The overarching theme of today’s readings is CONFLICT. Conflict between the Egyptians and the Israelites, conflict within the church in Rome, conflict among the followers of Jesus.
I want to start with Egypt, because it is a warning. This is what happens when conflict isn’t dealt with early. This is what happens when factions form and people don’t talk to each other.
While I was out on medical leave, you heard just a little bit of the lengthy story of how the sons of Israel came to settle in the land of Egypt. It started when they sold their brother Joseph into slavery—an improvement on the original plan to kill him, of course, but still brutal. After several setbacks, he ended up a man of great power in Egypt, second only to Pharaoh himself, and because of his wisdom and forethought, Egypt was prepared for the great famine that hit the land—they had food when nobody else did. Jacob’s sons went to Egypt to beg for help, and didn’t recognize that the man they were pleading with was their brother. Joseph gave them a bit of a run-around at first, holding one of the brothers hostage in order to get the youngest brother there, planting evidence in one of their bags to accuse them of thievery. But eventually he was done playing with them, and in a burst of emotion he revealed who he was, and rather than force them to pay for what they did, he forgave them, and fed them. They brought their father to Egypt and they were all allowed to settle in a corner of Egypt called Goshen, where they became shepherds.
There is a little throwaway line in the story of their settling in Goshen, that shepherds are ‘abhorrent’ to Egyptians. In the context, it’s a way of explaining why Joseph’s family settles together away from the power center. When we leave the book of Genesis, everything seems wonderful.
Fast-forward to the beginning of Exodus, and things have changed. The Egyptians have forgotten their own story, that they owe their “superpower” status to one lowly Hebrew slave, Joseph. The Hebrews have forgotten their own story, the story of the land and the blessing promised to Abraham. They have all forgotten the story that bound them together. They stopped talking to each other. And if there’s one thing that you can count on it’s this—when communication breaks down, misunderstandings grow and fester. They develop into fear which leads to violence. The Egyptians forgot that the Hebrews were granted the land of Goshen as a reward for their part in saving Egypt, and only remembered that one of them had been a slave—so all of them should be slaves. The happy arrangement fell apart because they stopped talking to each other, and only talked about each other. The people cried out to God, and God cried out to Moses, and Moses cried out to Pharaoh, “Let my people GO!” But Pharaoh’s heart had grown too hard. He was too afraid of what would happen if these people ever became free. Despite all the warnings, Pharaoh could not let go of his fear.
And that brings us to the story of the Passover, which we heard today.
Now here’s the problem with this story. It’s a story of horrible violence—all those firstborn killed, firstborn of the cattle, firstborn of the people—but it’s also the story we Christians look to as the foundation of the Eucharist. How do we find that symbol of UNITY in the midst of all this blood?
I’ll come back to that.
Leap forward to the two readings from the New Testament. In this section of the letters to the Romans, Paul is giving some guidance about how to stay in communion with people who have very little in common. The church in Rome was struggling with issues around inclusion. How could people with such varied backgrounds—Jew and Gentile, rich and poor, slave and free—how could they work together as ONE? In a society where everything was determined by status, how could they choose to be identified with some of these people who had NOTHING? It’s a lovely idea that God was calling them to be a new kind of community, the ekklesia, the church—but in reality it was HARD!
And Paul offers them a deceptively simple rule. Love each other. All of the commandments, all those “thou shalt nots” can be distilled into one positive commandment: Love your neighbor as yourself.
So simple…and so nearly impossible.
In his commentary on these lectionary readings, Brian Stoffregen makes the point that clergy should take comfort in the knowledge that conflict has ALWAYS been a reality in the church. In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus gives clear guidelines about how to deal with the inevitable hurt feelings and misunderstandings that arise among people who share common purpose. It’s all about addressing the problem honestly and lovingly. Go to the person and say, “You hurt me.” Ideally, this should do it—and the truth is, it DOES usually do it. Most people do not intentionally hurt another’s feelings; it’s just part of our imperfection as human beings. We don’t say something as clearly as we could and it’s misheard, or we accidentally step on a person’s tender spot. 99% of the time, the offender had no intention to hurt, and as soon as the issue is raised his eyes grow wide and his heart aches and he says, “Oh, I had no idea… I’m so sorry.”
99% of the time.
But there are times when, for whatever reason, the offender doesn’t see what the harm was, doesn’t care that the other person has been hurt. The offender isn’t going to acknowledge that there was any harm done. It is only at this point—when an attempt to deal with it directly has been attempted and failed—only HERE that anyone else is involved. I only know a handful of people who get this in the right order. I here acknowledge and confess that I’m a lot more likely to go “vent” to a third party long before I address it with the person who caused the hurt. It’s human nature to want to build a coalition, to be assured that I am absolutely justified in feeling hurt—and when someone gently points out the PROPER order of events, my back goes up just as quickly as anyone’s, and I come up with a dozen defenses why I can’t do the very thing Jesus has called us to do. Deal with it directly first. Only if the person refuses to be reconciled is it appropriate to get anyone else involved. And the language of “witnesses” is the language of lawsuit. Jesus is acknowledging that sometimes situations need a more formal proceeding to seek reconciliation.
If that private intervention doesn’t work, if the person’s heart remains as hard as Pharoah’s, the next step is to call the person in front of the whole community. I don’t think this is about shaming the person. It’s about trying to break that hard heart and make him see what he will lose if he persists. If he refuses to be reconciled, if he refuses to let love rule, he will no longer be able to be part of the community where love rules. He will be treated as a Gentile or a tax collector.
But there’s something about that phrase that rings a bell…Tax collectors and Gentiles…Didn’t Jesus get into trouble with the religious authorities for hanging out with tax collectors and Gentiles?
You never know where Jesus is going to show up. Just when you think you’ve successfully followed Jesus’ guidelines to the letter, you discover that Jesus is calling us to continue to love the person who has done us harm, even if we have to set boundaries to protect ourselves from the damage they might do. Even after we have exhausted all our attempts to bring this person back into the community, Jesus has not lost hope for him. If we can keep that in mind—that Jesus never gives up hope on ANYONE, no matter how recalcitrant, no matter how hard-hearted—we stand a chance of fulfilling OUR duty, which is to owe no one anything but love.
Earlier I raised a question about what to do with the image of the Passover meal in the midst of all that blood, and I promised I’d come back to it.
I am not going to try to justify all that bloodshed. In that time and culture, blood sacrifice was normal, blood was believed to have some sort of mystical power, and the people’s concept of God was pretty violent and vengeful. We don’t live in that world anymore, and I don’t think it’s helpful to spend energy trying to defend it.
Instead, I have been wondering: what would have happened if an Egyptian had painted that blood over their own lintel? Surely, the rule would have applied—his firstborn son would have been spared. So why didn’t they do it? Well, perhaps they hadn’t been told that there was a way out of danger. Perhaps they heard but didn’t believe it. Perhaps they thought it wouldn’t work for them, because that was the Hebrew’s God, not theirs. Perhaps they didn’t dare look foolish—or treasonous—in front of their fellow Egyptians. They didn’t want to lose status by identifying themselves with “those” people.
But imagine how the story might have been different if they had set aside all those reasons NOT to participate, and instead joined the Hebrews at that Passover feast. Perhaps they would have started to talk, to remember those old stories. Perhaps they would have remembered that they were allies, friends, long before fear and mistrust had turned them into enemies. Perhaps a different kind of miracle might have occurred, simply by joining each other at a common table, sharing a little bread and wine.
When we gather in the name of Christ, in twos or threes or in hundreds or thousands, we are doing something as countercultural now as it was 2000 years ago in that church in Rome. We are insisting that the one thing that unites us—Christ—is more important than all the other things that divide us. When we come to God’s table alongside those who in EVERY OTHER aspect are “foreign,” we are resisting all the divisiveness of the world out there, and admitting, “This person and I are united by the One who feeds us with his own body and blood, and that unity can withstand everything else.”
It reminds us that the answer to conflict is not to hunker down and build factions and talk about the harm that has been done to us. It reminds us that the answer to conflict is something else. To open the door—and the heart—to the stranger. To make room for discussion and communion with one another. To acknowledge that whenever two or three are gathered in his Name, no matter what the circumstances, Jesus is there.