Sunday, September 07, 2008

Proper 18A

This was my second trip to St. George's Episcopal Church in Clarksdale. On the first trip, about ten years ago, I was an adult on staff at a Happening weekend, and was too worried about making sure things were running smoothly to notice what a beautiful church it is. The church is filled with every color and shade of warmth and life - the building is, too.

Exodus 12:1-14; Psalm 149; Romans 13:8-14; Matthew 18:15-20

Just as summer is the season of blockbuster movies, of films filled with action and drama and heroes and fabulous special effects, so has summer been (for those churches who follow a lectionary, as we do) a season of blockbuster stories, of scriptures filled with action and drama and heroes and even special effects. We've seen Noah build an ark and fill it with two of every living creature even as the first drops of forty days of rain begin to fall. We've heard God promise a future and a hope to Abraham and Sarah, and gazed with them upon a sky full of stars signifying certainty that God's promises are good. We've held our breath as Abraham nearly sacrifices his own son, Isaac, and again as Isaac, now grown and himself a father, nearly loses sight of his first-born, Esau. We've followed Isaac's second-born, Jacob, as he flees his brother's wrath, dreams of angels, marries two women, and fathers twelve sons. The drama continued with Jacob's son, Joseph, a dreamer in his own right, who brought his family to Egypt to save them from starvation. But Egypt's Pharaoh grew ravenous and threatened to devour the Hebrew people, and so we met Moses, and just last week we heard God speaking to him from a burning bush: You must go to Pharaoh and tell him to let my people go!

Of course, more than one blockbuster movie has been made out of this blockbuster story. Nine plagues, each more terrible than the one before, sent to show Pharaoh the persistence and power of Israel's God. Pharaoh's heart remained hardened, though, and so the tenth and most terrible plague was pronounced.

And so we arrive at this morning's reading from the book of Exodus. The action and drama and special effects of summer slow almost to a stop and even the hero takes a step back as God takes the stage. With great deliberation and attention to every detail, God instructs the people on how they will remember the remarkable thing that is about to take place. This month shall mark for you the beginning of months... It is the passover of the Lord.

All of the action and drama and special effects, all of the heroes from Noah down through Moses, all of the stories have led to this moment. For person by person, adventure by adventure, through rainbows and stars and dreams and burning bushes and lambs, God has been building a community of faith. God has been strengthening a covenant. God has been creating a people who understand themselves to be first and fore most God's people in the world, a congregation.
This month shall mark for you the beginning of months... It is the passover of the Lord.

Time must have remained still as the people of Israel sat huddled in their homes on that dark night, the smell of roast lamb lingering in the air even though all traces of the meal were gone. When I see the blood on the doorposts and on the lintel of the house, I will pass over you. The word in Hebrew is pesach, which we have come to translate as pass over. But it more closely means have compassion on or protect. It is the passover of the Lord. I will have compassion on you. I will protect you. And so it was that the people of Israel were freed from bondage to Pharaoh, and by the sharing of a meal bound themselves instead to God. The covenant once carried by heroes of faith would now be carried by an entire people of faith.

This shall be a day of remembrance for you...a festival to the Lord, God commanded. Year after year after year, they would tell the story of the night time stood still, the story of the night God saved them, the story of the night they became a congregation. And as they shared in the same meal of roasted lamb and unleavened bread and bitter herbs, their loins girded, their sandals on, their staffs in their hands as though they were preparing for a forty year journey through the they shared in the same meal, time again stood still, and the story would become at once a tale of the past, an experience of the present, and a hope for the future. God has compassion on, God protects, God passes over, God saves.

More than one blockbuster movie has been made out of the blockbuster story of the night Jesus and his disciples gathered at a table in an upper room to share their own passover meal, prepared with attention to every detail. That day, and every day since they had left their lives behind and bound themselves to Jesus, had been filled with action and drama and all kinds of special effects. But that night, at that table, as they once again entered into the story of salvation celebrated by the meal, the one who told the story began to become the story. The host of the meal began to become the passover lamb. This shall mark a new beginning for you, Jesus told them. This is my body, this is my blood. Do this for the remembrance of me. For God has compassion on, God protects, God passes over, God saves. Indeed, on that very night, the passover lamb would be taken away and on the next day killed, and three days later, would pass over from death to life and so save us all.

Very early in the life of the church, the story of the passover and the story of resurrection were bound together in the liturgy of the Great Vigil of Easter. The community of faith gathered in darkness, as their ancestors had for so many generations, to tell the story of God's saving deeds. On this most holy night, in which our Lord Jesus passed over from death to life, the priest would begin, This is the passover of the Lord. This is the night when God brought our fathers, the children of Israel, out of bondage in Egypt... This is the night when all who believe in Christ are delivered from the gloom of sin and are restored to grace and holiness of life...

And so, two thousand years later, we gather, in darkness as our ancestors in faith have done for so many generations, to tell the story of salvation. At the center of our liturgical year, where time is slowest and the story opens wide, is our Easter Vigil, when we recall stories of God's saving deeds through history, right up to the moment we were saved by the passover lamb of God. This shall mark for you the beginning... And we recall the mark each of us bear in baptism, when we put on Christ, and passed over with him. Finally, we share in the meal of bread and wine, taking into ourselves what we already are – the body and blood of Christ.

And so we share that meal every time we gather in this time outside the time of the action and drama of daily life. Out there, and even within the community of the church, heroes rise and fall. Relationships are formed and broken. Promises are made and forgotten. The details of how to live and love as God's people in the world are mingled and confused with the details of how to live and love for ourselves.

But this is the night, this is the time. This is the table. This is the community upon which God has compassion. We are the body of Christ. The story of the first passover meal, the pleadings of Paul to love, the instructions of Jesus concerning persistence at reconciliation (our readings this morning) all acknowledge that our relationship with God is inseparable from our relationship with others – from those with whom we gather at this table to those whom we literally simply pass over as we go about our daily lives. We are called to be vigilant as we move forward into God's future, a place as unknown as the promised land was to the people of Israel as they turned their backs on Egypt and set out on their journey. We are called to be prepared at all times to set out on our own journey through wilderness places and beyond. We are called to consider what we will carry with us as we go, and what we will leave behind because the burden of it is too much to bear.

Perhaps one day someone will make a blockbuster movie out of our lives. Perhaps not. There may or may not be much action in our lives; certainly, there is drama. But time stands still when we gather here, and we become part of a story so much larger than ourselves, so much larger even than our own community of faith. Do this for the remembrance of me, God commanded the people of Israel. Do this for the remembrance of me, Jesus commanded his disciples. The story we enter – the story we are always part of – is the story of God's intimate and loving participation on the human journey, through the darkest of nights and the brightest of days.

This is the night, the time of remembrance. This is the community upon which God has compassion. This is the table. This is the passover of the Lord. This is the body of Christ. Amen.
Artwork: "Passover Lamb", by Ruth Coleman.

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