Sermon for 9-10-17
Exodus 12:1-14; Romans 13:8-14; Matthew 18:15-20
The Rev. Maggie Leidheiser-Stoddard
How many of you were disturbed by that reading from Exodus this morning? God’s detailed instructions for slaughtering a lamb, cooking it, and painting its blood on the doorposts… that part is unsettling, but then it gets worse. God says: “I will pass through the land of Egypt that night, and I will strike down every firstborn in the land of Egypt, both human beings and animals.”
This is the first Passover, and it’s scary stuff. Horrifying, actually. The idea that God would slaughter untold numbers of Egyptian infants and children in order to secure the liberation of the Israelites is anathema to me, and to any of us who know God to be merciful, and compassionate, and life-giving. As I read and prayed and struggled with these verses from Exodus, I heard Fr. Philip’s voice in my head, saying words he frequently uses with the Wednesday Bible study group: “Don’t take everything so literally.”
What might this story mean for us today? What truths does it hold? The story of the first Passover and the exodus from Egypt reminds us that God hears the cries of the oppressed. Not only does God hear their cries, but God is on their side. Let me say that again – God sides with the oppressed. These words are not easy for me to say as a straight person, as a white person, as an American, but I know they are true. The Passover story, as uncomfortable as it makes me, is a perpetual reminder that God’s side is not with the powerful, but the powerless. I don’t believe that God kills babies. But I do believe that God abhors inhumanity, that God makes no peace with oppression, that God despises our cruelty and our efforts to dominate one another.
I also believe that God gave us Jesus to show us the way. In today’s Gospel reading, this Jesus instructs us to deal with one another respectfully, and humanely, and mercifully. This Jesus will not allow us to dismiss or destroy those who have wronged us. He calls us to be brave and honest, to look each other in the eye and seek reconciliation.
We’re not very good at reconciliation; I know I’m not. My immediate instinct, when I think I’ve been wronged, is to turn away, to hide my face, maybe stew in my anger and shame for a bit, and then steadily avoid the other person. Although I’ve gotten better at dealing with conflict over the years, this used to be my M.O. Maybe you struggle with similar instincts, or maybe yours are different. When you’ve been wronged, do you: lash out with angry words, bottle up your feelings and try to forget, complain to anyone who’ll listen, publicly shame the person who’s wronged you, appeal to an authority figure to “fix” it, make assumptions about the other person, or internalize shame and undermine your sense of self-worth?
Those are individual instincts, but what about groups? In our culture, when we believe we’ve been wronged by another group of people, our instincts are even worse. We demean and degrade others, we try to separate ourselves from them, we stereotype people, we lock them up or send them away, and sometimes we kill them.
But we, who call ourselves Christians, are summoned to a better way. Our Jesus (who is not only ours, but everyone’s) calls us to walk a different path. This Jesus, the one we call Lord and Savior, has told us exactly where we can find him: “where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.” Jesus lives in relationship, he is present in the moments when we come together, when we honor one another’s humanity. And we do this in his name.
The world recently lost a man who walked the path of reconciliation and humanity. You may have missed it amidst all the news about presidential policies and hurricanes and wildfires. Sumiteru Taniguchi died on August 30th in a hospital in Nagasaki, Japan, at 88 years old. Taniguchi was one of the “hibakusha,” that is, the survivors of the atomic bomb attacks that ended World War II. He was 16 years old, delivering mail on his bicycle in downtown Nagasaki on the morning of August 9th, 1945. The force of the explosion knocked him unconscious and melted his cotton t-shirt into the flesh of his back and arms. Someone carried him to a nearby field and laid him on the ground with other injured victims; by the next morning, he was the only one still alive. He spent two years lying on his stomach in a hospital bed with his muscles exposed from shoulders to waist, as the doctors struggled to treat recurring infections. He begged the nurses to kill him, but they refused. His injuries were not completely healed until 1960, and for the rest of his life he suffered debilitating pain and tumors.
After leaving the hospital, Sumiteru Taniguchi devoted the rest of his life to peace and nuclear disarmament. He spoke out against the development of new weapons, often removing his shirt and displaying his scars to help people understand the horrors of atomic warfare. He led sit-ins at Nagasaki’s Peace Park memorial every time a nuclear test occurred anywhere in the world – that’s 396 sit-ins, if you’re counting. In 2010, he spoke before the United Nations Conference on Nuclear Nonproliferation, holding up a photo of himself at age 17, lying in that hospital bed with the muscles of his back exposed. “I am not a guinea pig, nor am I an exhibit,” he said. “But you who are here today, please don’t turn your eyes away from me. Please look at me again.”
I think I would understand if someone like Sumiteru Taniguchi had chosen the path of anger and violence and separation. I wouldn’t fault him for turning away from the world, for becoming bitter, or even for wishing harm on our country. But he chose a different path, a better path. Perhaps this is what Saint Paul meant when he called us to “lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light.”
Jesus never promised that the work of reconciliation and relationship would be easy, or comfortable. He never promised not to challenge us. And he never promised that we will win in our conflicts, by any earthly standards.
But Jesus has promised us that when we pursue reconciliation, when we resist our basest instincts and look our fellow humans in the eye and call on Christ’s name, he will be there among us. And that has to be enough. Amen.