Proper 18 (September 7, 2008)
Common Lectionary Texts:
Ezek. 33:7-11; Ps. 119:33-40; Rom. 13:8-14; Matt. 18:15-20
This week began the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, during which many Muslims fast from dawn to sunset. The fast is broken each evening when extended families gather for an iftar meal and time of celebration. Ramadan is a season to seek God’s forgiveness, guidance and help to turn away from every day evils and to do good. Some Christians observe Ramadan in solidarity with Muslim neighbors or work colleagues.
On Monday, we visited Justine King, the new Jordan SALT worker at the Arab Episcopal School in Irbid. We were impressed with how quickly she is learning Arabic and adapting to a new culture. The school year is off to a good start as well, with increased enrollment, a new bus and the addition of 5th grade this year.
We spent the remainder of the week in Amman, focusing heavily on Iraq issues. We met with a refugee services agency to discuss a trauma healing project for Iraqi children and considered a proposal to support a kindergarten for Christian and Muslim children in northern Iraq. We enjoyed hosting a young Iraqi family that was forced to leave Iraq because of the violence. They are in the process of migrating to the United States, which has promised to resettle 12,000 Iraqis this year. Their story is one of sadness, courage, patience and hope.
We also met this week with a network of international NGOs and UN agencies engaged in humanitarian work in Iraq. What is the current situation inside Iraq?
As of August, the average number of violent incidents in Iraq has dropped 50 percent from last year (2,340 incidents per month in 2008 compared with 4688 incidents per month in 2007). Better, but still troubling. The political situation is still far from stable, as various ethnic, religious and political groups struggle with how to share power and resources.
The Iraqi government is encouraging refugees to return home – offering free air transport and other forms of assistance. In order to make space for returning refugees, the government issued orders this week evicting “squatters” who moved into houses that were vacated when refugees fled the country. Some reports indicate that the Iraqi government will offer resettlement assistance to squatters who cooperate. Other reports speak of jail sentences for squatters who do not.
Many NGOs feel it is premature for refugees to return. UNHCR deputy representative Jamal Arafat said recently: “UNHCR does not consider that, at present, conditions are such inside Iraq as to encourage repatriation. However, if an Iraqi takes a decision to return voluntarily and based on sound information, we will support such return on an individual case basis.”
The Iraqi and U.S. governments still have not agreed on the terms of the length and role of U.S. troops in Iraq.
Finally, the Iraqi government announced this week that they will renovate and re-open the infamous Abu Ghraib prison, which has been closed since 2006. The refurbished prison will include a museum that highlights prison abuses during Saddam Hussein’s presidency, but will not touch on American abuses at the same prison.
The Common Lectionary texts for this week fittingly focus on turning away from and turning to.
In the Old Testament reading, God takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but desires that they “turn from their ways and live” (Ezek. 33:11).
The psalmist pleads to God: “Turn my heart to your decrees, and not to selfish gain. Turn my eyes from looking at vanities; give me life in your ways” (Ps. 119:36-37).
In the Epistle, Paul urges the church at Rome to turn away from works of darkness and to “put on the armor of light” and “live honorably as in the day” (Rom. 13:12-13).
In the Gospel reading, Jesus outlines steps for seeking to restore those who have done wrong to us (Matt. 18:15-17).
In matters personal and corporate, in things small and large, as individuals and as nations, may we have the courage to turn away from all that is selfish, vain and hurtful and to turn to that which is full of God’s light and life.