September 30, 2008

Law, Economy, Freedom and Community

by Debra Dean Murphy
(Exodus 20:1-20) - There's a running gag on Comedy Central's Colbert Report in which the fake-bluster, windbag host, Stephen Colbert, interviews members of Congress in a segment called "Better Know a District." In a recent installment, Georgia representative Lynn Westmoreland was on the hot seat, and Colbert asked the congressman about his very vocal support for displaying the Ten Commandments in public buildings—courthouses and such. "Can you think of any other places where the commandments should have prominence?" asked Colbert, trying, mischievously, to press the point that there might be other sites (churches, anyone? a synagogue, perhaps?) where the Decalogue is more at home.

Westmoreland didn't get it—he kept talking about courthouses—and so Colbert (a devout Catholic, interestingly) went for the kill: "What are the Ten Commandments, congressman?"

Not surprisingly, Westmoreland was stumped. He named a couple of them—sort of. It was embarrassing to watch. But it was also illuminating for what it revealed about how the Ten Commandments are routinely regarded in public discourse and even in the Church: as a list of disembodied rules intended to govern personal conduct and particularly applicable in the American civil sphere (and rules, it turns out, that many of us can’t even name). As rules, they are thought to function primarily by restricting, constraining, hampering, inhibiting. They are meant to protect us from one another in a dangerous, unpredictable world, and invoking them regularly is thought to please and appease a God who guards America’s greatness.

And so, the argument often goes, we need to display the Ten Commandments prominently—yanked from their biblical moorings, their narrative history—in American halls of jurisprudence.

Situated in their original context, however, the commandments (the "ten words," literally) are nothing like the description above. For Israel, the law given at Mount Sinai comes as gift, as a liberating word that makes it possible for the covenant people to flourish in their life together. Where we see the keeping of the Decalogue as a way to earn God’s favor and escape God’s wrath, the biblical writers are clear that the law comes after Israel’s salvation and in response to it. As Perry Yoder has observed, “We have forgotten that Israel’s liberation was an act of God’s grace, not a necessary response to Israel’s merit. Law is how the liberated, saved people of God say thank you!”

Another distinction is helpful here—that between “public” and “community.” In his book, Sex, Economy, Freedom and Community, Wendell Berry writes that “a community, unlike a public, has to do first of all with belonging; it is a group of people who belong to one another and to their place. We would say, ‘We belong to our community,’ but never, ‘we belong to our public.’”

Thus the call for a “public” display of the Ten Commandments is exposed for the misguided proposal that it is. The Commandments don’t speak to a public; they give life within a community. What might seem to be restrictive and unrelentingly legalistic (thou shalt not this; thou shalt not that), turns out to be the parameters by which we exercise our freedom. That is, the Ten Words given in Exodus chapter 20 (and the hundreds of laws and mandates that follow in succeeding chapters) help give human freedom its proper aims, for they show us “the responsibilities without which no one can be legitimately free, or free for very long” (Berry).

This Sunday many Protestants will observe World Communion Sunday. (For our Catholic and Orthodox sisters and brothers, every Sunday, rightly, is World Communion Sunday). As we gather to receive the Eucharist, may we be reminded that we exist as a community of gift in which both Law and Gospel are the good news of God.


September 26, 2008

Why Share?

by Kyle Childress
You may remember the Garrison Keillor story of why shopping at Ralph’s Pretty Good Grocery in Lake Wobegon is preferable to shopping in St. Cloud at the new Higgledy-Piggledy. Ralph’s Pretty Good Grocery has just gotten in a case of fresh cod. “Frozen, but it’s fresher than what’s been in his freezer for months. In the grocery business, you have to throw out stuff sometimes, but Ralph is Norwegian and it goes against his principles.” On the other hand, more and more people have been “sneaking off to the Higgledy-Piggledy in St. Cloud, where you find two acres of food, a meat counter a block long with huge walloping roasts and steaks big enough to choke a cow, and exotic fish lying on crushed ice.”

Keillor goes on to explain that Lake Wobegon does not run on free enterprise, which is based upon self-interest. It is run on loyalty. He goes on to say you can shop at the St. Cloud Mall instead of Lake Wobegon but the St. Cloud Mall isn’t going to come with the Rescue Squad and they aren’t going to teach your children redemption by grace.

For Keillor there is more going on here than simply Ralph’s Pretty Good Grocery is small and the Higgledy-Piggledy in St. Cloud is large or that Ralph’s is simple and small-town and Higgledy-Piggledy is glitzy and cutting edge. For Keillor, Ralph’s Pretty Good Grocery is about living a shared life, commitment to one another, being there for one another when we’re needed, raising one another’s children, and growing a community together. The Higgledy-Piggledy in St. Cloud is about each person being on his or her own and making choices based upon self-interest instead of what’s good for the community.

Ralph’s Pretty Good Grocery is a wonderful analogy with Austin Heights. Our whole perception of what we’re up to around here is a contrast to what usually passes for church life in this country. More and more we find ourselves eating together and working together. Here we are building a shared life in ways surpassing standard and conventional American understandings of church.

Living a shared life has to do with how we share money in our congregation too. In some churches giving financially to the church is sort of like paying your dues for your club membership. In other churches financial stewardship is related to giving your offering to the church down there on Main Street. It is giving money, and giving generously, but giving it to the religious institution. And for many churches, it is like shopping at the Higgledy-Piggledy. You give out of self-interest; what the church does for you in meeting your needs.

Austin Heights is different, and if we’re not different then we want to be different. Instead of giving a tithe down there to that institution, we are sharing our tithes with one another. We are much more like Ralph’s Pretty Good Grocery where people shop because they care for Ralph and they know Ralph is a member of the Rescue Squad and teaches their children. We share our money – not with an institution removed from us – but with one another in Christ.

Our budget and our tithing certainly goes to paying the bills around here, supporting mission, and underwriting our expenses. But this is not its primary purpose. The primary purpose of our budget and our tithing is to form us into one body. It is to make us the community of Christ. The budget translates our common faith and common vision into a common life and common purse.

Did you ever think that our biggest witness of being Christian is how we spend our money? When we share our tithes with God and with one another we are saying that we put our money where our mouths and hearts are in trusting and loving one another and growing a community based upon Jesus as Lord.

We do believe in paying taxes partly because taxes help to provide basic necessities and security for needy people beyond us in the whole country. We do believe in giving to charities partly because charities pay for things for which a majority in our democracy would not vote. And we do believe in giving in ways that help others have dignity and a chance at a decent life. But we give to one another in this particular common-life called Austin Heights Baptist Church because we believe that this, the church, is the principal way in which God chooses to make God’s self known in the world. Our shared life, shared work, shared meals, shared money is how God is known.

Acts 4 is a wonderful summary of the life of the early church: They were of one heart and soul and they had a common purse. Luke makes the explicit connection between the life those Christians shared with their testimony of the resurrection of Jesus Christ. People had a sense that Jesus was resurrected and living among them by sharing with one another.

These are worrisome times. And when we worry, like most people, we tend to hold more tightly to what we have or we spend what we have out of some sort of self-interest. But Austin Heights is called to practice something completely different. We share because Jesus Christ is among us.

Let’s be careful out there.


September 23, 2008

God’s Economy

by Debra Dean Murphy
(Philippians 2:1-13) - There’s nothing like money troubles—ours or someone else’s—to get our attention and hold it. To keep us up at night. To preoccupy our days and overtake all our social interactions. In fact, if you want to break the ice with a new acquaintance or fill that awkward silence with a stranger in a waiting room, on the bus, wherever—just bring up the near-collapse of the world’s financial markets. You’ll get a knowing gaze, a sympathetic nod.

It is telling that the current crisis on Wall Street has captivated our attention like nothing else in recent weeks (Sarah Palin notwithstanding). Millions have suffered and died in Darfur, and continue to do so; Haiti has been all but decimated as a country; the physical, psychological, and spiritual toll of war in Iraq is now near incalculable.

But when the banks start going under, well, that is serious business, indeed. When the god of mammon comes calling, demanding deference, snapping us to attention, it seems we can’t bow down quickly enough. No wonder Jesus warned that where our treasure is, there will our hearts be also. Our hearts aren’t really in Darfur or Haiti or Iraq (or with the strung-out addict across town) because we so readily give our hearts, minds, and attention to something called “financial security”—America’s and our own.

In his letter to the Philippians Paul lays out a different economic plan. It is the lordship of Christ and the divine economy of salvation that preoccupies Paul—that keeps him up at night, happily, in his Roman prison cell.

In his marvelous commentary on Philippians, Steve Fowl (EP endorser and great guy) contends that in encouraging the Christians at Philippi and in describing his own immediate circumstances, Paul is presenting a pattern of perception that should characterize all those who are in Christ. He is urging Christians to “see” the world and themselves differently; to manifest in their life together a common pattern of thinking and acting that will set them apart and allow them the grace to live and flourish by a different rule, a different economic logic.

What reads like the playbook for getting ahead in the world of corporate finance—selfish ambition, looking to your own interests—must be abandoned, says Paul, in favor of a common life grounded in humility and in looking out for the interests of others (2:3-4). And this common life draws on, mimics, and participates in the divine economy by which Father, Son, and Holy Spirit exist in a mutual relation of ceaseless caritas. This economy turns the logic of free-market capitalism on its head, for in the divine economy there is no lack, there is only, as Steve puts it, “an uncoerced circulation of gifts flowing from a super-abundance of love.”

The Church, too, is to live by the logic of abundance, not scarcity; of shared love, not mutual suspicion. It is wrong to posit the Church as a spiritual reality and politics or economics or the free market as material realities. The Church is fully social, political, and economic—a materially-embodied (re)ordering of relationships, desire, and the making and spending of our money.

And, finally, lest we be swept up this week in the beauty and eloquence of Paul’s prose (“at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father”), we should remember that Philippi was a Roman military colony, an outpost of Empire, where the clash between economies—the love of power and the power of love—was as palpable as it is in our own time. For the Philippian Christians to cast their lot with the fledgling Jesus movement was to surrender any social standing or political clout they might have had; it was to give up economic security to follow a crucified and risen Lord who demanded they do strange things with their finances and their possessions—things like, sell all you have and give it to the poor.

For us, similarly, to confess with our lips that Jesus Christ—not Caesar and not Wall Street—is Lord, is to begin to learn what it means to put our money where our mouth is.


September 18, 2008

Workers’ Rights and the Kingdom of Heaven

by Debra Dean Murphy
(Philippians 1:21-30; Matthew 20:1-16)
“Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous? So the last will be first, and the first will be last.” Matthew 20:15-16

Some say that human beings are hardwired with a strong sense of what’s fair and what’s not. Maybe. But even if it’s not part of our DNA, it seems pretty clear that the resentment we feel when treated unjustly is learned early and runs deep. Ever been in a room full of toddlers when there aren’t enough toys to go around?

We don’t seem to lose that sense of personal violation and moral indignation as we get older. The toys we fight over as adults may be bigger and more sophisticated—they may even be things like careers and promotions and reputations—but we are often as petty and possessive as any preschooler in our scramble to claim what we believe is rightfully ours.

In fact, part of the narrative we internalize as we make our way through the institutions meant to educate and socialize us (schools and sports teams, for instance), is this: If you work hard you will be rewarded and you will deserve your success. (Don’t we communicate this to our kids all the time?) Current campaign speeches targeting that coveted demographic—“the middle class”—regularly exploit this maxim, the corollary of which assumes that showing up late, standing around idle, and not putting in a hard day’s work, means you must go to the back of the line. You are a burden to the rest of us and you do not deserve the same rewards that the conscientious, hard-working, early risers do.

And then there’s Jesus.

This week’s parable of the workers in the vineyard (found only in Matthew’s gospel) violates not only our sense of equity when it comes to work and fair compensation for work, but our understanding of divine justice. God, like Santa Claus, is supposed to reward our hard work and our good behavior. We’ve been nice this year, Santa-God! The naughty ones will surely get their lumps of coal.

But in the parable, the ones who worked only one hour—one hour!—got the same pay as those who labored and sweated all day long. When the settling up was done at day’s end, the dutiful ones were not amused: “You have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat” (20:12).

I think about this parable in light of immigrants I’ve gotten to know and the “problem” of undocumented workers. So much of the ever-increasing hostility toward immigrants in this country is rooted in the conviction that we were here first, we’ve been here longer, this is our vineyard. (Sounds a little like quarrelsome toddlers, doesn’t it).

The resentment toward immigrants also comes from a sense that our rights as native-born Americans are being violated—our jobs are being taken away, our resources are being diminished. Conversely, those who advocate for immigrants often speak of the rights of these refugee workers—their inherent claim on work and resources and human dignity.

While I have much more sympathy with the latter view, the emphasis on rights in both positions is misplaced. In the kingdom of God, says Jesus, we are not blessed because we have a right to such blessings, but because in God’s infinite mercy and generosity we are the undeserving recipients of an abundance we can never deplete.

“Live your life in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ,” urges the apostle Paul in this Sunday’s Epistle lesson. Surely part of such a directive is that we are to welcome everyone into the abundance that God has provided—not because they have a right to be there but because the Church, as Christ’s body, needs them to be there. That is, we can’t fully be who God intends us to be without the gift of the stranger in our midst--the stranger/immigrant/vineyard worker who reveals the unsettling truth that turns out to be good news for all of us: “the last will be first, and the first will be last.”


September 17, 2008

Forgiveness and Evangelism

by Jessie Larkins
A few years ago, I was a passenger in a car that was in a minor accident in a local shopping center parking lot. Both cars, the one I was in as well as the one that sideswiped us, were traveling at an appropriate parking lot speed of about 2 mph. The collision, which put a fairly large dent in the front fender of my friend’s car and a crack in the front headlight on the other car, resulted in no injuries, no irreparable damage, and certainly no more pain and suffering than that of having to sit in the Wal-Mart parking lot for an hour in the middle of December while the police report was filed. As an adult passenger in one of the vehicles, I was, of course, asked for my license and a brief statement to corroborate the story of the two drivers. Being that it was my first real traffic accident to speak of, I had no idea what to expect after that point. 

Imagine my surprise when, on each of the following three days, I arrived home from school to find my mailbox absolutely overwhelmed with offers from local law offices pandering for my business. 

Of course they assumed that I would sue the other driver for all he was worth—after all, he had cost me at least an hour of lost productivity on a Sunday afternoon, the potential of many future health problems that could, of course, be attributed to this event, as well as untold emotional damage. Was I having trouble concentrating at work?  (Well, yes, but it is two weeks before Christmas—who can focus?) Did I feel a stiffness in my neck or back?  (I have been meaning to get a new bed pillow for that very reason....)  Was I having nightmares as a result of this event? (Should I tell them that just this week I started waking up in a cold sweat worried that I was surrounded by lawyers?) David and I had quite a good time flipping through this legal propaganda—joking about how we should quit our jobs and just hang out in our cars in the blind spots of local parking lots. 

At the end of it all, though, as the daily junk mail was cleared away and dropped into the recycling bin, we would shake our heads and wonder aloud: “Do people really do this?  Do people really buy into this mess?”

Unfortunately, the answer to our question is too often, yes. America in the 21st century is the most litigious country in the world.  We have one lawyer for every 300 people, including children.  We file more than 250,000 lawsuits against one another each year (American Bar Association). Many doctors are forced out of practice because they simply cannot afford the insurance costs to remain in practice. 

We have all heard, and probably laughed, at the headlines: “Woman sues McDonalds because coffee too hot;” “Man files suit against Burger King for obesity.” 

You may have heard the statistic that the divorce rate for Christians is no less than for mainstream culture. There is no evidence that nations comprised of predominantly Christian citizens are less likely to be engaged in war than any other—Muslim or otherwise. The fact that the one holy catholic and apostolic Church now exists in any of 39,000 (!) denominations worldwide proves that we are not always very good at the work of forgiveness and reconciliation (Wikipedia). I found no credible evidence that Christians were any less likely to engage in the vicious cycle of tit-for-tat-get-back-and-get-even.  

If these statistics don’t surprise you, I hope that they at least alarm you a bit. We live in a world where the cycle of retribution and violence will eventually result in what our preacher last week called “Mutually Assured Destruction”—of our marriages and families, of our communities and neighborhoods, of our churches, our environment, and of our nation. The world is in desperate need of a new way of living—you only have to turn on the TV news for about 30 seconds to realize this. This is probably why Jesus took so much time to preach about ethics and how we live as Christians. Perhaps it’s time we paid attention.

In addition to those pesky and demanding Sermons on the Mount and Plain that command us to love our enemies and to rejoice when persecuted, Matthew devotes an entire chapter of his gospel to Jesus’ teachings on how we live together as believers. 

Jesus begins chapter 18 with his discussion of children, commanding that we be a community of hospitality and sanctuary for them. He condemns those who would put a stumbling block to any of these little ones coming to know and love God. 

We certainly don’t need to dig deeply into the news to find evidence of the damage caused to the Church’s witness by scandals and allegations of misconduct towards children.  Next, Jesus tackles this notion of how we deal with conflict within the body.  Our preacher spoke last week about our need to resolve conflict in such a way that relationships remain intact and unity is maintained.  

Finally, today, we come to the climax of Jesus’ teaching in which Jesus addresses the issue of forgiveness.  What is the magnitude of injury at which point it is OK to strike back?  If my neck had been whiplashed in that accident and I still suffered recurring nightmares of that afternoon such that I was afraid to get in my car and had lost my job as a result—then, Jesus, would it be OK to seek recompense? Certainly there must be a limit to forgiveness, Peter claims!  

Peter knows the Jewish law when he asks this. He knows that the Law requires that one forgive injury up to three times. He must feel as though he is being especially generous in suggesting seven as the point at which forgiveness, even of a brother or sister in Christ, must find its limit. I’m sure that Jesus’ response caught him off-guard.

Some translations offer that Jesus’ response was seventy-seven times to forgive a wrong suffered at the hand of another brother or sister. Other translations say seventy times seven, or 490 occasions of forgiveness. Either way, the number hardly matters. “Jesus is telling him not to assume that you can count how many times you offer forgiveness and then be done with it” (Jones).  

The parable offered by Jesus goes, perhaps, to the heart of the matter. He tells the story of two servants—the first who owed a ridiculously large quantity of money to the king, and the second, who owed a large, but manageable sum of money to the first servant. Servant number one we are told owes the king 10,000 talents. A talent was the largest unit of currency in the Roman Empire. ONE talent represented 15 years of work for one laborer. 10,000 talents would then be the equivalent of 10,000 workers slaving for 15 years, devoting the entirety of their earnings to this debt. To put it lightly, this guy’s debt makes even a totaled BMW and back surgery look like peanuts. 

When the debt collector came around, this guy found himself in dire straights, realizing that there was no way he could bargain his way out of his mess. Figuring that this was a pretty good time to beg for mercy, the servant falls on his knees and pleads. Despite such a large debt, the king has compassion for the man, forgives him, and sends him back to his wife and children. On the way, servant one meets servant two, a man who owes him 100 denarii. A denarius was a smaller unit of currency roughly equivalent to a days’ wage for one laborer. Though I would hardly like to give up four months’ salary, this was certainly a more manageable debt. Trying to save face, the first servant calls the second servant to account for this debt. When this debtor is unable to repay, the first servant immediately goes into a rage and imprisons the second servant. When the king gets word of this situation, he goes to the first servant demanding to know why he would not show others the same mercy that he had been shown. 

What this servant failed to account for—what we ourselves fail to account for each time we find ourselves in a position of conflict, debt, or disparity and seek retribution for our wrong rather than forgive—is that he (and we) are debtors long BEFORE we are creditors. The unmerited forgiveness of the king towards the first servant reminds us of God’s overwhelming grace and forgiveness to each one of us. We too have been forgiven a debt that, like that first servant, we could never repay.  The king demands of the servant, and we too must ask ourselves. 

Could we be unforgiving and ungracious to our neighbors and their faults if we calculated our own indebtedness to one far greater than ourselves? 

Even more, having been forgiven this immeasurable debt, how can we not desire that others experience the same freedom that we ourselves have experienced by not having our debts counted against us? 

By telling this parable, Jesus does something that one of my seminary professors used to do to us students when he would write on the top of our papers: “It’s about God, stupid.” He turns the question around to make forgiveness and reconciliation FIRST about God and only secondarily about us. Peter’s question assumes that the limitations of human strength and patience are the measure of forgiveness. Jesus directs Peter not to assume that he is the one in the position of power when it comes to the question of forgiveness. First he says, we must know ourselves as ones who have been greatly forgiven by God. When we replace God at the center of it all, we see that forgiveness is really about who God is; and about who God makes us as forgiven and reconciled people. When our own debt is cleared, is it possible for us to continue to demand repayment from those who owe us? We have no need to justify ourselves any longer.

It seems to me as though the entire gospel is summed up in this short parable. It is the story of God’s unrelenting love, making us the servants who have been set free from our debts in order that we might offer the same to others, witnessing to the benevolence of our king. Jesus knows that forgiveness is contrary to our human instinct to bite back and devour. What Jesus is asking Peter to do is add God’s love and grace into his limited calculation of human forgiveness. In our own forgiveness we find an abundance of grace large enough to not only cover our own debts but the debts of those who have wronged us. Wrong and right are no longer a zero-sum game when God’s grace is factored into the equation. When we do this, we find enough grace and forgiveness to transform every level of human relationship from families to nations.

Forgiveness of the brother or sister who has wronged us is, therefore, a mark of Christian discipleship — a mark of the Christian community seeking to be Christ’s presence in the world. We speak often of the UM mission statement that asserts that we, The UMC, exist as a community of disciples “for the transformation of the world.” Can you imagine the transformation and renewal that might occur if Christians began forgiving others as in Christ they have been forgiven?  If we allowed forgiveness and grace to define our relationship to one another and the world, there would be a radical shift in the way the world sees the church and comprehends the gospel! What kind of community could and would be sustained on the presumption that forgiveness is always available?  Might churches begin to unify rather than divide?  Might the divorce rate for Christians drop below 50%?  Might Christians drop their swords (or automatic weapons) in favor of plowshares (or carpentry tools or educational programs)?  Perhaps it sounds imprudent or naïve, but the imperative of today’s gospel message is that we MUST learn to forgive one another—it is proof that God’s love reigns in our hearts; it is proof for the world that the gospel is more than just words to us.

We are quick to condemn the first servant for his hypocrisy, but fail to realize that we are guilty of the same each time we refuse forgiveness—no matter the cost—to our brothers and sisters.  Too often I hear from folks in all different walks of life that the one reason that they can never imagine coming to church is because it is full of hypocrites. For too long Christians and the church have settled to be defined in the public eye by scandal, split, and disagreement, throwing tantrums and slamming doors, fighting fire with fire (and other weapons of destruction). We are condemned by the ways in which our walk fails to match our talk.  Can we truthfully proclaim a God of boundless love, mercy, acceptance, and forgiveness—can we truthfully claim God’s grace for ourselves—and fail to offer that same mercy, love, and forgiveness to one another or our neighbors? What Jesus offers Peter (and the entire Christian community) in this lesson is a chance to be defined, empowered, and FREED by the love, acceptance, and forgiveness of a God who does not count our debt against us. When we recognize the grace offered to us in such abundance, we are able to surrender our need to nickel and dime, manipulate, harangue, and bite back when wronged—we are gifted to see our brothers and sisters as children of God desperate for an experience of God’s grace.  Because of God’s willingness to forgive and even suffer greatly for our debt rather than have anyone be lost to God, we have a model for our own forgiveness and evangelism. 

Folks are drawn to the gospel by seeing it lived out in real life a thousand times before they understand the words. Folks are desperate for a new way of living that breaks the cycle of tit-for-tat, payback or pay-up. We proclaim a God who has, in Christ, broken the vicious cycle of retribution and violence in which humans have been stuck since our exile from the Garden of Eden. By breaking this cycle of retribution, God transforms and gives new life to our relationship with God and one another by allowing us to participate in the spreading of divine grace and forgiveness to our neighbors.  If we desire that others be drawn into the gospel story—that none be lost to God—then we must first be willing to witness in our own lives to the reality of Christ’s mercy and forgiveness. More than any smart words we could write to persuade others to accept the gospel, offering forgiveness and love—whether to our spouses, our children, our co-workers, people of the opposing political party, our leaders, and even, dare I say, to those who commit heinous crimes against us—is our witness.  It is the hope we share for a world transformed, where the cycle of violence and retribution has been broken by a God who was willing to empty himself into human form—to mount a cross for our sakes even when we were enemies of God—to forgive us seventy times seventy times seventy times (and more) though so often we know not what we do.

This, my friends, is our proclamation of the good news. 

In the name of Jesus Christ, you are forgiven. 

Now, go and share this grace.  Amen. 


September 12, 2008

70 x 7 and 9/11

by Debra Dean Murphy
Forgive your neighbor the wrong he has done, and then your sins will be pardoned when you pray. (Sirach 28:2)

Then Peter came and said to him, “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” Jesus said to him, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times. (Matthew 18:21-22)

At a time like this—the week we recall the attacks of September 11, 2001—it is instructive to set the script of American civil piety next to the scriptures assigned for the twenty-fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time. This week we’ve been admonished by politicians and others to “remember and never forget” that terrible day seven years ago. This Sunday Jesus will tell us (again) that forgiveness is the required response to those who sin against us.

It is true that Matthew’s concern in chapter 18 is the restoration of relationships within the ekklesia, but we know that Jesus’ command to love, forgive and to reconcile with our neighbor presumes that our neighbor may sometimes turn out to be an enemy.

But the secular liturgies that have commemorated the events of September 11, 2001 from the beginning until now make no room for forgiveness. Indeed, one of the unquestioned assumptions of such rites has been the specialness of our dying as Americans— the disproportionate value we have placed on American lives lost that September day, compared to the men, women, and children who die every day, every second of every day, around the world, often in circumstances at least as horrific as the terrorist attacks of 9/11. (Nor do we often acknowledge that hundreds of citizens of other countries also died that morning seven years ago).

Every life lost is precious in the sight of God. Yet the woundedness that was felt by many in the early days after 9/11 was soon transformed into a defensiveness that continues to suggest, often without much subtlety, that because we are Americans our suffering is somehow greater than the suffering of others in other times and places.

Which makes it hard to forgive. Hard even to contemplate the possibility of forgiveness. But the church, says Matthew, ought to be the place where we show the world what forgiveness looks like, even if we have to extend it to each other over and over again, which we surely will.

“We do not live to ourselves,” says the apostle Paul in the appointed text from Romans, “and we do not die to ourselves.” Our lives and our deaths are linked to the lives and deaths of others—to the Lord, says Paul, and to one another: to people we love and to those we don’t. Judgment is God’s business, not ours. The work of forgiveness and reconciliation is task enough for the day—this day and every day.


September 05, 2008

Love and Power

by Debra Dean Murphy
(Romans 13:8-14; Matthew 18:15-20) I’m a political junkie. And like many addicts, I’ve been bingeing lately, and I’m not proud of it. I know better (as most junkies do), but I can’t seem to help myself. Two weeks of convention hoopla—spin and jive, sentiment and spectacle, smugness and sarcasm—have left me more hopeless than ever about the state of political discourse in the United States of America.

Where’s the maturity and civility and humility? Where’s the courage to cast our political, economic, and moral challenges in the nuanced ways they require? Why are we afraid of complexity, subtlety, complicated truth? And perhaps most distressing: Why are we so hostile to one another?

These are naïve questions, of course, but when you’ve been “using” for two weeks, imbibing things that aren’t good for you, not sleeping enough, not eating properly—you begin to get the shakes (metaphorically, at least) and, like a weepy drunk, you start asking whiny, useless questions. Detox is definitely in order.

We might be tempted to think that church is the place that gives us respite from the cruelty and absurdity of politics but, of course, if you’ve ever been part of a congregation for five minutes or so, you know how laughable that idea is.

The Epistle and Gospel texts this week speak to the exercise of power in the ekklesia—reminding us how easily power can be abused: how readily it corrupts and wounds, how it can destroy life and health and community. The verses from Matthew have been used through the centuries in ways that have brought great harm to Christians and to Christian communities. Jesus’ words in this chapter have often been read through the lens of exclusion rather than through that of restoration and cure.

The “discipline” described here is not for the sake of punishment and permanent exile but is meant to reconcile one who is estranged temporarily from the body. The two verses that follow this pericope make that clear: Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times? Not seven times, says Jesus, but seventy-seven times.

Yet when we try, by our own power, to embody this way of living and of receiving the other, we fail. Like politicians in the fight of their lives, we can get ugly, petty, ungracious, inhospitable; we can reduce the other to an unrecognizable caricature. It is only when, as the apostle Paul reminds us, we “put on the Lord Jesus Christ” (13:14) that the gift of reconciliation to one estranged becomes possible. To “put on Christ” is to imitate the self-giving love that the cross makes possible.

Love, Paul also says, is “the fulfilling of the law” (13:10). But such fulfillment has less to do with trying to earn God’s favor than with living as we were created to live: as persons who in our life together bear witness to the very nature of God in God’s self—a love that shows no partiality, that restores and heals, that welcomes and forgives—over and over and over again.

These are the words and themes and practices that should shape our lives as the body of Christ in a broken and hostile world—this is the detox we need.


Choosing the Evil of Two Lessers

by Brian E. Volck
Months ago, at the beginning of the presidential rutting season, I reflected here on the comment of a Jewish friend of mine, who said he never felt more alien in the United States than at Christmas. I’m nearly with him on that, seeing how far the consumer capitalist Winter Holiday runs from the appalling mystery of the Incarnation. Yet it’s hard to blame this culture and economy from avoiding that unprofitable Jesus business which, in the words of the late great British sitcom, Blackadder, “always spoils the Xmas atmos.” We may still call it Christ-mas, but Yuletide in America makes us all anonymous pagans.

Winter retail festivals aside, what really gives me the Stranger in a Strange Land Blues is election year, especially when the Commander-in-Chief’s job is up for grabs. I try to avoid the daily news industry’s addictive Obamacaine fix, but it appears unavoidable, especially when the conjoined twins of American democracy hold their separate, four day infomercials. Watching the rival camps stir their faithful into righteous frenzies of resentment and indignation vividly reminds me that the American god, whether liberal or conservative, is a golden calf, and not the God who freed us from bondage.

So, once again, my dilemma is this: not whom to vote for but whether, in good conscience, I can vote at all. I wish there were a simple answer. Politicians, I know, are in the business of speaking lies in the service of power, but their decisions affect the lives of millions – sometimes billions – and some politicians, recent history demonstrates, are especially noxious.

Is it only the privilege of the materially comfortable to remain unstained by electoral politics? When so many struggled for the right to vote, is it proper to refrain? EP endorsers Andy and Nekeisha Alexis-Baker have essays in a recent publication from Wipf and Stock, Electing Not to Vote: Christian Reflections on Reasons for Not Voting. I’m told the comments function of this site now works. Perhaps now is the time and this site the place for EP endorsers and assorted lurkers to begin an important conversation.