The Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 18, 10 September 2017
St. Matthew 18:15-20
Background: Points of Origin
Everyone, and by this I mean, every people, have a story (I am urged by others not to use the word myth) that describes the realities from which they or their culture were sprung. Mircea Eliade reminded us that all story was sacred and that most stories were points of origin, explaining our place in the world. In many respects, the first reading from Track 1 is an etiological story, one that explains not only sacred ceremonial, but also its connection to even earlier points of origin and practice. It is interesting that we often continue in a tradition without ever exploring how what we celebrate came to be – what its roots are. The “passover” ceremonial, originally a harvest festival, is invested with new meaning here. It moves from an agricultural ceremony that signed and protected a house to a ceremony that reached back to a time of urgency and necessity. What was good for the fathers and mothers was revisioned as good for the integrity and liberty of the people. Thus the story moves from celebrating the land, and protection from evil spirits, to one that celebrates the origin of the nation, or short of that, the origin of a people.
First Reading: Exodus 12:1-14
The LORD said to Moses and Aaron in the land of Egypt: This month shall mark for you the beginning of months; it shall be the first month of the year for you. Tell the whole congregation of Israel that on the tenth of this month they are to take a lamb for each family, a lamb for each household. If a household is too small for a whole lamb, it shall join its closest neighbor in obtaining one; the lamb shall be divided in proportion to the number of people who eat of it. Your lamb shall be without blemish, a year-old male; you may take it from the sheep or from the goats. You shall keep it until the fourteenth day of this month; then the whole assembled congregation of Israel shall slaughter it at twilight. They shall take some of the blood and put it on the two doorposts and the lintel of the houses in which they eat it. They shall eat the lamb that same night; they shall eat it roasted over the fire with unleavened bread and bitter herbs. Do not eat any of it raw or boiled in water, but roasted over the fire, with its head, legs, and inner organs. You shall let none of it remain until the morning; anything that remains until the morning you shall burn. This is how you shall eat it: your loins girded, your sandals on your feet, and your staff in your hand; and you shall eat it hurriedly. 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.
This day shall be a day of remembrance for you. You shall celebrate it as a festival to the LORD; throughout your generations you shall observe it as a perpetual ordinance.
What makes us a people? And at what point do we see our situation as different in the world of things? These are the two questions that the author of this pericope seeks to determine. Its importance is more than just a continuation of the Moses story; rather it is a prelude to a people’s story – the beginning of their journey together. What is given to the people, in this ceremony, is an act that can be “kept” or to be “watched” or to be “observed”. Its importance then is both internal as in something to be kept, and external as in something to be watched or observed. The incidentals that surround this meal, the “flatbread” or “matsot”, and the fire roasting of the meat, indicate not only haste (making a stew in water would take much longer) but also a more archaic setting. There are no utensils, but only fire, wood, and hot stones. These are the marks of a nomadic cuisine. So again, the author places the readers, the characters, and us at the beginning of history – a point from which.
At this point we go back to the story of Moses and his mission, and the author indicates some persuasive arguments that Moses will use in requesting the freedom of the people from the hand of Pharaoh. “From all the gods of Egypt” certain reprisals will be demanded, and the sign of them will be in sickness and woe, but most convincingly in the death of the first-born sons. In effect, God proposes to take away the future of the families of Egypt, and to initiate the future of the chosen people. The repetitive sign here is the sign of blood; blood that is shed by Moses, the blood of circumcision, the blood of the Nile, and the blood of the first-born. God bypasses Israel in this blood revenge, and sets them on a different course.
Breaking open Exodus:
1. Why is it important to remember sacred history?
2. What are the sacred moments in your history?
3. How do you celebrate them today?
Psalm 149 Cantate Domino
Sing to the LORD a new song; *
sing his praise in the congregation of the faithful.
Let Israel rejoice in his Maker; *
let the children of Zion be joyful in their King.
Let them praise his Name in the dance; *
let them sing praise to him with timbrel and harp.
For the LORD takes pleasure in his people *
and adorns the poor with victory.
Let the faithful rejoice in triumph; *
let them be joyful on their beds.
Let the praises of God be in their throat *
and a two-edged sword in their hand;
To wreak vengeance on the nations *
and punishment on the peoples;
To bind their kings in chains *
and their nobles with links of iron;
To inflict on them the judgment decreed; *
this is glory for all his faithful people.
The psalm seems to be, in it association with the first reading in Track 1, a prolepsis, an anticipation of the victories that will be culminated at the Red Sea. The phrase, “and adorns the poor with victory”, may be misunderstood by modern readers. It is not the poor in things that are honored with victory, but rather the social poverty that was Israel’s lot in Egypt, that is met with victory here. The God-given victory is to be celebrated with song and dance, and in a delightful pun with “a two-edged sword” (the two-edged sword in Hebrew is “a sword of mouths”) that follow the verse of praises that are in the victors’ throats. This is the antithesis to the slavery of Egypt. It is the exaltation of freedom in God.
Breaking open Psalm 149:
1. What role does music play in your worship of God?
2. Why is that important?
3. Why not dance?
You, mortal, I have made a sentinel for the house of Israel; whenever you hear a word from my mouth, you shall give them warning from me. If I say to the wicked, "O wicked ones, you shall surely die," and you do not speak to warn the wicked to turn from their ways, the wicked shall die in their iniquity, but their blood I will require at your hand. But if you warn the wicked to turn from their ways, and they do not turn from their ways, the wicked shall die in their iniquity, but you will have saved your life.
Now you, mortal, say to the house of Israel, Thus you have said: "Our transgressions and our sins weigh upon us, and we waste away because of them; how then can we live?" Say to them, As I live, says the Lord GOD, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from their ways and live; turn back, turn back from your evil ways; for why will you die, O house of Israel?
In his commentary on Ezekiel, Joseph Blenkinsopp makes a careful and important observation about the prophets,
“The people we call prophets were – to risk a generalization – public orators and emotional preachers rather than authors. They did not set out to write a book but to persuade by the spoken word.
To understand this guides the way in which we listen to this particular pericope, especially in that the words are those of the Lord. The period during which these words were either heard or spoken surrounds the capture and fall of Jerusalem, so they are spoken in dire times. What Ezekiel experiences in his visions are hopeful expressions of Israel’s past and its future. Thus the whole prophetic pattern is evident in Ezekiel: Denunciations of Israel’s faithlessness, and a prophetic outreach to the hope of a return from exile.
God has called Ezekiel to be a sentry (see 3:16-21), but in these verses, the prophet is not called to be a lookout for foreign invaders, but rather the “word from my mouth.” It is to this judgment that he is to give warning to the people. The prophet has an awesome responsibility, for in his hands lies the fate of the people whether righteous or not. In a way, Ezekiel is asked to function as John the Baptist will function in a later period. The by-word is “repent”, in both situations. The situations, words, and injunctions speak to the relationship that God has with the people, “As I live, says the Lord God, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked.” The injunction is to “turn back” and in doing that having a relationship with the God who saves Israel.
Breaking open the Ezekiel:
1. What has God asked you to declare to those who live around you?
2. How are you a sentry, seeking after God’s word?
3. What repentances might you make?
Psalm 119:33-40 Legem pone
Teach me, O LORD, the way of your statutes, *
and I shall keep it to the end.
Give me understanding, and I shall keep your law; *
I shall keep it with all my heart.
Make me go in the path of your commandments, *
for that is my desire.
Incline my heart to your decrees *
and not to unjust gain.
Turn my eyes from watching what is worthless; *
give me life in your ways.
Fulfill your promise to your servant, *
which you make to those who fear you.
Turn away the reproach which I dread, *
because your judgments are good.
Behold, I long for your commandments; *
in your righteousness preserve my life.
This psalm seems ready-made for the requests made of Israel by the God of Ezekiel, “Teach me, O Lord, the way of your statutes, and I shall keep it to the end.” It is a stretch, however. The people of Ezekiel’s time need convincing, but the people of the psalm have a desire for God’s wishes. Such an attitude sets them apart from the feckless nature of Ezekiel’s audience. Ezekiel’s people march into exile, while the psalmist’s people “go in the path of your commandments.”
Breaking open the Psalm 119:33-40:
1. Do you ever feel the need to purge yourself of misdeeds?
2. How do you do that?
3. What is the resulting feeling or behavior?
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.
Besides this, you know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers; the night is far gone, the day is near. Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light; let us live honorably as in the day, not in reveling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarreling and jealousy. Instead, put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires
Paul continues his musings on what one must do in being a Christian by describing what life in Christ ought to look like. In a surprising statement, given his previous commentary on the inabilities of the Law, Paul states, “for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law.” We should not be too surprised, however, for Paul has also said, “the law is holy and the commandment is holy, just, and good.” (Romans 7:12). What compels Paul here, is his sense of what is to come, what is immanent, “For salvation is nearer t us now.” There is a distinct sense of urgency here – the times demand a change of heart on our parts. What follows is a typical Pauline list of what is to be avoided.
Breaking open Romans:
1. What are the laws of your life?
2. How do they help those around you?
3. How do they hinder those around you?
St. Matthew 18:15-20
Jesus said, "If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one. But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. Again, truly I tell you, if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them."
If any of you watch any of the “Real Housewives of (Beverly Hills, New Jersey, Orange County, et. al.)”, and I suppose I make a deep and embarrassing confession here, one can see the necessity of Matthew’s provisions for confrontation and repentance. In fact, you don’t have to follow that television show that rejoices in the sins of others, you merely need to be an observer of our time. These provisions in Matthew were likely quite necessary to the emerging Christian community who may have been not only at odds with one another but also with friends and families that did not agree with the belief about Jesus. The process sums up with a recognition of the church: individual, two or three others, and finally, the whole community.
In any close community the real temptation is always gossip and distrust of others. Here we are warned against it, and given the difficult task of confrontation and correction. As a Human Resource executive, I always encouraged this behavior, but also found that people were reluctant to follow it.
The verses that follow seem to be a repetition of the tools that Jesus gives Peter following his confession at Caesarea Philippi, although it does follow well from the process for reprimanding a brother or a sister. Verse 19 seems to more about prayer, but also about the community that gathers to pray. Really, all of the parts of this pericope deal with the realities of being a community that follows Jesus.
Breaking open the Gospel:
1. How do you confront those who have done something wrong?
2. Have you ever followed this procedure outlined in Matthew? Why not?
3. How do you confront your own wrong-doings?
After breaking open the Word, you might want to pray the Collect for Sunday.
Grant us, O Lord to trust in you with all our hearts; for, as you always resist the proud who confide in their own strength, so you never forsake those who make their boast of your mercy; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.
Questions and comments copyright © 2017, Michael T. Hiller
 Blenkinsopp, J (1990) Ezekiel, Interpretation a Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching, Westminster John Knox Press, Louisville, Kentucky, page 3.