Monday, September 28, 2020

I Am Because We Are

'If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God 
as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave, 
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
he humbled himself 
and became obedient to the point of death-- 
even death on a cross.
Therefore God also highly exalted him
and gave him the name 
that is above every name,
so that at the name of Jesus
every knee should bend, 
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue should confess
that Jesus Christ is Lord, 
to the glory of God the Father.
Therefore, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed me, not only in my presence, but much more now in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.'
--Philippians 2: 1-13

In Star Wars, Episode I: The Phantom Menace—and yes, you read that right—there is an early conflict between the human population of the planet Naboo and the underwater creatures called the Gungans.  When the droid army of the nefarious Trade Federation invades the planet, Jedi Knights Obi-Wan Kenobi and Qui Gon Jinn try to get the Gungans to help the humans above.  When Gungan leader Boss Nass comments that—and I’m quoting here—“We-sa no care-en about da Naboo!”  Obi-Wan reminds him that the two populations form a symbiotic circle:  “What happens to one of you effects the other.  You must understand this," the Jedi tells him. 

Boss Nass isn’t swayed, but later, once those droid armies come for them, the Gungans agree to aid the people of Naboo and drive away the invaders.  It only happens when the two very different populations realize that their existence depends on each other.  It may not be the most popular of the films, but Episode I will still preach.

Boss Nass, Gungan leader, from Star Wars, Episode I

What the Gungans and Naboo finally realize is a concept called in the Zulu language of southern Africa, ubuntu.  Loosely translated, ubuntu means ‘I am because we are.’  The 76th General Convention of the Episcopal Church, back in 2009, used ubuntu as its theme, and several smaller diocesan conventions—including my then home diocese of Southwestern Virginia—used ubuntu as their theme as well.   I am because we are.  

Archbishop Desmond Tutu of Cape Town, South Africa called ubuntu the “essence of being human.” What is at the heart of ubuntu is the truth that nothing on this planet exists in isolation.  We are all connected—humans of every kind of tribe, the birds of the air, the fish of the sea, the trees, the rocks, even the bugs crawling in the corners of our kitchen.  

Humans, though, are the only creattures that can choose whether or not to accept this fact, and so we often push others away.  Sometimes we do this because we believe we have to be strong individuals and must go it alone. Sometimes we do this because our tribal instincts take over and we refuse to accept that someone of another class, another race, another religion, or another tribe could possibly share anything in common with us.  Regardless of the reason, whenever we push others away we go against the spirit of ubuntu, forgetting, as Obi Wan said, what happens to one of us effects all of us.

Nelson Mandala, another South African who, like Archbishop Tutu, fought tirelessly to end the evils of apartheid in his home country, described ubuntu this way:  a traveler through a country might stop in a village, and without even asking for them, receive food and shelter.  He needn’t ask because the villagers understand that this stranger is like them, on a journey.  Ubuntu doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t try to enrich ourselves on our own journey, merely that we must understand that we are all on this journey together.  I am because we are. 

Writing much earlier than Archbishop Tutu or Mr. Mandela, Saint Paul nevertheless understood the principle of ubuntu, which is at the heart of this section of his letter to the church in Phillipi that we read this week. He implores the people of this diverse and somewhat fractured community to be of the same mind and to have the same love, to do nothing from selfish ambition and to look to the interests of others.  To do so, Paul says, is to put on the same mind that was in Christ Jesus.  So what did his mind look like?

Jesus absolutely understood the concept of ubuntu.  His message was good news for the poor, the sick, and the outcast, and a call for the healthy, wealthy, and privileged to understand how connected they all were.  Like the prophets of old, Jesus called those in comfortable positions to remember what he called the poor in spirit—those who were on the margins of society, those who had been forgotten by the elites—and to see them as beloved siblings in the household of God.  That sounds a lot like ubuntu. What does it take, then, for people to live into this idea?  

Paul says that Jesus did not regard his equality with God as something to be exploited, but instead emptied himself.  The word translated as ‘emptied’ is kenosis.  It is a word Paul comes back to a total of five times—here, and then twice in his first Letter to the Corinthians, once in his second letter, and finally in his letter to the Romans.  This emptying employed by Jesus is what Paul invites his listeners to practice. It requires people to first be aware of their own power and privilege; Jesus, after all, was perfectly aware of his divine nature, but he still chose to humble himself so as to lift others us. Jesus didn’t have to live this way, but he chose to, so that we who proclaim him as our Lord may follow; so that we may humble ourselves, empty ourselves, because we know that we cannot succeed unless everyone succeeds.  

This is ubuntu, the recognition of our interconnectedness, and to be Christ-like, to be little Christs ourselves, is to see these connections between me, you, them, everyone and everything.  As Martin Luther King put it in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail, “I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be, and you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be.”  

This invitation to kenosis, to ubuntu, is good news for us right now.  We are splintered and fragmented now more than anytime that most of us can remember.  At the core of this fragmentation, I have come to believe, is our inability to see just how connected we all are, and when we don’t see the connection it becomes a lot easier to not care about each other.  Forgetting our connection leads us to make choices that are based only on our own individual needs and wants, which, at best, leaves others fending for themselves, and at worst, puts them in actual danger.  

Perhaps nowhere do we see this play out better than the conversation around the wearing of masks in public spaces.  When a mandate comes down requiring us to do so I often hear the same response that it infringes on individual rights.  But what would Jesus say about this?  What does his example of kenosis and the African model of ubuntu have to teach us in this moment?  If we empty ourselves, perhaps we could see that to wear our mask is not so much about our own comfort but about the protection of others, since we can easily give off the coronavirus without even having symptoms.  If we remember ubuntu—I am because we are—we might be able to acknowledge that our own wants and desires can only really be met within the context of a greater community—church, city, state, country, and world—and that any freedom we claim to have that does not respect the needs of the whole community is a false freedom and a contradiction of the very life Jesus calls us into.

The first in-person gathering of our parish since March, where everyone was masked and socially distanced.

Paul encourages us to be imitators of Christ, which doesn’t mean being robots or sheeple, totally forgoing any sense of a personal identity.  I suspect to be an imitator of Christ looks like realizing that there is more at stake in this world than my own wants and desires, that our lives are all interconnected.  Accepting such a reality requires surrender, which is hard.  Our society doesn’t much care for surrender when it is so focused on one’s own personal life choices.  

But that’s what it takes: surrendering the self to ubuntu, to the truth that we are in this thing together—not just the pandemic but the activity of living itself.  We are all connected to each other and to our world .  Jesus knew this.  If one of us is in danger, we are all in danger.  If one of us dies, we all mourn.  If the earth cries out as the waters rise and the forests burn, all creation everywhere is affected. We can only really know freedom and life when everyone and everything in our community—church, city, state, country, and world—understands how dependent we are on one another.  What happens to one of us affects all of us.  We must understand this. 

That is what Jesus offers, and when we empty ourselves as he did, when we accept and live into the truth that I only am because we all are, then the same mind will be in us as was in Christ Jesus.

Sunday, September 13, 2020

How Many Times Must We Forgive?

 '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.”'

--Matthew 18: 21-35

I don’t know about you, but I’m the kind of person that generally just likes to be told what to do.  It’s easier that way, wouldn’t you agree?  As long as I know the rules, know what I should do, there won’t be any problems.  Ever.  Right? 

But sometimes the rules get muddy.  In the movie Office Space the character of Joanna is required to wear 15 pieces of flair for her job at Chatchki’s Restaurant.  She begrudgingly does what she is told and wears 15 buttons along her suspenders, but then her boss scolds her for not being like Bryan, who wears 37 pieces—we all know a Bryan at work, don’t we?  Why not just make the required number 37?  Why punish her for following the rule—it’s buttons on suspenders, for crying out loud!

Joanna and her flair.

And then there are cases where the spirit of the rule gets lost.  This is what Jesus addresses over and over again in the Gospels.  It is not that he is against the rules prescribed in the Torah and Talmud—far from it—but what Jesus sees again and again is people who follow the rules only because they have to, only doing the bare minimum so as to stay in God’s good graces.


The question presented to Jesus in this reading from Matthew’s Gospel is how many times a person must forgive someone who asks them for forgiveness.  According to the Talmud the answer is seven, and no more.  That is the expectation, which is why Peter asks if that’s correct—likely expecting Jesus to give him a pat on the back for remembering or applauding how merciful he is to forgive that many times.  But what he really wants to know is, “What’s the minimum number of times I can forgive a person and still be right with God?”  Which is why Jesus gives him the answer that he does:  ἕως  ἑβδομηκοντάκις  ἑπτά.   

 The literal translation is “until 70 times seven.”  Our New Revised Standard Version sadly translates this to 77 times, which is a lot, but it misses the point.  The number 7 in Hebrew is the number associated with God, and the number 70 is associated with perfection. 


To forgive 70 times seven does not mean that Jesus is making the minimum number for forgiving a person 490—which is what 70 x 7 is—but it is Jesus’ way of telling Peter that forgiveness is not a commodity to be reckoned on a calculator.  The number of times we should forgive is a number tied directly into the very heart of God, which means it is limitless, and to use the language of numbers when contemplating forgiveness, as if it’s about doing the least amount and still getting rewarded by God, is inappropriate and theologically inaccurate. 


In short, it’s not about 77 times or 490 times.  The number is meant to sound so astronomically high that nobody could ever hope to achieve it.  The use of absurdly high numbers is something Jesus incorporates a lot into his teachings, including in the parable that he offers in response to Peter’s question.  In the parable a servant owes his master 10,000 talents.  To give you some perspective, that is the equivalent of a day’s worth of wages for 150,000 years!  It’s more than the annual budget of the entire Roman province where these folks lived. Let that sink in. 


There is literally no way this man will ever pay off such a debt.  And that is the point.  When he pleads with his master for mercy it is granted.  But when that same servant runs into another who owes him 100 danarii, which was about a day’s wage, he shows no such mercy.  Of course, when the forgiving master finds out what has happened he punishes the servant that was unwilling to forgive his neighbor. 


The Parable of the Unforgiving Debtor in stained glass form

There is a great deal that Jesus has to teach us through this parable. Peter, like many of us, just wants to know what is the rule for forgiveness that he should follow.  But Jesus understands that this kind of mindset can cause us to forget the spirit of such a rule, to be concerned only with doing what is expected of us and nothing more, taking the relational component out of the rule entirely.  The 77 times—or until 70 times seven—is a reflection of God’s unending, boundless forgiveness for us, which is reflected in the astronomical debt that the master forgives in the parable. 


This is how we are to think of forgiveness, not as something quantifiable, but as an invitation into the vulnerable power of God.  Are we willing to let our sense of forgiveness reflect God’s?  Are we actively working to be in relationship with others the way God is in relationship with us? 


This teaching illustrates how relationships often work:  we go to God for forgiveness and God grants it to us—we know this because the priest tells us so each Sunday—but we seldom show the same level of mercy to each other.  There is an intrinsic notion of ‘pay it forward’ when it comes to God’s forgiveness for us, which we rarely reflect because we’re concerned with what is fair or what we or others deserve. But forgiveness is about restoring relationships, both to God and one another. 


Still, we cannot ignore the very real fact that the same ones that remind us of God’s forgiveness often encourage us to keep forgiving those who continuously abuse us. We all know we should forgive others, yes, but what does Jesus’ message mean for the woman who keeps forgiving the spouse who continuously beats her, or the person who keeps coming back to the church community that won’t honor the full expression of their identity?  Well, they should just try to forgive and forget, we often hear, but this places the onus of forgiveness on the victim, which does not affect any real change; in fact, it often aggravates the situation and heaps a load of guilt on those who are already hurting. 


It must be noted here that while the teaching in the Torah and Talmud is that one should forgive a person who has wronged them up to seven times, they are only meant to do so if that person asks for forgiveness and is genuinely contrite about it. Non-apologies, which we often see today?  Not allowed. According to this rule the victim is never expected to flippantly forgive a person who keeps hurting them without remorse.  Jesus understood this; remember last week when we were reminded that if a person shows no remorse then they are to be treated, in Jesus’ words, “as a tax collector or a Gentile,” that is, as someone we are to still love and commit into God’s care, albeit from afar. 

Jesus’ call to us that we are to keep forgiving well beyond seven times is not a condoning of hurtful behavior or an encouragement for people to remain in abusive relationships, and certainly not a condemnation of the original rule.  Instead, Jesus is trying to get us to see that to forgive is to make a conscious choice to release the person who has wounded us from the sentence of our judgment, however justified that judgment may be.  It represents a choice to leave behind our resentment and desire for retribution, however fair such punishment may seem.  The behavior remains condemned and there are still consequences, but forgiveness means the original wound’s power to hold us trapped behind a wall of shame and fear is broken.  We are only ever able to do this because human forgiveness is rooted in divine forgiveness, which is the point of the parable.


This teaching from Jesus does encourage us to keep forgiving the person who comes back to us again and again with a contrite heart, but there is also a lesson here for us to keep coming back and seeking forgiveness ourselves, to do the hard, self-reflective work of seeing how we as both individuals and communities have profited from being unmerciful—just as the first servant in the parable profited off his neighbor. 


It’s not about reaching a magic number, doing the bare minimum just so we can say we’re following the rules, or forgiving and forgetting. It’s about restoring our relationship with God and one another. Right now, brothers and sisters, our country, our world is in need of such restoration.  But restoring relationships is messy, tough work, which takes time and effort, which is why both seeking forgiveness and asking for it is a spiritual practice.  We have to do it day after day.  Our relationships with one another are rooted in our relationship with God, and, as a certain prayer reminds us, it is by seeking forgiveness of our trespasses that we may forgive those who trespass against us.