this day, our God, we pray

This day, our God, we pray,
to stay upon Your way,
that when the day is done,
we’d know the race we’d run—
trusting love and grace,
the contours of Your face,
believing in Your will—
You working with us still—
Your presence with us on the way
today and every day—
this our heart-felt, thankful prayer,
that in Jesus’ name we share.
Amen.

mumblings and grumblings

Exodus 16:2-15; Matthew 20:1-16

In our Old Testament text,
the children of Israel are in the wilderness again.
Having first left Egypt, they’ve now left the oasis of Elim
and are on the move into the wilderness of Sin—
which doesn’t mean in Hebrew what it means in English,
but is kind of coincidentally fun!
They’re on their way to Sinai,
and, as they leave what’s comfortable and what’s safe,
they’re complaining against their leadership—
blaming Moses and Aaron—
because we’d often rather stay safe and comfortable
than risk the journey to where we’re God-called to go.
And they grumbled to the point
not just of wishing they were back in Egypt, did you notice this?
They grumbled to the point of wishing they had died in Egypt—
wishing they were already dead.
Now that’s some serious grumbling!

And on the one hand, we might say we don’t understand these whiners.
I always have.
How could anyone who had experienced what they had experienced
of God’s power, presence and provision,
possibly question God’s power, presence and provision?
But you know that old Janet Jackson song,
“What have you done for me lately?”
There’s something powerfully true and human about that.
We require consistent assurance,
and we require recent assurance.
So there’s that.

Then we also need to take very seriously
the importance of the assurance of daily bread.
Maslow’s hierarchy of need reminds us
that it’s only after the most basic needs are met
that we think—that we can begin to think of other elements of life—
other dimensions to life.
So when basic needs are not met—
when they’re threatened ….
is God a luxury only those who have eaten can contemplate?

The fear of not having what we need
is not a fear most of us live with,
but most of the world does.
And we don’t get to underestimate its power or impact.
So we don’t get to question their grumbling.
It’s interesting, the word grumbling occurs seven times
in five verses of our text (2,7,8,9,12)—
indicating perhaps not just a perfect amount of grumbling,
which is how I had always kind of read it,
but maybe a perfectly good reason for grumbling.

And do notice in the story as it unfolds,
though the children of Israel complained to Moses and Aaron,
it is God who responds and who responds with the assurance of provision—
not with anger—no frustration—no questioning the grumbling.

Now somewhat oddly, God responds to Moses, saying,
“Of course they’re scared; remind them they don’t need to be.”
So Moses and Aaron then reassure the people.
Now notice how they do that.
“In the evening you shall know it was God who brought you out of Egypt,
and in the morning you shall see the glory of God
because God has heard your complaining,
and God recognized that complaining
as not being about me and Aaron here, but about God!”
So this is Moses not understanding—
not offering the words of comfort—of assurance needed.

They weren’t grumbling about God, after all.
They weren’t expecting God to deal with the daily provisions.
They expected that from their leadership.
In the one previous story about water,
when they only found bitter water and complained,
God told Moses what to do, and Moses threw the wood into the water,
and it was made sweet (Exodus 15:24-25).
They looked to Moses.

Now Moses did go on to tell them what they wanted to hear:
“The Lord gives you meat to eat in the evening
and your fill of bread in the morning.
But then repeated the affirmation
that God had heard their grumbling
and heard it as not being about Aaron and him
but about God.
it’s a way of reminding the people, this isn’t our fault!
we’re not the ones, ultimately, in charge here!
it’s a way of joining in the grumbling!
it’s a way of passing the buck

Whereupon God says again, notice,
“Say to all the Israelites,
(which would include who? Moses and Aaron, right?!)—
say to all the Israelites, I have heard your complaining.”

And the people looked into the wilderness
to behold the glory of God in the cloud.
That’s out of order.
The glory wasn’t supposed to happen until the next morning.
But there it is: the glory of God in the cloud.
Remember the one they’ve been following?

Which is to say, is it not? though it doesn’t say explicitly,
that between Elim and Sinai,
they turned their backs on Egypt.
They turned their faces toward God.
They left behind the fleshpots that they said they were longing for
and trusted the provision of God.
You see it not in what they say,
but in what they do.

And God said to Moses again,
“Tell them at twilight you shall eat meat and in the morning, bread,
and you’ll know that I am the Lord your God—
the Lord your God who does care about you—
down to the daily provisions you require for survival.”

But though the quails came at twilight
and in the morning there was that flaky substance,
the people of Israel did not say,
“Oh, this is the Lord our God, taking care of us.”
No, they said rather, “What is this?”—
a question perhaps indicating as much uncertainty, still,
about God
as uncertainty about this unusual food substance.

Notice the rhythm, in the evening and in the morning—
repeated three times,
reminiscent of the it was morning and it was evening rhythm
to Genesis 1—to creation—to God’s vision of creation.
It’s still good.

And God’s work constitutes a weird combination
of the natural and the miraculous too, doesn’t it?
And neither should undermine the other.
God works through the natural world:
quail fly in. There’s some flaky residue of sap and dew.
But it arrives on schedule.
It arrives every day.
It’s enough for all.
And if they collect too little,
it somehow ends up being enough.
And if they collect too much, it still ends up being just enough.
They all end up just with what they need (Exodus 16:18).
It goes bad if it’s kept past the one day (Exodus 16:20),
except on the sabbath—
when it doesn’t go bad (Exodus 16:24).
It’s this combination of the natural and the miraculous.

So we have concern—
we have fear and grumbling.
And God understands the dailiness of our fear.
We are offered the assurance of enough
which is linked both to the goodness of God’s creation
and the presence and the work of God with us.
And we have our escape from what is,
and the journey into that goodness of God
somehow being created in the process.
That’s our Exodus story.
It is good. It is still good.

Then we have a parable of Jesus—
one of the familiar ones—
that strange and wonderfully bizarre story—
an elaboration on the last verse of the preceding chapter
“but many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.”

In chapter 19, this comes in response to Jesus’ assurance
that those who sacrifice on his behalf will be rewarded.
One hundredfold.
“But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first,”
he concludes—apparently suggesting
that those who give up much will get much more—
which sounded really good to Peter
because that’s exactly what he wanted to hear.
But then Jesus goes on.
You’re always in trouble when Jesus goes on!

Then he tells this story of the landowner
who hired day laborers early in the morning
negotiating with them the usual daily wage.
Then he returns to the place where day laborers gather
at nine o’clock, at noon, and at three o’clock,
hiring those available, saying, “I’ll pay you whatever is right.”
Finally he returns at five o’clock to find still more workers
to whom he says, “You also go to the vineyard”
with no mention of payment.

Now when the grapes are ripe,
it’s important to get them picked as quickly as possible,
and laborers at that time of the year would work from dark to dark—
which in harvest times would have been between 6 and 7 o’clock.
So while this is an unlikely hiring scenario,
it’s not completely inconceivable.

Though this parable pretty much explicitly indicates
that “the landowner’s concern is always on the laborers,
not on the crop or on his own profit”—
which, sad to say, puts this story squarely back in the more inconceivable.
so “one would expect the story to say
that the landowner hired some harvesters early in the day,
but, when he found out that there was more crop
than these first workers could handle,
he went out to secure extra help.
But no, the story says that the owner hired more
because he found them standing around out of work (Matt. 20:3, 5, 6).
In other words, the landowner is motivated by their need for work,
not his need for workers”
(Thomas G. Long, Matthew
[Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1997] 224-225).

And then there’s that paying out at the end of the day—
in the dark.
And the last are paid first, and are given a day’s wage.
Which makes the first, the ones who worked all day—
through the heat of the day—think, well?—
made them expect more.
They began to daydream about what they’d do with their unexpected bonus,
and I want you to imagine them,
the ones hired first,
looking to the ones who are receiving with joy—
and calculating.
I want you to imagine the ones not yet paid
looking at the surprise of those paid first—
their gratitude,
in terms of what it means for them.
Not sharing in joy.
Not participating in gratitude.
Calculating.

After all, fair’s fair, right?
There was a rabbinic story about a landowner
who paid workers who had worked all day
and workers who had only worked two hours the same amount,
but the tag line was, “They accomplished more in two hours
than you did all day”
(quoted in Ben Witherington III, Matthew
[Macon: Smyth & Helwys, 2006] 374).
That’s a completely different story.
That’s fair. That’s about the output, not the people.
And these, in our story, are all paid the same for very different work.
Now remember, the amount paid
was precisely what had initially been agreed to.
It’s only in comparing, that the grumbling begins.

And the landowner asks them,
well, a literal translation would be,
“Is your eye evil because I am good?”
So you see wrong in my generosity?
So you see unfairness in my grace?
What is your understanding of good—
more for you? or enough for all?

We as the people of God cannot ignore
the consistency of the imagery in Old and New Testaments
of everyone having enough—
of everyone having what they need.
We as the people of God have legitimate call to raise questions
about those who have so much
when too many don’t have what they need—
to question the vast inequalities in our world and in our culture.

Now do I question that some deserve more than others?
work harder than others?
have more responsibility than others?
Absolutely not.
Do I question how much more some have?
Based on our texts today, tell me how I can’t?
And that is in no way
the promotion or rejection of any particular economic model,
that is simply the statement that the way things are in our world
and in our culture
is ungodly.
It is not good; it is not healthy.
And not because it’s ultimately not sustainable.
Not because it undermines an economy for the benefit of a few
until the whole thing crashes,
but because, as those who follow in the way of God,
we are to be about a way of being
that creates sufficiency for all.
That’s our Old Testament story;
that’s our New Testament story.

What do you think it means that four states in our country
call themselves commonwealths?
that commonwealth is one translation of the latin
from which we also get the word and idea of a republic?
that the etymology of our word “wealth”
originally goes back to well being.
And what does it do to us—
what does it do to our soul—
to not to be who we say we are?

In both our Scripture stories, the grumbling—
of the children of Israel and of the ones dissatisfied with their pay,
the grumbling serves to remind us
that God’s will
is not one of hoarding and accumulating, but of trust—
not of pride in what we’ve earned,
but of thanksgiving for what we’ve received—
not of scarcity, but of abundance.

A quick word about grumbling.
It’s not always necessarily all bad.
It can indicate what’s important.
What is it you grumble about?
What does that reflect?
What does it indicate about what’s important to you?

Sometimes it’s very true that our grumbling needs a bigger picture—
a bigger perspective on what is,
that calls the grumbling into question.
I’m going to send you a link this week (if I have your email)—
I’m going to send you a link to a youtube video some of you may have seen.
First world problems read by third world citizens.
It does something to you when you see someone
in a poor african village
squatting outside the ruin of a house
saying, “I hate it when my house is so big
I need two wireless routers.”

But sometimes our grumbling illuminates a bigger picture
that calls what is into question.
Righteous grumbling, maybe.
All a matter of perspective.
Still don’t want to get stuck there.
For no matter how important it is, you can get stuck there,
and getting stuck there is a problem.

Either way, grumbling can offer us a window into our fear,
that predominant characteristic of our time.

It is amazing to me,
in our culture of abundance
(it’s quite a trick),
how those who want to sell us things
have created a spirit of scarcity—
within our abundance created a spirit of scarcity.
And that includes preachers!
It is amazing to me
how many peddle fear,
and how we let them get away with it.

That fear based mentality:
there’s not going to be enough;
there’s not going to be enough for me—
not enough food,
not enough money,
not enough grace,
not enough forgiveness,
not enough love.

I’m not naive enough to assure you you will never lack for what you need.
Our culture’s not geared that way.
We have not geared our culture that way.
We’ve ungeared our culture from that way.
But I assure you that’s how God created.
That’s what God wants.
That is the story of God in the world.

Think with me here.
We have a story that illustrates the first will be last and the last first—
which in the introduction (back at the end of chapter 19),
meant those who sacrifice much will get even more back, right?
But then, within the parable,
the first shall be last
simply refers to the order of work and pay, right?
It has nothing to do with how much is paid.
For the first receive the same as the last and the last the same as the first.
So our story illustrates, in truth,
the affirmation that the reward is the same for everyone.

Alright.
So God’s grace is sufficient for all.
True.
Yes.
But that truth is given to us in the imagery
of a world in which God’s provision is enough for all.
If we say it’s just about grace,
what have we done?

This is a story in which we have the assurance of enough—
enough for what we need today—
enough for everyone to have what they need today—
somehow linked to the goodness of God’s creation—
somehow linked to an escape from what is
on a journey into that goodness
somehow being created in the process—
in the assurance that God cares,
and thus that God’s people care,
about the basic needs of everyone.
That’s our Exodus story.
That’s part of our Matthew story.

When you go out to eat after worship
and you’re at a restaurant,
or when you’re talking to someone at work,
is that the story they would recognize as our story?
When you meet people out in the world,
do they identify our story as church
and God’s story
as one in which we want everyone to have enough?
What do you think it would do to the church if they did?
What do you think it would do to the story of God
if people around us began to think,
“Oh, you know what that story’s about?
That’s this story about everyone having enough to get by.
That’s a crazy story about taking away fear.”

You know all those stories about how irrelevant
institutional religion is becoming?
That would turn those upside down.

led where we know not to go

Exodus 14:19-31; Matthew 18:21-35

In our Exodus text, the children of Israel have been led
out of bondage and suffering
following the pillar of cloud by day and the pillar of fire by night
(Exodus 13:21-22).
Yay! Right?
And they’re led out of bondage and suffering into the wilderness.
Okay, so not where I would go!
Not to it; not through it.
And it’s not just me either, is it?
Not many people choose wilderness.

And to follow someone to and then through the wilderness,
well, that would really have to be someone I absolutely trusted,
or indicative of just how desperate I was.
Interesting. Because that’s not how I would characterize Israel—
neither that trusting of God or that desperate in Egypt.
So then it’s interesting to consider the plagues
as not so much to make Egypt let Israel go,
as to create circumstances so untenable
that Israel could not/would not stay. Hmmmmm.

I’d like to point out too, that as the children of Israel,
the armies of Pharaoh chasing them,
stood at water’s edge on the Red Sea’s shore,
they had to have been thinking, “Well this is it.
Short lived little escape. Now we’re done.
We’ve been led to the point of no return from which there is no escape.”
And it was with such darkness covering the faces of the people
that we have a moment not just reminiscent of creation—
with dry land emerging from the waters—
with light shining in the darkness
(Terence E. Fretheim, Exodus
[Louisville: John Knox Press, 1991] 159),
but a moment of new creation.
And where there hadn’t been a way, there was.
Where there hadn’t been hope, there was.
Where there hadn’t been opportunity, there was.
And a new story begins.

Now I’ve said before, I have trouble with this text—
I don’t like the image of God drowning people
which doesn’t fit any kind of image of God I have.
And we’ve talked about that.
Talked about the fact that images of God that I happen to like
are not the criteria for good and truthful images of God.
But I would like to suggest
two possible alternative readings of this text anyway!
First, a non-literal understanding of the waters of death and chaos.
God led the children of Israel out of a culture drenched in death
and immersed in chaos—
a culture that overwhelmed its own even as Israel left.
And I got to wondering if it wasn’t so much
the army of Egypt that was the threat,
as it it was the neon lights, the fluorescent colors,
the flickering of ever-changing screens
with the latest commercials, gossip, and what some consider news
and others consider just a party line.
I walked through Times Square, purely coincidentally,
seven times this past weekend!
And I noted and I told my friends,
that as much as Times Square represents so much
of what I find abhorrent and dangerous in our culture,
I love it!
And there it all was: NASDAQ and its implicit promise of security,
sexualized advertisements with more explicit promise.
McDonalds and Starbucks with more sugar and fat content
in what they serve in this country than in any other country in the world.
Did you know that?
So much stuff—so many ways to spend money.
We do not choose the wilderness.
Not when Times Square is the alternative.
Very few of us have what that would take.

That’s the first possible alternative reading.
The second builds on that, representing a perhaps greater truth
than anyone could bear tell.
For the waters rushing back together, having been held apart,
were not so much a matter of God
feeling the need to hold back the threat of the Egyptians,
but God feeling the need to hold back the Hebrew children—
the waters rushing back were less a matter of God drowning Egyptians,
as God making sure the Hebrews didn’t/couldn’t turn around.

And while that’s sure not what you would want to admit telling the story,
it sure feels right!
“Well, we were headed out of bondage …
and would have headed right back to it—
if we could’ve.
We were escaping …,
but then, not sure we wanted to pay the price of freedom,
we would’ve gone back—
you know for safety—
except we couldn’t.”

So the Lord saved the Israelites that day from themselves.
But even as honest as Scripture is,
that’s too honest!
Except, of course, that’s exactly what it says in the previous chapter:
“When Pharaoh let the people go,
God did not lead them by way of the land of the Philistines,
although that was nearer; for God thought,
‘If the people face war, they may change their minds and return to Egypt.’
So God led the people by the roundabout way
of the wilderness toward the Red Sea” (Exodus 13:17-18a).

My view of Scripture—
of the very inspired truth of it—
the living nature of it—
the human dimension to it,
is that we always get a balance
of God and human perspective.
It’s why I have a higher appreciation
of the promise of the Spirit’s presence to guide us into and through Scripture,
than of the sanctity of Scripture—let alone any kind of infallibility.
Scripture needs to be received as carefully as experience—
sifted as prayerfully,
and proclaimed humbly with hope
more than definitively with certainty.

Our gospel text directly follows our Matthew text from two weeks ago,
the one about naming sin.
When someone sins, take initiative and go to them
to restore relationship—to restore wholeness—to restore holiness.
If you need to, if that doesn’t work, go with someone else.
As a last resort bring it before the church community.

So following that, Peter now addresses Jesus,
“If another sins against me should I forgive them
as many as seven times?”
He was thinking himself generous—
in line with Jesus’ teaching which were generous—
thinking he was about to be commended.
You get that a lot from Peter:
“I think I’ve got the right answer,
and he’s going to be really proud of me.”
And, in truth, forgiving someone seven times
was more than his tradition taught
(Jewish tradition teaching not to forgive more than three times),
and Peter may, by then, have had some sense
of seven as the perfect number.

But then Jesus goes and multiples it.
Some suggest he means seventy-seven times,
some, seventy times seven which would be 490 times.
In any case, he obviously wasn’t interested in a perfect number,
but in an utterly improbable, crazy, irrational, insane—impossible number.

Now we tend to think of forgiveness
as a possible response—a chosen response
to a particular incident involving someone else’s sin.
I forgive you for what you did or what you said or didn’t do or didn’t say,
and so obviously I can count how many times I do that.
I’ve forgiven you five times already.
You get two more chances—
or seventy-two or 485.
Now you see the problem?
It’s not the math.
No doubt there could be an app for that!

No, the problem is that most scholars agree this was less
to come up with some specific and larger number,
that it was to suggest it’s not about numbers at all.
And if it’s not the numbers we’re tracking—or the incidents,
then maybe, just maybe,
it’s rather about changing our attitude that would allow us to think—
that would justify our thinking,
I know that of which you need to be forgiven.
I know your sin.

I mean let’s face it,
you do something wrong,
I forgive you—multiple times—
which makes you all the more wrong
while making me all the more right …
which doesn’t sound too terribly much like Jesus, does it?
And forgiving someone
can become simply another way of judging them.

So what if it’s something else entirely?

Not I forgive your sinful action, thus putting me
in a position of righteousness and power,
but I forgive—before you do anything—or before anyone else does.
I forgive because it’s not about what anyone else does,
but about how I choose to live.
And I can choose to live forgiveness, not condemnation,
live openness, possibility, and hope, not fear,
live gracefully, not self-righteously—
not at all giving up on the ideas
of justice, righteousness and sin.
There are priorities too important not to name, right?

And because, as Amy Jacks Dean reminded me,
who’s preaching, by the way on this very passage
at Park Road Baptist Church in Charlotte, NC this morning,
she reminded me of what Jan Richardson says:
forgiveness does not mean excusing or overlooking
the harm that has been done to us and saying that everything is okay.
Forgiveness does not mean allowing the person who has hurt us
to persist in their behavior.
Forgiveness is not something we can do at will,
and always all at once.

Not to mention this story does, after all,
follow one about naming sin.
So it was a confusing week.
How do you name sin if you’re not counting forgiveness of sin?

What if we go back and suggest
that honest relationship respectful relationship constitutes
risking honest conversation.
This is what’s important to me,
and I need to understand why it’s apparently not important to you.

Okay,
but if this is not about particular incidents,
then why do we have a parable
that’s about particular incidents?
That’s annoying.

In our Saturday night preacher chat,
some suggested that the microphones were just left on,
and Jesus kept talking when Jesus should have ended it right there.
But he didn’t, and we have this story to deal with.

A king wanted to settle accounts with his slaves—
which is just weird from the get-go!
Why would a king have loaned his slaves money?
And this one servant owed the king 10,000 talents—
and that’s just ridiculous.
That’s “more money than was even in circulation
in the whole country at the time!”
(Ben Witherington III, Matthew
[Macon: Smyth & Helwys, 2006] 353-4)
One talent is more than sixteen years worth
of a day laborer’s average daily wage
working seven days a week.
We’re talking 160,000 years worth of wages—
we’re talking about a CEO’s wages for a slave!

No one owes that much.
No one lends that much.
No one can pay back that much.
So when the king threatens to sell the servant
and his family and possessions to pay off the debt,
that’s a joke … right?
But the servant begs for patience saying,
“I will pay you everything”—
which is ludicrous.
And yet, the king forgives the debt—forgives the debt!

Well that servant, on his way out of the king’s court,
runs into someone who owes him 100 denarii.
Now that’s not an insignificant amount.
That’s 100 days worth of wages.
But the perspective has been skewed
by the absurd debt already loaned and forgiven.
10,000 talents, remember?
One talent was 6,000 denarii.
10,000 talents, 60,000,000 denarii—
that’s what the first slave was forgiven.
And seventeen one hundredths of a percent of that
is what he will not forgive.

And he has the debtor thrown in jail
until he can pay back the debt!
Which really works well.

When he hears of this, the king is irate.
Summons the first slave,
names him wicked,
and hands him over to be tortured until he paid the debt.
Which also really works well.
Which has less to do with any chance the debt will be paid,
I think,
and more to do with the not to be underestimated desire
for the wicked to suffer.

I once had a Chrysler LeBaron
with a radio that would change stations
whenever we went over a bump—
which when I was loudly singing along
would leave me kind of embarrassingly left out to dry.
And I remember fiercely bludgeoning the dash of that car,
fervently wishing the radio could feel pain!
Just for having caused my frustration, don’t you know!

So how does this bizarre gospel story end?
We are to forgive from our hearts
because that’s how God treats us.
Wait, is that what it says?
Ooh, this is such very good writing!
We’re to forgive because God forgives.
Or, if we don’t forgive, God hands us over to be tortured
until the debt is paid, right?
Because you could read it that way, right?
Many have.
This informs some theology (bad theology, I would say).
Because, think about it,
if God hands us over to be tortured,
then God doesn’t forgive us.
Then God’s not doing what Jesus is telling us to do
because it’s what God would do.
Annoying parable.

So maybe within all this ridiculousness
(the loan amount, the loan forgiven, the loan not forgiven)—
within all these specifics so not to be taken literally,
we’re supposed to hold onto the ideas
that the way we treat others affects our relationship with God—
that the way we treat others
should be affected by the magnanimousness of God’s grace.
Maybe we’re supposed to hold onto
the ideas of the power of forgiveness and
the reality of consequence.
And within all that,
let go of any kind of forgiveness that’s really just judgment—
or embrace the possibility that forgiveness is judgment in love.

So you’re holding on to both of them:
the wrong done and the forgiveness.
It’s not unimportant—insignificant, for example,
that the disciples betray Jesus. Not at all.
But what is more important to Jesus
is what can nonetheless yet be.
We so often live looking back—
looking back on what we’ve done—
or, more likely, what others have done.
We look at consequences.
Jesus looks ahead
with the conviction that what’s been
does not have to define what is to be.
Forgiveness is judgment focused forward with hope, not back—
forgiveness is hopeful judgment, not punitive.
Forgiveness is a new story of judgment our world doesn’t know to tell.

The slave was called to account for a debt that couldn’t be paid.
He was at a point of no return from which there was no escape.
And it was with such darkness covering his face—
it was in such hopelessness,
that we have a moment of new creation—
that a moment of new creation is spoken into being
in forgiveness and grace.
It’s Jubilee!
And where there hadn’t been a way, there was.
Where there hadn’t been hope, there was.
Where there hadn’t been opportunity, there was.
And a new story begins.

Except of course it didn’t.
The slave didn’t continue the new story.
A new story begun doesn’t necessarily unfold.

I don’t know how many of you have been tracking this.
George Mason, pastor of Wilshire Baptist Church in Dallas, TX,
Susie’s former church and Susie’s friend (mine too through Susie),
George wrote in The Huffington Post about their experience as a church
with Thomas Eric Duncan, the man who contracted Ebola in Liberia.

He was coming to Dallas to marry a member of Wilshire, Louise Troh.

“After learning that Eric was connected to Louise and that Louise and her family were being placed in quarantine because he had fallen ill in her apartment, my first question,” George writes, “was, “Could I visit her?” Somehow, instinctively, I sensed that in times like these, the role of a pastor is to be present. I wish I could say that I was intentionally following the example of Jesus, who said to his followers, “When I was in prison, you visited me; when I was sick, you comforted me.” There was no time to stop and think of Bible verses and parables. This moment required fast thinking and hard decisions.

Looking back, perhaps those well-worn Bible stories did offer guidance because they had been hidden in my heart by godly parents and kind Christians from my childhood. And what I discovered along the way was that members of my own Dallas congregation apparently had internalized these biblical examples as well, because to a person the church has supported me in reaching out to Louise and her family. The only criticisms we have received have come from outside the church….

Apparently, this is an image that is shocking for much of America to see and hear. Few people expected a predominantly Anglo congregation in an affluent section of Dallas to stand by a Liberian immigrant forced to live in quarantine. But as those inside our congregation know, this is what we do. This is what it means to be a church.”

Let the new story begun, unfold.
Don’t fall back into the way things are.

I fear that fear is the predominant characteristic of our time.
And there’s a certain irony I find to that in the land of the brave.
The predominant characteristic of the gospel is love,
and perfect love does what?
Perfect love casts out
the predominant characteristic of our time and our culture.

The heart of the gospel is love and grace—
which often start out as feelings, but then they grow into a hope.
And then people start thinking about them quietly,
and then they turn into words, quiet words, spoken.
Then that word grows louder and louder until it’s a battle cry
(Regina Spektor, “The Call”, The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian,
Walt Disney Pictures, 2008)—
the battle cry of a new creation—a new story begun.

So guide us, God, through the barrenness
of superficial relationships
that never risk what’s important to anyone.
Guide us through what’s dangerous and risky,
naming what’s important and what’s true
on a way we would never choose on our own,
but believing in the promise of blessing through it.
Don’t let us go back to the way things are.
Don’t let us settle for that.
Guide us through anger.
Guide us through fear
into grace into forgiveness.

What stories do you want shaping who you are?
What stories do you want shaping who our children are?
Do you want stories of fear pounded into them?
Or do you want them to grow up with stories of love and grace?
So what are the stories you tell?
And what are the stories you live?

to pass over or not?

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

Looking down the road, on a hot day,
you sometimes see, in the distance,
a shimmering.
And you blink because you’re not real sure what you’re seeing.
You know what I’m talking about?
It looks like light refracting off water
that’s somehow collected up there on the highway.

The technical explanation for this phenomenon (you ready?)
has to do with the surface temperature of the road,
and then the changing temperature in the air above that surface.
So it’s hottest on the ground—
the asphalt collecting and storing heat.
It gets cooler, the higher up from the ground you go.
Alright then you need to remember that light moves at different speeds
though different densities of air
(cold air being more dense than warm air),
and as the speed of light changes, it bends,
and it bends toward the cooler air.
So when you put all this together
and when you’re looking down that road in the distance on that hot day,
the light establishing your line of vision is bending up—
bending up into the cooler air,
and in the distance, you’re actually seeing the sky.
But your brain, trying to make sense of what your eyes are seeing
thinks it’s water reflecting sky.
That makes more sense to our brains
than that you’re seeing the sky on the ground.
But truly you’re looking up without knowing it.

It’s not clear (it shimmers)
because hot air rises,
and so you have movement in all that air—
as well as different densities—
different speeds of light.

So many Bible stories
shimmer.
And you blink because you’re not always real sure what you’re seeing.
And the light that emanates from such stories—
the light that shines in the darkness—
that light bends—
bends what we see as reality,
such that looking at these sacred stories—
looking at their beauty, their wonder,
their mystery, their challenge,
we see up to God.
Often in Scripture, we look up, very much knowing
that’s what we’re doing.
But sometimes, even in Scripture, we look up
without realizing it—
without knowing what we’re doing.

Our Old Testament text is taken from the Exodus story—
set within those dramatic stories of freedom.
But within those dramatic stories,
it also comes as interruption of the story.
The passover instructions we read this morning
come as interruption into the narrative flow of the plagues in Egypt—
after the tenth plague has been announced,
but before it has happened.

And we have these instructions for that last night in Egypt.
Because within all that drama,
our text is not about the mighty acts of God,
but about how we are to act in remembrance
of how the people of God acted in obedience.
For on that night, they gathered around the tables
for their last supper—in Egypt … right?
And it was a symbolic meal of ritual and liturgy and worship.
Scholars are actually fairly certain
this was all based on an older ritual of the nomadic way of life
reclaimed now—repurposed within Israel’s faith heritage.

They gathered by family or by families
with instructions to prepare—not a lamb—
contrary to our translation,
but the Hebrew literally reads, a flock animal—
which we find out shortly could also be a goat ….
The passover goat … just doesn’t sound right, does it? But it is!
We’re just so used to the passover lamb!
And your best one—your best lamb—your best goat—
your sacrifice.

Then the whole congregation of Israel slaughtered it, we read—
which is interesting grammar.
The whole congregation slaughtered it.
But this suggests the completeness of the community worship,
which was not corporate worship—
everybody didn’t get together and do this together.
Individual families—some families joined together.
The entire Hebrew people celebrating together but separately—
and no one left out.

And the blood was used to mark the entrance to the house.
So, I guess, if you celebrated with another family,
the dinner invitation was also for a sleepover—
because you sure didn’t want to go home to your unmarked door!

Now why did God need to see the blood?
didn’t God know—
doesn’t God know—
those who follow in God’s way?
or might this be less for God to know
as for the people of God to identify—
to self-identify—
as those who sacrifice.
imagine, in our culture of valuing how much we have,
a faith community marked by valuing how much we give away.
sacrifice marks my coming in and my going out.
sacrifice is the address of my home.

Some might suggest that the blood on the door
was appropriate for such a bloody night
as the angel of death entered the unmarked houses of the Egyptians,
but I can’t tell you—I cannot tell you—how true I find the affirmation
that death enters all homes unmarked by sacrifice—
that children suffer in houses unmarked by sacrifice—
that when sacrifice is sacrificed, so is a culture’s future.
Let those with ears to hear, hear.

Interesting to note God also says I come
not just as death to the young of Egypt—
but in judgment of the Egyptian gods.
And this is less something Rick Riordian would write—
War of the Gods or Yahweh takes on Isis, Ra Ra!,
as it is recognition and affirmation
that the presence of God always constitutes judgment
on any and all other gods.
The presence of our God always constitutes judgment
on any other god.

Instructions continue
as we are commanded to prepare the lamb
as you might on the road in the wilderness
over the fire—with nothing left to waste—
every part consumed or burned.
You don’t want to attract scavengers.
You don’t want to attract predators.
You don’t want to leave sign of your passing.
Walk gently on the earth.

And you eat in your traveling clothes.
You eat with your shoes on.
You eat carrying your walking staff.
You eat in a hurry—
ready to go at a moment’s notice.
Or some translations read “anxiously”—
not eat “hurriedly” but eat “anxiously”—
(John I. Durham, Exodus
[Waco: Word, 1987] 151)
prepared to go and scared to go.
How true that.

There’s so much that’s interesting here
worthy of notice and reflection,
but I want to close our consideration of this Exodus passage
by looking at the beginning again.
“The Lord said to Moses and Aaron in the land of Egypt:
This month shall mark for you the beginning of months;
it shall be the first month of the year for you.”
Notice
time starts here.
Time begins with freedom.
Time begins when oppression ends.
Time is reoriented,
and we see history that establishes ritual and liturgy and worship
which is simultaneously ritual, liturgy, worship
that gives history more meaning—
or let’s say time,
and, within time, experience.
So we have a justification of ritual based on experience,
in turn giving experience meaning.
what happens is important.
What happens now is important.

In our Gospel text from Matthew,
we have words supposedly of Jesus.
I mean, Jesus says them in the book as it’s written,
but he didn’t say them.
They’re not his words.
And we know this, right?
Because there was no church when Jesus was going around the Galilee
and the southern hill country teaching and telling stories.
There were disciples;
there were followers,
so there was community.
There just wasn’t church.
So this is Jesus’ teaching about process in community
applied later by Matthew to the church.
This make sense to everyone?

And it’s very clear
in the case of sin, there is to be confrontation—
I do hate to bring this up—
to complicate matters,
but we’re immediately into some more ambivalence.
Because while our translation reads,
if your brother or sister sins—against you,
some of the most ancient manuscripts read simply
if your brother or sister sins—
not qualified by against you or me.
Now still qualified by membership in the community, right?
If my brother or sister—my brother or sister in my community—
in my family of faith sins …
someone with whom I’m in relationship ….
Or do we ask, Who is my brother? Who is my sister?
Is what we have here possibly completely unqualified?
If anyone sins, confront them?
That is one scary thought!

Because I don’t want to be rude.
I don’t want to offend.
I don’t want to get into what’s, after all, none of my business.
And what if they get mad?
How will they express their anger?
There are a lot of crazy people out there.
And I really don’t want to be self-righteous.
There’s entirely too much of that around!
And what sin do I confront anyway? Sin by whose definition?
And people’s sin? Systemic sin? The sin of our culture?

I’ve suggested before that it’s most appropriate
to hold people accountable
to what they have confessed themselves accountable to,
not to what I think they should be held accountable to.
That’s what we do in community
and as communities of faith.

But surely there’s also a prophetic word we speak
in the context of injustice—in the context of sin?
We have too much allowed morality to define sin instead of justice,
and for the sake of justice,
we can’t afford to be silent about another’s sin.
We cannot pass this over.
So I’m good and uncomfortable now.
How about you?

I do want you to know before I go stepping on any of your toes,
that mine are bruised from this past week’s work!

There’s the legitimate question of how to do this.
Oh, I mean this is good process Matthew gives us.
First, one on one.
Then, if that doesn’t work, with a witness.
Then, and only then, in front of the community—
noticing there’s no one in charge designated to deal with this.
There’s no one tasked with identifying and pointing out sin—
with judging.
And there’s no authority to appeal to at the end but the whole community.
This is good process.
But still how do you do this one on one?

When you see the parent berating the child at the grocery store,
and it’s abusive,
what do you do?
That one’s my nightmare.
What would I do?

This is none of my business?
Really?
Because that child’s going to grow up with my children.
And so the way that child is treated will affect my children.
The way we act in the grocery store shapes our world,
and I care about how God’s world is shaped.
So what do I say? What do I do?
And I don’t know.

I’m reminded of Sam Wells’ comment
we considered some years ago
about church as a rehearsal stage
to practice in community and in advance
situations to encounter later in life
(Sam Wells, Improvisation: The Drama of Christian Ethics
[Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2004]).

The best I’ve been able to come up with
for that parent and child in the grocery store
is to say something like, “Oh, I’ve been there.
Can I watch your son/daughter while you get your shopping done?”
Now you still might catch it,
but haven’t done or said anything,
or not done or not said anything
to regret.

You might come up with something better.
If we were to consider it part of our congregational life
to be in conversation so what would you do in this situation,
we might could come up with something really good.

I do believe one of the most powerful confrontations of sin
is confession—
confession and repentance.
I get this so wrong in my living and relating,
and I so want to get it more right.
Confession and repentance.
Here’s what I’m doing to try and change.
But also confession of faith.
Here’s what I believe.

Have you wondered what you would say in that grocery store?
Have you been in that grocery store?

Okay, but sometimes it’s so much harder to know what’s sin.
There’s too much that’s ambiguous.
Or is it? Even at the bigger level.
Palestine, it is sin to send rockets into Israel.
Israel, it is sin to kill 501 children in Gaza.
Anyone disagree with either of those statements?
You see, we’re not getting into
what you supposedly have to do to protect yourself.
We’re not getting into justification of behavior.
Justification of behavior is always self-centered.
So we just consider behavior,
and all of a sudden, it’s seems more clear.

But not just behavior.
Circumstances too.
Ask our children.
I so clearly remember our girls’
shock—our girls’ utter shock,
to learn that children in our community—
right here around us,
don’t have enough to eat.
“That’s not right,” they said.
That’s right. That’s sin.
And the young suffer in a culture that has sacrificed sacrifice.

To make others pay for what we enjoy is sin—
whether that’s fiscal policy,
environmental policy,
trade policy,
or the privileges we take for granted every day.

Now so important to remember,
“The function of the discipline spoken here
is restorative, not punitive ….”
(Ben Witherington III, Matthew
[Macon: Smyth & Helwys, 2006] 350)
“[T]he whole process is focused on the restoration of the offender,
not revenge for the offended”
(Thomas G. Long, Matthew
[Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1997] 210).
Though it’s not necessarily the offended party either, is it?
It’s the observant one—
the one that acknowledges the importance of sin.
What you’re doing’s not right.

Those who do not listen—
who do not respond,
let them be as tax collectors to you—
as Gentiles.
Now that would have meant one thing in the culture of the day,
right?
Reject them, exclude them, denigrate them.
It would have meant something entirely different
within the truth of the gospel, right?
For Jesus ate with tax collectors (Matthew 9:10-11),
named sinners and toll collectors his friends (Matthew 11:19),
will state that prostitutes and toll collectors will enter heaven
before the temple authorities (Matthew 21:32).
And gentiles, in this gospel, manifest great faith—
whether that’s the magi (Matthew 2:1-12),
the centurion (Matthew 8:5-13), the Canaanite woman (Matthew 15:21-28),
even Pilate’s wife (Matthew 27:19).

So if someone doesn’t hear you—
if someone persists in sin,
name them your friend.
Invite them to eat with you.
Take initiative to establish relationship with them.
Bless them with your love.

Two interesting comments at the end of our gospel text:
“Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth
will be bound in heaven,
and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”
I’m not sure specifically what any of that means
other than what we do matters.
What we do shapes the world’s view of heaven and of God
which is enough to know!

“Again, truly I tell you, if two of you agree on earth
about anything you ask, it will be done for you
by my Father in heaven.
For where two or three are gathered in my name,
I am there among them.”
So we have the assurance of the presence of God with us,
and the affirmation that our living matters,
and, hopefully, some sense that
there’s a lot you cannot pray for in Jesus’ name.
There’s a lot you can’t pray for
when you’re striving to honor the integrity of Jesus’ name.
You can’t ask for anything.

When we are about the business of sin and grace—
confrontation and forgiveness,
when we are focused on restoring community and relationship and dreams and wholeness and health and hope,
we end up in a bigger story than we knew.
We transpose our circumstances into the great story of God.

Think about that when you’re in the grocery store.
Or on the beltway … that’s another place I ….

So when in the course of our days,
we notice sin,
and we worry about that.
We fret.
What do I say? What do I do?
And we do name sin—
appropriately—in love,
because we practiced together as church.
We confront someone
with our commitment to a different reality.
We commit to the possibility of creating or restoring relationship,
that’s no small thing.
In the barrenness of too much of our culture,
we make our way to a promised land so much richer.

Risky? Oh, yes.
You don’t get to participate in the biggest and best stories without risk.
And we love our stories of those who face physical danger.
We go to the movies.
We watch the TV shows.
We love our stories of those who face physical danger.
But they only prepare us to face the very real dangers
of selfishness and greed and shortsightedness.
And can you be a hero facing that?
And live into a history that establishes ritual, liturgy, worship
that in turn give history more meaning.

I promise you,
people looking at us as followers of God,
they do not see up;
they do not see heaven;
they do not see God, and they do not want to look for God,
when it is judgement and rejection and exclusion
and criticism and self-righteousness and fear that they hear.

But if, looking at us, and us looking at each other
we see grace, forgiveness, love, blessing, inclusiveness
I promise you,
there is a shimmering,
and it is heaven we will see.
It is God we will see.

And time begins again.

How ’bout that?

a reformation prayer

Our God,
as we gather in sanctuary and in fellowship—
as we gather for worship—
as we sing hymns,
and tell and hear your stories—
as we pray,
grant us the wisdom and the courage
to know, claim and celebrate with Paul,
and as reformation,
that we are stewards of mystery,
not certainty—
that our proclamation is one of trust,
not of definition.
May humility guide us
into both confessing and prioritizing
as much that we don’t know,
as that we think we do.
And may love always take precedence
over expectations, and rules, and consequences.
This we pray,
hopefully,
in Jesus’ name,
amen.

a moment

Our God,

some days weigh so very heavy on the soul—
days of the randomly tragic,
the viciously horrifying—
days with a moment—just one moment
after which, lives go on rent and twisted—
moments after which it’s somehow incomprehensible,
how, after such cataclysmic change, life even goes on.

Such days, maybe,
we drag ourselves into some awareness of Your presence,
and we sit together.

And it may not be until much later
that it dawns on us
that in our stories of You,
You know well
those moments that rend and tear
relationship and time and creation.

It may not be until much later
that it occurs to us
to be grateful
for the silence that is the absence
in Your presence
of reasoned explanation—
of any attempt to justify events—

to be grateful
that we just sit together,
knowing we both know the weight of this day—
the terrible change wrought in that one moment—

knowing that life does go on
without dimensions it should have
or with dimensions it shouldn’t—
that it will never be what it was,

but that it also does go on with You.

And, sometimes, that’s enough.

we live too much afraid

We live too much afraid, our God.
And that’s in no way to say
there’s not a lot of which to be afraid.
There is.
We live in a scary world.
ISIS or ISIL and Ebola are our new foci—
both of which, simply the latest manifestation
of the ever-truths
that there are scary people in the world
and scary things in the world—
neither of which are helpfully addressed
by our scarily short-sighted mentality
of let’s get what we can—all we can—while we can.

Fear restricts us. Fear confines us.
Fear makes us smaller.
Fear makes us live smaller lives.
And those who peddle fear
count on us feeling small
so they can perceive themselves and their agendas
as big.

But here’s the thing—
the thing we remember and proclaim:
You, our God, You made yourself smaller,
to love us into being bigger and living bigger—
into such bigness that there’s no room left for smallness—
no room for fear.

So may we live ever bigger lives.
May we love ever bigger
believing in the goodness of creation
and the love that is Your presence—
the love that casts out fear—shrinks it—
instead of allowing it to shrink us.

This we pray in the name of the one who lived big
and unafraid, full of grace and love. Amen.