Proper 18 – 9/6/2020 – St. Paul’s
Imagine your life as a huge flat canvas. Colorless, empty. Dull as ditchwater. Then start playing with it. Put in some undulations, mountains – hard to cross, but with great views from the top. Put in some rivers and seas – dangerous but nourishing and full of adventure. Put in some light and shade, that give shape to the day. Put in some dampness and dry areas, that give seasonal texture. Add some life – some beautiful creatures and some mysterious beings. Now you have a world. Put in some obstacles you don’t yet know quite what to do with. Add some features that look threatening but might turn out to have a sense of humor after all. Now you have a story. How are you going to overcome the obstacles while enjoying the beauty? How are you going to meet the beautiful creatures and find a way to live with the mysterious beings? Now you have a life.
Life as the Church isn’t a blank, unchallenging canvas. Things go wrong. People fall out. You get cross. You feel let down, and misrepresented. People get hurt. That’s not a sign that Christianity is a mistake or the Church is wicked. It’s a sign that the Church is real. Being a
Christian is not a security blanket. It’s not about making sure nothing goes wrong. Something always does go wrong. The key is what happens when it does. The key is about allowing our weaknesses to be turned into God’s opportunities.
Conflict is really a very difficult thing. Few of us do it well. There are so many escapes. It is a rare person who can open a tender subject, discuss it reasonably, and then leave it alone.
The problems with confrontation seem to be twofold: too much fear, not enough hope. We are afraid of anger, rejection, another blow from the offender. We cannot arouse enough hope to believe that we can be reconciled.
A wise teacher once told me that to cease to expect anything from a person was the same as condemning that person to death. The person from whom I expect nothing might as well be a telephone on the side of the road.
Today’s readings demand from us expectation when it is most difficult. They demand that we expect goodness from one who has wronged us. Ezekiel shows us a God who is willing to wait until the last minute, who is willing to value the present moment of righteousness more than any and all previous moments of wrongdoing. He shows us a God demands perseverance from a prophet, who demands that a prophet never give up, never cease to warn a stubborn and rebellious people. Ezekiel shows us a God of hope. It is the hope of God which makes possible the forgiveness of God.
The Gospel makes the same demands of us. He asks us to respond to the question can we talk? or the statement, we need to talk. How do you feel when someone says these words to you? What happens in your body when you hear them? Most of the time, if another person approaches us with those words, they’re not saying they want to chat about the weather. They’re saying, Something is broken between us, and we need to sort it out.
Jesus is saying to us that it is important to answer affirmatively to the question, can we talk?. Because that’s what God says to us. God could have said I’ll turn a blind eye to humanity gone astray. God could have badmouthed us to anyone who’d listen, or kept out of our way, or just been coolly civil while everyone pretended life was supposed to be a rose garden. But God didn’t create a flat canvas. God created a world of undulations and pinnacles and crevices, a world of dry places and fertile crescents, a world of beauty and danger. God loved us. So God said Can we talk? In Abraham, God took us to one side. In Moses, God had a quiet word. Most of all in Jesus God came face-to-face with us, and found words to say uncomfortable things. But God didn’t humiliate us. God came in yearning humility and in compassionate kindness. True to form, we got angry, we got defensive, we even got violent. God knows all about the cost of saying Can we talk? The cost was the cross. Jesus is God saying, Can we talk?
In this week’s Gospel, Jesus offers us a radically different path to these words about talking with one another. In fact, he doesn’t just offer it; he tells us plainly that the way we conduct relationships here and now has direct consequences for God’s coming kingdom: Whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. In other words, the depth, health, and quality of our relationships within the church and outside our walls really matter.
They matter eternally.
Notice about Jesus’s teaching in this passage is its utter realism. Unlike us, who assume that because we’re Christians, we should either not experience conflict at all, or cover it up with a bland niceness, Jesus takes it for granted that we will disagree and hurt each other. He starts with the baseline assumption that conflict within the beloved community is normal and natural. The question is not whether we’ll wound each other with our words and actions, but how we should proceed when we do.
In a sense, what Jesus lays out in this Gospel are rules of engagement, and the principles of love and respect that should undergird them. This is how we need to conduct ourselves when conflict, disagreement and hurts arise.
The message today is to hope, to have the greatness of heart to hope even in the one who wrongs us. Listen again to what St. Paul tells us in today’s passage from his Letter to the Romans: Owe no one anything, except to love one another.
Owe no one anything, except to love one another.
Promote charity––Christian love––for that is the chief grace of our faith. Here we have what it’s all about. If we succeed with this, we have done everything. If we fail with this, then we have done nothing.
The charity, this Christian love, does not originate with us. It starts with God.
• It was to share the divine love that the Creator launched the cosmos and formed the human race.
• It was love that brought heaven to earth in Christ Jesus, and it was love that led him to accept the cross, and it was love that burst open his tomb on the first Easter Day.
• And this divine love came to reside among his first
disciples. It still dwells in human hearts and manifests itself in a myriad of gifts, all of them grace at work in the world, the action of the Holy Spirit.
For the God we Christians serve is not the creature of anybody’s culture, but a God sovereign in love and action, whose gospel judges and changes every culture, and whose reign will remain forever.
This divine love is the cause of our lives. It is the source of any love we experience which is worthy of the name. And our calling as Christian people is to serve as nothing less than the agents of this love.
That is Paul’s message about love, the ultimate debt we owe one another. Love supports our patience and creates true peace. It is, in the last analysis, love that never gives up on the other, love that expects goodness even from an enemy.
What a timely set of rules and principles in this mornings lectionary! How powerfully they speak to the historical moment we occupy. Has there ever been a time when we’ve felt so divided, so partisan, so deeply entrenched in our own perspectives, cliques, and subcultures, as we do right now? We can barely even hear each other anymore. We can barely even condescend to listen. This, despite the fact that Jesus’s most fervent prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane was for the unity of God’s church.
What would it be like to live into the high calling of the beloved community here, now, in this profoundly troubled moment of conflict and division? What would it be like for all the world to know that we are Christians — not by our rightness, but by our love? Are we willing?
If to cease to expect anything from another is to condemn that person to death, then to continue to hope in another, even in the face of direct odds, is to gift that person with life. The meaning of our redemption is precisely that God, in the face of all odds, continued to hope in us. God’s hope went to such lengths that Christ gave his life that we might be reconciled to God. Christ gave his life in the expectation that we would turn from our human ways and receive life abundantly by living out God’s ways. For God, Ezekiel proclaims, does not delight in the death of the wicked but that the wicked turn from their way and live. God’s love is the love that overcomes evil, that overcomes death. This is the love that expects everything from us, that gifts us with life. This in turn is the love that we owe another.
In words from the Book of Common Prayer, let us pray:
O Lord, you have taught us that without love,
whatever we do is worth nothing:
Send your Holy Spirit
and pour into our hearts your greatest gift,
which is love,
the true bond of peace and of all virtue,
without which whoever lives is accounted dead before you.
Grant this for the sake of your only Son Jesus Christ,
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and ever.
With Jesus among us,
at least when we are aware he is with us,
we can make our community
a place where we can speak freely to each other
and help those in trouble
to keep them in the community
or to win them back
and offer them new chances.
For we know that we are responsible for one another.
May God give us this openness and courage
and bless us with the Blessing of God Almighty….
Invitation to the Offering
God gives to us continually.
In each breath, we receive God’s spirit.
Responding to God’s generosity,
let us give to God in thanksgiving.
God our Father,
you bring together at the table of your Son
the weak with the strong,
the sick with the healthy.
Let your Son fill us here
with the fullness of his presence,
that we may accept one another
and learn to live with each other.
We offer you our good will
and ask you for the strength
to welcome one another
in Christ Jesus our Lord. R/ Amen.