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Vengeance or Forgiveness…

September 16, 2017

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On our recent visit to Minnesota, we took some time to explore Fort Snelling Historical site. I had first visited the fort in the early 1970’s when they were beginning to seriously renovate the fort. When I visited as a kid, I remember hearing about the Indian Wars of 1862. Of course, we heard it exclusively from a White-European perspective. Fast forward forty years and we heard a much more balanced account of the fort and its inhabitants. History wasn’t re-written, it was told with more honesty and remorse. Slavery and Native American genocide were admitted and that, I believe, is the first step towards healing.

Signs which were prominently displayed at the entrance to the park stated that the fort was on land that originally belonged to the Dakota Tribe. Sadly, I can remember studying the so-called Indian Wars and reading how General Phil Sheridan said that the only good Indian was a dead Indian. Even sadder than that, is the fact that I have heard the same sentiment shared in the twentieth and twenty-first century!

This brings me to the reading from Exodus for this Sunday. In the reading, scripture recounts how the people of the Exodus were brought out of the land of Egypt and across the Red Sea by the Lord. A pillar of cloud covered their escape and Moses parted the waters so that the people could cross over on dry land. In Chapter 14, verse 28 we read about the fate of the Egyptian army: “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.”

This is a difficult story to comprehend for me and is a challenge. In the same way that I have heard people say that the only good Indian is a dead Indian, I have also heard a similar sentiment echoed by so-called christians (lower case is intentional). The said how glad they were and how comforting it was to know that those dirty Egyptians were drowned! They deserved it! After all, if they had only chosen the God of the Hebrews, they could have been saved. Geez… really? You think God took pleasure in wiping out an entire army populated by individual created in God’s own image? Sadly, these are the same people who will say “vengeance is mine” and forget about the rest of the verse…  “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” (Romans 12:19)

Last week in our service we focused on Isaiah 2:4 (Swords into Plowshares). Too many times in church history, the church has been far too quick to pick up the sword and slaughter (figuratively or literally) those who were decreed to be enemies of the church. They did this despite the fact that in Matthew 26:52 Jesus warns that those who live by the sword will die by the sword.

I find it fascinating and ironic that this particular passage is paired with Matthew 18:21-35. In the gospel reading, Peter asks Jesus how often we should forgive another person. Seven times? In fairness, Peter would have understood the number seven to symbolize completeness or perfection. The world was created in seven days… the Sabbath day was consecrated by God and it was the seventh day of the week… So Peter thought he was being generous and theologically correct in saying that we should forgive seven times.

Jesus, however, took it up a notch! Seven times which is perfection? I think not! Try seven times seventy, Peter! Not just perfection, but perfection to the extreme! After all, isn’t God’s love extravagant?

I think that the church today often misses the mark when it comes to extending grace to those who are “outsiders” in much the same way that the Pharisees did the same thing in the time of Jesus. In today’s polarized world, we are too quick to condemn and vilify that which is different from us. That difference can be cultural, philosophical, spiritual, or physical just to offer up a few labels. We are often quick to condemn and yet at the same time slow to offer grace, forgiveness, or mercy. One phrase I often use is this — “who died and made you God?”

If we spent less time condemning and vilifying and more time in conversation and getting to know one another, perhaps we would find our world a better place. In the aftermath of September 11, 2001, I heard even more horrible and vile hate spewed out by “good” christians against Muslims. Besides showing them how what they thought was in the Koran wasn’t in it at all; I challenged them about their hate. Do you know any Muslims? I know a bunch who are also serving in uniform and absolutely horrified at what was being done in the name of their religion.

When I challenged them I either got the response “I don’t know any Muslims” to which I replied, maybe you should meet some of my friends and co-workers — or I got the response, “I do know some Muslims but I wasn’t talking about them” to which I replied, yes you were since you made a blanket statement about all Muslims!

In this Season of Peace, perhaps it would be good for us to reflect upon how we can be instruments of God’s peace in a world torn apart by vengeance, hatred, and greed. Perhaps we should spend more time being that instrument which Saint Francis of Assisi wrote about so long ago:

Lord make me an instrument of your peace
Where there is hatred let me sow love
Where there is injury, pardon
Where there is doubt, faith
Where there is despair, hope
Where there is darkness, light
And where there is sadness, joy
O divine master grant that I may
not so much seek to be consoled as to console
to be understood as to understand
To be loved as to love
For it is in giving that we receive
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned
And it’s in dying that we are born to eternal life
May God help us to do and to be that instrument each and every day!
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