15 Pentecost A—9/17/17
Genesis 50:15-21; Exodus 14:19-31; Matthew 18:21-35
Pr. Scott Kramer
This past Friday my wife and I returned from a visit to Glacier National Park in northwestern Montana. Over the course of the week we put almost 1800 miles on the car! Turns out that it was more than just a road journey. For me, it was a spiritual journey, as well. I’d like to share some of that road-trip with you this morning because a lot of what we experienced over the past week ties in with our readings for today.
I’m not one of these guys who charges hundreds of miles across the countryside non-stop. (When I was younger I sure did!) We took breaks at rest stops and historical sites along the way. At many of these stops were interpretive signs describing the history of the area. We read about everything from geological history to human history. We learned about rocks and mountain formation over billions of years. We learned about the cultures of Native peoples and white settlers, mostly of the past two hundred years.
I hadn’t known that Glacier National Park sits adjacent to the Blackfeet Indian Reservation. At one of the historical sites we visited along the highway inside the reservation is an interpretive sign facing a spectacular valley and mountain range that is all now part of Glacier National Park. The sign indicates that all of Glacier National Park used to be Blackfeet territory. A series of broken treaties and the threat of violent force by white settlers and the U.S. government reduced that territory to a fraction of its original size. This reduction of Indian territory, the sign reads, is not just ancient history; it is a process that continues today.
I confess that I am torn. On the one hand, my wife and I love the national parks. We are glad that they are protected from business and industry interests that would be quite happy to ruin these lands for the sake of profit! We enjoy having the privilege of visiting the parks. On the other hand, Glacier National Park—and all the other national parks—used to be Indian territory. Here is an injustice that has never been remedied.
I was up in Lynnwood at Trinity Lutheran yesterday to hear the Rev. Jim Wallis, in my view one of the great Christian writers and thinkers of our time. He was in town speaking on the topic of “Race, Privilege and the Bridge to a New America.” One of his points I remember most is this: White people, get stuck, he said, in feeling blamed for sins of the past: We didn’t personally kick the Indians out of their land. We didn’t personally enslave Africans. It’s not our fault; it’s not our responsibility. And Wallis said, It’s true; we modern people have not done these things personally. But, he continued, anytime we benefit from the oppression of other people it is our responsibility.
So, on the one hand, the natural wonders of the parks are protected and available for my use. On the other hand, the theft of these lands from their original owners represents yet another example of injustice: powerful people using their power to exploit less-powerful people. I enjoy our national parks, formerly Native land; issues of justice and compassion for Native peoples are therefore my responsibility.
All of us may be tempted to think of Christian faith as a private matter between ourselves and God. We may not want to hear about politics and social issues on Sunday morning. Christian faith is personal but it is never private, since our faith in God is expressed primarily through our relationships with other people. We cannot both be disciples of Jesus and at the same time fail to take personal responsibility for the tough political and social questions of our day.
For instance, each day we are confronted with choices about how we use power. Our Christian scriptures are loaded with stories of personal choices and community choices involving power.
Today’s readings, for example, include the story of reconciliation between Joseph and his brothers. Young Joseph had been his father’s favorite son but was sold into slavery by his jealous older brothers. Over time, the tables turned. Joseph became very powerful. But when Joseph is presented with an opportunity to take revenge on his brothers, he uses his power instead to practice compassion and mercy.
Our reading from Exodus is another story of choices involving power. Moses, also once a great leader among the Egyptians, leads his people out of slavery. The powerful Egyptians who had exploited the Hebrew people’s labor to build their empire pursue them but are defeated.
In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus tells a story in which a powerful person practices mercy. Instead of learning from his example, however, the person who received mercy refuses to practice mercy toward others.
Christian faith asks an important question: In the short lives that we live on this earth, what do we do with the power we’re given? Do we choose self-interest, or self-givng? Do we choose to acquire and defend greater privilege and power for ourselves and our kind, or, do we choose mercy, compassion, and justice for the sake of the brother or sister in need, whoever they may be?
Each of us is faced with this question every day, and we choose. The priorities of a great many people and their leaders in our land on one contemporary issue seem clear: “Send those Dreamers back to where their parents came from, back to Mexico or wherever they came from.” These innocent children are evidently not worthy of American compassion and mercy.
But our journey this past week on the roads of the Pacific Northwest was a reminder that this particular immigration question isn’t merely some distant issue for a President and Congress to fight over. As my wife and I drove on back roads past the Tri-Cities and then into the Yakima Valley, we saw immigrant laborers harvesting Walla Walla onions and other crops. Without the labor of these people, both legal and illegal, you and I would not have much on our plates to eat—or at least, not much variety. As Jim Wallis said yesterday, when my privilege and power depend on people with less power, as a disciple of Jesus justice, compassion and mercy for them become my responsibility.
If you are someone whose identity is formed not by the stories and values of your nation but by the stories of our faith, the way is clear. It may be difficult to practice but the way is clear: Disciples of Jesus use our power daily to exercise justice, compassion, and mercy toward people with less power.
Returning from our trip this past Thursday, we took an unexpected detour–and I’m not talking about summer road construction. Having left the national park I got a call in Sandpoint, Idaho, from my uncle who lives in Boise, Idaho. Uncle Rod was calling to tell me that he has an aggressive form of leukemia. Hearing this unhappy news, instead of continuing on to Seattle we first headed down to Boise to see him.
Uncle Rod is almost 85. Because of the circumstances of his life he’s enjoyed a lot of privilege. He’s white, he’s straight, he’s male, he’s a retired physician, he served in Vietnam, and yet he hasn’t spent his life defending his power and privilege. Instead, he takes his cue from a different set of values: justice, compassion, and mercy toward others. Uncle Rod is quite happy to talk politics and social issues, and he is disgusted with the priorities and policies of our nation’s leaders and millions of its people today.
Although I don’t know how much longer my uncle will live, Uncle Rod is like you and me. He was born into this world with no power. At his death, he will leave this world with no power. But between those two significant events—our birth and our death–we all are given power to choose how we will live. Christians whose lives and choices are formed by the stories of our faith rather than the stories of our culture will practice mercy and compassion. We will take responsibility for defending dignity and justice for our brothers and sisters whose difficult lives and unjust treatment have made our lives easier.
You and I daily are invited into the great scriptural stories of faith, to study them, to participate in them and decide which roles we will play. In today’s stories, for example, will we be merciful Joseph or his self-serving brothers? Will we be the compassionate king or his ruthless servant? Do we side with the Egyptian army, or the slaves they pursue?
Simply put, the question for Christians is always this: To what extent do we follow Jesus? To what extent do we practice love?