Sermon :: September 10, 2017
[Jesus said to the disciples:] 15“If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one. 16But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. 17If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. 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. 19Again, truly I tell you, if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. 20For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.”
Dr. Amy-Jill Levine is a Jewish New Testament scholar (yes, I know that seems like an oxymoronic statement) who I admire greatly. Her experience of being Jewish has given her powerful insight into the culture of Jesus and his practices and these insights have given me a much richer experience of God. I like to listen to her interviews because she always manages to give me something to think about. In the latest interview I heard from her, she said something like this: If Christians took their baptismal identity seriously, everything would change. Jewish people argue all the time, she says, but they always come back to the table to work to understand each other and reconcile because they recognize that they are bound together by heritage and faith and that love for one another must come before agreement between one another. Christians, she explains, don’t do this. Instead, we tend to split whenever it seems convenient to avoid making up with each other. Instead of finding our identity in Christ, we can find it very easy to find our identities in what we believe about Christ.
Despite our best intentions, our most urgent attempts to be a loving community based on Christ’s love and the baptismal promise of God’s unconditional grace, we are all human and human beings have the unfortunate habit of making mistake. We all do have this habit and Jesus is intimately aware of its ability to tear apart a community, whether it’s a town, nation, or a congregation. Our human tendency for brokenness and failing can be like a bomb that explodes and the echoes continue long after the impact has been made. It leaves a mark on community and, if left to our own instincts, our human nature can tear a community apart.
Lucky for us, we follow a Christ, a Messiah, who is in the business of building up communities and tearing down the walls that we so eagerly build between each other. These walls can take a lot of forms – sometimes they are literally a wall or fence we built, but other times it takes the form of the handy “unfollow” function the Facebook and other social media platforms offer. And we have years of practice building walls and separating ourselves from each other – the very fact that we are in a Lutheran church and are gearing up for the 500th anniversary of the Reformation is just one example how disagreements can lead to separation. And while there are definitely times when it’s healthier to sever connections at times, Jesus, here, is offering an alternative to the easier path.
What is evident right from the start is that the process of rebuilding broken and strained relationships is hard and it takes persistence. It goes against our grain because it’s a whole lot easier to burn bridges than build them, to push away from someone than to move in closer, and to mash that “unfollow” button instead of calling them to begin the hard work of trying to understand each other. If we follow Jesus’ instructions here, we will be constantly coming back to that other person. Not only can this be frustrating, but it can also mean that we are putting ourselves at the risk of embarrassment, anger, and sadness.
That’s the bad news. But there’s also a chance that relationships can be restore, families can be brought back together, and friendships can be built. F.F. Bruce is responsible for the quote, “The best way to destroy an enemy is to turn him into a friend” and I believe that this is the sort of work Jesus is calling us toward. It requires persistence in the face of opposition, vulnerability in the face of coldness, and an open heart in the face of hurt feelings. None of this is a guarantee that it will work. But Christ’s words and his living example show us that God gives up on no one and, as followers of Christ, neither do we.
It’s true that this gospel reading has a provision for that time when, inevitably, a reconciliation does not happen, when the relationships are not restored. Jesus says to treat them as a Gentile or tax collector. But who is Jesus known for hanging out with, loving, and befriending? Gentiles and tax collectors!
Jesus’ life and Jesus’ words here force us to confront the fact that God’s love is not dependent on having all the answers, living a perfectly harmonious life, or our ability to reason and argue well with others. God’s love is limitless and unconditional and, even when people were hanging them on a cross, even when he was left vulnerable and alone, he was still showing love. This is the same love that drives us out of this building to work for the good of all humanity and all creation. This is the same love that confronts our natural desires to cut people off, segregate, marginalize, and demonize people we don’t agree with. This is the same love that is drawing people back to community, back to each other.
This is the love that is experienced and demonstrated in the sacrament of baptism. In those waters, we have a new identity and an adoption into a new family. And this family will not be torn apart by fighting and disagreements. The family of God will not be destroyed by creed or language or race because this family of God finds its identity in the waters of baptism, the cross of Christ, and the love of God. And this is why our baptismal identity is such a big deal for us. It reorients us and invites us into the reality that our relationships and our love for each other, like the love that we receive from God, is founded on something greater than our ability to agree or understand each other. It is founded on the understanding that the love of God that is given to you is the same love that is given to everyone else.
Sometimes we forget about this. Sometimes we forget to come back to the table and we forget that we need each other. As I think about the devastation of Hurricane Harvey and the incoming danger of Hurricane Irma, I am thankful that times like this have a way of bringing us closer together. In the waters of a flood, in the terror of natural disasters, it doesn’t matter if we agree on politics or sports or theology. In times of storms, we are reminded that we need each other and we become God’s very hands and feet to support, love, and pull each other out of the rising waters.
When we get pulled in and sucked down by our own brokenness and the brokenness of others, we can look at this gospel and see that God’s love draws us back together. God’s love, experienced in the new identity of baptism, is our unity and that is where we get our energy, our persistence, our willingness. God is in the business of reconciling relationships and we can see that in our reconciliation with God through Christ. Come to the table and go tell the good news. By the grace of God, we are more than our disagreements and more loved that we could ever imagine. Amen.