Listen to the podcast by Bishop Michael Rinehart (coming soon)
September 6, 2020 is Pentecost 14A/Proper 18A/Ordinary 24A
Exodus 12:1-14 – SET FREE: The commandment to observe Passover.
Ezekiel 33:7-11 – So you, mortal, I have made a sentinel for the house of Israel; whenever you hear a word from my mouth, you shall give them warning from me. As I live, says the Lord God, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from their ways and live.
Psalm 149 – Sing to The Lord a new song… Let them praise his name with dancing, making melody to him with tambourine and lyre.
Psalm 119:33-40 – Lead me in the path of your commandments, for I delight in it. Turn my heart to your decrees, and not to selfish gain.
Romans 13:8-14 – Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. The Ten Commandments… are summed up in this word, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.
Matthew 18:15-20 – If another member of the church sins against you… How to manage conflict.
Prayer of the Day
O Lord God, enliven and preserve your church with your perpetual mercy. Without your help, we mortals will fail; remove far from us everything that is harmful, and lead us toward all that gives life and salvation, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.
Alleluia. In Christ God was reconciling the world | to himself, entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. Alleluia. (2 Cor. 5:19)
Two Sermon Series for Fall 2020
- Set The Oppressed Free: August 23-September 13, 2020
- Bread for the Wilderness: September 20-October 18, 2020
Just a reminder that we are in week 3 of a 4-week series on Exodus: Set the Oppressed Free, which will be followed by another series about being in the wilderness.
Set the Oppressed Free
Enslaved Exodus 1:8–2:10 August 23 Moses in a basket raised by Pharaoh’s daughter
Called Exodus 3:1-15 August 30 Moses’ theophany at the burning bush
Set Free Exodus 12:1-14 September 6 Moses gives Passover instructions
Crossing Over Exodus 14:19-31 September 13 Moses parts the Red Sea
Bread for the Wilderness
Complaint Exodus 16:2-15 September 20 God provides manna/quail as people complain
Provision Exodus 17:1-7 September 27 Moses strikes the rock and water comes out
Law Ex. 20:1-4, 7-9, 12-20 October 4 Moses receives the Ten Commandments
Idolatry Exodus 32:1-14 October 11 Moses finds the Israelites worshipping a calf
Glory Exodus 33:12-23 October 18 Moses sees God’s back, not face
Set the Oppressed Free Series Week 3:
The Lord said to Moses and Aaron in the land of Egypt: 2 This month shall mark for you the beginning of months; it shall be the first month of the year for you. 3 Tell the whole congregation of Israel that on the tenth of this month they are to take a lamb for each family, a lamb for each household. 4 If a household is too small for a whole lamb, it shall join its closest neighbor in obtaining one; the lamb shall be divided in proportion to the number of people who eat of it. 5 Your lamb shall be without blemish, a year-old male; you may take it from the sheep or from the goats. 6 You shall keep it until the fourteenth day of this month; then the whole assembled congregation of Israel shall slaughter it at twilight. 7 They shall take some of the blood and put it on the two doorposts and the lintel of the houses in which they eat it. 8 They shall eat the lamb that same night; they shall eat it roasted over the fire with unleavened bread and bitter herbs. 9 Do not eat any of it raw or boiled in water, but roasted over the fire, with its head, legs, and inner organs. 10 You shall let none of it remain until the morning; anything that remains until the morning you shall burn. 11 This is how you shall eat it: your loins girded, your sandals on your feet, and your staff in your hand; and you shall eat it hurriedly. It is the passover of the Lord. 12 For I will pass through the land of Egypt that night, and I will strike down every firstborn in the land of Egypt, both human beings and animals; on all the gods of Egypt I will execute judgments: I am the Lord. 13 The blood shall be a sign for you on the houses where you live: when I see the blood, I will pass over you, and no plague shall destroy you when I strike the land of Egypt. 14 This day shall be a day of remembrance for you. You shall celebrate it as a festival to the Lord; throughout your generations you shall observe it as a perpetual ordinance.
“Any gospel that does not…speak to the issue of enslavement” and “injustice” and “inequality—any gospel that does not want to go where people are hungry and poverty-stricken and set them free in the name of Jesus Christ—is not the gospel.”
It should come as no surprise to us that Black theology sees the Christian encounter through the lens of God as liberator of the oppressed throughout human history.
Exodus means “the way out.” Who is getting out of what, where? The master story of the Old Testament, of the Jewish people is the story of Israelite slaves being set free from their slavery in Egypt. The central theme of the Bible is a story of liberation. To understand the Bible, we must grasp this.
People are in need of all kinds of liberation. We are in bondage to a pantheon of gods. We are oppressed by addiction, abuse, greed, oppression and exploitation. The movement of God in history is to free us from every form of oppression. Jesus understood this to be his mission. His theme verse, which he read in his hometown synagogue, was from Isaiah 61:
The spirit of the Lord God is upon me,
because the Lord has anointed me;
he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed,
to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
and release to the prisoners;
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor…
God is about freeing slaves, liberating all who are in bondage of any kind. If the church is to be a part of God’s redemptive work in the world, we will be about freeing those in bondage as well.
This Sunday’s reading skips nine chapters from the call of Moses, to the Lord’s instructions on how to remember the Exodus from Egypt. That’s a big jump. We read about the passover, but who passed over what? The preacher will need to fill in the blanks.
We left Moses last week, standing at the burning bush, being called to go to the most powerful man in the ancient world, and tell him to set free his slaves, and dismantle his economy. In chapters 4-11 we hear about the struggle. When you speak truth to power, that power always pushes back. Expect resistance. Listen to that resistance. It will teach you.
When Moses goes to Pharaoh, Pharaoh responds by increasing the workload for the slaves, making their lives worse, reducing their rations and their supplies. The people are furious with Moses. Pharaoh succeeds in turning them against him. If you want to dismantle a revolution, get people fighting amongst themselves. An army that shoots their own cannot win the war.
In any struggle there will be that moment when it would be easiest to give up. Don’t build a wall without first counting the cost, Jesus says. If you aren’t 100% committed, you will give up at the first sign of trouble. Moses flirts with resignation, but in the end, he is in it for the long haul. He hangs in there. He has remained focused on his burning bush. The heat turns up for Pharaoh as the plagues begin to mount. Plagues are common in war. When the Great Influenza started in Kansas and spread to the whole world (largely because of the war) it killed 50 million people. As had been the case in nearly every U.S. war, more people died of disease than died in combat. War brings pestilence.
In Egypt’s war with the Israelites, the Nile turns blood red. Then there are frogs, gnat and flies. The livestock starts dying off. Oppression is lucrative for those on top, but it exploits people, bringing death and destruction. It consumes and wastes. It affects all of creation. It impacts health. There are boils. Thunder, hail, locusts and darkness affect the crops. Finally, there is the death of the firstborn. The angel of death passes over the Israelites.
Finally, Pharaoh relents. This doesn’t happen fast. It was a ten-step process. There are no quick fixes when injustice is institutionalized. Institutions fight back. They will protect their assets at all costs. Expect resistance. They didn’t crucify Jesus for nothing.
It is at this point that Exodus gives us the Passover remembrance instructions. In the morning they will simply walk out of Egypt. Next week we will read about the crossing of the Red Sea. Some congregations like to reenact the Passover Seder. I have done this in former congregations. I would only recommend that if you do this, you have a rabbi participate in the planning and execution of the event, otherwise it smacks of religious appropriation, like doing a Hindu ritual without the training and collaboration of those from that tradition.
What battles are worth fighting in your day and age? How are people in bondage today, in your community, in your neighbhorhood, and beyond? Where is God already at work? Who are the enslaved? What slavery is God wanting to dismantle? What is your role? How will God use your God-given gifts to make a difference in the world? Are you in it for the long haul? Will you hang in there when the going gets rough?
Jesus’ cross led to resurrection. God is about bringing life out of death. God is doing this work whether we are on board or not. The only question is, are we willing to be a part of it? Are we willing to be used as a part of God’s liberating Word?
When you resist evil, do not do so on your own power. You will run out of gas. Channel the will of the people and the forces of God’s universe. Oppression enslaves the oppressor too. The oppressor will need to see this. Evil empires usually collapse under the weight of their own evil. In fact, Gandhi pointed, they always have. Always. Think of it. We are called to point out injustice. We can even sometimes accelerate the process. We cannot do it all by ourselves. We need the power of God, and the support of one another. Never give up.
Trust God. Martin Luther King once said, “The moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” Do you believe it?
Ezekiel 33 – God’s Call to Ezekiel to Speak the Word
The Ezekiel text is God’s call to Ezekiel, asking him to tell the house of Israel to repent, for God does not wish the death of sinners, but rather that they turn and live.
Romans 13 – Whoever loves has fulfilled the whole law
The Romans text embodies the theology of love that Jesus espouses when asked the greatest commandment. He says the greatest commandment is to love your God and the second is to love your neighbor. It is the theology of 1 John 4:7-8. “Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love.” Paul’s clearest exposition of this theology is in 1 Corinthians 13, where love, for Paul, transcends eloquence, ecstatic speech, prophecy, even faith and self-sacrifice.
Here in Romans 13 Paul boils it down three times, in three consecutive verses:
- “Whoever loves has fulfilled the law.” (13:8)
- “The Ten Commandments are summed up in a single saying, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’” (13:9)
- “Love is the fulfillment of the law.” (13:10)
It is this passage from Romans 13 that famously caused Augustine to convert to Christianity.
Matthew 18 – Conflict Management in the Church
September and October our RCL gospel texts are from Matthew 18-22. There are teachings and parables that are instructive to the church. Life in Christian community. Here’s an overview:
- September 6: Matthew 18:15-20 – Conflict
- September 13: Matthew 18:21-35 – Forgiveness (The Unforgiving Slave)
- September 20: Matthew 20:1-16 – Grace (Vineyard Laborers)
- September 27: Matthew 21:23-32 – Humility (Two Sons)
- October 4: Matthew 21:33-46 – Fruit (Wicked Tenants)
- October 11: Matthew 22:1-14 – Expectation (Wedding Banquet)
- October 18: Matthew 22:15-22 – Taxes (Render unto Caesar)
- October 25: Reformation – John 8:31-36 (The truth will set you free.)
The gospel text for this Sunday is one that absolutely must be studied and understood by anyone living in community. It is almost as if Jesus told this story for every church I ever served. As we take a look at this text, it is well for us to keep Paul’s words about love from Romans 13 in our heads.
It is likely that Matthew, writing in AD 80 or so, included this story because of specific conflicts going on in his church. The Gospel of Matthew is the church’s manual, after all. Mark, Luke and John must not know this story, because if they did they would most certainly have included it. Wherever there is human community, there is conflict. Jesus had to deal with conflict even among his own disciples. We can expect no less in our congregations and church bodies. There is nothing unchristian about conflict, but there are Christ-like ways to deal with conflict.
This passage on dealing with conflict outlines a way to keep community healthy. If we respond to conflict without love, we have missed the point. In fact, some have pointed out even this procedure could be misappropriated as a tool to wield power over someone else. Any process can be abused. To use it in this way would be to miss the point.
So let’s look at it.
If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one. But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.
So we read here a 4-step process:
- If a member sins again you, go and talk to that person privately.
- If you aren’t listened to, take one or two others along.
- If that doesn’t work, take it to the church.
- Gentile/Tax collector
Every pastor should preach this text to every congregation at some point, and probably every few years. Perhaps this should be an annual sermon. Boundaries and leadership are the immunity system of a healthy body.
This is not how most communities function, therefore, you have to teach it. It’s counter-cultural. When someone sins against them, most people tell everyone else, except the very person that offended them. “Do you know what so-and-so did to me/said to me? Well, let me tell you! Isn’t it awful? I am never speaking to her again…”
Thus, we create a triangle. What was a one-on-one conflict now involves others, who are brought into the anger. The offense may be quite real, but now we have less chance of resolving it. We spread our conflict throughout the whole community, like an infection. Communities that function like this constantly throb with conflict. It will be hard to get a vibrant sense of well-being and health in a community that doesn’t know how to handle conflict in healthy ways.
Some churches are made up of extended families. We have one congregation where 2/3 of the members are part of one of two families. In this situation, methods of managing conflict (avoidance, blaming, computing, distracting, placating…) are deeply ingrained in generations of family systems. One pastor is not likely to change this, but it should not stop us from proclaiming a new reality. Engaging the council in a study and discussion of this text will certainly have some impact. If leaders set the example, the culture begins to shift. You now have your council devotions. You’re welcome.
The first step is to go to the person privately. When this happens most of the time reasonable people who love one another will be able to work through things. Equally important, the community has not been dragged through the drama.
Notice whose responsibility it is to initiate the conversation: It says, “If a member of the church sins against you…” The person who is wronged is to initiate the action. This is because sometimes the offender does not even know that he or she has offended. Jesus seems to understand that left unchecked, resentment can turn into anger and anger can harden into hatred.
Here’s what St. Augustine had to say about it:
Our Lord warns us not to neglect one another’s sins, not by searching out what to find fault with, but by looking out for what to amend. For He said that his eye is sharp to cast out a mote out of his brother’s eye, who has not a beam in his own eye. Now what this means, I will briefly convey to you, Beloved. A mote in the eye is anger; a beam in the eye is hatred. When therefore one who has hatred finds fault with one who is angry, he wishes to take a mote out of his brother’s eye, but is hindered by the beam which he carries in his own eye. A mote is the beginning of a beam. For a beam in the course of its growth, is first a mote. By watering the mote, you bring it to a beam; by nourishing anger with evil suspicions, you bring it on to hatred. (Sermon XXXII)
Augustine points out something important. We are not to go around looking for people to offend us. But when something happens that we can’t let go of, it’s time to act.
Jesus says, “If the member listens to you, you have gained that person back.” The goal of the conversation is reconciliation. The Christian life is about forgiveness, compassion and reconciliation. We interact not to humiliate, but to heal. That is why Jesus says to talk alone. Think about it, when confronted by a group, most people will put up their walls and get defensive, but one-on-one softens the heart. The meeting can end with an embrace.
But not always. Sometimes people can’t or won’t hear. Sometimes we are hard-headed. Other times we are blinded by privilege. We have stomped in others’ feelings with ignorance. Or they have stomped in ours. Or worse, a brutal violence has been committed. When this is the case, they may not be able to hear. Don’t give up. Try again. This time take someone along with you. When two people are in conflict, a non-anxious third party can often bring stability and clarity.
When someone comes to me and starts complaining about another person, my first response is “Have you spoken to him about this?” Most of the time the answer is no. If anger and anxiety are infections in the community, the leaders are the immune system. Leaders model conflict resolution, one way or the other. They can convey a sense of well-being in the community. If they do, many will follow suit. The pastor, the staff and the church council/board are the most important people in setting the tone of how we are going to be in community together.
Leaders teach people to talk to one another directly. Quite often those offended will say, “I’ve not spoken to him/her yet.” Sometimes they say, “I’m afraid.” Other times they’ll say, “I’ve tried.” In those cases a caring response is, “Would you like me to come along with you?” Some people need moral support. The Scriptures say there is much wisdom in many counselors. And Jesus points out, having witnesses means there can be no he-said/she-said. Every word can be confirmed. If most people respond to the one-on-one, many of the rest are going to respond to a caring, conversation with a couple of people.
But not always. There are some situations that need extra care. To these Jesus says, “Take it to the church.” Keep in mind that in Matthew’s day (AD 80) churches were small. They met in homes. Matthew may mean the leaders of the church. Take it to those in a position of authority. This system protects the leaders from having to arbitrate every conflict. Deal with it one-on-one, and if that doesn’t work then in a group of two or three caring people. It only comes to the leaders of the church if those first two steps don’t work. If the conflict reaches the leaders, they will often be able to take care of it.
But not always. The first three steps are going to get most folks. There are, however, some conflicts so deeply entrenched and some people so unwilling to bend that they cannot be resolved. There are some people who simply cannot let go of bitterness. It may even come from a former conflict that has nothing to do with the current situation. If that person won’t listen to the leaders of the church, then he or she is to be treated “as a Gentile or tax collector.” (By the way, this is a clue that Matthew is writing to a Jewish-Christian community, unlike the Gentile-Christian communities with whom Paul worked.)
One way to interpret this is that Jesus is suggesting once all these efforts have been expended, it is okay to ostracize that person completely from the community. This is a form of excommunication. We know that orthodox Jews were not to speak to Gentiles or tax collectors, touch them or even make eye contact.
But there is another interpretation.
How did Jesus treat Gentiles and tax collectors? As it happens, we have quite a few stories of such encounters. As it turns out, Jesus interacted freely with Gentiles, tax collectors and sinners. In fact, it got him into a bit of hot water with the Pharisees and Sadducees. They complain in Luke 15 that he even eats with them. Good heavens! Isn’t it interesting that this gospel is named after a tax collector who was one of Jesus’ disciples?
Could it be that when Jesus says to treat someone as a tax collector or Gentile he means to treat them with compassion? I’ll leave it to you to think this through.
Are there times when this process should not be used? Of course. There are exceptions to most rules. If someone is in physical danger from the offender, caution would be advised. If the offender has committed murder or rape, or physical abuse, then one must go to the person who has the direct authority to administer discipline. I wouldn’t ask a bruised and abused wife to go put herself at risk. But appeal to the person who actually has jurisdiction, not to every person around, who may have no authority. Justice become juicy gossip all too often.
This process of conflict management is so important to the life of the Christian community that it is included in the ELCA model constitution for congregations, chapter 15 on discipline of members of the church.
Chapter 15. DISCIPLINE OF MEMBERS AND ADJUDICATION
*C15.01. Denial of the Christian faith as described in this constitution, conduct grossly unbecoming a member of the Church of Christ, or persistent trouble-making in this congregation are sufficient cause for discipline of a member. Prior to disciplinary action, reconciliation will be attempted following Matthew 18:15-17, proceeding through these successive steps: a) private admonition by the pastor, b) admonition by the pastor in the presence of two or three witnesses, and c) citation to appear before the Congregation Council.
I have been asked if I would suggest this method for international global conflict. It is doubtful that Jesus or Matthew, who conveys the story, were suggesting strategies for international diplomacy. They could hardly have pictured modern nation-states. But would these be bad strategies? Are they not in fact what actually often happens? A president calls a president. Advisors and ambassadors are brought in. Sometimes parliaments have to get involved. I’m not suggesting this is the way to operate every time, but if we are to take Jesus’ injunction to love our enemies seriously, it might be worth consideration.
I wouldn’t miss an opportunity to preach on this text. If you’re preaching the Exodus series, make a note to return to this text at some point. With all the pandemic debates going on these days, it might come in handy. The last time we heard this text was in 2017. If the average congregation has at 10% turnover per year in people who move, die or leave, then at least 30% of your congregation may not have heard this important message yet. These words call us to love one another, to take sin seriously, to not let hurts fester and get infected. They call us to be a community of reconciliation and peace.
Where love rules, there is no will to power,
and where power predominates, love is lacking.
The one is the shadow of the other.
– Carl Jung (1875-1961), Swiss psychologist
On the Psychology of the Unconsciousness, 1917