It’s Time to Go!
Some of us speak of the life of faith as a journey. Faith is dynamic rather than static. A journey involves taking risks, because even if you know the destination there are many variables that go into the journey. Whether that destination is heaven or union with God, getting there can be an adventure – what Bruce Epperly calls a “holy adventure.” There are those who do believe that every moment of the journey is determined, much like taking a ride on a train. The tracks are fixed, and there’s no way of getting off the rails (though even there an accident can derail you). But what if the journey is a bit more free range? What if the map is being developed as we take our journey? It’s possible you might take a wrong turn or get lost. You might find yourself wandering in circles. There will be temptations and dangers, deserts and mountains, streams and perhaps jungles. Perhaps the image that might work best for us here is that of the explorer – let’s say Lewis and Clark – crossing unknown terrain, looking for a path to a destination that is plotted, but the pathway is yet unknown. But remember that the explorers didn’t go alone. They were accompanied by guides who knew the terrain, or at least could communicate with those who did know the terrain. As we take our journey, we go forth accompanied by the Spirit of God. But the key is getting on the road. We’ll never reach our destination by sitting on the sofa at home!
The three texts that the Lectionary presents to the church for consideration offer us different vantage points to look at this journey of faith. One text speaks of preparation for the journey, while the other two speak to behavior while on the journey.
As we have considered the ongoing story of the Exodus, which begins in Egypt where Pharaoh is feeling threatened by the presence of the Hebrew people in the land, feeling that they were a threat to the culture and the economic interests of the nation and therefore Pharaoh hatches a plan to eliminate them as a threat. That plan unintentionally provides the means by which God will seek to free the people from bondage, for one who was threatened with death becomes the savior, but first he must hear the voice of God speak from a burning bush. Now, that savior, Moses, has returned to his people, and teaming with his brother has engaged a series of challenges with Pharaoh. Now is the time, however, for the journey out of bondage to begin. God reveals to Moses that since Pharaoh won’t relent, God is taking drastic measures. The first born of every family – human and non-human will die. But, the people of Israel will not only be spared, but in the midst of this final plague on Egypt, God will free the people. Once again, if we’ve watched Charlton Heston’s portrayal of Moses, we know this story, even if we’ve not read it in the original! Here in Exodus 12 we hear the instructions given to the people to prepare to leave and start life anew. Yes, this event of liberation marks the beginning of a people. On the first day of the first month the people are to choose a lamb and then watch over it until the 14th day, when at twilight, the Angel of Death will passes over those homes where a lamb has been slaughtered and its blood smeared on the door posts and the beam above the door. This marks the beginning of a new era. They are to take this opportunity, on the night of their liberation, to prepare themselves for the journey. The lamb itself, a male yearling without blemish, is to be slaughtered and roasted (not boiled). They are to eat their fill of the lamb and of unleavened bread, and whatever is left is to be burned for there is no need for leftovers. It is time to go, to clean house. And so with one’s feet shod with sandals, and a staff in hand, the people are to eat in observance of God’s act of liberation. And the journey begins, but as we know, it is not a quick and easy journey. The people will face many obstacles, both external and internal. A look at the map suggests a fairly fast journey along the coast will get them to the Promised Land, but according to our story, it takes forty years of wandering in the desert, so that generation that knew Egypt could give way to a new generation ready to embrace the future.
As any group who travels together knows – behavior can be a challenge. And as we know from the Exodus story, there were those who behaved badly and disrupted the journey. The two texts from the New Testament, each in their own way deals with behavior issues. Romans suggests that the days are short, so be prepared. Live in a way that is honorable. Matthew’s gospel offers us a method of reconciling when relationships are broken.
In our text from Romans 13, we are reminded that we should have no obligations in life except to love one another. The Law is important – the Law that is received by the people of Israel during their sojourn in the desert. It offers insight into the ways of God, but these laws can be summarized in the call to love one another. Commandments such as bans on adultery, murder, theft, and covetousness, all express a call to live together in love of one another. All of the ethical commandments are expressions of the call to love our neighbor as we love ourselves. This call to love neighbor leads to a warning – know that the time has come to wake up from your sleep! The day of the Lord is at hand, so make sure you are ready, and by ready, Paul means – living with neighbors honorably.
Having called us to fulfill the commandments by loving our neighbors, Paul then offers a different viewpoint. He offers a contrast between living in the light and living in darkness. Don’t let the actions of darkness define your life, but instead let your life reflect the light. I realize that there is inherent in this metaphor of darkness a dualism, but it is important to note that when we live our lives in ways that are hypocritical (and we all have some of this, even we clergy) then we fail to reflect the presence of God in our lives. So, as we head out on the journey, walk in the light!
The Gospel reading can be read in relationship to this call to honorable behavior. It offers a method of correction. If we see a brother or sister in the faith sinning, then it is our responsibility to offer correction. Go alone, Jesus says, and offer your correction. If that doesn’t work, take a brother or sister with you. The point of this is to offer correction, but also to put a stop to gossip, something that can be devastating to a community of faith. So, if you have a problem go to the person, and if necessary take someone with you, because every word needs to be witnessed by two or three persons. It’s a good method, because it solves the problem of “he said/she said.” And then if that doesn’t work, then Jesus says take it to the church. Now, it needs to be noted the presence of anachronism. There was no “church” yet, when Jesus was speaking, but by the time the gospel is written, the church did exist and thus we have evidence of the way in which the church sought to organize itself and deal with behavioral issues in the community. One word here that needs to be noted concerns the “punishment” for refusing to abide the guidance of the community – what in some Christian communities is known as shunning. Note that in this passage Jesus suggests that if one doesn’t abide the ruling of the church they should be treated as one treats a Gentile or tax collector. Knowing that Jesus welcomed tax collectors and even Gentiles into his circle, raises interesting questions for the reader of the text. I would expect that the point is that one should exclude from the community the one who refuses to receive correction, but is that the end of the story? Could we not say that the point of all of this emphasis on behavior is restoration of persons so that they might experience the love of God and then share that love with neighbor, so that the journey can proceed toward its destination – union with God and transformation of the created order to reflect the vision of God.
May the journey begin, and with the adventure may we learn to love one another in ways that brings honor to God and healing and wholeness to the world we are invited to touch.