Nehemiah 9:9-15 – Memory and Confession

“You saw the suffering of our ancestors in Egypt; you heard their cry at the Red Sea. You sent signs and wonders against Pharaoh, against all his officials and all the people of his land, for you knew how arrogantly the Egyptians treated them. You made a name for yourself, which remains to this day. You divided the sea before them, so that they passed through it on dry ground, but you hurled their pursuers into the depths, like a stone into mighty waters. By day you led them with a pillar of cloud, and by night with a pillar of fire to give them light on the way they were to take.

“You came down on Mount Sinai; you spoke to them from heaven. You gave them regulations and laws that are just and right, and decrees and commands that are good. You made known to them your holy Sabbath and gave them commands, decrees, and laws through your servant Moses. In their hunger you gave them bread from heaven and in their thirst you brought them water from the rock; you told them to go in and take possession of the land you had sworn with uplifted hand to give them. (NIV)

Memory is precious and valuable. Having once worked as a chaplain in a memory care unit, I can testify that Alzheimer’s and dementia are tragic. The residents and patients for whom I interacted with were wonderful people. They just did not remember much – even their own names, sometimes. It is especially hard for family members. Spouses, children, grandchildren, and friends still remember – and, at times, not being remembered by this person they love is a deep sadness.

I wonder if this is the same kind of sadness which God felt. Having delivered his people from Egyptian bondage and sending them to the Promised Land, over the generations the people of God eventually forgot. With their memories far from them, the people lapsed into living as if they no longer knew who they were anymore.

To make a long biblical story short, God’s people were taken from their homes and exiled to Babylon. Yet, God still remembered them even though many of them forgot him. God sent Ezra the teacher and Nehemiah the leader to remind the people and help make the memories stick.

In today’s Old Testament lesson, we pick up Ezra and Nehemiah’s teaching and leading of the people in a collective and prayerful confession of their sins. At the heart of it all was a failed memory of God’s deliverance. Unlike Alzheimer’s and dementia folks who do not choose their condition, and who experience memory issues through no fault of their own, God’s people allowed themselves to forget.

The people needed to come back to remembrance and recall the mighty acts of God on their behalf in history. Those memories were meant to serve the people well, to enable them to always live by faith and trust in a benevolent God’s all-seeing care.

The path to renewal always begins with awareness and memory.

So, then, that is why Jews remember the Sabbath and the Passover. That is why Christians memorialize the death of Jesus through Holy Communion. We are to always remember the redemptive events of God in bringing us from bondage to liberation.

We can only know where we are going if we are served with full cognitive abilities of memory and history. For the Christian, a failure to remember inevitably leads to a failure of faith. And an ignorance of history will only lead us to an exile of the soul, putting us at risk of listening to hucksters who claim knowledge, but who themselves suffer from major memory issues.

Memory and remembrance are beautiful things, that is, when we have wonderful things to remember. Even traumatic events need to be remembered – not for experiencing re-traumatization – but to unburden the spirit of its heavy weight, and to bring a loving God’s healing power to bear on those memories.

Confessional prayer helps us to do just that: Acknowledge the past, receive grace in the present, and have direction and hope for the future. God still desires to take us from cruel bondage and bring us to a land flowing with milk and honey.

Recollection brings awareness; and awareness allows us the power to make choices of faith, hope, and love.

Blessed heavenly Father, we come to you in remembrance that our Lord Jesus Christ was sent from you into the world to assume our flesh and blood and to fulfill for us all obedience to the divine law, even to the bitter and shameful death of the cross. By Christ’s death, resurrection, and ascension he established a new and eternal covenant of grace and reconciliation that we might be accepted and never forsaken nor forgotten by you. Most righteous God, we remember the perfect sacrifice offered once on the cross by our Lord Jesus for the sin of the whole world. In the joy of his resurrection and in expectation of his coming again, we offer ourselves to you as holy and living sacrifices. Amen.

Genesis 42:1-28 – Guilt and Grace

Jacob grieving Joseph

When Jacob learned that there was grain in Egypt, he said to his sons, “Why do you just keep looking at each other?” He continued, “I have heard that there is grain in Egypt. Go down there and buy some for us, so that we may live and not die.”

Then ten of Joseph’s brothers went down to buy grain from Egypt. But Jacob did not send Benjamin, Joseph’s brother, with the others, because he was afraid that harm might come to him. So, Israel’s sons were among those who went to buy grain, for there was famine in the land of Canaan also.

Now Joseph was the governor of the land, the person who sold grain to all its people. So, when Joseph’s brothers arrived, they bowed down to him with their faces to the ground. As soon as Joseph saw his brothers, he recognized them, but he pretended to be a stranger and spoke harshly to them. “Where do you come from?” he asked.

“From the land of Canaan,” they replied, “to buy food.”

Although Joseph recognized his brothers, they did not recognize him. Then he remembered his dreams about them and said to them, “You are spies! You have come to see where our land is unprotected.”

“No, my lord,” they answered. “Your servants have come to buy food. We are all the sons of one man. Your servants are honest men, not spies.”

“No!” he said to them. “You have come to see where our land is unprotected.”

But they replied, “Your servants were twelve brothers, the sons of one man, who lives in the land of Canaan. The youngest is now with our father, and one is no more.”

Joseph said to them, “It is just as I told you: You are spies! And this is how you will be tested: As surely as Pharaoh lives, you will not leave this place unless your youngest brother comes here. Send one of your number to get your brother; the rest of you will be kept in prison, so that your words may be tested to see if you are telling the truth. If you are not, then as surely as Pharaoh lives, you are spies!” And he put them all in custody for three days.

On the third day, Joseph said to them, “Do this and you will live, for I fear God: If you are honest men, let one of your brothers stay here in prison, while the rest of you go and take grain back for your starving households. But you must bring your youngest brother to me, so that your words may be verified and that you may not die.” This they proceeded to do.

They said to one another, “Surely we are being punished because of our brother. We saw how distressed he was when he pleaded with us for his life, but we would not listen; that’s why this distress has come on us.”

Reuben replied, “Didn’t I tell you not to sin against the boy? But you wouldn’t listen! Now we must give an accounting for his blood.” They did not realize that Joseph could understand them, since he was using an interpreter.

He turned away from them and began to weep, but then came back and spoke to them again. He had Simeon taken from them and bound before their eyes.

Joseph gave orders to fill their bags with grain, to put each man’s silver back in his sack, and to give them provisions for their journey. After this was done for them, they loaded their grain on their donkeys and left.

At the place where they stopped for the night one of them opened his sack to get feed for his donkey, and he saw his silver in the mouth of his sack. “My silver has been returned,” he said to his brothers. “Here it is in my sack.”

Their hearts sank and they turned to each other trembling and said, “What is this that God has done to us?” (NIV)

So far, the story of Joseph has been told in three acts:

  1. Joseph was sold into Egypt and rose to the head of Potiphar’s household.
  2. Joseph was sent to prison and rose to oversee the prisoners.
  3. Joseph was released from prison and rose to be the administrator of all Egypt, second only to Pharaoh himself.

Today’s Old Testament narrative hinges on the treatment of Joseph toward his brothers, who don’t know who he is, and on the response of guilt the brothers have concerning their encounter with Joseph. It is a story of guilt and grace; and, there must be one before the other.

Joseph’s brothers have a history; they aren’t very nice guys. Thus far in the book of Genesis, we have these events from them:

  • Simeon and Levi committed premeditated genocide against the town of Shechem.
  • Reuben committed incest.
  • They all, except for Benjamin, sold their own brother Joseph into Egypt.
  • Judah impregnated his daughter-in-law, Tamar.

These guys seem like disappointing recipients of Abraham’s covenant.  Yet, this only heightens how gracious God is (who is always the principal actor in all these stories). God’s covenant loyalty is the operative force and is not dependent on the actions of less than stellar brotherly spirit.

So, Joseph, knowing his brothers’ character, put them to the test. He did not trust them any more than he could lift a pyramid, and so, set up a ruse to find out about his brother, Benjamin, and his father, Jacob. Joseph appeared to carefully craft a plan to see Benjamin (his only full brother) and be with him – whereas he doesn’t seem to have any desire, understandably, to be with his other half-brothers.

Joseph’s plan awakened (likely unintentionally) guilt in the brothers for what they had done to Joseph.  There are two kinds of guilt: true guilt and false guilt.  False guilt takes responsibility for something which we have not done or assumes guilt for some nebulous action. On the other hand, true guilt arises from a specific act which spurs the person to seek forgiveness, repentance, and reconciliation. This is a grace from God.

Sometimes we need to get our behind in the past before we can get our past behind us.

Moving forward in life, while ignoring actions which have hurt or damaged others, will eventually come back to bite us in that same behind – not to mention the unattended guilt which, over time, turns into gangrene of the soul.

Today is the day to deal with unresolved stuff lingering within your spirit, for tomorrow may be too late. Let us confess our sins:

Holy and merciful God, I confess my sinfulness – the shortcomings and offenses against you and your people. You alone know how often I have sinned in wandering from your ways, wasting your gifts, and forgetting your love. Have mercy on me, O Lord, for I am ashamed and sorry for all I have done to displease you and harm your image-bearers. Forgive my sins and help me to live in your light and walk in your ways, for the sake of Jesus Christ, my Savior. Amen.

Nehemiah 9:1-8 – A Prayer of Confession

The Prayer by Constantin Brancusi 1907
“The Prayer,” by Constantin Brancusi, 1907

The Israelites gathered for a day of fasting. They wore sackcloth and put ashes on their heads to show they were sad and upset. Those people who were true Israelites separated themselves from foreigners. The Israelites stood and confessed their sins and the sins of their ancestors. They stood there for about three hours, and the people read the Book of the Law of the Lord their God. Then for three more hours they confessed their sins and bowed down to worship the Lord their God…. 

They said, “Stand up and praise the Lord your God! God has always lived and will live forever.

People should praise your glorious name.
May your name be lifted above all blessing and praise.
You are God.
Lord, only you are God.
You made the sky and the highest heavens
and everything in them.
You made the earth
and everything on it.
You made the seas
and everything in them.
You give life to everything.
All the heavenly angels bow down and worship you.
You are the Lord,
the God who chose Abram.
You led him from Ur in Babylonia.
You changed his name to Abraham.
You saw he was true and loyal to you,
and you made an agreement with him.
You promised to give him the land
of the Canaanites, Hittites, Amorites, Perizzites, Jebusites, and Girgashites.
But you promised to give that land to Abraham’s descendants.
And you kept your promise because you are good.” (ERV)
 

We have many examples in Holy Scripture of people coming together for corporate prayers to confess sin. Today’s Old Testament lesson is a representation of such a confession. I understand that many churches, especially in the western world, jettisoned prayers of confession in their corporate worship services long ago. Eschewing rituals, such gatherings of believers have the inclination to be neither liturgical nor focus on such a negative subject as extended focus on sin through confessing prayer.

Yet, here we are, in the Bible, with a prayer of confession before us. There’s no getting around it: without prayers of confession, we are left in the realm of human pride and hubris – believing we can tackle whatever is in front of us with a solid dose of Protestant work ethic and robust free will. I hate to burst your bubble (no, I confess I really like bursting bubbles!) where there is no confession of sin, both personal and corporate, there is no righteousness and no eternal life.

“If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of their own heart?”—Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

Prayers of confession invite us to voice what is in the darkest places of our hearts. – to be raw and real about our own sin, as well as the sins of the world. Speaking aloud such words do not come naturally, which is why we need to graft these types of prayers into our life and worship. Naming with honesty and sincerity our personal and collective sins becomes liberating when we sense the immensity of God’s grace. Whereas in most situations, we do not feel safe to name our sins, in the presence of God we are empowered by his love to call forth and bring to light the deepest and darkest shadows of our personal lives and of our society.

A full-frontal prayer of confession acknowledges that our sin is more than a random example of bad judgment. We are sinful people, living in a sinful world, and we absolutely need a Savior! Our confessions of sin also acknowledge and bring to light that sin is a power that resides not only within individual persons but also has infected every society, institution, structure, and even church. An authentic confession of sin admits complicit participation in the structures of evil which exist everywhere.

What is more, a simple observation of the Israelites’ prayer notices that they were not only repenting of their own sin; they freely recognized and professed their ancestor’s sins, as well. Sin never simply dies with the person – it infects and influences the next generation. And unless we come to grips with this terrible reality, we will keep perpetuating the sins of our ancestors.

Which is why it is so vitally important that right now the people of God admit and confess the sins of their slaveholder ancestors, as well as affirm our implicit bias against people different than us and our complicity in perpetuating racism through our silence, unquestioning allegiance to particular political parties, and assuming we should always be in power because we are the best persons to do it. So, then, here is a prayer of confession concerning our present situation of racism:

Merciful God, we confess that we have sinned against you in thought, word, and deed, by what we and our ancestors have done in the past, and by what we have left undone in the present through: allowing racism to continue and evolve in our social systems of economics and education; not reforming criminal justice; discriminating in housing and practicing gentrification; and, suppressing voting rights. In our racial geography and, painfully, in the continuing segregation of our churches, we have been complicit in racism through the betrayal of silence.

Holy God, we have not loved people of color as ourselves. We confess we have let ourselves off the hook by viewing racism as mere individual behavior, language, and overt hostility; and, have failed to see racism as systemic and structural, harming people of color in very specific, measurable, and tangible ways.

God Almighty, in your mercy forgive us for being racist, help us amend what we are, and direct what we shall be so that we, along with all people, may delight in your will and walk in your ways to the glory of Jesus Christ in the power of your Holy Spirit. Amen.

Mark 7:1-13 – Unmasking Hypocrisy

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One day some Pharisees and teachers of religious law arrived from Jerusalem to see Jesus. They noticed that some of his disciples failed to follow the Jewish ritual of hand washing before eating. (The Jews, especially the Pharisees, do not eat until they have poured water over their cupped hands, as required by their ancient traditions. Similarly, they don’t eat anything from the market until they immerse their hands in water. This is but one of many traditions they have clung to—such as their ceremonial washing of cups, pitchers, and kettles.)

So the Pharisees and teachers of religious law asked him, “Why don’t your disciples follow our age-old tradition? They eat without first performing the hand-washing ceremony.”

Jesus replied, “You hypocrites! Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you, for he wrote,

‘These people honor me with their lips,
but their hearts are far from me.
Their worship is a farce,
for they teach man-made ideas as commands from God.’

For you ignore God’s law and substitute your own tradition.”

Then he said, “You skillfully sidestep God’s law in order to hold on to your own tradition. For instance, Moses gave you this law from God: ‘Honor your father and mother,’ and ‘Anyone who speaks disrespectfully of father or mother must be put to death.’ But you say it is all right for people to say to their parents, ‘Sorry, I can’t help you. For I have vowed to give to God what I would have given to you. ’In this way, you let them disregard their needy parents. And so you cancel the word of God in order to hand down your own tradition. And this is only one example among many others.” (NLT)

As I read this Gospel text for today, I tried to imagine what emotions Jesus might have experienced when confronted about the lack of attention to tradition from his disciples concerning ritual hand washings – maybe frustration, anger, sadness, exasperation, disappointment, irritation, aggravation, or discouragement. Perhaps Christ felt all those emotions. Whatever Jesus was feeling at the time, I can easily see him taking a deep breath and exhaling a great big *sigh* over the religious leaders’ hypocrisy.

Hypocrisy is a disconnect between the values we espouse and our behavior. When there is incongruity between what we say is important and how we really live, this is being two-faced and duplicitous. The men who came to see Jesus were plain old insincere hacks who practiced religious quackery. And Jesus saw right through their fake pretension of righteousness.

First off, this narrative is not a dig on rituals themselves but on using ritual to leverage an appearance of religious superiority over others. This type of motivation for engaging ritual ignores the ethical and moral intention of those rituals.

Sometimes folks can get so doggone wrapped up in how faith is represented that they lose sight of the faith itself.

Hypocrisy has to do with our motives – not so much what we do but why we do it. Rituals are good. Why we do them or not, or how we go about doing them, gets at the heart of our objectives for engaging religious practices. Are they truly a worship offering to God, or are they merely mechanisms for keeping up appearances of holiness?

Hypocrisy is acting a part which is not truly us. It is to live from the false self through the attempt of providing an idealized perfect person to the public instead of embracing the true self and realizing our common humanity with one another in genuine devotion to God and service to others. Religious hypocrisy is particularly insidious because it uses what is sacred for selfish purposes. It damages the credibility of the religion, creates idolatry, and covers hate with a veneer of pretentious piety.

The hypocrite is one who is a bundle of disparate parts in massive need of integration to a whole and real self. The cost to facing this is vulnerably exposing oneself as flawed, imperfect, even ugly. Many persons have no willingness to be viewed by others as such, so they maintain their play-acting and continue to seek the attention and accolades as a model religious person.

We all must come to grips with the reality that God cares a whole lot about why we do what we do.

When the forms of faith become tools of oppression and crushing burdens upon others backs, then those forms have supplanted the faith itself. Out of the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks, and from the heart the hands and feet move. Whenever we care more about being and appearing right than getting it right and becoming better, then we have a heart problem. The heart of the issue is the heart itself. Clean up the heart, and everything else follows – not the other way around.

The probity of today’s Gospel lesson is that we might misinterpret what is important to God. We may be playing the hypocrite yet have the belief we are genuine. The capacity for our hearts to enlarge with love is in direct relation to an awareness of the hidden motives buried within those hearts. Evil intentions and motivations are what separate us from God – not our race, class, age, gender, religion, ethnicity, behavior, rituals, or anything else on the outside.

 

log
“You can see the speck in your friend’s eye, but you don’t notice the log in your own eye. How can you say, ‘My friend, let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when you don’t see the log in your own eye? You’re nothing but show-offs! First, take the log out of your own eye. Then you can see how to take the speck out of your friend’s eye.” –Jesus (Matthew 7:3-5)

If we find ourselves being nit-picky of others, this is usually a clue that the unconscious self is trying to protect us from facing the pain of our own sins by projecting and focusing on another’s supposed missteps with tradition or ritual.

Fortunately, Jesus came to this earth full of grace and truth. Christ sometimes, maybe oftentimes, set aside niceness and decorum to go for the heart. In shining light on the motives behind the deeds of people, some repented and received the good news of the kingdom of God; and, others resisted to maintain their illusion of control and superiority. None could ride the fence with Jesus around. You either loved him or hated him.

The beauty of grace is that when we squarely and uncompromisingly face our sins and let go of things we consider so important, and turn to God with authenticity, we are welcome at his Table.

Most holy and merciful Father, we acknowledge and confess before you our sinful nature, prone to evil and slow to do good, and all our shortcomings, offenses, and malevolent motives. You alone know how often we have sinned in wandering from Christ’s way of grace and truth, in wasting your gifts of compassion and justice, and in forgetting your love. O Lord have mercy on us. We are ashamed and sorry for all the ways we have displeased you. Teach us to hate our errors; cleanse us from our secret faults; and forgive us our sins; for the sake of your dear Son, our Lord. Most holy and loving God help us to live in your light and to walk in your ways according to the commandment of Jesus Christ, our Savior, in the enabling of your blessed Holy Spirit. Amen.