Our first reading this morning, from the Book of Exodus, is part of the Passover story. In many ways, it is a very timely story. The Hebrew slaves are preparing to flee from Egypt. God is about to send the angel of death to the firstborn of the entire land. The people are to gather with families and neighbors, paint the blood of the butchered lamb on the doorway as a sign for death to pass them by, and they are to have a hasty final meal before getting out of town as quickly as possible, across the Red Sea, out into the Sinai desert to freedom, where God had called them to go.
There have been as many as five million people evacuating Florida, and fleeing the destruction of this week’s hurricane. Houses and businesses have been boarded up, provisions pulled together, cars tanked up with gas, plane tickets purchased, all in service of getting to safety. Friends, neighbors, co-workers, family members, congregations have scattered and only time will tell when they will be able to return and what they will find when they do.
But a major difference between the Passover story and the current situation is that the Hebrew people were not going to return to Egypt. They were leaving for good, heading to freedom, but also to great uncertainty, knowing only that God, Yahweh, the Lord of forefathers and mothers, whom they barely remembered, had sent Moses and Aaron to lead them back to God. They went together, but then they spent some forty years in the wilderness being shaped and formed into the people God needed them to be, before they were ever ready to get to the Promised Land.
They had to learn what is was to be a people, a community, centered on the worship of God, to speak and act in ways that reflected and were guided by the most important commandment – to love God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength. When love and loyalty for God are at the center of community life, then everything else needs to reflect that – all the details of life and human interaction. The six-hundred-plus separate commandments codified in the first five books of the Old Testament are an attempt to bring direction to many different areas of the life of God’s people; but always with the understanding that the love and worship of God was at the center of it all.
Jesus’ words in the Gospel this morning are addressing the same concerns. More than a code of conduct, they are about building authentic community, where Christ is at the center. The particular words here are about what to do when another person in our community sins against us, someone with whom we have a dispute. It’s a good question: how are Christians to act with one another? But more than a formula or a checklist of what to do – three strikes and you’re out – we need to hear Jesus’ words as creating an environment where the Lord’s presence brings forgiveness, healing, and joy to the community. This passage comes in the middle of a chapter which is all about valuing “the least of these, my brethren”, taking the time to go after the lost sheep, and forgiving others “seventy times seven” – an unthinkable quality of forgiveness.
And the key to all of it, I think is when Jesus says, “Wherever two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.” In part, this identification of Jesus’ presence was in contrast to the need in Judaism for a minyan for public prayer – ten men – kind of worship quorum. Instead, Jesus, as he so often does, takes down to the smallest scale – a mustard seed, a small child, two or three gathered. There is indeed power in prayer and action whenever people come together in Jesus’ name, no matter how few.
But I think that the quality and character of Christian community always needs to be shaped and formed and lived out in the awareness of Jesus’ presence always. Imagine what conversations between Christians would be like is we knew in a living way that Jesus was always overhearing our words, was always a partner in the conversation, was always present in our meetings, our activities, our outreach – and not just at worship or in our prayer time? How would that change not only what we say or do, but what we think, and the way we see each other – if we remember to see each other the way Jesus does?
Authentic community is hard, as the Israelites in the desert found out, as the disciples discovered when they followed Jesus, as the early Church learned. Authentic community takes work, it’s something we are always learning how to do. But Christian community can also be powerful, and healing, and joyful, and always worth it. I believe that we have the opportunity – and God has given us the vocation – to be the kind of authentic community that the world needs so desperately: a community where disagreement does not mean division, where the valuing of one person and his or her gifts does not mean the de-valuing of others. The reason this can be such hard work is that when we bring our whole selves to community we all come with hurts, baggage, rough edges, vastly different personalities and histories – all of which can bring us into conflict with one another, intentionally or unintentionally. The difference for a community of Christians is that we do follow Jesus as Lord and Savior, meaning Jesus is our highest authority and the one who will save us from the mess we make of ourselves. As I said before, Jesus is a partner in every conversation, present at every meeting and rehearsal, at every meal and activity. Remembering that will continue to guide and form our community, direct our interactions.
So today during Communion time, perhaps as you are returning from the altar, or maybe during our final hymn, look around and see the others gathered here as gifts of God, given so that we can become the people and the community that God wants us to be. Imagine what their hopes, and hurts, and dreams may be, and then ponder how we may all go together into the world equipped with the courage and compassion of Christ, knowing that Jesus is with us, always.
Let us pray.
Lord, you call us to be your own people. Give us your strength, wisdom, courage, and love to be who we say we are. And may our minds, hearts, ears, and eyes be open to your presence with always. We ask this in your Name. Amen.
Victoria Geer McGrath
All Saints’ Church, Millington, NJ
Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost
September 10, 2017