Pentecost 14A

Thoughts on Sunday’s Lessons for Sept. 6, 2020

First Reading (Track One): Exodus 12:1-14

God loves us. God is faithful to us. In times of turmoil and of fear, it is good to find this simple, reassuring subtext that runs through Sunday’s readings..

Lamentations over the Death of the First-Born of Egypt

Lamentations over the Death of the First-Born of Egypt (1877), oil painting on canvas by Charles Sprague Pearce (1851-1914). Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, D.C. (Click image to enlarge.)

In the Track One first reading, we see the origin of Passover. Having fought hard-hearted Pharaoh through a dozen plagues with God’s help, the people now stand on the brink of escape from slavery in Egypt. This joyous outcome, though, must begin with a horrible, bloody punishment visited not only on the children and animals of Egypt but on their pagan gods, while the chosen people are saved, literally, by the blood of the lamb. This gory sacrifice may belong to a place and time in ancient history, but the underlying grace remains: God has delivered God’s people into freedom.

First Reading (Track Two): Ezekiel 33:7-11

Sunday’s Track Two first reading turns to the Prophet Ezekiel, who is identified in tradition as a priest exiled to Babylon six centuries before Jesus. During the wars that would eventually lead to the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple, Ezekiel warned the people that God would punish them for their wickedness by taking away the covenant that had given them the promised land. In these verses, the prophet hears God’s warning that God does not desire to punish the people, but wishes that they would save their lives by turning back – repenting – from their evil ways.

Psalm (Track One): Psalm 149

Sunday’s Track One Psalm, like the first reading, celebrates warlike violence in language that reflects Bronze Age sensibility in the Ancient Near East. Yet we can hear its echoes all too well in the imagery of modern warfare, shock and awe. We sing to the Lord a new song, joyously dancing and shaking tambourines to celebrate God’s gift of victory in battle, while the enemy’s kings are bound in fetters and iron chains. Before we judge too harshly, recall that the Psalms, the bible’s ancient hymnal, offer a full human range of emotion, from this warrior shout to the protective love of the Good Shepherd.

Psalm (Track Two): Psalm 119:33-40

Here we are again singing a portion of Psalm 119, the longest of the Psalms, which turns up often in our Sunday readings. The Psalms in English often render “Torah” as “laws,” “statutes” or “ordinances,” but the source of the Psalmist’s affection may be more clear when we understand it as God’s “teaching,” a glorious gift to humankind, a way of life. We don’t notice this in English, but the entire Psalm is an “alphabetic acrostic” in Hebrew: Each of its 22 eight-verse stanzas begins with a Hebrew letter in alphabetical order. The lines of today’s reading all begin with the letter “Hey,” or “H.”

Second Reading: Romans 13:8-14

The commandment to love one another incorporates all the commandments, Paul tells the Christians in Rome. Love, he says, in words that remind us of his beloved passage on love in 1 Corinthians, does no wrong to those around us. If we love our neighbors, we won’t hurt our neighbors. We won’t kill them, we won’t steal from them, we won’t be jealous of what they have. Love fulfills the law. Hoping that Christ would soon return – salvation grows nearer every day, he reminds them – Paul urges his flock to live honorably, not behaving badly or gratifying earthly desires, but “putting on the Lord Jesus Christ.”

Gospel: Matthew 18:15-20

This Gospel reminds us of Jesus’ promise that we remember with joy whenever we approach the Communion table: He will be there among us, conscious of our deepest wishes, whenever we gather in his name, in prayer and in the real presence of the Eucharist. We also get a glimpse of the way that early Christians tried to work out disagreements through small group conversations before taking the matter to the full church to be resolved only as a last resort. We’re probably relieved that we don’t sort out one another’s sins this way any more, but let’s take note of a deeper message: When we gather together, in celebration or in conflict, Jesus is with us and shows us the way.

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