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Monday
Sep182017

The Rev. Holly Lyman Antolini's sermon for the 15th Sunday after Pentecost, 9/17/2017

Proper 19, Year A 1st option 9-17-17

© Holly Lyman Antolini

Lections: Exodus 14:19-31; Ps. 114; A Living Epistle from Alfredo Garcia; [Romans 14:1-12]; Matthew 18:21-35

 

The very earth trembles, O God, at your healing, liberating presence. And so we cry out and plead with you, turn the hard rock of our resentments into a pool of living water and the flint-stone of our abiding prejudices into a flowing spring. Stretch out your hand of power and liberate us from our bondage to judgment and contention. Make our hearts skip with forgiveness and turn us back to your reconciliation. Restore us to you and to each other. AMEN.

 

To talk about division is almost becoming a tired old trope these days. We’re living in a time and in a society rife with fierce prejudice. It rises on every political side, making it very hard for us to have a productive conversation about all the things that ail us as a society.

 

Our intemperance has the feel to me of the “time of troubles” I so well remember in the depths of the Vietnam War and with the quaking social shifts of the Civil Rights Movement in the late 1960’s, a time of riots and persecution, of terrorism that unleashed unbridled counter-terrorism, of liberation that fomented a frightening display of oppressive opposition, guard-dogs chafing at the leash to bite demonstrators; fire hoses knocking marchers over; snarling mobs beating innocent civilians. The time when hatred took grim root and flowered into the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. It was the time that heiress Patty Hearst – only two-and-a-half years older than me - was kidnapped right by the Berkeley campus by the Symbionese Liberation Army, and I, just across the Bay and, though no heiress, still visible as the daughter of Stanford University’s President Richard Lyman, used to ride my bicycle across Palo Alto to my job with Sunset Books with my heart pounding for fear I too might be swept up by terrorists. It was a time in which my father was in the black books of some for having called the riot police to campus to quell a violent anti-war demonstration and in the black books of others for having insisted on having Black Panther Angela Davis speak on campus at the invitation of the Black Student Union.

 

Then, as now, the turgid dynamics of social animosity thrust people onto “sides,” regardless of their effort at nuance. Then, as now, it felt perilous, as if the entire fabric of democratic society might – and on occasion, did – not just shred but literally explode into violent contention.

 

You don’t have to have been following the dispute over former intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning’s invitation to a Harvard Kennedy School fellowship to sense that, in this climate of intolerance, the notion of “free speech,” so crucial to any real democracy, indeed, to any community that values “the currency of truth,” is imperiled, as we argue about what speech is allowable and what speech is impermissible if democracy (and basic community) is to be served. We’ve come too far to believe that “free speech” is a simple matter of allowing people to say whatever they think, even if it foments a climate of oppression and harm to others. Yet our definitions of “harm” have, in some settings, become so delicately calibrated that any disagreement seems liable to provoke a shut-down of speech.

 

This polarization and indeed, this sensitivity even affects us at St. James’s. Some of you have come to me in concern that my preaching or our community prayers have become politically divisive. Others of you have been diligently and sometimes painfully holding us accountable for speech that is exclusionary of people among us who have long suffered from the dynamics of social prejudice and exclusion. These are the dangers we run, being a church of real diversity that is open to its community and world, a church dedicated to the work of the transformation both inward in our own community as a congregation and outward into the world around us, a church attempting to be both grounded in the real world and real people’s experience and at the same time aspiring to offer glimpses of God’s realm, God’s dream of the Beloved Community in which every single person “has a voice in the conversation,” as Ruby Sales, founder of the SpiritHouse Project, a mission in inner-city Decatur Georgia, says in her interview with “On Being’s” Krista Tippett – an interview we’ll be listening and responding to with conversation and song tonight at our open Anti-Oppression Team meeting, so y’all come! 5 to 7 PM, here at the church. Bring something to share for the potluck! All are welcome![https://onbeing.org/programs/ruby-sales-where-does-it-hurt/] As Ruby Sales herself says, “No one is disposable! All are essential players in society!” 

 

Sales says that growing up held in the powerful tradition of what she calls “black folk religion” taught her “something serene about love,” something with non-violence in its essence long before Martin Luther King Jr. grew up in it, something that abided in her and carried her through all the assaults of the Civil Rights Movement. She participated, at the age of 17, in the Selma to Montgomery marches of 1965. That year she was arrested in August with some fellow activists in Fort Deposit in Lowndes County[Alabama], where they were picketing a whites-only store. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 had prohibited such segregation. They were taken to the county seat of Hayneville and jailed for six days. After being released, she and a few others went to purchase sodas at a nearby store. She was threatened by a shotgun-wielding construction worker, Tom Coleman, who was a special county deputy. One of Sales' fellow marchers, Jonathan Daniels, a white seminarian from the Episcopal Theological School – [our own Episcopal Divinity School] –  pushed her out of the way and took the shot meant for her, dying instantly.”  Even the attempt on her life, which traumatized her into silence for seven months, and even the death threats that succeeded it, when she insisted on testifying at Coleman’s trial, didn’t shake her resolve.  She talks in her Tippett interview about growing up steeped in the songs and spirituals that sprang from slaves’ refusal to be coerced by the abuse of their “masters” into hatred and enmity, even as they contended against the oppression of slavery, songs like “I love everybody, I love everybody, I love everybody in my heart. You can’t make me hate you. You can’t make me hate you. You can’t make me hate you in my heart.” Sure enough, even after the shooter was acquitted by a jury of 12 white men, “the result of the trial led to legal challenges and a reform of the jury selection procedures, which had long excluded blacks, first because they were disenfranchised from voting before 1965, then because of a discriminatory process in developing the jury pool.” [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ruby_Sales]

 

Into this history – and into our contentious “moment” in that history – speak our readings for today. They, too, are full of contention. First there is the God who saves the enslaved Jewish people through the power he endows the out-stretched hand of Moses, parting the waters of the Red Sea so the Israelites can flee their bondage and then closing those dread seas over the heads of the pursuing Egyptians so that the entire army is drowned. “Thus the Lord saved Israel that day from the Egyptians,” says the Book of Exodus.  We talk about “being personally saved” by Jesus from our sins, but in this, the earliest biblical passage about the salvation of God, it’s the liberation of a whole people from economic and political oppression that is God’s saving act. God is not of two minds about the human players in this situation; in this story, God is biased – lethally biased, in fact – toward the poor and the oppressed. If there is sin in this story, it is clearly the sin of the “masters” who hold the human power and use it to neglect and oppress others.

 

Then, as if it were a further “gloss” on God’s bias, there is the hierarchy of slaves in Matthew’s Gospel Chapter 18, in which the first slave – clearly monumentally wealthy despite his enslaved status – owes his king a debt so enormous that it’s equivalent to 150,000 years-worth of the wages the second slave might earn. But where the king forgives the first debtor that nearly incalculably enormous debt, the first refuses to forgive the second debtor a mere 100 days’ worth of wages. That petty refusal, in the end, imprisons the first debtor himself in torture. “So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart,” says the king to the mean-spirited debtor. (My heart always palpitates at dire pronouncements like this in Matthew!)

 

And the frame Matthew sets around this drastic scenario of indebtedness? This opening sentence: “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.” Seven: the biblical number of completion, “the earthly culmination of a divine thought.” [Esperanza Spalding in TIME, Sept. 18, 2017] We, the incalculable debtors, are to forgive seventy times that completion. Our forgiveness is to be boundless.

 

Clearly we are to join God in God’s bias toward those who have suffered oppression. But how are we EVER to heal from our history of oppression? How are we EVER to recover from the contentious intolerance of our current moment? There’s no formula for this. If there were, we would have overcome our bondage to the sin of oppressing the “other,” many generations ago, certainly after the 1960's & the Civil Rights Movement. But if Ruby Sales has anything to say about it – and I think Ruby has been listening to Jesus, in this amazing resurrection life of hers, lived deeply into the ultimate sacrifice of another’s human life, the ultimate payment, on her behalf – it all begins and ends with forgiveness. It is only when the safety of forgiveness and the foregoing of judgment is assured that all voices dare speak out and take their essential place in the conversation.

 

Which is why all our “Guidelines for Communication” that are written on the yellow card in your bulletin and on that banner over there are actually a process of “forgiveness-in-motion,” and “forgiveness in community. As we always do at every meeting, we will begin at the opening of the Anti-Oppression Team meeting tonight by refreshing these Guidelines in our minds and hearts, because they are so deep, so broad and so high – as broad and high and deep as the love of God – that we have to keep practicing them over and over in order to even begin to glimpse what they offer us, like Ruby Sales, singing over and over "I love everybody... you can't make me hate you!" All of the Guidelines together are, in fact, a process for opening up a margin of grace in our hearts and in our community, to allow each other different points of view and incomplete processes of spiritual transformation, to be gentle with ourselves and each other, recognizing that we are often wrong or short-sighted in our perceptions and harmful in our impact even when our intentions are honorable, to begin to acknowledge where we ourselves hold power, and to be biased in favor of the least powerful – the least accepted – voices among us so that those voices can be strengthened to share their crucial “currency of truth” with the community.

 

Because as the radical amounts of forgiveness in Matthew’s parable suggest, in the end, “forgiveness is not a calculable reality but the extension of a gracious spirit to each other from our hearts.” Not quantifiable. Not transactional. No absolute number. No limit. No boundary. No “finish line,” at which enough generosity has been shown. A “wildly extravagant generosity.” [Thomas Troeger, New Proclamation Series A 1999] A truly liberating forgiveness. AMEN.