Like bulky orange barrels along a construction zone, there are red flags and caution tape that catch my attention as I read this week’s Revised Common Lectionary texts:
1. Forgiveness (Genesis 50:15-21 and Matthew 18:21-35) is a theme that can tempt us preachers toward unhelpful generalizations about injury and reparation.
Caution: Check whether your definition of forgiveness, if misheard or misunderstood (because that happens in the preaching moment) could be construed to suggest that people should remain in or return to situations of harm. Double-check whether your message of forgiveness could be sung by an animated ice princess, as though all you need is your own mountaintop castle and then forgiveness is really no trouble at all.
Good news (or maybe hard news): Forgiveness is measurable, concrete. It’s seventy-seven times. Or seventy times seven. It’s choosing to make ends meet without 10,000 talents (Matthew 18). It’s hospitality & provision through a season of famine, despite a history of rejection & violence by brothers (Genesis 50). It’s deliverance across the Red Sea in spite of growing doubt (if you backtrack to verse 11 in Exodus 14). It’s every day, knowing that someone who harmed you cannot undo or adequately compensate for the injury. It’s every day, pursuing justice so that the perpetrator’s debt doesn’t increase by causing harm against others.
2. Grace (Romans 14:1-12) is a tangible & relational practice, not a pie-in-the-sky sentiment.
Caution: “We are the Lord’s” is not an excuse to ignore our differences & diversities & disagreements, like a theological Don’t ask, don’t tell. Avoiding quarrels isn’t the purpose of grace or forgiveness. If we’re honest, we avoid quarrels because we want to maintain our own comfort or — to borrow Romans 14’s words — because we want to “live to ourselves.”
Good news: We are called not to live in judgment of others’ eating habits or of their experiences of the Divine or of their sabbath practices (said the soccer mom, #ahem). We are called to brave grace in relationships around the banquet table and to cower before the grace of God’s throne.
3. Language about slaves (Matthew 18:21-35) inevitably echoes through the history of slavery before it reaches our ears.
Caution: Don’t assume that a parable about a slave can be read without the overtones of modern knowledge of slavery. How can you best attend to this dynamic — in your sermon, in the Scripture reading, in both?
Good news: Not much, actually — I mean, forgiveness is good news, but the parable itself is messy. If forgiveness is tangible, concrete, then is it appropriate for us to theologize the parable as though it only refers to God’s by-and-by forgiveness…without taking a hard look at forgiveness between persons and within unjust systems? In desperate & evil circumstances (say, for example, slavery), ethics and forgiveness are necessarily recalculated. See also: Toni Morrison’s Beloved, among other literary examples. A man will beg for his family to stay together and also demand the hundred denarii owed to him. Does 70 x 7 hold true when life and family are literally on the line?
4. Power. Often when reading Scripture, we Christians identify ourselves in the position of powerlessness — the ones being rescued (Exodus 14:19-31), the ones being forgiven (Genesis 50:15-21), and/or the ones who have been harmed (like Peter in Matthew 18:21). While we are all very much powerless before the One Holy God, many of our congregations aren’t actually powerless in their communities: even a small church building and an even smaller budget represent a certain amount of wealth, and many churches with predominantly white congregations (I know, I know, #notallwhitechurches) opt for social & theological color-blindness to sustain their unexamined power of whiteness.
Caution: Before aligning your congregation with the powerless in these texts, consider whether or not that’s really their alignment. See also: Taylor Swift’s “Look What You Made Me Do,” which, of course, no one did. Maybe you’re actually preaching to a congregation of Egyptians (metaphorically speaking) who need to be reminded to get out of the way of someone else’s deliverance & justice. Maybe you’re preaching to a congregation that has the financial security of the man whose debt has been erased, which in turn is choking a building renter into debt.
Good news: Despite the accolades of society, positions of worldly power are, in fact, the Pit (Psalm 103) — and when we recognize it as such, we are able to bless the LORD who can redeem us from it.
You know all of this, of course, and more from your own exegetical work and life experience. Most likely you have your own red flags when you read these texts. Hopefully you’ve found your own articulation of the good news, too, to share with folks who need to forgive seventy-seven times and who need to be forgiven seventy times seven.
Share your ruminating and sermonizing in the comments to encourage one another toward Sunday’s sermon!
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