A Sermon for the Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Sunday, September 7, 2014
(Exodus 12:1-14; Psalm 149; Romans 13:1-10; Matthew 18:10-20)
Once upon a time, three men were running late for their flight home.
Unfortunately, as they rushed through the local marketplace, they accidentally knocked over an apple seller’s stand. The apples went everywhere. Despite this setback, and mindful of the very real possibility of missing their flight, the three men kept going.
As they approached the departure gate, however, one of the men said to his friends, ‘call my wife and tell her I will be on a later flight’. Then he turned and ran back to the apple stand.
Upon his arrival, the man discovered a young girl struggling to gather her recently escaped produce. He promptly knelt down and proceeded to help her gather in each piece of fruit and, in conversation, discovered that she was blind.
After some time, and with the apples back in their place, he gave her money for those that were unsellable, and said his good byes.
But just as he was walking away, the unseeing stall owner called out her burning question: ‘Mister, are you Jesus?’
Our Exodus reading outlines God’s instructions to the enslaved Israelites. God is preparing them for release. These strange guidelines seem to be a way of involving these oppressed slaves in the finding their freedom.
At the same time the slaughter of innocent lambs, the painting of doorposts in blood, and the preparation to make a hasty exit make it perfectly clear that whatever is about to occur is less an act of humanity than of God. Any participation extends from faith, not their well reasoned plan. It all feels like a pantomime: the Hebrew slaves, imprisoned by the might of Pharaoh, are being asked to ‘dress up’ as if they already enjoy the freedom to go wherever, and whenever, they wish.
They participate, but are also being made keenly aware that whatever happens from here is an act of God.
The other clue to what is about to conspire is the term ‘Passover’. God names this yet to unfold event and in doing so points to God’s sheltering protection from God’s dark angel. This messenger will pass through the Egyptians and over their servants.
For us, these have become gracious instructions that loudly echo the actions of God in the person of Jesus. There are unquestionably clear parallels between the two events: the use of blood, the belief that God was setting people free, and the sacrifice of an innocent.
The passover has come to act as a pointer to what God was doing on the cross: Jesus, the ‘Lamb of God’.
Our Romans passage, with its call to civil obedience, sits somewhat uncomfortably alongside the story of Pharaoh and his enslavement of Israel.
Then again, perhaps our surprise can be tempered by reminding ourselves that the ‘authorities’ Paul refers to are in fact much more oppressive than anything Egypt ever imagined. Rome was the ultimate machine for oppressing and destroying anything that, or anyone who, stood in the way of the Emperor’s plan for a fear-inspired world domination.
But the early Christians had a message for Rome. It was summed up in their earliest creed: ‘Jesus is Lord’. Of course, the empire also spread their own propaganda: ‘Caesar is Lord’. The Christians had a dangerous message of allegiance to one other than the Emperor.
And it did not always go down well. Our writer, Paul, on another occasion listed his encounters with the authorities of both the Jews and of Rome. He was imprisoned, tried, and and tortured on numerous occasions for this other-allegiance.
Yet here, Paul urges a response of love. From the mouth of anyone else the urge to love, honour, and respect these barbaric leaders would seem hollow.
Paul has, however, tasted both the hatred of Rome and the grace of God.
And grace has won. So much so that Paul, despite the scars that cross his back, invites, indeed insists, that Jesus’ invitation to ‘love your neighbour as yourself’ is able to be enacted even in the political climate of the first-century.
Clearly love is no abstract concept for Paul. After arguing that God uses – even appoints – society’s hierarchies, the great Apostle urges the members of his marginalised Jewish sect to pay the hated occupation tax, to treat the ones who crucified their Lord with respect, and to honour all.
Paul goes on to list some of the commands originally given to the newly freed Hebrew slaves. After over 400 years of oppression it is clear that no one who left Egypt after that first passover meal had any experience of freedom. Even though they wanted and prayed for their own release, theirs was clearly going to be a steep learning curve. We can forget how to live in freedom.
And so God gave these now Paul-repeated instructions in order to teach an enslaved people how to live, and maintain, there God-won freedom. Paul sums up these liberty preserving guidelines in the ancient, Jesus-repeated, command: ’love your neighbour as yourself’.
Love preserves the freedom. If, as we pray each week, God has freed us from ‘hate and fear’, we are fools if we then live as though we have any valid option other than to radically love in the same way our saviour did.
After all to do so is nothing short of a reflection of our good Father’s heart. The story of that single lost sheep points to God’s deep desire to save and rescue. God is filled with joy at the finding of one previously missing.
Perhaps Matthew’s immediate literary movement into a discussion on how to graciously correct each other from within the church community is actually more closely connected to this seeking heart of the Father that we may initially recognise. Jesus clearly believed that a secret pointing out of fault was also regaining of one who was in danger of once again losing their way.
Please hear carefully: experience tells us that a less than love-saturated enactment of these instructions is at least as destructive to faith as any neglect to share our concerns. Move at least as carefully and gently over the holy ground of God’s community as you would have them move over you.
Paul’s words, and indeed the message of our Gospel, amount to a God-sent invitation to dress in love and to dine with God at the feast celebrating the generous love of God’s own Son. Perhaps, at times, this too feels like a pantomime, a mere rehearsing, or dreaming, of God’s love.
And indeed it is.
Of course, this does not make it less authentic. For this feasting on the body and blood of Christ, this close encounter with the love God has for us, is designed to teach us who were once enslaved to sin, the way of freedom. In knowing God’s love here, we find strength, inspiration, and courage, to live God’s love everywhere.
And, as we do, the world may just begin to ask that magic question: ‘Are you Jesus?’
Of course, our answer will be ‘No’. But our costly love, and our explanation of it’s source, will surely point the way.
Combine this gentle witness with the God who created all; the Son who lived, died, and rose again within time and space, and; the Spirit of God who is loose and active in our world, and we have reason for a staggeringly powerful alternative to hate, fear, and oppression.
We are a people who unapologetically, in every word and every deed, proclaim to all creation the eternal truth: ‘God is love’.