FIRST READING: Exodus (14:19-31)
The angel of God who was going before the Israelite army moved and went behind them; and the pillar of cloud moved from in front of them and took its place behind them. It came between the army of Egypt and the army of Israel. And so the cloud was there with the darkness, and it lit up the night; one did not come near the other all night. Then Moses stretched out his hand over the sea. The Lord drove the sea back by a strong east wind all night, and turned the sea into dry land; and the waters were divided. The Israelites went into the sea on dry ground, the waters forming a wall for them on their right and on their left. The Egyptians pursued, and went into the sea after them, all of Pharaoh’s horses, chariots, and chariot drivers. 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. He clogged their chariot wheels so that they turned with difficulty. The Egyptians said, “Let us flee from the Israelites, for the Lord is fighting for them against Egypt.” Then the Lord said to Moses, “Stretch out your hand over the sea, so that the water may come back upon the Egyptians, upon their chariots and chariot drivers.” So Moses stretched out his hand over the sea, and at dawn the sea returned to its normal depth. As the Egyptians fled before it, the Lord tossed the Egyptians into the sea. The waters returned and covered the chariots and the chariot drivers, the entire army of Pharaoh that had followed them into the sea; not one of them remained. But the Israelites walked on dry ground through the sea, the waters forming a wall for them on their right and on their left. Thus the Lord saved Israel that day from the Egyptians; and Israel saw the Egyptians dead on the seashore. Israel saw the great work that the Lord did against the Egyptians. So the people feared the Lord and believed in the Lord and in his servant Moses.
When Israel came out of Egypt, *
the house of Jacob from a people of strange speech,
2 Judah became God’s sanctuary *
and Israel his dominion.
3 The sea beheld it and fled; *
Jordan turned and went back.
4 The mountains skipped like rams, *
and the little hills like young sheep.
5 What ailed you, O sea, that you fled? *
O Jordan, that you turned back?
6 You mountains, that you skipped like rams? *
you little hills like young sheep?
7 Tremble, O earth, at the presence of the Lord, *
at the presence of the God of Jacob,
8 Who turned the hard rock into a pool of water *
and flint-stone into a flowing spring.
SECOND READING: Romans (14:1-12)
Welcome those who are weak in faith, but not for the purpose of quarreling over opinions. Some believe in eating anything, while the weak eat only vegetables. Those who eat must not despise those who abstain, and those who abstain must not pass judgment on those who eat; for God has welcomed them. Who are you to pass judgment on servants of another? It is before their own lord that they stand or fall. And they will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make them stand. Some judge one day to be better than another, while others judge all days to be alike. Let all be fully convinced in their own minds. Those who observe the day, observe it in honor of the Lord. Also those who eat, eat in honor of the Lord, since they give thanks to God; while those who abstain, abstain in honor of the Lord and give thanks to God. We do not live to ourselves, and we do not die to ourselves. If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s. For to this end Christ died and lived again, so that he might be Lord of both the dead and the living. Why do you pass judgment on your brother or sister? Or you, why do you despise your brother or sister? For we will all stand before the judgment seat of God. For it is written, “As I live, says the Lord, every knee shall bow to me, and every tongue shall give praise to God.” So then, each of us will be accountable to God.
The Holy Gospel of Our Lord Jesus Christ according to Matthew (18:21-35)
Then Peter came and said to Jesus, “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” Jesus said to him, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times. For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves. When he began the reckoning, one who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him; and, as he could not pay, his lord ordered him to be sold, together with his wife and children and all his possessions, and payment to be made. So the slave fell on his knees before him, saying, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ And out of pity for him, the lord of that slave released him and forgave him the debt. But that same slave, as he went out, came upon one of his fellow slaves who owed him a hundred denarii; and seizing him by the throat, he said, ‘Pay what you owe.’ Then his fellow slave fell down and pleaded with him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’ But he refused; then he went and threw him into prison until he would pay the debt. When his fellow slaves saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their lord all that had taken place. Then his lord summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?’ And in anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he would pay his entire debt. So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.
by the Rev. Michael Kreutzer
Ten years ago this morning, two planes crashed into the Twin Towers, another into the Pentagon, and a third into a field in Somerset County, Pennsylvania. In all, nearly 3000 people were killed.
In the following days, shock and outrage and grief gave way to calls for revenge, for retaliation. Within the next few years, those calls resulted in the launching of two wars (which still have not ended), the abrogation of civil rights, the use of torture, and a series of world-wide kidnappings that went by the euphemism “extrajudicial renditions.” Fear gave way to paranoia, leading some to unwarranted suspicions about people of particular ethnic and religious backgrounds and to attempts to modify laws to provide legal cover for discriminatory behavior. People retreated into a garrison mentality, locking themselves up in mental and emotional prisons — all supposedly in an attempt to preserve their freedom.
As we hear this weekend from all sorts of different sources, some of them responsible, others decidedly not, about 9/11 and how it continues to affect us, today’s scripture readings have some very important considerations to offer to us. They speak to us about freedom, about the acceptance of those who differ from us, and about the key role of forgiveness in our lives, both as individuals and as a people.
First of all, freedom: the account of the Exodus in today’s first reading is a paramount story of freedom. It tells how God delivered the Israelites from bondage in Egypt and gave them victory over their oppressors. Like other parts of scripture, it has been misused over the centuries to justify and celebrate the victories of one or another nation or people over another. Yet, as great a narrative as it is, it tells only one side of the story.
There is an old Hasidic tale in which a rabbi describes the angels of God rejoicing and celebrating wildly at God’s deliverance of the Israelites through the waters of the Red Sea. But the celebration stopped suddenly and everything became perfectly quiet when they noticed the Creator of the Universe weeping. “Why,” they asked God, “Why are you crying when you have done such a great thing, setting the Israelites free?” “I am weeping,” God replied, “because of all the dead Egyptians lying there on the shore. They are somebody’s sons, somebody’s husbands, somebody’s fathers.”
“Any man’s death diminishes me,” John Donne once wrote, “because I am involved in mankind. And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.” This anniversary is a time to remember and pray for all who have died, whether on 9/11 or in the nation’s and world’s response over the past decade. As the great cellist, Pablo Casals, once asked: “Love of country is a wonderful thing, but why should love stop at the border?”
Second, the acceptance of those who differ from us: St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans, from which our second reading was taken, calls us to the acceptance of all people and to struggling against prejudice wherever and whenever it arises. “Why do you pass judgment on your brother or sister?” he writes, “Or you, why do you despise your brother or sister? For we will all stand before the judgment seat of God.” God has made all of us one in Christ Jesus. We are all the dearly beloved children of the one God.
It is so easy, especially during a time of fear, to forget that, to begin circling the wagons: to retreat into trusting only those who appear to be similar to us, those who look like us, those who talk like us, those who believe the same way that we do. Yet such a withdrawal into a type of modern-day tribalism only exacerbates the divisions and the threats between us and others. An openness to others and a concerted effort to get to know and understand the other contribute greatly to mutual acceptance and to a recognition of our common humanity.
Finally, forgiveness: Jesus in our gospel reading presents us with a powerful image of the need of all people for forgiveness. Forgiveness is critically important, not only for those who have been forgiven, but also for those who forgive. It sets us free from the bondage of resentment and hatred and from a desire for revenge by which we imprison ourselves – and then we wonder why we don’t feel free! It is because we have made ourselves captive. Forgiveness brings freedom, for ourselves as well as for others.
American theologian Lewis Smedes had this reflection on forgiveness and freedom: “The only way to heal the pain that will not heal itself is to forgive the person who hurt you. Forgiving stops the reruns of pain. Forgiving heals your memory as you change your memory’s vision. When you release the wrongdoer from the wrong, you cut a malignant tumor out of your inner life. You set a prisoner free, but you discover that the real prisoner was yourself. Forgiveness is God’s invention for coming to terms with a world in which, despite their best intentions, people are unfair to each other and hurt each other deeply. [God] began by forgiving us. And [God] invites us to forgive each other.” (from Forgive and Forget, Harper and Row)
During this anniversary, we are hearing much about freedom and the cost of freedom. But some associate freedom only with the quest for revenge, with retaliation for the very real injuries that we have suffered. Yet the scripture readings that we have been blessed to hear today tell another story: the story of true and lasting freedom. They tell the story of a God who cares passionately for all God’s children, of all nations, of all faiths, of all peoples. They tell of the power of forgiveness to transform lives and to transform the world. And they tell the story of a man who conquered hatred and violence by love and by the cross.
It is in his name that we gather here. And it is in his name that we leave this place as a people who are freed and freeing, accepted and accepting, forgiven and forgiving, loved and loving. For we have the privilege and the joy of bringing to all the world the great good news that we and all the people of the world are all the dearly beloved children of one God and Father.