Sunday, February 9, 2020

What can we say September 6? 14th after Pentecost

   Romans 13:8-14. I’ll refer you to my blog from last go round on waking up (with illustrative stuff from Rip van Winkle to Robin Williams – and what this text meant for St. Augustine’s “conversion”). And I’ll get back to the hugely important Old Testament text in a minute (and it’s huge). For now, a bit of a creative wrinkle to the Gospel lection:

   Matthew 18:15-20. This important text, clarifying that there are real processes for the church to engage in to work toward reconciliation, needs some deconstructing. Its assumption that leaders have power over wayward members is an open door to terrible abuse. Examples of this are many, and horrific. And although the obvious abuses of power are agonizing, I worry also about subtler ways those in authority wound others. Even the preacher, trying to proclaim the Gospel. I tend to think we just have zero authority vs. clergy of yesteryear. But there still is some power residing in the one standing in the pulpit, to shame, to embarrass, to belittle, to quarantine people off from God even while thinking we’re telling some Bible truth.

   Three quirky thoughts. (1) The idea that we should treat the unrepentant one “as a Gentile or tax collector” falls strangely off Jesus’ lips. He was a great friend to tax collectors (for which the pious ridiculed him), and the inclusion of Gentiles in God’s historic pact with Israel is at the heart of everything Christian. Dare we imagine Jesus giving a little wink, saying what the pious would like to hear (“Treat them like tax collectors!”), but assuming we’d understand that it’s like Matthew or Zaccheus now.

   (2) The “binding.” We have the power to bind. I really want to do this with my sinful people. A member of my church recently confessed a long-running affair to me, and then added “I’m sure I won’t be welcome around here after this!” I want to bind him to us, to me, to our church. It’s the lovely ropes of love that I hope to braid around him and hold him and all who feel shunned or unwelcome or unworthy to us. Not what the original had in mind – I don’t think… then also:

   (3) The “loosing.” My mind drifts to John 11. Lazarus staggers out of the tomb and Jesus says “Unbind him, and let him go.” Yeah, get him out of the strips of cloth the make up that straitjacket of a burial shroud – but there’s also some symbolic unbinding, some liberating of the person for life. Can we exercise our power to loosen people, to empower and embolden and liberate them for a life of service and joy? Not a binding You’d better do these things, but Can you see what could be?

   And now, Exodus 12:1-14. Passover, pretty important to our understand of God, everything biblical, certainly Holy Week – and relationships with our friends today, the Jews. For background, see if you can get yourself invited to a Jewish family’s home for Passover. Maybe the local rabbi? You'll have the time of your life, and might wish to convert. An unforgettable night, and you’ll never be “supersessionist” any more about such things. You’ll be very careful never to attempt something like a “Christian seder,” which my rabbi friends assure me isn’t a thing, and is offensive to them.

   Yes, Jesus did Palm Sunday and got crucified around Passover. The scene is intriguing. A city with a population of 50,000 swelled with maybe 2 million pilgrims. Packed. Smelly. Chaos. No wonder Pilate marched his regiments into the city to keep peace, and no wonder Pilate got spooked and had this popular maybe-messianic one killed. Jesus loved Passover. But the preacher needs to let Passover be Passover without rushing to Christianize it. Holy Communion is not a baptized Passover.

   At Passover, real Jewish Passover, that is, the youngest son rises and asks, “Why is this night special (or different) from all other nights?” The fact that provision is made for children to learn about this is underscored by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, who notes how odd it is that just as the Israelites are scrambling to get out of Pharaoh’s clutches, Moses is talking about children in generations to come. “About to gain their freedom, the Israelites were told that they had to become a nation of educators. Freedom is won, not on the battlefield, but in the human imagination and will. To defend a country you need an army. But to defend a free society you need schools.” Passover isn’t a neat experience. It’s an education in freedom.

   What is commemorated is the climax of the plagues in Egypt and Israel’s deliverance to freedom. The food is delicious but also richly symbolic. 
   Bitter herbs = the taste of Israel’s suffering
   Harosset = a mnemonic of the mortar with which slaves built
   Matzot = how they left in a hurry
   And of course a bit of lamb, remembering the blood and sacrifice.
Could our food remind us of moments in our own salvation history?  The theme, redemption from slavery, might direct us to our own bondage to our culture (which American are loathe to recognize) – or perhaps to the reality of bondage in American history.  We still reel from the lingering effects of racism and slavery’s impact on our society.  God would have us ponder such things when we respond to Exodus 12.

   Scholars remind us that the feast of unleavened bread wasn’t just a hustling out of Egypt thing; it was an agricultural festival, perhaps prior to the Exodus itself.  Passover similarly has connections to agrarian life, the offering up of a lamb as gratitude for the thriving of the whole flock.  Linking annual, natural blessings to spectacular historical interventions is the stuff of theology, worship and discipline.  As Roland de Vaux suggested about these nature-related Spring festivals:  “One springtime there had been a startling intervention of God.”  For years I have raged against vapid understandings of Easter that are about the blooming of flowers and the return of life to the outdoor world; but the resurrection of Jesus happened in just such a season – and our life with God is about something dramatic, once and for all, and also what is ongoing, annual, daily even.  Everything, including farming and eating, changes in light of deliverance – the subject of my book, Worshipful.

   A solemn but joyful meal right before bolting for freedom. Don’t rush to Jesus yet! Linger with the Jews. See if a rabbi or Jewish teacher or friend might share sermon time with you. And don’t let your people stay confused about freedom. Americans blithely think freedom is I can do whatever the heck I want. Or they might piously add I can worship God the way I want. So egocentric, isn’t it? And so patently false. We are profoundly bound to the habits, mores and ideologies of our culture, bound to sin, self, anxiety, you name it. And note well that when the Israelites were set free, God let them directly to Mt. Sinai to download hundreds of laws to forge a covenant with them, to show them how to stay free, to introduce history’s curious idea that does reappear in Christianity: we are set free to be servants of another.

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