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?