Our reading from the Hebrew Bible (Exodus 14) has the Israelites crossing the Red Sea. The Psalm picks up this theme, either by using the Song of Moses in Exodus 15 or Psalm 114. The theme is God’s deliverance from oppression. This is not a story of revolution – people rising up and overthrowing an evil empire by their own might. It is a story of escape. God delivers them and they walk away.
The epistle brings to an end our marching through portions of Romans. Though Romans has 16 chapters, we end this run in chapter 14. A portion of chapter 15 appears in Advent 2A, when Paul quotes Isaiah saying a root of Jesse will come. A portion of chapter 16 (the last three verses of Romans) appears in Advent 4B in which Paul says the mystery hidden for the ages is now disclosed, and made known to all the Gentiles through the prophets. Next week we begin four weeks in Philippians.
Romans 14 is one of Paul’s treatises on bound conscience. It gives us insight into his thinking, ethics and ecclesiology. "Welcome the weak, but not just to quarrel." Some eat only meat, while others are vegetarians. The vegetarians believe it inappropriate to eat meat sacrificed to pagan idols. Since this comprises most of the meat in the Roman markets, some believe it is more appropriate and faithful (kosher?) to abstain. Paul’s take is that idols are nonexistent anyway, so eat up. He also clearly believes human religious traditions to be ineffective for justification. They can, in fact, work against one’s salvation by puffing one up.
Clearly Paul considers those who abstain from eating meat to be weaker in faith, and the omnivorous stronger . He is not without an opinion on the matter. And yet, his admonishment to them is to accept one another’s differences. "Who are you to pass judgment on servants of another?" Shades of Matthew 7:1-5 , Sermon on the Mount.
Paul then says, whatever you do, wherever you fall on this issue, make up your mind and be confident, while respectful of others. The point, he emphasizes toward the end of this passage, is that we’re all going to stand before God on judgment day. People are accountable before God, not you, so don’t worry about it. Jesus would add, work on the log in your own eye. You’ve got more than you can handle dealing with you own crud.
Mark Reasoner tells an amusing story to make the point:
A story about Ruth Graham, wife of the famous evangelist, illustrates how differences can threaten our unity. Mrs. Graham, dressed and made up as would seem fitting for any American woman in the 1970s, attended a luncheon with wives of conservative pastors in Germany. These German Christians had more conservative ideas regarding how women should look. They did not believe that married Christian women should wear makeup or clothing that made them look too much like the world. As a result, a German pastor’s wife, sitting across from Ruth Graham, became very upset. She thought it was shameful that the wife of this famous evangelist looked so worldly. Why, Ruth Graham was even wearing mascara! The German pastor’s wife became so angry that she started crying right into her beer. Meanwhile Ruth Graham couldn’t understand why the woman was crying, although it bothered her that a self-respecting pastor’s wife was drinking beer at a meeting to prepare for an evangelistic crusade where Christians come together as the unified body of Christ. (http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?lect_date=9/14/2008&tab=3)
Coming now to the text of Matthew 18, we have to note that this year Pentecost 13A falls on the tenth anniversary of 9/11 . There has been no small amount of conversation in this synod about how to approach the day. We must drive down a road with a ditch on either side. On one side lies the ditch of hammering the day home too much. We will be seeing images of planes flying into buildings over and over. At what point do our attempts at healing remembrances retraumatize those who have been wounded? The ditch on the other side of the road is ignoring what was clearly a painful moment in our history. Many lost some. Some lost many. Most who come to worship on Sunday will be quite aware that it is the tenth anniversary of 9/11. They will be carrying pathos in the door with them.
Some leaders I’ve spoken to are emphasizing the day strongly. Others are simply mentioning it in the prayers. Quite a few churches are kicking off their Fall this Sunday. One church I talked too had choirs singing, installation of teachers and much more going on. They decided to organize an ecumenical service of remembrance in cooperation with several local churches. There are quite a few interfaith things going on in our larger communities. I will be on the steps of city hall in Houston at noon on Friday.
In the end, how you approach this is a pastoral decision. Know your community. What a church in New York City does will likely need to be different than what a church in Tulsa does. For those trying to navigate this carefully, Pastor Mike Button (St. Paul, Baton Rouge) recommends the book, "Trauma Grace: Theology in a Ruptured World." The book explores the long term effects of collective violence on abuse survivors. The cross stands as a symbol of a world profoundly broken by violence. We are called to be a voice of healing and hope. (http://www.amazon.com/gp/aw/d/0664234100/ref=redir_mdp_mobile/191-9124645-9330524)
I’ll paste some 9/11 resources below, but first a few thoughts on forgiveness sparked by the gospel text. Matthew 18:21-35 is a classic text on forgiveness. It’s in Jesus’ shocking storytelling style that always drives the point home with power. Jesus makes it clear: We are to forgive. If we are going to tackle this text on 9/11 we should be very clear about what forgiveness is and what it isn’t.
One person said to me this week, this passage made her stay in an abusive marriage too long. Another said his childhood abuser wanted to "friend" him on Facebook. Forgiveness does not mean we allow destructive things to happen or continue. It does not mean discarding healthy boundaries. Forgiveness does not mean we are going to be best friends. Forgiving an abusive ex doesn’t mean you have to marry him or her again. Forgiving an abusive person does not mean you keep putting yourself in the dysfunctional arena in which the abuse takes place.
Forgiveness does not mean restoration to a position of trust. An example: your treasurer embezzles $50,000. Do you forgive him? Yes. Do you make him treasurer again? No. Restoration to a position of trust would be unkind to the people of the organization and to former treasurer, who clearly has a weakness.
If forgiveness doesn’t mean these things, what does it mean? Forgiveness means I am not going to let the wrong or abuse define me. I am not going to let it keep me from living into a hopeful and joy-filled future. I choose not to carry around the heavy anchors of anger, bitterness, resentment or hate. I choose to live into the future, in spite of the scars of the past. I forgive because Christ has forgiven me. Ephesians 4:32.
Some forgiveness quotes can be found at www.bishopmike.com in the many August 22 posts. The preacher needs to take care not to proclaim too shallow a vision of forgiveness.
Here are some 9/11 resources to consider:
Coalition for Mutual Respect Interfaith Resources: http://regions.adl.org/southwest/pdfs/10-year-9-11_anniv_final.pdf
Another prayer, from Ravensbruck Death Camp: http://thestarthrower.posterous.com/a-prayer-from-ravensbruck-deat
National Council of Churches – http://www.ncccusa.org/news/110725nineelevenresources.html
Faith Inkubators –