Being a part of the continuing story

A sermon for Proper 18; Exodus 12:1-14, Psalm 149, Romans 13:8-14, Matthew 18:15-20

My family is all for traditions. They have changed since we grew up and started families of our own, but we have traditions. Growing up we had birthday traditions, Easter traditions, including the Golden egg, Thanksgiving traditions, Christmas traditions and beach traditions. My mother saw to our keeping our traditions. But ~ she also was not one to let an opportunity, go by.

In college, my middle brother took to buying all his clothes at Goodwill. He had good reasons, they were inexpensive so when, not if but when, he tore something up, it was not such a big deal They were clean. They were in reasonable shape. And best of all ~ no one ever asked.

When it came time for his wedding rehearsal, mom, and a few of her best friends we all knew and loved, went to the Goodwill store, and bought their outfits. They were, well at least ten years out of fashion, and none of us will ever forget the brilliant blue dress with the huge (hold up hands shoulders apart) bright yellow flower. At the rehearsal, everyone erupted in a joyous uproar as they, in place of the bride’s maids, gloriously came down the center aisle.

Some years later it was my parents 50th wedding anniversary. There was a big to do at my sister’s house; and beforehand there was a family thing. No one quite knows how he pulled it off. But, he let us all know he would be just a bit late. We were all there, yapping and waiting for my brother. We hear the front door open and close and all turned to see who had arrived. There he was, in the brilliant blue dress with the huge (hold up hands shoulders apart) bright yellow flower. Mom erupted in laughter and we all joined her. There has been one wedding in his family. Another is on the horizon. We are all waiting for this tradition to continue so we can be a part of the continuing story.

We know the story of the Passover. Or we think we do. It begins with God telling Moses that from now on this is the first month of the year for Israel. It is as if God is starting their history over again right then and there (Hoezee). And there are a host of other details we might not have noticed.

The Passover story is 52 verses long. 23 verses of them are liturgical instructions, intended to become the center of Israel’s tradition (Hoezee). They are the instructions for a ritual reenactment and remembrance of the exodus from Egypt so that it will never be forgotten (Gaventa and Petersen). The liturgy makes the exodus liberation present so that it can be a part of defining and shaping the social reality of current and future generations (Brueggeman). This is clear in the rituals’ wording. Jews observing Passover do not say:

We remember this night how God led those people long ago out of Egypt and through the Red Sea.

They say:

 We remember this night how God led us out of Egypt and through the Red Sea.

In observing the liturgy participants become the people of the story (Hoezee). How do we continue to become the people of Jesus’ story in our storied remembrances?

The Passover is totally inclusive. We read how every family is to have a lamb. At the time this was extraordinarily expensive, so families were to join together so everyone would be included (Brueggeman). We are also inclusive in our liturgies; the Prayer Book welcomes all people baptized with water in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Our invitation welcomes all those called to God’s table to encounter our risen Lord.

In a small way, we remember the Passover in our weekly Eucharist. We used a form of unleavened bread. The tradition continues in Passover celebrations. Scott Hoezee writes:

The Passover is a traveler’s meal, eaten with your coat already on your back, your best walking shoes on your feet, and your bags packed (Hoezee).

The meal must be eaten in a hurry; people must be ready to go, ready to travel, ready to depart from the empire. It must be done in a hurry remember that leaving Egypt is a dangerous, anxiety-ridden business. The use of leavened bread ignores to urgency and anxiety which is central to the story’s shaping prowess (Brueggeman). We too can ignore portions of our liturgical traditions; I once heard someone say If you can identify the eucharistic wine, you’ve rather missed the point.

The Passover liturgy also reminds participants that there is more to escape than the oppression of an evil empire. Israel must also escape the creeping presence of other gods the empire uses to legitimize their oppression and abuse (Brueggeman). Israel will struggle with the gods of other lands through the entirety of the Old Testament. There is the golden calf, the gods of the people in the lands they will occupy, Solomon’s offerings to the gods of his hundreds of wives and the continuing kings who did what was evil in the eyes of God throughout 1st and 2nd Kings and 1st and 2nd Chronicles. We are no better; only our gods look like philosophy, political theory, economic theory etc. that we use to justify immoral behavior in all aspects of our lives, personally, socially, in business and religiously. Our personal and national behaviors raise questions about our relationship to empire.

There is an ambiguous aspect to the Passover ritual. Yes, it is a remembrance of Israel’s escape from oppressive abuse and slavery in Egypt. However, that escape requires the death of every Egyptian first born male child and animal. The deaths are not limited to Pharaoh’s house, or the royal court, or the willing participants; every family, is indiscreetly touched by death. If the mid wives Shiprah and Puah, from last’s week’s story, are Egyptian, and the scripture does not say one way or another, do their first-born sons die? Such unilateral violence has been justified throughout the ages. We see it today in the polarization of politics and culture; in the behaviors of extremist of all kinds of causes (Epperly). We heard it in a pastor’s claim that the president has divine permission to “take out” another country’s leader. Personally, locally, and nationally we must be cautious that we do not exploit God’s story for our own selfish desires. This caution includes our tendency to approach all things rationally.

Liturgy involves a certain suspension of disbelief, setting aside our rationality so we can walk with the people of the remembrance story and reenter a defining memory, allowing the remembrance to mold who we are. At the same time, we must live within the story’s boundaries so, we can withstand the current winds of fads and criticism. Yes, we must have good informative material to enlighten our understanding of the story; however, we must live in the memory of our bellies of a hastily eaten meal, in front of our blood marked door post and lintel.

If we don’t,

  • we risk becoming too familiar with empire;
  • we risk forgetting the leaving Egypt is a dangerous anxiety ridden venture (Brueggeman);
  • we risk forgetting the lamb is slaughtered

to identify with the deaths in Egypt long ago as a reminder of the grace of God that alone secures life in the midst of a world where the innocent still suffer, still die, and where God’s long battle with evil continues (Hoezee).

Our Eucharist Liturgy requires suspension of our rationality and being vulnerable so we can be molded by the remembrance by our ancient story. We are part of the betrayal, suffering, and death of Jesus. We are the benefactors of his death because we are the benefactors of Jesus’ resurrection.

In our opening collect, we pray Grant us, O Lord, to trust in you with all our hearts. The Exodus story is a story of trust. God asks Moses and Moses asks Israel to trust. There is no rationale that enables Israel to escape slavery in Egypt. The deaths of the firstborn could just as easily have brought on the wholesale slaughter of all of Israel in angry revenge. The liturgical remembrance of the Passover is to yet again, place ourselves and our families into the hands of God, trusting it is God’s love that brings salvation from everything that threatens us, both externally and spiritually. As Exodus is the defining story for Israel, Jesus’ resurrection is the defining story of Christians. The liturgical remembrance of the Last Supper is to yet again, place ourselves and our families into the hands of God, trusting it is God’s love that brings salvation from everything that threatens us, both externally and spiritually by the betrayal, suffering, death, and resurrection of Jesus. It takes trust to welcome the outsider gentile, or traitor tax-collector, as Jesus welcomes them after they have offended you and the whole church agrees with you (Matthew 18:15-17). It takes trust to put on the armor of light, to put on put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for our more mortal needs as Paul suggest, because as he writes salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers; the night is far gone, the day is near (Romans 13:11-14); more so now than then not quite 2000 years ago.

So,

my prayer for you this day is that you trust the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, strength, mind; so that you may Love your neighbor (from Luke 10:27) and be a part of the continuing story.

References

Brueggeman, Walter. New Interpreters’ Bible Exodus. Vol. 1. n.d. 12 vols.

Epperly, Bruce. The Adventurous Lectionary. 10 9 2017. <http://www.patheos.com/blogs/livingaholyadventure/author/bruceepperly&gt;.

Gaventa, Beverly Roberts, and David Petersen. New Interpreter’s One Volume Commentary. Nashville, n.d.

Harrelson, Walter J. The New Interpreters’ Study Bible. Abingdon Press, 2003. E-book.

Helmer, Ben. “Congregations and Conflict.” 10 9 2017. Sermons that Work.

Hoezee, Scott. “Old Testament Lectionary Text is: Exodus 12:1-14.” 10 9 2017. Working Preacher.

Lewis, Karoline. God Is With Us. 10 9 2017. <workingpreacher.org>.

Sakenfeld, Katharine Doob. New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible. Nashville: Abingdon, 2009.

Sigmon, Casey Thornburgh. Commentary on Exodus 12:1-14. 10 9 2017. <http://www.workingpreacher.org/&gt;.

 

 

Where have you seen or heard God’s active presence this week?

There are other readings this week than the Gospel according to John. As compelling as it is these readings also deserve contemplation. As I reviewed my first reading notes, I was drawn to one by verse 9 of psalm 95; actually verses 8 & 9.

8 Harden not your hearts, as your forebears did in the wilderness, *
   at Meribah, and on that day at Massah, when they tempted me.

9 They put me to the test, *
    though they had seen my works.

My note reads: what works have you/we seen / heard? I am sure it comes from a challenge David Lose of Working Preacher issued a couple of weeks ago to invite our congregations to share where they have seen God in the past week.  I passed on the direct method, though I have inserted the question in an intervening sermon or two, and have used it in bible studies prior to committee meetings and so on.  The question is, without a doubt, an underlying dimension in the reading Exodus, which tells the tale the psalm  refers to. After all, the Hebrews have experienced, first-hand, God’s liberating power, an expression of God’s abundant love. And yet only a little time later, the memory of God’s love fades; the memory of God’s power diminishes to the point of non-consideration. Why?

Today, psychologist, nuero-scientist, and others who explore human behavior might well point to how our brain is wired, and how overpowering fear is, in part because of where in the brain, the more primitive parts, fear is processed. But that’s the point isn’t it. To recognize our fear, stop ourselves, our family, friends and neighbors, from reacting out of primitive animalistic perceptions, and make use of the higher functioning parts of our brain (pun intended) to see or heard God’s active presence, and then prayerfully discern what to do. My wife is fond of saying that life happens to everyone; the question is: are you going to allow life’s events to define you, or are you going to turn to God’s presence for the wherewithal to determine how to respond.

Part of being a faith community is to coach each other turn to God. Perhaps part of the psalm’s purpose is to serve as a prayerful or liturgical reminder to turn to God. Part of Lent’s intent is to rehearse turning to God, so as to change the very nature of our bodies’ natural reaction; much like athletes retrain their bodies’ reaction to the challenges of their sport.

It all begins with realizing that we have no power in ourselves to help ourselves (collect for the 3rd Sunday in Lent). It continues by looking for and listening for God’s presence and actions. It goes on by helping others to do likewise. And while we can change our response, at least some of the time, we can not all the time, so it all ends in gracious judgment of our savior Jesus Christ.

Where have you seen or heard God’s active presence this week?