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Proper 19, Year A

[If you haven't seen it already, you might want to take a look at my supplemental entry from last week, which also addressed the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.]

Ecclesiasticus 27:30 - 28:7 - link to NRSV text
Psalm 103 - link to BCP text
Romans 14:5-12 - link to NRSV text
Matthew 18:21-35 - link to NRSV text

This Sunday is September 11, 2005, four years to the day after September 11, 2001, and the end of a week in which news has been dominated once again with images that are equally hard to believe in one sense and hard to turn away from in another, images of death and suffering in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. Both events are very much in the foreground of my mind this week as I reflect on the passages we'll be preaching on this Sunday.

I blogged in Grace Notes, my personal blog, a few months ago about a short film I'd come across online, and which I found to be very effective in its simplicity. You can find that entry, and a link to the film (which I encourage you to watch, if you haven't already -- it's only about thirty seconds long) here. What the film says is this:

Terrorism is bred in
FEAR
ANGER
HATRED.

The recent attacks on America have instilled
FEAR
ANGER
HATRED
in otherwise peaceful people.

Vengeful retaliation will also instill
FEAR
ANGER
HATRED
in innocent people who suffer from such attacks.

Terrorism is bred in
FEAR
ANGER
HATRED.

Violence breeds violence.
Our mission now is to break the cycle.

This short film with its powerful message is about forgiveness, what it's about, and why it's crucial for our survival -- by which I mean not just our continuing to draw breath, but our continuing to be ALIVE, living in the abundant way that is Christ's gift.

Jesus spoke these words about forgiveness -- unilateral, unconditional, and (to many of his hearers) nonsensical forgiveness -- in an honor/shame culture, a culture in which retaliating against someone who'd attacked your family or your family honor was seen not only as the only wise course of action, but the only GOOD course of action. You don't want people to feel that they've got a license to walk all over your family, do you? And if God is on your side, is there any way to prove it besides striking back so you can show that your god is stronger than theirs? You've got a duty to strike back -- not only to protect your own honor, but also to protect your wife, your children, those who are vulnerable and who can't strike back themselves. The Law limits retaliation -- an eye for an eye, one life and one life only for a life -- but doesn't prohibit it.

But it was the Mahatma Gandhi, I think who put it in these vivid terms: "an eye for an eye" leaves the whole world blind. That's the sad tragedy of so many conflicts we see. In the Middle East, one side claims that their bomb came in retaliation for the other side's rocket. It really doesn't matter who started it; continuing by principles of violence for violence, there is nothing that will finish it.

What will finish it? Who will deliver us from this body of death, these spirals of violence?

Jesus delivers us, because Jesus taught us a better way: forgive, not once, or twice, but seventy or seventy times seven -- in other words, always, as many times as we're attacked.

It sounds crazy, but it's the only way out. We've seen it in less graphic ways in seemingly intractable church conflict. When we talk only of how we've been wronged and what others need to do (or be forced to do!) to make up for it, then we just get caught up in escalating spirals of the conflict. Not only does this continue conflict indefinitely (which, to be sure, is neither fun nor spiritually profitable, though it seems to work well for some people for short-term fundraising), but it also makes it awfully hard to really hear anyone else through the din.

What would happen if we took Paul's counsel seriously to "strive to outdo one another in SHOWING honor" (Romans 12:10)? We'd have a lot more energy to put into action the rest of Paul's train of thought, namely "Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers" (Romans 12:11-13).

That last sentence hits me particularly hard in light of the devastation we've seen along the Gulf Coast, the images and stories and footage of people with no or not enough clean water to drink, food to eat, no home to light at night or power to light it, and in many cases convulsed with grief and worry about family members lost.

Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers.

We would have so much more to give as a nation if we weren't so caught up in so many battles. How many evacuees could be housed and fed and given a new start if we could devote to it the combined annual budgets of every political group working to make sure that some other group doesn't gain ground? And then there's the war in Iraq. I know that many consider it to be a righteous cause, and I respect that there are many who are willingly putting their lives on the line to serve, but I have to wonder just how many lives we could save and how many enemies we could win over if we put even half as much of the money and the ingenuity and the energy into saving lives -- any and all lives, as trying to figure out who deserves life most just takes more energy we could put into saving more -- as we do into trying to punish those we reckon are "evildoers"?

Jesus' answer to that is forgiveness. Forgive those who attack and love enemies, and you can devote all the resources and energy that would go into judging and punishing others to the cause of loving, serving, and honoring others. Seventy times seven -- as often as it happens.

I've heard talk in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina about forgiveness meaning that we shouldn't talk about who's responsible for some of the decisions that left so many, especially so many of the poor, the elderly, and the disabled, to suffering and death. That's not what forgiveness is.

Forgiveness doesn't say, "it's like it never happened" -- that's amnesia.

Forgiveness doesn't say, "well, nobody could have expected you to do any better" -- that's condescension.

Forgiveness accepts both that the other person is capable of moral action and that the actions for which you are extending forgiveness were immoral. Both of those things are crucial, as forgiveness is meant to call both parties to reconciliation -- that renewed relationship between persons who accept moral responsibility and who have dedicated themselves to uphold the other person as a moral agent, a person who is both capable of and called to give and receive love.

In other words, forgiveness puts demonizing the other person out of bounds. Forgiveness is grounded in acknowleding shared humanity (or personhood, which would be a more appropriate term with respect to how God the Father forgives us), shared moral agency, and demonizing another person denies that person's moral agency, denying not only their fitness for being loved, but also their potential to love others, and behave in a moral manner toward others. Demonizing others usually happens, I've observed, in attempts to "hold their feet to the fire," but it has the opposite effect; in suggesting that the others are incapable of moral action, it lets them off the hook. I often think that's something like what St. Paul had in mind when he said that by loving, forgiving, and serving our enemies, we "heap burning coals upon their heads" (Romans 12:30). And if wanting to heap burning coals on someone else is the only motivation we can come up with for forgiving them -- and in so doing, inviting them to live as reconciled and reconciling people alongside us -- then that'll do.

So by all means, let us contribute to the needs of those in need. Let us extend hospitality to strangers, and generosity to those displaced by flooding as befits those who are aware of how vulnerable we all are, and how gracious God is toward all of us, without regard for who is deserving. And let us also embrace the prophetic call to speak to those in power about how they could use it to benefit most those who are most vulnerable. Both ministries are given to us for the mission of the church: to serve as minister's of Christ's reconciliation of all the world to one another and to God. That ministry is so powerful that none can stand outside the reach of God's love, and God's gifts to each one of us are so precious that all are invited to the freedom and the responsibility to to extend God's grace to others.

Thanks be to God!

    

September 7, 2005 in Current Events, Forgiveness, Honor/Shame, Justice, Matthew, Nonviolence, Ordinary Time, Pastoral Concerns, Reconciliation, Romans, Year A | Permalink

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Comments

Very thought provoking and helful exposition. i love the way you bring scripture into dialogue with the world.

Just one point, it is not 2006. As a football fan I wuld hate to think I'd missed the World cup.

Posted by: Paul | Sep 8, 2005 3:24:34 AM

Paul,

How embarrassing! Maybe I was looking forward to my being ordained. :) I've corrected it -- many thanks for pointing out the typo.

Posted by: Sarah Dylan Breuer | Sep 8, 2005 6:52:14 AM

That is just beautiful. With your permission I'd like to use some of your thoughts as I lead prayer and devotions before a cooperative ministy event this weekend. It is a group of people who can really use this message.

Posted by: Mark | Sep 9, 2005 4:09:43 PM

After reading your blog I went back to the passage. Notice the importance of the witnesses. Without the event being witnessed and the, as you have suggested, immoral behavior being registered the abuse would have continued.
The church, when acting with moral agency, is the witness to the atrocities of this world.

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Dylan's lectionary blog: Proper 19, Year A

« supplemental note for Proper 18, Year A -- Hurricane Katrina | Main | Proper 20, Year A »

Proper 19, Year A

[If you haven't seen it already, you might want to take a look at my supplemental entry from last week, which also addressed the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.]

Ecclesiasticus 27:30 - 28:7 - link to NRSV text
Psalm 103 - link to BCP text
Romans 14:5-12 - link to NRSV text
Matthew 18:21-35 - link to NRSV text

This Sunday is September 11, 2005, four years to the day after September 11, 2001, and the end of a week in which news has been dominated once again with images that are equally hard to believe in one sense and hard to turn away from in another, images of death and suffering in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. Both events are very much in the foreground of my mind this week as I reflect on the passages we'll be preaching on this Sunday.

I blogged in Grace Notes, my personal blog, a few months ago about a short film I'd come across online, and which I found to be very effective in its simplicity. You can find that entry, and a link to the film (which I encourage you to watch, if you haven't already -- it's only about thirty seconds long) here. What the film says is this:

Terrorism is bred in
FEAR
ANGER
HATRED.

The recent attacks on America have instilled
FEAR
ANGER
HATRED
in otherwise peaceful people.

Vengeful retaliation will also instill
FEAR
ANGER
HATRED
in innocent people who suffer from such attacks.

Terrorism is bred in
FEAR
ANGER
HATRED.

Violence breeds violence.
Our mission now is to break the cycle.

This short film with its powerful message is about forgiveness, what it's about, and why it's crucial for our survival -- by which I mean not just our continuing to draw breath, but our continuing to be ALIVE, living in the abundant way that is Christ's gift.

Jesus spoke these words about forgiveness -- unilateral, unconditional, and (to many of his hearers) nonsensical forgiveness -- in an honor/shame culture, a culture in which retaliating against someone who'd attacked your family or your family honor was seen not only as the only wise course of action, but the only GOOD course of action. You don't want people to feel that they've got a license to walk all over your family, do you? And if God is on your side, is there any way to prove it besides striking back so you can show that your god is stronger than theirs? You've got a duty to strike back -- not only to protect your own honor, but also to protect your wife, your children, those who are vulnerable and who can't strike back themselves. The Law limits retaliation -- an eye for an eye, one life and one life only for a life -- but doesn't prohibit it.

But it was the Mahatma Gandhi, I think who put it in these vivid terms: "an eye for an eye" leaves the whole world blind. That's the sad tragedy of so many conflicts we see. In the Middle East, one side claims that their bomb came in retaliation for the other side's rocket. It really doesn't matter who started it; continuing by principles of violence for violence, there is nothing that will finish it.

What will finish it? Who will deliver us from this body of death, these spirals of violence?

Jesus delivers us, because Jesus taught us a better way: forgive, not once, or twice, but seventy or seventy times seven -- in other words, always, as many times as we're attacked.

It sounds crazy, but it's the only way out. We've seen it in less graphic ways in seemingly intractable church conflict. When we talk only of how we've been wronged and what others need to do (or be forced to do!) to make up for it, then we just get caught up in escalating spirals of the conflict. Not only does this continue conflict indefinitely (which, to be sure, is neither fun nor spiritually profitable, though it seems to work well for some people for short-term fundraising), but it also makes it awfully hard to really hear anyone else through the din.

What would happen if we took Paul's counsel seriously to "strive to outdo one another in SHOWING honor" (Romans 12:10)? We'd have a lot more energy to put into action the rest of Paul's train of thought, namely "Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers" (Romans 12:11-13).

That last sentence hits me particularly hard in light of the devastation we've seen along the Gulf Coast, the images and stories and footage of people with no or not enough clean water to drink, food to eat, no home to light at night or power to light it, and in many cases convulsed with grief and worry about family members lost.

Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers.

We would have so much more to give as a nation if we weren't so caught up in so many battles. How many evacuees could be housed and fed and given a new start if we could devote to it the combined annual budgets of every political group working to make sure that some other group doesn't gain ground? And then there's the war in Iraq. I know that many consider it to be a righteous cause, and I respect that there are many who are willingly putting their lives on the line to serve, but I have to wonder just how many lives we could save and how many enemies we could win over if we put even half as much of the money and the ingenuity and the energy into saving lives -- any and all lives, as trying to figure out who deserves life most just takes more energy we could put into saving more -- as we do into trying to punish those we reckon are "evildoers"?

Jesus' answer to that is forgiveness. Forgive those who attack and love enemies, and you can devote all the resources and energy that would go into judging and punishing others to the cause of loving, serving, and honoring others. Seventy times seven -- as often as it happens.

I've heard talk in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina about forgiveness meaning that we shouldn't talk about who's responsible for some of the decisions that left so many, especially so many of the poor, the elderly, and the disabled, to suffering and death. That's not what forgiveness is.

Forgiveness doesn't say, "it's like it never happened" -- that's amnesia.

Forgiveness doesn't say, "well, nobody could have expected you to do any better" -- that's condescension.

Forgiveness accepts both that the other person is capable of moral action and that the actions for which you are extending forgiveness were immoral. Both of those things are crucial, as forgiveness is meant to call both parties to reconciliation -- that renewed relationship between persons who accept moral responsibility and who have dedicated themselves to uphold the other person as a moral agent, a person who is both capable of and called to give and receive love.

In other words, forgiveness puts demonizing the other person out of bounds. Forgiveness is grounded in acknowleding shared humanity (or personhood, which would be a more appropriate term with respect to how God the Father forgives us), shared moral agency, and demonizing another person denies that person's moral agency, denying not only their fitness for being loved, but also their potential to love others, and behave in a moral manner toward others. Demonizing others usually happens, I've observed, in attempts to "hold their feet to the fire," but it has the opposite effect; in suggesting that the others are incapable of moral action, it lets them off the hook. I often think that's something like what St. Paul had in mind when he said that by loving, forgiving, and serving our enemies, we "heap burning coals upon their heads" (Romans 12:30). And if wanting to heap burning coals on someone else is the only motivation we can come up with for forgiving them -- and in so doing, inviting them to live as reconciled and reconciling people alongside us -- then that'll do.

So by all means, let us contribute to the needs of those in need. Let us extend hospitality to strangers, and generosity to those displaced by flooding as befits those who are aware of how vulnerable we all are, and how gracious God is toward all of us, without regard for who is deserving. And let us also embrace the prophetic call to speak to those in power about how they could use it to benefit most those who are most vulnerable. Both ministries are given to us for the mission of the church: to serve as minister's of Christ's reconciliation of all the world to one another and to God. That ministry is so powerful that none can stand outside the reach of God's love, and God's gifts to each one of us are so precious that all are invited to the freedom and the responsibility to to extend God's grace to others.

Thanks be to God!

    

September 7, 2005 in Current Events, Forgiveness, Honor/Shame, Justice, Matthew, Nonviolence, Ordinary Time, Pastoral Concerns, Reconciliation, Romans, Year A | Permalink

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