Okay, so I read the lections for this coming Sunday, and the title of this post sums up my feelings pretty succinctly. This is some hard stuff for us to deal with this week. First we hear in Exodus the story of God killing the firstborn child of every family in Egypt – except for those families who have slaughtered a perfect baby lamb and wiped its warm blood on their doorways. But it’s not enough that God kills these children; no, God then commands God’s people to celebrate these deaths with a great festival. Hooray, kids! It’s Kill the Egyptians Day! Woohoo! Um, yeah. Doesn’t sound quite as nice that way, does it?
And then we sing a psalm. This is a psalm of praise and triumph and victory. It is not a psalm of peace – in it, we pray for the praises of God in [our] throat[s] and for a two-edged sword in [our] hand[s]. We sing this rather vicious psalm, praising God, and asking to wreak vengeance on our enemies, to bring them to justice. We pray for kings to be chained up, for yet more death and destruction. Hooray, kids! It’s Two-Edged Sword Day! Let’s par-TAY!
Somehow, then, Paul manages to stymie us in the passage from the letter to the Romans. (Okay, I’m frequently stymied by Paul, but that’s beside the point.) In this passage, Paul reminds us of the summary Jesus made of “all the Law and the Prophets” – love your neighbor as yourself. Of course, in reminding us of this summary, Paul reminds us who our neighbor is… and that is absolutely everyone. Jesus tells us to love our enemies. So those Egyptians in Exodus, weeping as they cradle their children in their arms? They are our neighbors. Those kings and lords in the psalm, all those nations and peoples? Yeah, they are our neighbors, too. All these people, whose deaths we celebrate with great festivals – these people upon whom we’re asking for God’s justice and vengeance – they are our neighbors. And Jesus has commanded us to love them.
This is making me a bit uncomfortable right now.
I’m not very good at loving my neighbors. I’m far more likely to be the person in the psalm, singing to God while I leap about my house with a sword, wanting to wreak vengeance on the boss who gave me a bad review or the lady who was so rude to me in line at the grocery store or the neighbor whose garbage blew into my yard or the kids who yet again failed to clean their rooms and take out the garbage. And these are the people I know and like – we haven’t even gotten to the enemies yet!
Finally we get to the gospel, in which Jesus gives us specific instructions on living in community and dealing with those who hurt us, and at the end, he gives us a rather scary responsibility. Whatever you bind on earth, Jesus tells us, will be bound in Heaven. I’ve already admitted to being rather terrible at this loving my neighbor business – do I really want to be responsible for binding another person with his or her wrongs? Of course, Jesus gives us the reverse as well: whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in Heaven. So the hurts I forgive, the hurts I can let go of, God will let go of them. That’s somewhat reassuring, but I’m at least as bad at forgiveness as I am at love. I hope that God looses the things that I want to forgive or intend to forgive, the things I ask God to help me let go of – and I think that this is what Jesus intends. If I want to forgive, then I’ve loosed the other person; I just haven’t untied the knot within myself.
So we’ve gotten all these commandments and rules, and I’ll bet that most people are about as fond of being handed a sheet of commandments as I am… and that would be not at all. This may be why God sent Jesus, to help us sum up all those hundreds and hundreds of rules in the Old Testament into one basic rule of thumb: love your neighbor. We humans can make an art form out of legalism, because following commandments is a lot easier than loving neighbors. When we follow commandments, we don’t have to take responsibility. I’m just doing what the Lord told me to do! But when we’re given the task of loving our neighbor, well, then we have to make hard choices and accept responsibility for them. We don’t get to be kids any more, pointing to our parents who handed down the rules; no, we have to be grown-ups.
Sometimes, I hate being a grown-up, you know? Simply following rules would be so much easier! But that’s not what God wants for us. God wants us to choose God, to choose to love, to choose to act in loving ways. God wants us to wake up from the dream of childhood, into the light of adulthood and relationship. God wants us to lay aside the things of the nighttime, to pick up the armor of light.
Put on the armor of light.
Close your eyes and let those words soak in for a moment. It’s okay, I’ll still be here waiting for you.
Lay aside the works of darkness,
and put on the armor of light.
What is the armor of light? Imagine yourself for a moment. You are standing in the middle of an empty room. The room is dark, but you know that the morning will dawn soon. To prepare yourself for the daytime, you want to put on the armor of light. You reach down to the floor, and a pool of light appears around your feet. You touch the light, and you find that it is tangible, so you pull it up your legs, over your stomach and chest, up to your arms. You reach inside with your hands, and you find sleeves of light. As you allow the light to settle over your body, you find it warm and comforting. You look down at your arms, and they sparkle and twinkle in the room. You are clothed in light, in warmth, in peace.
Inside this armor of light, you know that your enemies cannot hurt you. You are a child of the Living God, made to be unique and marvelous and perfect. You bear an armor of love, which admits only things of the Light through to your body, which repels works of darkness. You are surrounded, wrapped up, cocooned in God’s light and love.
You see through the window in front of you that the sun is beginning to rise. As the golden light of the sun fills the room around you, the twinkling, sparkling armor on your body begins to fade. You know that it is still there, because you can still feel the warm tingle on your skin, but in the light of the sun, the armor of light disappears. And you know, as you wake to face this new day, that God has equipped you to love your neighbor, to forgive your enemies and your friends.
I guess we need this armor of light sometimes, when we’re faced with readings like the ones for Sunday. And we need it sometimes to deal with our neighbors, so that we can act in love, rather than with the two-edged sword. We need the armor of light to help us to loose things on earth, so that they can be loosed in heaven. We need the armor of light to survive those long nights when we huddle in the darkness, praying for the blood on the door to save us from the terrible plague that we know is coming. We need the armor of light when we hide in the upstairs room, terrified that those who killed our teacher and savior is coming to arrest and crucify us next. We need the armor of light when we find that we have been blind all along, when the scales fall from our eyes.
And sometimes, we need the armor of light when we sit at home alone – afraid of mounting debts, perhaps, or of illness, or of death, or of being lonely forever, or of never being free from our burdens – we need that love to surround our bodies, to bring warmth and comfort to our hearts, to soothe our thoughts and remind us that we are cherished.
The blood of Jesus is on our doors, my sisters and brothers. God will not kill us in the night. God will not kill anyone in the night, ever again. The two-edged sword has been sheathed, because now we all can wear God’s armor, the armor of light.
Grant us, O Lord, to trust in you with all our hearts;
for, as you always resist the proud who confide in their own strength,
so you never forsake those who make their boast of your mercy;
through Jesus Christ our Lord,
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
now and for ever.