Sermon for the Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost, September 6, 2020 – the Rev. Elaine Ellis Thomas

ASEP Sermons

Exodus 12:1-14+Psalm 149+Romans 13:8-14+Matthew 18:15-20

A couple of weeks ago, I told you that I wished I had just told you to watch the musical “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat” in order to fill in some of that story when our lectionary skipped a few chapters during the Joseph narrative. Well, this week, my recommendation would have been the Cecil B. DeMille epic, “The Ten Commandments” or maybe Disney’s “Prince of Egypt,” because we have skipped over nine whole chapters of this story. We have missed pharaoh ordering the Hebrews to make bricks without straw, and Moses’s staff turning into a snake, the frogs, flies, hail, locusts, and the Nile turning to blood.

Today, we arrive at the tenth plague, the death of the firstborn and the beginning of the tradition of the Passover: the slaughter of the lamb, putting the blood on the doorpost so that the angel of death will pass over, preparing the unleavened bread. This was meal prepared so that it could be eaten quickly, so that the people could depart at a moment’s notice.

The next portion of this chapter tells us that pharaoh summoned Moses and Aaron and begged them to leave following the death of pharaoh’s own firstborn son. And so, after dwelling in Egypt for more than 430 years, over 600,000 men besides children (and women were in there somewhere) left Egypt, taking with them the gold and jewelry they had plundered following God’s instruction.

“…on that very day, all the companies of the Lord went out from the land of Egypt (12:41), carrying with them the bones of Joseph, the patriarch who had been sold into slavery in Egypt all those years before. They all left Egypt for the Promised Land.

The portion of Matthew’s gospel we read this morning begins, “If another member of the church sins against you…” (18:15). This is a pretty good clue that these aren’t actually the words of Jesus. There was no such thing as a church in Jesus’s time. The author of this gospel is addressing a present need in his community. In conflict with the religious authorities – remember, this is what is meant when harsh words are hurled at “the Jews” – Matthew’s people need to be able to stick together. That means there need to be some ground rules.

What we get here about pointing out where someone has gone wrong, and then taking someone along with you if you don’t get satisfaction, and then taking it to the whole church sounds like a prescription for how a church community ought to behave. But I’m not sure that’s quite right. It’s not so much about the rules as it is about the community.

I always say to read the assigned passages of the bible in the context of what is around them, and this part comes immediately on the heels of the parable of the lost sheep. You know the one where the shepherd has 100 sheep and one goes wandering off, so the shepherd leaves the entire flock to go find that one wayward sheep. When he finds it, he rejoices over it, even more than the other 99 who never went anywhere.

The agricultural and pastoral community listening to that parable would have thought it ridiculous. You can’t leave the whole flock for that one who wandered off. Are you crazy?

But when you get to the part about how we are to be in community, I think this is what Jesus is talking about, and why Matthew would have put this here in writing about the church. Jesus wanted no one to be left behind. He wanted that whole flock together even if he has to risk losing it altogether. The member of the church who has gone astray? She’s like that sheep. Desmond Tutu used to say that it was never the sweet, gentle lamb that wandered off. It’s the smelly, muddy, cantankerous old ram that gets himself lost and has to be dragged bleating and struggling back to the fold.

These rules for how to deal with conflict in the church are about making sure no one gets lost. And if someone does wander off or cause difficulty, we are to move heaven and earth to reconcile that person with the rest of the community. We will see next week that just following this passage is the part where Peter asks how many times he has to forgive someone. Sneak peak: there is no limit. There is no limit to what we must do to keep the community together. There is no limit to forgiveness.

The epistle assigned for today is helpful here. It is from the 13th chapter of Romans and includes these words:

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. (Romans 13:8-10)

Those sins Paul lists – adultery, murder, theft, and covetousness – breaking those commandments all cause rifts in relationship, in community. We cannot truly love our neighbor if we sin against them in ways that rupture our relationship. We cannot live in community unless we are living by the gospel of love, to love our neighbor as ourself. And if we’re going to do that, there can be no limit to what we would do to keep make sure that someone who has sinned or gone astray is brought back into the fold. Nothing.

When the Israelites left Egypt, the book of Exodus is very explicit in telling us that they all went. The good ones and the kind ones as well as those like cantankerous old rams. We’ll hear more of that later, when they are moaning and bellyaching about the lack of food in the wilderness and wishing they were back in Egypt where they may have been slaves but at least the food was good.

All of these stories we have read over the course of this summer have told us something about human nature, about how people behave in families, under stress, the awful things we do to save our skin, and the deep love God has for us anyway.

We see that in the gospel, as well. Jesus told parables to help us see who we are. He knows good and well that Peter and all the rest are going to squabble and mess up and go astray, but he wants us always to remember God’s great love for us, a love that came to us in the person of Jesus.

In our story, no one gets left behind, left out, or cast out forever. Love your neighbor as yourself and do for your neighbor what you would have done for you. That’s what it means to be a community of faith. It’s as simple, and as hard, as that.

ASEPSermon for the Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost, September 6, 2020 – the Rev. Elaine Ellis Thomas