postmodern preaching

Proper 19 Year A

  • Exodus 14: 19-31

The “angel of the Lord” and the “pillar of cloud” that had been in front of the Israelites now moves behind them, coming “between the army of Egypt and the army of Israel.”   It lit up the sky all night.  “Moses stretched out his hand over the sea.”  And, “the Lord drove the sea into  dry land; and the waters were divided.”  The Israelites walked through the riverbed on “dry land” as the water formed a “wall for them on their right and on their left.”  The Egyptian army pursued them.  “At the morning watch the Lord in the pillar of fire and cloud looked down upon the Egyptian army, and threw the Egyptian army into panic.”  The Lord “clogged their chariot wheels.”  When the Egyptians saw what was happening, they cried: “Let us flee from the Israelites, for the Lord is fighting from  them against Egypt.”  The Lord told Moses to stretch out “his hand over the sea,” and “at dawn the sea returned to its normal depth.”  As the Egyptians tried  to flee, “the Lord tossed the Egyptians into the sea.”  The sea covered over “the entire army of Pharaoh.”  Not one survived.  “thus the Lord saved Israel….”  Israel saw the great work and  “the people feared the Lord and believed in the Lord and in his servant, Moses.”

  • Psalm 114

Without any sort of introductory petition or summons to praise, the psalmist plunges straight into re-telling the story of God’s over-the-top deliverance of God’s people from slavery and the subsequent establishment of their “sanctuary” in Judah.  He then recalls two occasions, forty years apart, when God parted water so that they could walk through on dry land– when God parted the Red Sea so they could escape Pharaoh and his army, and when God parted the Jordan River under Joshua’s leadership and they went into the promised land.  The psalmist asks rhetorically:  What is going on with such bizarre disruptions of nature?  He declares: dance, twirl, spin, whirl “before the God of Jacob,” who turns rock into water, (c.f. Exodus 17)!


  • “The Song of Moses and Miriam” (Genesis 15: 1b-11, 20-21)

Moses and Miriam, his half-sister and sister of Aaron, lead Gods people in singing praises for God’s direct intervention and deliverance at the Red Sea.  The Lord “blew forth a mighty tempeest/and the sea swallowed them up.”  Miriam raised her tambourine and “all the women danced with their tambourines, repeating the victorious refrains:  “Sing to the Lord, the Exalted Noe/who hurled horse and rider into the sea.”


  • Genesis 50: 15-21

The saga of Joseph and his brothers concludes.  Their father, Jacob/Israel. has died and been taken back to Canaan for burial, as he requested.  The brother, suspecting that Joseph might now “pay uis back for all the evil we caused him, “sent a message to Joseph saying that it was their father’s last wish that he “forgive… the offenses of your brothers for evil they have caused you.”   Then his brothers came to Joseph in person, “flung themselves before him” and offered themselves to him as “slaves.”  But, as he had done when they were reunited for the first time, Joseph assures them that, although they “meant evil toward me, God meant it {their selling him into servitude] for good….”

  • Psalm 103: (1-7), 8-13

The psalmist addresses her own soul, “Bless the Lord, O my soul;” never forget the Lord’s “generous acts.”   The Lord forgives, heals, redeems, and “Crowns you with kindness and compassion… and sates you with good….”  The Lord perform “righteousness” and “justice.”  The Lord took the initiative to make the Lord’s counter-intuitive ways known to Moses” and the Lord’s “feats” known to all Israel.  This Lord is “compassionate and gracious… slow to anger….”  The Lord does not deal with us as we deserve.  As high as the heavens, as far as East is from West, God’s “kindness” distances our “transgressions.”  As a parent for a child, so “the Lord has compassion” on us.

  • Romans 14: 1-12

Paul addresses a controversy in the early church regarding fasting and eating and other days of observance.  These differences are trivial, he writes,  What matters is the common purpose for all in the church to honor and serve the Lord.  Rather than dwell on differences with other believers, focus on yourself, because “each of us is accountable to God” not for others, but for ourselves.

  • Matthew 18: 21-35

Jesus has just given instructions for settling disputes within the church (!8: 15-20; last Sunday’s gospel). when, only in Matthew’s narrative, Peter asks for further clarification: “Lord how often should I forgive?”  In Matthew’s account, Jesus throws out an outrageous number.  Not “seven times” (as in Luke’s account. 17:4), but “seventy times seven.”  Then follows a comparison parable, also unique to Matthew about a man who had himself been forgiven a sizeable debt, but who did not forgive others who owed him much smaller debts.  When the one who had been so generous in the beginning to the major debtor, he had the man put in jail until he paid back the original, large debt.  “So my heavenly Father will also do to everyone of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”

The first alternative reading from the Hebrew scriptures tells the unforgettable story of God’s spectacular intervention on behalf of God’s people: the deliverance from slavery in Epypt.  The second alternative reading recounts the results of another act of unexpected generosity: the second time Jospeh initiated forgiveness of his brothers.  Joseph’s unmerited forgiveness of his brothers deserves two tellings in Genesis; once when they are reunited for the first time and again after their father dies and the brothers worry that Joseph might now get his revenge, to which he would have been entitled according to conventional reckoning.  Both times, the brothers throw themselves on Joseph’s mercy and bother times Joseph goes out of his way to assure them that he will not treat them as they deserve, but with kindness.  Both times, grown men weep uncontrollably.  The psalmist (103) strings together all the experiences of God that cause her such gratitude and joy:  God’s forgiveness, healing, kindness and compassion, as well as life’s sheer abundance.  Only Matthew’s narrative includes a story told by Jesus that has a clear, unambiguous message: forgive others as frequently, as undeservedly and as unexpectedly as you know you have been forgiven. 

In The Weakness of God: A Theology of Event, John Caputo quotes Jacques Derrida and the “other famous deconstructionist,”  Thomas Aquinas, as he considers the power of forgiveness.

“Forgiveness is the gift in which I give away the debt owed to me….  That is why, when someone owes me something, we say ‘we have something on them’, which means that in forgiveness, I give up what I have on the other.  I release them, dismiss their debt, and let it go.”  Caputo then quotes Aquinas directly.  “….A gift is literally giving that can have no return, i.e, it is not given with the intention that one can be repaid and it thus connotes a gratuitous donation.. Now the basis of such free giving is love….”  [Summa Theologica, P,I,Q.38.a.2,c]  Or, as Derrida asks and Caputo notes: “And does one not have to deserve forgiveness?  One may deserve an excuse, but ought not forgiveness be accorded without regard to worthiness?”  [Given Time. p. 162]

Consider a powerful insight from Hannah Arendt drawn from her dramatic life and significant writings.  A student of Heidegger, Husserl and Jaspers and classmate of Gadamer, soon after she finished her graduate work she was put in a Nazi concentration camp because of her Jewish birth.  She escaped, came to the USA where she lectured and taught at some of the most prestigious universities.  She also wrote for The New Yorker  magazine, for which she covered the trial of Adolf Eichmann.  Her articles were later published as a book whose subtitle is “A Report on the Banality of Evil.” Her approach rejected the traditional Western philosophical understanding of human nature as an abstraction.  Instead, che examined the behavior of an individual person within the context of The Human Condition, which is the title of what is generally regarded as her most important writing.  In it, this secular Jew, survivor of the Holocaust and first-person witness to the trail of “the architect of the Holocaust” Eichmann, writes: “the discoverer of the role of forgiveness in the realm of human affairs was Jesus of Nazareth.” 

She continues:

“It is not true that only God has the power to forgive….”  This power to forgive “must be mobilized by man [sic] toward each other before they can hope to be forgiven by God also.  Jesus’ formulation is even more radical.  Man in the gospel is not supposed to forgive because God forgives and he must do ‘likewise’, but ‘if ye from your heart forgive’, God shall do ‘likewise’.”  [Here she cites the last verse of today’s gospel, v 35]

While epic crime and evil are exceptional, she continues,

“trespassing is an everyday occurrence which is in the very nature of action’s constant establishment of new relationships within a web of relations, and, it needs forgiving, dismissing, in order to make it possible for life to go on [emphasis added] by constantly releasing men from what they have done unknowingly.”  [Here she cites Luke 17: 1-5]  “Only through this constant mutual release from what they do to each other can men remain free agents, only by constant willingness to change their minds and start again can they be trusted so great a power as that to begin something new.”  (p 237 ff)

From her perspective as a philosopher who examined human evil up close, has Arendt understood and expressed with eloquence a central biblical theme?  Forgiveness, she has discovered in the Bible, is the effective means for starting over, for allowing something new to happen, for life to renew itself.  God forgives over and over and over, she writes, to “preserve life,” allow birth; we forgive to restore relationships and “start again.”  She suggests that if we initiate forgiveness, God shall do “likewise.” 

How often shall we “mobilize” the unique power of forgiveness? “Seventy times seven,” Jesus says.  Forgiveness liberates the forgiven and the forgiver.  It allows new freedom.  It is miraculous.   God modeled it; Jesus revealed what it looks like in human affairs; we can perform it, too!


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