Rev. Cn. Richard Hogue Jr.
Happy homecoming Sunday, St. Paul’s! It’s so good to see so many of our ministries and priorities represented here today as we celebrate the beginning of another program year.
When I began discerning what the Spirit might ask me to say today, I felt a little confused. Our Gospel passage from Matthew has somewhat contradictory messages when we keep Jesus’ other sayings in mind. Today’s reading tells us that if someone has sinned against us from within the church, we are to address them directly, but if no reconciliation is made, then to come with witnesses in tow. Still, if no reconciliation is made, the whole church is to hear the ordeal and then to ask the offender to listen, and if that person still doesn’t, they are to be treated as a Gentile and a tax collector. Tell me, how can we treat as exiles those who Jesus himself would have dinner with himself, at least in the case of the tax collector? Yet, this same Jesus is the one asking us to treat the most stubborn of us as such.
Adding to the confusion, or rather tension, is the line: “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.” Putting these in conversation with the verse that immediately follows this section from today causes still more tension, “Then Peter came and said to him, ‘Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?’ Jesus said to him, ‘Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.”
The more I read about the church’s application of these words of Jesus, the more I realized the history of whole denominations bend and sometimes break over them, or their abuse. This is all without even addressing “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.” What of can of worms that is! Does Jesus endorse schism and division just because a few people might feel agreed in prayer?
Like so much of Scripture, there is more conversation between texts than simple answers, getting more complicated the more we zoom out. This is not to say that there aren’t bedrock truths. God is just and Jesus loves and forgives all of us who stray, and actively seeks after us, asking us to do the same. And yet, we are still human, and even being on the path of righteousness collectively there are times we stumble. Here I appreciate the words of Diedrich Bonhoeffer, who dealt with fascism in the church in Nazi Germany: “Forgiveness cannot be preached authoritatively without the concrete preaching of repentance and judgement.” In other words, the church can only participate in God’s mission of forgiveness by calling out the wrongs it sees in itself and the world. Bonhoeffer also wrote: “But such (church) discipline is not to establish a church of the perfect; but … (it) is a servant of the precious grace of God.”
Truth is messy, it turns out. And Jesus’ own seeming contradictions follow in the footsteps of the conversations within Hebrew Scripture. There is a constant push and pull between God’s covenantal goodness and love on one hand and on the other the disastrous drifting of humanity from that love in our self-assuredness and complacency. In some ways, we should be less confused by the tension of Jesus’ apparent contradictions and more accepting of them, because they profoundly reflect our own humanity. Yes, God graciously loves us and wants us to love each other. Sadly, because it is so easy to accept gracious love or to ignore it altogether, we need a reality check from time-to-time. And the church, for all its foibles, is the vessel for that loving reality check, for itself and the world we are called to serve. Jesus says as much. Gracious love and justice don’t always perfectly coincide from our human point of view.
This tradition of the push and pull of the love and justice of God is found all over Hebrew Scriptures, and today we read of the institution of Pesach, the Passover, from Exodus, and there are few better examples of this exact push and pull. This first celebration of the highest of Hebrew rituals is placed between the first nine and the tenth plagues of Egypt, the most devastating of which would be the tenth and final. If plagues of locusts, darkness, rivers turning to blood, frogs, and more weren’t terrifying enough, then what follows the first Passover would be enough to curdle the blood of anyone: every firstborn male child of Egypt was about to die. But it’s what precedes both Passover and the death of the firstborns of Egypt that frames this push and pull of God’s liberating love and God’s justice.
As you may recall from last week’s readings and Penny’s sermon, Moses had received and accepted God’s call to free the people of Israel from the bonds of slavery and oppression in Egypt. God’s call to justice and mercy for the oppressed would not be ignored, and Moses was called to deliver the good news of God’s liberating power to Israel in Egypt, as well as to call oppressors and the powerful to repent and change.
Moses and his brother Aaron go before the most powerful human alive at that time, the ultimate oppressor of their kinfolk, the God-king Pharoah, and demand that the people of Israel be let go. Pharoah goes through a nearly tidal motion between intent to release and the bitter desire to preserve power. God predicts the hardness of Pharoah’s heart, and then Pharoah’s heart hardens against Israel, he relents, then Pharoah chooses to harden his heart, he relents, and then God hardens Pharoah’s heart. Many stop to comment on how it may not have been Pharoah’s fault but God’s that the plagues all happened during this legendary scrimmage. But we must also ask, even if Pharoah had relented, wouldn’t he or others who followed him change their minds again anyway? When have oppressors of any sort simply let go? Often, when they do, it’s a tactical decision to buy time to regain and reassert their power, not to truly free anyone. Cries for peace and mercy only come from oppressors when they are at their weakest. The capricious pursuit of power is the oppressor’s paramount project.
Still, many will understandably ask why innocent Egyptian children had to pay the price for Pharoah’s decisions? If we ask that, we must also remember the horrors inflicted by Pharoah and Egypt, the butchering of Hebrew newborn baby boys, and enslavement. The Hebrews anointed the doors to their homes in blood, spared for having already suffered so much in their oppression by the Egyptians. In both the angel of death’s reaping Pharoah’s fruits of oppression and in God’s hardening of Pharoah’s heart following Pharoah’s own hard headedness, something comes into clear view: God is just, but God’s justice may not always seem fair. More importantly for us, it is not ours to deliver, but presenting the gracious opportunity to repent and return to love is.
This is the messy truth of God’s love, and it will not always make sense to us. The part we play is to repent, admonish, forgive, and love, as individuals and in community even as we stumble ourselves. Our discernment, by the guidance of the Holy Spirit in prayer, will lead us to what we need to do, when we need to do it, for each other and the world. Who are we called to love by God, and who are the Pharoah’s we are charged with confronting? Can we live in the tension of announcing God’s love and desire for justice, and in the light of Jesus’ words for the church, how are we called to live out that tension in our own lives, communities, and society? As we celebrate this Homecoming Sunday and our mission as St. Paul’s Cathedral, may we hold this faithful tension with love and grace, trusting the Holy Spirit to lead us forward in all our ministries.
 The Cost of Discipleship, Ditrich Bonhoeffer.