to pass over or not?

Exodus 12:1-14; Matthew 18:21-35

Looking down the road, on a hot day,
you sometimes see, in the distance,
a shimmering.
And you blink because you’re not real sure what you’re seeing.
You know what I’m talking about?
It looks like light refracting off water
that’s somehow collected up there on the highway.

The technical explanation for this phenomenon (you ready?)
has to do with the surface temperature of the road,
and then the changing temperature in the air above that surface.
So it’s hottest on the ground—
the asphalt collecting and storing heat.
It gets cooler, the higher up from the ground you go.
Alright then you need to remember that light moves at different speeds
though different densities of air
(cold air being more dense than warm air),
and as the speed of light changes, it bends,
and it bends toward the cooler air.
So when you put all this together
and when you’re looking down that road in the distance on that hot day,
the light establishing your line of vision is bending up—
bending up into the cooler air,
and in the distance, you’re actually seeing the sky.
But your brain, trying to make sense of what your eyes are seeing
thinks it’s water reflecting sky.
That makes more sense to our brains
than that you’re seeing the sky on the ground.
But truly you’re looking up without knowing it.

It’s not clear (it shimmers)
because hot air rises,
and so you have movement in all that air—
as well as different densities—
different speeds of light.

So many Bible stories
shimmer.
And you blink because you’re not always real sure what you’re seeing.
And the light that emanates from such stories—
the light that shines in the darkness—
that light bends—
bends what we see as reality,
such that looking at these sacred stories—
looking at their beauty, their wonder,
their mystery, their challenge,
we see up to God.
Often in Scripture, we look up, very much knowing
that’s what we’re doing.
But sometimes, even in Scripture, we look up
without realizing it—
without knowing what we’re doing.

Our Old Testament text is taken from the Exodus story—
set within those dramatic stories of freedom.
But within those dramatic stories,
it also comes as interruption of the story.
The passover instructions we read this morning
come as interruption into the narrative flow of the plagues in Egypt—
after the tenth plague has been announced,
but before it has happened.

And we have these instructions for that last night in Egypt.
Because within all that drama,
our text is not about the mighty acts of God,
but about how we are to act in remembrance
of how the people of God acted in obedience.
For on that night, they gathered around the tables
for their last supper—in Egypt … right?
And it was a symbolic meal of ritual and liturgy and worship.
Scholars are actually fairly certain
this was all based on an older ritual of the nomadic way of life
reclaimed now—repurposed within Israel’s faith heritage.

They gathered by family or by families
with instructions to prepare—not a lamb—
contrary to our translation,
but the Hebrew literally reads, a flock animal—
which we find out shortly could also be a goat ….
The passover goat … just doesn’t sound right, does it? But it is!
We’re just so used to the passover lamb!
And your best one—your best lamb—your best goat—
your sacrifice.

Then the whole congregation of Israel slaughtered it, we read—
which is interesting grammar.
The whole congregation slaughtered it.
But this suggests the completeness of the community worship,
which was not corporate worship—
everybody didn’t get together and do this together.
Individual families—some families joined together.
The entire Hebrew people celebrating together but separately—
and no one left out.

And the blood was used to mark the entrance to the house.
So, I guess, if you celebrated with another family,
the dinner invitation was also for a sleepover—
because you sure didn’t want to go home to your unmarked door!

Now why did God need to see the blood?
didn’t God know—
doesn’t God know—
those who follow in God’s way?
or might this be less for God to know
as for the people of God to identify—
to self-identify—
as those who sacrifice.
imagine, in our culture of valuing how much we have,
a faith community marked by valuing how much we give away.
sacrifice marks my coming in and my going out.
sacrifice is the address of my home.

Some might suggest that the blood on the door
was appropriate for such a bloody night
as the angel of death entered the unmarked houses of the Egyptians,
but I can’t tell you—I cannot tell you—how true I find the affirmation
that death enters all homes unmarked by sacrifice—
that children suffer in houses unmarked by sacrifice—
that when sacrifice is sacrificed, so is a culture’s future.
Let those with ears to hear, hear.

Interesting to note God also says I come
not just as death to the young of Egypt—
but in judgment of the Egyptian gods.
And this is less something Rick Riordian would write—
War of the Gods or Yahweh takes on Isis, Ra Ra!,
as it is recognition and affirmation
that the presence of God always constitutes judgment
on any and all other gods.
The presence of our God always constitutes judgment
on any other god.

Instructions continue
as we are commanded to prepare the lamb
as you might on the road in the wilderness
over the fire—with nothing left to waste—
every part consumed or burned.
You don’t want to attract scavengers.
You don’t want to attract predators.
You don’t want to leave sign of your passing.
Walk gently on the earth.

And you eat in your traveling clothes.
You eat with your shoes on.
You eat carrying your walking staff.
You eat in a hurry—
ready to go at a moment’s notice.
Or some translations read “anxiously”—
not eat “hurriedly” but eat “anxiously”—
(John I. Durham, Exodus
[Waco: Word, 1987] 151)
prepared to go and scared to go.
How true that.

There’s so much that’s interesting here
worthy of notice and reflection,
but I want to close our consideration of this Exodus passage
by looking at the beginning again.
“The Lord said to Moses and Aaron in the land of Egypt:
This month shall mark for you the beginning of months;
it shall be the first month of the year for you.”
Notice
time starts here.
Time begins with freedom.
Time begins when oppression ends.
Time is reoriented,
and we see history that establishes ritual and liturgy and worship
which is simultaneously ritual, liturgy, worship
that gives history more meaning—
or let’s say time,
and, within time, experience.
So we have a justification of ritual based on experience,
in turn giving experience meaning.
what happens is important.
What happens now is important.

In our Gospel text from Matthew,
we have words supposedly of Jesus.
I mean, Jesus says them in the book as it’s written,
but he didn’t say them.
They’re not his words.
And we know this, right?
Because there was no church when Jesus was going around the Galilee
and the southern hill country teaching and telling stories.
There were disciples;
there were followers,
so there was community.
There just wasn’t church.
So this is Jesus’ teaching about process in community
applied later by Matthew to the church.
This make sense to everyone?

And it’s very clear
in the case of sin, there is to be confrontation—
I do hate to bring this up—
to complicate matters,
but we’re immediately into some more ambivalence.
Because while our translation reads,
if your brother or sister sins—against you,
some of the most ancient manuscripts read simply
if your brother or sister sins—
not qualified by against you or me.
Now still qualified by membership in the community, right?
If my brother or sister—my brother or sister in my community—
in my family of faith sins …
someone with whom I’m in relationship ….
Or do we ask, Who is my brother? Who is my sister?
Is what we have here possibly completely unqualified?
If anyone sins, confront them?
That is one scary thought!

Because I don’t want to be rude.
I don’t want to offend.
I don’t want to get into what’s, after all, none of my business.
And what if they get mad?
How will they express their anger?
There are a lot of crazy people out there.
And I really don’t want to be self-righteous.
There’s entirely too much of that around!
And what sin do I confront anyway? Sin by whose definition?
And people’s sin? Systemic sin? The sin of our culture?

I’ve suggested before that it’s most appropriate
to hold people accountable
to what they have confessed themselves accountable to,
not to what I think they should be held accountable to.
That’s what we do in community
and as communities of faith.

But surely there’s also a prophetic word we speak
in the context of injustice—in the context of sin?
We have too much allowed morality to define sin instead of justice,
and for the sake of justice,
we can’t afford to be silent about another’s sin.
We cannot pass this over.
So I’m good and uncomfortable now.
How about you?

I do want you to know before I go stepping on any of your toes,
that mine are bruised from this past week’s work!

There’s the legitimate question of how to do this.
Oh, I mean this is good process Matthew gives us.
First, one on one.
Then, if that doesn’t work, with a witness.
Then, and only then, in front of the community—
noticing there’s no one in charge designated to deal with this.
There’s no one tasked with identifying and pointing out sin—
with judging.
And there’s no authority to appeal to at the end but the whole community.
This is good process.
But still how do you do this one on one?

When you see the parent berating the child at the grocery store,
and it’s abusive,
what do you do?
That one’s my nightmare.
What would I do?

This is none of my business?
Really?
Because that child’s going to grow up with my children.
And so the way that child is treated will affect my children.
The way we act in the grocery store shapes our world,
and I care about how God’s world is shaped.
So what do I say? What do I do?
And I don’t know.

I’m reminded of Sam Wells’ comment
we considered some years ago
about church as a rehearsal stage
to practice in community and in advance
situations to encounter later in life
(Sam Wells, Improvisation: The Drama of Christian Ethics
[Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2004]).

The best I’ve been able to come up with
for that parent and child in the grocery store
is to say something like, “Oh, I’ve been there.
Can I watch your son/daughter while you get your shopping done?”
Now you still might catch it,
but haven’t done or said anything,
or not done or not said anything
to regret.

You might come up with something better.
If we were to consider it part of our congregational life
to be in conversation so what would you do in this situation,
we might could come up with something really good.

I do believe one of the most powerful confrontations of sin
is confession—
confession and repentance.
I get this so wrong in my living and relating,
and I so want to get it more right.
Confession and repentance.
Here’s what I’m doing to try and change.
But also confession of faith.
Here’s what I believe.

Have you wondered what you would say in that grocery store?
Have you been in that grocery store?

Okay, but sometimes it’s so much harder to know what’s sin.
There’s too much that’s ambiguous.
Or is it? Even at the bigger level.
Palestine, it is sin to send rockets into Israel.
Israel, it is sin to kill 501 children in Gaza.
Anyone disagree with either of those statements?
You see, we’re not getting into
what you supposedly have to do to protect yourself.
We’re not getting into justification of behavior.
Justification of behavior is always self-centered.
So we just consider behavior,
and all of a sudden, it’s seems more clear.

But not just behavior.
Circumstances too.
Ask our children.
I so clearly remember our girls’
shock—our girls’ utter shock,
to learn that children in our community—
right here around us,
don’t have enough to eat.
“That’s not right,” they said.
That’s right. That’s sin.
And the young suffer in a culture that has sacrificed sacrifice.

To make others pay for what we enjoy is sin—
whether that’s fiscal policy,
environmental policy,
trade policy,
or the privileges we take for granted every day.

Now so important to remember,
“The function of the discipline spoken here
is restorative, not punitive ….”
(Ben Witherington III, Matthew
[Macon: Smyth & Helwys, 2006] 350)
“[T]he whole process is focused on the restoration of the offender,
not revenge for the offended”
(Thomas G. Long, Matthew
[Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1997] 210).
Though it’s not necessarily the offended party either, is it?
It’s the observant one—
the one that acknowledges the importance of sin.
What you’re doing’s not right.

Those who do not listen—
who do not respond,
let them be as tax collectors to you—
as Gentiles.
Now that would have meant one thing in the culture of the day,
right?
Reject them, exclude them, denigrate them.
It would have meant something entirely different
within the truth of the gospel, right?
For Jesus ate with tax collectors (Matthew 9:10-11),
named sinners and toll collectors his friends (Matthew 11:19),
will state that prostitutes and toll collectors will enter heaven
before the temple authorities (Matthew 21:32).
And gentiles, in this gospel, manifest great faith—
whether that’s the magi (Matthew 2:1-12),
the centurion (Matthew 8:5-13), the Canaanite woman (Matthew 15:21-28),
even Pilate’s wife (Matthew 27:19).

So if someone doesn’t hear you—
if someone persists in sin,
name them your friend.
Invite them to eat with you.
Take initiative to establish relationship with them.
Bless them with your love.

Two interesting comments at the end of our gospel text:
“Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth
will be bound in heaven,
and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”
I’m not sure specifically what any of that means
other than what we do matters.
What we do shapes the world’s view of heaven and of God
which is enough to know!

“Again, truly I tell you, if two of you agree on earth
about anything you ask, it will be done for you
by my Father in heaven.
For where two or three are gathered in my name,
I am there among them.”
So we have the assurance of the presence of God with us,
and the affirmation that our living matters,
and, hopefully, some sense that
there’s a lot you cannot pray for in Jesus’ name.
There’s a lot you can’t pray for
when you’re striving to honor the integrity of Jesus’ name.
You can’t ask for anything.

When we are about the business of sin and grace—
confrontation and forgiveness,
when we are focused on restoring community and relationship and dreams and wholeness and health and hope,
we end up in a bigger story than we knew.
We transpose our circumstances into the great story of God.

Think about that when you’re in the grocery store.
Or on the beltway … that’s another place I ….

So when in the course of our days,
we notice sin,
and we worry about that.
We fret.
What do I say? What do I do?
And we do name sin—
appropriately—in love,
because we practiced together as church.
We confront someone
with our commitment to a different reality.
We commit to the possibility of creating or restoring relationship,
that’s no small thing.
In the barrenness of too much of our culture,
we make our way to a promised land so much richer.

Risky? Oh, yes.
You don’t get to participate in the biggest and best stories without risk.
And we love our stories of those who face physical danger.
We go to the movies.
We watch the TV shows.
We love our stories of those who face physical danger.
But they only prepare us to face the very real dangers
of selfishness and greed and shortsightedness.
And can you be a hero facing that?
And live into a history that establishes ritual, liturgy, worship
that in turn give history more meaning.

I promise you,
people looking at us as followers of God,
they do not see up;
they do not see heaven;
they do not see God, and they do not want to look for God,
when it is judgement and rejection and exclusion
and criticism and self-righteousness and fear that they hear.

But if, looking at us, and us looking at each other
we see grace, forgiveness, love, blessing, inclusiveness
I promise you,
there is a shimmering,
and it is heaven we will see.
It is God we will see.

And time begins again.

How ’bout that?

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