Sermon Seeds: Remember, Restore, Renew
Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost Year A
Twenty-third Sunday in Ordinary Time (Proper 18)
Exodus 12:1-14 with Psalm 149 or
Ezekiel 33:7-11 with Psalm 119:33-40
Worship resources for the 14th Sunday after Pentecost Year A, 23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time (Proper 18) are at Worship Ways
Additional reflection on Matthew 18:15-20
Remember, Restore, Renew
by Kathryn Matthews
A vivid memory from childhood television viewing is the scene that always terrified me during my family’s annual viewing of the classic movie, “The Ten Commandments”: the Angel of Death passing over Egypt, killing every firstborn, bringing tragedy to every Egyptian household, including Pharaoh himself, but leaving the Jewish people untouched. The young son of Pharaoh, a little boy, lying dead on a bier, with his father over him, a broken man.
After nine gruesome plagues, it was unfortunately necessary for God to strike Pharaoh at his heart, to “get him where he lives”–his beloved, firstborn son (in those days, they were even more precious than they are today, if we can imagine that). You knew that, finally, the great king (the fearsome Yul Brynner) would listen to Yahweh’s demand, delivered by Moses (the formidable Charlton Heston) to “let my people go.” With this kind of material, it’s no wonder that it’s a classic film.
What about the grieving parents?
The scene where the people gather up their children and possessions and head out was one of my favorites. But as a child, my relief that the people of Israel would finally be freed from slavery was even then mixed with a vague discomfort at the suffering of all those mothers and fathers, not just Pharaoh, who were weeping, broken-hearted, over their own dead children. You could hear the haunting sound of their wailing and screaming in the background, even as the people of Israel obediently carried out God’s instructions about the Passover meal. As a mother and grandmother myself, this part of the story breaks my heart even more deeply today.
This story of a deity who delivered death to innocent children and sorrow to grieving parents inevitably helped to shape my childhood image of God. While some commentaries avoid this question entirely, it’s certain that there will be plenty of folks in our pews on this Sunday, remembering that movie, remembering the story from Bible class, remembering the heartbreak and the horror, and harboring some discomfort and questions of their own. A preacher has to explore this text with that awareness, whether or not the questions can be resolved or the discomfort eased.
Speaking truth to power
Our passage is set on the edge of that defining moment in the life of Israel, the Exodus itself, after Moses has followed God’s many instructions, delivering God’s demands to mighty Pharaoh to “Let my people go.” These exchanges between Moses and Pharaoh are the classic “speaking truth to power” that’s become a description of any seemingly weak person standing up against oppressive, overwhelming authority. The story itself is even more chilling than any movie could depict (even with today’s special effects), and it moves quickly, with Pharaoh’s heart hardening every time he seems to relent.
But right in the middle of this drama, the action slows down and the narrative takes on a different tone and feel. Even though horrible danger looms (what could be worse than The Angel of Death?), God takes time to instruct the people about how to remember what is about to happen, how to worship properly not just that night, but in every age to come. That ritual would recall what God did for the people that terrible night, the protection God provided, and the cherished people they had become. Their worship, then, would serve to remind the people not only who God is in the life they share, but who they are as a people, as God’s beloved “first-born child.”
Things, and the people, are different now
Gerald Janzen describes two things that are different now, after this terrible night: time is changed, and so are the “social relationships” of the people of Israel. From an intolerable present, filled with despair, under the heel of the Egyptian gods, the people are launched into a new beginning: God tells the people to begin each year with a remembrance of what came before–their deliverance–and to ground their hope for the future in God’s protection and care.
Time itself is new, and the “fountain of celebration” of Passover both restores and renews the people of God. New time, new relationships, new “self-concept.” Janzen says that the people of Israel will now see themselves not only as “family,” the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, because God is doing a new thing with them by delivering them from slavery, for now they also “come to a new self-understanding: They become a ‘congregation'” (Exodus, Westminster Bible Companion).
Both new, and rooted in the past
And then Janzen provides an intriguing reflection on one of the commands that God gives the people in this passage, to eat the lamb with unleavened bread. Although the instructions about slaughtering and consuming the lamb are much more detailed, this unleavened bread is significant, too. We commonly understand that the people were to be ready to leave quickly, so there was no time for the bread to rise. But this unleavened bread also relates to who the Israelites now understand themselves to be, a people, Janzen says, both “new” and yet still “deeply rooted in their social and religious past.”
First, Janzen explains how yeast works, with a “seed” element that carries over from the old to the new. Paradoxically, in establishing a new festival of the unleavened bread, God reminds the people, including us today, that there “are respects in which the new can become the new only if it brings forward no element of yeast from the old” (Exodus, Westminster Bible Companion). Whether or not we know what it feels like to hover in fear of impending death, whether or not we have spent much time thinking of who we are as the church, Janzen provides a challenging reflection for the life of each local congregation and the United Church of Christ as a whole.
What will we bring with us?
As we move into the future, knowing ourselves as a people formed by God, descended from people of faith, Janzen reminds us that it is imperative to be careful about what we bring with us on our way, leaving behind “old jealousies and animosities” and opening ourselves to newness in Christ, our Passover Lamb, a newness that transforms our community and its way of living “with the ‘unleavened bread’ of sincerity and truth” (Exodus, Westminster Bible Companion). A good antidote, I believe, to “But we’ve always done it that way!” (Now, there is a sermon waiting to be written!)
Many commentators note the contrast between the drama of the story and the clear, calm, detailed instructions that, Gary Anderson observes, “looks more like a section from Leviticus than Exodus.” Many scholars also note that the people of Israel are delivered by God, but also claimed by God and expected to live faithfully in allegiance to God. But Anderson also reminds us that even in liberation the people are not completely “home free,” as we would say, because “biblical Israel and, subsequently, the Jewish people themselves (after A.D. 70) never had the option of viewing the exodus as a completely finished event.” Instead, as we their descendants do today, the people of Israel would see “the exodus event as both a past event and a present hope” (The Lectionary Commentary: The Old Testament and Acts).
God as a “bringer of death”?
Still, there is that troublesome question of God as “bringer of death.” James Newsome wrestles with this problem even as he affirms the celebration of Passover and of God as Redeemer of the people. In his reflection in Texts for Preaching Year A, he asks, “Does Yahweh not love the Egyptians too?” (He’s undoubtedly expressing the thoughts of many a child watching “The Ten Commandments.”) While Newsome can’t resolve the question entirely, he provides context that sheds light on a very different worldview than our own, when ancient peoples understood God as more “warlike” than we do.
Indeed, if Israel had a sense of evil as personal, then it was necessary that “God brought judgment on evil persons” and–here’s the difficult part for children watching that depiction of wailing parents–it’s also necessary to bring that judgment on the people who were part of “evil societies,” presumably like Pharaoh’s Egypt. Newsome urges us to see this perhaps brutal portrayal of God as “partial and, therefore, distorted” and thus to “deny the portrait of Yahweh as the killer of the innocent.”
However, Newsome’s “wrestling” takes him to other parts of the biblical witness, where God’s love extends far beyond Israel, including the well-known story of Jonah, who considered the Ninevites beyond the reach of God’s grace. And we know how that turned out: surprise! God ended the book with this question (and it’s a good one for us today): “And should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?” (Jonah 4:11). Who indeed is beyond the reach of God’s care?
Remembering the story
But this Exodus story stands, and we tell it, and remember it, again and again, year after year. We do more than watch it re-enacted on the television screen by actors long dead. We Christians remember it in worship, in our churches, when we too gather for a meal to remember who God is, and to be reminded who we are, too. Hank Langknecht suggests that the challenge within this worship may have something to do with not being ready to move: how can we be both a “pilgrim people” and a “settled community” with our buildings, our stability, our lack of mobility? We’re hardly girding up for a time in the wilderness!
The challenge, Langknecht writes, is “both to identify clearly the danger from which we would flee if we did flee…and to picture vividly the better land toward which we journey” (New Proclamation Year A 2008). What is the danger of living in “comfortable ‘slavery’ to culture” rather than in the wilderness, scary and harsh as it may be? We remember that it didn’t take long for the Israelites to look longingly back on the “comforts” of their servitude!
At home in the empire?
Walter Brueggemann provides beautiful commentary on the text, on the people’s “large sense of protectedness from the midnight violence that is loosed in the empire.” We see ourselves as “abidingly cared for in a world that is under profound threat”–words written before our perhaps unfounded sense of security was shaken by world events brought home to our own shores. But Brueggemann sees Pharaoh and Egypt in “every agent of oppression and abuse (including one’s own socioeconomic system),” and urges us to “an important restlessness. Indeed, when the community of faith no longer has this ‘festival of urgent departure,’ it runs the risk of being excessively and in unseemly ways at home in the empire” (Exodus, The New Interpreter’s Bible).
As I read these words, I confess that my personal lens allows me to see my own experience mostly in the safety and “unseemly” comfort Brueggemann writes about. I don’t worry about “midnight violence” in the form of raids on my home, or deportations, or the need to flee wars and civil unrest, or, for that matter, in the grinding, day-to-day poverty caused by forces so much larger than myself, forces that many would see as the result of economic empires that do not care about the “little ones” they affect in harmful ways. Such awareness, I hope, leads to a continuing “restlessness” and remembrance of the story of a God who cares about all of God’s children, a God who nevertheless brings judgment on every form of oppression and injustice.
A living hope that renews, restores and impels
And so, in the church, in our worship, we gather regularly and with deep care, with great attention to detail, to remember who God has been and who God is in our life together, and to remember who we are because of who God is, and what God continues to do. Because this is not just a story from long ago, the memory, and the worship, and the sense of God’s protection are living, vibrant, renewing and restoring, yet impelling us toward God’s future.
Again, from Walter Brueggemann: when we tell this story and celebrate what God has done in the past, we “are indeed sojourners dreaming of a better land, filled with God’s abundance. The engaged memory of pain evokes hope for a transformed world. The children of this community cannot afford to be protected from either the pain or the hope” (Exodus, The New Interpreter’s Bible). I wonder, then, when I look back on my childhood fears in hearing this story, how it might have been told more fully, in ways that included both the pain and the hope but also nurtured a deep trust in the goodness of God who is behind every story of redemption, mercy and grace.
The Rev. Kathryn M. Matthews retired last year after serving as dean of Amistad Chapel at the national offices of the United Church of Christ in Cleveland, Ohio.
You’re invited to share your reflections on this text in the comments below the post on our Facebook page.
A Bible study version of this reflection is at Weekly Seeds.
For further reflection:
Annie Dillard, Teaching a Stone to Talk: Expeditions and Encounters, 20th century
“I would like to learn, or remember, how to live.”
Anita Diamant, The Red Tent, 20th century
“It is terrible how much has been forgotten, which is why, I suppose, remembering seems a holy thing.”
Frederick Buechner, 21st century
“You can’t be too careful what you tell a child because you never know what he’ll take hold of and spend the rest of his life remembering you by.”
“The time is ripe for looking back over the day, the week, the year, and trying to figure out where we have come from and where we are going to, for sifting through the things we have done and the things we have left undone for a clue to who we are and who, for better or worse, we are becoming.”
Morris Joseph, 20th century
“Passover affirms the great truth that liberty is the inalienable right of every human being.”
“These three are the marks of a Jew–a tender heart, self-respect, and charity.”
Marcus J. Borg, The God We Never Knew: Beyond Dogmatic Religion to a More Authentic Contemporary Faith, 20th century
“God wills our liberation, our exodus from Egypt. God wills our reconciliation, our return from exile. God wills our enlightenment, our seeing. God wills our forgiveness, our release from sin and guilt. God wills that we see ourselves as God’s beloved. God wills our resurrection, our passage from death to life. God wills for us food and drink that satisfy our hunger and thirst. God wills, comprehensively, our well-being–not just my well-being as an individual but the well-being of all of us and of the whole of creation. In short, God wills our salvation, our healing, here on earth. The Christian life is about participating in the salvation of God.”
Elie Wiesel, 20th century
“I marvel at the resilience of the Jewish people. Their best characteristic is their desire to remember. No other people has such an obsession with memory.”
Kaj Munk, Danish pastor killed by the Gestapo in 1944 (in The Irresistible Revolution by Shane Claiborne):
“What is therefore, our task today? Shall I answer: ‘Faith, hope and love’? That sounds beautiful. But I would say–courage. No–even that is not challenging enough to be the whole truth. Our task today is recklessness. For what we Christians lack is not psychology or literature….we lack a holy rage–the recklessness which comes from the knowledge of God and humanity. The ability to rage when justice lies prostrate on the streets, and when the lie rages across the face of the earth…a holy anger about the things that are wrong in the world. To rage against the ravaging of God’s earth, and the destruction of God’s world. To rage when little children must die of hunger when the tables of the rich are sagging with food. To rage at the lie that calls the threat of death and the strategy of destruction peace. To rage against complacency. To restlessly seek to change human history until it conforms to the norms of the Kingdom of God.”
If real estate is all about location, location, location, perhaps our understanding of today’s passage from Matthew is especially about context, context, context. First, there is the setting of the passage in terms of time, for the instructions here from Jesus can be heard as the words of the still-speaking, risen Christ present in the early Christian community, guiding its life as it struggles with the all-too-human experiences of hurt and anger, injury and pardon, discipline and restoration. Above all, restoration.
How do we know this? Again, look at the setting of the passage itself within the Gospel of Matthew. Just before these verses, Jesus has spoken of God’s great care and concern for “the little ones,” and, although we have popularly heard these words to mean innocent, lovable little children, they can be better understood as describing the newest members, those who are fresh to the faith and susceptible to straying or being misled.
It’s all about restoration
God’s persistent and tender care, Jesus says, is like that of a shepherd who leaves the flock in search of just one little one who is lost, because it’s all about finding and seeking (think lost coin and treasure in a field) and restoration (think Prodigal Son, and each one of us). If God wills that not one little one should be lost, then the process outlined by the earliest church in this Gospel passage is not about punishment but about methodical, respectful, earnest, always hopeful, restoration.
Again, considering context leads us to read this passage with the very next passage in mind (verses 21-22), when Peter gets legalistic (and don’t we all?), asking for the number of times we need to forgive one another. Just give us a guideline here for the making of rules, he says, and no one can doubt his sincerity; in fact, we’re often glad someone back then asked Jesus the questions in the back of our own minds. What follows, in next week’s passage, is also about forgiveness and reconciliation.
Mundane language and processes for reconciliation
In any case, keeping these settings, in time and text, in mind, we read about a marvelously humane and even compassionate process that translates something of Jesus’ teaching into the workings of the life of the early church in a way that we can also use today, and yet seldom do. So much of the language of the Gospels is about lilies of the field, shepherds and lost sheep, transfiguration and resurrection (all good, of course), yet here is remarkably ordinary, almost mundane language about the “mechanism” that invites the most graceful experience of all, healing and reconciliation.
So often, in the life of the church, there is conflict that runs like an undercurrent, a river or stream flowing beneath the worship life, the fellowship time, the service toward one another and the world, an undercurrent bubbling up here and there in shared glances, careful avoidance, unspoken words but simmering feelings, the “hidden histories” that shape or distort decisions or direction as a community of faith.
Or the conflicts may lie on the surface in pools, puddles, or ugly potholes that everyone simply tries to step around. This works for a while, perhaps, but newcomers are especially attuned to such tensions and are rarely drawn to joining such congregations.
“As Gentiles and tax collectors”
Perhaps your church members believe that hurts and resentments or even injuries are personal burdens to be carried or, worse, badges of righteousness entitling us to our resentments. How much do these personal hurts, longstanding or not, tear in ways both great and small at the fabric of your church’s life? In what ways have you confronted such injuries so that healing and greater health were experienced by all involved?
Perhaps the line, “let such a one be to you as a Gentile or a tax collector,” strikes us (presumably Gentiles ourselves, or most of us, and perhaps even a tax collector or two in our midst), unnervingly. If we consider, though, how Jesus treated Gentiles and tax collectors, we might understand something of the ultimate vision of this process.
Called to be people of peace
Framed by a search for the lost and an extravagance of forgiveness, this snapshot of a moment in the life of the church seeks to embody God’s own grace and tenacity. What does the Still-speaking God say to you and your church and the whole United Church of Christ about the importance of such restoration and such tenacious longing for being reconciled and whole?
The General Assembly of the United Nations calls us to observe September 21 as an “International Day of Peace,” a time for specific actions, small or large, to bring healing and peace to our personal relationships and international relations as well (http://www.un.org/en/events/peaceday/index.shtml). How do you connect such a movement, and such a day, with this text?
For further reflection:
Timothy B. Tyson, Blood Done Sign My Name: A True Story, 21st century
“If there is to be reconciliation, first there must be truth.”
Wayne Gordon, Do All Lives Matter?: The Issues We Can No Longer Ignore and the Solutions We All Long For, 21st century
“For most, reconciliation will not happen as a part of a normal course of events. It has to be intentional.”
Krista Tippett, Speaking of Faith, 21st century
“Truth can be told in an instant, forgiveness can be offered spontaneously, but reconciliation is the work of lifetimes and generations.”
M. Scott Peck, The Different Drum: Community Making and Peace, 20th century
“The overall purpose of human communication is–or should be–reconciliation. It should ultimately serve to lower or remove the walls of misunderstanding which unduly separate us human beings, one from another.”
Dalai Lama XIV, 21st century
“Many people today agree that we need to reduce violence in our society. If we are truly serious about this, we must deal with the roots of violence, particularly those that exist within each of us. We need to embrace ‘inner disarmament,’ reducing our own emotions of suspicion, hatred and hostility toward our brothers and sisters.”
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. 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. 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. Your lamb shall be without blemish, a year-old male; you may take it from the sheep or from the goats. You shall keep it until the fourteenth day of this month; then the whole assembled congregation of Israel shall slaughter it at twilight. 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. They shall eat the lamb that same night; they shall eat it roasted over the fire with unleavened bread and bitter herbs. Do not eat any of it raw or boiled in water, but roasted over the fire, with its head, legs, and inner organs. You shall let none of it remain until the morning; anything that remains until the morning you shall burn. 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. 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 judgements: I am the Lord. 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.
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.
Sing to God
a new song,
sing God’s praise
in the assembly
of the faithful.
Let Israel be glad
in its Maker;
let the children of Zion
rejoice in their Ruler.
Let them praise God’s name
making melody to God
with tambourine and lyre.
For God takes pleasure
in the people;
God adorns the humble
Let the faithful exult
let them sing for joy
on their couches.
Let the high praises of God
be in their throats
and two-edged swords
in their hands,
to execute vengeance
on the nations
on the peoples,
to bind their ruler
and their nobles
with chains of iron,
to execute on them
the judgement decreed.
This is glory for all
God’s faithful ones.
Praise to be God!
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. If I say to the wicked, “O wicked ones, you shall surely die,” and you do not speak to warn the wicked to turn from their ways, the wicked shall die in their iniquity, but their blood I will require at your hand. But if you warn the wicked to turn from their ways, and they do not turn from their ways, the wicked shall die in their iniquity, but you will have saved your life.
Now you, mortal, say to the house of Israel, Thus you have said: “Our transgressions and our sins weigh upon us, and we waste away because of them; how then can we live?” Say to them, 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; turn back, turn back from your evil ways; for why will you die, O house of Israel?
Teach me, O God,
the way of your statutes,
and I will observe it
to the end.
Give me understanding,
that I may keep your law
and observe it
with my whole heart.
Lead me in the path
of your commandments,
for I delight in it.
Turn my heart to your decrees,
and not to selfish gain.
Turn my eyes from looking at vanities;
give me life in your ways.
Confirm to your servant
which is for those
who fear you.
Turn away the disgrace
that I dread,
for your ordinances are good.
See, I have longed
for your precepts;
in your righteousness
give me life.
Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not covet”; and any other commandment, 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.
Besides this, you know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers; the night is far gone, the day is near. Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light; let us live honorably as in the day, not in revelling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarrelling and jealousy. Instead, put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.
“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. 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. 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.”
Notes on the Lectionary and Liturgical Colors
by the Rev. Susan Blain, Curator for Worship and Liturgical Arts (mailto:firstname.lastname@example.org)
Faith Formation Ministry, Local Church Ministries, United Church of Christ
(Essay based on an article by Laurence Hull Stookey: “Putting Liturgical Colors in their Place” in Calendar: Christ’s Time for the Church ©1996 Abingdon Press.)
The use of colors to differentiate liturgical seasons is a custom in use among some Western churches for hundreds of years. Although the custom of using colors is an ancient one, there has not always been agreement on what the colors should be. The Council of Trent in 1570, a Roman Catholic response to the Reformation, codified the colors for the Roman Catholic Church. When we talk about “traditional” colors today, we usually are referring to that codification. There were four basic colors in that codification: purple (penitence), red (Spirit or Martyrs memorials), green (long season after Pentecost) and white (festivals). Other colors, or no color at all, were acceptable variants in some regions.
The Reformation of course was a watershed for Christian ritual practice. Anglican and Lutheran churches often used some form of liturgical colors; however, the Reformed tradition of churches, where the UCC falls, for the most part did away with the custom of using colors, opting for much more simplicity. During the ecumenical liturgical movement of the mid-20th Century, Protestant churches began to look back at some of the ritual and colorful practices of the past with an eye toward reclaiming them to help give expression to feeling, tone, and imagery underlying the lectionary stories.
Before the Reformation’s iconoclasm, and Trent’s code, practices varied from place to place, often depending on what was available. Indeed, in some places the custom was to organize vestments into practical categories of “best,” “second best,” and “everyday”–not depending on the color at all. For Christmas and Easter the “best” vestments were used, no matter the color! Other, less prominent feasts or Sundays got “second best” or “everyday.”
So, here is a challenge to worship planners: Take it upon yourselves to develop and expand the “received” tradition!