23rd sunday in ordinary time
Readings for This Sunday: Ezekiel 33:7-11 | Psalm 119:33-40 | Romans 13:8-14 | Matthew 18:15-20
It’s been back to school time around our house. Some of you know what it’s like. Some of you remember, or are perhaps a generation removed, but still involved with these little and no longer so little ones.
Now, others of you are just getting ready to head out on vacation, knowing that the National parks will be quieter, the roads less crowded, the reservations a little easier to come by. It took me a while to make sense of why September continued to be quiet around here, but I know how it works now you sly devils! And good for you!
The weather today might be a bit misleading, but we know what time it is: the buses are running, the glow of summer is fading. The nights are getting longer and cooler. Fall is on its way. On September 22nd we will have exactly 12 hours of daylight and 12 hours of darkness. I don’t think any of us want to think about what happens to our daylight after that or how long it will be until March 20th, 2015 when we pass the mark going the other way. We put some new plants in the ground this week, no longer fearing the weather will be too much for them as they take root and then settle in for the winter’s growth that occurs beneath the ground and out of sight.
Of course, that’s not so much the case for us where the dynamic seems exactly the opposite. For many of us, the slower summer pace is yielding to the homework and meetings and increased demands that often come with the school year and the season. Sometimes life seems to accelerate above ground just as the plants give themselves to their roots. Perhaps there is something for us to learn here.
But there is a wonderful sense in the summer that we can remove ourselves from the daily grind. We can sit on the deck, read a book, get to the mountains or the water, linger a little longer around the dinner table, and stay up a little later around the fire with friends. If you are like me, you might pay a little less attention to the newspaper and to current events in the summer. The TV is off a little more. You’re a little more unplugged when it comes to your favorite news sources. I’m not sure that with the Fall Equinox we should so easily give up on the idea of rest, of sabbath, of life that is reasonable and sustainable. But we’ll talk more about that at another time.
Now that Labor Day has passed, let’s see if anything has happened this summer that we should know about as we re-engage with our ongoing work of mending the world. Let’s see what time it is. [i]
Ok, so there is Ferguson, MO. That happened this summer, ripping the scab off any illusions that deep fault lines don’t continue to exist between the on-the-ground experience of whites and blacks. Disturbing trends in law enforcement continue. Parents of darker-skinned children have “the talk” with their kids while many of us with lighter skin go along oblivious to it all.
Russia and its aggression against Ukraine happened. There is perhaps a greater threat now than in any recent time that East and West could once again blow apart.
ISIS happened, with its specter of a take-no-prisoners war on Syria and along with it modernity, reason, progress, women and other faiths.
The 113th Congress continues to happen, mired deeply as it is in systemic dysfunction. It seems the only thing the two parties share is an ongoing commitment to a system of graft that ensures that those with the most money will have the loudest voice.
The two-tier economy happened. Ok, that’s been happening for some time now too. The extraordinarily well off are extraordinarily well off, and getting better, while a larger and larger tier of people is falling farther behind.
Border wars between terrified migrants and swaggering white men bearing arms against children happened.
We could go on.
So we’ve missed a bit, it seems, if we’ve tuned out over the summer. And as we tune back in, it may be time to take an assessment, to take stock, to consider again what time it is. And we might find ourselves speaking words from Ezekiel:
“Our transgressions and our sins weigh upon us, and we waste away because of them; how then can we live?”
And so God gives Ezekiel a response that may be for us as well: “11 Say to them, ‘As I live, says the Lord GOD, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from their ways and live…’”
“You know what time it is,” Paul says to the Roman church. Time to wake from your sleep. Time to step out of the dark and into the light. You know what time it is.
And we know what to do too. That’s what Ezekiel is calling across the millennia to tell us. That’s what Paul was trying to tell the church. That’s where the Matthew text comes in.
Readings like the one from Matthew for today can be tough for us. We’ve had this language of binding and loosing, for example, a couple of times in the readings over the last few weeks, and it is challenging language because it feels foreign, ancient, or at least technical and unfamiliar.
And it is technical language. But it is also language we can understand. We know what it is like to be bound. We know what it feels like to be hostage to what happens around us. And we know what it is like to be free, to be loosed into the world in power and authenticity and purpose. And that’s ultimately what this language of reconciliation is about, coming as it does from a tradition that knows God as freedom from bondage, that knows life as fullness and strength and equal opportunity and ultimate value, and that knows the way to get there.
It knows the way to get there.
We know the way.
“Owe no one anything, except to love one another.” This is the way, Paul reminds us. Jesus captures this same spirit when he says the commandments are summed up in love of God and love of neighbor, knowing that the neighbor is the Samaritan along the side of the road, the one we would least like to accommodate.
In other words, the Christian life is lived for all or else it is for no one.
Wake up from your sleep.
Embedded in this way of being is a humility that always entertains the notion that I may still have something to learn, and if learning occurs, freedom and new life is the result. To learn is to be loosed.
So in Matthew the point is understanding, reconciliation, the discovery of a bigger, deeper, more durable truth than any of us arrive at alone. The point is a life together that everyone has a claim to.
In the story of Jesus we find the way of life whether in our individual relationships or in our mission to unbind the world. We bind ourselves to this way of love that gives of itself, that refuses to remove ourselves over our disagreements, no matter how unmanageable they may seem to be, because we understand that the tie that binds us is strong; it is rooted in creation, and in the creator who brooded over the same waters that call us together in baptism, and set the sun and the moon in motion to grow the grapes and the grain that set the table for our common meal. We know what time it is. We know what has the power to change the world.
This is the astonishing and powerful truth that Paul just can’t get over in Romans. This is the claim that Jesus makes in proclaiming a God who will not give up, who cares about all of creation and calls us to care too.
Because if we are to be loosed into the world to bless and not to curse, we must be bound to one another as God is bound together—three in one—as heaven is bound to earth and Jesus is bound to his Father and to his followers. And Jesus calls the church to be the reflection of heaven—what others see in us becomes promise: whenever two or three of you are gathered in my name, I am there among you.
You know what time it is. Let us pray that the Jesus they see reflected, that the heaven they see reflected in our earthly life together, will be a blessing. For when it is, we know that we too are blessed. Amen.
[i] These examples are drawn from Tom Ehrich, “After a Summer of Crisis, Churches Can’t God Back to Business As Usual”, God’s Politics blog on Sojourners: http://sojo.net/blogs/2014/09/02/after-summer-crisis-churches-cant-go-back-business-usual, accessed 9/6/14.
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