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10th September 2017 - Hugh Perry

Date Given: 
8 September 2017

Readings

Exodus 12: 1-14

Maurice Andrew notes that this part of the narrative is in the form of regulations for performing the rite of Passover  [1]

The Passover probably had its origin in seasonal migration with stock in search of grazing and the lamb was killed about the time of the spring equinox, as a means of warding off evil forces when shepherds and flocks set off on potentially dangerous journeys.[2]

Andrew further notes that an unleavened bread ritual marked the beginning of the barley harvest signifying everything beginning new and responding to God’s new gifts.  The firstlings offering of the first fruit acknowledged that everything belonged to God and everything is part of creation.  He quotes the Maori practice of returning the first fish caught as an offering to Tangaroa the god of the sea as a similar practice for a similar reason.

Howard Wallace suggests that Passover like all worship is itself a ‘yes’ to God who wishes life and liberation for all creation, and a ‘no’ to those powers which would seek to break the spirit for life..[3]

Matthew 18: 15-20

Carter notes that conflict is inevitable among humans and especially among a hard-pressed, minority and marginalised communities which Matthew’s community was.  Therefore it is logical that Matthew would offer a formula for conflict resolution. 

Unlike some of the other codes of the time such as the code from the Dead Sea Scrolls, Matthew’s formula avoids clear regulated procedure compared to other codes that had roles for stipulated officers and specified penalties.

Matthew’s formula on the other hand recognises conflict and offence, but seeks to restore the offender to reconciled relationship within the community. [4]

Matthew’s code fits well in the Jesus tradition of peace through reconciliation and, like so much of Jesus’ teaching, stands in sharp opposition to the shame honour codes that operate in many communities and lead to intergenerational vendettas.   Bill Loader suggests that at an international level the most obvious application is: negotiate and don’t immediately rush to sabre rattling.  People are required to both talk and listen even at church meetings and achieve settlement by talking, and seeking to appreciate the reasons for disagreement.

Much more can be achieved through negotiation than is usually assumed and the passage affords an opportunity to throw some gospel perspectives on the meaning of love and compassion in the handling of conflict in personal relations because each of us has a story to tell and we all share expertise in failure and success in whatever area we work in.[5]

Sermon

Spring is a time of renewal and new beginnings but there is much about our world at the moment that is cold and frightening. 

Spring storms in our part of the world and autumn floods and wild fires in the northern hemisphere appear to be influenced by climate change and global warming that human greed seems powerless to stop.  Meanwhile we have wars raging continually and powerful leaders running competitions of outrageous rhetoric.  It is easy to be pessimistic about our world and doubt the ongoing message of continued springtime resurrection the Gospel offers.  And yet today’s reading from Matthew is one of the real daffodils of hope our faith so often brings into bloom.  

Negotiate and don’t immediately rush to sabre rattling.  That is one of Dr Bill Loader’s observations on our Gospel reading.  It is the voice of Christ from Matthew’s Gospel that is most urgently needed in today’s world where Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un are rattling some very big sabres indeed.  

The United States' ambassador to the United Nations said recently Kim Jong Un was ‘begging for war’ but other strategists have said he simply wants the United States out of South Korea so those two nations can’t combine against North Korea.  There are people on both sides of the 38th parallel, as well as Koreans in New Zealand, who would like a unified Korea.  Kim Jong Un would also like that unification but on his terms and in spite of signs of political instability in South Korea their strong involvement in world trade suggests the South wants unification on their terms.   No matter who is the President of the United States the business of America is business.  So a cynic could suggest a strong military presence in South Korea is more about preserving the right to trade than any egalitarian vision of freedom for the Korean people.  From Kim Jong Un’s point of view the United States can maintain a presence in his part of the world as long as their war machines can deliver death to any part of the world without fear of retaliation on home soil.  Nuclear weapons mounted on intercontinental missiles raises the possibility of an attack on American soil which, apart from terrorism, is a risk the United States has not faced since Pearl Harbour.  Unfortunately the United States now has a president who seems to also enjoy sabre rattling.  Donald Trump also needs to be seen by his supporters as stronger than Captain America and Superman combined.  The risk for the world is frightening and Bill Loader’s plea to negotiate needs to be heard. 

Loader related the gospel reading to disputes among nations.  International tension which invokes a nightmare in which many more than the just first born are struck down in their sleep and no one escapes to the wilderness.  Just as importantly Loader and other commentators recognise the Matthew passage begins with a dispute between two people and offers the seemingly obvious advice that they should talk to each other. 

A dispute between two people can become an infection that destroys a whole community as the issues are gossiped to others. Facts are exaggerated and factions are formed.  One of the classic communication breakdowns occurs when a listener hears something completely different to what the speaker thought they said.  Too often offence is taken when no offence is intended and lifelong friendships are destroyed.  Matthew also recognises that once a dispute between two people moves to the point where neither of them are prepared, or able, to listen then one or two others might be able to help reconciliation.  A couple of neutral listeners may well be able to reinterpret what is being said in a way that makes the difference go away.  

Where Matthew’s suggestions are open to abuse is when he suggests that the church or community becomes a court.  

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. (Matthew 18:17)   

This statement from Matthew’s Jesus, along with the verse that follows, has been abused and used by the church throughout its history to both control members and exclude those who are different, or see things differently. 

We know from the gospels that the Jews of Jesus’ day excluded Gentiles from their communities and among other things would not enter their homes or eat with them.  We also know that they regarded tax collectors as cheats and traitors and treated them with distain.  Therefore we could conclude that if someone will not submit to the rules of the church they must be excluded.  Therefore even the Presbyterian Church of Aotearoa New Zealand can prevent gay and lesbian people from holding leadership positions.  But in so doing they forced a large number of faithful people to exclude themselves from the church and I have certainly considered that option quite regularly.    

What we learn over and over again however is that it is the Bible in total that informs humanity’s spiritual quest and propping up a convenient assumption or prejudice with a sentence of text perverts the faith. 

We know that Jesus was criticised for eating with tax collectors.  We also read in Luke’s Gospel that Jesus entered Jericho and was passing through it.   A man was there named Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was rich (Luke 19:2)  

As we read on and discover that Zacchaeus wanted to see Jesus so he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore fig tree and then:

When Jesus came to the place, he looked up and said to him, ‘Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today.’ (Luke 19:5)    

In that episode we see Jesus include rather than exclude, not just any tax collector, but a chief tax collector. 

A few weeks back we read the story of the Canaanite Woman meeting with Jesus and Jesus’ response was very Jewish indeed.  He answered ‘I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. (Matthew 15:24)  As not only a gentile or non Jew but a traditional enemy she debates with Jesus and he concludes the episode by saying ‘Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as your wish.’ And her daughter was healed instantly. (Matthew 15:28)’ 

Not only is this an example of the human Jesus learning and growing towards his divine self but it suggests that it is faith rather than rules and ethnicity that brings people into the divine realm or for that matter the community of faith we call the church. 

Furthermore Paul’s writing and church history make it abundantly clear that the emerging community accepted non Jews or gentiles and, like Zacchaeus, people gave up their old ways and were accepted.

So when Matthew’s Jesus says that someone who does not accept the view or admonishment of the church ‘be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector’. (Matthew 18:17) Jesus may well be saying that the community might just have to put up with them. 

The church was never designed to be an exclusive ‘in group.’  The church is a community that came together to carry on Jesus’ mission of proclaiming the kingdom of God.  Promote a way of living together as diverse humans without the exclusive structures of power and influence that give wealth and authority to a few by enslaving the multitude. 

Moses led his people out of the slavery of Egypt and, as Matthew pictures Jesus as the new Moses, the Passover blood is painted on every door post willing to embrace a new way of living and accept that those within God’s realm are diverse and everyone will not agree with everyone else. 

In today’s reading Matthew’s Jesus offers some suggestions for conflict resolution and Bill Loader points out how important the theme of negotiation is in international politics.  That is frighteningly obvious in today’s world where sabres are put to one side in favour of threats of total destruction. 

But if we are truly going to become citizens in a divine realm we also need to learn how to resolve personal differences.  We can’t be part of this new caring and inclusive way of being human if we are going to cut ourselves off from those we disagree with or we believe have harmed us in some way.  Negotiation is not only important in preventing the powerful from annihilating all life on the planet it is also an important method of learning from each other.  Jesus learned from his negotiations with the Canaanite Woman and they both benefited.  She made Jesus better aware of his journey to divinity and she received healing for her daughter.  In reading the story we become more aware of our own potential and our calling to be part of our ongoing and evolving springtime faith. 

In this gospel passage we learn that in openness to others and a willingness to resolve conflict we become part of the divine realm and bloom in a springtime of new beginnings.    



[1] Maurice Andrew The Old Testament in Aotearoa New Zealand  (Wellington: DEFT 1999)p.97.

[2] W. Johnstone, Exodus, pp41-42 as quoted in Maurice Andrew The Old Testament in Aotearoa New Zealand  (Wellington: DEFT 1999)p.97.

[4]Warren Carter Mathew and the Margins: A Socio-Political and Religious Reading, (London/New York: T&T Clark International 2004) p.366,367.

 

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