Such a lovely room

Such a lovely room

Sunday, September 10, 2023

YEAR A 2023 pentecost 15

Pentecost 15, 2023
Exodus 12:1-14
Psalm 149
Romans 13:8-14
Matthew 18:15-20

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Wow!  There are a lot of rules in today’s readings!  In Exodus, in Romans, in Matthew, all three readings today come off like a list of instructions to follow in order to be members of some secret society.  And, I suppose, in some way they are.

In the first reading, from Exodus, God is explaining to Moses and Aaron exactly how to eat the Passover meal.  It is very specific, and very detailed, and—for our Jewish neighbors—it is very holy, and continues to be a high point of their sacred calendar, which as we heard, they are to “observe as a perpetual ordinance.”  And this passover meal informs how we Christians view the sacrament of Holy Communion.  At the breaking of the bread, the priest says, “Christ our passover is sacrificed for us.”  And the people respond, “therefore let us keep the feast.”  A perpetual ordinance of our own Passover, you might say.

But a thing that really jumps out about this first Passover meal is the emphasis on community.  Notice, God says, “Take a lamb for each family, a lamb for each household. If a household is too small for a whole lamb, it shall join its closest neighbor in obtaining one.”  When you consider the size of  a lamb, and the instructions on how to eat it, most families would likely end up joining together with their neighbors.  Even though the word “family” is used, it would have become a community affair, with families joining together to share the meal.  Or, thought of another way, no one is left out.  There is no person sitting alone anywhere among God’s people.  They’re in this together.  Nobody eats alone!

And then, in Paul’s letter to the Romans, the second part is a list of things not to do.  Or, rather, ways not to be.  But in the first part, he hits on a few of the ten commandments.  Don’t commit adultery, don’t steal, don’t murder.  And what do all those things have in common?  They involve other people.  That is, they are offenses against other people.  Adultery, theft, murder.  There’s a victim in each of those, you could say.  They are actions that destroy community.

And so, Paul says quite rightly that they can all be summed up in one phrase:  Love your neighbor as yourself.  And he adds, “Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.”  So, if we love one another, then there is no need for the law.  Even in our punitive retributionist 21st century incarnation, the law is about loving your neighbor.  Like, I don’t have to worry about breaking the commandment not to kill people, if I truly love them.  If I love my neighbor, I don’t need the law to tell me not to steal from them.  Love tells us how to live in community.  Love your neighbor as yourself.

And then we come to our third set of instructions, from the gospel according to Matthew.  Many scholars believe that much of what we heard from Jesus today was added at a later date, when there were struggles and infighting in the church.  (Unlike today!)  That would help explain why Jesus suddenly sounds like he’s reading from the parish bylaws, or diocesan canons.  

In fact, the Episcopal Church canons work very much like this.  They are not designed to punish anyone or to serve as a behavior modification guidebook.  Rather, the canons are series of rules we agree to that tell us how to live together, despite our differences.  As Episcopalians, we agree to abide by these canons, even if we’ve never read them, or even heard of them.

But whether or not Jesus actually said these words does not stop them from being good advice for us on how to seek to live together.  Basic covenants like, don’t chase each other out of the church over some project or activity.  Don’t walk away in a huff when things aren’t going your way.  Try everything in your power to work it out.  This is how we live together in love.  Love your neighbor as yourself.

And then we have the kicker:  “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.”  Give it all you’ve got, but then . . . This sounds like Jesus is saying, try your best to be reconciled, but if you can’t be reconciled, if you can’t work it out with a couple of conversations on Sunday morning, then go ahead and turn your back on that person.  Shun them from the community.  You gave it your best shot, trying to follow Jesus’ Rules of Order.  So now, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.

And now I ask you . . . how did Jesus treat Gentiles and tax collectors?  I’ll give you a hint.  The Gospel of Matthew was written by a tax collector.  The Ethiopian eunuch, Cornelius the Centurion, and Dorcas over there in that window were all Gentiles.  As are most of the people in this room.  Let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector?  I have to say, that instruction doesn’t really tell us what to do, does it?  I think it means, let such a person be welcomed as a disciple of Jesus, right alongside you.  We’re back to Exodus:  Nobody eats alone.

And this section ends with Jesus saying, “For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.”  An interesting thing about that process of reconciliation that Jesus outlines here, with taking the person aside, and then bringing in two or three others, it requires more than one person.  Every step of the way, people are hashing it out in community.  If you have an issue with someone, but you just carry it around in your heart, quietly stewing in your anger, it’s just you.  The lone ranger of anger.

But . . . when you “go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone,” as Jesus says here, guess what?  Now two or three are gathered!  And then?  “I am there among them.”  Community is what activates the promised presence of Jesus.  And you cannot follow this method of reconciliation by harboring grievances on your own.  It requires community, which is the very place where Jesus says, “I am there among them.”  Jesus is among us when we work out our problems together.  But when we harbor a grudge, or just quietly gossip about a problem, well, I’m not saying Jesus isn’t still there, but I can tell you Jesus hasn’t promised to be there, like he does in this gospel text.  (Which was written by Matthew . . . the tax collector.)

From all three of these readings today, we can glean key principles: Nobody eats alone.  Love your neighbor as yourself.  Work out your disagreements in community.  All of these fit together around one theme:  Live together in love.

We need one another.  We were created to live together.  And when we gather together in love, Jesus promises to be in the midst of us, as he is today.  Love your neighbor as yourself, and together we will be the body of Christ in this world.


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