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Monday, September 26, 2011
Lectionary Scriptures: Exodus 20:1-4, 7-9, 12-20 AND Psalm 19:1-14 OR Isaiah 5:1-7 AND Psalm 80:7-15, Philippians 3:4b-14, Matthew 21:33-46

Progressive people of faith have a difficult time thinking of God as the ultimate lawgiver who stands on the mountains shouting orders, or of God as one who peers over our shoulders waiting to catch us in a misstep. It doesn’t sit well with us when Moses says that God’s commandments were given “to put fear of him upon you so that you do not sin.” (Exodus 20:20—Is that verse supposed to give us 20/20 vision?)

Still—we tend to agree that the ten commandments presented in Exodus 20 are a pretty good framework for civilized living. We see them as a worthy description of what it takes, at the most basic level, to keep human society functioning. Whatever overtones of divine authority accompany them, I like to think of them a body of wisdom distilled from human experience. In fact, I believe that God is more likely to work through such realities than God is to expect pronouncements from on high to do the job.

At our best, and when our eyes and others senses observe clearly, we know that killing is not an effective way to solve human problems. (Exodus 20:13—“You shall not murder.”) We know that coveting what our neighbors have attacks our sense of self-worth and often leads to battles over who gets how much of what. (Exodus 20:17—“You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or male or female slave, or ox, or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.”) We even know that a life which does not find a focus (whether we call it “god” or not) is generally not as effective as one that does. (Exodus 20:3—“You shall have no other gods before me.”) We know that some values become addictive and destructive (false gods, “idols”?—Exodus 20:4—“You shall not make for yourself an idol . . .”)

It is as if the consequences are simply built into the ways things work—or don’t work. If we try to defy the laws of nature, there are consequences. With gravity it may be more obvious that with adultery, but thousands suffer daily from relationships ruptured by abuse of trust and failure of commitment. (Exodus 20:14) When we refuse to get adequate rest or to allow time to process (reflect upon, think about) all that happens in a week’s time, we may eventually have to acknowledge that a day of Sabbath rest (whatever day or time it is observed) is important to human survival. (Exodus 20:8-9)

Right now we seem to be suffering from a congressional failure to acknowledge how things work. It’s written into the fiber of democracy, which won’t work without compromise. It won’t work when blame (bearing “false witness”—Exodus 20:16) is the primary currency. It is true that any human attempt to codify the way things work is bound to fall short of perfection. My stance has been that, in this less than perfect democracy, our “laws” represent an agreed upon way of doing things. Part of the way we get along together is to obey (and work for modification where needed) such “laws,” unless they involve a fundamental violation of “conscience” (which gets us into a subject for another time). When we willfully violate even the most minor of laws, we erode the strands of social thread that bind us one to another.

Ultimately, creation and effective functioning in our social existence define what works and what doesn’t. Psalm 19 declares that it is all written there in nature. “Day to day” it “pours forth speech.” (Psalm 19:2) But it is speech without words (vs. 3), revealing that “the law of the Lord is perfect, reviving the soul; the decrees of the Lord are sure, making wise the simply; the precepts of the Lord are right, rejoicing the heart . . .,” etc. (vss. 7-9)

Three of the other lectionary readings for this week also draw from the way nature functions. They use the image of the vineyard to teach the lesson that nature intends that life bear fruit. In Isaiah, chapter five, the vineyard is God’s people. They have failed to yield the expected fruit. (Isaiah 5:1-3) God “expected justice, but saw bloodshed; righteousness, but heard a cry!” (vs. 7) We don’t much like the image of the vineyard being destroyed (vss. 5-6), but it is a law of life that failure to bear fruit is usually a sign of death. We can tell if something is alive by observing whether or not it bears fruit. Are we alive? Are we bearing fruit?

In Psalm 80, the people are accused of failure to take care of the flourishing vineyard. (vs. 8-9 & 13-13).

The Gospel lesson has Jesus telling a parable about a vineyard that was leased to tenants. (Matthew 21:33) At harvest time the owner sent his slaves “to collect his produce.” (vs. 34) The tenants beat and stoned the slaves, killing one of them. (vs. 35) Another delegation went and was treated the same way (vs. 36) until the owner finally sent his son. He faired no better than the slaves. (vss. 37-38) The church has, over the years, used this parable to condemn “the Jews” for rejection of Jesus as “God’s Son.” That doesn’t seem to be the primary way in which Jesus is using it. Jesus frequently addressed the Jewish leadership of his day because he saw corruption in their handling of the affairs of religion. Some were productive; others were not. The point he makes is the same as the other teachings about fruitful vineyards. “The kingdom of God,” he says to those who are not bearing fruit, “will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom.” (vs. 43) The chief priests and the Pharisees, we are told, “realized that he was speaking about them.” (vs. 45) Sounds a little bit like what some are saying about congress in recent months. Let them produce or throw them out.

These teachings about the vineyards call us to examine ourselves. What does it mean to bear fruit? Are we bearing fruit? The reading from Isaiah specifically mentions justice and righteousness as important fruit. The familiar words of Galatians 5:22 tells us that “the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.” In the botanical world, bearing fruit is a way of producing a new generation of life, making sure that what has nourished the present and past generations is carried on into the future. Ultimately, we are producing fruit anytime we offer something that is life-giving to those around us.

The epistle reading connects with the theme in a couple of ways. First, it is easy to try to live on past achievements. I can speak from experience that it is a temptation to those who are “retired.” “I’ve done my fruit-bearing. I’m done with all that.” Paul implies that his achievements in the past have been quite impressive. “If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more . . . as to righteousness under the law, blameless.” (Philippians 3:4b-6) Those Ten Commandments have been a foundation for his life. Nevertheless, he says, the past is not enough. We are called to “press on, . . . forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead.” (vss. 12-14) Botanically speaking, plants often produce their most abundant “harvest” when their life is threatened, putting out an abundance of seed to carry life forward. In nature, bearing fruit is always about looking ahead.

The epistle reading also implies that if we are to understand the way things work we have to go deeper than a surface knowledge of and obedience to a set of laws. Other readings in recent weeks have reminded us that things work only if they are written on our hearts, arising from a mysterious spiritual center within. For Paul the power to be fruitful “comes through faith in Christ” (vs. 9) and the self-giving love seen and experienced in him. “I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death.” (vs. 10) Bearing fruit has something to do with being willing to die. In another place (although the context is quite different), Paul says, “What you sow does not come to life unless it dies.” (I Corinthians 15:36)

Whatever interpretations we give them, these readings invite us to look at life and death and see that things only work when we bear fruit.
Tuesday, September 20, 2011
Lectionary Scriptures: Exodus 17:1-7 AND Psalm 78:1-4, 12-16 OR Ezekiel 18:1-4, 25-32 AND Psalm 25:1-9, Philippians 2:1-13, Matthew 21:23-32

Many of us have experienced the apprehension of coming upon a temporary highway sign that says, “Men at Work.” I’m not sure what form makes the sign non-gender specific, because the workers out there now may be women as well as men. Perhaps that’s covered by the signs that say, “Work Crew Ahead.” We wonder how long we’re going to be delayed, although often as not we see idle equipment and workers leaning on shovels.

We don’t see many printed signs that say, “God at Work.” Maybe it’s because we don’t quite know where to put them. Identifying God at work usually involves a bit of confusion or mystery. Or is it that we just can’t see or read the signs?

The Hebrew people wandering in the wilderness weren’t sure where God was. Since they measured God’s presence in terms of miracles and divine provision for their every need, it’s no wonder. When they had unattended needs, they felt like God wasn’t doing God’s job. They were passing a construction site where God was leaning on a shovel.

This week’s reading from Exodus is nearly a repeat of last week’s. The people get thirsty. (Exodus 17:1) “Why did you bring us out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and livestock with thirst?” (vs. 3) It’s a question many fleeing refugees must ask. In the biblical story, God intervenes with a miracle, water flowing from a rock. (vss.4-6) Since I brought up today’s refugees, I feel a need to ask who is going to be Moses for them, seeing that needed water makes an appearance when the situation seems hopeless. “Miracles” are not likely to just happen; God uses our hands and feet and presence to bring them about. Where is “God at Work”? Where we step up and make something happen. What “miracles” will be accomplished, what hope brought, by our own Larra Salyers, who has now arrived in Uganda?

It is the end of the story, however, which shows the difficulty we humans have reading the signs. Even after water came from the rock and their thirst was quenched, we read that Moses called the place Massah or Meribah, “because the Israelites quarreled and tested the Lord, saying, ‘Is the Lord among us or not?’” (vs. 7) If we only see God when “miracles” occur and our every need is met, that question will occur again and again.

Psalm 78, looking back, sees “the wonders he has done . . . He split rocks open in the wilderness, and gave them drink abundantly . . . He made streams come out of the rock, and caused waters to flow down like rivers.” As time passed, they celebrated the Lord’s presence with them in the wilderness, but while they were there things were far less clear. Sometimes it is only when we look back that we see, as the poem “Footprints” puts it, “when you see only one set of footprints, it was then that I carried you.” Even that poem moves from a profound question which arises repeatedly in human experience, “I don’t understand why when I needed you most you would leave me.”

The questioning in the reading from Ezekiel involves the human struggle with unfairness. The context in Ezekiel is related to our need to assign blame. Blame raises its ugly head day after day in current political debates. While God is in the forgiving and reconciling business, blame is too often the priority in human affairs.

Ezekiel 18 begins with God commenting on a familiar saying of the day: “The parents have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge.” (vs. 2) You eat something sour, you’re mouth puckers up. The Hebrew people knew, however, that the consequences of their behavior affected their children as well. It’s true today. What we do to the environment affects future generations. Children who grow up in families where there is addiction or abuse or dysfunction are left with a sour taste in their mouths.

This scripture, however, tries to move past the blame game. God says, “This proverb shall no more be used by you in Israel.” (vs. 3) It is a watershed moment in biblical history. We are each accountable for our own behavior. (vs. 4) We can’t go around blaming someone else. “It’s because I had a lousy Dad.” “I’m just doing what everyone else does.” “The devil made me do it.” In Jesus’ day people were still trying to figure out who to blame. “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” (John 9:2) If our minds are filled with the effort to assign blame, we are likely to miss the signs that say, “God at Work.”

The conversation in Ezekiel takes place because there is a cry that “The way of the Lord is unfair.” (vss. 25-29) It is unfair if the children suffer because of the sins of the parents, but these people seem to feel that the alternative is unfair as well. If we are always trying to escape responsibility for our behavior, any consequences will be viewed as “unfair”.

A similar passage in Jeremiah (See Jeremiah 31:29-34) makes it clear that the people are being pointed toward a deeper and more profound meaning of God’s covenant with God’s people. It is not about assigning blame. It is, as both Jeremiah and Ezekiel tell us, about getting “a new heart and a new spirit!” (Ezekiel 18:31) If we happen to see a sign which says, “God at Work,” rather than looking for a new surface on the highway, we need to be paying attention to the possibilities of transformation in human lives!

The reading from Philippians continues that theme and goes a step further. Just as the driver’s license manual has pages of pictures of the various highway signs, Paul offers us a picture of “God at Work.” The picture is Jesus, “who, though he was in the form of God . . . emptied himself . . . he humbled himself . . .” (Philippians 2:6-8) In these verses, which were a great hymn of the early church, we are told to have that same mind in us. (vss. 2 & 5) “Do nothing for selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.” (vss. 3-4) When we see humble service being performed, when we perform such service ourselves, someone could erect a sign saying, “God at Work.” Paul ends, in fact, by saying that “it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.” (vs. 13)

Psalm 25 includes a prayer for God to lead us in that way of humility. “Make me to know your says, O Lord; teach me your paths. Lead me in your truth, and teach me . . . Good and upright is the Lord; . . . he leads the humble in what is right, and teaches the humble his way.” (Psalm 25:4-5 & 8-9)

The Gospel lesson, too, can be taken as addressing the question, “How do we know God is at work?” It starts with people asking Jesus what authority is behind the work he is doing. (Matthew 21:23) The “chief priests and the elders of the people” are probably not so much interested in the substance of the answer as in its political significance. They’d like to catch him saying that God gives him the authority he needs. Jesus, as always, sees the trap and asks a question in return. What was John, the baptizer’s, authority? Was it from heaven (i.e., God) or “of human origin”? (vss. 24-25) This puts them on the spot. They’re in trouble whichever way they answer, so they say, “We do not know.” (vss. 25-27)

Jesus then tells a parable about a man who instructs his two sons to go the vineyard and do some work. One says he won’t go but later does. The other says he will go, but later doesn’t. (vss. 28-30) Which one, Jesus asks, did the will of his father? The answer seems obvious—the first. The proof of God’s work is in the doing. The sign along the road, “Men at Work” doesn’t prove anything. An active work crew doing the constructing that needs to be done is all the sign we need.

In this case, we are the work crew. God is at work in us enabling us both to will and to work for his good pleasure.
Tuesday, September 13, 2011
Lectionary Scriptures: Exodus 16:2-15 AND Psalm 105:1-6, 37-45 OR Jonah 3:10-4:11 AND Psalm 145:1-8, Philippians 1:21-30, Matthew 20:1-15

We human beings are sometimes quick to complain: “I didn’t deserve this.” “I deserve better.” “This is unfair.” When something good happens to someone else, we may also see that as something undeserved. They got better than they should have. Either way, we may not do well with the concept of mercy. Mercy can be defined as undeserved compassion or forgiveness. If we are to be recipients of it, we may have to give up our notions of being “worthy.” If others receive it when we deem them unworthy, our judgments of worthiness and merit may be challenged.

All that and more comes into play in this week’s lectionary readings—the complaining, the moodiness, the judgments, the mercy, the abundant gracious action of God.

The continuing story from Exodus now has the escaped Israelites in the wilderness. And what are they doing? Complaining. “If only we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots and ate our fill of bread; for you brought us into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger.” (Exodus 16:2-3) If the powers that be just feed us, we’ll overlook the injustices they pose. Politics thrives on people being bought off.

Moses and God are not too happy about the complaining (vss. 7-8), but God sends quail and manna. There have been credible attempts to account for this provision of food in terms of natural phenomenon known in the area. This Sunday’s reading ends with the people asking “What is it?” (vs. 15) Moses, and the Lord, call it “bread that the Lord has given you to eat.” (vss. 4 & 15)

The story tells us that they were fed whether they deserved it or not.

Bread is a recurring theme in the rituals of our religious history. It is at the heart of the Passover and the Eucharist. It is a symbol of the spiritual food from God that sustains us, one day at a time. It is not something we can accumulate as a sign of merit and worth.

Psalm 105 is a hymn celebrating all the ways in which God has sustained the Israelites, including the fact that they asked, and God “brought quails, and gave them food from heaven in abundance.” (vs. 40) Somehow the complaining has been edited out. The other Psalm (145) is also a celebration “of the fame of” God’s “abundant goodness” rooted in a God who is “gracious and merciful and abounding in steadfast love.” (Psalm 145:7-8)

Jonah, the “hero” of a Hebrew parable about the extent of God’s mercy, has a complaint as well. God wants him to carry a message of judgment to the evil Ninevites. Jonah runs from the task only to end up in the belly of a large fish. Subsequently, he is vomited up on shore, deciding that the best course is to go ahead and carry the message to Nineveh.

Jonah doesn’t like those Ninevites very much, so he’s not pleased with what happens. They repent and “when God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them, and he did not do it.” (Jonah 3:10)

The description of God changing his mind is enough to catch our attention. Jonah found it “very displeasing . . . and he became angry.” (Jonah 4:1) He said, “I knew you were going to do that. That’s why I ran away in the first place.” Somewhere or other (perhaps from Psalm 145?), Jonah had come to understand that God was “a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing.” (vs. 2) He wasn’t ready to see the Ninevites receive the benefit of that mercy, so he went out and pouted under the shade of a tree. (vss. 5-6) The tree, however, quickly died. (vs. 7) Jonah had more compassion for the tree than he had for the Ninevites. God used the tree to teach a lesson about the nature of mercy. “You are concerned about the bush, for which you did not labor and which you did not grow; it came into being in a night and perished in a night. And should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals.” (vss. 10-11)

Jonah is every person. We are prone to think we know who is deserving or not. Certainly not those who are seen as “enemies.” But God’s mercy is bigger than the lines that we draw. For some of us, that’s a wondrous truth. Too often we draw lines that get in the way of what God’s grace can bring about, perhaps even a new reality among nations.

The Gospel lesson involves a similar stretching of lines. It is a parable about the pay laborers deserve for their work. A landowner contracts with some workers in the morning. (Matthew 20:1-2) As the day progresses he notices others in need of work. He sends them out to work as well, telling them, “I will pay you whatever is right.” (vss. 3-4) This continues throughout the day until, at five o’clock he finds there are still workers who have not been able to find employment, so he hires them as well. (vss. 5-7)

When it comes time for the workers to pick up their pay, they are all given the same amount—“the usual daily wage.” (vss. 8-9) It shocks the sensibilities of those who go through life measuring who deserves what. It’s no surprise that there was grumbling. (vs. 11) We have a hard time getting our minds around it.

Should we commend the landowner for contributing to full employment? We might picture the places where day laborers gather to see who will come around and hire them. What happens to those who wait all day and have not yet been chosen? Should we dismiss the landowner as having no economic sense whatsoever? Even today we struggle over the economics of extending unemployment benefits.

The landowner makes it clear that he lived up to his contract with the original workers. (vss. 13-14) It’s not about economics or even justice. It’s about mercy and grace and generosity. “Am I not allowed to do what I choose . . .,” the landowner asks. “Or are you envious because I am generous?” (vs. 15)

God’s generosity is not a reward for works accomplished. God has enough love that all are included, deserving or not (according to our standards).

This is not a picture of a God who spies on us with a checklist and keeps score. We see a generous God who welcomes us wherever and whenever we are in life’s journey.

In the epistle reading, Paul is struggling with whether he prefers to continue to live or not. (Philippians 1:21-24) He does not seem to be in a fit of depression, although one wonders whether the battle again Roman imperialism might have become a bit overwhelming. Philippi was a Roman colony, a center of Roman authority. Paul spent some time in prison there.

Paul decides that to live, continuing to share in the loving relationship he has with the believers in Philippi, is “more necessary.” (vss. 24-25) The focus of what he has to say to them, however, brings us back to “worthiness.” What is important, he says, whether he is with them or not, is that they live their lives “in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ . . .” (vs. 27) Worthiness here is not merit or something to be rewarded. The Greek text suggests living in a way “appropriate to” the gospel, in a way that is “becoming” to the gospel (as the King James Version has it), that reflects well on the gospel. Worthiness is not about reward, pay for tasks accomplished. It is about lives rooted in the spiritual nourishment (to mix metaphors) that flows from God’s generosity. It is not about reward but inner strength so that we “are in no way intimidated by” the things the world throws at us. It is not about being bought off by “bread” distributed by oppressive powers. Worthiness is a way of living in the midst of the struggle of this life—wherever and whenever we are in life’s journey.
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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