Following is the text of my sermon today at the Academy for Vocational Leadership, where I am a 3rd year student and Aspirant to the Sacred Order of Deacons.
(More thoughts on the weekend to come, I am sure).
Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 18, Year A
Jesus is in the midst of some serious parable telling as we approach the gospel this week. He’s told parables about mustard seeds and about seeds falling upon rocky soil…lots of seed parables. He’s also fed the five thousand, cured the blind and mute man, he’s had the Pharisees call him Beelzebul. He’s even had King Herod believe that he is actually a raised from the dead John the Baptist! (seriously, it’s right there in Chapter 14!) He’s endured constant questioning and baiting. As he goes about this itinerant ministry of his he tells his disciples in our reading today how to deal with conflict in the communities that they live in, in the churches that would rise up and form and grow after he was gone, even in their own band of 12 community.
Now I know that none of us have ever really experienced conflict in a community right? But we can spend a few minutes talking about it anyway.
Something notable, I think, is that as Jesus addresses his friends he knows already that arguments and disagreements will come. Just a few verses back the disciples were already arguing over who was greatest.
Jesus takes contention as a given, he doesn’t seem to expect the sort of Christian behavior he models to really become the reality; I have to say, this is something of a relief! The bar is not already set too high!
Jesus knew there would be conflict and strife in our communities because they are made up of beautiful and fallible humans, and that’s why things like Healthy Congregations and all of our workshops on managing conflict exist – because a group of people cannot live together in community and agree all of the time. Think back to the Reformation, conflict. The question of ordaining women, conflict. Politics? Conflict. Possibly those of us right here in this room do not always see eye to eye?
Factionalism exists seemingly at every turn, especially in our lives today. North Korea, trade deals, DACA, Charleston, I could go on… I believe that often times anger with each other stems from miscommunication or a failure to communicate entirely.
What Jesus does is set the 12, and us, back on the right path. He addresses that communication component right off, telling us we have to talk to each other.
But conflict in Christianity is about so much more than simple communication. And to boil the Gospel down to simply talking to one another misses the great sweep of the Good News of what God is doing in Christ when we find ourselves in places of conflict.
Paul brings this Good News to the fore-front in the Epistle reading, where he calls the community to the ethic of love.
And it makes sense, because the community in Romans is dealing with… you guessed it, conflict!
After persecution in Rome, many of the Jewish Christians fled. They later returned when the persecution subsided, but they returned to find that the Gentile Christians had taken over the churches. In the gap left by the Jewish Christian exodus, the Gentile Christians had stepped up. They led their communities and grew their communities. And though that is good, now the Jewish Christians felt out of place. They don’t know where they belonged because they were used to being on top in the church, used to being in power. After all, they were the first to follow Jesus.
So he tells them to wake up. Paul tells them not to argue about whether the Jewish laws of the Torah or the Gentile customs in the new communities should hold precedence. He says all their laws should be governed by the question of love. All their customs should be governed by the commitment not to do wrong to another, but to love fully.
It is never enough to communicate well, or clearly, or effectively, it is never enough to follow the best practices in this or that model of conflict management, none of that is enough if it is not first grounded in a true love for the Christians in the community—in particular, if it is not grounded in YOUR love for those Christians you disagree with the most fiercely.
We must love those who have hurt us, those with whom we disagree, if we are to do more than just manage conflict. We must love them if we are to allow the Gospel to liberate us all from what binds us.
We hear this in the Gospel, when Jesus goes on from his encouragement to talk to those who have hurt you one on one, laying out a process for healthy communication, but moves deeper by telling the disciples that whatever they bind on earth will be bound in heaven and whatever they loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.
Most simply stated, he gives the 12, us, indeed the whole church – the power to agree that the laws bind us, or to loose those laws depending on specific situations.
I can only assume the audience of Jesus knew about binding and loosing, I had to do some study. Basically ethical questions would come before the rabbis and they would debate, with the final opinion being recorded in a book called the Misnah.
Though not a rabbi, Jesus binds and looses in passages just previous to the one we heard today, he looses when he tells the disciples they can pick grain to eat on the Sabbath, he looses again when he heals on the Sabbath. Jesus also binds, in Matthew 5 he takes the “love the law and hate your enemy” to a new level as he says love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you. He has bound us with a new law, a new commandment.
A scholar once preached a sermon on binding and loosing with a slightly different take. He said that when someone has wronged us and we go tell all our friends without giving that person a chance to make it right, well, we have bound them, like pinning a red ribbon to their backs. But when we allow someone to make it right we loose them, do you see? We give them a chance to be set free from the wrong they have done to us.
Here’s the thing though, and this is what Jesus and Paul – and probably not the Psalmist – are telling us to do: they are telling us that we are binding ourselves when we think we are binding someone else.
Jesus tells us through the Gospel that when we give someone the opportunity to make something right we free ourselves of the wrong too, we have the chance to forgive or to understand, certainly to move on. We remove what can be a very heavy burden from our shoulders.
In the reading from the other lectionary track, the prophet Ezekiel said that our transgressions and our sins weigh upon us – and yet here is Jesus telling us how we can be set free, how we can solve not just smaller matters like someone taking our pew in church, but how we can heal very large wounds too. How we can do more than manage conflict, but instead how we can be filled with divine love as conflict becomes a context for healing, renewal, and rebirth.
Jesus has given us the power to set people free, the power to free ourselves. He’s given us the keys to the kingdom in giving us the authority to bind and to loose.
Awake, friends! Our salvation is very near, the path is laid out before us, the directions are clear. Unbind yourself, loose those who have hurt you, and be free.