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Wednesday, September 10, 2014
Lectionary Scriptures:  Exodus 14:19-31 OR Exodus 15:1b-11, 20-21 AND Psalm 114:1-8, OR Genesis 50:15-21 AND Psalm 103:1-13, Romans 14:1-12, Matthew 18:21-35


I’ve become more aware, and uncomfortable, with the violence at the core of some of the central stories in our Judeo-Christian heritage.  This week’s readings related to the liberation of slaves from Egypt comes at great cost.  Liberation, of course, always involves cost, but is it necessary for so many lives to be violently obliterated, often, the stories tell us, at God’s instigation?


Listen to some of the story as reported in the readings about crossing the sea:


“The waters returned and covered the chariots and the chariot drivers, the entire army of Pharaoh that followed them into the sea; not one of them remained . . . Thus the Lord saved Israel that day from the Egyptians; and Israel saw the Egyptians dead on the seashore.”  (Exodus 14:28 & 30)


The next chapter is a victory song:  “I will sing to the Lord, for he has triumphed gloriously; horse and rider he has thrown into the sea . . . The Lord is a warrior; the Lord is his name.  Pharaoh’s chariots and his army he cast into the sea; his picked officers were sunk in the Red Sea.  The floods covered them; they went down into the depths like a stone.”


While Psalm 114 is not as graphic, it celebrates the same event, in which “the sea looked and fled.”  (Psalm 114:3)


I know that the story is centrally about the liberation of an oppressed people.  It is not a story which celebrates the military might of a nation which overpowers those who have little ability to resist.  It moves in the opposite direction, and we must never lose sight, in stories like these, of the fact that God is on the side of the oppressed.


Modern times, however, have shown us the power of non-violent resistance and alternative means of overcoming the powerful.  Non-violent leaders have come along---Ghandi, Martin Luther King, Jr., Nelson Mandela.  There were advocates of violence in the movements with which they were associated, but non-violence prevailed, and won great victories.  Jesus seemed to advocate a more reconciling approach.  Some of the other texts of today turn us toward the power of a forgiving and/or nonjudgmental attitude.  Justice is not primarily about revenge.


Before turning to those other readings, however, it’s worth noting what happens at the end of the song of victory in Exodus 15.  Miriam, Moses’ sister and a strong leader alongside him, sings a short solo.  (vss.20-21)   Miriam has become a popular figure among some Jewish feminists.  Our discussion at breakfast this morning took an interesting turn when I asked those present to share stories about their own experiences of liberation.  The majority are women, so the discussion turned to issues of women’s liberation.  The presence of Miriam in this reading suggests an alternative path of interpretation for those who wish to take it.


Now, what about the other texts?  The end of the story about Joseph and his brothers is offered as one possible reading.  His brothers come before Joseph and, following the instruction of their now deceased father, pleading for forgiveness.  (Genesis 50:14-17)  Weeping, they fall before him, and are surprised to be the recipients of Joseph’s great love for them.  “‘. . . have no fear;’ he says, ‘I myself will provide for you and your little ones.’    In this way he reassured them, speaking kindly to them.’”  (vs. 21)


I’d never really paid much attention to a subtle dynamic in this interchange.  Power is often still at work in the acts of forgiveness, the one offering forgiveness lording it over the one or ones being forgiven.  Nowhere here does Joseph do that nor does he speak direct words of forgiveness.  He, in effect, tells them to get up, to stop putting him in the place of God.  (vs. 19)  He reestablishes a caring and kind relationship with them by standing with them on equal footing.  When forgiveness functions at its best, this kind of deep reconciliation occurs. 

That was the aim, partly realized, of the hearings conducted by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa.  I once served as pastor in a county where the sheriff was, believe it or not, a seminary graduate.  He established a process where victims of crimes and those who had committed the crimes talked and listened to each other in a series of Victim-Offender Reconciliation meetings.  What a way to attempt to move beyond strategies of revenge!  If only we could find our way to such talking and listening in current arenas of conflict and tribalism around the globe.


The Gospel reading is also about forgiveness, beginning with the question, “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive?  As many as seven times?”  Jesus response:  “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.”  (Matthew 18:21-22)  Some translations say, “Seventy times seven.”  It makes little difference.  The point is not a matter of keeping count.  Forgiveness is to be given as often as it is requested.  I like the way a portion of I Corinthians 13:5 is translated in the Good News Bible:  “Love does not keep a record of wrongs.”


Matthew goes on to record Jesus telling a parable about a man who owed ten thousand talents.  (Matthew 18:24)  He falls on his knees, pleading for patience on the part of his master, who, surprisingly, forgives him.  (vss. 25-27)  The forgiven man then goes out and refuses to give the same forgiveness to someone who owes a much smaller amount to him.  (vss. 28-31)  The amounts need not concern us.  Some suggest that the first debt may have been as much as half a million dollars in today’s currency, while the 100 denarii owed by the second debtor may have been as little as $70.  Whatever the amounts, there was a great discrepancy.  One who was forgiven much refused to forgive even a little.


The parable links the receiving and giving of forgiveness.  (vs. 35)  Learning to work side by side in just and caring relationships requires hearts which meet in a mutual attitude of forgiveness and love.


Before turning to the reading from Romans, which may get us to the fundamental issue, note that Psalm 103 also emphasizes forgiveness, the forgiveness of God “who forgives all your iniquity.”  (Psalm 103:3)  “The Lord is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love . . . He does not deal with us according to our sins, not repay us according to our iniquities . . . as far as the east is from the west, so far does he remove our transgressions from us.”  (vss. 8, 10, & 12)


The reading from Romans moves beyond forgiveness to a nonjudgmental attitude.  It addresses a situation in which people are “quarreling over opinions.”  (Romans 14:1)  They disagree about what foods can be eaten, what day should be set aside for worship, etc.  (vss. 2-6)  They were deep religious issues in this time of religious ferment and change.  It’s not necessary to know the background of each issue to see that judgmentalism is the focus.  People are looking down on those who don’t follow their own preferred practice.  That never happens in our day, does it?


“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?”  (vss. 4 & 10)  My ways are better than your ways!  Isn’t that an attitude that fuels so much conflict?  My religion is better than your religion.  My country or tribe is better than yours.  And we do terrible things to one another, setting in motion a dynamic that pits revenge against forgiveness.


This reading intervenes earlier in the process.  What if we just stopped judging one another?  Wouldn’t we already be a long way down the road toward reconciliation?  Don’t we have here the seeds of an alternative to violence?


In the middle of these verses, we are reminded of how self-centered we get in our relationships.  We are told that no matter what alternative we choose, we are to place it in the context of the Spirit of Christ.  “We do not live to ourselves, and we do not die to ourselves.  If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s.”  (vss. 7-8)  We, all of us, all of us involved in this “quarreling about opinions.”  Liberation without violence requires a new way of looking at things and at one another.  When we look for and find the image of God in the one to whom we would do violence, we have begun to travel down the road to reconciliation.


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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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