“Walking on Dry Ground” by Jacqie Wallen & John Morris

Sixeenth Sunday After Pentecost

September 17, 2023

John and Jacqie come up to the podium and look at each other with concern

Jacqie:  Um…

John:     Er…  Well, let’s get started.  Remind me how we are going to do this.

Jacqie:   We decided to take a kind of lectio divina approach to the scripture readings.  We each would pick some ideas or phrases that resonated with us and we would talk about them.  Then, because we are coming up on Recommitment Sunday, we would somehow tie it all to commitment.

John:  The first phrase that caught my attention was “He clogged their chariot wheels…”

Jacqie:   Weird.  And what grabbed you about that?

John:      Well, let’s put this in context.  It comes from the story in Exodus commonly referred to as “the parting of the Red Sea.”  I wasn’t raised with any religious instruction, but this is one of those stories that any reasonably bright kid is going to hear, growing up.  I realize, as I think about it today, that my picture of this story is indeed very childlike, or childish: I see the Israelites arriving at the sea, kind of tapping their feet waiting for God to work a miracle, looking nervously behind them at the approaching Egyptian army.  Lo, the seas part, the Israelites rush across, and Pharaoh tries to follow.  But wily God has trapped them; once the Israelites are safe on the other side, and the Egyptians are right in the middle of this miraculous parting of the waves, the wave un-part and the army drowns.

OK, fine.  And we could maintain a childlike interpretation of the story, as adults, and see it as a parable about how God’s people will always be looked after.  We could also take the final lines literally, as a warning to fear the power of God.

I don’t much like this way of hearing the story.  It hasn’t been my experience that “God’s people,” even under the most generous interpretation of who that might be, are especially favored in their life journey.  And my love for God isn’t based, even a little bit, on how powerful God is.  So instead, I try to read the story as being about the spiritual world, the life within me that is – if you will – a kind of battle.  Do I often find myself divided?  I do.  Does this division sometimes feel like a struggle between desires?  Yes.  I want to love God with all my heart and soul and mind and strength, but I also want to keep my precious self comfortable and safe.  I try to outrun all these personal anxieties, but they stay on my trail. Their chariots are swift.  Except . . . once in a very great while, a kind of miracle occurs, and I look behind me and . . . there’s no one there.  It’s just me and God.  No struggle, no worries, no fears, no chariots.  It’s as if a great wave had washed them all away.  I wonder what happened – were there any signs?  Maybe so.  I realize that the wheels of my little “chariot of self” had gotten clogged.  The chariot wasn’t getting me anywhere.  I couldn’t turn it in a useful direction.  It just went slower . . . and slower . . . and slower . . . until it stopped moving.  And as we all know, the ego has to keep moving or else, like a shark, it dies. 

So yes, I have experienced a few of these moments.  But it seems to be part of our incarnation as mortal beings that they don’t last, and once again Pharaoh is on my trail, and all I can do is keep praying and try to do the next right thing.

Jacqie:  I like that interpretation, John.  Another association I have to the phrase about clogged chariot wheels is that sometimes I need to have my chariot wheels slowed down so that, instead of racing ahead impulsively, I can stop, clear my head, and get some spiritual guidance and help discerning God’s will. Seekers, as a community, provides so much support for slowing oneself down and discerning God’s will. Some examples that come to mind immediately are the spiritual reports we write, the spiritual guides we have access to, our prayer and reflection times during worship, and our Silent Retreats.

One of the phrases that I liked a lot was this one: “The Israelites walked on dry ground through the sea.”  God had led the Israelites to the Red Sea.  They were trapped between the sea in front of them and a powerful army behind them.  And all this in the darkness of night.  They must have been terrified and desperate.  God, being all powerful, could have gotten them across the sea in any number of ways: letting them walk on the water, for example, or flying them across the sea to the other shore.  But miracles like this would have been terribly frightening and upsetting to the already-traumatized Israelites.  Parting the seas so that they could walk on dry land was a much less scary and more empowering way of getting them to the other shore. 

I think of Seekers that way.  Seekers helps us find a safe path over dry ground as we confront material and spiritual challenges.  It is a safe, non-judgmental community where we can share our fears and challenges and receive emotional, social, and spiritual support.  Seekers Mission Groups are an especially supportive context for safety, support., and empowerment  We can also share our joys and gratitude in a community that really cares about us.

What did you think about the part of Romans about eating meat?  I thought of you when I read it.

John:  Of course, I paid attention to that.  Where it says: “Some believe in eating anything, while others, whose faith is weak, eat only vegetables” and “Those who eat must not despise those who abstain, and those who abstain must not pass judgment on those who eat…”

I’ve been doing a lot of reading about food recently, in the context of the Living Vegan blog that Katie and I are hosting.  You can ask a simple question – such as “Why does dairy yogurt cost so much less than non-dairy yogurt?” — and before you know it, you’re down a very deep rabbit hole that involves complicated histories of farms, subsidies, and economic crises.  Apparently, food is never a simple thing.  And when I tried to learn something about the meat vs. vegetables question in Paul’s time, the same thing happened.  I was plunged into controversies about dietary laws and meat given as sacrifices to idols and “proofs” of faith and I don’t know what all else.

As best I can tell, Christian opinion was divided about whether there was one right answer to the question, What should I eat?  And Paul would appear to be saying, Well, there isn’t.  Some people are more comfortable sticking to their previous diets, while others – whose faith in this new abolition of the old laws is stronger – are fine with eating whatever they want.  Neither group should criticize the other.  Paul likens this to arguing about whether one day of the week is “better” than another.

I’m going to offer just a couple of thoughts about how this might apply to current food issues – specifically, about veganism and vegetarianism.  Here’s my idea: In our time and place, what it means to be weak or strong around eating has changed.  Paul clearly believed that a stronger, more robust faith in Christ would permit a Christian to abandon the old dietary laws.  Well, many Christians today also believe that – except that, for us, the old dietary laws are the ones that say it’s OK to raise animals for food under brutally cruel conditions, and then slaughter and eat them.  I’m a Christian vegan, and if I’m right about this new understanding of faith and food, then I need to pay particular attention to Paul’s warning about judging others on the basis of what they’re willing to do concerning food.

It’s not easy.  I have strong feelings and strong beliefs.  Obviously, Paul did too, or he wouldn’t have made such a big deal about this.  He surely wanted to judge the “weak” ones – just like I do, sometimes — but he tells himself, and all of us, that “quarreling over opinions” and “passing judgment on others” is not the way to go.  And if I’m honest, my own experience has borne this out.  I’ve advocated for animal rights for nearly 30 years, and I can’t recall a single instance in which I judged somebody out of their meat-eating!  Also pretty useless are criticism, contempt, and self-righteousness.  That’s not how we change, if we do, when we’re trying to follow Jesus.  Love, honesty, and speaking truth to power are Jesus’ tools, and they should be our tools too.

Jacqie:  I think you do a great job of advocating for animals without judging others, even though I always feel very guilty when I hear you talking about the issue.  That’s something I like about you and about Seekers in general.  Even though various Seekers have strong opinions and concerns about a lot of things, we do our best to be supportive of and nonjudgmental toward one another.  I’m really looking forward to Recommitment Sunday because the act of endorsing the Seekers Commitment Statement is a holy act and I am so grateful to be a member of Seekers.

Continuing with the readings, I like the part In Matthew where Peter asks Jesus how many times he must forgive another member of the church who sins against him.  As many as seven times?  Poor Peter, he’s always not quite getting it!  I really identify with Peter.  To me, he is everyone — he is all of us.  We’re good-hearted and we try hard but a lot of the time, we just don’t get it. Jesus responds to Peter by saying: “Not seven times but, I tell you, seventy times seven times.”  Actually, I think I actually kind of get this.  I think Jesus is saying the occasional act of forgiveness is not enough.  Forgiveness must be a constant practice enabling us to love our neighbor as ourselves.  As the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. said, “We must develop and maintain the capacity to forgive. He who is devoid of the power to forgive is devoid of the power to love.” 

By the way, I believe that loving (and forgiving) ourselves is the foundation for loving and forgiving others.  Googling self-forgiveness, I found the following 4 steps to forgiveness on a Muslim website (https://www.good-thinking.uk/blog/4-rs-self-forgiveness )

  1. Responsibility: Accept what has happened and show yourself compassion.
  2. Remorse: Use guilt and remorse as a gateway to positive behaviour change.
  3. Restoration: Make amends with whomever you’re forgiving, even if it’s yourself.
  4. Renewal: Learn from the experience and grow as a person.

But what do you make of all of that stuff about slaves and servants?  Pretty harsh!  And why did the slave/servant owe him so much money, anyway?

John:    Down another rabbit hole!  As far as I can learn, the Greek word doulos referred to a person enslaved from birth, as opposed to one who was captured and enslaved.  “Bond-servant” is another translation.  I couldn’t find any information about the social relations between the doulos and the master, and it is certainly strange that a slave or bond-servant could owe money to the master, and receive debts from others.  I can only guess that, in a culture where slavery was long established and many people were in bondage from birth, some of the strictures we associate with chattel slavery had been loosened.  Or perhaps a doulos was more like a serf, someone born into bondage but “owned” by the land and not by a particular master.  I welcome any scholars to help me out.

How to understand this parable as the teaching of the Living God?  If the master is supposed to be God, he sure isn’t very patient or forgiving.  Seventy times seven? — I don’t think so.  He goes from forgiving the slave once to throwing him into prison.  Or even worse, if we take “tortured” literally, which we probably have to, because the Greek word basanistais means, well, “torturers.”  Some translators offer “jailers” instead, but apparently all the jailers back then were torturers, so that doesn’t really help.  Can Jesus really be recommending this as a picture of how his loving Father operates?

I don’t know.  I think the Jesus of the Gospels went out of his way to use settings and characters and images that his listeners would understand.  We are horrified by a world of slaves and torturers, as we should be.  But this was the world of Judea under the Romans.  Jesus is making a point – be more forgiving, and don’t be a hypocrite.  He uses pictures that his listeners will get.  He doesn’t want to halt the story to stop and discuss the rights and wrongs of slavery, much as we might wish he had.  Or perhaps we should shift this onto the authors of Matthew: When they came to write down the Jesus stories, what seemed important to them was the urgency of forgiveness, and they wanted to make very clear that the person who doesn’t forgive is going to pay a hell of a price.

Jacqie:  Yes, it creates bad karma and holding on to resentments is a sure way of making yourself miserable.  Forgiveness is the Christian way and I often see it happening in Seekers.  I do not feel judged by other Seekers when I make a mistake or say things I later regret.  That helps me forgive myself.

John:  So, given all that you have said about Seekers, it sounds like you are going to recommit on Recommitment Sunday.

Jacqie:  For sure!  I have never found a reason to question my commitment to Seekers Church or to my Mission Group, Learners and Teachers.  While I belong to a lot of different groups and have lots of other friends, I think I would have to say that Seekers is my “go to” community, the primary place I turn to for emotional and spiritual support, discernment, growth, and just plain fun.  And I like the fact that Seekers is egalitarian, progressive, and non-hierarchical…that we have an open pulpit, which means that people like you and me can get up here and shoot off our mouths if we so choose.

And how about you, John?  Will you recommit?

John:    I think I will!  For me, recommitment season isn’t so much about whether I will recommit as it is about exactly what I’m recommitting to.  Last Sunday Marjory gave us a very good picture of the features that make Seekers such a special place, and you’ve added to that picture as well.  Yes, we have mission groups and inclusive liturgy – and we also have a place to speak up, speak out, maybe make mistakes, and not be judged.  We have an open pulpit and a theology of call that extends into our work life and our private life – and we have an extraordinary faith in the power of community to make a difference in the world. 

Really, I’m just holding up that very familiar idea that Seekers encourages both the inward and the outward journey.  To me, that means faith and works – a relationship with God and the Holy Spirit inside myself, and a relationship with the rest of Creation.  Christians have enjoyed arguing about the right balance here since, I’m sure, the original 12 disciples.  We can work it out!  When I recommit to Seekers, I am promising to respect and practice both journeys, to the best of my ability, by the grace of God.

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"Committed to the Jesus Way" by David Lloyd
"Recommitment Week 1" by Marjory Bankson