From Slavery to Perfect Freedom:  A Homily for the Fifteenth Sunday After Pentecost (Yr A).  Preached at All Saints, Collingwood, September 10, 2023.

Texts:  Exodus 12:1-14; Psalm 148; Romans 13:8-14; Matthew 18:15-20

18Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.  (Matthew 18:18).

God wants us to be free, but what does God’s freedom look like?  That’s the question I want to explore today.

Martin Luther’s last speech in Memphis, TN, ended famously with a premonition of his assassination the next day.   King said that even if he didn’t live long enough to get there, he like Moses had reached the mountaintop and seen the promised land.  And by the promised land, of course, he was talking about the long struggle of African Americans to be truly free in the country that promised equal rights to all its peoples.

So a political speech, to be sure, but King as a black preacher was interlacing his politics with his theology.  His words and his imagery – the mountain top, the promised land – were drawing on the Exodus story from the Hebrew scriptures, a story that resonated with King and his people since they were first brought to America in slave ships.

And just to make his point crystal clear in the Memphis speech, King invoked the Exodus story specifically and spoke of how Pharaoh could not prevent “God’s children” from making “their magnificent trek from the dark dungeons of Egypt …toward the promised land”.

Our first reading today takes us right to the eve of deliverance from slavery for the children of Israel.  It is the story of the Passover, which some All Saints folks may remember from when this parish used to do seder suppers.   It is the story of how God gathers the people of Israel together on the terrible night when God punishes the Egyptians for the pride and arrogance of Pharaoh.

There have been hints and foreshadowings of this story before now:   Joseph sold into slavery but raised up so h can save his brothers;   infant Moses in the rushes, saved from Pharaoh’s order to kill the firstborn of the Israelites so could lead them to freedom.   And now here the Israelites are, eating their last meal as slaves, dressed to make their escape, with Pharaoh’s army soon to be in hot pursuit until horse and chariot are washed away in the Red Sea.

The Exodus story thus reminds us that God will not tolerate slavery.   It tells us that God will show up as often as needed to free the people that God created, to free that people that God has chosen, and to free the people that God loves.    That’s the God that Dr King put his faith in.

The ending of today’s psalm underlines this point that God wants freedom for his people.  It warns us that kings and rulers who oppress God’s people will themselves become captives; God will “bind their kings with fetters and their nobles with chains of iron” (Ps 149:8). This vision of tyrants like Pharaoh themselves in chain perhaps anticipates Paul’s words of how Jesus takes captivity captive (Eps 4.8), and how in Revelation Death and Hell themselves are destroyed.  In other words, don’t mess with the God of Freedom.

But, when God’s people are free, how shall they live?  What does freedom mean for God’s people?  For us?  That is the question that Paul in Romans and Matthew in today’ gospel takes up.  I think how we answer that question might be found if we consider this verse:”whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven” (Mt 18:18).

There’s that contrast between “bound” and “loosed”, between “enslaved” and “free”.   What are we to make of this, and what power does the church have in these ways?  That’s a whole sermon in itself, but let’s briefly think about what freedom does and doesn’t mean.

During Covid and its associated protests, we saw a certain way of thinking that defined freedom as being able to do whatever one wants.  This way of thinking is personal, individualistic, and denies obligations to the needs and well-being of others.  

Others wore masks and closed churches because our public health authorities and our bishops asked us to consider the needs of the vulnerable.  It was unpleasant, but we complied.  We lived without certain freedoms because we cared for the vulnerable among us and wanted to protect them.  But what seemed like the behaviour of good neighbours and citizens to some looked like slavery to others.

Perhaps the Covid time was a blessing for the church because it reminded us that freedom as Christians understand it is a bit of a paradox.   Freedom for us isn’t about doing what we want.  When we accept the responsibility of loving our neighbour, as Paul tells us to in Romans, then certain restrictions on our freedom follow.   These restrictions take their form in specific injunctions which uphold the Hebrew commandments but Paul wraps them all up in one command, “Love your neighbour as yourself” and, to make the point, Paul says that this is the sum of the commandments and “the fulfilling of the law” (Rom 13:8-10).  In other words, if you want to be a Christian, then loving and caring for others is not an option.

So in a very real sense, we as followers of Jesus are not free.  We’re not free to ignore one another’s needs.  We aren’t free to put ourselves first.   We aren’t free to pursue gain at the expense of others.   To be a serious, intentional member of a Christian community, means that we are bound to one another in chains of love and concern.   

In our gospel reading, Jesus makes it clear that we are church must also restrict our freedom in that we must subject ourselves to the judgement of other disciples if we do wrong to them.   I think the binding and loosing language here has to do with how we manage sin in the church, given that a church is just a collection of sinners wanting God to help them.

So,  if someone does wrong to us (sins), we are to gently confront them, with witnesses if necessary, and if the offender isn’t willing to make amends and be forgiven (loosing), we must hold them to account (binding). Likewise, if we offend, we must be willing to be held to account by our fellow church members. 

Sadly this process can go off the rails.   I can remember one very difficult conversation where one church member found the courage to say that another had been abusive to her, and it did not go well.   I’ve seen churches that spent money on conflict resolution facilitators because they haven’t been able to solve bad conduct on their own.   Perhaps if those churches truly believed that Jesus was in their midst, “where two or three are gathered in my name”, they would not need conflict specialists.

Gossip, temper, jealousy, pride, abuse and sexual misconduct – these are all the things that we bring to church because we come to church bound by our sins.  If we thought we were free before we turned to God, then we were only kidding ourselves.   We all come to church as sinners, we come in chains, bound by our sinful, imperfect natures. If we don’t take our conduct as Christians and our obligations to one another seriously, if we don’t truly believe that Jesus us among us, hearing our words, seeing our conduct, judging us, then churches will be messy, hurtful and toxic.   If we don’t give ourselves to Jesus, then we will always be in chains and we’ll never be free.

However, if we as a Christian community take our conduct and our obligations to one another seriously, then we have the hope and the promise that we will no longer be slaves to our sin.   In the Prayer Book service of Morning Prayer the Collect for Peace has this prayer:  “O GOD, who art the author of peace and lover of concord, in knowledge of whom standeth our eternal life, whose service is perfect freedom” (1962 PB,   ).

The great paradox of Christianity and its wonderful promise is that if we let Jesus cut away the chains of sin that bind us, and if we with Jesus bind ourselves to one another in chains of love and concern, then we can and will be truly free.