Worship Resources for September 17, 2023—Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Revised Common Lectionary: Exodus 14:19-31 and Psalm 114 or Exodus 15:1b-11, 20-21; Genesis 50:15-21 and Psalm 103: (1-7), 8-13; Romans 14:1-12; Matthew 18:21-35

Narrative Lectionary: Isaac Born to Sarah, Genesis 18:1-15; 21:1-7 (Mark 10:27)

In the first selection of the Hebrew scriptures, we have followed the stories of our ancestors of the faith. In today’s lesson from Exodus 14, the pillar of cloud that was seen as the presence of God moved between the army of Egypt and the army of Israel. When Moses stretched out his hand over the sea, a strong wind drove the waters back, and the Israelites crossed on dry land. Though the Egyptian army pursued them, the Egyptian army was thrown into confusion by God, as their chariot wheels became clogged, and the water came back over them. But the people of Israel made it across dry land and were in awe of God and God’s servant Moses.

Psalm 114 is a song of praise to God, recalling how God brought the people of Israel out of their oppression in Egypt. The psalmist uses the image of creation itself skipping, fleeing away from what God has done for the people, for the earth trembles at the presence of God. The psalmist concludes with a reminder that God is the one who provided water out of the rock, out of the wilderness, for the people after they left Egypt.

An alternative to Psalm 114 is Exodus 15, the song of Moses and Miriam. While there is more to the song of Moses, many scholars believe that Miriam’s song is the older song and includes the dance and musical instrument to praise God for what God has done in bringing the people out of Egypt and wiping away their oppressors. This is also the first place where Miriam is mentioned as a prophet. The image of God letting out breath through the nostrils is one found in other psalms, that as breath and wind are the same word as Spirit, God also breathes the Spirit as we do, and blows out, causing the floodwaters to wipe out the people’s oppressors.

The second selection of the Hebrew scriptures turns to Genesis 50:15-21, the story of how Joseph’s brothers went to him after their father died and asked that he forgive them, because that’s what their father would have wanted (or so they said). Joseph’s brothers were worried that Joseph still had a grudge for what they had done. Instead, Joseph sees that God used what happened to him for good, though his brothers intended harm. Joseph was able to save them all by being sent to Egypt ahead of them. Joseph assures his brothers that he will not only provide for them, but for their children, as indeed Joseph’s legacy did until the time of Moses.

Psalm 103: (1-7), 8-13 begins with a blessing for God, and a reminder that God is the one who forgives, redeems, satisfies all needs, and restores the people. In verses 1-7, God is on the side of the oppressed, working for justice. God was made known to Moses and to the people of Israel. In verses 8-13, God deals with the people through steadfast love, not by holding sins against the people, for God is slow to anger. God is the one who forgives, removes transgressions, and has compassion for the people as a parent has compassion for their child.

The Epistle readings conclude its long series in Romans this season after Pentecost with 14:1-12. Paul gives further instructions for the church in Rome, made up of both Jewish believers in Jesus and Gentile converts. Some of the new converts would not eat meat that came from sacrifices in the Greek temples, and some of the Jewish believers no longer kept kosher. Paul warns the church not to judge but to accept these differences, the same with those who keep the Sabbath on the last day of the week and those who did not. All those practices were done to honor God, and therefore should not be used to judge others, upholding any one way as better than another. Instead, Paul reminds the Roman church that they live and die for Christ, not for themselves. All bow before God, not before each other; therefore, all are accountable to God for judgment, not as to what practices and customs they uphold.

Matthew 18:21-35 continues from last week’s Gospel lesson of vs. 15-20 about discipline in the church. Peter continues the conversation about forgiveness, which leads Jesus to tell a parable about a king settling accounts with his servants and how one could not pay, but the king showed him mercy. Nonetheless, that same servant turned around and had someone who owed him money thrown in prison. This parable is about hypocrisy, how we want our sins forgiven and refuse to forgive others. Sometimes forgiveness can be abused—some people demand and expect to be forgiven because it is what we are supposed to do, what we have been taught, when they have done nothing to repair the wrong that has been done. When Jesus teaches the disciples how to pray, “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors,” it is implied that we are called to forgive others for the same things we still do. The last line of this lesson is a warning about holding grudges. Forgiveness is a concept that has been misused to force victims to forgive their abusers. Nonetheless, forgiveness is also central to Jesus’s teaching. Forgiveness is not the same as trust. Forgiveness is not about allowing the perpetrator to continue to victimize. It is something that allows us to let go of the way that hurt and pain of someone’s wrong have a hold on our own lives. When we hold on to a grudge, that can cause us more harm than the person who has wronged us.

The Narrative Lectionary focuses on the birth of Isaac born to Sarah in Genesis 18:1-15 (one of the lessons for the Revised Common Lectionary back on June 18th). Abraham, standing at the entrance to his tent near the oaks of Mamre, in the heat of the day, notices three strangers. Abraham implores them to come stay, and he offers them some food and respite. He tells Sarah to bake cakes while he has a calf killed and prepared, and brings the strangers a hearty meal. The strangers ask where his wife Sarah is, and Abraham tells them she’s in the tent. One of the strangers declares they will return in due season, and Sarah will bear a son. But Sarah overhears this and laughs. How can she be a mother in her old age? God asks why Sarah laughed, because is there anything too wonderful for God? Though Sarah denies that she laughed, she does indeed become pregnant, has a son, and names him Isaac which means “laughter,” for God has brought laughter to her. The joke, it seems, was on her.

In the supplementary verse, Jesus declares that for mortals things are impossible, but with God, all things are possible, in Mark 10:27.

Forgiveness is not the same as trust. We hear the story of Joseph’s brothers, the very ones who threw him into a pit and had him trafficked into Egypt, making up a story to coerce forgiveness from him. However, Joseph wanted to forgive his brothers because he loved them, not because he believed he fulfilled his father’s wishes. Joseph’s desire for forgiveness was to not hold a grudge and so he could love them as his brothers. Joseph was in a position where he did not have to trust them again—he was safe, he had agency, and he could make the decisions freely despite what his brothers said or did. Forgiveness is a touchy subject these days because of how it has been misused, but it is central to us as Christians. We believe we are forgiven of our sins by Jesus, but before forgiveness is a call to repentance, to turn back to God and God’s ways. John the Baptist proclaimed a baptism of repentance for forgiveness of sins. That repentance work comes first. Along with repentance comes humility. In Paul’s situation, the Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians didn’t so much need to forgive each other as to stop judging each other, and to come to a place of mutual hospitality and respect for each other’s cultural differences. They had to learn how to live together with their differences instead of judging each other as right or wrong. I highly recommend Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg’s book On Repentance and Repair for further study of the Jewish understanding of repentance and forgiveness. Forgiveness and living in community with our differences, and without judgment, is a concept we continue to wrestle with as Christians.

Call to Worship (Psalm 113:1-2, 6, 8, 13)
Bless the Lord, O my soul,
And all that is within me bless God’s holy name.
Bless the Lord, O my soul,
And do not forget all that God has done.
The Lord works vindication and justice
For all who are oppressed.
The Lord is merciful and gracious,
Slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love.
As a parent has compassion for their children,
So God has compassion for those who are in awe of the Creator.

Prayer of Brokenness/Confession
Merciful God, we confess we are not good at practicing mercy. We would rather cultivate anger than compassion. We would rather hold grudges than practice forgiveness. We would rather judge others than repent and turn to You. We would rather let ourselves off the hook and condemn others for their actions. You are the Almighty One, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. We know that You continue to call our names, to call us back to You, to show us the way, and to forgive us. We know that You sent Your Son Jesus Christ to lead us into the way of forgiveness, grace, and mercy. Your Son laid down his life for us, so that we might know that nothing could separate us from Your love, not even our own sins. Guide us into Your ways of forgiveness, mercy, love, and grace. In the name of Christ, who lives again for us, we pray. Amen.

You are God’s beloved child. You were formed by the Creator and filled with God’s compassion and love. We all fall short and go astray, but know that God is always calling you back, ready to welcome you with open arms. There is nothing you can do that will stop God from loving you. There is nowhere you can go where God won’t find you. God loves you madly. Open your hearts to God’s transformative love in your lives, and know God’s love, grace, and peace, are with you, now and always. Go and share this good news. Amen.

God of all seasons, as we near the Solstice we recognize the balance shifting in the world. We move from summer to autumn in the north, and from winter into spring in the south. As the earth is blanketed with greenery and flowers in spring, moving north into the golds and crimsons and oranges of autumn, may we be awakened to the new things You are doing all around us. May we take a moment to appreciate the earth, now, and how You bring all things in due season. May we turn back from practices that cause harm to the earth, that raise temperatures, that pollute our waterways and landscapes. May we be reminded of the power to call upon our elected officials to change our ways. May we remember that in this season, now is the time when we can do something to help Your beautiful earth, our only home, so that no season is too hot or too cold, too dry or too wet, but that all of creation would be in the balance You set and intended from the beginning of the world. In Your name, Great Creator, we pray. Amen.

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