: “We could never have made it this far if we had had only each other to depend on because nobody knows better than we do ourselves the undependability and frailty of even the strongest among us . . . To remember the past is to see that we are here today by grace, that we have survived as a gift.”

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Kairos-Milwaukie UCC Blog

Reflections on the Revised Common Lectionary by Rev. Rick Skidmore and Rev. Jim Ogden.

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