The Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost
E. Bevan Stanley
September 6, 2020
Proper 18, Year A
From the Book of Exodus: “On all the gods of Egypt I will execute judgments: I am the Lord.” In the Name of the one, holy, and undivided Trinity. Amen.
Our three readings today invite us to consider the topic of confronting evil—the evil in ourselves, in our fellow Christians, and in our country. Let us take them in the order we heard them.
In Exodus we see the culmination of the confrontation between Moses and Pharaoh. Pharaoh has enslaved the descendants of the family that saved Egypt from disaster in the time of Joseph. Now God has intervened to free the Israelites from slavery. God has given Pharaoh nine chances already to reverse his policy with nine plagues to remind him who is really in charge. Now comes the tenth and most devastating judgment on Egypt and all its gods. The first born of humans and animals will all die. Except for the Israelites; God will pass over their homes. This is also the night they will flee. Jews have celebrated this Passover ever since.
Our country is now in a state of turmoil and division unlike any we have seen in many years. Many feel that those who are supposed to uphold the rule of law violate it themselves and are not held accountable. Many are concerned that the mechanisms of a democratic polity such as free elections are being threatened. Many of us, myself included, don’t know how we can help improve the situation. How can we reduce division, promote healing, increase mutual respect, work for justice, and provide opportunities for civil discourse across lines of disagreement? We want the vision of a “government of the people, by the people, for the people” to become a reality. But how do we accomplish that? We will each search for our own solutions to how we can participate in our public life. At the very least we can all vote. And it is important that every citizen will have a chance to vote.
What we can do is on the personal level. Turning to Romans, Paul says that all the commandments are summed up in the commandment to love our neighbors as ourselves. He goes on to say, “Besides this, you know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep. . . 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.” It is always important to remember that when Paul talks about “the flesh,” it is helpful to read it as “the egoic self” as opposed to the true self that is made in the image of God. The point is that to love others one has to lower one’s shields. One has to become vulnerable. One has to be willing to give up some comfort, some autonomy. The language of clothing is interesting: We are to put on the armor of light; we are to put on the Lord Jesus Christ. We become what we wear. That is the point of uniforms and ritual clothing. A soldier in uniform is no longer just Bill Sloan from Kalamazoo. He is a member of the army and part of an institution of service and discipline. When I put on a stole, I am functioning as a priest and no longer as a private individual. When we put on Jesus Christ, we function has his bone and blood in time and space. If we are to love our neighbors as ourselves and not make provision for our egoic selves, then it is a great help to put on Jesus Christ. Or maybe when we love our neighbors and lay aside our egoic selves, we are putting on Jesus Christ.
Richard Rohr has this to say about love: Love is not something you do; love is something you are. It is your True Self. Love is where you came from and love is where you’re going. It’s not something you can buy. It’s not something you can attain. It’s the presence of God within you, called the Holy Spirit or what some theologians name uncreated grace. You can’t manufacture this by any right conduct . . . You can’t make God love you one ounce more than God already loves you right now. . . .We can’t diminish God’s love for us. What we can do, however, is learn how to believe it, receive it, trust it, allow it, and celebrate it, accepting Trinity’s whirling invitation to join in the cosmic dance . . . Suddenly, this is a very safe universe. You have nothing to be afraid of. God is for you. God is leaping toward you! God is on your side, honestly more than you are on your own.
And if this is a safe universe, we can risk being open with those who differ from us. We can put on Jesus Christ.
In the Gospel Jesus teaches us how to deal with interpersonal conflict within a community. We start at the lowest organizational level. We go the individual with whom we have the problem directly. We explain how that person’s behavior affected us. Jesus says, “If the member listens to you, you have regained that one.” Notice that it doesn’t say “agree” but listen. The word in Greek means to listen, heed, harken. It means to hear in a way that affects the hearer, to be open to being changed by the conversation. There may be a discussion of the difference between what was intended and the effect it had.
If going to the person alone does not work, then we take someone else. If that fails, bring the matter to the whole congregation. If the person still is unwilling to hear, then treat the person “as a Gentile and a tax collector.” That is, treat them as an outsider and as one collaborates with the foreign occupying government. Jesus goes on to speak of the power of the worshiping community when it has Jesus among them. It connects earth to heaven, and can bring heave to earth.
If we can love our neighbors and hold each other accountable within the Christian community, then we have a chance at improving the world around us. We can have a role in rebuilding our nation and having our country be an example of the rule of law and “government of the people, by the people, for the people.”
Here is Steven Charleston, a bishop of the Episcopal Church and a member of the Choctaw nation:
You are needed for what is to come, for the struggle against fear, the turning point toward peace, that is why you are here, in the place you are, among the people you call community, to be a wise counselor and a calming presence, to invite others to work together, amid the pulls to extreme, against the rush to partisan, you are a center of hope, a balance of compassion and common sense, that will help to halt the rise of anger, and allow reason to guide the tiller of tomorrow, that is why you are here: you are needed for what is to come.
Let us love by putting on Christ. Let us speak the truth to one another. We can bring the kingdom of heaven to earth.