70 x 7 and 9/11, Matthew 18:21-35, Exodus 14:19-31; 15:1-11, 20-21

The texts for September 11 are a great example of how relevant and timely the lectionary can be.  How interesting is it on the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the U.S. to contrast a classic Gospel lesson on forgiveness with Israel’s celebration of the crushing defeat of their hated enemies, the  Egyptians, in the waters of the Red Sea? 

I’ve been dreading this 10th anniversary of 9/11 all year, fearing that it will be an excuse to fan the flames of fear and hatred and revenge on those who perpetrated the attacks in 2001, and even worse, on any one of Arab or Islamic heritage.   I hope I’m wrong and that this anniversary will be more about healing and understanding than about revenge.  To that end, I share this amazing story from the Jewish Talmud about the Hebrew fugitives crossing the Red Sea.

The Talmudic interpretation picks up after the Biblical account and Miriam’s song and victory dance celebrating Yahweh as a “warrior” or even worse in the older version of the Revised Standard Version, “a man of war.”  According to the Talmud God had been away that day and left the angels in charge.  God returns to find the angels joining in the celebration and cheering that they got those darn Egyptians, drowned the whole lot of them and all their horses too!  To the great surprise of the angels, God is not pleased with their celebration.  When they inquire why not, God shakes his head and says, “Don’t you understand, the Egyptians are my children too?”  And that story is told by the Jews!

Knowing how hard it will be, my prayer is that American Christians will take very seriously the challenge of Jesus to forgive and even love our enemies as we remember and commemorate the historic and tragic events of September 11, 2001.

As I said in last week’s blog on Romans 13, putting on Christ as our “armor of light” makes it possible for us to live up to  God’s expectations for us when we cannot do it on our own.  In Colossians 3, Paul spells out what some of the core qualities of Christian discipleship are.  He says, “Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassion, kindness, lowliness, meekness, and  patience, …forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you must forgive.” (vs. 12-13)

As we consider forgiveness as a core Christian value, you may benefit more if you remember specific situations in your life where forgiveness is needed.  Take a minute to think of someone who has wronged you or hurt you; someone whose bad habits drive you crazy. (Stop and get a picture in your mind of that person.) That’s easy right?  Most of us have a long list of folks like that who have made our lives difficult.   

And now the hard part.  Call to mind a mistake you’ve made, intentional or careless, minor or major, that has hurt someone in your life.  Take time to experience the regret and the desire for peace and release from that burden.  It may be recent.  It may have been with you a very long time.  Forgiveness is the only way to ease that burden and be at peace.

A marvelous true story about forgiveness in told in the movie “The Straight Story,” about Alvin Straight, a 73 year old man who journeys from Laurens, Iowa to Mt. Zion, Wisconsin, to visit his dying brother, Lyle.  So far, that doesn’t sound out of the ordinary, right?  What makes this story unique is that Alvin, because he no longer has a driver’s license, makes the 370 mile trip on a John Deere lawn tractor!!!  The two brothers were estranged for years and had not spoken because of stubborn pride and anger over a long-forgotten conflict.  But Lyle’s stroke convinces Alvin now is the time to make amends.  Along his journey Alvin meets a host of interesting characters who are deeply touched by his desire to make up with his brother.  When Alvin finally arrives, Lyle asks him if he has ridden “that thing” 370 miles just to see him.  Alvin replies, “Whatever it was that made us angry, I want to make peace and look up at the stars,” something they had enjoyed doing together as young boys.

Great story which reminds us that forgiveness is not easy; those who forgive must overcome obstacles, including our own resistance.  Alvin did not wait for his brother to ask for forgiveness or to apologize; he took the risk of initiating the forgiveness, even though he no longer remembered the original problem.

The most famous cliché about forgiveness is of course, “forgive and forget,” but we all know that in real life overcoming the past is never that simple.  Anthony de Mello illustrates how true that is in a humorous vignette about love’s forgetfulness:  ‘Why do you keep talking about my past mistakes?” said the husband.  “I thought you had forgiven and forgotten.”  “I have indeed, forgiven and forgotten,’ said the wife.  ‘But I want to make sure you don’t forget that I have forgiven and forgotten.”

Forgiveness is not easy – but it is an essential, core value and behavior for those who want the peace of Christ in their hearts.  Why?  Because none of us escape the pain of frustration, disappointment, betrayal, conflicts, and problems in life and in love.  That means, as Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi puts it, “all of us have unhealed scar tissue that keeps our hearts closed and armored against repeated injuries.”  Reb Zalman adds, that “when we refuse to forgive someone who has wronged us, we mobilize our own inner criminal justice system to punish the offender.  As judge and jury, we sentence the person to a long prison term in a prison that we construct from the bricks and mortar of our hardened hearts.  Now as jailer and warden, we must spend as much time in prison as the prisoner we are guarding.  All the energy we put into maintaining this prison system comes out of our energy budget.  Bearing a grudge is very costly because holding long-held feelings of anger, resentment, and fear drain our energy and imprison our vitality and creativity.”  That’s why the Chinese have a saying:  “one who pursues revenge should dig two graves.”  

So much for the “don’t get mad, get even” philosophy.   Forgiveness may seem harder than revenge, but the payoff is priceless.

Diana and I were in Japan two years ago.  We saw many interesting sites and enjoyed the graciousness of the Japanese people very much.  But for me the most memorable and moving part of the trip by far was our visit to Hiroshima and the site of the first atomic bomb.  As we stood on the very spot where so much death and devastation took place, we saw pictures and read accounts of the unbelievable power unleashed on that city, of  the 70,000 people who were annihilated by the blast and perhaps 200,000 more who died later after horrible suffering from radiation poisoning.  A lot of thoughts and feelings ran thru my mind – but the strongest words were those of Jesus on the cross, “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do.” 

The same words echo in my mind as 9/11 approaches again, along with the question, how is it possible to forgive such horrible acts of injustice?  Does God really expect us to forgive the Hitlers of the world?  Can victims of sexual abuse ever forgive their abusers?  Can a people that have been enslaved by others ever be reconciled with their oppressors?  Can parents ever forgive a drunk driver who kills or maims a child?  Can the families of the thousands of 9/11 victims ever forgive the terrorists who flew those planes into the twin towers or the Pentagon or that field outside Shanksville, Pennsylvania?  Or the first responders who will never be fully healthy again because they chose to run to ground zero as others ran from it?  Or the millions of us who live under a heightened terrorist alert that has forever changed the way we live our lives?  Could Jesus possibly mean this kind of act of inhumane cruelty when he says, “if someone strikes you on the cheek (or the North Tower), turn to them the other as well?”

Corrie ten Boom, a survivor of the Nazi death camps offers a powerful answer to how that kind of forgiveness is possible.  Corrie’s family was among the millions executed by the Nazi’s during World War II, but she miraculously survived.  After the war she felt compelled to travel around Europe proclaiming a message of Christian forgiveness for those who exterminated so many innocent people.  One night as she got up in a church to give her testimony she looked out into the audience and felt her blood run cold.  There in the crowd was one of the very SS guards who had been responsible for the murder of her family.  She delivered her message from memory and tried to make a hasty retreat after she finished.  To her dismay she saw the former Nazi guard coming straight for her and could not avoid him.  He stretched out his hand to her and thanked her profusely for her message.  He said, “You have no idea how much I needed to hear that word of forgiveness to lift the burden of guilt I feel for what we did to your people.”  He stood there waiting to shake her hand.  Corrie says she was paralyzed.  Her hands were frozen at her side for what seemed like an eternity.  Finally she prayed, “Lord, if you want this man forgiven, you’re going to have to do it because I can’t.”   At that point, she says she felt the most amazing peace come over her.  She reached out and took the hand of her former enemy and felt a power run through her body that she had never experienced before.

“Father forgive them, for they know not what they do.”  Notice what that verse says?  “Father, forgive them….”  Just like Corrie ten Boom asks God to forgive her enemy, Jesus asks God to do the forgiving – perhaps because in his pain and agony, in his human suffering, he cannot muster the strength to do it himself?  If even Jesus has to rely on God to provide the power to forgive, how much more should we rely on that same source of mercy and forgiveness.  The scriptures tell us, that “with God all things are possible” – even forgiving unrepentant offenders and hated terrorists.

Forgiveness is a gift – and true gifts are given without strings or conditions attached.  The best part is that forgiveness is not just for those we forgive, but is a gift for ourselves that frees the giver from a terrible burden of anger, pain and being a victim to the past that cannot be changed or undone. 

I’m not saying it’s easy or quick to experience that peace.  For some it may happen in a sudden conversion experience, but for most of us, forgiveness is a process – it takes time and practice, even 70 x 7 times, patience with ourselves, unlearning old attitudes and allowing the love of Christ and God to work in our hearts.  The hurt and pain may not ever go away completely, but the more we can surrender the pain and anger and resentment at others or at our own mistakes, the more room we make in our hearts for peace and contentment.

A key to forgiveness is accepting our human imperfection.  We are all fallible human beings.  God has endowed us with a freedom of choice that guarantees we will all screw up on a regular basis.  All of us make mistakes.  That may not sound like good news, but it is – it means there’s no need to beat ourselves up for making mistakes.  Mistakes R Us – they go with the human territory, and once an unkind word is spoken, or a careless act done that injures someone else, or a foolish decision made about a job or an investment, or a relationship – that toothpaste is out of the tube and can’t be crammed back in no matter how much we wish it so.  The bomb can’t be undropped on Hiroshima; the Holocaust can’t be erased from the history books, or the dark saga of human slavery and racism in various parts of the world.  Inequality for women for most of human history can’t be ignored.  Addictions to substances, junk food or sex or power or consumption only grow stronger if they are denied.  9/11 can be remembered and heroes memorialized, but that dark day cannot be undone. 

So the first step in the healing process of forgiveness is accepting the reality of human frailty – including and most especially our own.  The famous parable of the prodigal son says the son came to his senses, realized what a mess he had made of his life, and then and only then was he able to say “I’m sorry” and accept the gift of forgiveness that his father was always ready to give.  This bad son, the prodigal, realized the need to ask for forgiveness – and he was reconciled, whereas his older brother ended up angry and bitter, because he couldn’t forgive his brother’s mistakes or the “unfair” way his father handled the situation.

So forgiveness is a gift we give ourselves and others – whether other people receive that gift or deserve it doesn’t matter – because forgiveness does more for the giver than it does for the forgiven.  If someone wrongs me and I carry a grudge and feel like a victim of that wrong for the rest of my life – who is really suffering? 

There is one more kind of forgiveness that most of us don’t think about, but it is critical to finding peace in our lives.  It’s the need to forgive God – yes, I said forgive God.  What does God need to be forgiven for?  I first discovered this aspect of forgiveness in the marvelous book, When Bad Things Happen to Good People, by Rabbi Harold Kushner.  Kushner says we need to forgive God for making an imperfect world–for the things insurance companies call “acts of God.”  Have you ever noticed that all the things in that category are bad?  Hurricanes, tornados, tsunamis, earthquakes, floods, sink holes, typhoons, volcanic eruptions?  

So does God need our forgiveness for life being as it is?  Maybe not, but we need to give it, for the same reason we need to forgive ourselves and others.  Because if we are angry at God for all the problems in the world and in our lives – if we blame God for innocent children suffering, for all manner of bad things that happen to good people, we will never be at peace.  And, more importantly, if we blame God for all our problems, we will never take responsibility for making things better.

Does forgiveness mean being a door mat?  Does it mean just rolling over and being passive and helpless?  No – injustices are made to be righted, crises are opportunities for service and compassion, tragedies are prime examples of times to learn from the mistakes of the past so we don’t’ make them over again.  But for those things we cannot change or even understand, forgiving God for the imperfections of our world and our own understanding of it, is the only way to find the peace that the world cannot give. 

What do we need to ask God to forgive?  What guilt do we burden ourselves with that we can surrender to God?  What anger and resentment toward others is keeping us locked into a victim mindset to our past?  What resentments toward God that keep us from total freedom and joy in life do we need to release? 

Those burdens keep us from worshipping and praising and trusting God completely – and they will do so till we acknowledge them and are reconciled with human imperfection in ourselves and in others.

Jesus said, “Father forgive them.”  Maybe in his human agony and pain he could not find the strength to forgive those enemies who were responsible for his suffering.  But he knew someone who could forgive them, and so do we.

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“Put on the Armor of Light,” Romans 13:8-14

“Father McKenzie, writing the words of a sermon that no one will hear.  No one comes near.”  Those plaintive lyrics are from an old Beatle’s song, “Eleanor Rigby,” and as far as I know the only commentary offered by the Fab Four on preaching.  They came to mind this week as I was struggling with motivation to write an entry for this blog.  “Does anybody out there really even reading what I write?” I wondered.  “Will anybody notice if I take a week off?”  I must confess that even as technologically challenged as I am, my techie son-in-law helped me figure out how to check the stats on the WordPress blog program last week, and I had one of those Sally Field moments when I discovered that a lot of people are actually viewing my posts!  (If you are too young to remember Sally Field’s “you really like me” speech at the Academy Awards, you can Google it I’m sure.)

But as nice as those anonymous statistics are, I was still about to take a sabbatical and skip my weekly lectionary musing – until I got an email from a former student thanking me for last week’s post that helped him with his sermon preparation.  Instant motivation.

Funny how the presence of others affects our attitude and behavior isn’t it?  Our church had a very informal golf league this summer, and on two occasions I had the good fortune to play in a group that included a remarkable 9-year old girl who has a very special place in my heart.  Having Madeline in my foursome didn’t improve my golf game at all.  In fact, having her outdrive me on several holes probably made my threatened male ego swing harder, which, if you have ever tired that you know is a guaranteed formula for one of several results, none of which are good.  But what the presence of an innocent, impressionable child did do for me was help me refrain from uttering those very irreverent words that all too often proceed form my lips when my golf ball disappear into water, weeds or water.  (Someone cleverer than I once suggested that golf clubs should be called “profanity sticks.”)

Romans 13 urges us to “put on the armor of light” and “live honorably as in the day.” That’s often easier for me when someone else is watching.  (See “obeying traffic laws when cops are present,” “not eating junk food when spouse is not present,” or “when the cats away, the mice will play.”) 

Paul begins this passage from Romans with a discussion of rules and regulations, as in God’s Top Ten Commandments.  He lists three examples that cover a wide range of sins: adultery, murder, and coveting.  I’m sure those three were not chosen at random.  They stretch from what we might consider the most serious to the least, and I doubt that any of us can honestly say we haven’t done at least one of those three.  And if you can, I covet your morality.  But then Paul shifts from the negative to the positive.  He says, quoting Jesus, all the commandments are “summed up in this word, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.  Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law.” (vs. 9-10) 

It took me far too long in life to appreciate that rules and laws are for the most part meant to protect us – mostly from ourselves.  As a rebellious adolescent for 30 years or so, I resented the limitations rules put on me and had to learn the hard way why they were there.  I blame it on my first grade teacher who cast me as Peter Pan in my very first dramatic role.  Remember Peter is that boy who refuses to grow up?  Paul is telling the first century Roman church that it’s time to grow up and live in honorable ways, and 2000 years later, it’s still time for mature Christ-like living, just as it has been in every generation.

Paul repeats the negative/positive formula in verses 13-14.  He describes the immature life of darkness as one that includes “reveling and drunkenness, debauchery and licentiousness,” and then concludes with one that jumped out at me given the current polarization in our political and economic system.  He says those who put on the armor of light are not those who live “in quarreling and jealousy.”  As we saw a couple of weeks ago in the Exodus story, cooperation and collaboration, not quarreling and jealousy, are essential qualities for those who want to achieve great things and solve complex interpersonal or social problems.  (My August 9 blog post, “Wanted: More Collaborators, Romans 12:1-8, Exodus 1:8-2:10)

Given the way quarreling and jealousy have pushed our economy and political way of life to the brink of disaster, the urgency of putting on the armor of light is real.   Paul zeros in on urgency when he says “it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep (nightmare?).  For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers; the night is far gone, the day is near.” (vs. 11-12)  “Salvation is nearer to us now…”  It’s tempting to read that as a threat, just as we sometimes interpret rules and regulations as threats to our freedom.  Too often Christians have interpreted such urgent pleas for obedience as a warning that the end is near, Jesus is coming in on the next flight from the North Pole and he knows who’s been naughty and nice.  Oh, sorry, wrong guy, but you get the point.  Threats of punishment be they from Santa or Satan or some other source are all well-intended attempts to scare the hell out of us.

We can debate the effectiveness of that kind of moral motivation.  (See “how we drive when cops are not present,” “when the cats away…” etc.).  The point is that being accountable to an external authority works extremely well when that authority is present to observe our behavior.  But when we are suddenly on our own, like a new pilot making her first solo flight without benefit of an instructor in the co-pilot’s seat, or young adults living on their own for the first time, their being well grounded and responsible for our own values and behavior is a far better way to go.  That’s what putting on the armor of light means—walking with Christ so he helps guide our behavior when the siren song of our own selfish desires pulls us in directions that may seem like fun in the short-run but lead to long-term pain and suffering for ourselves and others. 

Notice what verse 11 says – “salvation is nearer…”  It doesn’t say judgment or damnation is breathing down our necks.  It isn’t a threat but a promise.  Salvation is a good thing.  Being saved from a threat or a danger is cause for celebration, not fear or resentment.  Theologians call that present tense salvation “realized eschatology.”  Eschatology is the study of end times, the end of the world, the second coming of Christ.  Those are scary thoughts that some Christians try to use to control others or to predict things that Jesus says not even he knows, only God.  (Mark 13:32, Matthew 24:36)  But realized eschatology is all about the fact that salvation is at hand here and now. You don’t have to die to get it.  Paul says in another of his letters (II  Cor. 6:2), “On a day of salvation I have helped you.  See now is the acceptable time; see, now is the day of salvation!”

My point is that eternity, by definition, isn’t something that will begin at some future date.  It is eternal, beyond the limits of time, with no beginning and no end.  So the Christian assurance of  eternal life is both a promise for the future AND a present reality for those who “put on the armor of light and live honorably as in the day.”  When we do that we no longer have any need to hide under cover of darkness or to take on a different identity to conceal parts of our lives that embarrass or threaten us.  I was first angered and then saddened to read an email last week about a staffer for Congressman Darrell Issa of California.  It seems that this staffer, Peter Simonyi, was until recently known as Peter Haller.  There are conflicting stories about why Mr. Haller changed his name, but what makes the story interesting and controversial is that Congressman Issa, Mr. Simonyi’s boss, is the Chair of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee which is responsible for regulating and overseeing companies like Mr. Haller/Simonyi’s former employer, Goldman Sachs.  Could there be a conflict of interest here that just might not stand up to the scrutiny of the light? 

The more important question is, do you and I behave any differently when we are out of town or someplace unlike the famous TV bar, “Cheers,” where nobody knows our name?   Are we tempted to do things that we would never think of doing if our mothers or children were watching?  What might we do in the hours of darkness that we would never do in the sober noon day sun?  That is not an invitation, by the way, to start packing for a guilt trip.  Guilt trips usually only lead us deeper into the darkness.   Instead, it is a summons to rejoice and be exceeding glad, for “salvation is nearer to us now than when we first believed.”

As forgiven and redeemed children of God, we can live transparent lives in the spotlight of God’s son, and that is freedom and peace that passes all human understanding.

Suffering as Stumbling Block, Matt. 16:21-28

Nowhere is the power that the fear of suffering can have on faith more evident than in Matthew 16.  Peter goes from being the rock on which Jesus will build his church (v. 18) to a “stumbling block” to Jesus just five short verses later.   How is that possible?   Because Jesus raises the ugly specter of suffering as a prerequisite for Christian discipleship.

Suffering is not my favorite thing about being a Christian. In fact, if we were to do a David Letterman top 10 list of my favorite things about being a Christian, suffering wouldn’t even be on it.   I really identify with Peter when he argues with about his need to suffer and die.  But Jesus’ reaction is swift and sharp.  He says, “Get behind me Satan!  You are a stumbling block to me.”  Pretty harsh reply from Jesus, don’t you think?   But maybe it’s not as nasty as it sounds if we look more carefully at that story.  Jesus goes on to say, “Take up your cross and follow me.”

Remember the old childhood game, follow the leader?  Following requires that we get behind the leader.   In elementary school, students line up behind the teacher or other designated leader to go everywhere; it’s what followers do.  Jesus is just reminding Peter (and us) of where we need to be.  We need to get behind our leader, and this leader that we profess to follow, whose name we claim as Christians, makes it clear over and over again that cross bearing is part of what we have signed on for at our baptism.  It’s in the fine print!

For Christians, suffering goes with the territory, unless we want to give up the reward for genuine suffering, which is eternal life here and forever.  In Romans 8, Paul says, “We suffer with Christ so that we may be glorified with him.”   But we still wish it wasn’t so, don’t we?

Four years ago some members of my church gathered with other Christians on Good Friday for an annual ecumenical Cross Walk.  They process silently down the main street of Dublin, Ohio carrying a large wooden cross.    This community witness has been going on for years and all was well on Good Friday 2007 until the group realized that the communication about who was responsible for supplying the cross had broken down.  They were ready for the Cross Walk but had no cross with which to walk.  So one of the members of my church had to make a hasty trip to the church to get the cross.  After a few broken speed laws, the walk proceeded a few minutes later than planned.

When I first heard that story, I said, “That’ll preach!”  Wouldn’t we love to have Easter without the suffering and pain of Good Friday, the garden of Gethsemane, the betrayal and denial that broke Jesus’ heart long before the executioners broke his body?  I would.  I am not a fan of the no-pain-no-gain school for either exercise or theology.  If there is an easier way to get in shape than sweating and having sore muscles, I’m all over it.  And if someone can find an easy path to salvation, I’ll be the tour guide.  But, oops, there’s that nasty verse in the Sermon on the Mount, (Mt. 7:13-14) that says the wide easy freeway leads to destruction, and that’s the one without the cross.  That’s the one most people choose, because it looks easier and lots more fun in the short run.  But when it comes to matters of faith, don’t we want to focus on goals and consequences for eternity, not just the path of least resistance for today?

There are different kinds of suffering, and some are easier to deal with than others.  First, and easiest in some ways, is the kind of suffering we bring upon ourselves. Charlie Sheen comes to mind as one of this year’s nominees in that category.  Tiger Woods was last year unanimous winner.  You can think of other nominees, less famous ones, perhaps, and if we’re honest we could all be on that list at one time or another.  The difference for most of us is that we aren’t celebrities.  Our screw ups usually don’t show up the CBS Evening News or in big bold tabloid headlines for the world to read in the checkout line at Kroger’s.  But that doesn’t mean they are any less painful or hard to live with.    Mistakes have consequences which mean they usually hurt us and/or other people, and hurting is a form of suffering.  We all make bad choices, it goes with our free will that none of us want to give up.   We make bad choices that impact our health.  We drive when we are distracted by electronic gadgets or when our judgment isn’t 100%.  We say things in anger that we regret and break promises to people we love.  We give into worldly pressure to succeed or cut corners, knowing we’re violating our own values.   We may get away with it for awhile, or think we have, but sooner or later, our chickens come home to roost and we suffer.

That kind of suffering is very painful and hard to deal with, in part because there’s no one else to blame but ourselves; but at least self-inflicted suffering makes some sense.  We can understand where it comes from and why.

The second type of suffering makes less sense to me.  We only have to remember the heart-wrenching images of the Tsunami in Japan to feel the suffering of innocent, helpless people, thousands of them, minding their own business one minute and suddenly swept up in what looked like a science fiction movie about the end of the world the next.  The nuclear fallout, pun intended, adds insult to injury when we think about the irony of the only nation ever victimized by nuclear weapons now, 66 years later, experiencing the ravages of the worst nuclear accident in world history.  Sure, you could make a case for putting that suffering up in category number one.  Building nuclear reactors is risky business at best, and God help us if we don’t understand that now, but to build them in earthquake and tsunami territory, is highly questionable, as hind sight so clearly shows us.

But I digress, suffering type number 2 is the kind caused by natural disasters or criminal attacks, or lung cancer in someone who has never smoked a cigarette– the kind for which there is no justification or cause we can find.  Innocent children who are physically or emotionally or sexually abused.  Faithful spouses who are cheated on, taken advantage of and left with nothing to sustain life.  You get the picture.

This is a good place to clarify what suffering isn’t.  Shortly after the earthquake and tsunami, the governor of Tokyo made a public pronouncement that he believed this disaster was divine retribution on the people of Japan for their greed.  This gentleman is a follower of the Shinto religion, and I have no knowledge whatsoever of what Shinto theology is.  I do know there are those in most religions who resort to blaming God when we can’t figure any other way to justify or explain why bad things happen.  Christianity is not exempt from such bad theology.  We all remember the Christian preachers who claimed that hurricane Katrina devastated the gulf coast a few years ago because of the sin and wickedness of the Big Easy.

Please understand, I’m not saying actions don’t have consequences or that sin doesn’t cause suffering – those things are built into the natural order of things.  But that does not mean that the loving God I know and worship would kick people when they’re down by saying “Gotcha” or “Take that, sinner” over the broken and shattered ruins of a devastated life or city or nation.  When we need God’s comfort and strength and presence the very most, in times of tragedy and loss and despair, would God choose that time to teach us a lesson?  NO, that is the time that Emmanuel, God with us, carries us and comforts us.  When we suffer, God is close enough to taste the salt of our tears.

Now, I know we can find plenty of places in the Bible where we are told that God punishes sinners with plagues and boils and hell fire and damnation, and we need to deal with that problem head on.  The Bible was written over centuries by many different authors who were trying to answer the hardest questions and mysteries of life.  Those who experienced God in their suffering as punitive and judgmental wrote about that experience, and almost all of them did so without the benefit of knowing Jesus Christ, the best revelation possible for embracing our loving, forgiving, grace-full God.

We need to remind ourselves that many Jews who wrote their Bible, our Old Testament, also knew the loving, merciful side of God.  That compassionate part of God’s nature had just not come into clear focus for them as it did in the incarnation of God in Jesus.  We sometimes forget that many of the most beloved images of God – like the good shepherd of Psalm 23, come from the Hebrew Scriptures.  The very essence of Jesus’ teaching, the great commandments to love God with all one’s heart, soul, strength, and mind, and to love your neighbor as yourself come straight from Deuteronomy 6:4 and Leviticus 19:18.

To go a big step further, Christians believe that suffering is not just a necessary evil but actually a positive quality of Christian life.  Romans 5:3-4 says we even boast about our suffering, not because of some masochistic streak, but because suffering produces endurance, character and hope.  It’s fairly easy to see how the first two kinds of suffering, self-inflicted and undeserved, can build endurance and maybe character, but what about hope?  We need a 3rd kind of suffering to understand how it builds Hope, and that is what followers of Jesus do when we voluntarily take on suffering as an act of sacrificial compassion.

The reason Christians embrace and even boast about suffering, and the reason Jesus invites us to take up our cross and follow him, is that com-passion is essential to the Christian faith.  The word “compassion” comes from two Greek words that mean to suffer with.  Compassion is the kind of love Jesus came to teach and live.  Compassion is the love we feel for neighbors and enemies we don’t even know, simply because we share a common human condition.  Compassion is what we feel for the Japanese because we identify and empathize with them and share their suffering as fellow members of the human family.  We feel their pain because, as one of my students told me recently, God doesn’t have grandchildren – just children; so our fellow human beings are not cousins once or twice removed, but are siblings – brothers and sisters together with Christ.

Compassion is a key to God’s very nature.  Why else would God allow Jesus to suffer and die for us while we are yet sinners?   When John 3:16 tells us that God so loved the world that he gave us Jesus – that’s compassion and empathy to the max.    God becomes one of us in human form to share our existence, including our suffering.

Understanding Christian suffering as compassion helps us overcome the stumbling block that suffering and the cross can be.  Just as Jesus labels Peter’s resistance to suffering as a stumbling block, Paul describes the cross as a stumbling block for prospective Christians in I Corinthians 1:23.  Our aversion to pain and suffering is a natural component of that stumbling block, but mistakenly blaming God for our suffering only compounds the problem.

One unfortunate way this happens is when the suffering of Jesus on the cross is portrayed as a necessary sacrifice or punishment required by God for the sins of the world.  A prime example of that theology was Mel Gibson’s awful 2004 film, “The Passion of Christ.”  A God who would intentionally inflict that kind of brutal suffering on his own son is not one I want to follow.  But when we experience the cross of Christ as an act of compassion and sacrificial love, that kind of suffering is much easier to embrace and to imitate in our own lives.

The suffering of the cross for Jesus is an example writ large about how a person of faith handles suffering.  Jesus doesn’t repay evil for evil; he doesn’t lash out in violent anger when he is suffering.  He continues to live life in harmony with the will of God, bearing the ultimate suffering in love, compassion and forgiveness – staying true to the way of love which is the essence of life and of God.  How can we follow Christ’s example and take on the suffering of life with character and hope?  Paul says, “Hope does not disappoint us [even in the worst of times] because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.” (Romans 5:5)  We can’t line up behind Jesus and follow his lead, but God living in us can.

The cross is both a symbol of suffering and hope, because if Jesus’ life ended on Good Friday, suffering would be the final fate of human kind.  Death would define our existence.  But hold the phone; we know the rest of this story.  For those who don’t give up and leave the ball game when the score looks hopeless, there is good news.   As post-resurrection people we already know that suffering and death are not the final chapter in our story.  Thanks be to God’s ultimate, victorious will, we can endure suffering and even embrace it because we know it builds our character and makes us people of hope with Easter in our eyes.

Many years ago I did a funeral service for an elderly woman who had been in a great marriage for over 50 years.  The loss of his life-long companion was very painful for her husband, Walter, but her death was also a release from weeks of suffering from the cancer that killed her.  A few days after the funeral I stopped by to visit with Walter and I asked him how he was doing.  I’ll never forget his reply.  He said, “Steve, I’m doing OK.  I miss Myrtle terribly, but I know she’s in a better place now; so I’m smiling through my tears.”

We boast in our suffering because it is a sign of love and compassion that we voluntarily embrace as the way and truth and life of the one we are proud to call our leader – the one we take up our crosses and follow, smiling through the tears of sacrificial suffering and compassion.

Wanted: More Collaborators, Romans 12:1-8; Exodus 1:8-2:10

Romans 12 is one of those many familiar passages in the New Testament that praises humility, collaboration and teamwork, qualities that are sorely lacking in our fearful recession-plagued society and world.  What a great time to be reminded of the value our unique individual gifts can contribute to addressing complex social problems.

The Hebrew slaves in Exodus (1:8-2:10) were up an even bigger creek without a paddle than we are today, and that narrative provides a marvelous illustration of what collaboration and teamwork look like.  Most of us think of Moses as the great leader of liberation for the Hebrew exodus from slavery in Egypt.   He’s the one who boldly stares down Pharaoh, one of the most powerful rulers in the world, and demands freedom for God’s people.  True, it helped that he had divine intervention to back him up.  Those persuasive plagues God inflicts on Pharaoh’s people certainly make for memorable drama in Hollywood retellings of the Exodus story, be it the old Charlton Heston version or Disney’s animated “Prince of Egypt.”

Most people know something about Moses.  Shiphrah and Puah on the other hand are far from household names, and yet without those minor characters in this drama, there would have been no Moses and no Exodus.  Without the brave little slave girl, Miriam, and her courageous mother and their creative manipulation of Pharaoh’s daughter’s maternal compassion, Moses, the great liberator would not have survived the first year of life.  What a wonderful twist in this story (Exodus 2:5-9) when Moses’ sister tricks Pharaoh’s daughter into giving Moses back to his mother to nurse him.  The mother not only gets her son back but even gets paid for providing childcare.

The great African-American Preacher, James Forbes, preached on the Exodus story several years ago at the Schooler Institute on Preaching at the Methodist Theological School in Ohio (“Let My Leaders Go,” Nov. 13, 1990).  I still use a recording of that sermon regularly in the preaching classes I teach.  The essence of the sermon is that without the contributions of the “minor” characters in what Forbes calls “Phase I” of the liberation process, there could have been no Phase II led by Moses and his brother Aaron. 

In Romans 12 Paul says “do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God— what is is good and acceptable and perfect.”  The world’s order to the midwives is explicit and unambiguous.  They were to kill all the Hebrew boy babies at birth.  But the midwives were blessed with the ability to discern the will of God.  They were not conformed to the world and “did not do as the king of Egypt commanded them, but they let the boys live.”  When called on the royal carpet by the King himself to account for their disobedience of his decree the midwives are not intimidated because they feared God and knew where their ultimate obedience belonged.  They stand up to Pharaoh and exercise what Forbes calls “prophetic license,” telling a little white lie about how the Hebrew women are so vigorous that their babies are born before the midwives even arrive on the scene.

So Pharaoh tries a new tactic.  He orders all the male Hebrew baby boys thrown into the Nile after they are born.  And up steps another minor player in the drama.  A slave woman gives birth to a son, hides him for three months and then does what Pharaoh has commanded, sort of.  She puts her infant son into the river; only first she makes him a little boat to keep him afloat. Then she places her precious child in the most famous bulrushes in the world, strategically choosing the  spot where she knows Pharaoh’s daughter will find him because she regularly bathes there. 

Moses’ mother and sister exercise what Paul calls “sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned.”  They creatively and courageously do what is necessary to preserve the life of Israel’s future liberator.  What seem like insignificant actions by the midwives, the mother and sister, and Pharaoh’s daughter are all necessary components of the larger plot that unfolds many years later (Exodus 3) when God speaks to Moses in a burning bush and convinces him to step forward and confront the terrible injustice being inflicted on God’s people.

But notice that not even the great leader Moses is expected to do that daunting task alone.  And no wonder.  God is asking Moses to stand up to challenge one of the most powerful men in the world.  And one has to wonder how complicated this situation was since Moses’ adversary is none other than the one who had raised him and provided graciously for him in his own palace for many years.   Quite understandably Moses tries to talk his way out of this dangerous mission to confront the might of Pharaoh.  And what does God do?  Like a good coordinator, God provides a partner to fill some of Moses’ voids.  Moses’ brother Aaron is recruited to join Moses’ team, bringing his own unique gifts.  One of Moses’ excuses to God is that he isn’t a good public speaker; so God says, OK, we’ll get Aaron to do that part.  Sound familiar?  “We have gifts that differ according to the grace given us: ….. the exhorter in exhortation; … the leader in diligence.” (Rom. 12:6-8)

What daunting tasks do we face today that require partnership with others who have gifts different than our own?  Whatever the challenge, personal or social, local or global, the good news is that no matter how polarized our nation and world may seem, we are “one body in Christ, and individually members one of another.”   We are not alone, even though it often feels that way.  In these challenging times it is good to remember the wisdom of Benjamin Franklin at another crisis point in the life of the American people.  At the signing of the Declaration of Independence Franklin told his fellow collaborators, “We must all hang together, or assuredly we shall all hang separately.”

Rugged individualism and mistrust of others won’t solve complex problems.  We need desperately to collaborate with each other and with God as illustrated in these two anonymous readings, one humorous, one serious, both true:

 The first is a letter from a client to his insurance company.

“I am writing in response to your request for more information concerning block #11 on the insurance form which asks for “cause of injuries” wherein I put “trying to do the job alone”.  You said you need more information, so I trust the following will be sufficient.

I am a bricklayer by trade and on the day of the injuries, I was working alone laying bricks around the top of a four story building when I realized that I had about 500 pounds of bricks left over.  Rather than carry the bricks down by hand, I decided to put them into a barrel and lower them by a pulley which was fastened to the top of the building.  I secured the end of the rope at ground level and went up to the top of the building and loaded the bricks into the barrel and swung the barrel out with the bricks in it.   I then went down and untied the rope, holding it securely to insure the slow descent of the barrel.

As you will note on block #6 of the insurance form, I weigh 145 pounds.  Due to my shock at being jerked off the ground so swiftly, I lost my presence of mind and forgot to let go of the rope.  Between the second and third floors, I met the barrel coming down.  This accounts for the bruises and lacerations on my upper body.

Regaining my presence of mind, I held tightly to the rope and proceeded rapidly up the side of the building, not stopping until my right hand was jammed in the pulley.  This accounts for the broken thumb.

Despite the pain, I retained my presence of mind and held tightly on to the rope.  At approximately the same time, however, the barrel of bricks hit the ground and the bottom fell out of the barrel.  Devoid of the weight of the bricks, the barrel now weighted about 50 pounds.  I again refer you to block #6 and my weight.

As you would guess I began a rapid descent.  In the vicinity of the second floor, I met the barrel coming up.  This explains the injuries to my legs and lower body.  Slowed only slightly, I continued my descent landing on the pile of bricks.  Fortunately, my back was only sprained and the internal injuries were minimal.

I am sorry to report, however, that at this point, I finally lost my presence of mind and let go of the rope, and as you can imagine, the empty barrel crashed down on me.

I trust this answers your concern.  Please know that I am finished ‘trying to do the job alone.’

How about you”?

 

The second reading I first saw in a publication from the Roman Catholic Maryknoll Sisters.

“And the Lord said, ‘GO!’
And I said, ‘who me?’
And God said, ‘Yes you.’

And I said,
‘But I’m not ready yet
And there is studying to be done.
I’ve got this part-time job.
You know how tight my schedule is.’
And God said, ‘You’re stalling.’

Again the Lord said, ‘GO!’
And I said, ‘I don’t want to.’
And God said, ‘I Didn’t Ask If You Wanted To.’
And I said,
‘Listen I’m not the kind of person
To get involved in controversy.
Besides my friends won’t like it
And what will my roommate think?
And God said, ‘Baloney.’

And yet a third time the Lord said, ‘GO!’
And I said, ‘do I have to?’
And God said, ‘Do You Love Me?’
And I said,
‘Look I’m scared.
People are going to hate me
And cut me into little pieces.
I can’t take it all by myself.’
And God said, ‘Where Do You Think I’ll Be?’

And the Lord said, ‘GO!’
And I sighed’
‘Here I am…send me.’

“Names and Labels,” Matthew 15:21-28

 The great American cowboy philosopher/comedian, Will Rogers, once said he had never met a man he didn’t like.  Most of us can’t make that claim.  Most of us are subtly or consciously conditioned to be uncomfortable with people who are different than ourselves. 

 Rodgers and Hammerstein captured that human proclivity for prejudice so well in the lyrics to “Carefully Taught,” in their musical “South Pacific.”

 “You’ve got to be taught
To hate and fear,
You’ve got to be taught
From year to year,
It’s got to be drummed
In your dear little ear
You’ve got to be carefully taught.

You’ve got to be taught to be afraid
Of people whose eyes are oddly made,
And people whose skin is a diff’rent shade,
You’ve got to be carefully taught.

You’ve got to be taught before it’s too late,
Before you are six or seven or eight,
To hate all the people your relatives hate,
You’ve got to be carefully taught!”

Ever been uncomfortable around a person in Muslim dress?  Or someone driving a much nicer car than yours?  Or the tech support person in India who speaks a different kind of English than we do?  Or are we ever like the little girl staring at a priest with a clerical collar, wondering why he was wearing it?  When he noticed her curiosity he took off the collar to show it to her and she noticed some words on the inside (which were cleaning instructions).  When the priest asked the little girl if she knew what the words said, she replied, “Yes, it says ‘kills fleas for 6 months.’”

We all have foot in mouth disease at time and say things that we regret.  Even if we feel that “political correctness” has gone too far, at our best we don’t want to offend others or embarrass ourselves.  And we certainly expect Jesus to be a super Will Rogers.  Jesus surely wasn’t prejudiced.  He never met a person he didn’t love.   He welcomes children to his lap and carries the lamb in his bosom, heals lepers, eats with sinners.  He had compassion on all those people who forgot to bring their picnic lunch to his revival.

But what about this incredible story in Matthew 15 where Jesus dismisses a hurting, desperate mother begging for help for her tormented daughter?  This Canaanite woman reminds me of the haunting pictures we see of starving mothers in Somalia pleading for scraps of food for their children.  Who could refuse to help?  But not only does Jesus tell this woman to bug off, he adds insult to injury by calling her a ‘dog’ because of her religion and her nationality.  Say it isn’t so Jesus!  He tells her, “You’re not my problem, lady.  I’m just here for the lost house of Israel.”  Don’t you just love it when you can pass the buck and ignore a difficult situation because “that’s not in my job description?”  Quite a different story though when “customer service” people pull that one on you though, isn’t it?

Sure, it helps that Jesus changes his tune 7 verses later, but that judgmental, uncaring behavior is so out of character for Jesus that it boggles the mind.  We expect that attitude from the disciples or the self-righteous Pharisees, but Jesus?  Jesus first just ignores the woman, doesn’t even acknowledge she exists, and then he shocks us by agreeing with the disciples when they ask him to send her away because she’s annoying them.

Maybe Jesus was just having a bad day.  We all have those, and Jesus certainly had plenty with the disciples and his own people.  Maybe he was angry at the people of Israel for rejecting him and his teaching.  If those descendents of Abraham and Moses didn’t get it, how in the world could he expect this “heathen” woman to?  Or maybe he was testing the woman’s persistence and faith.  We have no way of knowing.  But the question this story raises for us today is that if Jesus is capable of this kind of exclusionary, judgmental behavior, what hope is there for you and me to get past our preconceived notions about other people?  What hope is there for ever having peace in our ever-shrinking global village if even Jesus builds walls instead of bridges?

During the build up to the first Iraq war a young fighter pilot, barely old enough to drive was asked about the young men in Iraq who were also preparing to go to war.  The young pilot admitted he hadn’t thought about them, but when he did, he said, “I guess they’re fighting for what they believe, just like we are.  They only know what they’ve been told.”  What a tremendous insight, especially if we realize that we are in that same boat and need to examine our own taken-for-granted beliefs and attitudes carefully if we ever hope to love our neighbors as ourselves.

This story of Jesus and the Canaanite woman is a great opportunity to examine what happens to people and relationships when we resort to using labels instead of names.  The woman in this text is never called by name.  At best she is referred to as “a Canaanite Woman.”  In that culture, that’s already two strikes against her.  At worst she is called a “dog.”  Names are very personal.  Labels are cold and lump people into categories.  We label our “enemies” all the time so we can kill them without too much guilt.  It is much easier to kill “gooks,” “Krauts,” “Japs,” “Commies,” “Savages,” “Queers,” “Infidels,” than it is real human beings with names and families, hopes and dreams.  That demonizing and depersonalizing is even more dangerous today when many battles are fought remotely with drones and missiles so we never see the fear and humanity in the eyes of the “other.”  We do the same thing when we stereotype political rivals and create polarization that makes rational debate and compromise on issues of critical importance to the common good of our nation and the world almost impossible. 

It is far easier to dismiss a class or race of people before we get to know one of “them” as an individual.  To personally know a relative or friend who is gay or lesbian changes our perspective on gay rights.  Why?  Because now he or she has a name and not just a label.  One size does not fit all when it comes to human beings.  We are all unique and special and cannot be tucked into generalized categories if we ever want peace in our diverse and multi-cultural world.

How much better for all of us if we can learn to accept and affirm our differences and celebrate our common humanity like two young girls, one Jewish, one Christian.  Hannah, the former, says, “I’m Passover; she’s Easter.  I’m Hanukah, she’s Christmas.  But I’m glad we’re both Halloween.” 

Matthew’s story of the Canaanite woman also teaches us to look for genuine faith wherever we find it, not just where we expect it to be.  True faith is too rare to risk missing it because of what we’ve been “taught to hate and fear.”  Jesus didn’t expect to find faith in the Canaanite woman, but he gets surprised.  Jesus is actually converted in this story.  We don’t expect Jesus to need conversion do we, but that’s exactly what happens.  He is turned around by this woman’s faith.  He no longer sees an annoying, nagging, needy “dog,” but opens his eyes to see a frightened, hurting mother who is filled with persistence and faith and love.  She is so full of love and faith that she is willing to risk humiliation and rejection herself to try and save her daughter. 

And the result of her witness and courage is that Jesus says, “Woman, great is your faith!  Let it be done for you as you wish.”  “And her daughter is healed instantly.”

That’s a great miracle but wait till you hear the rest of the story.  This encounter marks a dramatic shift in Jesus’ ministry.  The converted Jesus no longer limits his mission to the House of Israel.  He begins to promote the universal gospel proclaimed in the Hebrew Scriptures, where Abraham’s covenant with Yahweh is to be a blessing to “all the families of the earth” (Gen. 12:3).  Isaiah echoes that vision of God’s servants being “a light to the nations” (42:6), and Jonah’s big fish tale is all about God’s sending him to preach salvation to Israel’s hated enemies in Nineveh.   That message reaches its climax at the end of Matthew’s gospel where Jesus exits stage right with the challenge to all of us disciples that we know today as the Great Commission:  “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations.” 

We cannot fulfill that commission if we let labels blind us to who people really are – children of God, our sisters and brothers.

An anonymous author puts it this way:

A pilgrim asked a sage, “When can I tell the difference between the darkness and the dawn?  Is it when I can tell a sheep from a goat, or a peach from a pomegranate? “

“No,” said the wise one.  “It is when you can look in the eyes of another person and say, ‘you are my sister.  You are my brother.’  Until then, there is no dawn, there is only darkness.”