Saturday, September 20, 2014

As Many as Seven Times?

Scripture for the 14th Sunday after Pentecost includes Exodus 14:19-31; Romans 14:1-12; Matthew 18:21-35

As many as seven times?

It doesn’t take long for the first-century Gospels to present the good news that conflict is not an alien force to be ducked or denied. Last Sunday, we heard our Lord instruct that first generation of disciples (and all subsequent generations) to deal with it head-on.

“If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. .. But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses… a section of Matthew’s Gospel that ends with the promise, “For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.”

Yes, but how often are we to practice this approach with the same individual? As many as seven times?

How many times does an organ student or a trumpet student practice scales?

No, not seven times, but I tell you, seventy-seven times. Or, as the ancient texts of Matthew have it, seventy times seven. That’s a lot. Just ask the mothers of the organ student and the trumpet student… It takes a lot of practice to get good at anything, doesn’t it?

And isn’t there a poet who writes about practicing the scales of love? Isn’t that precisely what any covenant calls us to do? Covenanted love between two people, the kind that marries two lives into one lasting partnership, provides daily opportunity and daily requirement to sing the scales of love, to get in tune with one another. The baptismal covenant we renewed here last Sunday likewise provides endless opportunity (and, most fortunately, the grace required) to grow not just up but into the full stature of Christ.

From that perspective, whoever counts has not yet forgiven, has chosen rather to keep track of the offences, and not give way to the uncalculating, incalculable grace, the power that undergirds our covenants.

What makes a covenant different from lesser agreements and contracts we enter is that a covenant—at least as it is understood in a spiritual context—entails God, involves God, a power higher and far greater than the human beings involved in the agreement. There is always promising in a covenant—two people pledge fidelity to one another, an individual at the font pledges (or parents and Godparents pledge their intention to help their child be able one day) to trust, love, and follow Jesus Christ. There is always a plural nature to covenant, that two-or-threeness that Jesus promises. And truly, what is most promising about our covenants is not what we bring to them, but how God helps us keep our covenants. The Book of Common Prayer doesn’t expect us to promise fidelity by responding, “Sure, I’ll do that!”, but by responding, “I will, God being my helper.”

So when we screw up in our covenants—and who among us does not?—we count not just on what’s in the human buckets that we bring to the relationship but on what’s in God’s deeper well of mercy and grace, where the bucket can never hit bottom.

Unconditional love is not what we bring to one another in our relationships, but it is what undergirds and frees our best practices with one another.

Even in the face of death? St. Paul answers that question about how far the baptismal covenant extends, and how durable it is: “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.” Unlike your next car, or your next ipad, the warranty on God’s love does not expire, ever. And you can’t buy this unconditionality: it is sheer gift of God. And it is the Word that wants continually to be made flesh, in our marriages and our families, in our church and in our world; so it requires practicing our scales.

I don’t find unconditional love in the parable Jesus tells today. The king is an eye-for-an-eye sort of fellow, perfectly ready to punish anyone who crosses him. In fact, his final version of justice exacted against one of his slaves involves torture. I wussed out when I read the story this morning and brought to you the paraphrase version from “The Message”. If you followed it in the New Revised Standard Version, you heard Jesus promise similar punishment to anyone who fails to forgive a brother or sister from the heart. I’m confessing to you that after four decades preaching it’s still well above my pay grade to make good sense of that troubling promise. Bible scholars assure us that this gruesome piece of theology belongs to Matthew and not to Jesus, but still…

It’s overkill in the cause of a theme worth considering. Jesus appears to say that it is futile for us to ask for forgiveness if we are not willing to forgive. This is the point of his parable, isn’t it? The man who owes much is saved, along with his family, from going to the auction block, because his plight reaches down deep into the well of the king’s pity. I imagine a great shockwave moving through that royal audience, as people wonder what’s come over their king, who has just acted in a most extraordinary uncharacteristic way. Perhaps he surprised even himself, taking a chance on someone who has run out of chances, someone who has screwed up bigtime.

That describes the first debtor. 10,000 talents at that time would exceed the yearly tax revenues from Syria, Phoenicia, Judea, and Samaria combined. That number is meant to sound fantastic (the way a million dollars used to sound to us). His debt is uncountable, and more to the point, unpayable. This is no household slave: this is upper management, or upper mismanagement. This is a first-century Bernie Madoff.

And then this debtor puts the screws on a lowly household slave who owes him about three months’ wages—one serious crisis-worth of borrowing, you might say. “Pay what you owe!” growls the first debtor, as he seizes the second by the throat. Both these men are slaves, in the great scheme of things equals; but it’s as if the first debtor looks upon the second as if he belonged to a different race (and perhaps he did), and the lack of fellow-feeling is shocking. Though their debts are dramatically different, the words of their prayer, their desperate hope, are identical. “Have patience with me, and I will pay you.” Words that paid off for the major debtor fail to stir his pity for this lesser debtor, and the next sound we hear is the clanging shut of the prison door.

Big mistake. Picture all this happening in the public square, where eyes and ears noticed it all. Both debtors are slaves, and their fellow slaves, appalled by the betrayal they have witnessed, report it to the king. The dissonance of the big debtor’s latest screw-up grates against the scales of compassion; his outrageous demand topples the scales of justice.

That common sense binds the moral perception of slaves and king. By failing to forgive the small debtor with even a single note of the mercy that had been sung to him, the big debtor forfeits his future. In Matthew’s Gospel, the Lord’s Prayer reads, “Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.” Those are the scales to be practiced.

There’s one scriptural voice I haven’t mentioned yet. Moses.

We heard today the foundational story of the covenant binding Israel to God. What happens to the Hebrew people at the Red Sea is not just a dramatic rescue of slaves: It is an equally dramatic transformation of their status from slaves to free men and women. This was neither simple nor magical.

Not simple in that as slaves they had a predictable life, one they were reluctant to leave. They knew what to expect. In later seasons, during their wanderings as refugees in Canaan, they would grumble against Moses because at least in those old days back in Egypt they had leeks and onions and garlic in their stewpots. They had to give up what they knew. The institution of slavery is pernicious in its fostering co-dependence across generations, addicting slaves and masters to The Way Things Are, reinforcing worst habits, worst practices that glued the system together.

Their transformation was not magical in that the Hebrew slaves had to choose to reach for freedom. What faced them at the Red Sea was certain death, or so it looked. Pharoah’s horsemen closing in on them, what choice did they have but to enter the sea?

Elie Wiesel writes of this moment, “Yet, according to one commentator, Moses suddenly ordered everyone to a halt: Wait a moment. Think, take a moment to reassess what it is you are doing. Enter the sea not as frightened fugitives but as free men and women and children! And everyone obeyed. They paused in their rush toward the sea. And Moses turned to God with a prayer. But God reminded him that this was not the right moment to pray: Tell the people of Israel to hurry! And the people, united as never before, swept ahead and crossed the Red Sea, which drew back to let the Jews go through. When they had passed, those same waters rushed back and swallowed up the Egyptian troops, their chariots and horsemen, with great loss of life.”

The Exodus story shows that our survival depends on how we behave, how we act; and that in turn depends on what we believe about ourselves.

What is required of us in this day is to practice our scales of forgiveness and mercy, finding the harmonies that will help center us as we face conflict with courage and hope. And, as we face a hostile sea of threats and challenges, recognize the urgent call to claim freedom from slavery to the old brutalities and futilities, even the familiar status quo, freeing us to take our part in God’s fulfilment of promised grace.

From Matthew’s first century to our own twenty-first, people of faith have believed that God’s passion, compassion, and purpose extend well beyond church, synagogue, and mosque. On into the marketplace, the workplace, the courtroom—in short, on into civic life on all frontiers where conflicting values and visions constitute sharply divided beliefs about what justice demands and what love requires.

We cannot speak for synagogue or mosque, but for twenty centuries the church has been shaped by the Bible’s understanding that the common life of the faith community is given to us by God so that we may learn those scales of mercy and become tuned to the harmonies of peace. What we do here is meant to have influence and bearing there on the social frontiers of our wider, broader world.

There, where debtor nations struggle in futility, as unpayable debts curtail domestic growth. And here, where a new Gilded Age ensures not a tide that raises all ships, but a rising tide of personal debt, bankruptcies, and pay disparity.

May the God of covenant faithfulness preside here and in every congregation, that what we do, and who we are, be shaped by what we believe about ourselves.

(I have paraphrased from Elie Wiesel’s “Messengers of God”, Summit Books, 1976, pp. 191-194. I found M. Eugene Boring’s commentary on Matthew helpful, in Volume VIII of “The New Interpreter’s Bible.)

Friday, September 5, 2014

Blazing, But Not Consumed

Scripture for the 12th Sunday after Pentecost includes Exodus 3:1-15; Romans 12:9-21; Matthew 16:21-28

Today a burning bush catches the attention of Moses. This is back when Moses was a shepherd in the hill country of Midian. Wait, you may say: Only last Sunday, Moses was just a baby, discovered by Pharoah’s daughter in his basket among the bulrushes. See how much can happen in the space of a week!

The lectionary skips the part where Moses, raised as a prince in Pharoah’s household, steps in between two of his Hebrew peers who have come to blows over something, and Moses, not knowing his own strength, kills one of them. From that moment, Moses became a fugitive who found sanctuary across the border. He had a record. He would not pass a CORI check.

Yet God aims this pyrotechnical recruiting drive right at Moses. That’s what it is. The refugee Moses is happily resettled, and that status quo is about to go up in flames. So to speak.

God will call Moses to risk return to Egypt, to the royal court he had fled. God will call Moses to gain the trust of his own people, the Hebrews, who never quite knew what to make of him, especially after that incident. God will call him to be their champion before Pharoah, going toe to toe with that powerful figure in whose house Moses had been raised a princeling.

No one would have been more surprised by all this than Moses.

So watch out! If this story captures your attention, it might become more than just a snapshot of the ancient past… You may experience God calling you to take a risk, make a major return, confront a person, a power, a problem.

If Moses had taken a selfie at this moment—before the voice was heard, I mean— how would you imagine his expression? I’ll go with “puzzled”. But there in the pulsing heart of that fire, what is that shape that emerges, that presence asserting itself? When he sees this animating force expressing itself, Moses hides his face, for he was afraid to look at God.

“Come no closer! Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.” Is there a shortage of heavenly personnel, that God has to micro-manage the details of self-manifestation? Wouldn’t you have expected a host of underlings to announce the etiquette of engagement with the divine? All we’ve got here is one angel who appears to be tongue-tied, for he says not a word. Perhaps he’s an angel-in-training. God alone speaks.

As of that moment, the bush plays no more of a role in this story. Its one purpose was to draw Moses’ eye. With that accomplished, God’s voice claims the stage.

Notice the verbs in what God says. I have seen: I have seen the misery of my people. I have heard: I have heard their cry. I know: I know their sufferings. I have come: I have come down to deliver them from their enemy, and to bring them up to a good and broad land.

In the Holy Eucharist, key verbs describe the love that pulses like living flame at the table of new life: On the night he was betrayed, our Lord Jesus took bread. He blessed the bread. He broke the bread. He gave the bread into the hands of his disciples. Those are the verbs of familiar action, salvation action, in the redemption accomplished by God in Jesus Christ.

The verbs we hear from the burning bush—I have seen, I have heard, I know, I have come—might be called the key verbs in the redemption history of Judaism. They pertain to many a story in the Hebrew Bible, for they describe the nature of God who is all-embracing, all-engaging, all-compassionate, all-committed to creation.

And biased. The Hebrew Bible makes no apology for its claim that Israel is the chosen nation, Jews the chosen people; and, as today’s reading makes clear, the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites simply must move over and play dead—worse yet, become dead—in the advance of the Hebrew refugees into the land of milk and honey. Is all this bias from God? Doesn’t it come from the human heart and mind? This exclusivism continues to bedevil the politics of the Middle East. And while we can expect the New Testament to insist upon a new inclusivism, we know all too well that our own religion has often earned the teacher’s report card with the comment, “Does not always play well with others.”

“Blazing, yet it was not consumed.” God needed the burning bush no longer, but a preacher is reluctant to let go of it.

Take Paul’s letter to the Romans and lift up just the verbs that constitute his vision of apostolic Christianity: Outdo… be ardent… rejoice… be patient… persevere… contribute… extend… bless… weep… live in harmony… associate… claim wisdom modestly… take thought… live peaceably… leave room for God… feed… give…overcome evil… heap burning coals on the heads of your enemies.

I like that last one. Not, I hope, in a perverse way, but for its jujitsu approach to mutual transformation: the generous care, the wondrous love, the amazing grace that St. Paul exhorts us to practice puts, at the same time, our enemy in a surprising and unexpected place, and us in equally uncharted waters. Mutual transformation demands starting with radical equality. These uncharted passages of new birth are waters of baptism—seeking and serving Christ in all persons, loving neighbor and enemy as we love ourselves; respecting the dignity of every human being.

The bush was blazing, yet not consumed, because the energy of God is boundless, limitless, creative, and mysterious. The burning coals of service, respect, and love will, in like manner, not consume us because they are the energy of God at work in us, and God knows how to renew them—renew us—in perfect sustainability.

This is the lesson learned by the first-century Church: That all the bold apostolic doing and being summed up by all those verbs would be made possible for them by the power of the God’s Spirit. This is the same lesson Moses would come to grasp—though it forever felt as if it has grasped him.

It is the lesson that all our scripture lessons point to, prepare us for, draw us to, call us to dare trust… and follow.