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In forgiveness, there is freedom.

In our lesson this morning from the gospel of Matthew, we get to listen in on three different conversations around the topic of forgiveness. First, Jesus offers up a kind of “how to” primer on dealing with conflict.

On the heels of hearing that advice, Peter and Jesus trade numbers on forgiveness: three? Seven? Seventy-seven? 490?

Jesus then finishes off our lesson with a parable in which a servant is forgiven an extraordinary debt only to lord a small debt over a fellow servant’s head. The master is swift in punishment for the man’s hypocrisy; as will God be, Jesus says, for our own hypocritical approach to forgiveness.

At first glance, it’s not clear whether the three stories are related or not. They all touch on forgiveness, but in no single coherent form. And maybe that’s the point here. There may not be a “one size fits all” approach to forgiveness. What Jesus makes abundantly clear, though, is that forgiveness is not optional for those who want to follow him. Forgiveness, it turns out, is expected.

But what is forgiveness? It’s one of those words where we know exactly what it means until it comes time to define it. Does forgiveness mean that we live as though the wrong in question never happened? Is it something meant to be ignored briefly but stored up for a later date when we can throw it back in their face? Is forgiveness a generous gift of the powerful, or is it an unwelcome imposition on the weak? In our culture, we often lump “forgive” with “forget” – but should we?

This morning, I want to touch on forgiveness from three different sides, using the three separate lessons in our Matthew reading:

  1. Forgiveness has accountability
  2. Forgiveness is abundant
  3. Forgiveness starts and ends with God

Let’s start with accountability. In the first part of our reading, Jesus outlines this beautiful process for dealing with conflict. The first step, he says, is to deal with it directly. If someone wrongs you, you try to work it out with them first. If they recognize their fault, the relationship is restored and all is well.

If they don’t, you move onto step two: bringing witnesses. The hope, of course, is that these third parties will be able to achieve the restoration that didn’t happen in the first step. And though it’s unstated, there is also the possibility that these witnesses will hear the story and recognize that you, in fact, are the one who should be held accountable; in which case, the obligation to repent is yours.

And if step two fails, there’s a step three: bringing it to the church, involving the wider community. Much like in the second step, the hope is that they will be able to bring restoration and that the relationship is healed.

Of course, there is the possibility that step three will fail. If so, Jesus says, the church ought to treat the one who has done wrong like a Gentile or a tax collector. At first glance, it sounds like that means they’re kicked out; and yet, if we know the story of the early church well, it included both Gentiles and tax collectors. And so, though they have failed to admit their wrong, they are not beyond the hope of redemption.

Notice what happens throughout, though: the wrong in question is not ignored. There is no proverbial “elephant in the room.” Instead, it seems like it’s the only topic to be discussed. Forgiving does not mean forgetting that we have been hurt. Forgiving means doing what we can to heal the wounds; which means that forgiveness recognizes our vulnerability, our brokenness, our imperfection. The injury may heal; but depending on how deep the cut, there will always be a scar.

Forgiveness knows that there should be accountability.

Second, forgiveness is abundant; and extravagantly so.

After Jesus outlines his conflict resolution strategy, Peter steps up to offer his take, as he often does. He knows that the prevailing religious wisdom of the day regarding forgiveness is that the generous soul has three servings in supply. And so Peter, ever the show off, pushes it up to seven. Others may only have three; but Peter has extra in reserve and is willing to share.

Until Jesus blows Peter out of the water: seven isn’t even close. It’s more like seventy times seven. Jesus tells Peter that those who follow him have to forgive almost 500 wrongs before the supply runs out. Some of you may want to take this on as a spiritual discipline. You can keep a running tally of how many times various people have wronged you; and when one of those people hits 490, you can safely say, “I’m done.” Of course, that may be the most dangerous diary you could ever possibly keep!

The point, rather, is that forgiveness is meant to be abundant. No matter how gracious we think we are, we can never truly be gracious enough.

And that leads to the third point: forgiveness starts and ends with God.

We know this. Every time we say the Lord’s Prayer, we affirm this fact: “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.” Our ability to forgive others is intimately connected to the fact that God forgives us.

The word “forgiveness” in Greek gives us some picture of this. Forgiveness means to send away, to dismiss, to pass over, to leave behind. If God, therefore, is willing to send our sins away, then we are called to do the same with those who sin against us.

The parable Jesus tells lays it out in stark detail. We have the master, representing God in this allegory, willing to forgive one servant a massive debt: somewhere on the order fifteen years worth of wages. That same servant, just having received incredible financial release, holds a fellow servant to a much smaller debt, worth about 100 days of labor. And because of his hypocrisy, the servant is punished.

The meaning is crystal clear: God forgives us. How in the world can we not turn around and forgive?

You heard the news, no doubt, last Sunday, ISIS released a video of the beheading of 21 Egyptian Coptic Christians. The men had gone to Libya looking for work to support their rural families back home. They were captured and killed for what ISIS called “carrying the illusion of the cross.” Egyptians tattoo small crosses on their wrists, carrying the mark of Christ with them wherever they go. And this led to their death.

My personal feelings upon hearing the news were a mixture of deep heartbreak and fiery anger. When I heard the next morning that the Egyptian government had retaliated by launching airstrikes on ISIS in Libya, I was pleased: Egypt’s Christians live as a struggling minority, and here was proof that the government of Egypt would not let this brutal treatment of its citizens go unpunished.

And then, I read this statement by Bishop Angaelos of the Coptic Church:

“While it may seem illogical or incomprehensible, we…pray for those who have carried out these horrific crimes, that the value of God’s creation and human life may become more evident to them…”

I was cut to the quick…but that soon passed. After all, I thought, this is a bishop, a religious professional, a modern-day Peter. He is supposed to say things like that. And while that might be the correct theological answer, nation-states have different values, purposes, and reasoning. I soon settled back into my own comfort, world gentle de-rocked.

And then, I came across an interview with the brother of two of the victims. Bashir Kamel, speaking with an Arabic Christian program, began by thanking ISIS – thanking ISIS – for not editing out the men’s declaration of belief in Christ, something that has strengthened his family in their loss. He went on to say that such suffering “only makes us stronger in our faith because the Bible told us to love our enemies and bless those who curse us.”

It sure does…

When asked about forgiveness, Bashir related what is mother said: “she would ask her son’s killer to enter her house and ask God to open his eyes.”

The word studies, the nuances, the numbers and supply of forgiveness all pale in comparison with what it means to be living witnesses of that grace. Thank God for Bashir, for the Coptic Church, for the church on the margins, because it is there that we can find the truest, noblest, most merciful and holy version of faith there is.

Friends, we are expected to forgive; because we expect to be forgiven. This is the character of God we know in Christ, a character that we should strive to exhibit to the world. This does not mean that forgiveness is easy; quite the opposite. Forgiveness bears the scars of wounds that are deep, but healed.

More than anything else, forgiveness means freedom: freedom from what we have done, freedom from what others have done to us, freedom from keeping score. And that, my friends, is a gift we can count on.

Amen.

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If Jesus were to look at you, what would he see?

This week we continue our Lenten look at the Sermon on the Mount. These three chapters from Matthew, in many ways, contain the central teachings of Jesus: teachings on prayer and moral character. And in this morning’s brief lesson, we come across his description of the gathered, and us by extension,  as “salt” and “light”. as he looks out over the crowd that has come to hear his teachings, these are the two images at strike him as most fitting.

“You are the salt of the earth,” he says. And salt is a good thing. It adds flavor. It preserves. You don’t need a lot of salt to make a difference, just a touch.

“And you are the light of the world,” he continues. And light, too, is a good thing. It helps us to see in the darkness. And again, you don’t need a lot of light for it to make its presence known. A room full of darkness lit with a single candle is no longer dark.

But both of these descriptions come with warnings: if salt isn’t salty, then it won’t do what it’s made to do. In fact, it’s just dirt. And if light is hidden, it fails to live up to its purpose in the world. If we are salt or light, then we have a role to play.

What if we were there among the crowds that day? When Jesus looked on us, what would he say about us? Would we, too, be salt and light? Or would some other image come to mind, calling us to a deeper purpose in our lives?

In other words, if Jesus were to look at us, what would he see?

I’m not sure, but I have a hunch that most of us probably don’t have a very accurate answer to that question. Some of us might think more highly of ourselves than we should, but most of us probably don’t think as highly of ourselves as we ought.

Maybe I’m just projecting here; I’ve got a milestone high school reunion coming up this week, one of those cultural rituals when we measure ourselves up against people we haven’t seen in decades and never give a second though to what they might think of us. But suddenly, when faced with the prospect of seeing them again, we are pulled back to our outdated roles and expectations. Have we lived up to what we were supposed to become? Or have we fallen short?

Or…is that even a measuring stick worth worrying about?

The truth, which is fairly obvious, is that what ought to matter is what Jesus sees in us. And the truth is that Jesus sees us more truly than we see ourselves; and even loves us more than we are ever capable of loving ourselves. It is Jesus who looks out on the crowds and sees salt and light, things that are not that impressive at first glance, but absolutely essential when you get right down to it. Could that be true for us, too? Could it be that, when Jesus looks at us he sees something precious, essential, even?

Maybe I’m missing the point. After all, we seem to be living in an era when Andy Warhol’s proclamation about everyone’s fifteen minutes of fame is beginning to look more like prophecy than commentary. Our culture seems particularly infected with an obsession with celebrity, and reality shows are just one symptom of our collective illness.

But then again, that’s the amazing thing about the lessons we read this morning. It’s not those who think highly of themselves who will be exalted, but those who think they are worth the least that God seems to find the most purpose in. Abram was an old man. He had no children, and the heir to his estate was a foreigner. In many ways, he had resigned himself to his fate. But when God speaks to him and tells him that there is more in store, Abram’s response isn’t, “Of course there is! It’s about time you saw my potential and recognized it for what it is!” Instead, Abram is astonished…but follows God nonetheless, trusting in these outlandish promises of descendants as numerous as the stars.

Not everyone is destined to be an Abram. And I don’t think that’s such a bad thing. But we do have a place in God’s design. And that’s what it means to be salt and light.

You see, this whole notion of what Jesus sees when he looks at us is two fold. The first is what Jesus sees in us, and whether we are willing to trust our place in Christ’s mission. For many of us, that’s enough to consider. But the second part of it is just as important, and may be just as crucial to unlocking the first. And that is this: do we see in others what Jesus sees in them?

For the past month, we have been highlighting the ministry of Journey, the men’s shelter located at Druid Hills Presbyterian. Our church and preschool families have worked together, bringing donations as we have talked about the important place this work holds. And last night, a small group of us had the opportunity to deliver the donations and have supper with the guys. And as we sat there and shared a meal, visiting with them and hearing their stories, it struck me: when Jesus looks at these guys, what does he see? And at the same time, do we even remotely see in them what Jesus does?

You see, what Journey does uniquely is to give homeless men a second chance. It’s not the end of the road for them, or a situation from which they will never bounce back; instead, it’s the beginning of the journey back to self-sufficiency. And while the residents face many challenges and obstacles, the faith that undergirds the whole enterprise is that they are as essential to the world as salt and light.

They have hit a rough spot, no doubt. For some, it’s because of a mistake they’ve made; for others, it’s because of pure bad luck and the twists and turns of a constantly shifting economy. But in a real sense, it doesn’t really matter what brought them there. Jesus doesn’t ask us to weed out the deserving from the undeserving. And fortunately for us, Jesus doesn’t see us in those terms, either. Instead, he calls us, as salt and light, to feed the hungry and house the homeless.

When we got to Journey last night, I saw a familiar face in one of the residents. I’ll call him Jake. And as Jake and I caught up over dinner, he shared the amazing news with me that he is moving into his own place within a month. Because of Journey, and because of, in no small part, the things that members of this church have done for him, he has been able to get desperately needed medical attention. He has been able to find steady employment, and to save enough to be able to get back out on his own.

And as much as these things matter, the most important thing of all is the reminder that we are not out there on our own. When Jake leaves Journey and moves into his own place, he won’t be alone. He will continue to be surrounded and uplifted by the same relationships that have accompanied him during his time there. Not only that, but what Jesus sees in Jake is that very same light that has shone through others to illumine his path.

So I ask you again: If Jesus were to look at you, what would he see? Can you trust and believe that you are essential to him and his purposes?

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He had been sleeping on the front porch. Here at the church. That’s not all that surprising; since I’ve been here at OPC, I probably encounter one person a year who spends the night under that roof. Usually, it happens when I get to church unusually early on a Sunday morning, surprising them – and me – with my arrival. I often greet them, ask what we might be able to do to help them – some food, a Breeze pass, maybe a bus ticket – and they are soon gone, never to return.

But this guy was different. The first time I saw him, I was so startled that I entered the church by another door. I assumed that he, too, would simply spend one night and then move along. But then, a couple of times I saw him riding down Lanier Drive on his bike as I came into the parking lot. On Ash Wednesday, I came back to the church after the service over at Brookhaven Christian. It was about 8:00 at night, and I could see the silhouette of the bicycle and the sleeping figure against the street lights.

I called up Brian, one of our members who is active at the Druid Hills Night Shelter, and we came back to the church to talk to this man to see what we might be able to do. He was polite, with a very gentle demeanor. He listened as Brian mentioned the Night Shelter and several other services, taking out a pad of paper and a pen to write them down.

He had worked steadily in manual labor since arriving in Atlanta more than 15 years ago. Recently, not only had work slowed down, but he was dealing with debilitating arthritis in his knees. The increasing medical bills and the decreasing employment finally caught up with each other, and he was forced onto the street. The two bills he could still manage to pay were his cellphone, in case of work, and a storage locker. We exchanged phone numbers, prayed, and parted ways.

On Friday, I called him to see how things were going. He had been down to the Night Shelter the day before. They don’t take walk-ins, but rely on referral agencies. He took the name and address of one, but it wouldn’t be open until the next Monday. After a few phone calls, I arranged a hotel room for him in Chamblee for a week, and promised to check in on Monday. And it was then that I began my education – rather, my steep learning curve – on resources for the homeless in the city of Atlanta.

He and I both began calling the referring agency the Night Shelter told him about, leaving messages. After not hearing back, I called our friend Bill at the Night Shelter, who mentioned two other agencies that sent referrals. One was Central Presbyterian. Caitlin, our former student intern, is working there now, and she was able to give me the name and direct number of two folks there. I called them and left a message. The first told me that the procedure was to line up around 7 am in front of Central; people were handled on a first-come, first-serve basis when they opened at 9. The second informed me that they only referred people when the Night Shelter told them that they could.

Time was ticking away; the week at the hotel was about up. The Night Shelter had space for him, but we couldn’t get anyone to make a referral. After a few more phone calls, I received word that the Night Shelter would let Central know that they could make a referral. That was good enough for me.

At 6:30 the next morning, I picked him up in front of the hotel, and we drove down to Central Presbyterian, right across the street from the State Capitol. It was cold, and for some odd reason, bundled up sitting on the cold stone wall with my new compatriot, I couldn’t help but be reminded of camping out for U2 tickets in high school with my best friend Eric down at the Omni.

We were fifth in line. And when the doors opened, the woman whose name had been given to me was the first person I saw. I introduced myself and my companion, and she assured me things would move along. After going through the intake process, he was given a letter of introduction and referral to the Night Shelter. By that afternoon, he had checked out of the hotel and moved into Druid Hills.

Why in the world would I tell you that story? There is plenty to be learned, of course, and I hope you take some of that with you. It’s a story of some good that we were able to do as a church, helping this man get off the street and, hopefully, back on a firm foundation. I was able to help move resources by virtue of the connections that I have both by virtue of being connected to Oglethorpe Presbyterian and because I am a member of this Presbytery. And, at the same time, I became aware of what a bureaucratic nightmare the whole process is, even for the most motivated of people. He didn’t have the personal or professional connections that I did; no one gave him names of people that he could call, just organizations. Simply because I have access to the internet and can use the word “pastor” in front of my name, doors were opened; information was shared; and resources eventually came together – and even then, only after three or four days of concerted work. Left to his own devices, he didn’t have a prayer.

That’s all well and good, I supposed. But what in the world does that story have to do with Jesus and the blind man? In that story, too, there are several layers at work. It begins as a conversation on the nature of sin: was the man’s blindness evidence of his sinfulness, or his parents? That’s where it starts, anyway, with this flawed first century understanding of physical ailment. It can’t just happen – there must be someone to blame, right?

For Jesus, though, the only purpose this man’s lack of sight could possibly serve would be to point to the miraculous healing work of God. Jesus spits in the ground, putting mud in the man’s eyes – most likely, a reference to Genesis and God’s molding of humanity out of the clay of the earth. And once the man was able to see, no one seems to celebrate. Instead, he becomes and object lesson for the whole community. His neighbors are convinced it is someone else. The Pharisees are outraged that this whole thing has violated the sanctity of the Sabbath.

Then doubt re-enters: they all refuse to believe that he was healed until his parents ascertain that yes, indeed, this is their son, and that yes, indeed, he was blind. Suddenly, he is testifying to Jesus’ power, horrifying the Pharisees, who force him out because he is a sinner – back to the original assumption about disease and sin.

Then at the very end, there is the dramatic flip. Jesus pronounces that those who are blind are the ones without sin; but those who can see with their eyes are the ones who are really blind to the realities of sin and grace around them.

What could these two stories possibly have to do with one another?

At first glance, perhaps it is the connection of a man who is outside of the “norm” beginning the long process of healing: from blindness to sight, from homelessness to steady employment and housing. And in both cases, it is a process: the blind man isn’t instantly healed. He has to go wash, then debate neighbors and religious leaders. His parents are sucked into the controversy, until he finally becomes an outspoken witness to Jesus’ power. Our friend, on the other hand, didn’t just wait for someone to get him off the street. And the story isn’t over. Some of his situation is better. He has a warm place to sleep. He has been able to get affordable medication to help with the arthritis. And his employment situation has improved. But…he’s looking to get new skills so that he isn’t relying on his physical strength for work. And in the meantime, he has to get used to sleeping in a room with a couple dozen other guys. It’s a start, but there’s a ways to go.

But that’s about where the stories part ways. Because if we stick with that parallel, pretty soon the pastor in one story becomes Jesus in the other; and I hope you know me well enough to know how uncomfortable that idea makes me. And I’m sure I know you all well enough to know that we are not a community of Pharisees, ready to call into question the whole enterprise of healing, how resources of time and money were used, what day these activities were carried out, itching to boot sinners out of our presence.

And yet, how many of us would be willing to believe that homelessness just happens? Surely there is someone to blame. Forty percent of the homeless population have substance abuse issues. Twenty-five percent have a mental illness. And fifteen percent are part of both groups. That’s half for whom illness or addiction is tied up in their state. And that also means that fully half have neither – including our friend from the story.

And yet, even for those who do, is their homelessness therefore the result of some kind of moral failing? Or to put it in the framework of the Biblical story, does ailment follow only where sin is present? So many of us have faced issues of addiction and mental illness in our own families, and those experiences color our own understanding of these issues. When folks are abstractions, we are more likely to generalize about them than when we know them personally. I know that’s true for me, anyway. The crowd in the story from John couldn’t celebrate the blind man’s healing. They were more disturbed by the fact that the order of the world they knew had been upset – blind people are blind because of some kind of historic fault. And healing, when it happens, has its time and place – not the Sabbath, for God’s sake.

And that brings me to the hard truth about this story from John’s gospel. Because when I read it, I am painfully aware that I have more in common with the Pharisee, the religious authority figure, the one thought to be the moral standard bearer of the community, than anyone else. That may not be why I went into ministry as a profession; but it has certainly become part of the job description.

And that’s the thing that I have to come face to face with: I am blind. I fail to see. When I talk to this guy sleeping on the porch, I’m ready for a moral failing: the smell of alcohol, a broken home, a felony conviction, bad hygiene. What I’m not prepared to face is plain old bad luck: medical bills, loss of employment, too few connections with those who could make a difference right now.

And that’s the irony: in my blindness comes the good news that my eyes can be opened. I can get a glimpse, as scales fall away, of one person’s life. And that life can open me up to a curiosity about the world and the way I think it works and the way it actually functions. And when I begin to see, when I begin the long process of healing, then I can recognize that this Jesus has been standing in front of me all along. But as long as I insist that I have all the sight I need, I truly remain blind.

What about you? Where is it that you have been blind? Where is that glimpse, that first vision, that long, dirty, muddy process of healing? Do you know that Jesus is right here, with you, through it all?

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Close your eyes and try to sleep now / close your eyes and try to dream / clear your mind and do your best to try and wash the palette clean / we can’t begin to know it, how much we really care / I hear your voice inside me / I see your face everywhere…

As cheesy as it is, I can’t hear this song without thinking of Rachel Corrie. And it makes me smile in spite of the ache in my chest.

Today is the eighth anniversary of Corrie’s death, crushed by an Israeli bulldozer as she stood in front of a Palestinian’s home in Rafah, Gaza Strip. I first heard about her death not long after it happened. A journalist friend of ours called me to ask if I knew her. I didn’t. But when I said her name out loud, the driver of the car I was in gasped. He had been in Rafah two weeks before. He had met Rachel Corrie. And he had stood next to her in front of the blade of an Israeli bulldozer.

The whole incident sent a chill through all of us internationals working in the West Bank or the Gaza Strip at the time. It seemed to me that the Israeli soldiers treated us more brazenly and that we were far more timid in approaching them.

I am still haunted by her death from time to time. This quote from her journal is the one that links her memory to the song and also makes me weep for what the world lost on March 16, 2003:

I’m really scared, and questioning my fundamental belief in the goodness of human nature. This has to stop. I think it is a good idea for us all to drop everything and devote our lives to making this stop. I don’t think it’s an extremist thing to do anymore. I still really want to dance around to Pat Benatar and have boyfriends and make comics for my coworkers. But I also want this to stop.

I hope this makes Pat proud.

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Yesterday, the Simon Wiesenthal Center launched a distortion campaign against the Presbyterian Church’s Middle East Study Committee, which I’ve been working on for close to two years. When Elizabeth and I lived in Palestine and wrote about the experience of living under Israeli occupation, we became all too familiar with such attacks. It is, in a nutshell, unpleasant.

Agreeing to serve on this committee, I expected some of this again. But I can’t say it’s fun. Gradye Parsons, Stated Clerk of the General Assembly, has a wonderful response to the attack which I have posted below. You can also read the Wiesenthal Center’s claims about our report, as well as a further smear piece from its director Rabbi Abraham Cooper, which I’ve provided links for:

Please help spread the word about this, so that cooler heads might prevail:
A statement from the Reverend Gradye Parsons, Stated Clerk of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) regarding the work of the General Assembly Middle East Study Team.

A human rights organization within the Jewish community has issued a statement about the report to the 219th General Assembly (2010) from the General Assembly committee to prepare a comprehensive study focused on Israel/Palestine . The statement says, “…we are deeply troubled that current moves underway in the Church radically depart from its 2008 commitment that its review of Middle East policies would be balanced and fair.”

We want to be sure to say to you in no uncertain terms: We support the existence of Israel as a sovereign nation within secure and recognized borders. No “but,” no “let’s get this out of the way so we can say what we really want to say.” We support Israel’s existence as granted by the U.N. General Assembly. We support Israel’s existence as a home for the Jewish people. We have said this before, and we say this again. We say it because we believe it; we say it because we want it to continue to be true.

The team, which engaged in intensive study, meetings, and travel to the Middle East since their appointment following the 218th General Assembly (2008), continues:

And, at the same time, we are distressed by the continued policies that surround the Occupation of the West Bank, East Jerusalem, the Gaza Strip, and the Golan Heights, in particular. Many of us come to this work out of a love for Israel. And it is because of this love that we continue to say the things we say about the excesses of Occupation, the settlement infrastructure, and the absolute death knell it is sounding for the hopes of a two-state solution, a solution that the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) has supported for more than sixty years.

Several previous General Assemblies of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) have adopted statements about Israel/Palestine. Two excerpts:

In 2004: The General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) has approved numerous resolutions on Israel and Palestine, repeatedly affirming, clearly and unequivocally, Israel’s right to exist within permanent, recognized, and “secure” borders (for example: 1969, 1974, 1977, 1983, 1989, etc.). It has deplored the cycle of escalating violence—carried out by both Palestinians and Israelis—which is rooted in Israel’s continued occupation of Palestinian territories (cf. statements of successive assemblies since 1967). Presbyterians have continued to be concerned about the loss of so many innocent lives of Israelis and Palestinians (see “Resolution on the Middle East,” approved in 1997, and “Resolution on Israel and Palestine: End the Occupation Now,” approved in 2003).” GA Minutes, 2004, p. 66.

In 2006: We call upon the church…”To work through peaceful means with American and Israeli Jewish, American and Palestinian Muslim, and Palestinian Christian communities and their affiliated organizations towards the creation of a socially, economically, geographically, and politically viable and secure Palestinian state, alongside an equally viable and secure Israeli state, both of which have a right to exist.” GA Minutes, 2006, p. 945.

I join the Middle East Study Team that will be reporting to this summer’s General Assembly in asking all people to continue to pray, and work, for the peace of Jerusalem.

The Reverend Gradye Parsons is Stated Clerk of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).

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Isaiah 58:1-12

I’m the last person who ought to be speaking tonight about how the church should to respond to the situation in Haiti. I’ve never been to Haiti. I know only the broadest strokes about its history. And it is only since the earthquake on January 12 that I have become familiar with the long-standing partnership our Presbytery has with La Gonave and the Episcopal Diocese of Haiti. So to stand before you tonight to offer some word on what the church with a big “C” ought to be doing about Haiti causes me much fear and trembling.

The reported numbers of dead, wounded, and missing are staggering. The photos give us a glimpse; but only that. The work of rebuilding will take far longer than George Clooney or Quincy Jones or Oglethorpe Presbyterian Church can keep a steady spotlight on the place. The truth is that the public’s compassion, our compassion, is limited. The further away we get from January 12, especially for those of us who have no personal connection to Haiti, the less we feel that first sting of agony for people 1200 miles away from us.

But what I know deep down in my bones, in the soul of my very being, is that the Church must respond. And we must do so on our knees, seeking God’s mercy as we respond. It is the voice of God speaking through the prophet Isaiah who drives the point home, especially on this Ash Wednesday, this day where the Church has traditionally begun the fast that leads to the feasting of Easter. A true and faithful fast is one that leaves behind callousness; a true and faithful fast is one that casts aside indifference; a true and faithful fast is one that is willing to let go of our righteous comforts and to be unsettled by the status quo.

Tonight, as we speak of mortality and repentance and grief and hope, we focus on Haiti. We do so because the world is complicit in her suffering, which goes much further into the past than just the January 12th earthquake. And we do so because suffering anywhere is suffering of all. As Paul said, “When one part of the body suffers, all parts suffer with it.” When Haiti suffers, we suffer; or rather, we ought to suffer. If we don’t, we might as well be cut off. To be Christians, to love this one called Jesus, is to be willing to put ourselves in the place of those who suffer and to allow ourselves that incarnate, fleshy agony of those who cry out for help from the Lord.

My hope is that those words of Isaiah will ring in our ears throughout the forty days of Lent, calling us to commit ourselves to easing suffering, wherever it might be, as evidence of our true and faithful fast: loosing the bonds of injustice; letting the oppressed go free; sharing our bread with the hungry; bringing the homeless poor into our house. It is then that light will break forth, that ruins will be rebuilt, that healing shall truly begin.

What more is there to say? I leave that to you. You have come here for one reason or another. My hunch is that there is something about Haiti that draws you here. So let us offer our prayers to God for Haiti. You may have one you wish to say out loud; please do. You may have one you wish to offer in the silence of your hearts. Whatever your prayer, trust that it is the Spirit who helps us in our weakness, even when we do not know how we ought to pray, offering up sighs too deep for words. Let us pray…

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Old Testament: Isaiah 62:1-5
New Testament: John 2:1-11

We are in the second week of our sermon series “Lives in the Balance.” We all know that we need to have balance in our lives in order to keep healthy physically, mentally, and spiritually. And last week we talked about how any healthy balance begins by being rooted in God, making time and space for God and God’s desires in our lives. This week, our attention comes to the gospel of John.

It is Jesus’ first miracle, at the wedding of Cana. He and his new disciples have been invited to the celebration, and there’s this almost comical exchange between Jesus and Mary, his mother, where he plays the shy kid and her the stage mom, telling him to go on out there and show them his stuff. Wine is the integral stuff of celebration, and the wine has run out. It’s up to Jesus to make a difference here. And so he transforms the water into wine; not only that, he makes excellent wine, not the cheap swill that would usually be brought out at the end of the party when no one was aware enough to tell the difference.

Jesus had many ministries. He was a healer, a teacher. He was a bold speaker of truth, turning over tables in the Temple. And he had made space for celebration.

Do we do the same? Does our life have that healthy balance of celebration and rejoicing that the Lord takes delight in? Because in this lesson, Jesus is…

You know what? I can’t do this. It just isn’t right. Well, I don’t mean that – I do think Jesus was saying something about the need for us to leave time for celebration in our lives. But if Jesus was anything in his ministry, he was relevant. Yes, we’ve planned a sermon series. Yes, we’ve got the music to fit and the cards in the pews and the info on the website. But how can we possibly talk about celebrating with all that is going on in Haiti?

Estimates range from 30,000 to 200,000 dead; 3 million people are being displaced, affected. The aftershocks of the earthquake will last far longer than the shifting of tectonic plates. Talking about dancing and celebrating just seems so wrong right now.

And then to add insult to injury, Pat Robertson comes along. With the kind of track record he’s had, the guy should be shuttled off to the side and made irrelevant, but he continues to baffle me with his popularity. This is the guy that blamed 9/11 on gays and Katrina on New Orleans’ lifestyle. The earthquake is because Haitians made a pact with the devil. It is time for the church to speak and to speak loudly. It is time for us to flip over the bizarre theological tables that are crowding our temples.

There is one place where I agree with Pat Robertson: evil has a foothold in Haiti. It’s the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, and the truth is that the poor are the first to suffer when disasters hit. It’s a nation that is forged in the original sin of slavery. And when they were finally able to get their freedom and independence, their former colonial overlords in France made them pay reparations. Let me repeat that: the slave masters demanded repayment for lost income from their former slaves.

Our own country has a track record that is spotty. We occupied the island from 1915-1934, an occupation that Tracy Kidder, author of Mountains Beyond Mountains described as “brutal.” We have both supported and undermined democracy there, rendering us schizophrenic at best.

Meanwhile France is putting pressure on the international community to forgive Haiti’s debts. Now. Not before the earthquake, when it was still a country on the brink of chaos and plunged in debilitating poverty, but after. Hurray?

In 1989, San Francisco had an earthquake which measured 6.9. 63 people died. A tragedy, yes; but nowhere near the scale of what is happening in Haiti. The difference, as far as I’m concerned, is one purely of money and architecture.

But even though I don’t think it’s time to talk about celebration, I think the text may have something to say about this conversation. When Jesus calls for the purification jars filled with water, it reminds me of our baptism and our commitment to be willing to have our hearts break by the things that break the heart of God. And as Jesus transforms this water of baptism into wine, it becomes the substance of celebration, yes. But it is also what he shared with his disciples at the Last Supper, proclaiming, “This is my blood…” There’s plenty of blood in Haiti right now; I imagine that Christ’s blood is mingled with it.

There is, to me, a simple truth about suffering and God: God doesn’t cause evil to happen (and such an earthquake, with its immeasurable destruction, is surely evil). God, instead, is in the midst of the tragedy. God suffers with those who suffer. And because of this, there is the possibility that God can make this moment one of transformation. We are God’s vessels; and so we can respond with immediate need for those who are so desperate in this moment. But Haiti demands a long-term engagement so that we might open up the possibility of God’s justice to reign.

The promise of celebration remains, yes. This is the heart of our faith as a resurrection people, that out of death comes life, that those who hunger and thirst for righteousness and justice shall be filled, that those who weep will rejoice. It is God who makes this true; it is our task to work alongside God.

There will be time to dance. But for now, it’s time to weep. May our tears fill jars to overflowing. And may we ourselves be transformed.

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