STILL in Ordinary Time (a reflection for Proper 19, Year A)

About this time every year, I start to become completely over Ordinary Time.  Of course, the whirlwind of Feasts, Fasts, and Observances from Advent through Easter and Pentecost is exhilarating and exhausting, and it can be really nice to settle back down into the regular routine of Ordinary Time.  It can be like going on vacation, and having to get through a mountain range to return home – there are high peaks to climb, deep valleys to descend into, rock scrambles, amazing vistas, beautiful scenery.  And then, at the end, there is your home, the green and fertile farm, the place of ordinariness, of homeyness, of quotidian work, of nourishment and protection.  Then, in what seems like no time at all, we find ourselves back in those patterns and rhythms of ordinary, quotidian life at home, yearning for our vacation with its peaks and valleys and vistas again.  Or, well, I know I’m that way.  You might be, but it seems like we humans always have a hard time being happy with what we have and where we are, and we are always looking to that next mountain, that next valley, that next vista, when we already have everything we need here on the farm.

When all this is happening within me, I also start having a harder and harder time grappling with each week’s lections.  During the long green time, we tend to get week after week of really tough gospel readings, where Jesus says things that really challenge us, that quite frankly seem impossible to us.  Before this ecclesiastical year, the lectionary in our Book of Common Prayer gave us sets of readings that shared a theme with the selected gospel; this year, using the Revised Common Lectionary, we hear stories from the Old Testament that unfold week after week in sequence.  This year, we heard the Creation story, the Great Flood, the Patriarchs – Abraham and Isaac and Jacob – and how Joseph delivered his family from the famine in Canaan by bringing them to Egypt.  And now we get the result of that – the Israelites grew and prospered in Egypt until the Pharaoh felt threatened by them and began to try to subdue them.  So God sends Moses into Egypt to deliver the Israelites back out of Egypt.

Of course, leaving Egypt is no picnic, because despite the Pharoah’s fear of them, he finds the Israelites quite useful.  They are slaves, and their labor has contributed to making Egypt a great and powerful nation.  Miracles are performed, and plagues are called.  Many Egyptians are killed, before Pharaoh finally relents.  Of course, though, the story in scripture talks about how God hardens Pharaoh’s heart each time a plague is sent.  I will confess that this makes no sense to me.  I mean, all those people in Egypt – God made them, too; God loves them, too.  Wouldn’t God grieve for them, too, when they suffer and die?  So why would God harden Pharaoh’s heart so that God’s children in Egypt had to continue to suffer and die?

For Sunday, we open with the dramatic story of the parting of the Red Sea.  In this story, we hear that the entire army of Pharaoh that had followed [the Israelites] into the sea; not one of them remained.  Not ONE of them remained.  The ENTIRE ARMY.  Now, there are always some people in the army who are rather unsavory, but most of them are normal people.  You probably know somebody who serves in the military of your country.  They may be your neighbor, your high school buddy, someone in your church.  Now think about that person swallowed up – along with the rest of the ENTIRE ARMY  – in the sea.

This week, we have an alternative offering for the psalm, the Cantemus Domino canticle.  It is the great song of praise that Miriam sings on the far bank of the Red Sea, after watching the entire Egyptian army sink under those waves.  It is one of the oldest writings in the Bible, and it unsettles me every week, every Thursday when it is sung at Morning Prayer.

I will sing to the Lord, for he is lofty and uplifted;
the horse and its rider has he hurled into the sea.
the Lord is my strength and my refuge;
the Lord has become my Savior.
this is my God and I will praise him,
the God of my people and I will exalt him.
the Lord is a mighty warrior;
Yahweh is his Name.
the chariots of Pharaoh and his army has he hurled into the sea;
the finest of those who bear armor have been drowned in the red sea.
the fathomless deep has overwhelmed them;
they sank into the depths like a stone.

It’s a vicious little song, isn’t it?  I can understand the great relief and joy that the Israelites must have felt in that moment, after the terrible fear had passed.  They had been pinned between the sea and the army, and then they walked across the bottom of the sea in safety, and then they watched as the waves descended and swallowed up the army.  But after that moment of elation passed, I’m sure they began to feel the fear descend again.  After all, the desert stretched before them now, the inhospitable land with rocks and mountains and no easy way to feed themselves and quench their thirst.  Perhaps they sang this song in defiance against that fear.  We are protected by God, they sang, and our God will always deliver us into safety.  (We hope…)

And yet… when I am confronted with this canticle each week during Morning Prayer, I dread it.  I don’t want to sing those words.  I don’t want to rejoice in the death of all those horses and people, all those children of God.  I understand the defiance in the face of fear, the praise to our God who does promise to always deliver us.  But “Yay, God!  You slew all those nasty Egyptians!” – that really bothers me.  Miriam sang, and all the Egyptians sang, but I have to believe that God wept.  God made those horses, those wonderful, beautiful, powerful animals.  God breathed life into those people – the people in Egypt who suffered and died in the plagues, all the children in Egypt who died for the lack of lamb’s blood on their doorways, and every soldier in Pharaoh’s army – and God cherished them all as God’s own daughters and sons.  Miriam sang, I know.  And God wept.

The Exodus story is a story of great defiance and deliverance, a story of deep and painful vengeance wreaked on an entire nation.  And in Sunday’s gospel, Jesus gives us a new story.  In this new story, Jesus doesn’t teach us to take revenge, to hurt those who bring hurt to us.  No, instead, Jesus tells us to forgive those around us, and to keep forgiving them again and again and again.  The parable Jesus tells is of a slave who owed money to his master, but could not repay it.  The master forgives him this debt, at which point the slave goes and beats up someone who owes him what is a paltry sum in comparison.  When the master learns of this, he punishes the slave bitterly.  And we are told that we are that slave – God forgives so much that we do (or fail to do), and yet we hold on to the petty grudges and hurts and disappointments and beat up our brothers and sisters with them.

We pray that each Sunday, at the highest point in our Eucharist,

forgive us our trespasses,
as we forgive those who trespass against us.

Some Christians use a different word in the Lord’s Prayer, and they pray

forgive us our debts,
as we forgive our debtors.

Either way, we pray words that link the forgiveness we receive from God, to the forgiveness we give to others.  What happens if we switch these around, and read the two phrases like they are conditional?

Just as we forgive those who hurt us, God,
please forgive us in return.

That’s not as comforting, is it?  In general, we twenty-first century western humans tend to be pretty terrible at forgiveness, and it’s reflected in our culture in deep ways.  There’s a song that’s been quite popular lately, about a woman taking revenge on her boyfriend or husband for cheating on her.

And he don’t know…
I dug my key into the side of his pretty little souped-up four wheel drive
Carved my name into his leather seats
Took a Louisville Slugger to both headlights
Slashed a hole in all four tires
Maybe next time he’ll think before he cheats.

That doesn’t sound a whole lot like forgiving seventy-seven times.  And yet, on a visceral level, it’s a very powerful song.  I’ll freely admit that I sing along with relish when it comes onto the radio.  It’s angry, defiant.  It speaks out of a place of fear, and it sings of destroying what this man loves most.  I know that I could never do this to someone else.  It might be terribly hard to forgive someone for betraying me so deeply, but you know what?  If I’m going to ask God to forgive my sins, as we forgive those who sin against us, then I don’t want to take this angry and defiant vengeance; as hard as it is, I know I must find that forgiveness within myself.

There is good news in all this hard stuff, of course.  God will forgive us.  Bad things may happen to us, and we may indeed be swept into the sea.  We will die one day, all of us.  But on the other side, we will find God waiting for us, smiling broadly, arms outstretched in welcome.  God will gather us up in God’s arms as a mother gathers up her children.  God will sweep us up into the air like a father playing “airplane” with his child.  And then, when we open our eyes and peek over God’s shoulder, we might just see some of Pharaoh’s army there, too, grinning at us and at God’s delight in us.

O God,
because without you
we are not able to please you,
mercifully grant that your Holy Spirit may in all things
direct and rule our hearts;
through Jesus Christ our Lord,
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God,
now and for ever.

Amen.

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One thought on “STILL in Ordinary Time (a reflection for Proper 19, Year A)

  1. Your reading of those two lines of the Lord’s Prayer reminded me about the inversion in the sermon I heard on Sunday about our bishop not wanting to be loved by people the way they love (or don’t love) themselves.

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