This month shall mark for you the beginning of months; it shall be the first month of the year for you.
It is the passover of the Lord.Exodus 12:2, 11
‘If another member of the church sins against you, go …Matt 18:20
In our readings today we hear again a portion of the Passover story and we hear from the Gospel an invitation form Jesus to enter deeply into the “Promised Land” I’ll explain what I mean by that later.
We probably know both of these stories quite well but perhaps it is an opportune time to hear again this call to enter the land of promise. In this last eight months we have watched the world be turned upside down by the Pandemic. Even before that many of us had a feeling the world was going to hell in a hand basket watching various powerful world leaders who are narcissistic and/or ruthless thugs. We need to hear good news of a wonderful promise.
The story of the Passover is the story of leaving oppressive slavery and moving into a land flowing with milk and honey. The meal we hear about is a meal gathering family and neighbours (small families and individuals are not left out.) The meal brings the story of freedom to the present moment with an ongoing vision for the future. The story builds the people into a community with a vision of hope.
In my mind both of these things are vitally important, both the memory with its vision of freedom and the building up of a community of faith. When we are feeling overwhelmed by news of the Pandemic and nations disintegrating before our eyes it is good to be reminded of the call to freedom and promise. And it is vitally important to build a strong healthy community.
I said the Gospel is also an invitation to leave oppression behind and enter into freedom and promise. The small portion we read from Chapter 18 might be better understood if have a quick overview of the whole chapter. At the beginning of the chapter Jesus says I’ll tell you who is great in the kingdom and he calls a small child to puts in the middle. Embrace humility like a child and you’ll be great in the kingdom.
Jesus continues, heaven help you if you cause one of these little ones to stumble, you’d be better off dead. Its even better to be blind and maimed that to cause another to sin.
Then comes the story of the lost sheep. God rejoices when the lost and vulnerable are brought back into the community. The sheep can’t survive in the wilderness by itself, bring it home.
In the Gospel, effectively we read if someone “sins against you” go in search of them as you would a lost child. After, this passage, Peter asks, how often do I have to forgive someone, 7 times. No, 77 times! Jesus then tells a story about the unforgiving servant.
So the Gospel today is an invitation to deep and genuine freedom, throwing off the shackles of slavery, becoming part of a rich community.
When I said the phrase, “sinned against you” in my mind it was in inverted commas. Because often when we think someone has sinned against us, they had no intention of hurting us.
Let me tell a story to explian. I woman I know told me that she had been suspicious that her husband had started smoking again. He denied that he had been smoking. Occasionally she would get a whiff of stale cigarette smoke. She was getting cross because he had been told by the doctor that if he took up smoking again, he would die. Once again, she asked, have you taken up smoking again. Again, he denied it. Then she drove his car on one occasion and went to put something in the console. She discovered a drink bottle with cigarette butts floating in the water in the bottle. This time she was fuming and said, you lied to me, you have been smoking. For her the realization that he had lied was even worse than the smoking. How could she ever trust him?
Now if we stopped there, we might join her in feeling angry, not only was he stupid enough to take up smoking again but he lied to his wife. He had “sinned against her”.
Well it didn’t finish there. This woman was complaining to a wise older woman. The older woman said, has it occurred to you that he started smoking because of stress from the whole Covid19 pandemic and working form home and all that. Maybe he didn’t tell the truth because he didn’t want to hurt you. Maybe he didn’t want the image you have of your husband to fall off the pedestal. You have seen him till now as a good man who wouldn’t endanger his life by smoking again and he wouldn’t lie to you. The younger woman admitted that she did hold her husband in high esteem.
The older woman suggested, the next time you get a chance tell your husband how much you love him and that you will support him in whatever he feels is best for him. Explain that the reason you yelled at him was because you were feeling angry and hurt. Tell him you love him, and you don’t want him to die. Once she had said this to her husband, he turned to her with tears in his eyes and told her that was the most beautiful thing she had said in all their married life. More than that he has continued to speak to her with new warmth and love. She had not have expected such a change. Simply by seeing beyond her own anger and hurt and talking to him with genuine concern transformed their marriage.
The older wise woman was really saying to the young woman, go and do what Jesus tells us to do, go and talk to them. In a way the older woman had been like the witnesses that Jesus had recommended if the initial conversation went sour. The witnesses are not there to be on your side accusing the other person, they are there to help you listen to the other person’s deeper needs and feelings.
The last portion of Jesus’ advice seems a bit strange. Jesus says, if that doesn’t work, treat them like a Gentile and a tax-collector. Remember the Jews generally hated Gentiles and Tax-collectors. But don’t forget Jesus’ response to the Gentile woman who requested healing for her daughter. At first Jesus seemed to be in the same mold as all the other Jews. But when she said, all I want is one of the crumbs that fall from the table that the dogs normally eat. Jesus saw that her faith surpassed all the people around him. He praised her for faith and assured her, her daughter would be made well. Jesus appeared to show even more love for Zacchaeus the Tax collector. Hey Zacchaeus, I want to come to your house for lunch today. So if you can’t bring those who have hurt you and made you angry back into a loving relationship then at least treat them with genuine respect and love.
Now hopefully the story of the woman and her husband’s renewed relation gave you a glimpse of the blessings that come from forgiving those who hurt us. Our marriages, our friendships and our community become even better than before.
Now the Jews celebrate the Passover every year at the beginning of their new year. By saying, year after year, after year, God has called us out of oppressive slavery into a land of hope and promise, it seeps into the very pours of their being. By gathering for a family meal and inviting those on the outer they remember that this journey to freedom is a journey we make together, as a family, as a community, as a whole people. Their covenant with God is to continuously renew their commitment to be a people of promise and freedom. God calls them out of slavery and leads them to freedom, but they make the journey together as one people.
My dream for us as a community of faith is that each year when we renew our covenant we will recommit to being a people of freedom. Together we will hold a vision of a community where we are free from the oppressive nature of anger, and hurt and being unwilling to forgive. This Covenant will at times feel like we are being led into the wilderness and the land of promise will seem impossible.
Scott Peck in his book on community says we need to pass beyond the superficial stage through chaos before it has any chance of becoming a genuine community. When we talk about the weather or the sport mostly we are still in the superficial stage. The second stage is when we refuse to sit with someone because they did something that made us angry. If we are convinced it was really bad, we leave the church. We have to bravely move through the second stage until we are ready to sit with the people who hurt us and rebuild an even better relationship. Then we will be ready to a deeper genuine community and others outside the church will get wind of this community. They will want to come. Ironically as new people come, we will have to move through all the stages again. But it will be much easier the second and third time.