Proper 18 Year A
Though our times seem dark and our hearts heavy, it is God who calls us from the works of darkness into the splendor of light through our baptism into Christ. It is God who formed each of us and who continues to gather us in faithful fellowship. It is God who blesses us in our ministries to this community and to each other. It is God who calls and sends us still to care for the sick, and for those in harm’s way. It is God’s action, through us, that comforts the mournful, binds up the faint-hearted, and lends assistance in holy love to the many needs that surround us. We move, then, in this and every hour, in the name of our one, holy and living God.
So much seems so wrong today. As if the controversies and injustices oozing out of Washington, D.C. have not been challenge enough, they’ve most recently been juxtaposed against horror shows of the natural variety. A parishioner and friend posted this message yesterday:
Feels like the End of Days for pretty much half of our continent. My FB feed is full of flood, fire, illness, bigotry, crisis and conflict. Feeling lucky to be snuggled safely in bed with my little one right now. Love and prayers to my friends who have bigger worries than I do tonight.
And we’re only talking about our side of the world – to say nothing of the natural disasters in South Asia, Japan and Australia, as well as human rights violations around the globe. These are hard times.
But I’m through with even imagining for a moment that the times in which we live are necessarily more challenging than other hard times throughout history. That no longer seems like the point to me. For the last year or so I’ve found myself more drawn to explore ways to unplug from making comparisons – comparisons are odious my mother used to say – or even being emotionally invested at all in how wrong things are in the world. Instead, rhythmic return to my own heart and what goes on in there definitely seems to hold more promise somehow. How my faith acts to prepare me for the world and all that’s in it – the joy and wonder as well as the assaults on our hearts and senses – that’s the thing.
Before flood, fire and earthquake assumed the lead in the news cycle, I’d found myself drawn into reflection upon what is called The Nashville Statement. Remember that? As you may recall, it’s a statement made by the leaders of the more traditionalist element among Christian Evangelicals in the United States. It appears, and this may be no surprise to you, that some Christians are of a mind that the church – in this nation and, perhaps, in the world – is dying. And, not only are we dying, we’re dying because of a series of profoundly misguided interpretations regarding how we might best love God and each other. The whole problem in the church, if not the world apparently, springs from a very specific way we’ve expanded how we know God lives in us and among us as Christians. Marriage Equality, you see, is the lightning rod issue. It is the cause of the decline in the church. And some even suggest it’s the real reason for these natural disasters.
But it’s a big tent, this thing called Christianity. There is room in this community for all voices, yes?
“If a member of the community sins against you…”
In today’s gospel Jesus offers a number of steps meant to help resolve conflicts. Conflict resolution, like all his teachings, flows from his central declaration in Matthew’s gospel – to love God, neighbor and self. So our approach to an offender, then, must be driven by our desire to love that person. This is, apparently, true at each stage in the process he outlines, and even after. Even if it doesn’t work out. Even if reconciliation continues to elude us, the question of how I can love you as a sister or brother remains paramount. So, then what? I continue committing random – or not so random – acts of loving kindness and that should do it, right?
Well, while that can be really helpful, I think I still want to go a bit deeper. I’ve gotten the impression as my relationship with Jesus has deepened over the years, that while he might be ok with me starting out by changing my behavior, I wonder sometimes if he wouldn’t be that much happier if I went deeper. And, just because I love him…
Now I confess that I’ve been helped in this exploration a little bit when I stop and take a closer look at what is meant by “sin” here.
What do we mean by “sin” in a 21st century context? Is it the same as what Jesus was talking about? What would Matthew, good Jew that he was, have been referring to in using the word “sin”?
Starting there, with Matthew, I think it could be useful to look at the Ten Commandments.
[Just as a side note, while the Ten Commandments are initially referred to in Exodus (chapter 20), they are repeated in Deuteronomy, (chapter 5), where we also find the Jewish requirement for two or three witnesses when addressing a conflict. So, much of what Jesus offers springs from the established faith.]
But what do the Ten Commandments tell us about sin? We find the first four are about God. No other gods – no graven images, even – no taking God’s name in vain – and keep holy the Sabbath day so you, too, can be a bit like God and rest after your week of work. That last one, goes for everybody, even slaves in the 1st century Levant. And much the significance here lies in that this commandment begins to move us from focus directly upon God, and toward an expanded view of loving relationship with other people. The Commandments go on. Honor your parents – don’t kill – don’t steal – don’t cheat on your spouse – DO NOT besmirch (because sometimes that’s all somebody has left in the whole world, their good name) – and do not covet, lust for, desire to the point of distraction or even scheming, another’s spouse or even their possessions. So, this is what Matthew may have meant when he put the word “sin” in Jesus’ mouth.
And Jesus, at least according to Matthew who was several degrees of separation closer to him than I’ll ever be, would have us go directly to the offending person as step one in a series of steps.
I will also confess that I wish these steps were as easy in practice as they appear in theory. Why does it seem so much more valuable, and in such a perverse way, to retain the right to complain? Even though I know that hanging on to my resentment is like taking poison and waiting for the other person to die. Even though I know that not following Jesus’ steps amounts to providing the infraction and the offender space in my head and in my heart even though they’re not paying rent!
Binding and loosing. Who, then, is bound? What, then, is loosed?
“If a member of the community sins against you…” We talked for a moment about what we might mean by “sin”. Now take a baby step further and imagine, staying with the model of the Ten Commandments for now, why a sister or brother might sin against us.
Why would I make my slave skip having a Sabbath? Why would I steal or kill? Why would I cheat on my spouse? Or bear false witness against my neighbor or covet her spouse and property? Are these acts of love? Or am I afraid of something? Do I fear not making quota, so I have to drive my help to an unhealthy – or, sinful – degree? Am I afraid I’ll be diminished somehow if I don’t take something from you – even a life? Must I reward myself with pleasure at your expense, and if so, why? Certainly these things are not borne of love, but, rather, come from some manner of fear, don’t they? (And please don’t misunderstand me – I don’t stand here and pretend to have all the answers. If you don’t agree with the suggestion that fear, rather than hate, is love’s opposite, nothing would make me happier than to hear how you think on the matter!) But IF sin, as it is expressed in the Ten Commandments, IS borne of fear, does that knowledge make any difference as I try to take that first step toward reconciliation? Does recognizing that maybe we’re all just a hair’s breadth away from feeling diminished – does that realization somehow level the playing field? Is our commonness, our common humanity now in play and can knowing that reality help guide us?
The emphasis in this passage is on reclaiming the offender, not on punishment. I love that St. Paul waves the same banner in today’s reading from Romans – even the references to the Ten Commandments, and to love being the fulfillment of the law.
It may also bring comfort to realize that Matthew begins this chapter with Jesus’ instruction that community leaders assume the stature of a child. Innocence must be the order of the day. And, also, the story directly preceding this conversation between Jesus and the disciples is about the rejoicing that comes of finding the lost sheep. So several things come together to make for a greatly softening effect.
But one of the real keys, I think, has an awful lot to do with that love thing. That God is love. That God desires to be with us and guide us as we learn new and deeper ways to be more loving.
And one of the most exciting things about Matthew’s writing is how that theme of God’s presence among us surfaces and resurfaces. It’s proclaimed in the birth narrative. Emmanuel – God With Us. And it’s the final statement in his gospel – “I am with you always, even to the end of the age”. And it appears in this very passage as well, as Jesus – referring to our loving efforts toward reconciling conflict – (and certainly in what we are about to do as we welcome the love of God among us as we baptize little Dean Waits Neumann) Jesus reminds us that, “whenever two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them”.
The Rev. Edwin Chinery
September 10, 2017