Numbers 11:4-6, 10-16 † Psalm 19:7-14 † James 5:13-20 † Mark 9:38-50
In his book of essays called My Story as Told by Water[i], northwest writer David James Duncan writes of the chasm between his father and himself. His dad was a World War II vet whose perspective had been forever fixed by the searing experience of liberating a Nazi concentration camp. Duncan was a product of the protest culture of the 1960s Vietnam era. His experience was not unlike many in that age. He describes it this way:
In 1966, when I was fourteen, I began to question the war at our family supper table. The instant I’d speak up, my father would snap that the only reason I could criticize the war at all was that our troops in Vietnam were protecting my freedom to do so. I would argue back by saying that my freedom did not strike me as being dependent upon the clique of Saigon businessmen whom Americans were actually protecting, or on the deaths of the civilians our troops kept “accidentally” killing. Dad would then go off like a bomb, bellowing that I would never talk such rot if I’d seen a concentration camp.
Duncan describes the escalating series of arguments and tensions that grew night after night at the dinner table as both father and son found themselves dug-in deeper and deeper like fox-holes in perspectives that were shaped as much by their stations in life—Duncan as a student watching young men his brothers’ ages going off to a senseless and unwinnable war, never to come back, his father as a veteran of a more comprehensible war with an identifiable enemy, a clearer finish, and now a defense-industry salary that supported his family, including his son of fourteen years.
“I know now,” Duncan writes, “that no argument I could have constructed would have changed my father’s mind, any more than his ‘Nazi’ mantra could change mine. We needed wisdom.”
Genesis 9:8-17 † Psalm 25:1-10 † 1 Peter 3:18-22 † Mark 1:9-15
Cognitive scientists Steven Solma and Philip Fernbach have spent many a year asking anyone they can find if they know how a toilet works? How about a zipper? They want to know. Or a coffee maker? Do you know how those work?
Yeah – yeah I have a reasonable idea how they work is the answer they would first receive. So then they follow up. Okay, can you explain to me exactly what it takes? How that toilet bowl empties, how the water in the Mr Coffee gets to the pot and how it gets heated, how those little prongs attach when you put on your favorite hoody. Then they let the person think for a while and try to explain as best they can how these processes they engage every day actually work. Finally they ask – so tell me again how would you rate your knowledge of how that toilet works?
These researchers have spent time and effort measuring these dynamics very precisely - lots of well-designed questionnaires and sophisticated coding and exacting measurement - and what they have found is that in the vast majority of cases when we take the time to examine our understanding of some of the mechanisms around us we realize that we actually know quite a bit less than we think we do - on almost every subject.
Exodus 14:19-31 † Psalm 114:1-9 † Romans 14:1-12 † Matthew 18:21-35
Why do you pass judgment on your brother or sister?
Perhaps I should stop talking and just sit down.
Why do you pass judgment on your brother or sister? Thus ends the reading of the word. Thus, ends the sermon.
Why do we pass judgment? There is plenty here in this simple question. Just take time to reflect on it, live in it. “Explore the space,” as Christopher Walken says in one of my favorite Saturday Night Live skits. If we were to do this, and this alone, to consider our quick path to judgment, it would be time well spent.
Why do you pass judgment on your brother or sister?
That’s what the slave did to the other slave in the parable, isn’t it? He decides not to forgive the debt he is owed, despite having just experienced forgiveness that has given his own life back to him.
It is worth pointing out, I think, the extremes captured in the amounts that are forgiven and not forgiven. The master forgives his servant a debt of ten thousand talents, while the servant fails to forgive his brother a debt of one hundred denarii.
Let’s do the math. A talent, as the footnote in the pew bibles notes, is worth “more than fifteen years’ wages of a laborer” while the denarius was “the usual day’s wage.” In other words, the first servant has been forgiven a debt equivalent to 50 million days of a salary for a laborer, while he cannot find his way to forgiving a debt equal to a salary of 100 days of labor—4 months or so. We are talking, in other words, about a proportion of 500,000 to one.
Genesis 45:1-15 † Psalm 33 † Romans 11:1-2a, 29-32 † Matthew 15:10-28
Mother Teresa used to say, “If you want to change the world, go home and love your family.”
I don’t know what you think of this. It strikes me at first, like a claim from a more innocent time. It seems inadequate in the face of the recently amplified voices of white supremacy, of oppression and intolerance and hatred—perhaps most unnervingly, from the occupant of the White House whose role is supposedly to speak with a moral voice, to represent all the people, not an intolerant few.
It seems inadequate in the echo of extremist voices reviving the language of racial purity and ethnic intolerance. It seems inadequate given these beliefs led to the systematic murder of 7 million Jews and people of color by the Nazi Party of Germany—of people with physical and mental disabilities, and of lesbians and gays and transgendered people who were only trying to be their true selves.
It seems inadequate given the long history of slavery, of overt and covert oppression and malicious intimidation of people of African ancestry these past 400 years. It seems inadequate given the ebb and flow of government policies over the life of our troubled nation that have further privileged the interests of the already protected insiders.
Perhaps a quick reminder of legislative history in the United States might help us to keep things in context here:[i]
Readings for this Sunday:
Proverbs 31:10-31 | Psalm 1 | James 3:13-4:3, 7-8a | Mark 9:30-37
Questions for reflection:
In the midst of the struggle against apartheid, South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu walked by a construction site on a temporary sidewalk wide enough for only one person at a time to pass. A white man appeared on the other end, recognized the Bishop as one of the leaders instigating reform in the system of white privilege for which he stood, and said, “I don’t make way for gorillas.” At which Tutu stepped aside, made a deep sweeping gesture, and said, “Ah, yes, but I do.”[i]
St. Andrew Sermons