The Holy Gospel According to St. Matthew, the 18th Chapter
“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. But 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.
If 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. Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. Again, 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. For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.”
“Oh wicked ones, you shall surely die!” That seems harsh. Let’s try the second lesson. Let’s see… “reveling, drunkenness, debauchery and licentiousness…” OK, not much better. How’s the Gospel? “If another member of the church sins against you…” Alright, Alright, Alright already! I get it. We need to talk about sin.
In our day and age when people talk about sin they usually mean a particular naughty act. In the 80’s Jimmy Swaggart illustrated this in the most dramatic way when on TV he said through tears, “I have sinned” after he got caught… let’s say “eating pizza” in a hotel with someone who wasn't his wife. For him, and for our culture, the really bad part was the act of “eating pizza.” But for Ezekiel, Paul and Jesus, the “act” itself isn’t nearly as bad as the rift… the separation the act creates between you and the other person, between you and your community or between you and God. For Bible folks, the separation is the worse part.
That’s because, “eating pizza” doesn’t usually lead directly to death. There are no lightning bolts or hell fire rained from above, even when we think there should be! It’s more what happens AFTER you “eat pizza.” It’s the broken relationships and the physical separation which leads to death. In Bible times that was simply a practical truth. Living apart from others, you just didn’t have the food, shelter, clothing or the protection you needed to survive. In Bible times we needed each other to just stay alive!
In our day and age though we look back at Bible times and think, “Yeah, they HAD to lean on one another back then, but me, I’m a modern day rugged individual. I’m not like them. I can do everything for myself! I don’t need anything from anyone to live! In fact, I’m stronger and better when I DON’T need anyone else! That’s a pretty popular notion these days, but there’s a problem with it. It’s not true. Folks say it very loudly and try to insist that forcing people to live without the help of others will make them strong, but it’s still not true. These lessons and all of Scripture witness to the fact that “alone” is not how God created us to live. It’s unfortunate that it takes disaster and horrible tragedy to remind us we really aren’t made to go it alone. We’ve always been and still remain today, deeply dependent on one another for life.
I was thinking about this earlier this week as I got ready to start my day. I thought, “is there even one thing I can do all by myself, without anyone’s help? I thought, well, I can dress myself!” But can I really? Sure, I can pull on my pants and almost always do it without falling over with one foot stuck half way down a pants leg, but I could never have made the pants myself. Even if I could sew, I couldn’t have woven the cloth, spun the yarn, ginned the cotton, or grown it. I couldn’t even get to the place my pants were made without the roads, planes and ships other people made! The more I thought about it, the more I wondered how many people, all around the world, really did help me get dressed that morning? I found an NPR piece where they followed a t-shirt from the cotton seed to the person who finally bought the shirt and put it on. Only counting the people who physically touched the cotton, yarn, fabric and finished shirt, there were scores and scores of people. If you include the people who designed and made the equipment the number increases exponentially! Here’s the link to that story… http://apps.npr.org/tshirt/#/title
So, yeah, most of the time I can put on my own pants and even get the zipper in the front, but the truth is, even for something as simple as putting on our pants, we are deeply, deeply dependent upon one another. That’s not a flaw, by the way. That’s not a human shortcoming. That’s the way God created us to be. We have been designed and loved into being to be interdependent… to live in relationship… in community… together and not to live apart.
That's why in the first lesson, the psalm, the second lesson and the gospel tell us how to do that… how to live together and how to address sin and fix the rifts that inevitably happen which separate us from one another, our community and the One who loved us into being. The key, it turns out, is love. Not a Valentine’s Day passionate love and not a bowling buddy kind of love, but the kind of love that drives us to do the hard and sacrificial work of doing whatever is in the other’s best interest.
This is the kind of love that understands that forgiveness is not forgetting someone "ate pizza" on you, but being very honest about it and working relentlessly to find a way to come back together in spite of it! This is the kind of love that speaks hard truths… sets clear, firm boundaries… and offers healthy, mutually respectful ways back, and not ways where one walks back over the other.
We live in a world that seems every day to be more and more intent upon creating division, widening rifts and digging the chasms that separate us from one another deeper and deeper. Those divisions, rifts and chasms themselves are the deeper, more tragic meaning of sin. As Christians, we're called to show the world that the way to abundant life is not pointing and shaming the people who “eat pizza,” pushing them farther away. As Christians we’re called to treat them the same way Jesus treated tax collectors and gentiles and find a way in love to see them, sit with them, talk to them, eat with them and heal the rifts and restore the community to wholeness so there will be life for all.
These days I know that seems like an insurmountable task. How can little Christ Trinity Church possibly bring together a world that seems bent on constantly ripping itself apart? But our call isn't to start at the "fixing the world" end of the problem. Our call is to gather two or three together in the love of Christ and trust that right there among us in the presence of Christ, God will guide us in ways we can bring life out of death and healing to the world in ways we could never begin to imagine on our own. God’s done it before you know, and God's ongoing promise to us an all of creation is that light is more powerful than darkness and life is stronger than death. Amen.