Saturday, September 10, 2011

The Side God's Standing On

Exodus 14:19-31
Romans 14:1-12
Matthew 18:21-35

*****

This morning’s readings are all fairly incredibly to me. In one, we read the story of the Israelites’ flee to freedom. In another, Jesus tells a parable of a man who is forgiven much, but is unable to forgive a little. In the last, Paul discusses what it means to the church body if one person eats meat but another only vegetables. At first glance, it might appear as though these readings have little, if anything in common. After all, a few thousand years passed between the time of Moses and the time of Jesus. Paul’s missive to the church was likely another decade or more removed from Jesus.

I believe, however, that these three readings have one very fundamental theme in common—which side of the divide God is standing on. In our Exodus readings, the Israelites have fled Egypt. They have been led thus far by an angel of the Lord. The angel, though, is no longer before Israel. It is now behind Israel, standing firm between the Israelites and the Egyptians. And a pillar of cloud which has been before them all this time has moved behind them as well.

This angel of God and this pillar of cloud are standing in a divide between the Egyptians and the Israelites, and they are standing on the side of Israel. The cloud is providing light to one camp and keeping the other in darkness, and preventing the Egyptians from stealth maneuvers and nighttime sneak attacks against the Israelite people.

Now Moses, in obedience to God, has come to the edge of a sea. The Israelites are cornered. An expanse of water before them, the entire Egyptian army behind them, they have nowhere to go. So, Moses stretched out his hand over the watery deep, and God drove the sea back with a mighty wind, dividing water from water, and creating dry land, on which the Israelites were able to walk to safety and freedom. A mighty wind all around them, the angel of God and a pillar of cloud behind them. God, is standing somewhere in this gap, and it’s on the side of the Israelites.

And the Egyptians, seeing that the Israelites were passing through the sea on dry land, a pillar of cloud behind them, a wall of water to their left, a wall of water to their right, the angel of the Lord their rear guard, the Egyptians follow. Now, I don’t know about you, but I’m fairly certain that if I were standing on the beach, at the edge of the ocean, watching an entire nation of people walk through on dry land, walls of water on either side, I’d be thinking two thoughts.

1. This has got to be the coolest thing I’ve ever seen!

2. There is no way on earth I’m following!

The whole of the Egyptian army, it seems, did not follow this thought pattern. Because they continued to pursue Moses and the nation of Israel, between those walls of water, walking on dry land, and with no indication that they gave even a moment’s hesitation. I sometimes wonder if this is because they were operating from a mob mentality—having lost all sense of themselves as individuals, they are wholly devoted to their Pharaoh and the cause their Pharaoh has taken up, and all independent thought has stopped.

Now, the simple fact is, it takes a lot of courage to fight and risk your life for a cause. But to do so without careful thought and without consideration for the lives you may be taking in that fight, lacks honor. But that is another sermon, for another day.

As Pharaoh’s army followed the Israelites, God in a pillar of fire and cloud cast the Egyptian army into a panic. God bound the wheels of the chariots so that they would not move. At this moment, the Egyptian army realized that God was standing in the gap between them and the Israelites, and they recognized that God was standing on the side of Israel, declaring, “Let us flee from the Israelites, for the LORD is fighting form them against Egypt.

And Moses, having reached the far side of the sea with the whole nation of Israel, obeyed God’s command, and stretched out his hand over the sea and the walls of water returned to their bed. The courage of Pharaoh’s army, though, left all of Pharaoh’s horses, and chariots, and chariot drivers awash in the deluge. The entire Egyptian army was dead. God was standing somewhere in the gap, and it’s on the side of the Israelites.

In our reading from Romans, Paul encourages the church to accept those who are weak in faith. Now, “Faith,” Hebrews 11:1 tells us, “is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see.” Those who are weak in faith may not be so sure of what they hope for, or so certain of what they do not see. They may not have the confidence to live fully in freedom, and thus, are more likely to hold quite stringently to rules and regulations.

The weak, Paul tells us, eat only vegetables, which in a culture concerned primarily with ritual purity is significant. The weak do not yet know who Jesus truly is. They are still convinced, it seems, that they are saved by what they do or by what they refrain by doing. They do not yet understand that it is not what you do or what you believe that saves you. It is Jesus who saves you.

Thus, those are strong in faith, must accept and not judge those who are weak in faith. The Lord, it seems, is sitting at the table. God is sitting in the gap between those eat meat and those who eat only vegetables. It seems clear to me that God is sitting on the side of those who eat vegetables.

The same holds true for those who set aside one day as holy as opposed to doing no such thing. Paul tells us that “some judge one day to be better than another, while others judge all days to be alike. Let all be fully convinced in their own minds.” There is no hard and fast rule for when we are to worship God. What is clear, though, is that we follow the rule of conscience, holding to what we have decided to be most important to us, and we are called to treat those who think differently with respect.

We are no to judge our brother or our sister. We are to accept them as they are, where they are, in that state of faith in which they find themselves. Strong or weak, we are all in this together. Those who are strong in faith, therefore, bear the greater responsibility to honor those who are weak in faith. And it seems clear to me that if faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see, then being strong in faith is less about the intensity of our convictions and more about our trust in the Lord.

It has been my experience that those hold so tightly to the rules tend to be afraid—of doing the wrong thing, of speaking the wrong words, of appearing foolish or immature. Often those holding most tightly to the rules are afraid to have fun, to delight in the ridiculous, to let go of their notions of how responsible adults conduct themselves, are truly and deeply terrified that Jesus is not who Jesus claims to be. Those who hold so tightly to rules and regulations are basing their sense of self-worth and hope for salvation in what they do and say, not in who they are as one created by God, and not in whose they are a child of God.

And those who are strong in faith, who acknowledge that while they may make mistakes along the way, while they might not do everything just right 100% of the time, also trust that God is good, and the Jesus is the only source of salvation and so have freedom to risk big whether they succeed or fail, they succeed or fail for the Lord. And these, we are told, are called to bear with those who are weak in faith. God is standing in the gap between the freedom of the strong and the fear of the weak, and God is standing on the side of the weak.

Finally, our Gospel lesson for today tells the parable of a man shown incredible grace and incapable of showing any grace to others. Now, Jesus tells this parable in response to a question from Peter: Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?

Now, Peter, for all intents and purposes, is being quite generous. Rabbinic teachings during the first century indicated that you were to forgive those who sin against you three times. Three times and no more. Here Peter is suggested that we forgive those who sin against more than twice that amount! Surely this generosity of spirit that Peter demonstrates would stand out.

Jesus, however, indicates that this is not enough. You must forgive seventy-seven times. Now, Jesus is not indicating that you should carry a notebook with you and tally every time a person sins against you and when they hit number seventy-eight, you are to immediately retaliate. Rather, Jesus was using Peter’s own language—speaking in sevens—to indicate that there really is no acceptable limit. You forgive, and you keep forgiving, as often as is necessary.

And why do we forgive other an infinite number of times?

The parable Jesus shares next answers this for us. We are all debtors. Every one of us. We have all sin and fall short of the glory of God. We are like a slave, called before our king to settle our account. In this parable, you and I are the slave. God is the king. Our debt, those 10,000 talents, amounts to twenty years worth of wages for a laborer. Now, if a common laborer today makes somewhere in the realm of $40,000 a year (which was case in 2009), this would amount to a debt of $800,000.

And this slave is called upon to pay it all, immediately, or he, his wife, his children, and all of his possessions will be sold to cover the debt. The slave, however, pleads for mercy, begs for a little more time, and promises to pay the debt. Now, I don’t know about you, but I think it’s quite unlikely this man will ever be able to pay this debt in full. And the king seems to think so, too. Moved with pity, he forgives the man’s debt. God is standing between the debtor and the lender, and it’s clear to me that God stands on the side of the debtor.

This is rather how God treats us. We are utterly indebted to God. God created us, loves us, saves us, and we have nothing to offer in return. We owe an unpayable debt. And God, out of deep love and compassion for us says, “It’s alright, my child. You’re debt is forgiven. You owe me nothing.”

And how are we to respond to this incredible grace that God showers upon us? Well, in our parable, the slave goes out and finds a contemporary who owes him about one hundred denarii. Which equates today to about $160.00. The man demands immediate payment in full, and though his debtor pleads for mercy and a little more time to pay it back. But the first man does not listen throws the second into prison.

Now, the king, upon learning of this incident calls the first man before him again and reminds him of the grace shown, and challenges his unwillingness to show such grace to another. In great anger, the king hands the man over to be tortured until he can pay his debt in full. God is standing between the debtor and the lender, and it’s clear that God is standing on the side of the debtor.

But what does it mean that God stands on the side of a debtor, a vegetarian, an Israelite? It means that God stands on the side of the oppressed. God stands on the side of mercy and justice. God’s interest is in the weak, the least, the lost. The Israelites were oppressed in Egypt and God stood between them and the entire Egyptian army. Don’t think vegetarians are oppressed? Have you ever tried to abstain from meat at a Sunday dinner in Iowa? One man owes his entire life’s wages and is forgiven, but cannot forgive a man who owes a day’s return. The oppressed turned oppressor.

God is standing between the oppressed and the oppressor, and it is clear that God is standing on the side of the oppressed. As the people of God here on earth, where are we standing?

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Let's Matthew 18 This Thing!

Matthew 18:15-20

*****

Today’s gospel lesson is about how we, as Christians, choose to reconcile broken relationships. This is something I have a lot of experience with. One of my friends has told me that my dedication to reconciling my relationships borders on pathological. And she might be right. Reconciling broken relationships is of incredibly high value to me.

But it isn’t always easy. Reconciling broken relationships, as outlined in Matthew 18:15-20 demands that we be honest and vulnerable with someone who has hurt us. It demands that we confront their actions and place ourselves at risk for greater injury.

A few years ago, I was hanging out with my best friend. We were standing around in her kitchen talking about a new movie that had just come out. Mama Mia. It’s a musical. She told me that she had gone to see it with a mutual friend of ours. I was rather surprised, as this other person just did not strike me as the type who would be really into musical. Turns out, he is. He loves musicals. And my best friend went on to mention some of the titles he had seen and loved.

1776. A musical based around the story of the Declaration of Independence. It was her mention of this particular musical that immediately left me teary-eyed. The astute observer that she is, she asked why the mention of 1776 had upset me.

See, someone of enormous significance to my life, me mentor, had been a Broadway star. He had been part of the cast of 1776. He had passed away the year before, and the mention of anything that reminded me of him always left me in tears. Because I missed him.

When I mentioned to my best friend that my mentor had once been in the cast of 1776 she immediately responded, “Do you think there will ever come a time when you can think about him without crying?”

Now, immediately, I stopped crying. I was shocked beyond words. And I looked up her and I said, “I would really like to believe that when you said, ‘Do you thing there will ever come a time when you can think about him without crying?’ what you meant to communicate was, ‘MB, I love you. And I want good things for you. And I hope some day you can think back on this person and the impact he’s had on your life, and you’ll remember him with joy, rather than sorrow,” because what I actually heard you communicating was, ‘He’s been dead for 10 months now. Get over it already. You’re grief is an inconvenience to me.’”

Now, my best friend, being the extraordinary woman that she is, listened to me. And when I was done, she said, “You’re right. I didn’t state that well. When you repeated it back to me, I realized exactly how that would sound to you. Of course your grief isn’t a burden or inconvenience to me! I do love you! And I do want good things for you. And I’m so sorry that you’re hurting. And I’m sorry that I hurt you with my words. Will you forgive me?”

And thus, Matthew 18:15 was fulfilled.

To be totally honest, though, not all of my experiences with Matthew 18 have been on occasions where I was the offended party. Believe it or not, and I know this will come as a real shock to most of you, I have actually, on occasion, offended others. I have sinned.

Now, let me start by saying that I am a bit neurotic. I have a very structured way of doing things, and a very structured way of ordering things. This includes who I allow into my living space. So, imagine my surprise when, while in seminary, I come home one day to a common room that has two strangers in it. One I recognize as a fellow student who lives elsewhere. The other is a person I’ve never seen.

This fellow student said to me, “Hey, my boyfriend and I were about to watch a movie. I know I don’t live on this floor, so I hope you don’t mind. But you’re totally welcome to join us.”

To which I responded, “Actually, I mind greatly. You live on another floor. If your floor doesn’t have common living space with a TV and VCR, that’s your problem. Choose more wisely where you live next year. As for tonight, take your movie somewhere else.”

Oh, yes. Definitely not one of my finer moments in life or ministry.

Now, this first year student, who initially appeared quite meek, informed me that I was being petty and mean, and she and her boyfriend were going to watch the movie there that night, and nothing I said was going to change this. And I totally respected her for it.

It took me a few days to finally track her down—having never gotten her name—but when I saw her in the library the next week, I approached her, told her how sorry I was for the way I had treated her and her boyfriend, and extended an open invitation to watch movies in the common room of my dorm floor anytime they wanted. I was met with a rather icy indifference.

This, however, did not deter me. See, remember when I started this sermon, I told you that one of friends believes I have an almost pathological need to reconcile relationships? Well, this is but one example, and an odd one at that, because I had committed the offense upon first meeting this person.

But something happened during that interaction, and I was determined to make things right. After much persistence, I finally won this woman over. By the end the year, we were regularly dining together, she and her boyfriend would hang out with me when he visited her, and we’ve become life-long friends. We still talk on the phone and email as often as we can.

Neither of these examples were easy experiences. It takes a lot of courage to say to someone, “I messed up and I know I hurt you.” I think in some ways it takes even more courage to say to someone, “You’ve hurt me.” In the first, we make ourselves vulnerable to criticism. In the second, we make ourselves vulnerable to further hurt from the person we are confronting.

And, so Jesus tells us, “If they will not listen, take one or two others along.” See, Jesus isn’t interested in us making a single effort at reconciliation. If we get rebuffed, he says, “Get back up and try again.” Now, this actually takes less courage, in my mind, than the initial contact. You’ve got support going in. One or two other people who are committed to listening to both perspectives, and hopefully, sorting through some of the distractions to get at the heart of the matter. One or two others who can skillfully discern what is being communicated rather than what is being said, and who can assist in clarifying intentions, goals, and next steps.

Let me be clear.  Jesus not saying, “Hey, grab a posse and start a brawl.” He’s also not saying, “Go to all of your friends and neighbors first, tell them your side of story, and start a witch hunt.” He’s saying, “Have one or two witnesses, preferably neutral individuals, who can clarify things for both parties. And, if the other person listens to you, you’ve won them over.” Be honest. Act with integrity. Be direct. If someone has sinned against you, take it to the person first. If they refuse to listen, take one or two others along, but not your whole book club.

If that doesn’t work? Well, Jesus tells us to take it to the church. If a fellow Christian sins against you, and refuses to hear you, and refuses to hear you with one or two witnesses, bring the matter before the church. Why? Because relational health is foundationally important to the health of the church. Schisms within the church and worse have occurred because one or more people have not been willing to be honest about how another person had wronged them. Or because the other person refused to own up to having wronged the first.

American folklore tells us just such a story—two feuding families, the Hatfields and the McCoys, who lived near one another across the Kentucky-West Virginia border. Neighboring families who declared all out war on one another in the late 1870s.

The feud continued to escalate until, between 1880 and 1891, the feud ended in the deaths of more than a dozen members of both families collectively. It became headline news around the country, and led the governors of both Kentucky and West Virginia to call up their state militias to restore order. What started it all was the question of who owned a pig—those who had marked it as their chattel, or those who had found it wandering in their yard.

Now, it is true that history often sensationalizes stories. And I’m sure that there is much in the story of the Hatfields and the McCoys which has been lost. But what we do know about the story of the Hatfields and the McCoys is that rather than attempt to resolve a dispute between themselves (who owns the pig), they took it to court. The court proceedings were overseen by the only local judge—a member of the Hatfield family, hardly an impartial party.

And it ends in the violent murders of more than twelve people, the sentence of life imprisonment for seven more individuals tried for those murders, and the state sanctioned execution of an eighth individual who was tried. All of this over the question of who owned a pig.

And I wonder if all of it couldn’t have been avoided if the McCoys had simply said, “Hey, I see my pig wandered over to your side of the property line. I sure would appreciate it if you’d send her home first chance you get,” and if the Hatfields had replied, “Oh, this is your pig? I didn’t realize when I found her wandering that she belonged to someone. But now that I take a closer look, I see your mark on her ears. We’ll bring her over right after supper.”

Now, it’s unlikely in our church today that anyone is going to take up arms against their neighbor because of a wandering hog. But how many other hurts and offenses have been committed that have led to people leaving the church? That have led to gossip, slander, infighting, and bickering? How many other hurts and offenses have led to relationships being broken and even ended?

When my best friend said to me, “Do you think there will ever come a time when you can think about him without crying?” I could have walked out of her kitchen. I could have left then and never talked to her again. I had the option.

And when I said to this first year seminarian, “You really are not welcome on this floor,” she could have walked away and never spoken to me again. She had the option.

Both of these stories have a happy ending, though. One relationship was restored because of a mutual commitment to living out healthy conflict resolution based on the tenets presented in Matthew 18. Another relationship was built because of a commitment to living out healthy conflict resolution based on the tenets presented in Matthew 18.

But what happens when you go to someone and they don’t listen to you? And you bring one or two others, and they still refuse to hear? And you bring it to the church and they refuse to listen even to the church? What then?

Jesus says, “Treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector.” And do you know how Jesus treated pagans and tax collectors? He treated them with respect. He treated them with dignity. He acted with integrity. He acted honorably. He treated them with love. Jesus spent a great deal of his ministry hanging out with pagans and tax collectors. It’s one of the reasons the religious elite took issue with him.

In my experience, the root cause of most conflict is a cultural difference. Jesus’s culture, as the Son of God, was different from the religious culture of first century Judaism. And the religious elite killed him for it.

We experience cultural differences every day of our lives. We come across something that is being done differently from how we would do it; we find a stranger in a place we had thought was secured from outsiders; we hear someone’s words through our own filters, while they speak those same words through a filter of their own, and at times it is a vastly different filter than ours. Cultural differences and misunderstandings. And for that, we often punish others, and treat them as something less than human, less than deserving.

But, Jesus never gives us a reason or an excuse to treat any other human being with anything less than the utmost dignity and respect. He never grants us permission to be vindictive, spiteful, or mean. Instead, he invites us to choose to know others better, to engage their culture, to love them regardless of whether we believe they deserve it or not. He invites us to risk big, and he promises that the rewards are big as well—whatever we hold to be true on earth will be held to be true in heaven.

If we are willing to choose to hold love and forgiveness, compassion and grace, kindness and generosity as core values to our Christian faith, then all of heaven will hold to those values as well. And in doing so, we have the ability bring the Kingdom of God here to earth.