Therefore Let Us Keep the Feast

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September 10, 2017

“Love one another,” writes St. Paul. The ten commandments, he explains, forbidding murder, theft, adultery, etc., all are variations on that theme. Paul reasons: “Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.”

What is love? Like faith, love is a blend of belief, desire, and action. I love you when I believe your good is as important as my own, when I desire it for you, and lift a hand to make it real. Head, heart, and hand are all to some extent engaged.

Hurricane relief is love. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 was love. Fidelity in marriage is. Fifty years ago this week, on the front steps of this church, I first met my future bride. Forty years ago this fall, two blocks east of here on Louisiana street, I asked her to marry me. Christian marriage is a pallet of natural loves affirmed, enhanced, and disciplined by spiritual commitment.  It starts with physical and emotional attractions whose fulfillment is among the happiest experiences that we can have as human beings, and within a Christ-like give and take guards and nurtures them for life.

Twenty years ago, when I proposed to the General Convention that our church should bless same sex unions, I had in mind my own experience in marriage. I was guided by belief that my gay neighbors’ happiness is as important as my own. I wanted them to have what I enjoyed. If God gives the church authority to loose or bind, as we read in Matthew that he does, I decided that, with respect to sexual morality, some loosening was called for.

This is not a sermon about that, but I thought I would mention it because we have a big wedding coming up here that with all my head, my heart, and my dancing feet I am looking forward to. The couple is dear to you, and me.

Do you believe that our behavior matters? We have feelings that would give us that impression: compassion, guilt, conscience, and disapproval. Something inside makes us want to help the victims of a hurricane, and if we fail to lift a hand we may feel ashamed. If our neighbor turns his back, we may scorn him. (Last week Brother Osteen got a dose of that.) We call these “moral sentiments.”

Do you believe that these natural moral feelings point to real responsibilities? We have heard that “it is only wrong if you get caught.” If we believe that compassion, conscience, guilt, and disapproval point to real responsibilities, then getting caught has nothing to do with right or wrong.

Here we do believe that. The commandment to love is invisible, but real as a brick wall. This belief runs from one end of the Bible to the other, and through our prayers.

My debate friend Leah Libresco found faith in the strength of her belief that moral truth is discovered rather than invented. Football, Harry Potter, and the U.S. Constitution were invented. The moons of Jupiter and the Pythagorean Theorem were discovered. Moral responsibilities, she said, are like moons and theorems. Even when invisible they are real.

Their invisibility is certainly a challenge. Abraham Lincoln felt that challenge keenly and spoke to it often. “Certainly there is no contending against the will of God,” he said in 1858, “but there is still some difficulty in ascertaining, applying it to particular cases.”[1]

That difficulty makes doing the right thing one part like math and science and three parts like art, politics, and football.

Jesus gives us an example in this morning’s gospel. The law of love was his discovery, not Paul’s. Again and again, he tells us we must love our neighbors as ourselves. With Christian faith, this responsibility is given. But now I face a problem, because my neighbor is doing something wrong—to me! Making matters worse, my neighbor is a member of my church. (Here I am speaking hypothetically.)

If you are new to church you may not know, but will quickly find out, that church people doing wrong is as much a fact of life as church people getting sick. Moral fevers, colds, and headaches are just part of church life day to day. As Augustine put it, the church is a hospital for sinners, not a museum for saints. As you will eventually discover, clergy are not exempt. Just as cardiologists can suffer heart attacks, priests sometimes experience moral meltdowns. In the Constitution and laws governing the Episcopal Church, there is a long section (“Title IV”) that spells out what to do when clergy get in trouble.

Title IV is a modern invention. Jesus had to make a procedure up from scratch, like a back yard quarterback kneeling in the huddle, running his finger through the dirt, and drawing up a play. His design is a triple option. If Smith is misbehaving, Jones should tell her to her face. If that goes nowhere, try again with reinforcements. (Bring in Dawson, whom Smith respects.) If that doesn’t work, take the problem to the whole church.

The goal of this process isn’t retribution. Retribution is the moral principle that crimes should be punished and punishments should fit the crimes. But for Jesus discipline is means, not end. Amendment of life is the goal. I like the thought that we can amend our lives like we can amend the Constitution.

We notice that on Jesus’ proposal patience has limits. If Plan A, Plan B, Plan C don’t work, Jesus says, enough is enough. In that case, the church should separate itself from the offender. “If the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.” We call that “excommunication.” You can find a procedure for limited excommunication spelled out on page 409 of the Book of Common Prayer. It is left to the priest’s discretion and in thirty-five years as a priest I have never excommunicated anyone. I guess that makes me a softie.

Jesus’ plan is deliberately ironic. Let the offender “be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector,” he says, which sounds harsh. Then we remember that the gospel of Matthew is named after a tax collector and that Jesus risked his moral reputation by inviting them to dinner. As for gentiles, that means us. We infer that casting someone out into the pool of tax collectors and gentiles does not expel them from the sphere of God’s redemption.

Now it could be that you are wondering: Where is that message of redemption in our reading from the Book of Exodus?” If you are, congratulations for paying attention—and yes, this is challenging material for interpretation.

In Exodus, the Lord gives Moses and Aaron instructions for keeping the Passover feast. God’s instructions include cooking dos and don’ts, how quickly to eat, and what to wear, because:

It is the Passover of the Lord. For I will pass through the Land of Egypt that night, and I will strike down every first born in the Land of Egypt, both human beings and animals.

Hearing such talk, our moral sentiments may protest. It is fair enough, maybe, that God would destroy Pharaoh’s army as it pushes Israel to the Red Sea. We fought back at Dunkirk too. But a ruler’s ordering the death of first born Egyptian children would now be judged a war crime. It sounds more like Cersei Lannister than God. (If you don’t know Cersei Lannister think Genghis Khan.) Also, killing firstborns seems to contradict the sixth commandment— “Thou shalt do no murder.”

So God, apparently, is doing something God forbids. All this gives the Christian interpreter a lot to think about.

Reading the Bible it is pretty important to know some history of its faithful interpretation. We all should know for example that Martin Luther compared the Bible to the manger where we find the Christ Child, adding that like the manger it contains some “passages of straw.” Dr. Snapp alluded to that last week. It was also Luther who said that Christ is “the king of scripture,” whose example and teaching overrule any other biblical teaching that would seem to contradict it. So, we could decide that this is a passage of straw, overruled by Christ.

Even older than Luther, I have told you about St. Gregory of Nyssa, whose teaching shaped the Nicene Creed. Gregory advised that when a literal reading of a piece of scripture would defy logic, good morals, or good faith, then we should use our imagination to explore alternative interpretations. The Bible itself shows us how to do this.

The Last Supper—our Eucharist—is a rich biblical re-interpretation of the Passover as a foreshadowing of Christ. Allegorically, Christ is the sacrificial lamb. Baptism extends the metaphor. As Christ dies and rises, we die to sin and rise to new and better life.

So on this reinterpretation, what gets killed? Our former life’s beliefs, desires, and actions—the progeny of pharaoh, so to speak. In Romans, Paul names a nursery of them: debauchery, licentiousness, quarreling, and jealousy. Drunkenness is also mentioned.

These die hard! That’s why priests and lay folk sometimes suffer moral meltdowns. You may have heard me quote Karl Barth on this point. In Barth’s church, it was customary to describe baptism as “drowning the old Adam,” which was supposed to be the end of jealousy and quarreling, along with getting drunk. The problem with that, Barth pointed out, is “old Adam can swim.”

America can appreciate the problem. With the law of 1964, the civil rights movement drowned the old belief in white supremacy, but now here it is trying to make a comeback. In 1791, the Bill of Rights drowned the idea that if I don’t approve of what someone else is saying I should shut him up or shout him down. Now on campuses that idea is back in force. In secular spheres too old Adam is resilient.

“Christ our Passover has been sacrificed for us,” wrote St. Paul to the Corinthians, “therefore let us keep the feast—not with the old yeast of malice and evil, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth. (1Corinthians 5:7-8) That is a rich allegorical reinterpretation. Paul was applying it to the same problem Jesus faced in Matthew’s gospel: bad behavior in one of his churches.

Paul was concerned that some (Lannister-like) bad apples in the church at Corinth might spoil the bunch. Paul’s advice to church elders was to throw out the bad apples and do it quickly before the rot spread. Jesus’ approach in our reading was more measured. Elsewhere in Matthew, Jesus shows even more patience, advising that the best thing to do is let wheat and tares—good plants and bad— grow up together until God does the sorting in the end. In the attempt to eliminate the bad, we may well do damage to the good.  

So in the New Testament, we find various approaches to Christian discipline. 2000 years later we still scratch our heads and try to get it right. No solution is perfect. We live, we learn, we make mistakes and try again. Our Episcopal church, for the most part, is guided by the wheat and tares philosophy: keep everybody in and leave the final sorting up to God.

As a priest, that suits me. It makes me your pastor rather than your judge. I like that. I’m a softie, as I said.

[1] Allen Guelzo, Abraham Lincoln: Redeemer President (Kindle Edition, loc. 6307)