September 6, 2020, Scripture Readings and Sermon
Message from Rev. George Porter
Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not covet”; and any other commandment, are summed up in this word, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.
Besides this, you know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers; the night is far gone, the day is near. Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light; let us live honorably as in the day, not in reveling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarreling and jealousy. Instead, put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.
Teach me, O Lord, the way of your statutes, and I shall keep it to the end.
Give me understanding, and I shall keep your law; I shall keep it with all my heart.
Make me go in the path of your commandments, for that is my desire.
Incline my heart to your decrees and not to unjust gain.
Turn my eyes from watching what is worthless; give me life in your ways.
Fulfill your promise to your servant, which you make to those who fear you.
Turn away the reproach which I dread, because your judgments are good.
Behold, I long for your commandments; in your righteousness preserve my life.
The Gospel- Matthew 18:15-20
Jesus said, “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.”
Sermon: George Porter
I don’t usually start with a preamble, but I think this is important for me to say something before I continue speaking. One of the things you need to know right in the early days of this relationship is that I don’t tend to preach at people. When I speak, I speak first to myself.
And because of this, I don’t expect anyone to always agree with me - you don’t ever have to agree with me. I don’t see it as my ‘job’ to convince you to agree with me. Sometimes I don’t even agree with myself – and certainly the ‘me’ who is now some 50 years on from the ‘me’ when I was 16 and really encountering Jesus for the first time as a living reality don’t agree about many things.
Once upon a time, I was a pastor in another version of Christianity. When I was first recognised in that role, one of the first things the denomination sent me was a set of guidelines on how a pastor should dress, including what sort of tie to wear. Curiously, as a student of church history, I knew that the founders of the denomination originally forbade the wearing of ties because that was considered ‘worldly’.
We, within the broad spectrum of Anglicanism (which includes the Episcopal church), aren’t known for warmly embracing change. Someone said that the only people who like change are babies with wet diapers, but I know from experience that not even they always like change. Change is, however, a reality of life – even of life in the church. Many people are surprised to discover that ‘we’ve always done it this way’ is ‘fake news’. There are very few, if any, things that the church has ‘always done this way’.
Of course, the current crises brought on by the COVID tsunami of illness and death have brought changes to the way we relate at probably every level from global to local and interpersonally. It has most certainly brought changes to, and forced us to adapt, our way ‘doing’ – ‘being’ – church. In fact, it has probably caused us to ask with an intensity and seriousness with which we don’t usually ask: ‘What does it mean to “be” and “do” church?’ Which are not really insignificant questions, but questions we will, and should, be asking ourselves regularly.
Both Jesus in the Gospels and the apostolic witnesses in rest of the Christian Scriptures have a very clear, consistent and concise answer. We heard it read today. It’s really quite simple in it’s formulation: ‘Owe no one anything but to love one another, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law.’ Clear, consistent and concise – straightforward and simple.
Straightforward and simple in it’s statement, but the word of God doesn’t just come to us in statements. It comes to us in the living presence of Jesus in our midst, as the Gospel lesson says: ‘for where two or three are gathered in my name that’s where you’ll find me.’ – not ‘somewhere over the rainbow’, but right dab smack in the middle of real, everyday life – life with all it’s glory and it’s messiness.
Even harder, that living Word of God comes to us in relationship – not just the ‘me and Jesus’ relationship of so much popular religion, but in the relationships with real live people – and not necessarily people we choose. Jesus didn’t say: ‘Let’s just you and me get together and love each other.’ That’s important, of course, but it’s only part of the reality. Jesus, Paul, Peter, John and all the others – even James, who people like to set against Paul – all say that God’s call to us – the new ‘law’, the new ‘Torah’, the new commandment – is to love other real, live human beings. There is very little about that that is ‘simple and straightforward’; that’s ‘easy’.
Real live people – even the people we know the best – or think we know the best – are complicated and imperfect. There’s a Family Circle cartoon where one of the children asks the mother whether ‘love thy neighbour’ means the neighbours on both sides of the house. It’s funny, but it’s funny because we all know that reality. Loving one another doesn’t come easily. If it were easy, I don’t think that Jesus would have said that the one who wants to follow must take up a cross.
Yet all this goes further. The call – our vocation as the church and people of God – extends to loving those who are different from us. I love those Facebook things that picture Jesus saying something along the lines of: ‘But I say to you, love your neighbour.’ Some one pipes up with a question – and there are lots of versions of the questions that all boil down to: ‘But what if they’re different?’ (Another race, another gender, another religion, another culture, another political party, another lifestyle, another [fill in the blank] – even a Samaritan, a tax collector, a prostitute, or someone ‘unclean’?) And Jesus says something like: ‘Where did I lose you? Love your neighbour ....’
And, if that’s not enough, he says to love our enemies – those who oppose us or hurt us or just irritate the heck out of us. Apparently, even these ‘enemies’ are our neighbours.
So this call of Jesus in our lives to be his followers – this vocation we acknowledge when we name ourselves Christians, the people of God and the church, the Body of Christ - is essentially this: ‘Love one another as I have loved you.’ ‘Love one another as I have loved you’ – and that’s not just some spiritual cliché. It’s not some mission statement that some people thought up because it sounded good or pious. That’s God’s vision statement – that’s God’s vision – as Bishop Tutu says: ‘That’s God’s dream.’
It seems to me of paramount importance, when we ask what it means to be the church and how we do church and how we are to love one another as he has loved us, to ask how did Jesus love? From the stories and accounts of Jesus’s life told in the Gospels, he seemed to love indiscriminately.
That’s sort of the point of the parable of the sower. The farmer in the story appears kind of silly, foolishly going around sowing seeds everywhere. Some don’t do anything; some sprout up but wither, while others find themselves choked out by the weeds, and some grow in good soil. By normal standards, a smart farmer would plant seeds in good soil.
But the kingdom of God doesn’t operate by normal standards. Instead, God sows the seeds of love – the good news of God’s love – indiscriminately, extravagantly. Farmer God doesn’t stop to calculate the worthiness of the soil – doesn’t carefully calculate return. Why not? Because God’s love doesn’t work that way.
An actual farmer would have to do those things and guard the precious seed grains because resources are limited, scarce, but not so the love of God. The kingdom of God doesn’t operate out of scarcity but from unending abundance – from an unlimited supply, so to speak – from the extravagance of unconditional love.
In a way we can see this from creation itself. Have you ever thought about the untold numbers of absolutely astounding things that are going on all the time in our world, things of great beauty and things of great intricacy – from the microscopic (or even smaller) to the macroscopic (or even bigger) – creatures and processes and formations and all sorts of things that no human person will ever see or hear or experience? Most of this vast cosmology – and beyond to things ‘unseen’ – are known only to God, enjoyed only by God – because with God there is lavish abundance and extravagance.
When Jesus was teaching his disciples at the very end of his life, giving them this ‘new commandment’ of loving one another and establishing this ‘new covenant’ in his blood, he did something absolutely astounding. He cast off is outer garments, assumed the role of a slave and washed their feet. Most of us are pretty familiar with this story, but what nearly always gets overlooked is who was there. Judaswas there. Jesus washed Judas’s feet, along with all the others. Why? The Gospels say he knew who would betray him, but he washed Judas’s feet anyway.
When it comes right down to it, all the disciples – Peter and all the others – betrayed him, but he washed their feet anyway. Were they worthy? Jesus didn’t ask that question, but in the act of washing their feet. Jesus demonstrated that they were worthy to him. Out of the abundance of unconditional love, he served them and called them to share together with him in the ministry of serving – just as he does with us, and just as he does with all our neighbours – then ones like ‘us’ and not like ‘us’ – the ‘them’ – because in the eyes of the kingdom of God there is in no ‘us and them’; there is only ‘us’.
If that’s not enough, even more than that, Paul wrote that Christ died for us – not just some of us but all of us. He wrote that for a good person someone might indeed die, but God demonstrated love for us in that while we were still enemies, Christ died for us. In the shadow of the cross – or maybe I should rather say in the light of the cross, there is no soil-testing. The seed of the good news of God’s love falls everywhere – falls into the lives of everyone – mine, your and all those ‘others’.
If we are to do church rightly – if we are to be the Body of Christ – if we are to love one another as God in Christ has loves us – it seems to me that we should know what we’re getting into because we won’t be allowed to always hunker down behind our stained-glass walls. We will be called – we are being called – to the risky business of loving one another as we have been – as we are being – loved – called to live a reality beyond ‘us’ and ‘them’.
There is an expression – a prayer – in Lakota (with the equivalent in many Indigenous cultures) that, for me, expresses this reality of who we are together in Christ before God: Mitákuye Oyás’iŋ [mii-TAH-koo-yay oy-YAH-siin]. It means: ‘We are all related’ or “all my relatives’ – a reality beyond ‘us’ and ‘them’.