This is America, the people have said. A black deputy sheriff wading through floodwaters with a white child in each arm; a white SWAT officer, also wading through floodwaters, carrying a Vietnamese American cradling her sleeping baby; three Asian and Hispanic constables, knee-deep in water, carrying an elderly woman in a wheelchair. A Hispanic police sergeant who drowned to in the early morning hours getting to work to help. Four Mexican bakers, trapped by the flood, baked sweet bread around the clock for other victims. Hundreds of ordinary people taking out their boats to rescue neighbors, animals; a human chain that reached a woman in labor. This is America, the captions read, reinforced by the five former presidents, the best of America is people coming together in the middle of a storm, putting divisions aside in order to help one another recover.
There have been lots of storms we have endured and currently are in the midst of. Each storm we encounter stretches us to open our hearts and respond with hope and compassion for those whose lives have been damaged or destroyed by the storm.
Our Hebrew lesson is the famous passage about the first Passover that has been the cornerstone of the Jewish community for centuries. It is a text that prepares the people of Israel for its most powerful storm it has ever faced: the in-breaking of freedom from 400 years of slavery. The people are told carefully how to prepare for the storm of freedom. They are to prepare a one-year old lamb to eat, divided evenly among each family. They are to brush the blood of the of the lamb over the doorposts and lintel of the entrance to the house, so the storm of death will bypass the dwelling of the Israelites, and claim the lives of the firstborn of the Egyptians.
This storm would forever split the chains of slavery that existed between the people of Israel and the Egyptians. It split the Red Sea so that the people of Israel could leave Egypt and go on to the Promised land. It was the beginning of the development of a new identity that would be forged as the people struggled to leave the identity of slavery behind and embrace the identity as the children of the God of Israel, a new community called to live in the image of God alone. While we might feel the sorrow of Egypt’s pain, even though they were oppressors for centuries, we remember this is an ancient text that reveals to us the storm of Passover to Freedom from a tribal way of thinking.
Our text from Matthew depicts another storm, and how we are to cope with the storms of dissension that often touch the church community and threatened to enslave them in sickness and sin. Jesus instructs us from first century wisdom, that if there is a disagreement or some hurt between two people, they are to take the problem directly to each other. No gossiping, no involving uninvolved third parties, no harboring resentments, no spreading rumors or trying to create factions in the church. Address your problems one on one. -- As an aside, through a modern lens this is an appropriate only if the people are equal in power in the church. For example, we wouldn’t allow a child to confront someone accused of child abuse. – However next, if a disagreement cannot be resolved by one to one contact, then the embroiled parties should approach trusted elders for their help. If that fails then the church should help. Only when all efforts are exhausted and the argument remains should the parties separate. These steps that Jesus laid forth are created to minimize conflict and promote reconciliation.
Only if the storms of dissension refuse to abate, if there is ultimately a split, and the relationship between people between the quarreling parties involved unfortunately consider each other as a tax collector or sinner. Some people may think this means we should treat estranged members as hated outsiders. There are many churches, as a result, that practice excommunication or shunning. While in dire circumstances, separation may be the only way to handle a conflict, we need to recall that isn’t how Jesus generally treated gentiles or sinners. Although considered outsiders, Jesus embraced as a whole gentiles and sinners and ate with them and to make them feel welcomed.
Therefor Jesus reminds us where two are three are gathered in his name, Jesus says, “I am there” with them. So, Jesus is present to help resolve any anger, pain or hurt, between individuals and in communities. Jesus is there to teach us how to forgive and reconcile. We see this especially since Matthew has surrounded this passage by texts where Jesus warns us about not creating stumbling blocks, or to be sure that none of God’s little ones be lost. Jesus also responds to Peter that forgiveness is to be extended to 70 times 7. We should not tire of forgiveness or seeking the lost in the storms we face.
Matthew’s text is a reminder that conflict, storms, are a part of life. Storms are found in homes, in our hearts, in businesses, schools, neighborhoods, nations, between countries—and yes even in churches. Matthew’s text is actually refreshing. Churches are not made up of perfect people. If anything, the healthy church reminds us that we do sin. We need forgiveness, from God and from each other, as we remind ourselves in our order of service with our prayer of confession.
The church unfortunately has developed a stigma of being a place of judgment and being judgmental to those who need mercy, grace, love and forgiveness the most. We are called to be practitioners of love and forgiveness during the storms. Jesus admonishes us to recognize our own faults first, to not judge lest we be judged. Still, we are called to be storm chasers, and engage the storms around us, and the storms in us, following Jesus and his teaching. We are called to recognize the slights, hurts, sins are injuries that can get infected and spread if not addressed. We are called to seek healing, our own and between relationships through the process of reconciliation. We are encouraged to seek out these storms, because Jesus assures us he is there.
We recently saw a public church split last week, when Rev. Robert E. Lee IV, a descendant of the renowned confederate general, spoke at the MTV music awards. Lee stated at the ceremony:
"My name is Robert Lee IV; I am a descendant of Robert E. Lee, the Civil War general whose statue was at the center of violence in Charlottesville. We have made my ancestor an idol of white supremacy, racism and hate. As a pastor it is my moral duty to speak out against racism, America's original sin. Today, I call on all of us with privilege and power to answer God's call to confront racism and white supremacy head-on. We can find inspiration in the Black Lives Matter movement, the women who marched in the Women's March in January and especially Heather Heyer who died fighting for her beliefs in Charlottesville."
Soon after his address, Lee resigned from United Bethany Church of Christ in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, because of pressure and a backlash at the church, and emerging different mission and goals of the church. Rev. Lee has shared his beliefs on other occasions, and he and the church became the focus of threats and hate mail, which contributed to his resignation last week.
The reality is there are many churches that would denounce Rev. Lee, just has there are many churches that would back Rev. Lee as their pastor. So, no church is free from the storms of the day. We must confront them if we desire to be a church that is vibrant and alive. We must pursue them or risk being enslaved. We are called to confront sin with love, not hide from it. We are challenged to call upon Jesus name, to stand together with him, in the storm that are swirling around us. We are called to encounter the storms, not run away from them.
Among the fundamental storms we face are the storms of idolatry and putting the worship of money or of self ahead of God. The storms that would leave God’s children with the resources to live a decent life. The storms that seek to tear the diversity of God’s people apart. The storms that would fill our hearts with fear, resentment or self-righteousness anger. The storms that tempt us to ignore the very presence of Jesus, paying lip-service to his life.
So in the midst of Hurricane Harvey, Irma, Jose and Katia, the wildfires of the West, the earthquake that hit Mexico, we are reminded once more we are storm chasers. Whether the storms are here in our hearts, here in the church, or out in the community, we must choose. Will we seek to ignore the destruction? Will we be enslaved by conflict and apathy, seeking only to care for ourselves, and leave the carnage to others to deal with? Or will we stand with Jesus, there in the storm? Our texts implore us to confront storms, and doing so bring those in need to safety, rebuild a new community through the power of deliverance, through the power of reconciliation, through our commitment to Passover to Freedom. As we stand together confronting the storms of life, let us have hope in a just and caring future. Let this be the America we salvage from the storms. Amen