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?

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