Winthrop Congregational Church, United Church of Christ
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When he entered the temple, the chief priests and the elders of the people came to him as he was teaching, and said, ‘By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?’ Jesus said to them, ‘I will also ask you one question; if you tell me the answer, then I will also tell you by what authority I do these things. Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?’ And they argued with one another, ‘If we say, “From heaven”, he will say to us, “Why then did you not believe him?” But if we say, “Of human origin”, we are afraid of the crowd; for all regard John as a prophet.’ So they answered Jesus, ‘We do not know.’ And he said to them, ‘Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things.
‘What do you think? A man had two sons; he went to the first and said, “Son, go and work in the vineyard today.” He answered, “I will not”; but later he changed his mind and went. The father went to the second and said the same; and he answered, “I go, sir”; but he did not go. Which of the two did the will of his father?’ They said, ‘The first.’ Jesus said to them, ‘Truly I tell you, the tax-collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you. For John came to you in the way of righteousness and you did not believe him, but the tax-collectors and the prostitutes believed him; and even after you saw it, you did not change your minds and believe him.
In our country, we are in a time of rising tension. I don’t know if you’ve noticed. We have a pandemic that has not been addressed as it should be on a national level and a national election that is among the most contentious of the last 80 years. There’s the death of a well-respected Supreme Court justice and the on-going protests against racism. And, there’s natural disasters, like fires, droughts, and hurricanes, complicating an already complicated year. Things are tense. Today’s scripture reading is tense, too. There has been a lot going on in Matthew. And, this might be the moment, or the collections of moments, when Jesus is preaching and teaching in the temple in Jerusalem, where the tension finally rises to a head. And, so much of the conflict with center on this question of authority. By who authority will Jesus preach and teach? That’s the question the chief priest and elders wanted him to answer. But, Jesus didn’t think this was the right question.
It bears mentioning: when we read today's Scripture, it is important to know where we are in the story. This reading takes place just after the triumphal entry of Palm Sunday. As you consider this text on this lovely fall morning, hear the echo of last spring's Easter. The scholar Emerson Powery argues that the encounter described here, this argument between Jesus and the chief priests and elders is part of a constellation of events that seems to lead directly to Jesus' arrest, torture, and execution. First, Jesus rode into the city on the back of a donkey, evoking messianic prophesies from the book of Isaiah and Zechariah. People followed him into town, treating him like a king and calling him “Son of David.” Then, he flipped over the tables of the moneychangers and dove-sellers in the temple. And, then he healed people inside the temple. They shouted “Hosanna to the Son of David,” too. Any one of these events would have been enough to irritate community leaders.
Dr. Powery argues that when you take them as a whole set, especially if they all happened during Passover, when so many people were crowding into Jerusalem and the Roman soldiers would have been on high alert for anything that smelled like revolution, leaders would have seen it as a major threat. For a certain set of people who believed that the Messiah would be a military leader for the Jewish people, it might have looked like Jesus was sowing seeds for a political rebellion. It probably didn't help calm things, when, in chapter 21:21, Jesus destroyed a fig tree and told his followers that they could do the same and more through the power of their faith. People immediately connected his teaching to their own destruction. Rome was looming, ready to pounce on any whiff of revolution.
As Jesus returned to the temple and began to teach, why wouldn't we expect the current leaders who ask him where he got his authority to teach? Wouldn't we have a similar response to someone who just showed up here and began teaching and healing in ways that were very different from our current practice, especially in ways that might put us in danger? The chief priests and scribes were the ones held responsible for the teaching that made its way out of the temple. They wanted to know if they could trust Jesus with that oh so holy task. To be fair though, this whole set of questions might have been a trap. This may have had nothing to do with them doing due diligence. They may have just been hoping that Jesus would get himself in trouble so they could be done with his clear teaching and hard questions. Maybe they thought he was so wrong that he had to be gotten rid of by any means necessary.
I can't help but wonder what answer they expected when they asked him where he got his authority. Whatever they expected to hear, they didn’t get it. In fact, they quickly realize that they have been caught in a trap of their own making. They realize that they can't say that John's authority came from heaven or they will look like fools for not following him. And, they can't say that it was from human authority for fear of the crowd, because this crowd trusted John as a Holy Prophet. So, they gave the best answer they could come up with and said they don't know. Since they gave no answer to his question, Jesus felt no compulsion to give them an answer to their question. Or, at least not the direct one they had hoped for. Instead, he shares a parable.
It is short... Only four verses. But, as many of us know, it doesn't always take a lot of words to make a strong impression. He used four verses to completely up-end their understanding of how someone can know if a prophet is righteous. Because Jesus told these people, the pillars of his community, that the way we know if a prophet is good and true is that the most hated people in town begin to follow him. Now, I don't know about you, but that doesn't sound like a ringing endorsement of a prophet to me and it probably didn't sound all that great to them. I mean, if you're like me, you've been taught that the way you judge an event or activity or leader is by how respectable the attendees of the event are. The two groups of people that Jesus mentioned, sex workers and tax collectors, weren’t respectable people. But, here is Jesus, telling the chief priests and elders that the people who saw righteousness in John, that is, people who included the most disrespected members of their community, were closer to God’s will than they were. And, they will be rewarded for it. Jesus told them that you can say that you follow God's will all day long, but until you actually do what God calls you to do, until you actually work in that vineyard, you are not contributing to the empire of Heaven.
The word Gospel means “Good News.” How is this story good news for us today? How can it provide instruction to us as we figure out what it means to be church in a time of great tension? Just about every time I turn on the television or look at my phone, I see people in the midst of conflicts about who has authority. Does the government? Do scientists and physicians? What about the media? What is the authority of the media and who gave it to them? We are right in the middle of conflicts over which institutions should be granted authority and which institutions and people are taking authority that should not be theirs.
I offer today some questions for us to think about as we consider the idea of authority. First, inspired by a pastor named George Hermonson, I'd ask, who are the chief priests and elders right now? The ones who have been granted and earned authority? The ones who are afraid to make those in power of them angry? Who are the ones invested in the way things are right now because they have figured out how to have authority in this current system? Emerson Powery, in his commentary, notes that sex workers and tax collectors were among the least trusted, most reviled people in Jesus' day. Who would be their counterparts today in our town and our country? What happens when they make the first, right choice to follow Christ in our time? Do the respectable people join them?
What we do with this text probably comes down the parable. Who is the one who did the will of God? The one who did what God asks. What does God ask? That will come up soon. In the next chapter, a pharisee, one who knew the law well, will ask him, “which commandment in the law is the greatest?” Jesus will say, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with your mind. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” Jesus was right. This is the core of Jewish teaching. And, he would continue to hold it as foundation to his own.
If we are judging who is following God’s will, perhaps we need to keep these commandments in mind, too. People are making lots of choices and claiming all kinds of authority. Perhaps we judge how they, and we, are using this authority by how well it follows the heart of Jesus’ teaching. Does this action that we are being directed or invited into demonstrate a love of neighbor? Does it show mercy? Does it meet basic needs? Does it provide healing? Does it enhance relationship and connection? Jesus tells us that we know we’re doing what God wants of us not when all the respectable people show up but when the people who have been rejected see a way to a more robust and loving future. God’s will might be disruptive. It will definitely surprise us. This story reminds us that if we are more concerned about being respectable than following God, we’ll be missing out. May we learn to follow the authority that is actually worth our attention.
Resources consulted in writing this sermon:
‘For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire labourers for his vineyard. After agreeing with the labourers for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard. When he went out about nine o’clock, he saw others standing idle in the market-place; and he said to them, “You also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.” So they went. When he went out again about noon and about three o’clock, he did the same. And about five o’clock he went out and found others standing around; and he said to them, “Why are you standing here idle all day?” They said to him, “Because no one has hired us.” He said to them, “You also go into the vineyard.” When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his manager, “Call the labourers and give them their pay, beginning with the last and then going to the first.” When those hired about five o’clock came, each of them received the usual daily wage. Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received the usual daily wage. And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, saying, “These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.” But he replied to one of them, “Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?” So the last will be first, and the first will be last.’
When Do We Start the Work: Matthew 20:1-16
“Your picture and the salutation on your college transcript indicate that you are not of the sex entitled to be admitted to Harvard Law School.” That is what the letter from Harvard said in response to Pauli Murray’s application for admission. “Your picture and the salutation on your college transcript indicate that you are not of the sex entitled to be admitted to Harvard Law School. It was 1944. Murray, a brilliant student and voracious reader as a child, had already been prevented from attending one undergraduate institution, Columbia University, because of her gender, and another graduate program, the sociology program at the University of North Carolina, because of her race. Also though, by this point, Murray had already been jailed for refusing to move to segregated seating on a bus in Virginia, made friends with Eleanor Roosevelt, and been one of the few women in the law school at Howard University. Murray wasn’t really one to back down from a fight.
Here is Pauli Murray’s written response to the sexist admission policy at Harvard: Gentlemen, I would gladly change my sex to meet your requirements, but since the way to such change has not been revealed to me, I have no recourse but to appeal to you to change your minds on this subject. Are you to tell me that one is as difficult as the other? Murray continued to press Harvard for an admission. Murray had the grades. Only the school’s sexism was an issue. Even the president of the United States, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, interceded on Murray’s behalf to no avail. Their policy was more important to them than the possibility of welcoming a very promising student. So, Murray ended up doing further study at the University of California in Berkley, and, eventually, Yale. Actively fighting for both women’s rights and civil rights of African Americans, Dr. Pauli Murray would eventually, in 1977, become the Rev. Dr. Pauli Murray, celebrated as the first African-American woman ordained as an Episcopal priest in the United States. Rev. Dr. Murray is now even a saint in the Episcopal church. What I’m saying is that Harvard missed out.
Rev. Dr. Murray, who was addressed as a woman during life, revealed a lifelong struggle with understanding their gender-identity and sexuality through many journals and personal papers that became available after their death in 1985. Were Rev. Dr. Murray alive today, they might understand themselves as transgender or genderfluid, and maybe not use she and her as pronouns, which she did during her life. A journalist named Kathryn Schulz, in an article about a biography of Pauli Murray, written by Rosalind Rosenberg, succinctly explains this. I’ll link to the article on the sermon blog.
Here is the reason why I am bringing up Rev. Dr. Pauli Murray today. In remembering the long and storied career of Ruth Bader Ginsburg following her death on Friday night, the activist Brittany Packnett Cunningham noted that Ginsburg had made sure to give Murray credit for developing a legal argument that changed the course of the fight for women’s rights in this country. Justice Ginsburg wrote the brief. But, Dr. Murray laid the foundation.
Dr. Brittany Cooper explained these connections in an article she wrote in Salon Magazine in 2015. I’ll link to it on the blog, too. One of Justice Ginsburg’s most important legal successes was a 1971 case known as Reed vs Reed, one where a mother was arguing that she had as much right to administer the estate of her deceased son as his father, her estranged husband. They had lived in the state of Idaho, that had a law, at that time, that men were to be preferred to women in this type of case. When the case made it up to the Supreme Court, Ginsburg, who was not yet a justice, was the lawyer who wrote up Ms. Reed’s argument before the court. What Ginsburg wrote was that Idaho’s law went against the 14th Amendment, which states that all citizens were to be guaranteed equal protection under the law. The Supreme Court sided with Ms. Reed. Dr. Cooper notes in the article that this was the first time that the Equal Protection Clause was used in a case regarding gender-based discrimination.
Beginning with the idea that Jim Crow laws that segregated schools based on race went contrary to both the 13th and 14th Amendment, Murray developed this into a law school thesis that Thurgood Marshall would eventually use to help craft the legal argument that convinced the Supreme Court to declare Jim Crow-era school segregation laws unconstitutional. And, adding to this, Murray’s own experiences with gendered discrimination in hiring and school application, Murray wrote a piece called “Jane Crow and the Law,” where she described the similarities between the sexism and racism she had been dealing with all of her life. Dr. Cooper said this work in particular was important to Ginsburg. In 1966, Murray would go on to work with an ACLU lawyer named Dorothy Kenyon, on a case in Alabama about laws forbidding women and Black people from serving on juries. They argued that these laws did not give women or Black people equal protection under the law. In 1971, Ginsburg built on both of their work in the Reed v Reed case. Ginsburg was so grateful for their wisdom, that she added them on as co-authors to her brief, even though she hadn’t actually written it with them. Once, when asked about this action, Justice Ginsburg said that they added their names to the brief to acknowledge that the Reed v Reed team was “standing on their shoulders” and that society should have been finally ready to listen to what they had been arguing for many years.
At first glance, today’s text from Matthew is a text about work. About who works, how long they work, and how they get credit for their work. But, I don’t actually think this is a parable about work. I actually think this is a parable about generosity. According the scholar Emerson Powery, landowner is a common metaphor for God in the book of Matthew. God, as the one who guided the work and oversaw the land, had the power both to call for workers and acknowledge his employee’s work. What is important about this powerful figure is that, when they had the opportunity to exercise power over their employees, deciding how much they got paid for how long they worked, this powerful person chose to be generous. Dr. Emerson puts it this way: “As the ultimate ‘landowner,’ God will use what has always belonged to the Creator for the good of all even if humans fail to view the world through God’s eyes.” The reign of God will not be marked by ranks and hierarchies based on first come, first served mentality. Instead, the reign of God will be marked by an abundance of care, by generosity, and by making sure everyone has enough, not just the people who were lucky enough to show up first.
This weekend, in the midst of mourning the passing of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, I was grateful for Brittany Packnett Cunningham’s reminder of this piece of professional generosity in the midst of a world-changing legal case. Not everyone who was influenced by Pauli Murray gave Murray credit. But, Justice Ginsburg did. Justice Ginsburg isn’t God, and she wasn’t perfect. And yet, I believe that we can see a reflection of the Divine in this act of generosity. So much of Pauli Murray’s work as gone under-recognized, an unfortunate consequence of the racism and sexism of the movements in which she worked. Ruth Bader Ginsburg, however, helped make sure that Murray’s name, not just her work, is remembered in connection to the work to make sure our country lives up to its highest ideals. How have you been a recipient of divine generosity? And, how are you, and we as a church, passing that generosity along? May Justice Ginsburg’s memory be a blessing. And, may we also remember Rev. Dr. Pauli Murray as an ancestor of our faith and as a perfector of our union. I pray that we can continue the work that the Holy Spirit began in them.
Resources consulted while writing this sermon:
Realizing that their father was dead, Joseph’s brothers said, ‘What if Joseph still bears a grudge against us and pays us back in full for all the wrong that we did to him?’ So they approached Joseph, saying, ‘Your father gave this instruction before he died, “Say to Joseph: I beg you, forgive the crime of your brothers and the wrong they did in harming you.” Now therefore please forgive the crime of the servants of the God of your father.’ Joseph wept when they spoke to him. Then his brothers also wept, fell down before him, and said, ‘We are here as your slaves.’ But Joseph said to them, ‘Do not be afraid! Am I in the place of God? Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good, in order to preserve a numerous people, as he is doing today. So have no fear; I myself will provide for you and your little ones.’ In this way he reassured them, speaking kindly to them.
For Good: Genesis 50:15-21
When I read this portion of Genesis, I often think of a song from the Broadway musical Wicked. It’s called “For Good.” The two lead characters, Galinda and Elphaba, having grown from rivals to friends, realize at one pivotal moment, that they probably won’t see each other again. At this point in the story, Elphaba has raised the ire of the government by standing up for a population that was being oppressed. And, Galinda, having been used by the same government as a positive face for their unjust regime, finally realizing the extent of the corruption around her, runs to warn her of a group that is coming to capture her. Before they part ways for the final time, they tell each other how they have grown from their friendship. A part of the song they share goes like this:
Like a comet pulled from orbit
As it passes the sun
Like a stream that meets a boulder
Halfway through the wood
Who can say if I've been changed for the better
But because I knew you
I have been changed for good
Before they met, their lives seemed to be going in one direct: straight, clear, predictable, inevitable. But, then something happened. One event, in this case, their becoming roommates, completely changed the course of their lives. While some might argue that they weren’t necessarily good influences on each other (particularly those worried about Elphaba the Revolutionary), they were lasting influences on one another. And, I think you can make the case that the most important things they do in the show are shaped by their relationship with each other. Their reconciliation is heart of the show.
Joseph and his brothers’ reconciliation is the heart of the scripture we read for today. And, while they aren’t roommates at the beginning of their story, they were rivals. Their actions left indelible marks on each other’s lives. Today’s reading shows us the pivotal moment where they turn back towards each other, restoring the relationship that the brothers had so easily sacrificed in the years before. At the beginning of the story, it’s not clear that these siblings have been changed for the better either. It is fascinating that Joseph tells them than the change has been for the good.
Since it’s been a while since we last talked about this story together, it’s worth reminding ourselves of the path that Joseph’s life has taken since his brothers’ actions knocked him out of his father’s orbit. After years in slavery in Egypt, years that included imprisonment but also great success as a manager of the homes of the people who enslaved him, Joseph had developed a reputation as one who could interpret dreams. Remember, he’d had that powerful dream that annoyed and frightened his brothers. He had helpfully advised the pharaoh on how to plan for a famine that was foretold in one of the pharaoh's dreams. The pharaoh has such faith in Joseph that he appointed him to a place of great honor and prominence in his court. He even gave him an Egyptian name and an Egyptian wife.
Knowing the famine was coming, Joseph had made sure that there was plenty of grain stored. Joseph, who had had so many choices taken from him, would go on to build success on the desperation of people who needed that grain to survive. Because of him, Pharaoh had grain. Others would spend all their money, sell of their land, and even sell themselves into slavery to get some of it. Because they had access to the grain, the people lived, but they wound up in service to Pharaoh. In this action, we see Joseph’s adaptability and intelligence allowing him to be better at this system than the people who created it. We, unfortunately, don’t see much of him trying to undo the unjust system. He made the choice to assimilate to survive.
Do you think Joseph imagined that one day, his ten brothers would show up, bowing before him, hoping that he would be willing to sell them enough grain so they, too, could survive? I mean, maybe he remembered his dreams and knew that it would happen eventually. Now, his brothers had no idea who he was, and certainly would never have imagined that their enslaved brother could have ended up a primary advisor to the Pharaoh. This all happens before today’s reading, but it’s important context to what comes later. Joseph will find himself in a place of power over the ones who wanted to kill him. He had the power to enact vengeance upon them. Would he?
For a while, he toys with them, not explaining who he is and asking them to bring their youngest brother to him. The brothers begin to believe God is punishing them for selling Joseph away. Reuben agreed. He had never liked what they did to Joseph and was certain that their starvation and humiliation were a reckoning, and told his brothers as much. Joseph wept when he heard his brother's words. I don't think he knew that Reuben had tried to save him. I wonder if this moment helped set the scene for the reconciliation to come. He still held Simeon as collateral until they are willing to bring back Benjamin, the youngest brother. And, he still required Benjamin to be brought back to him. But he doesn’t say no. And, he slipped their payment for the grain back in their bags.
Jacob almost messes things up. He does not want to send Benjamin to Egypt. He had already lost Joseph and was already assuming that Simeon had been killed. But, the famine continued. They ran out of food again. Returning to Egypt, and an angry Joseph, was their only options for survival. Carrying with them double the money from last time and their brother Benjamin, the brothers went back to Egypt and hoped they had enough to satisfy the man they didn’t yet know was their brother. Joseph surprises them by claiming to have received the first payment, you remember, the one he returned. He even brought Simeon to them, very much alive and in one piece. When Joseph, still unrecognized by his brothers, sees Benjamin, he nearly weeps in front of them, choosing, instead to hid his tears away in another room. Again, when he sends them away with food the next morning, he has their payment slipped back into their bag, along with his own silver cup in Benjamin's bag. This time, though, Joseph then directed his steward to accuse them of being thieves. I guess a little vengeance was too tempting. Certain that none of them had taken it, they promise the steward that he could keep any man whom he found carrying the cup. They tore at their clothes in mourning when they realized Benjamin had the cup.
Judah, the brother who had originally suggested selling Joseph, stepped forward in one last ditch effort to save them. He explained to this man whom he thinks is a stranger just how much their father loves them, and loves especially Benjamin. He explained how this son and another, one who has died, were the only sons from Rachel and Jacob's relationship. He explained that grief over Joseph's death had already nearly killed his father. He said that his father will blame him, Judah, for the rest of his life if they don't bring Benjamin back. He offered to stay in his place, giving his own life to save the life of a beloved brother.
Judah, who once sold one brother, offered his own life to save another. Judah demonstrates a care and compassion for a sibling in a way that Joseph must have wished Judah had shown him. This is the moment in which Joseph fully decided to save his brothers, this moment where he can see that Judah has changed. This is the moment when he finally admits who he is, asking after their father, and weeping. At first, his brothers are sure this news can only be bad. But, Joseph finds the good.
Joseph explained that he felt that God had turned what they intended for evil into good. You see, in this story, God never says, “Joseph, I’m letting them do bad things to you so that you can one day do good things.” That happens sometimes in other parts of the Bible. Here, Joseph found meaning himself in the idea that God could help him work something deeply good out of the deeply troubling things that happened to him and also, the troubling things he did to other people. In this case, Joseph saw that he had landed in a position that allowed him to save his family. The scholar Christopher Davis calls this act re-membering, that is, putting the pieces of his life story together in a new way. This new way points to a redemptive purpose, saving one’s family, and away from vengeance and more unnecessary death and destruction.
Joseph remembers his own story for the better, choosing to walk away from the vengeance that was so close at hand and likely so tempting, and walk towards reconciliation and renewed relationship. What stories are you re-membering, not to hide away the bad things that happened to you or that you did to others, but to find a way towards reconciliation? How are you finding yourself being changed both for the better and being changed for good? This is a season with great potential for destruction and delicious vengeance. What lesson are you learning from Joseph that is helping you re-member?
Resources consulted while writing this sermon:
Matthew 18: 15-20
‘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.’
How Are We Gathered: Matthew 18:15-20
Gathering has been strange lately, hasn’t it? For months now, gathering has been strange. It’s still not safe to be physically close to people we don’t live with or don’t share a socializing pod with for more than a few minutes or without a mask. My colleagues and my wife’s colleagues, preachers and teachers, are spending a lot of time figuring out which masks they can teach and preach in without getting too sweaty or losing their breath. Weddings and funerals, two major lifespan events in our families and communities, are held over the internet and in small, in-person groups. So many of us have figured out which rooms in our homes have the best lighting so that our faces look just a little more lively on camera, because that’s how we’re seeing people most often these days, on camera. On the one hand, gathering over the internet is letting me attend a housewarming party at my friend’s new place in Topeka, Kansas next Friday. On the other, I haven’t seen most of your whole faces, unmediated by technology, in months.
I don’t regret these choices to gather differently over the last five months. We did not make them lightly, but, informed by the best science available, we made them with the intent to do the most good possible... to care for the people at greatest risk if they contract Covid-19. And, I think we’ve fostered a different kind of intimacy. It doesn’t replace gathering in person as we did in the time before this virus spread. But, look how people from our church who live in Maryland and Florida and those who have been traveling around Maine have been able to be with us in worship? Look at how we still pray for each other, every week, if not every day? We even make music with and for one another, passing along recordings of the instruments to the singers who record the voices. For those who have access to technology, technology has helped us gather. It’s not church like before, but it still feels like church, at least to me.
I’ve been thinking about gathering because today’s scripture is about gathering and navigating what it means to be in community with people. Well, actually it is a teaching meant to help followers of Jesus function not just as individuals of faith, but as a community of faith. Relationality is at the core of who Jesus was and what he hoped for humanity. Of course, he would leave them with some wisdom about how to be in relationship... When you tell people that the greatest commandments are to love God and to love your neighbor, you also have to help people learn what it means to love your neighbor. Sometimes figuring out how to love your neighbor means figuring out how to argue with them.
Jesus, as recorded and interpreted in Matthew, is under no illusion that the people who follow him will no longer disagree or get in arguments or harm one another. Following Jesus doesn’t stop you from being human. Following Jesus does give you a mechanism and guidance for making amends when you do end up hurting someone you care about. One scholar I read, Barbara K. Lundblad, referred to this portion of Matthew as the “church reconciliation manual.” In the chapter just before this one, Jesus shared a parable about a shepherd who lost one sheep leaving the ninety-nine safe sheep behind to go rescue the one who was lost. Lundblad suggests that that story can help read this part about reconciliation. This is a path by which a lost one can be restored.
Notice how this process presumes that there is a place for confrontation in Christian community. If another member sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. Scholar Michael Chan thinks it’s helpful to read this portion as a reminder that following Christ means that you don’t ignore when harm has been done. Instead, Jesus sets out a process by which harm is addressed. The verses outline a process by which the wronged party can seek redress with increasing levels of helpful mediation in cases where the party that has done the harm is not prepared to address it. It is a clear and intentional process with the ultimate goal to restore a right relationship that mirrors the intimacy of the family. Verse 15 says that if the member listens to the harm and makes amends, the one who initiated the conversation has regained a sibling. Dr. Chan puts it this way, “Critique and conflict must be in service of reconciliation and return.” This is about bringing the sheep back in. But that can only come if the harm is addressed.
The things we do right here, right now, have affects that ripple forward. Whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. The texts and traditions and people we hold tightly leave an impression, like the pale indention under a wedding ring. Some text and traditions and even people need to be held more loosely, adapted, changed, and even let go according to the new movements of the Holy Spirit. We have to discern what is fitting for now, based on the needs of our neighbors and the movement of Christ’s spirit in this moment. This is also a part of the church reconciliation manual: Jesus empowering his people to interpret God’s will for the times and situations in which they live.
We are gathering differently, but this work of discernment and reconciliation remain vital to the mission of the church. How on earth can we function as the Body of Christ, especially now, if we don’t tell the truth about harm, tend to the traditions that have helped us survive, and cultivate new ways to gather that reflect the needs of this group of people in this time and space? This scripture tells us that where two or three are gathered in Jesus’ name, Jesus is there among them. That means, when the people are gathered, regardless of how, Christ is there. And, if Christ is there, we have the power to do right by one another and by God. In fact, we have the mandate to seek to do right by one another, even if it means that we have to hear how we have done someone else harm. Christ is with us, helping us to listen, and Christ will help us figure out how to respond. This is what it means to be church, even a church that is meeting mostly on the internet and over the phone. May we remain bound to Christ and to one another.
Resources consulted while writing this sermon:
Moses was keeping the flock of his father-in-law Jethro, the priest of Midian; he led his flock beyond the wilderness, and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. There the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a flame of fire out of a bush; he looked, and the bush was blazing, yet it was not consumed. Then Moses said, ‘I must turn aside and look at this great sight, and see why the bush is not burned up.’ When the Lord saw that he had turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush, ‘Moses, Moses!’ And he said, ‘Here I am.’ Then he said, ‘Come no closer! Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.’ He said further, ‘I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.’ And Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God.
Then the Lord said, ‘I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters. Indeed, I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them from the Egyptians, and to bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey, to the country of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites. The cry of the Israelites has now come to me; I have also seen how the Egyptians oppress them. So come, I will send you to Pharaoh to bring my people, the Israelites, out of Egypt.’ But Moses said to God, ‘Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh, and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?’ He said, ‘I will be with you; and this shall be the sign for you that it is I who sent you: when you have brought the people out of Egypt, you shall worship God on this mountain.’
But Moses said to God, ‘If I come to the Israelites and say to them, “The God of your ancestors has sent me to you”, and they ask me, “What is his name?” what shall I say to them?’ God said to Moses, ‘I am who I am.’ He said further, ‘Thus you shall say to the Israelites, “I am has sent me to you.” ’ God also said to Moses, ‘Thus you shall say to the Israelites, “The Lord, the God of your ancestors, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you”: This is my name for ever, and this my title for all generations.
Where is this Sacred Ground?: Exodus 3:1-15
I love a story about a reluctant hero. And, that is definitely one way to think about Moses. He’s a reluctant hero. A man raised in two cultures: secret son of the brilliant Hebrew woman Jochebed and adopted son of the Pharoah’s daughter, he’d had the option to quietly stay in his Pharoah’s good graces. But, he chose to protect someone his adopted grandfather enslaved. And, he killed an Egyptian in the process. Out of guilt and fear for his life, he ran from Egypt, ran from his easy, if complicated life, and settled in Midian. The prince became a shepherd, working his father-in-law's flocks.
Moses had a privileged upbring, but not a lot else at the beginning of this story. In fact, he’s only got a job because his father-in-law gave him one. The main thing he’s going for him was other people were taking care of him. First, his sister and mother. Then, his foster mother and then his father-in-law (though, to be fair, he did help his future wife and sisters-in-law out first). He probably thought this was what his life was going to be like: nestled into a new family, separated from his first family and his adopted family, taking care of sheep. I imagine him being grateful for the tranquility. I also imagine him being surprised and maybe a bit dismayed to be invited back into the action.
One of my favorite parts of Exodus is Moses trying to talk God out of calling him. God says, "I've heard the cries of your people. I'm sending you to tell the Pharaoh to let my people go." Moses says, "Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh, and bring the Israelites out of Egypt.?" God says, "I have observed the misery of my people. I will deliver them from their suffering. Go to the Pharaoh. And Moses is like, "The Pharaoh? Really? Because he is not thrilled with me and Pharaohs hold a grudge." God says, "I will be with you. See this burning bush? It's a sign so you know I can do amazing things, even help you go talk to the Pharaoh. So, go. Save your people. We'll meet back here up on this mountain."
Moses, though, is still afraid. He seems keenly aware of just how unqualified he is to be saving anybody. And, he seems all too aware that if he shows up back in Egypt, he's going to need an explanation. After all, if I may quote scholar Karla Suomala, "Moses can’t just run down to Egypt and say that he is working for a talking bush." So, God tells Moses God's name so Moses can tell Pharaoh who sent him and who empowered him. In Hebrew, this name is four simple letters. In English, these four letters are YHWH. It is often pronounced Yahweh.
I have learned from Hebrew scholars that the name Yahweh, rooted in the Hebrew verb "to be," means "I am who I am." It also means "I am what I am" and "I will be what I will be." The translation isn’t clear but that is some of the beauty of it. It is a mysterious name befitting a mysterious God who speaks from burning bushes and pillars of fire. Other scholars have pointed out that this mysterious name does seem to have one foundation idea: living, being, existing in one's identity as a child of God. A God with a name rooted in being is a god of creation and of connection... the God who used more than few scoundrels in the family of Abraham and Sarah to bring Divine blessing to God's people. This is a God who can even work through Moses, a murderer and a shepherd, to bring about liberation to God's people. God says, "I am who I am. And, I will be with you even if you think you can't do the job... even if no one else thinks you can do the job. I think you can. So, go. Save your people."
Moses asked for one more thing in the verses following today’s reading. Even with the sign of the burning bush and the name of God on his lips, Moses feared that his words would not be clear enough. God eventually agreed to send Aaron, Moses’ brother, along, too. Sometimes it’s easier to do hard things with someone else by your side, in addition to God I mean. Eventually, God answered every question and Moses was satisfied enough to do what God asked. It is incredible to watch this reluctant leader and his brother walk right into the court of the most powerful man in his world and demand that he free the people he had enslaved.
Moses isn’t the only one walking on sacred ground. He isn’t the only one who God calls to work for liberation. Right now, refugees are being treated like criminals, caged when seeking asylum, hassled when moving into established neighborhoods. Right now, if we are paying attention, we are hearing the testimonies of Black citizens in our country who are clear that they are not safe with the people who supposed to be paid to protect them. Powerful people seem to be doing their level best to ignore the humanity of their neighbors. Fear, just like in this story, is being used as a weapon. You might see the burning bush that inspires you to action not out in the field with the flocks but on your phone or computer or television.
I imagine that some of us, like Moses, might be tempted to argue our way out of speaking up to the powerful. We’ll say it is too hard or too scary or we just might mess up the words. While we might not be Moses, we can be inspired by Moses. Remember, we don’t have to be perfect to follow God's call. With God's help, we can build on whatever is broken in our pasts to serve our people. We just have to remember that God will be with us, too. Because that's who God is... the one who calls us towards life and connection. So, the next time you feel God's call to liberation and you feel tempted to say "who am I to go to Pharaoh," remember Moses. And, remember that you, too, are a child of the living God. Don’t let your fear keep you from your calling. This ground is sacred, too. And, God stands with us on it.
Resources consulted to write this sermon:
Pastor Chrissy is a native of East Tennessee. She and her wife moved to Maine from Illinois. She is a graduate of the Divinity School at Wake Forest University and Chicago Theological Seminary.