People of the Word
2 Chronicles 34:15
by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones
First Central Congregational Church
24 June 2018
A few years ago a Bible was rediscovered here in America. As the collection of the National Museum of African-American History and Culture was being formed, the curators were contacted by a white family in Virginia who said they had the Bible of Nat Turner and would the museum like it.
Nat Turner was the rare enslaved person who could read, and he read the Bible, which turned him into a prophetic preacher. Fired by his dreams of freedom, he led a revolt of enslaved persons in 1831 that was violently suppressed but deeply rattled the slaveholding states of the nation.
Turner had been carrying the Bible when captured. It then was on display in the Southampton county courthouse until 1912 when it was given to the Person family, descendants of some of the slave holders killed in Turner's rebellion. A century later the family realized the Bible belonged to the nation and in the new museum of African-American history.
It is now a centerpiece of the exhibit.
Last year when I was in Washington, I was unable to get into the new museum—it is that popular—but during a winter snow storm Fred Nielsen and Sue Epperson were able to. I asked Fred this week for his thoughts on seeing Nat Turner's Bible.
The museum is filled with exhibits that conjure deep feeling -- of thoughtfulness, sorrow, anger. Nat Turner's Bible stands out because of its particularity, its influence, and its size.
Fred points out that it is quite small. Roughly 5 inches by 3 and half by 1 and a half.
Fred came upon the Bible shortly after the exhibit on Thomas Jefferson and the tension between his owning slaves and his views on human freedom. Fred wrote of the experience:
Turner's Bible is close by, a rebuke to anyone who thinks the Founders bequeathed full freedom to their descendants. When I came upon it, though, it was almost disappointing at first. Everything about the Jefferson exhibit was big and shiny and new. Now, here was an old book, badly worn, a Bible smaller than expected, smaller certainly than its place in American history would seem to warrant. And yet. There's a power in it, a surprising power given how small it is. Or maybe its smallness is part of its power. Mangers aren't big, either. I stood there a while, walked on, and then walked back, drawn by this small battered volume. This wasn't a safe Bible, one that had been stored in a hotel room drawer, or placed on a lectern in a church sanctuary or on a bedside table. This book of the ages, containing old words of freedom, had been a direct inspiration to the man who owned it. It's all of him that remains. I was in a museum, but this was a book that radiated life.
And then you remember what happened to the man who owned it, and you cry again.
In today's scripture lesson we have a story of a rediscovered Bible and the transformation it brings about. Let's look at this story in three parts. First a little background, then let's examine some of the details in the story, before we raise some critical questions. After we've examined the story, then we'll think about what we might learn from it.
First, the background.
Last week I preached from the book of the prophet Hosea. Hosea was a prophet to the northern kingdom of Israel in the 8th century Before the Common Era as the nation was besieged by the empire of Assyria. Not long after Hosea's time, the nation of Israel was defeated.
That left the southern kingdom of Judah. Judah too was attacked by Assyria. According to Bible scholar David Carr, "The Judeans lost approximately 70 percent of their population and 85 percent of their towns and villages." I don't think we can even begin to imagine that kind of loss and destruction.
Yet, the nation of Judah survived. The Assyrians devastated the nation, but did not capture the capital of Jerusalem. The Bible gives us four different accounts of that siege and how it failed. Clearly the people were determined to understand this significant historical event. The Biblical understanding of the episode came to be that God had rescued the people because of their faithfulness to God's covenant and because they were governed by Hezekiah, descendant of David. It was during this time that the nation began to develop an understanding of God's covenant with the house of David and the idea that a descendant of David would forever reign upon the throne.
History is, of course, probably more complicated than this. The Assyrians kept good records and according to their chronicles the siege of Jerusalem ended when King Hezekiah paid a heavy tribute and swore allegiance to them. And every year after the kings of Judah had to reaffirm their loyalty to the invading power and pay the heavy tribute.
In the time between the surprising survival of Jerusalem and Josiah, the nation was under the boot of Assyria. The children of the elite would be taken away from home and educated in Assyrian schools and returned to Judah having lost their native culture, all in an attempt to assimilate and destroy the Judean people.
And Judah was governed by kings that the Biblical chroniclers judged as unfaithful to God and God's covenant.
And so we come to the time of Josiah. Suddenly, as he came of age, Josiah benefited from a great change in the world situation—Assyria's power was waning. Egypt had overthrown the Assyrian overlords and was leading a coalition of nations pushing back the Assyrian powers. Also Babylon was on the rise in the east, challenging Assyrian hegemony. So, Josiah benefited from the opportunity to spread his wings, throw off Assyrian domination, and reaffirm the culture of the Judean people.
This story of the discovery of the Book of the Law, presumably Deuteronomy, is a great story. One of those I learned in Sunday school as a child. Josiah has entered into a renovation of the temple. The workers find a book that had been hidden during the years of foreign occupation and wicked kings.
When they need to understand the book, they go ask for a prophet to interpret it for them. Interestingly, this is the first biblical commentator in our tradition, and it is a woman, the prophet Huldah. Of course, as a Southern Baptist kid, we didn't learn that part in Sunday school. I only learned that in college. The very first interpreter of the biblical tradition was a woman, which should have easily settled all those debates about the role of women. Also interesting to note, some of the famous guy prophets, like Isaiah, were alive at this time, but they don't get called upon to interpret the book.
When the book was read, the people were shocked to realize that they had broken the covenant and therefore would be judged by God. They were frightened that what had happened to the northern kingdom of Israel would happen to them, so immediately Josiah engaged in nationwide reform of religious practices. The people returned to faithfulness to the law of God.
This is a great story.
Of course, it's probably more complicated than this. Modern scholars wonder how much of the Book of Deuteronomy was discovered at this time and how much of it was simply written at this time, as the book bears the cultural markers of the eighth century.
Scholars wonder how authentic this story is or whether it is mostly royal propaganda to get the people to go along with Josiah's policies.
For Josiah's reforms were not innocuous. The Bible presents them as ending polytheism and reinstituting a clear monotheism. But it seems that some of what Josiah was doing was centralizing worship at the royal-controlled temple in Jerusalem, ending ancient practices. The Judeans had long worshipped at local shrines and altars. Some of these were devoted to gods and goddesses other than Yahweh, but some of them were shrines to Yahweh.
Imagine if the President suddenly closed down all worship sites except the National Cathedral in Washington and commanded that all of our religious rituals should occur only in that one place, and with a tax of course. This is similar to what Josiah was doing, and this centralization of worship under state control is among the reasons that Jesus spoke out so strongly against the Temple.
The Jewish historian Simon Schama writes, "The Josiah story is a fable of recovered innocence." In his two volume The Story of the Jews, he gives this story a prominent place for it did succeed in shaping the identity of the Jewish people, who became a people of words, a people of the book. And this identity shaped around words and stories is one reason that Jews have survived through human history. So, over the very long term, Josiah's reform and storytelling worked to give shape to the identity of the people and give them resilience through trauma.
Theologian Shelly Rambo writes,
Modern studies of trauma speak to the impact of violence on each of us—interpersonally and collectively—and challenge assumptions of linear time, progress, and interpreting events in isolation. Trauma teaches us that we live precariously in the world. It tells us that the effects of violence and violent histories live on in ways that deeply inform the present and blur the lines we have neatly delineated as past, present, and future. Trauma tells us that our bodies hold pain and that it will take a multisensory intervention to release these body memories. Events that we thought were "over-and-done" live on within us, long after a traumatic event.
One of the tools that helps build resilience is storytelling. The imagination of a traumatized person often gets trapped in a playback loop, reliving the moment of violence and trouble. Serene Jones, in her book Trauma and Grace, writes that recovery and healing can occur through storytelling and witness. There are three basic steps.
First, the person or persons who have experienced trauma need to be able to tell their story. . . . Second, there needs to be someone to witness this testimony, a third-party presence that not only creates the safe space for speaking but also receives the words when they finally are spoken. . . . Third, the testifier and the witness must begin the process of telling a new, different story together: we must begin to pave a new road through the brain.
Jones believes that church people are particularly skilled at this, as we have already been trained to be those who testify, those who witness, and those who "reimage the future by telling yet again the story of our faith."
We are, of course, a people of the book. A people shaped by words and stories.
In a Smithsonian magazine article by Victoria Dawson about Nat Turner's Bible, I read the reflections of museum curator Rex Ellis.
How . . . did [Nat] Turner come to imagine—to believe in—something more than the confines of his particular time, place and lot in life? "When you are taught every day of your life, every hour of work that you produce, that you are there to service someone else, when every day you are controlled by the whims of someone else, and you are instructed to do exactly what you are told to do, and you do not have a great deal of individual expression—how do you break out of that?" Ellis asks.
But, atypically for an enslaved person, Turner knew how to read and write, and in the Bible he found an alternative: a suggestion that where he had begun was not where he needed to end. "That Bible didn't represent normality; it represented possibility," Ellis says. "I think the reason Turner carried it around with him, the reason it was dog-eared and careworn, is that it provided him with inspiration, with the possibility of something else for himself and for those around him."
Fred Nielsen had a similar reaction seeing the Bible in the museum. Fred wrote, "Turner's Bible shook the nation. Words matter. Those words mattered. They meant freedom to Turner, and for them he was willing to risk all."
God's Passionate Love
by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones
First Central Congregational Church
17 June 2018
Imagine that over a few years a foreign power invaded Nebraska numerous times killing tens of thousands of our citizens, devastating our crops, and forcing us to swear allegiance to them and pay a heavy tax. What would be the traumatizing effects upon our psyches? How would we make sense of the world?
Just such a situation did face the people of the nation of Israel in the eighth century before the Common Era. And one of the people who responded to the catastrophe and tried to help the people was the prophet Hosea.
Hear now these words of the ancient prophet of Israel:
When Israel was a child, I loved him,
and out of Egypt I called my son.
The more I called them,
the more they went from me;
they kept sacrificing to the Baals,
and offering incense to idols.
Yet it was I who taught Ephraim to walk,
I took them up in my arms;
but they did not know that I healed them.
I led them with cords of human kindness,
with bands of love.
I was to them like those who lift infants to their cheeks.
I bent down to them and fed them.
They shall return to the land of Egypt,
and Assyria shall be their king,
because they have refused to return to me.
The sword rages in their cities,
it consumes their oracle-priests,
and devours because of their schemes.
My people are bent on turning away from me.
To the Most High they call,
but he does not raise them up at all.
How can I give you up, Ephraim?
How can I hand you over, O Israel?
How can I make you like Admah?
How can I treat you like Zeboiim?
My heart recoils within me;
my compassion grows warm and tender.
I will not execute my fierce anger;
I will not again destroy Ephraim;
for I am God and no mortal,
the Holy One in your midst,
and I will not come in wrath.
They shall go after the Lord, who roars like a lion;
when he roars, his children shall come trembling from the west.
They shall come trembling like birds from Egypt,
and like doves from the land of Assyria;
and I will return them to their homes, says the Lord.
For the Word of God in scripture,
For the Word of God among us,
For the Word of God within us,
Thanks be to God.
One of my college textbooks introduced Hosea this way:
Hosea . . . was raised in a period of opulence, prosperity, opportunism, and scheming during which the rich and powerful availed themselves of all opportunities to live luxuriously. Hosea was God's messenger to a complacent, self-indulgent, and apostate people.
After the death of Solomon the United Kingdom of Israel and Judah was split in two, with the southern kingdom of Judah and its capital in Jerusalem and the northern kingdom of Israel with its capital in Samaria. Over the next couple of centuries the situations of both kingdoms waxed and waned as a variety of rulers, some good but many bad, governed the countries who sometimes warred with each other and sometimes joined together in warring on other nations.
In the childhood of Hosea, the northern kingdom of Israel went through its greatest period of peace and prosperity under a relatively stable royal dynasty, but all of that changed dramatically when the great Assyrian Empire began to spread into the territories of southwest Asia. One of the histories of Assyria informs us that "no sovereigns were ever more despotic, more covetous, more vindictive, more pitiless, more proud of their crimes." And that their armies "set forth the most terrible expeditions which have ever flooded the world with blood."
So, charming people.
At the time the Assyrians began to threaten Israel, the nation also went through a period of internal instability with a series of weak kings who were often murdered by their associates.
So, the good times came crashing to a halt. After a series of invasions the nation was eventually defeated and its people carried away into exile where they were assimilated with other populations and forever disappeared into the sands of history, for these are the famed "Lost Tribes of Israel."
As this catastrophe was unfolding, Hosea appeared as the messenger of God and tried to respond to the trauma in innovative ways to give the people some sense of how to understand and respond to what was happening.
Hosea had gone through his own personal difficulties. He married Gomer, feeling that God had instructed him to. They had children and gave those children symbolic names, as prophets sometimes did. Then Hosea discovered that Gomer was unfaithful, and he separated from her. She seems to have then descended into poverty and out of desperation became a prostitute. Hosea then received a word from God telling him to take Gomer back, and Hosea did.
Hosea interpreted his own life experience as revelatory about the character of God and God's relationship with the people. God loved the people with a passionate love and entered into a covenant with them. Yet, the people eventually were unfaithful and became promiscuous, giving their worship to false gods and idols. Despite being angry, God still loves the people and will take them back again, restoring the passionate, covenant relationship between them.
Hosea appears to be the first person in the history of our tradition to view the relationship between God and the people in this way—as a covenant like marriage. And to view his own subjective experience as revelatory for what Rabbi Heschel called "the inner life of God."
But if you only read Hosea 11, you miss the terrifying aspects of this text. First, Hosea, and by implication God, are very angry. And their anger is repugnant to us. For example, in chapter 2 the prophet demands that the children plead with their mother to "put away her whoring" or
I will strip her naked
and expose her as in the day she was born,
and make her like a wilderness,
and turn her into a parched land,
and kill her with thirst.
Very different from the compassionate love of chapter 11. And terrifying. The Bible is filled with texts of terror, and we must be careful how we use it.
Biblical scholar David M. Carr asks, "How . . . can one imagine [God] as such an angry, jealous, violent, out-of-control husband?" Carr also points out that "Hosea's image of redemption—[God] promising to take her back—can look like the cycle of abuse sometimes seen in human relationships." In this story Israel could be God's battered wife.
And so the book of Hosea presents us with both terrifying texts of anger and violence and beautiful words of compassion. What are we to make of it?
David M. Carr is professor of Old Testament at Union Theological Seminary in New York City and his recent book Holy Resilience: The Bible's Traumatic Origins will help to guide our summer sermon series. Carr contends that much of the Hebrew and Christian scriptures were written in response to trauma—think for example of the New Testament texts as attempts by those writers to grapple with the crucifixion of Jesus.
The writers of scripture were themselves traumatized and were trying to respond to their personal traumas and the collective traumas of the people. Carr believes this is why the scriptures of the biblical tradition survived when the scriptures of many other ancient cultures did not. Triumphal stories of kings and creation narratives abound in the scriptures of ancient cultures, but those stories don't help later humans grapple with the suffering of their own lives. The Bible survived because it did grapple with suffering in complex and authentic ways, and so humans have continued to turn to the Bible over thousands of years in order to respond to the traumas we experience.
Carr argues that Hosea wants to provide the people with some sense of control over their lives. If they understand all the evil that is befalling them as a people as their own fault, then that gives them a chance to fix the situation by changing their behavior.
Recent trauma studies inform us that this is a common way for traumatized people to think, but it can also continue the damage.
Carr believes that the Book of Hosea does, despite its flaws, reveal a difficult truth. He writes, "people often go through life with inaccurately positive pictures of the world and their role in it. . . . But life can show the limits of a worldview and/or theology that is relentlessly upbeat."
Historian Simon Schama writes that the Hebrew Scriptures are "not a rehearsal for grief but a struggle against its inevitability."
This summer our worship will focus on how we develop resilience to respond to vulnerability, suffering, and trauma. We'll look at stories from the Hebrew Scriptures to see how our ancient predecessors developed resilience. And what we will discover are both good and bad options.
The anger and abuse and self-blame of Hosea are common in traumatized people, but they aren't healthy responses. But compassion does build resilience. Compassion is a form of vulnerability to others that creates possibilities for healing.
Walter Brueggemann wrote that "Compassion . . . announces that the hurt is to be taken seriously, that the hurt is not to be accepted as normal and natural but is an abnormal and unacceptable condition for humanness."
And part of why the Book of Hosea is so important in guiding us to a God of love, is that in this very passage God rejects anger and violence and chooses instead to treat the people with an unconditional grace. If we have rejected a notion of a wrathful God and have instead embraced a notion of a deeply loving God, it is because that change in theology has been driven by the text of scripture itself and by our experience of Jesus.
The last few months Sara has often told me how much Kamaal has been overwhelmed by love for Kate. So, this week I asked Liz if she had any good stories of Kamaal's parental love.
She told me that before Kate was born, Kamaal prepared a list of colleges she might attend and was ranking them according to various criteria. At the top of the list were various out-of-state schools, because he thought she'd want to move away from Omaha and have an experience of the wider world.
Then, after Kate was born, Kamaal edited the list, and the University of Nebraska-Omaha suddenly was at the top of the list. Kamaal even suggested that he could build Kate a tiny house in the backyard for her to live in when she attends college at UNO.
When we are in trouble, what we require is faithfulness and unconditional love. The kind of love that protects us, comforts us, helps to strengthen us and hold us together. It's the kind of passionate love a parent has for a child. That's the kind of love that will save us.
Love Your Enemies
by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones
First Central Congregational Church
13 May 2018
One of the most fascinating books ever written on the topic of forgiveness was The Sunflower by Simon Wiesenthal, the famous bringer-to-justice of Nazi war criminals. In the book Wiesenthal recounted a story that had happened to him as a young man. He was imprisoned in a concentration camp and part of a work crew. One day he was taken from his work crew to the hospital room of a dying SS soldier. The SS man wanted to speak to a Jew so that he might confess his sins and ask for forgiveness before he died. In the moment Wiesenthal said nothing. But he always wondered if he had done the right thing or not.
So, he wrote the story down and then invited other theologians, political and moral leaders to write responses to the story. A second edition came out in the late 1990's, the story and its themes given new life by the horrific civil war in Bosnia and genocide in Rwanda. The responses vary. Robert McAfee Brown, a theologian who taught at the Pacific School of Religion, wrote that "to forgive the Nazis . . . is to become one with the Nazis, endorsing evil deeds . . . and thereby becoming complicit in their actions."
Catholic theologian Harry James Cargas, who spent a life devoted to Holocaust studies and education, wrote "I am afraid not to forgive because I fear not to be forgiven."
Rabbi Harold Kushner wrote that "forgiving is not something we do for another person." He defined it as "letting go of the role of victim."
Archbishop Desmond Tutu wrote that forgiveness is "practical politics." We can't depend on retributive justice for "Without forgiveness, there is no future."
Alan Berger, a professor of Holocaust studies, gave an answer that many others gave—that Wiesenthal's silence was the only response that could be given.
This book fascinates and disturbs and convicts me every single time I look at it. Here is an assemblage of wise elders grappling with questions of justice, compassion, and responsibility at the extreme edges of our moral life. Fortunately, few of us ever face the extremities. Though I suspect that with the high rates of abuse, sexual assault, and violence in our culture, more of us have experienced the extremes than we generally openly admit.
The last two months as we've examined the topic of forgiveness, we have focused primarily on the mundane, everyday moments—our anger at traffic, coworkers, spouses. Today, we look at these difficult words of Jesus spoken in the Sermon on the Mount—that we are to love our enemies. How can we do that?
Ultimately, victims are faced with two choices—to desire harm be done to the oppressor or to seek a new world of reconciliation.
Our culture tends toward the former. We get great satisfaction in books and movies watching the villain get theirs and the more painful the better. Miroslav Volf calls this our "kickass culture."
But, this isn't the Christian model. The Christian idea is reconciliation and solidarity, where the villain repents and is forgiven. Volf writes, "We forgive because 'saving' our enemies and making friends out of them matters more to us than punishing them."
Miroslav Volf is one of our best contemporary guides in exploring this topic. He is a Croatian who grew up in the communist state, his own parents victims of the communist regime as his father spent many years in prison being tortured. And as an adult he witnessed the horrible atrocities of war as Yugoslavia was torn asunder. When Volf writes about the Christian idea of forgiveness, he rides from the underside of history, from the perspective of the victim of horrible atrocities and political oppression. He writes about his own parents, deeply religious people who practiced forgiveness toward their jailers and the solider responsible for the death of one of their children. He writes that his parents forgave because they had been part of a community that practiced Christ and so had learned how to do it. It wasn't easy for them, in fact his mother spoke of how forgiveness was its own form of suffering. His books are rich and complex and wide-ranging, so there is no way in a few moments to cover all of his ideas.
He writes in his book Free of Charge: Giving and Forgiving in a Culture Stripped of Grace that "the Christian tradition has always maintained three propositions simultaneously." They are:
No matter how good our inclinations, thoughts, deeds, or practices are, before the eyes of the all-knowing and holy God, we are always sinners, all of us, victims included.
No matter how evil our inclinations, thoughts, deeds, or practices are, we always remain God's good creatures, all of us, offenders included.
No wrongdoing is an isolated act of the pure evil will of an individual; it is nourished by our sinful inclination and reinforced by a sinful culture.
Volf declares that forgiveness is deeply connected to justice. That when we forgive someone, we also condemn them. We name the offense. We accuse them and declare their guilt. This is required for justice to emerge. This is what creates the opportunity for repentance on the part of the offender.
But he also believes there is a type of repentance on the part of the victim. The victim must give up the dominant culture's ideas of revenge, of harming the other for satisfaction. And this can be quite difficult. And take a lot of time. But ultimately it "empowers victims and disempowers oppressors" because it humanizes the victim and declares that the oppressor's way is not the way forward.
In one of his richest passages he writes about what a victim will require before they can even begin the journey of forgiveness:
Before anything else, she needs Christ to cradle her, to nurse her with the milk of divine love, to hold her in his arms like an inestimable gem, to sing her songs of gentle care and firm protection, and to restore her to herself as a beloved and treasured being.
Eventually, the time to forgive may come. She may forgive with one part of her soul while desiring vengeance with another. She may forgive one moment and then take it back the next. She may forgive some lighter offenses but not the worst ones. Such ambivalent, tentative, and hesitant attempts are not yet full-fledged forgiveness, but they are a start.
He writes that even these tentative steps, nurtured with love, might blossom into forgiveness. He also tells us that our forgiveness is almost always incomplete, for we are humans and not God. (More on this in a moment)
We might forgive, but the offender might not accept that forgiveness, for true acceptance of forgiveness leads to repentance and restitution. And so forgiveness, unaccepted by an unrepentant oppressor, will not lead to reconciliation.
What of this notion of forgiving and forgetting? I haven't addressed that these last few weeks. Much has been written on the kind of forgetting involved. Here is Volf's take on the issue from his masterpiece Exclusion and Embrace:
It is a forgetting that assumes that the matters of "truth" and "justice" have been taken care of, that perpetrators have been named, judged, and (hopefully) transformed, that victims are safe and their wounds healed, a forgetting that can therefore ultimately take place only together with the creation of "all things new."
So, here's the thing. We are not fully capable on our own of the type of forgiveness and love of enemies that Jesus calls us to. Only God is fully capable of that. Which is why Miroslav Volf is so insistent that forgiveness is really about making God's forgiveness our own. It is allowing God's unconditional love to so capture us that it overflows from us toward other people. We are consumed ultimately by love and not by rage.
Today is Trinity Sunday, when we are reminded that God's very being is a relationship, an ecstatic fellowship, a unity of love. This is the model for all creation. We are also to be an ecstatic fellowship, a unity of love, whereby we comprehend that we are related to everyone and everything and everyone and everything is deeply connected to us. Thus for true joy and the fulfillment of creation, those relationships cannot be broken. They must be healed, and love must reign supreme.
This is the vision proclaimed in today's contemporary lesson. The goal is a world without rules and rights and entitlements because it is a world of love. Perfect justice is radical, inclusive love where everyone is transformed into who God has always dreamed that they become.
One more story. This is recounted by the Dalai Lama in his submission to the book The Sunflower. A Tibetan Buddhist monk was imprisoned by the Chinese for 18 years and escaped. When he came to visit the Dalai Lama, his holiness asked the monk "what he felt was the biggest threat or danger while he was in prison." The monk answered "that what he most feared was losing his compassion for the Chinese."
We people of faith have a vision of radical, inclusive, compassionate love that is beautiful, but difficult and challenging. To live the life of love is to be countercultural. It requires deep and abiding faith and great courage. It is a lifelong adventure with risks and rewards. It is, finally, the only hope for humanity's salvation.
by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones
First Central Congregational Church
13 May 2018
Shortly before he died Lenoard Cohen released his final album entitled You Want It Darker. The album is about the preparation for death. Its lyrics are rich and solemn and soulful.
One song that has captured my attention since I first heard it is entitled "Treaty." The lyrics of the refrain are:
I wish there was a treaty we could sign
I do not care who takes this bloody hill
I'm angry and I'm tired all the time
I wish there was a treaty
I wish there was a treaty
Between your love and mine
The rest of the lyrics include a strange mix of allusions to God and Jesus and more intimate references. One reviewer, awed by this song, described it as blurring "prayer and love song, spiritual meditation and erotic lament." The reviewer continued that the song "doesn't so much blur them as speak from that deep place where the agonies of love and the insoluble questions of the spirit are inherently one and the same."
He senses that the song recognizes the "simultaneous miracle and impossibility of a particular relationship."
When I hear the song I hear someone, facing the end of his life, who is struggling to reconcile a relationship. The relationship has meant a lot to him, brought him joy and love and intimacy. Yet it has been damaged, and he wants to find some means of repairing it. He doesn't want to be angry anymore. He wants peace.
Leonard Cohen longs for a peace treaty that will repair his damaged relationship. And in today's Gospel passage Jesus lays out for us a very specific procedure that we are to follow to heal the broken relationships in our lives. Rarely is the New Testament so specific and detailed in the advice that it gives. And this particular advice doesn't seem to be conditioned by cultural context—it is advice that we could and should still apply in the twenty-first century.
This is more than practical advice, it is also a spiritual practice which is essential to us being the church God has called us to be. The church is supposed to be a community who are friends to one another – genuine friends who trust each other and can be honest with one another. We are to love each other and work together in the unity of the Body of Christ. How do we embody peace, harmony, and unity? We must learn the practices of forgiveness and reconciliation.
But we aren't very good at it because it is genuinely difficult. To become good at forgiveness and reconciliation means that we must unlearn many bad habits. We must unlearn taking offense easily. We must unlearn defensiveness and selfishness. We must quit gossiping. We have to develop patience and self-control and humility. We have to learn to be honest, tactful, and compassionate all at the same time. We have to learn to listen. We have to try to understand something from a different person's perspective. It means developing a sense of fairness and mercy.
In other words—a lifetime of character formation and habituation in the virtues. The virtues, at root, are skills for successful living and human flourishing. The contemporary philosopher Alisdair MacIntyre puts it this way:
If a human life is understood as a progress through harms and dangers, moral and physical, which someone may encounter and overcome in better and worse ways and with a greater or lesser measure of success, the virtues will find their place as those qualities the possession and exercise of which generally tend to success in this enterprise and the vices as qualities which likewise tend to failure.
Then how do we cultivate these basic life skills necessary for human flourishing? We have to practice them. When we are learning to play baseball, there are a set of skills that we have to develop. We have to work at throwing and catching and hitting. For most people, these don't come naturally but have to develop over time with lots of work. Plus, we don't generally develop these skills alone. We learn in the context of a group of people, and we learn from teachers. We can't learn to throw a ball well by ourselves. We generally begin in early childhood playing catch with our parents. And we continue to develop that skill with friends and coaches and teammates. And some of never become very good at it, myself included.
There are many Christian spiritual practices that are all meant to shape and form us. Things like prayer and meditation, caring for the sick, tithing, congregational singing, celebrating communion, etc. These practices are the means of developing the skills and virtues required to live as Jesus did.
And one of those sets of practices are detailed here in Matthew 18, a detailed procedure for how to forgive and find reconciliation.
One of the best theological works on this topic is Embodying Forgiveness by L. Gregory Jones. He writes,
Most fundamentally, then, forgiveness is not so much a word spoken, an action performed, or a feeling felt as it is an embodied way of life in an ever-deepening friendship with the Triune God and with others.
Jones goes on:
Habits and practices require discipline, patience, and skill, and they are central means for forming people in the virtues necessary for friendship with God; there are no easy techniques, no ways to bypass struggles through self-help manuals.
Because it is so difficult, Jones reminds us that "forgiveness involves the life-long process of learning a craft."
Near the end of his book, Jones summarizes several features that come together in the craft of forgiveness:
truthful judgment about what has happened or is happening, a willingness to acknowledge both the propriety of anger, resentment, or bitterness and a desire to overcome and be freed from it, a concern for the well-being of the others as children of God, recognition of the ways in which we have all needed to be forgiven, an acknowledgment that the truthful judgment requires accountability directed toward the grace of new life, and the hope for eventual reconciliation (though in extreme cases, this may be a matter of "hoping against hope").
Therefore, in order to be good at this process as outlined in Matthew, we've got to be working on other things – honesty, graciousness, patience, humility, compassion, controlling our anger, etc. I think that one way we do that is by engaging in the variety spiritual practices like prayer, meditation, worship, gardening, playing music, going for walks, etc., because these spiritual practices open us to God for transformation. I know that when I do those things I am calmed and gain new perspectives. I find that it is easier to control my anger, easier to be humble, easier to be patient. When I'm not regularly observing them, there is a difference in my attitude and interactions with other people. I'm more short-tempered, more direct and caustic, I'm just not as nice a person to be around.
So, let's explore the details of this procedure a little more.
It first reminds us of a simple truth--most issues can be resolved by a simple one-on-one conversation. Most of the time people didn't intend any harm. Or once they hear your story, then they will gain more perspective and feel differently. These are probably conversations that should occur, when they can, in person and not on the phone or via e-mail.
When you meet to talk, the goal is never to argue; the goal is reconciliation. Each side should tell their story and try to come to some sense of understanding. It may require talking numerous times. It may mean that you have to wait sometime before talking in order to let tempers settle down. I'm not wise enough to know how to work this out in each situation. I'm not very good at it myself. But I hope I'm getting better with each year. Just remember, always keep reconciliation in mind.
On rare occasions the situation will be so serious that reconciliation is not found by talking together, then it is time to seek help. The purpose of drawing others in is not to have a witness to advocate for your side, it is to find a mediator to help the situation. I wish that churches would actually work at training people in this specific task, people who could be called on to help in situations like this. Maybe that is something we need to consider – training some of our members to be conflict resolution experts.
Jesus says that if this step fails, then and only then should the conflict come to light in the larger church. But it should not come to light in order for it to be talked about behind people's backs; it should only come to light in order for reconciliation to be found. This is probably the step we are most uncomfortable with. It's simply not something we modern liberal people and reticent Midwesterners are very good at. But there are excellent and healthy examples from throughout Christian history of how this works. It only works well in close communities where trust and intimacy have already been cultivated.
You may think that the final step in this process Jesus describes is harsh. Could it be that you would actually have a situation where you would remove people from the fellowship of the church? I've actually encountered a few of those in my time in ministry. They are extreme cases where someone is unwilling to be reconciled to fellow church members and that becomes a cancer eating away at the community and its ministries.
But there is something I want you to notice, a nuanced detail in this verse. Jesus says to treat such people as "a Gentile and a tax collector." Think for a moment what that means. How did Jesus treat tax collectors and Gentiles? Jesus hung out with tax collectors. He said that Gentiles and tax collectors were to be welcomed into the family of God. Jesus said that these were the people to whom we were to preach the gospel.
So, Jesus doesn't let us off the hook. If we reach the extreme circumstance of asking someone to leave the church, then we are to welcome them, spend time with them, and minister to them just like we welcome, spend time with, and minister to all those who are not members. They become potential members, candidates for evangelization.
Finally, Jesus tells us that he is with us in this process. Where even two or three are gathered together striving to embody the practices of forgiveness and reconciliation, Jesus is there.
Friends, what Jesus calls us to here in Matthew 18 isn't easy, but it is one of the few places where what Jesus expects of the church is expressly laid out. In order for us to be the church—living the life of the cross, assailing the powers of the hell, shining as the light of the world, being transformed into the Body of Christ—then we've got to start by learning how to practice forgiveness and reconciliation with each other.
There is a treaty we can sign. There is an opportunity for reconciliation. Thanks be to God.