Monday, September 5, 2011

Proper 19 Year A

Proper 19 A
(Revised Common Lectionary)

Exodus 14:19-31; Psalm 114; OR "The Song of Moses and Miriam" (Genesis 15:1b-11,20-21)


Genesis 50: 15-21; Psalm 103: (1-7), 8-13

Romans 14: 1-12; Matthew 18: 21-35

The "angel of the God" and the "pillar of cloud" that had been in front of the Israelites now moves behind, coming "between the army of Egypt and the army of Israel."  It lit up the sky all night.  "Moses stretched out his hand over the sea."  And, "the Lord drove the sea into dry land; and the waters were divided."  The Israelites walked through the riverbed on "dry land" as the water formed a "wall for them on their right and on their left."  The Egyptian army pursued them.  "At the morning watch the Lord in the pillar of fire and cloud looked down upon the Egyptian army, and threw the Egyptian army into panic."  The Lord "clogged their chariot wheels.  When the Egyptians saw what was happening, they said: "Let us flee from the Israelites, for the Lord is fighting for them against Egypt."  The Lord told Moses to stretch out "his hand over the sea, and "at dawn the sea returned to its normal depth."  As the Egyptians tried to flee, "the Lord tossed the Egyptians into the sea."  The sea covered over "the entire army of Pharaoh;" not one survived.  "Thus the Lord saved Israel...."  Israel saw the great work the Lord did...."  And "the people feared the Lord and believed in the Lord and in his servant, Moses."

Without any sort of introductory petition or summons to praise, the psalmist (114) plunges straight into re-telling the spectacular escape of God's people from slavery and subsequent establishment in Judah, their "sanctuary."  He then references the two occasions, forty years apart, when God parted water so that they walked to safety on dry land--  when God parted the Red Sea when they fled Egypt and,  when God parted the Jordan River under Joshua's leadership and they went into the promised land.  The psalmist asks rhetorically:  What is going on with such bizarre disruptions of nature?  Dance, twirl, spin, whirl "before the God of Jacob," who turns rock into water (Exodus 17)!


Moses and Miriam, his half-sister and sister of Aaron, lead God's people in singing praises for God's deliverance at the Red Sea due to the Lord's direct interventions.  The Lord "blew forth a mighty tempest/and the sea swallowed them up."  Miriam raised her tambourine and "all the women danced with their tambourines, repeating the victorious refrain:  "Sing to the Lord, the Exalted One/who hurled horse and rider into the sea."


The saga of Joseph and his brothers concludes.  Their father, Jacob/Israel, has died and been taken back to Canaan for burial, as he requested.  The brothers, suspecting that Joseph might now "pay us back for all the evil we caused him," sent a message to Jacob saying it was their father's last wish that he "forgive... the offences of your brothers for evil they have caused you."  Then his brothers came to him in person, "flung themselves before him" and offered themselves to him as "slaves."  But as he had done when they were reunited for the first time, Joseph assures them that, although they "meant evil toward me, God meant it [their selling him into servitude] for good...."  This was the way God's people survived.  He promises them, once again, his personal protection.

The psalmist addresses her own soul: "Bless the Lord, all my soul;" never forget the Lord's "generous acts."  The Lord forgives, heals, redeems and "crowns you with kindness and compassion... and sates you with good....."  The Lord performs "righteousness" and "justice."  The Lord took the initiative to make the Lord's ways "known to Moses and the Lord's "feats" to all Israel.  "Compassionate and gracious... slow to anger" is the Lord.  The Lord does not deal with us as we deserve.  As high as the heavens, as far as east is from west, God's "kindness" distances our "transgressions."  As a parent for a child, so "the Lord has compassion..." on us.

Paul addresses controversy over the variety of customs in the early church regarding fasting and eating and days of observance. These differences are trivial. What matters is the common purpose to honor and serve the Lord. Rather than focus on differences with others, focus on yourself because "each of us is accountable to God" not for others but for ourselves.

Jesus has just given instructions for settling disputes within the church (Mt 18:15-20, last Sunday's gospel), when Peter (only in Matthew's narrative) asks for clarification: "Lord how often should I forgive?"  In Matthew's narrative, only,  Jesus throws out an extravagant figure, "not seven time [as in Luke's version, 17:4], but seventy times seven."  Then follows a comparison parable, also unique to Matthew, about one who had been forgiven a very sizable debt but did not forgive others who owed him much smaller debts.  When the one who had been so generous heard about it, he had the man put in jail until he paid all the original, huge debt.  "So my heavenly Father will also do to everyone of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart."

Joseph's unmerited forgiveness of his brothers deserves two tellings; once when they are reunited for the first time and again after their father dies and the brothers worry that Joseph might now get his revenge, to which he would be entitled.  Both times, the brothers throw themselves on Joseph's mercy and both times Joseph goes out of his way to assure them he will not treat them as they deserve, but with kindness.  Both times, grown men weep uncontrollably.  The psalmist (103) stings together all the experiences of God that cause her such gratitude and joy-- God's forgiveness, healing, kindness, compassion, and life's sheer abundance.  Only Matthew's narrative includes a story told by Jesus that has a clear, unambiguous point: forgive others as frequently and as completely as you already know you have been forgive.  

In The Weakness of God: A Theology of Event, John Caputo quotes Jacques Derrida and the other "famous deconstructionist," St. Thomas Aquinas, as he considers the power of forgiveness.  "Forgiveness is the gift in which I give away the debt you owe me....  That is why, when someone owes us something, we say we 'have something on them,' which means that in forgiveness, I give up what I have on the other.  I release them, dismiss their debt, and let it go."  He then quotes Aquinas directly:  "a gift is literally a giving that can have no return, i.e., it is not given with the intention that one can be repaid and it thus connotes a gratuitous donation.  Now the basis of such free giving is love...." [Summa Theologica, P.I,Q.38.a.2,c]  Or as Derrida asks and Caputo notes:  "And does one have to deserve forgiveness?  One may deserve an excuse, but ought not forgiveness be accorded without regard to worthiness?" [Given Time, trans. Peggy Kamuf, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992, p.162]

So, consider an insight from Hannah Arendt drawn from her dramatic life. A student of Heidegger, Husserl and Jaspers and classmate of Gadamer, soon after she finished her graduate education she was put in a Nazi concentration camp because of her Jewish birth. She escaped, came to the USA where she lectured and taught at some of the most prestigious universities and also wrote for
The New Yorker magazine, including covering the trial of Adolf Eichmann. Her articles were published as a book whose subtitle is "A Report on the Banality of Evil." Her perspective rejected the classic Western notion of an abstract human nature and instead focused on the behavior of each person within the context of The Human Condition, which is the title of what is generally regarded as her most important writing. In it, this secular Jew, survivor of the Holocaust and first-person witness to the trial of "the architect of the Holocaust" writes: "the discoverer of the role of forgiveness in the realm of human affairs was Jesus of Nazareth." "...It is not true that only God has the power to forgive..." This power to forgive "must be mobilized by man toward each other before they can hope to be forgiven by God also. Jesus' formulation is even more radical. Man in the gospel is not supposed to forgive because God forgives and he must do 'likewise,' but 'if ye from your hearts forgive,' God shall do 'likewise'." (Here she cites the last verse of today's appointed gospel, v. 350)  While epic crime and evil are rare, she continues, "trespassing is an everyday occurrence which is in the very nature of action's constant establishment of new relationships within a web of relations, and, it needs forgiving, dismissing, in order to make it possible for life to go on [emphasis added] by constantly releasing men from what they have done unknowingly. 

(Here she cites Luke 17: 1-5) Only through this constant mutual release from what they do to each other can men remain free agents, only by constant willingness to change their minds and start again [emphasis added] can they be trusted with so great a power as that to begin something new." (1958: University of Chicago Press, p. 237 ff)

Is forgiveness as the means for starting over, allowing something new, renewal of life the central theme of biblical narratives? God forgives over and over to "preserve life," allow rebirth; we forgive to restore relationships and "start again." The gospels offer, each in its own way, Jesus as the embodiment of God's power of forgiveness so life can be renewed. If this is the central, transformative theme, is everything else relatively trivial? Isn't this literally the difference between life and death, survival and destruction? As long as there is daily human living, there will also be the need to re-discover again and again the power of forgiveness "from the heart."