The Adventurous Lectionary – September 14, 2014 – Fourteenth Sunday After Pentecost
Bruce G. Epperly
Today’s readings explore forgiveness, pluralism, and deliverance. Our dependence and interdependence with God and others is the framework for understanding the spiritual adventure.
The Genesis reading is about God’s deliverance of the Israelites from captivity. God parts the waters to provide a way forward for the Israelites and then causes the waters to return, killing the Egyptian pursuers. No doubt this story was “true” for the Israelites and their descendants, not to mention later generations influenced by Cecil B. DeMille’s depiction of the event, even if it may not fully have been “factual.” Given our studies of influence of thought patterns on water crystals (Masaru Emoto) such events can occur in principle, and may not be supernatural violations of cause and effect. Still, such one-sided divine partisanship is morally and theologically problematic and inspires the belief that God unambiguously supports some persons and destroys others without regret. This belief is still rampant among religious fundamentalists, including those who believe Israel is entirely blameless and justified in pursuing its self-preservation by any means necessary, not to mention Muslims committed to limiting the freedom of Christians in Muslim-dominated nations.
Seen existentially or personally, this passage testifies to our experiences of divine deliverance. Surely such events occur, whether in response to serious illness or personal dead ends. A way emerges, almost out of nowhere, where previously no way was present. If we use this passage, and it takes some theological sophistication on the part of the preacher, we need to invite congregants to ponder moments where God was real in life changing ways and where grace delivered us from despair and destruction. Openness to such naturalistic events, as Emoto’s water experiments suggest, may increase their likelihood in our lives. Reality is much richer than we can imagine, and perhaps we can have greater influence on natural processes than we previously deemed possible.
Paul advocates a type of confessional pluralism in the Romans 14 passage. There are many possible “right” behaviors in Christian community. Diverse practices can flourish side by side provided everything we do is dedicated to God. Our religious beliefs and practices can become idolatrous when they exist for their own sake and not as ways to honor God. When God is placed at the center of our lives, we can appreciate the relativity of our own positions as well as the wisdom in positions we do not practice. There are many ways to be faithful and this pluralism is a blessing and not a curse in Christian community.
Forgiveness requires another kind of relativism, the letting go of one’s “rightness” and recognition of one’s imperfection. How many times shall we forgive, Jesus is asked? The answer is infinite, beyond even seventy-seven, and then Jesus tells the tale of an unforgiving servant, who is given great grace but refuses to pass it along to his co-worker. Grace and forgiveness are global, universal, and essential to life. We all need grace and forgiveness, for we all have fallen short of our highest values and have, implicitly or explicitly, harmed others. In recognizing our imperfection, we can no longer stand apart from others based on our assumed righteousness and their “obvious” weakness and immorality. We are all part of a dynamic ecology of grace and imperfection in which no one stands alone. There is no “other.” Accordingly, we cannot demonize the Egyptians, Palestinians, Israelis, and law enforcement officers and those who are slain by them, justly or unjustly.
In the spirit of Romans 14, grace and forgiveness invite us to live before God, placing our whole lives at God’s mercy, knowing that apart from “amazing grace,” we are all lost. Grace is everything in the Christian journey. Still, how can we be graceful in the corporate context? And, how can we protect our nation, even to the point of necessary violence, without demonizing or polarizing? We receive no guidance on this point from the Genesis reading, which in fact encourages polarization and demonization. The chosen ones proved themselves to be just as ambiguous as the slain Egyptians, and they still are just as ambiguous in the current Israeli foreign policy, despite the necessity for Israel to protect its sovereignty in a hostile region. Did God mourn the loss of Egyptian life? Can we mourn the apparently necessary deaths of ISIS troops to preserve the sovereignty of Iraq, protect persecuted Christians, and combat terrorism before it reaches our shores? Violence may be necessary in the affairs of persons and nations but it needs always to be accompanied by a sense of uneasiness, regret, and solidarity with those we must confront. This is challenging for citizens who seek to follow Jesus’ pathway of forgiveness.