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Wednesday, September 07, 2011
Lectionary Scriptures: Exodus 14:19-31 OR Exodus 15:1b-11 AND Psalm 114:1-8 OR Genesis 50:15-22 AND Psalm 103:1-13, Romans 14:1-12, Matthew 18:21-35

Sunday will see the dedication of the new 9/11 memorial at the site where the twin towers of the World Trade Center stood. The dedication of the Martin Luther King memorial was delayed because of Hurricane Irene, but it is now open to the public. Momentous history-shaping events occur and we try to make sense of them. We build memorials and debate about their design, trying to capture the meaning of the events. We tell stories, write poems, sing songs, paint pictures, reflect on collections of photos, etc.

One summer during a cross-country trip, we deliberately visited a number of memorial sties—Oklahoma City, Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas, an earlier 9/11 memorial in Sherwood Island State Park, Westport, Connecticut (with a view across the water to where the twin towers stood), an unexpected Viet Nam memorial we accidentally stumbled across in remote northern New Mexico. The visits themselves trigger memorials—a black child and a white child playing together on the sidewalk in front of the high school in Little Rock, a young man kneeling in prayer at the Connecticut 9/11 memorial, the boxes of Kleenex strategically placed throughout the Viet Nam memorial.

Our recent lectionary readings have been taking us through the stories told about a momentous event, a defining event, in the life of the Israelites. They were enslaved in Egypt and managed to escape. How could they account for such a wonder? God must have had a hand in it. And so the stories and songs developed. I wonder what kind of memorial we might build today if something similar happened to us. What kind of stories would we tell? What kind of stories do we tell about life-changing events today? What kind of stories are coming out of the Arab Spring that is occurring in the same general region as the Exodus?

All of this week’s readings from the Hebrew scriptures connect with the escape of the Israelites from the hands of Pharaoh. The reading from Exodus 14 tells the story of the crossing of the Red Sea. In Exodus 15 Moses and the people sing a song in celebration of their escape, at the end of which Miriam and “all the women” begin to dance, with Miriam picking up the song. (Exodus 15:20-21) Psalm 114:3 says that “the sea looked and fled.” Psalm 103:7 declares that the Lord “made know his ways to Moses, his acts to the people of Israel.” The reading from Genesis is a reminder that all this is part of the good that came out of Joseph being in Egypt (although that connection seems tenuous at best, since it was a new generation of Egyptians which no longer remembered Joseph was now involved). (See Genesis 50:20—See also Exodus 1:8—“Now a new king arose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph.”)

We can worry ourselves with questions about the historical reliability of these stories and wonder about the “miracles” involved. There are many possible interpretations but we cannot finally know “what really happened.” What we have are stories and songs of interpretation, attempts to share the meaning of the events. I’ve been moved by these stories from my earliest memories of stories about baby Moses in the bulrushes. They’ve shaped my life, have even been incorporated into some interpretations of our national history and into the stories of African-American slaves and their struggle for freedom.

This time through, however, I have become acutely aware of something in them that troubles me. I cannot deny, nor do I want to, that God was somehow at work in these events. I’m troubled, however, with the glee over the death of enemies, almost dancing on their graves. I find the same conflict that was present when Osama bin Laden was killed.

We all tell stories about the momentous events in our lives, but I am troubled when the stories seem to delight in the death of our enemies. “ . . . the Lord tossed the Egyptians into the sea . . not one of them remained . . . Thus the Lord saved Israel that day from the Egyptians . . . Israel saw the great work that the Lord did against the Egyptians.” (Exodus 14:27-31) Moses sings, “In the greatness of your majesty you overthrew your adversaries; you sent out your fury, it consumed them like stubble . . . You blew with your wind, the sea covered them; they sank like lead in the mighty waters.” (Exodus 15:7 & 10) Miriam picks up the lines with which Moses began, “Sing to the Lord, for he has triumphed gloriously; horse and rider he has thrown into the sea.” (vs. 21)

The attitude I find in the New Testament readings seems to be quite different. They deal with judgment and forgiveness. The issues in Rome had to do with food practices and observance of special days, but the underlying message applies more generally. Although Paul strays from his instruction against judging others by calling those who “eat only vegetables” weak, he says, “Those who eat must not despise those who abstain, and those who abstain must not pass judgment on those who eat; for God has welcomed them. Who are you to pass judgment . . .? Why do you pass judgment on your brother or sister? Or you, why do you despise your brother or sister?” (Romans 14:1-4) This nonjudgmental attitude is rooted in the reality that we are all “the Lord’s.” (vss. 7-8)

The Gospel lesson carries it a step further—into forgiveness. How many times should we forgive? Maybe seven times? No, Jesus says, seventy-seven times—or as some of us learned it from the King James Version, seventy times seven (490). (Matthew 18:21-22) It’s not about keeping count. As the Good News Bible puts it in I Corinthians 13, the great love chapter, “love does not keep a record of wrongs.” (vs. 5) Jesus is not telling us to stop forgiving after we’ve reached a certain point—so many strikes and you’re out. We could get into complex interpretations of the symbolism of seven in the Bible. It’s enough to say that it usually refers to perfection, so is the instruction perhaps to be perfect in our forgiving?

Jesus goes on to tell a parable about a slave who owed money to the king. The king forgave his debt (Matthew 18:23-27), but the slave was harsh with someone who owed him (the slave) money, “seizing him by the throat” and saying, “Pay what you owe.” (vs. 28) The end of the parable seems harsh in that the king (“his lord”) “handed him over to be tortured . . .” (vss. 32-35) Underlying, however, is the truth that it is difficult to experience forgiveness if we are unwilling to forgive. We cannot move on in our own lives until we let go of the bitterness or resentment we may feel toward another. In another place Jesus says, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” (Matthew 5:43-44)

Seeking revenge, harboring resentment, keeping alive stories of hatred and blame, just don’t work. Feuds go on for generations. Even today historic enmities fuel continued conflict in the Middle East. We can only move on when there is forgiveness and reconciliation and healing.

So what kind of memorials are we going to build and dedicate? What kind of remembering are we going to do? What kinds of stories are we going to tell about what has happened? Are they going to keep alive a spirit of forgiveness and reconciliation, allowing us to move on into a new reality for all involved, or are we going to perpetuate blame and hatred, division and misunderstanding?

Margie and I have been working our way through a series of reflections by Henri Nouwen, Roman Catholic priest noted as the author of “The Wounded Healer” and as a worker with a community of men and women with mental disabilities. The title is “Bread for the Journey: a Daybook of Wisdom and Faith.” I offer the words of one reflection, “Bridging the Gap Between People”: “To become neighbors is to bridge the gap between people. As long as there is distance between us and we cannot look into one another’s eyes, all sorts of false ideas and images arise. We give them names, make jokes about them, cover them with our prejudices, and avoid direct contact. We think of them as enemies. We forget that they love as we love, care for their children as we care for ours, become sick and die as we do. We forget that they are our brothers and sisters and treat them as objects that can be destroyed as well. Only when we have the courage to cross the road and look in one another’s eyes can we see there that we are children of the same God and members of the same human family.” May such sentiments adorn all of our memorials!

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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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