Last Sunday was pretty great. The choir was back in session. Familiar and fresh faces alike settled into pews, and the kids streamed out from them. We sang joyfully to God and our singing felt good. Psalm 149 was on tap and seemed to describe the exuberance we were experiencing.
“For the Lord takes pleasure in his people!” it says, always a nice reminder,
“and adorns the poor with victory,” which I am totally on board with,
“let them praise his Name in the dance!” something I believe we totally corner the market on here at St. Michael’s,
“let them sing praise to him with timbrel and harp,” I mean, I’ve definitely seen Amy with a tambourine in hand at times, so I guess that counts;
“Let the praises of God be in their throat and a two edged sword in their hand!”
A sword, huh? But maybe it’s like a sword of the Spirit, you know? To go with the helmet of Salvation and Breastplate of Righteousness.
“Oh no,” says the psalm, it’s “To wreak vengeance on the nations and punishment on the peoples.” At this point I have to look over at Chris, “this is starting to sound less church friendly.” It only gets worse.
“To bind their kings in chains and their nobles with links of iron; to inflict on them the judgement decreed, this is the glory for all his faithful people. Hallelujah!”
Suddenly, chanting this, it feels less like we’re in church and more like we’re at a sporting event, say, the kind that might have taken place with lions in the Flavian Colosseum. I kid, but to a certain extent it’s not funny. This is the kind of language militants and extremists thrive on. Glossing over these words in four-part harmony belies their history as battle cries. Why are we still singing them? Do we worship a violent God?
This morning Moses and all of Israel cross the Red Sea on dry land. And when their captors and tormentors try to follow them God whispers a secret in his ear, “stretch out your hand again and I’ll take care of them.” Moses consents, and with a single, cacophonous woosh the bad guys are gone. Anyone who has ever been bullied can get the appeal of cheering at this scene. Anyone who has ever found themselves under the thumb of an oppressor knows the fantasy of seeing a strong man drown, or choke, or at least humiliate himself in front of others. It’s the stuff of truly satisfying entertainment; sometimes whole season-long narrative arcs build up how bad a person is just to reward the viewer in the final hour with the glee of watching him fall down. But the life of faith is not an entertainment, and something about this story fits poorly with the way we have come to know God in this tradition and this community. Even if the aim is for a greater good God is planning for, like the liberation of God’s people from slavery, scripture presents us with the question of whether God uses violence as a means for achieving that end. This question follows us all the way to the cross, and to the way many Christians have talked about the cross for so much of our history. So much of Christian history paints the cross as God’s necessity, God’s only answer to a violent human problem. By this account, God is not only not above killing enemies for his own good ends, he’s not above killing his own Beloved, either. Do we worship a violent God?
At times, Jesus would appear to say that yes, we do. “Forgive each other as often as you have to, as many as seventy times seven times” Jesus says in the Gospel this morning, “or my Father in Heaven will hand you over to be tortured until your own debts are paid.” Jesus! Let’s presume that he actually said this, that it’s not just some Gospel writer or editor’s later addendum to help strike fear into the hearts of new believers. The truth is, the Gospels frequently find Jesus speaking of a God who gives people up or hands people over or casts people out to some darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth. A quick glance at these passages reveals a not-so-hidden truth: humans don’t actually require that much help from God to get stuck in a really dark place where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth! The utter isolation this turn of phrase speaks of is nearly always man-made! It is a place exclusively created by and reserved for people who don’t want to show up to the party, don’t want to receive an act of generosity or don’t want to give back something which never belonged to them in the first place. It is a corner we stubbornly put ourselves in when we refuse to participate in the embarrassing fragility of a graced human experience. In today’s example it is a man who took his good fortune and ran with it but refused to play it forward to the next person who begged for the same mercy from him. His stubborn stinginess is torture enough. Is speaking of a God who hands him over to such torture violent? It reminds me of Al-Anon. In the desire to help a friend or loved one who is struggling with addiction many family members find that no amount of coercion will save them, the only way to help is by letting go. It is excruciating, watching someone self-destruct, but often our holding on is only more destructive. This surrender is painful, sometimes fatal, sometimes transformative, and utterly non-violent.
Maybe God lets us go sometimes, and maybe this is violently terrifying. Maybe God surrenders us to our own destructive appetites knowing that we will only ever escape them if we learn to surrender in return. In the Jesus story, though, it seems the only thing at God’s disposal to surrender is God’s own self. In the Incarnation, God surrenders far-removed transcendence for human flesh and blood. On the cross, Jesus surrenders his life to our blood-thirsty cries for execution. The revelation of God in Jesus is fundamentally non-violent, yet intimately bound with our own self-destruction. Of course it looks violent. God stoops so low as to come to us on our own terms at first, and the terms of humanity have been steeped in blood from the beginning. As we learn God’s terms, we begin to find another way. Years after Moses heard God speak of his plan for the Egyptian soldiers, he hears God say, “thou shalt not kill.” Who had changed their mind, Moses or God?
I have to confess, though, I actually enjoy the more aggressive psalms. And the despairing psalms. And the fearful ones. For some reason, I’ve enjoyed them more and more ever since last November. When they cry out against wicked rulers who oppress the poor, the injured and the foreigner in our land, I cry out, too, often loudly. “Take down these wicked good for nothing rulers, God! DO something!” This is my unabashed prayer. In praying it, I believe that I surrender some of the wrath that would otherwise eat me up alive. In praying the retributive violence my heart longs for, the Spirit removes the brunt of it to a power higher than my own, sparing me some resentment whose only effective target in the end would be myself. In the process God even leaves me with just enough fire and heat to do my part to make the world a more just and peaceful place …with just a little bit of grumbling on the side. Because seriously, can anyone forgive the same person seventy times seven times without their thoughts getting stuck in the outer darkness at least once or twice along the way?”
-the Rev. James Michael Joiner, Exodus 14:19-31, Matthew 18:21-35