- Exodus 12: 1-14
After 430 years in Egypt (v. 40) and worsening negotiations between God’s representative, Moses, and Pharaoh for the release of God’s people from slavery, they are on the eve of escape. Moses and Aaron are given detailed instructions for the establishment of a new, annual observance of this auspicious moment. On the “tenth” day of the “first month of the year” for God’s people, every household shall take a lamb, (shared with neighbors if appropriate), so that everyone has a portion. This ‘unblemished’ lamb, a yearling, “shall be kept for four days and then every household shall slaughter its lamb “at twilight,” “and they shall take the blood and put it on the two door posts and lintel on the house in which they shall eat it.” With the “fire-roasted” lamb, they shall eat “flat bread on bitter herbs.” Leftovers shall be burnt the next morning, While eating this special meal, they shall be dressed, ready to move in “haste.” because with this meal of “passover offering,” God’s people will be spared. “I will see the blood [on the doorposts and lintel] and I will pass over you….” “and this day shall be a remembrance for you, and you shall celebrate it as a festival to the Lord through your generations, an everlasting statue you shall celebrate it.”
- Psalm 149
The psalmist summons singers, dancers and instrumentalists to perform a new, large composition in praise of the Lord– Maker, Redeemer, Avenger.
- Ezekiel 13: 8-14
The Book of Ezekiel records the Lord’s orders to the Lord’s sentinel. Warn the people. If they do not respond, at least one witness– the sentinel– will be saved. If they do respond, all will be saved from the coming destruction and death.
- Psalm 119: 33-40
The psalmist admonishes God’s people to follow the Torah– ordinances, law, ways, teachings– as the path to a bountiful life.
- Romans 13: 8-14
Paul writes here that the whole Law is fulfilled by “the one who loves another.” Paul stresses urgency, “for salvation is nearer to us than when we first became believers.” In this meantime, do not give in to lower instincts.
- Matthew 18: 15-20
In a passage unique to Matthew, (who frequently provides instructions to the church), Jesus describes how the church ought to deal with disagreements. The first step is to go directly to the other person and try to settle the dispute. If you work out the issue, you have gained a friend. If that does not work, take two or three others with you. If that fails, take the problem to the whole church. If the other person still refuses to listen, let him become the outsider, “as a Gentile or a tax collector.” Whatever the church agrees to will also “be bound in heaven….” Furthermore, if “two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.”
One major function of a religious community is to remember and declare the promises of God. In liturgy, ritual, and calendars of observances and readings, the narrative of God’s past deeds and an extrapolated hope for the future is perpetuated for the survival of the community from generation to generation. Another major function of religious communities is interpretation. And that gets more complicated.
In Being and Time, Martin Heidegger insists that while assertions can be made and passed from person to person and generation to generation, fixed interpretation cannot. He writes: “That which is put forward as assertion is something that can be passed along for ‘further re-telling’ which… may become veiled again in the further re-telling and does not ‘give assent’ to some ‘valid meaning’ which has been passed along.” (pp 197-198) That is to say: the exact words of a text can be transmitted, but time-bound interpretations cannot. Applying Heidegger’s general insight, we can note that words, narratives, rituals, fasts and feasts of a religious community can readily be “passed along,” but the “valid meaning” does not remain frozen. Meaning gets revealed /exposed/manifest/embodied anew in a finite time and place and in unique individuals.
Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s work, which influenced Levinas and Derrida in particular, returns repeatedly to the theme that meaning-making is always embodied in a specific person with a unique personal and social history in community with others. Each person fashions contingent truth that is truthful for her or him in her or his finite time and place. Each person is unique, but not alone. Other people, the larger community and random experiences and encounters bring each unique person into proximity with other persons who are just as unique in their own ways. It is speech which “incarnates” or “uses” words to convey meaning as he or she understands it. When other people reciprocate in conversation, there is new meaning. Speech and action declare who we are at a certain time and place, but the speech and actions of others change us.
So, a religious community asserts the glory of God and the hope to which the glory of God inspires in her worship, weekly and annual observances, serial reading of scripture, and the singing of psaltery and hymns. But the interpretation of these profound assertions vary by each individual person who is always being changed by the community of believers and who, in her or his turn, contributes to the community in her or his unique way. This reciprocal dynamic continues as long as we are alive and engaged in the community of believers. It is never finished nor settled.. It can get messy (and, as Paul’s letters in general and Matthew’s sidebar appointed for this Sunday reveals, even continuous), but it is the only way available to us. Because the work of the church is vital– as vital as the “sentinel” in Ezekiel or as essential as the annual remembrance of God’s past “redemption” in the recuse of God’s people from slavery and the new act of “redemption” in Jesus– it must be done with great care, urgency and resourcefulness. But do not expect uniformity.
American theologian Kathryn Tanner contributes timely insights when she writes:
“Uniformity of belief in general is overrated as a requirement for social stability, according to postmodern culture.” “Far from threatening the stability of the Christian way of life, the fact that Christians do not agree on interpretation of matters common concern is the very thing that enables social solidarity among them.” The church should encourage itself to have a “genuine community of argument, one marked by mutual commitment to mutual correction and uplift, in keeping with the shared hope of good discipleship, proper faithfulness, and purity of witness. This is the sort of mutual admonition and concern that one finds in the letters of Paul.” (Theories of Culture, pp 120-128)
If “uniformity” is not realistic or even desirable in the church, then what? If texts remain the same but interpretation is never finished, what is reliable? The unifier is this staggering story of redemption the church has to tell and the implication of hope for each person and for every person and all people it inspires. It is the community of believers who reliably repeat day after day, week after week and year after year, the remembrance of past redemption and hold onto the promise of continuing redemption that makes it possible to hope that “salvation is nearer than when we first became believers.” This envelops and supersedes every other matter and can turn the differences and diversity into a strength!