There has been much angst expressed on FB about our lessons for today!
First we have the Hebrew Scriptures giving the synopsis of the Passover meal, where it comes from and what it entails and why it is so important. Then the conclusion of the theological treatise of Romans, Paul’s crowning accomplishment in writing, which comes down to love, if you love your neighbor as yourself – he doesn’t even say anything about loving God! No, if you really love your neighbor, you will have fulfilled all of the law correctly. Finally, the gospel writer tells us how to settle our differences, without using guns.
There is a lot to unpack in this Passover account. First, we have the setting of time. This does not seem like such a big deal to us, but it really is. The passage starts out with saying, this will be the first month of the first year for you. This is the beginning of counted time. Everything that happened before now is “before” and this is the start. Never mind that the Egyptians have had a calendar that goes way back before now. For you, this is the first month. In Christianity, we did a similar thing, right? Our “beginning” of time starts with the death of Jesus. Everything, for us, pivots around that, it is either before or after then. We are so used to this that we don’t pay much attention to the fact that the Jews still use a different beginning of time. According to the Jews, we are in the month of Elul, in the year 5774. The New Year is at the end of this month of Elul, and our September 25 will be Rosh Hoshanah, the celebration of New Year in the Jewish calendar.
So then I had to go looking up other calendars. What about the Buddhist calendar – it’s not so clear, since it comes off of the Hindu calendars, plural, and is tied closely to national calendars. The Japanese calendar system is very confused, starting with the Chinese calendar, adding in the Buddhist/Hindu celebrations, and now uses the Gregorian calendar, but with the traditional holidays. Right! The Gregorian calendar is the Christian calendar, and it follows a solar cycle instead of the older lunar or moon cycle of the Jewish calendar. In order to “de-Christianize” and universalize the Gregorian calendar, we use the letters CE and BCE, instead of BC and AD. CE stands for Common Era and then there is BCE. Many people do not know that the Common Era begins with the death of Jesus.
So all of that is very interesting, or not, but is this really important and if so, why? Back to the reading. What we are talking about here in this Passover story is the direct intervention of God, all the way down. This is not a small intervention. God essentially says, not only am I intervening here, I am starting everything over for you guys. This is now “Day One” and everything from now on will refer to now as Day One, the day when I started the change. This is the day when God said “No” to Pharaoh, in a big way. So everything about this day is important. This is the beginning of days.
Then we go on to the description of what happens next. They are to prepare a very specific meal, to be eaten on the evening of a specific day, starting with the lamb, how it is to be cooked and eaten, and what gets eaten with it. And there is one more very important piece, the blood of the lamb is to be put on the doorposts and the lintel. That night, the entire community is to put the blood of the lamb out on the lintel and doorposts of their houses, they are to eat this meal, and they are to be ready to leave. The tradition goes that this is the night that the angel of death came for the first-born of all the Egyptian children, and animals too, but passed over the houses where there was blood on the doorway. This feast, then, is called The Passover Feast, and it is both the official beginning and the centerpiece of Judaism. The lamb, the spilling of the lamb’s blood, is the sacrifice that saved the people.
Can you see where early Christian theologians – and remember the early ones were all Jews – how they would say yes, and now Jesus is that lamb, the sacrifice that saved the people. There were a lot of other important concepts from those early days, but as time went on, this would be lifted up as a major concept. But for Paul, love was a huge issue. Love, as he writes about it, is not the erotic use of the word, but rather the deep care and concern we give to each other. He was writing to a community where there had been the understanding of a huge wall which separated insiders and outsiders. That is, there were Jews and there was everyone else, called Gentiles. As much as possible, Jews did not associate with Gentiles. They did not eat or drink with them, they did not touch them, they simply lived in a different world. There were, of course, times when one had to deal with Gentiles. Shopkeepers might have to buy from Gentiles, that kind of thing. But there was no social intercourse, no friendships, certainly no love lost here!
One of the terribly radical concepts of Christianity was the breaking down of that wall. Paul writes about how, when things are “correct,” there is no Jew or Gentile, no male or female – another huge wall – no separation within the church, only love. When we look at the terrible things going on in our world, we see that most, if not all, of them come from a lack of love, a lack of being concerned about the other. And we don’t reach out to eat and drink with those who are different from us. We see them as “other,” and therefore expendable at best. There is an important saying from a pastor who was in Nazi Germany that says, they came for this group, but I was not of this group, so I didn’t say anything, and then they came for that group, but I was not of that group, so I didn’t say anything, and when they came for me, there was no one left to speak.
If anyone suffers, we all suffer. Quantum physics will tell us that this is not a nice saying, it is the truth. If anyone is enslaved, we are all slaves. We are all connected, interconnected, like a huge, huge spider web, so that a disturbance anywhere is felt everywhere. We may not know where the disturbance is, but we will feel it. This is what we are beginning to understand with climate change. What we do matters. What we do individually, and what we do as a state, and what we do as a country, it all matters. There is a saying that is something like: if China sneezes, the whole world catches a cold. It used to be the US, now it’s China. Economically, this is well known. What is not as well understood is that when Sierra Leone sneezes, it also makes a difference. No one paid much attention to Sierra Leone, a small and very poor African nation, until suddenly it was the epicenter of the Ebola epidemic. People fled from Sierra Leone to rich Nigeria a place that had doctors, and medicine. So a diplomat with symptoms fled to a hotel in Nigeria, and a doctor treated him, and the doctor got infected. But the virus can stay quiet for weeks, and the doctor kept seeing other people in his clinic, infecting them, and then after he started showing symptoms, there was a church service involving laying on of hands, infecting all who touched him. The doctor is dead. The doctor’s wife and the diplomat have survived, but the damage is done, as huge numbers of people have gotten infected through the actions of these two men. We in the US did not think that Sierra Leone merited any help with their medical system, they are so small, so insignificant, and so we ignored them, and they sneezed, and now there his hell to pay.
We did not love them. We do not love them. They are “other,” different from us. And Paul says, no, there is no more wall, no more “other” in Christ. Who are the “others” in our lives? What might it mean to love them? And if we love them, and they do damage, then what happens? How do we deal with people whom we have loved who do damage? It is a huge question. The easy answer is to have a wall. The harder way is to not have a wall, to welcome all, but then to have a process to deal with trouble. This is what we read about in the Gospel. Remember, this comes right after Jesus has told Peter to forgive 70×7 times.
Then it says: When someone does you wrong, go to them quietly, and talk, just the two of you, and see if you can settle it. If that does not work, then bring along a couple of other people. If that does not work, then bring it to the whole community. If that does not work, then the ultimate punishment is given: ignore them. This is so counter to our mentality! And, it does not answer some questions. So now, put this into the context of forgiveness. If you have hurt me, I need to go to you, one on one, and let you know I have forgiven you. If you don’t get it, then I bring some friends along to witness, and then the whole church. If that does not work, then I let it go. This is a rather different way of looking at this passage.
Spending time together, eating and drinking together, talking together, these are the things we need to do, to start loving each other. Think about the people that are on the “edge” of your circle, perhaps even beyond the edge. What would it take to invite them to have tea? And who might we, as a church, invite in for tea? Who is there that has done you wrong? Have you confronted them – not with their wrong, but with your forgiveness? What might happen then? The answer is usually, we don’t know! If the bottom line is love, if the answer is always love, then perhaps it is worth a try.