“What would happen if one woman told the truth about her life? / The world would split open.”
Poet Muriel Rukeyser

Saturday, September 10, 2011

How Many Times?

A reflection on the readings for Proper 19A:Exodus 14:19-31; Psalm 114; Matthew 18:21-35, on the 10th anniversary of the tragedy of Sept. 11, 2011.


The other night Dan and I were sitting in the family room, watching a movie. Suddenly we heard an odd noise in the wall. A noise that had our cat glued to the spot! Some more odd sounds and some scrambling and scratching took place; all the while the cat was motionless, staring at the spot. Dan and I wondered what was in the wall – a squirrel? A chipmunk? A mouse? After about 40 minutes there was a loud screech and the cat jumped backward! Suddenly there was a mouse running for its life around the family room floor. A mad chase ensued, the cat cornering the mouse, Dan and I overturning furniture to try and grab it, the dogs barking, and the poor mouse, a blur as it ran from corner to corner. Finally, after several failed attempts, I scooped the mouse up in a rag and ran outside to let it go. I know the mice are seeking a warm nest for the winter, but they will soon learn that this house, with these dogs and cats, is not a safe harbor for them.

Playing a game of cat and mouse is what I think of when I read this story in Exodus between Moses, God, and Pharaoh. Remember our dramatic reading last week, God commands Moses to tell Pharaoh to release the Israelites from slavery? Pharaoh refuses, so God sends forth plagues to torment the Egyptians. Frogs, gnats, skin boils, flies, all kinds of pestilence. Ten times Moses asks for release, ten times Pharaoh refuses, ten times God sends a plague, ten times Pharaoh begs for release and swears to be nice and change his ways, and ten times, the reading says – “God hardened Pharaoh’s heart.” Like a game of cat and mouse. And, the game continues right up to our reading today, ending with the death of many Egyptians, drowned in the very water God separated to rescue the Israelites.

This just doesn’t seem very God-like to me.

So, I went looking for some Midrash, for what the Rabbi’s had to say. One Midrash said that God had to do this, play this game, in order to convince the Israelites that God was God and Pharaoh was NOT God. We even hear that at the end of today’s reading. It was common in the ancient world for people to believe that Pharaohs and Emperors and Kings were Gods. So God took away Pharaohs free will, something only the one true God could do, so the Midrash says. And, thus Pharaoh had no choice.

I think there are some real problems with this Midrash. It makes me think of the book, “Under the Banner of Heaven” by John Krakauer. It’s the story of the murder of a young woman and her infant daughter by her brother in law. The brother in law used, as a defense, the idea that God had told him to do this – he was doing God’s will, he had no choice. Fearing that other criminals would justify violence as doing God’s will, the prosecutors, being people of faith, built a great defensive strategy. They had a Mormon psychologist testify about the difference between God speaking to us in prayer, and someone who, for one reason or another, is incapable of sound judgment, and thus capable of heinous crimes.

Then another Midrash offers this. The Hebrew word for “harden” as in God hardened Pharaoh’s heart can also be interpreted as “strengthen” – God strengthened Pharaoh’s heart. Ten times Moses goes and prays, God releases the plague, and Pharaoh changes his mind. Pharaoh is on a downward spiral, he is out of control. For some reason he is determined to get his way, to do what he wants. We all know people who continue to make destructive decisions regardless of all the efforts to help them make better life choices.

Rachel Kahntroster writing in the Huffington Post, offers this Midrash from a contemporary rabbi -

“The Fast of Tisha B'Av, which (began) this year on the night of Aug. 8, has been a way for the Jewish community to confront and contain trauma through the telling of stories. First established to commemorate the destruction of First Temple in B.C.E. 586, it has become the day to relive the trauma of many other national calamities. … The rabbis tell the story of Rabbi Yochanan Ben Zakkai and Rabbi Joshua visiting the ruins of the Second Temple after it was destroyed by the Romans in 70 C.E. Rabbi Joshua bursts into tears, anguished that the place where Israel atoned for its sins (through sacrifice and burnt offerings) had been destroyed. Rabbi Yochanan comforts him, declaring that deeds of lovingkindness (chesed) had more power to achieve atonement and heal a broken world than sacrifice ever could. Chesed is not just something God shows us; it is our obligation to our fellow human beings in light of unimaginable tragedy. Chesed and not hatred or revenge.”

And, then there is this comment on Psalm 114 by Marcia Brown-Ludwig (of the UCC Massachusetts Conference):

“At the time this (Psalm) was written, the God of Jacob supposedly belonged to the Israelite people – but now at least three faiths claim this same God as the One God: Judaism, Christianity and Islam. As we consider how divided people of faith remain at our time of history – especially on the anniversary of a day when so many felt it was one religion against another (September 11, 2001), may we remember that the Earth is home to all of us, these three faiths and all the rest of the people who live on this planet.

These readings, placed in the context of our Gospel reading, remind us that forgiveness is the central focus of the day. Thomas Long, a biblical scholar wrote this about today’s Gospel reading:

"… we are sailing…on a deep sea of grace…. forgiveness is not to be dispensed with an eyedropper, but a fire hose" (Thomas Long, Matthew, Westminster Bible Companion).

The Exodus story was written thousands of years ago in a different language – the context of the story as it was first intended is lost to us. At the very least we can attempt to understand it through a historical lens that reminds us that the societies and cultures were built on different principles. Civil society with laws and rules, with social justice and acts of compassion, were formed as society shifted from nomadic families to diverse cultures living together in larger and larger cities.

As Christians we have come to know the formation of a just society through the life of Jesus – as one who models for us how we are to live. Our Gospel reading points us in that direction, the concept of forgiveness and compassion is present in the story we hear. “Peter came and said to him, "Lord, how often should I forgive? Jesus said to him, "… seventy-seven times – in other words, over and over.”

A Litany of Reconciliation from Coventry Cathedral, written in response to the bombing that destroyed the Cathedral in 1940, ends with this:

Be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.

What we take away from these readings, what ever we feel about the tragedy of Sept. 11, 2001, one thing holds true – we will find our safe harbor in every effort we make to forgive others, to love, to show compassion, for we will be supported by God, who will strengthen our hearts and sustain us. Over. And Over. And Over.