Proper 18, Year A
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 judgments: 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.
So reads this morning’s excerpt from the book of Exodus. It’s a passage that we will read again on Maundy Thursday, because the Maundy Thursday meal is supposed to be the very passover meal that is described in this Exodus passage. And, thus, this passage becomes the source of the imagery that undergirds many Christian theologies of Easter: the blood of a lamb without blemish—that is, Jesus—marking wooden door posts—or in the Christian story, a wooden cross—tells God’s angels which inhabitants of the land are subject to death and which are not. Those who have marked their homes—or their hearts, in the Christian version—with the pure blood of the lamb (that is, the pure blood of Jesus) are to be spared. Death, it turns out, is the ultimate fake news story.
And that is great news. Through our faithful participation in Jesus’ baptism, death and resurrection we are freed from sin and death and transported, transfigured into a realm of eternal life and light. Death has passed over us. Hallelujah!
But, even this free gift, freely given, comes with some pretty weighty responsibilities. In his letter to the Romans, Paul beseeches us to love each other and thus to fulfill the entirety of the law. “Lay aside the works of darkness”, he then writes, “and put on the armor of light.” And, of course, the Gospel writers echo these commands in Jesus’ own words to his disciples: “I leave you with this one commandment, that you love one another.” And, “You are the light of the world, like a city on a hill that cannot be hidden.”
Photo: Mural decorating the temporarily boarded-up doors of St. John's Church, adjacent to Black Lives Matter Plaza, Washington, DC. The mural depicts Archbishop Desmond Tutu, and features the Zulu word ubuntu, which means “love, truth, peace, inner goodness, humanity towards others.”
Beautiful, inspiring words, indeed, but how precisely do we go about doing that—loving each other and shinning our light to the world? Surely, Jesus will tell us. Or maybe he won’t entirely, if Matthew 18 is any indication. And this is where the weighty responsibility comes in. In teaching his disciples and preparing them to lead his community after his departure, Jesus doesn’t leave an exhaustive list of precise dos and don’ts, transgressions and good deeds. How could he? How could even Jesus anticipate all of the situations and complexities of human individual and communal life that were to come?
Jesus does the one thing that he can possibly do: While assuring his disciples that he would be present with them whenever they gather (and by extension with us, his modern day disciples, as well), he tells them, “You all are going to have to figure it out.” That, it seems to me is the gist of what he means when he says, as we heard this morning: “Whatever you bind on earth will bound in heaven and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” You all have to figure out how to navigate the path of righteousness in an ever changing world. Whatever you approve of is approved and whatever you disapprove of is not.
Although some might disagree, claiming that Jesus knew everything past, present and future, I will hazard to say, for example, that, two thousand years ago, Jesus could have had no idea about genetic modification or stem cell manipulation. He could not have given specific instructions on how or when they should be used. He could not have imagined that two millennia hence, we would have figured out how to burn the liquefied remains of prehistoric plants and animals and thus be able to roll and fly around the planet in metal machines, drastically upsetting natural equilibriums as we go. He could not have given specific instructions on reducing carbon emissions. He could not have imagined heart transplants, or skyscrapers or Zoom or Facebook. “You all will have to figure it out. What is to be approved of and what is not.”
Figuring out what is approved of and what is not—how we are to live as faithful individuals in peaceful, prosperous community in the real, present world—is our responsibility. It is a responsibility that was highlighted for me during our Jesus’ Kingship of Kinship conversation this past Monday evening. As I had announced, our discussion grew out of a Hamden Action Now panel conversation about police reform. The main message of the Hamden Action Now discussion turned out to be that, while police reform is essential, many of the aspects of modern policing that are troubling to a large segment of the population, are rooted in deeper structural ills of society. Until these more general problems are remedied, no amount of stand-alone police reform can be truly effective.
From there, our own discussion took off. It was a passionate conversation. For reasons of confidentiality, I will not go into the details. But the details are not what is important at the moment. What is important is that a number of people expressed deeply held convictions based on their own experience, beliefs and perceptions. And not everyone agreed—far from it. Though, the strength of disagreement that arose was relatively tame compared to the vehemence of discord currently on display around our country.
So what are we to do? Throw up our hands in despair?—after all, we will never all agree. Hope and pray for miraculous divine intervention? That’s kind of a long shot solution. Are we to plow through the Bible looking for applicable scriptural passages? You might get a couple of relevant hits on proper law enforcement, but not much specific guidance when it comes to the use of tasers, no knock warrants, or body cameras, and so on. Do we avoid difficult conversation and thus allow antagonism grow?
Jesus says: You all figure it out, what is to be approved of and what is not. And this is where the Church has a great gift to offer the world. Within the supportive circle of loving Christian fellowship, trusting in God’s presence with us, we are able to have difficult conversations, like the one we had on Monday night. We are able to disagree passionately, confident that those passionate differences do not negate the foundation of our commitment to one another. Love one another and figure it out.
Surely, it is no coincidence, for example, that the person entrusted with leading South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation conversations was an Anglican Archbishop. Insisting on love even between former enemies, insisting on holding the entire community within the grace and support of God’s love, insisting on finding a way forward for a broken nation, Desmond Tutu enabled real healing and transformation to take place.
Today, we might do well to ask ourselves how the Church—and not just the church writ large, but even our small churches here in North Haven and Hamden—can follow Archbishop Tutu’s example. How do we, Jesus’ modern day disciples, we who have received the great news of Jesus’ victory over death and of God’s abiding love for all people, God’s immanent presence with us, take up the task of binding and loosing in the present earthly world? How do we circumvent what is perhaps a natural tendency to deny that problems exist or to assume that we have nothing to say about their remedy? How do we courageously and faithfully shoulder the sometimes intimidating burden of honest conversation with each other, the necessity of inviting others into our conversation, and the obligation to actively support change where change is called for? It doesn’t matter if we are talking about police reform, racial justice, climate change or the future of our parishes, Jesus tells us to love one another and figure it out.
And part of the great news, I believe, is that through that figuring out we will find, not just solutions to the practical challenges that we face, but also a deeper sense of community. We will trust each other more, we will care for each other more, we will love each other more. And, perhaps, along the way we might even find ourselves to be like a city on a hill, a light of hope in a darkened world.