Ps. 78:1-4, 12-16
because we have shared the living bread and cannot remain the same.
So, Lord, may we live to your glory, as inhabitants of earth, and citizens of the commonwealth of heaven.
But looking back is not the only thing we can do this weekend. We can look forward. We can honor the heroism of the first responders by celebrating the resilience and courage and commitment to duty of those who serve in those roles today. Our hearts can be strengthened when we hear stories of how people have put their lives together after enduring great loss. Even as we denounce those who plotted and carried out such acts of violence, we can recognize our common humanity with even our enemies. Working toward the just and peaceful world that God intends for all of us means we must use our memories and feelings as a foundation on which to build that future. It’s hard work, yes, and seems far, far off from these days of heightened security and daily reminders of violence, but as we remember the resiliency, the compassion, the courage, the commitment, of the past ten years, we know we have the tools to build that future.
Bishop Adams, of Central New York, wrote a thoughtful letter to all of us in the September diocesan E-Messenger, which I urge you to read. He closed with this prayer from Frank Griswold, our former Presiding Bishop, who walked through the dust and ashes which covered St. Paul’s Chapel on the morning of September 12, 2001:
God the compassionate one, whose loving care extends to all the world, we remember this day your children of many nations and many faiths whose lives were cut short by the fierce flames of anger and hatred. Console those who continue to suffer and grieve, and give them comfort and hope as they look to the future. Out of what we have endured, give us the grace to examine our relationships with those who perceive us as the enemy, and show our leaders the way to use our power to serve the good of all for the healing of the nations. This we ask through Jesus Christ our Lord who, in reconciling love, was lifted up from the earth that he might draw all things to himself. Amen.
Exodus 12:10-14; Psalm 149
Romans 13:8-14; Matthew 18:15-20
Our Gospel lesson today is a little déjà vu from our lesson of two weeks ago. Both passages have a lot in common. In both passages we find the only time “the church” is mentioned in Gospels. In both passages, we hear Jesus talking about “binding” and “loosing.” So these passages are important. They say something about the character of Christian community, something about how Jesus wants his disciples to live.
Today, Jesus is talking about how to resolve conflicts. He lays out some rules, which some people and some churches take quite literally. If church members disagree in some churches, this is what they have to do, to the point of expelling the one who resists this “Christian” method of conflict resolution. But then Jesus says,
Whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. 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.
Binding and loosing. For generations rabbis had debated about the law. All of the law is sacred, every jot and tittle, which means every comma and squiggle of punctuation. But in some circumstances, the strict application of the law can be loosened a bit, and Jesus was famous for that. Take, for example, the commandment to love your neighbor. Remember Jesus’ summary of the law: “to love the Lord your God with all your heart, and to love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” When the question arose about, “Who is my neighbor?” Jesus bound that law, strengthened it, tied it, to a universal understanding of neighbor that included even enemies. “‘You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven.” Not an easy task. Neighbors: we see why we should get along with the people who live next door to us. But enemies? People we do not even know? What in the world have they do to with us? Exactly, Jesus would say. Loving even enemies means we acknowledge our bonds of a common humanity. God binds us together, even enemies, even people we would not otherwise choose to associate with.
But just as Jesus, the rabbi, binds the law, we find him loosening it, such as the law prohibiting work on the Sabbath. If people are hungry and it is the Sabbath and they have no food, or if someone is in need of healing, then they may loose the law and do those works. That does not break the law, for it is still forbidden to work on the Sabbath – but the demands of the circumstances – the time, the place, the burning need of the neighbor – demand that the observance of the law be stretched on this occasion.[i]
What to do? What to do? To bind, to loose – in Supreme Court terms, are we strict constructionists, or do we interpret the law by taking into account changing times and circumstances? Must Christians work out our conflicts openly, in the community, just as Jesus describes? This must have been something the early church struggled with, too. In our second reading, Paul must have been answering someone’s questions. He lays out some of the original 10 Commandments given to Moses as part of Exodus story: “You shall not commit adultery. You shall not commit murder. You shall not steal. You shall not covet.” But then Paul, himself a rabbi, loosens some requirements of the law, even as he binds the one that is most important: “’Love your neighbor as yourself.’ Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.”
Conflicts are never easy. In conflicted situations, we feel vulnerable. There is often a lot at stake. Reputations, fortunes, even lives may be lost. Sometimes the actual object of the conflict is petty but the stakes become enormously high. “Rise above it!” I used to say to my children, when they were locked in a conflict to the death, over some small toy.
Alas, I think these passages from scripture we read here today mean that God wants us to do more than “rise above it.” God wants to us to engage, with the hard work of love, with our neighbors and even our enemies. God wants us to face into these difficult, conflicted situations directly and openly – to hear when we have done wrong, to speak to another person about the wrong we feel they have done to us. God wants us to face into these situations, knowing the risk that it may not always work out -- that there may be peace but perhaps not reconciliation.
So there we are, in the middle of that hard conversation that we have tried our best to avoid. It could be at home, it could be here in church, it could be with your neighborhood association, or the town zoning board, or the state legislature. It could be in Afghanistan, or between Israelis and Palestinians, or between the northern Muslim Sudanese and the southern Christian Sudanese. Conflict and disagreement, fear of shame and loss, have been part of human nature from the very beginning.
But as Jesus reminds us, something else is also there in our human nature, from before the very beginning: love. Whenever two or three are gathered, Jesus reminds us, God is there. Whenever two or three are gathered in happy times, yes, of course, that is easy to see God among us. But whenever two or three are gathered in conflict, in disagreement, in fear or shame or hardness of heart, God is there. God is on “our” side, and on “their” side. God has hopes, that the next time we engage in a conflict, however petty, however immense, our deeper, truer human nature, our nature of love, will prevail.
[i] Mark Allan Powell, “Binding and loosing: a paradigm for ethical discernment from the Gospel of Matthew;” Currents in Theology and Mission, 2003
Exodus 3:1-15; Psalm 105:1-6, 23-26, 45c
Romans 12:9-21; Matthew 16:21-28
“May you live in interesting times.” Is that a blessing, or a curse?
We certainly live in unsettled times. The earth is literally shaking under our feet, even here in Central New York, where geologists describe our bedrock as “old and cold.” How many of you felt the earthquake, or know people who did?
Yesterday on the Thruway there were hundreds of rescue vehicles headed east: cherry pickers to work on downed power lines, tree-cutting equipment, National Guard trucks loaded with supplies. Even we, here on the far edge of what is predicted to be a massively wide hurricane, felt the unsettled nature of the weather. Millions of people in its path have had to alter all of their plans for the weekend, batten down their hatches, stock up their shelves, fill their gas tanks.
Meanwhile, out in Wyoming, weren’t there some financial gurus speaking? Some meeting to plan the end of the current financial crisis or recession or slowdown or whatever describes our unsettled economic times? The snippet I heard from the head of the Federal Reserve went something like this: things will get better but slowly. Great.
Name your marker for unsettled times. Global warming. Disappearing farmland. Student loan debt. The foreclosure rate.
Or your own personal unsettled-ness, a marker for when your life changes for ever and you feel somewhat uneasy: dropping your child off for her first day in pre-school, or helping him move into his first college dorm room. Friends who move away, spouses who die, parents who become ill and dependent. Your life gets messed with by forces beyond your control. You know what it feels like when the earth begins to shake under your feet, when the barometric pressure drops and you feel the hurricane coming. You know those moments, great and small, when you don’t know what will happen next, when you are waiting for that next shoe to drop, a moment that seems to last forever.
Think about those moments this way: the place on which you are standing is holy ground. It might be shaking and blowing and all manner of bushes around you are bursting into fire, but as God says, “Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.”
What a curious thing to say to someone who is terrified out of his mind.
We last saw Moses when he was a baby, about to be coddled by Pharaoh’s daughter and raised in Pharaoh’s household. He grows up as an Egyptian, but he begins to understand who he truly is when he sees an overseer beating a Hebrew slave. Moses leaps into the fight and kills the Egyptian, and then runs for his life. And so the Moses we meet at the beginning of today’s lesson is a Moses on the lam. An illegal alien, who is a criminal, to boot. He is hiding out from Pharaoh’s law, thinking the wilderness will protect him.
We meet Jesus and his disciples, too, out in the wilderness. Jesus, too, has told them something which makes their world shake. Peter has tried to soothe over what Jesus has predicted are terrible times ahead, and Jesus rebukes him in what seems to be a cruel and heartless way: Get behind me, Satan. You are tripping me up here. Before new life, comes death. In order to save your life, you must lose it. In order to gain your life, you must give everything away. The bush is burning. The earthquake is rumbling. The wind is blowing. The place on which you are standing his holy ground.
The divine presence in these two stories – God speaking to Moses, Jesus to the disciples – is profoundly de-stabilizing. God throws people off-balance, shakes them up. Does God throw random events our way, like some trickster? I think not. A trickster would not call such de-stabilization “holy ground.” Merely random events, however scary, would not result in gaining our lives.
When God gets into our lives, these two stories tell us, it is serious and scary stuff. I can’t really subscribe to the theory that God is testing us with such earth-shattering events, or that if we really believed all would be smooth sailing. I think God is letting us know that life is like this, with challenges and upheavals and temptations from all sides. God in these two stories is telling us that there are times when nothing is easy, times when everything feels upturned and chaotic and dangerous. When we take up the cross, when we face difficulty and death, when we stare, terrified, at a burning bush, then God is there. It is holy ground.
At times like this, when we feel the earth shaking under our feet, the words Paul wrote to the church in Rome fairly sing and leap for joy. If life was always clear sailing, would these words make any sense at all? His words about love, about how much affection and honor to show each other, about patience and perseverance? If we weren’t staring at certain death on the cross, would we need to be reminded with phrases that sing with beauty? If we did not know what it felt like to be persecuted or cursed or miserable or in conflict, would we need to be told to rejoice? If we were always generous and hospitable, if we committed all of our lives and our worldly belongings to the common good, would we need to hear that even saints and strangers need our love and care?
I know Paul can be difficult to read at times, but today he’s got it all right. He’s describing what life is like on the other side of the cross, the life we gain after we give it all away, the place on the other side of the burning bush, the land flowing with milk and honey, where enemies dwell in peace, where strangers are friends. Earthquake, wind and fire, cross, suffering and death – put your own name to these troubled times. God is here, and the place on which you are standing is holy ground.