The Adventurous Lectionary – September 13, 2020 – Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Exodus 14:19-31, Psalm114, Romans 14:1-12, Matthew 18:21-35
Today’s readings explore the interdependent themes of forgiveness, pluralism, and deliverance. Our dependence and interdependence with God and others are the framework for understanding the spiritual adventure. Still, the readings are challenging, first, because of the relationship of deliverance and violence in the Genesis story and, second, in the contrasting scandal of Jesus’ demand for forgiveness in our current polarizing, unforgiving environment.
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. Does God choose some and damn others? Does God take clear sides and if so, which one? These days conservative Christians claim to be the true Christians and patriots, despite their adulation of Donald Trump. This eventuates incivility and violence toward those who are not “chosen” by God.
The belief in God’s preferential option for people who believe like us is rampant among religious fundamentalists, both Christian and Muslim, including those who believe Israel is entirely blameless and justified in pursuing its self-preservation by any means necessary or that our politics reflect God’s will while others are apostate, not to mention Muslims committed to limiting the freedom of Christians in Muslim-dominated nations and advocating militant responses to infidels.
Taken literally, theologically and biblically speaking, this passage assumes that the suffering of Egyptians is of no consequence to God. They are merely “cardboard” figures in a divine drama, and the pain of the soldiers’ children, parents, and spouses, not to mention their own feelings of terror, carries no moral weight or importance to God and, by implication, to us. If God is, as Whitehead asserts, the fellow sufferer who understand, then the pain of the Egyptians also matters, in the same way as the anxiety of DACA youths, the families of African Americans slain by police, and North Korean citizens matters. We cannot separate the world into those who feel pain and those who don’t or those who have value or don’t, or we will soon devalue the pain of any opponent, negating any element of value in their experience, as seems to be a growing norm in how persons respond to opposing groups in our nation today.
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. If we look with eyes attentive to beauty and wonder, we will see beauty and be radically amazed at the wonders of life.
Paul advocates a type of confessional and lifestyle 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. We should recognize the validity of others’ views without judgment or polarization. Some things in church life are simply optional or a matter of indifference. 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.
Jesus’ response to Peter and the subsequent parable remind us that we are always standing in the need of grace. When we would judge others, we would best first look at our own behaviors. Recognizing our own imperfection does not lead to ethical relativity, but to empathy and relativity, understanding of where others are coming from in terms of their life experiences.
Forgiveness requires a type of spiritual relativism, or humility, 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 imperfection and grace in which no one stands alone. There is no “other.” Accordingly, we cannot demonize the Egyptians, Palestinians, Israelis, Christian nationalists, and law enforcement officers and those who are slain by them. We may even have to forgive political leaders whose policies we believe to be destructive of the body politic. This doesn’t mean we acquiesce to their positions – we may need to picket and protest – but we can still see them as God’s beloved and broken children. The unforgiveness characteristic of many fundamentalist groups may jeopardize their own spiritual growth or ability to hear God’s voice.
Forgiveness is grounded in interdependence and holy relativity. It doesn’t mean forgoing justice or putting an end to the legal system. Crimes need to be addressed and serious criminals need to be taken off the streets. But, even the serious criminal is kindred: the culture that supports us economically and in terms of privilege may also have influenced her or his poor decision-making. There is no one who is completely innocent or guilty, including Jesus, whose vision of forgiveness may have been influenced by the impact of Roman oppression on his own upbringing and understanding of reality.
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, protest in justice, or protect our homes, 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 we still are just as ambiguous in our own political involvement. Did God mourn the loss of Egyptian life? While those in power should pursue the ways of peace, 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 in institutional and political as well as personal life. But, it is necessary, and we must challenge all those who claim the mantle of faith and perpetrate violence, dishonesty, incivility, and racism.
Bruce Epperly is a Cape Cod pastor, professor, and author of over fifty books, including PROPHETIC HEALING: HOWARD THURMAN’S VISION OF PROPHETIC ACTIVISM, GOD ONLINE: A MYSTICS GUIDE TO THE INTERNET, HOPE BEYOND PANDEMIC, AND CHURCH AHEAD: MOVING FORWARD WITH CONGREGATIONAL SPIRITUAL PRACTICES.