Exodus 32:7-11, 13-14
1. James Williams, The Bible, Violence & the Sacred, pp. 121-127. Williams has two excellent chapters on Moses and the people of Israel.
2. Gil Bailie, Violence Unveiled, pp. 143-152, especially p.147. Link to an excerpt of these sections having to do with "Moses and the Commandments."
1 Timothy 1:12-17
1. September 11, 2001, the first day in this lectionary week (Proper 19 is Sept. 11-17), is a day that will forever live in infamy in U.S. history. My sermon in 2001 -- falling five days after terrorist attack, entitled "Holy Communion" -- was greatly shaped by those events. I brought more of the general Girardian idea of righteous or sacred violence into play than just a focus on this day's texts, though I did use both this lesson and the gospel, especially the Pauline confession of righteous violence in this reading. Here's several segments of my response to 9/11 that week:
I was glad to see Sen. McCain so brutally honest about that this week, when he said, "God have mercy on the souls of the men who did this, because we won't."2. In 2004 we are fairly fresh from the Republican National Convention held August 30 - September 2, nominating George W. Bush to run for re-election. The rhetoric was heavy on its remembrance of 9/11/2001 and the theme of national security. Was this rhetoric "Christian" in terms of being heavy on the side of mercy, or was it conventionally human, heavy on the side of vengeance (and its euphemisms "justice" and "security")?
I find Sen. McCain's statement not only refreshingly honest but also to be making a very important theological point: namely, the difference between the choices we human beings often make to acts of violence against us, and the choice God made in responding to our violence in Jesus Christ. God made a very different choice: forgiveness rather than revenge. The God we come to know in Jesus Christ is a God of mercy and love.
Yet throughout history humankind has made the choice of seeking revenge, of responding to violence with our own "righteous" violence. And all too often we have gotten God mixed up in our deeds of revenge, in our responses of righteous violence. God is an idol who justifies our violence. The terrorists who performed this act of violence no doubt felt it to be righteous violence, the kind of violence that St. Paul confesses to this morning. The terrorists felt themselves justified to strike out, even against civilians, because they see our nation as evil and themselves to be carrying out God's punishment. That's why they could even do what they did as a suicide. They were confident in God's approval of what they were doing. To be honest, it was the same kind of righteous violence that we Christians carried out against Muslims -- men, women, and children -- during our crusades to the Holy Land in the Middle Ages. If the U.S. carries out its own righteous violence against Muslim people in the weeks ahead, I hope we are at least clear about our responsibility as Sen. McCain when he says, "God have mercy on the souls of those men who did this, because we won't." It is we human beings who do such things to each other. The God we meet in Jesus Christ is a God of mercy, a God who responds to our human violence with forgiveness instead of revenge....
So I go into these next weeks expecting a personal struggle. I'm thankful to Sen. McCain for putting the choice so clearly: God's mercy or our righteous violence. But as a disciple of Jesus I can't be quite so glib about it. As a follower of Jesus I need to be repenting of my righteous violence, not wallowing in it. In the second lesson this morning, we've already noted that St. Paul confesses his past life as a man of righteous violence, but he's not wallowing in it. His confession comes in the context of giving thanks for a changed life. "But I received mercy," he says, "because I had acted ignorantly in unbelief, and the grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus." He had acted out of ignorance, and Jesus forgave him, just as he did those who hung him on the cross "for they didn't know what they were doing." St. Paul, however, does know what he is doing by the time he wrote this letter, and so he no longer has that excuse.
You and I no longer have that excuse, either. We, too, have experienced God's grace and forgiveness, so we can't go on doing the same things. "Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us," we pray. We can't go on getting caught up in righteous violence when we have so clearly known the God of mercy in Christ Jesus. So I will struggle in the weeks ahead as our political leaders talk to us about such righteous violence against our enemies. [By the way, even if we call it "justice" instead of "vengeance," as I've already heard from some religious leaders this week, it still amounts to the same thing if it involves violence. Righteous violence is still righteous violence despite our attempts at naming it as just or righteous.] ...
Let me close by putting this more positively. We gather here today for God's gift of Holy Communion. There are our human ways of coming together, our communions, and there's God's way of Holy Communion. What we remember once again in the sharing of Christ's body and blood is our unholy ways of communion based on making sacrificial victims of our righteous violence, like our Lord himself. But God graciously transforms these unholy means of gathering ourselves together into the Holy Communion, a gathering together in remembrance of the Risen sacrificial victim, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. He takes away our sin, by exposing our righteous violence, robbing it of its power, and replacing it with the life-giving power of God's forgiveness and mercy.
This is more the kind of Holy Communion that I think we've been experiencing this week in our nation. In the days ahead we will talk increasingly of striking back, which is just more of our old unholy communion -- that is, coming together on the basis of striking out at a common enemy. But this week we've experienced the Holy Communion of coming together around those sacrificed by the terrorist's act of righteous violence. We've come together with incredible acts of loving service in response to the terrible, tragic loss of our fellow citizens. Let's cherish these acts of mercy as we all pitch in at a time of crisis and loss. Let us cherish them as the real means of Holy Communion, the way of living which is truly and ultimately binding.
I shouldn't be so coy with where I stand. When President Bush arrived in New York on Wednesday night (Sept. 1) for the RNC, the first place he went was a community center in Queens to visit with 100 NYC firefighters. NPR's "Morning Edition" the next morning (Sept. 2) carried the story to lead off the show ("Sept. 11 Looms as Bush Meets with NYC Firefighters"). There's a clip from 10-year veteran John Gleason, in which he says,
There's a lot us firemen who saw it first-hand.... So we know that Bush is doing the right thing, because there's people out there who want to kill us. Kerry, I don't think, understands that. I lost all my guys in my firehouse that day. I lost ten guys. And he's out there revenging their loss.I appreciated the absence of the euphemisms in his words. He calls it for what it is, revenge. It seems to me that the tone of the rhetoric has been too much in that vein, appealing to these kinds of raw emotions.
This is not to say that revenge is never a part of national policies and war doctrines. Of course it is, and perhaps there are times in which it is appropriate -- as a human response. But I shudder when I hear such sentiments called "Christian," or the leader who espouses them "Christian." Isn't Christian rhetoric decidedly on the side of mercy? How might Christians inject mercy into conversations about even our enemies?
1. Michel Serres, "One God or a Trinity?" Contagion, Vol. 1 (Spring, 1994), pp. 1-17. (Translated by Cesareo Bandera and Judith Arias.) It is an amazing piece of writing that lays out, in prose as dense in allusions as an Eliot poem, the sacrificial nature of all human culture, or what he calls "sacrificial economy." Then, he turns it all around in the concluding section with the parable of the Lost Sheep. Here is that final section, "The Corresponding Positive Word":
*****Michel Serres excerpt*****
By similar parables, Saint Luke and Saint Matthew express the principal of the non-sacrificial economy, the economy that refuses even the smallest expense, one percent, which is no other than the scapegoat itself: if one of you has one hundred sheep and loses one, would he not leave the other ninety-nine in the desert and go searching for the one that was lost until he finds it? (Matt 18:12; Luke 15:6).
The one who brings back the lost animal turns the entire economic logic upside down in a symmetrical manner, because the other ninety-nine were left in the desert, the place, normally, of the expelled scapegoat, which now constitutes an inclusion. Thus the reversal of the logic of the exclusion. And as friends celebrate the return of the stray one, sacrifice is transformed into a positive feast: we will all rejoice together, without execution or expulsion, that the victim has returned to the fold.
Not only does this gesture refuse all the economy founded on calculation, even though minimum, of the one percent loss. It demonstrates positively that what has to be done is precisely to save that which by custom and reason we allow to be lost.
Lost soul, lost woman ... do we realize that this word "loss" has both a moral and an economic meaning?
This lost man, who wanted to lose him?
Economist, turn your science upside down in order to go searching purposefully for the miserable, the sacrificed. Scientist, change your logic to save the victims of progress.
No! Not progress at any cost! Give back in full price the price offered up in sacrifice for progress.
2. James Alison, Raising Abel, pp. 34-35. As he begins his chapter on the "Living God" (link to more complete excerpt), Alison states:
The image of God which Jesus proposes to us in the parable of the Lost Sheep (Lk 15:3-7) is exactly the inverse of the god we've seen. According to this parable the mercy of God is shown not to the group, but to the lost member, to the outsider. I ask you to consider quite how extraordinary this change of perception with respect to who God is turns out to be: mercy has been changed from something which covers up violence to something which unmasks it completely. For God there are no "outsiders," which means to say that any mechanism for the creation of "outsiders" is automatically and simply a mechanism of human violence, and that's that.Link to a sermon that highlights such a changing perception of God, "Changing Our Minds about God."
3. Robert Hamerton-Kelly, sermon from September 16, 2007 (Society of St. John at St. Mark's Chapel, Palo Alto), and sermon from September 12, 2010 (Society of St. John at St. Mark's Chapel, Palo Alto).
4. Gil Bailie, "The Gospel of Luke" audio series, tape 8 (side B). This is a short piece on the way to his substantial treatment of the Prodigal, but with some good nuggets. Here are my notes:
*****Notes on Gil Bailie Lecture*****
Luke 15:1-7 -- Lost sheep and Lost coin, a two-part overture to the Prodigal Son.
Reflections and Questions
1. The Parable of the Prodigal Son is one that looms on the horizon. A strong element of the action in the parables of Luke 15 is that of throwing a party. Parties, or dinner gatherings, is also a strong element of the action in Luke 14. See the comments for the passages in Luke 14 in Proper 18C and on the Prodigal Son in Lent 4C.
2. According to the focus of ministry in the average congregation, do our actions belie that of going after the one lost sheep or the ninety-nine in the fold? In our church (ELCA) we have tried to put a strong emphasis on "outreach." But the habits of focusing on ourselves are hard to break.
3. Out of the mouths of babes: it was asked of the children during the Children's Sermon, "Would you go after the one lost sheep or stay with the ninety-nine?" To which one boy quickly responded, "I'd go after the one lost sheep, but I'd take the other ninety-nine with me."
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