A Hollow God – Lectionary 09/27/2020

Philippians 2:1-13

If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,

who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death— even death on a cross.

Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

Therefore, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed me, not only in my presence, but much more now in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.

Sermon Text

            Two weeks ago, we discussed the cross as the ultimate source of glory and scandal in our life. However, before the scandal of the cross came another scandal. The incarnation of Jesus was the first instance of God’s subversion and violation of our expectations. The God of the Universe, coming into the world to bring about God’s kingdom, ought to come as a conquering hero, or a strong king, or some great priest who leads the people into a holier tomorrow. Such an incarnation would see Christ ruling the earth and bending it to his will, such an incarnation would make sense to us. If you want something done, why not do so with strength and power and with all the authority you hold as God.

            Certainly, this was the dream of the prophets and of the Jewish revolutionaries of the late centuries BCE. The three main perspectives were that God’s justice would come through a Messiah that was a holy Judge over creation, or a Kingly warrior, or a Holy Priest.[1] The existence of three distinct views allowed for a certain fluidity to exist about how the Jews in the post-exilic world expected God to redeem them. It was not uncommon for people to claim to be Messiahs or to be given the title by others. For example, Cyrus the Great of Persia, the conqueror of Babylon, is called God’s “Messiah,” in the book of Isaiah – a temporary attribution for what would become an eternal and deific title. (Isaiah 45:1)
            All three perspectives on the Messiah believed that the seemingly rational thing for God to do, was to take on a position of power and strength and might in reordering the world. God, if God thought like we did and was to accomplish God’s goals like we do, would not want to be anything but quick, exacting, and strong armed in executing God’s judgment and salvation within the world. But God did none of this. God was none of that. God became nothing, God hollowed out Christ, taking on humanity, and denying himself all the glory of Godhood.

            We are told that Christ, the eternal Word of God, looked at the glory of his Godhood, not as something to hold onto like a vice, but to let go of.[2] The hymn that constitutes the majority of our scripture today describes Christ as, “emptying himself,” literally – making himself hollow. Christ gives up the throne of Heaven, takes on human flesh, and lives out the life of a slave to all people. Christ follows the path of his life of service to the very end, dying on the cross that defines shame and fear, and only after all this is complete is given back the glory that was due to him. The victory of Christ was in death, was in shame, was in a life lived on the outskirts and margins of all “decent” society.

            Christ was rejected by almost all those in authority. Pharisees who held sway over local populations as teachers of God’s law rejected him, even though their teachings were so often similar. The Sadducees who controlled the Temple and who rejected the ministry of prophets and preachers outside of Moses rejected him, even though he spoke with the authority of Moses and then some. Even the Essenes and Zealots, the most radical of the Jewish sects, rejected Jesus even though he too opposed both Rome and Jerusalem for their sins against God’s people. Jesus was rejected by all authorities of his day and for many different reasons. Most powerful of all these reasons was that Jesus had no interest in earthly authority, no desire to rule Rome or Judah, but only to do the will of God at all times.

            A person who does not desire power cannot be bought with money. They do not seek out a position to take advantage of others. A person who does not love strength and might will not fight back against you when you attack them. Such a person is dangerous above all others. A person willing to suffer all manner of violence, to love the one who pierces their side, who does not fear death but gladly takes a crown of thorns as though it is a crown of gold. A person who is willing to die, and more than that to die without complaint or raising up arms against their murderer is a person that cannot be controlled. The threat of power, of force, of coercion, is lost on a person who regards even their life as inconsequential in the grand scheme of things.

            God entered humanity and destabilized all the systems that Christ came in contact with. A wedge was put between the way things were and the way they could be. All oppressive systems were useless against Jesus. He had no money, and so you could not steal it to deprive him of his livelihood. He had no power, so you could not strip him of his office to silence him. He had no home, so you had no place to track him down to and threaten him. The King of all the Universe, now a vagrant with no power, was somehow able to counter all threats against himself. Jesus embodied the idea, “When all you’ve got is nothing, there’s a lot to go around.”[3]

            The Hollow God, the Messiah who came without any power to speak of, nonetheless retained his Godhood. Jesus never ceased to be a member of the Trinity, never lost his rightful place seated beside the Father in Heaven. Jesus had given up all authority, all rights to power and glory, and yet retained his God-ness, his Θεοτης (Theotes.)  Being fully human he was a slave to all, being fully God he was the ruler of all, and being the uniquely existing Christ neither fact conflicted with the other. Christ was King, Christ was also a slave, Christ was all powerful, Christ had given up all power.

            Christ only found his power on Earth through obedience to God. Obedience defined not by passivity, but by activity. Christ, having nothing to call his own, lived among those who had nothing to give him. The poor, the outcast, the sinner, the people who had been denied even their humanity by the society around them. Christ, if he was living in our world today, would not be with us in this gathering – where we gather regularly to pretend we have our life somewhat together – but out in the streets. Christ would be in bars and alleyways rather than churches. Christ would be sleeping under bridges and park benches rather than cozy houses. Christ would be in the places we do not dream to look, far away even from our modest means. We have too much power – and Christ would abhor our hoarding of it.

            The ultimate revelation of the Christ hymn is not just that Christ gave up so much to be with us on earth, but that Christ models that self-emptying for us as well. In the same way that Christ gave up retribution for mercy, we also are called to turn the other cheek. In the same way Christ did not fear death, we are called to live as people who do not fear those who can kill the body but not the soul. As Christ opposed the oppressive forces of his day through advocacy with the poor and rejection of power, we are called to take up our cross, the ultimate sign of shame and loss, and follow him to Calvary. Christ emptied himself in a way we could never understand, to remind us that we must empty ourselves in every way that we can.

            We are a people who love to win. We want victory, we want to live perpetually in Easter, but we ignore that we live simultaneously in the victory of Christ and in the world that still languishes in death. We are not worldly victors, accruing money and power, but spiritual victors who are transformed into the image of God through Christ’s righteous actions upon our life.

            In the Roman world, when a country was defeated in war, statues were erected of the Caesar or the victorious general standing over that country – represented often as a woman in chains. The word used in our text for Jesus’ rejection of his rights as God is similar to the one use to describe these images.[4] In so much as Jesus did not hoard his power as God, neither did he seize power as a human being. The Christ hymn of Philippians asks that we never look to inspiration from an imposing victor standing over his enemies, but to glory in the person at their feet. Jesus did not live on earth as a king crushing people beneath his heel, but as the victim of the kings of the earth. Our victory is not in dominion or in power, it is in loss, in death, in powerlessness.

            As worshippers of a Hollow God, we too must be Hollow people. Hollowed out of pride, of arrogance, of love of wealth and power, even love of life itself. This does not make us reckless, we do not “[rush] on death… Without being martyrs.”[5] We live lives instead that are rooted in divesting ourselves of the privilege and power we have been born with or else accrued. We give money at all opportunities to worthy causes and needy people. Our primary focus is not upon whether or not we can defend ourselves, but on what risks we ought to take for the good of others. We do not long to be victorious over the world, we do not see displays of might or violence as Christian and good, but through submission to God walk up the road and accept the loss of everything we have if it is the will of God.

            We worship a slave crucified by those in power. We must not think we are greater than our master. We must oppose the proud, the oppressive, the evil and the cruel, not through joining in their wickedness, but through taking on the yoke Christ has prepared for us. We must suffer, we must die to this world, and indeed die in our flesh, but we do so with Christ as the example before us. Unless a seed fall into the ground and die, it cannot be born again. So to, we cannot experience the life of Christ unless we empty ourselves, unless we lay at the altar every good gift God has given us, and regard these things as loss for the cause of the Gospel.

Ours is not the earthly victory, ours is not the dominion of the world or one another, ours is the earthly death and the heavenly victory, ours in not violence and dominion but submission and peace. Do not grab at power outside yourself or hold onto power within yourself, but let us all cast it aside, let us empty ourselves, let us find nothing in ourselves but the Spirit of God who first emptied themself for our good. Praise God, praise the humble King, praise the victory we win in loss. Praise Jesus Christ, the name above all other names. – Amen.

[1] Bart D. Ehrman “Jesus the Suffering Son of God” in A Brief Introduction to the New Testament. (New York, New York: Oxford. 2009) 61

[2] T. Francis Glasson“Two Notes on the Philippians Hymn.” In New Testament Stud. 21, pp. 133-139

[3]  Brian Stokes Mitchell. Through Heaven’s Eyes. The Prince of Egypt. DreamWorks Records. Digital

[4] Katherine A. Shaner. “Seeing Rape and Robbery: ἁρπαγμαός and the Philippians Christ Hymn” Biblical Interpretation 25 (2017) 342-363

[5] Clement. Stromata. IV.

How Dare God be Merciful – Lectionary 09/20/2020

Jonah 3:10-4:11

Now When God saw what they did, how they [Nineveh] turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it.

But this was very displeasing to Jonah, and he became angry. He prayed to the Lord and said, “O Lord! Is not this what I said while I was still in my own country? That is why I fled to Tarshish at the beginning; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing. And now, O Lord, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live.” And the Lord said, “Is it right for you to be angry?” Then Jonah went out of the city and sat down east of the city, and made a booth for himself there. He sat under it in the shade, waiting to see what would become of the city.

The Lord God appointed a bush, and made it come up over Jonah, to give shade over his head, to save him from his discomfort; so Jonah was very happy about the bush. But when dawn came up the next day, God appointed a worm that attacked the bush, so that it withered. When the sun rose, God prepared a sultry east wind, and the sun beat down on the head of Jonah so that he was faint and asked that he might die. He said, “It is better for me to die than to live.”

But God said to Jonah, “Is it right for you to be angry about the bush?” And he said, “Yes, angry enough to die.” Then the Lord said, “You are concerned about the bush, for which you did not labor and which you did not grow; it came into being in a night and perished in a night. And should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?”

Sermon Text

            There concepts of justice and mercy are two things that we cannot, while on Earth, fully comprehend. Our definitions for them are dependent on understandings we discovered while inhabiting our broken world. Except through Divine Revelation we cannot truly learn what either word means, and oftentimes God’s revelation still seems unimaginable to us. The ultimate act of mercy in God’s work with us was the crucifixion of Jesus. The death of God’s truly innocent and righteous Son is the foundational image of God’s mercy, and that image could only exist in the most unjust of deaths we could ever imagine. God on the cross suffering for us, God in the grave having died for us, the source of all life cast out beyond life itself.

            Our inability to conceive of what either Justice or Mercy could look like requires that we create images of them, either through stories or art, to try and address even the simplest element of either. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a theologian writing in and against Nazi Germany, believed that we who ae, as he put it, “in the Middle,” cannot conceive truly of what was in the beginning of creation – when justice and mercy were all that there was – and so must use almost fanciful logic to even begin to understand what a life without evil would look like.[1] We create stories, parables, and fables to chase after the realities that are too alien for us to even begin to imagine.

            The particular realities of Justice – God’s ability to bring about right conclusions to situations – and Mercy – God’s gift of grace given to all people – are beyond our ability to ever truly conceive of. We as a people see Justice as an act of revenge, and so we cast God as a vengeful force punishing our enemies. We as a people see Mercy as erasure of consequences, and so we see God as our ultimate get out of jail free card to excuse all our wrongdoing.

            Yet, these definitions are not sufficient – they do not jive with the world we inhabit. If Justice from God were truly a matter of vengeance, then God would be nothing but a ball of fire and judgment, because everyone at some time will have done wrong against God. A vengeful God would indeed destroy the world constantly. Likewise, a God whose mercy was founded on erasing consequences and mitigating responsibility could not ask anything of anyone. Certainly, such a God would not be able to tell us, “take up your cross,” such a God could not call us to repentance. If Mercy means that we can do what we wish then it is a cheap sort of grace.

            The paradox of divine judgment is so complex that we must tell parables that place the two in contrast. Jesus frequently describes God’s stern Justice as coming as a consequence of an individual or community’s lack of mercy. Paul places the paradox in terms of a potter making one vessel for destruction and another for glorification. Theologians throughout history have reconciled the two, making one a complement to the other, but always from the same perspective of, “the middle,” always unsure what exactly God’s view of the thing might be.

            As a lover of mystery novels and film, I myself see a beautiful example of this contrast in the BBC production of Murder on the Orient Express starring David Suchet. The Belgian detective, Hercule Poiort, in this version struggles with whether Justice is simply following all rules and facing all consequences. He uncovers a revenge plot, he exposes those responsible for the killing, and in this version delivers and impassioned speech that describes justice as the ultimate principle of human life, unshakeable and divinely given. The novel ends with him offering two options for how to prosecute the case, one Merciful and the other the textbook definition of Justice. In this film version, Poirot chooses one of the two, and the choice leaves him clutching his rosary and weeping – unsure if he has just sinned or done what was right.

            The story of Jonah is also a parable of Justice and Mercy. Though Jonah was a real prophet who worked in the early parts of the eighth century BCE, the book of Jonah is almost universally viewed as a piece of historic fiction. Whatever events in the book did happen have been retroactively adjusted to create a play the criticizes the readers expectations of the story. It is not a strict retelling of events like we might see in a biography of a person, but a literary interpretation of their life. To understand by analogy, it is less like a 1:1 biography of Alexander Hamilton but more like the musical, “Hamilton,” which adjusts some historical bits and bobs to create a cohesive narrative and message.

            Jonah begins with God calling Jonah to go to Nineveh and bring them to repentance. Nineveh was the capital of the Neo-Assyrian empire, although not during the years Jonah was active. By the end of the eighth century, Assyria would move out from this city and destroy the Northern Kingdom of Israel. Nineveh was a shorthand way of saying, “The worst place imaginable,” and two scholars. André and Pierre-Emmanuel Lacocque, building off of Jewish experiences in the Holocaust, tie Nineveh to Nazi Berlin by saying, “To go to Nineveh is not very different from going to Hell.”[2]

            Jonah fled from God’s call because Jonah did not want to see these people saved. To go to the worst place imaginable and to save the people who were destined to destroy you – it did not make sense. If Jonah fled, if Nineveh was not told that they were on borrowed time, then maybe God would just destroy the city anyway. Justice, or at least Justice as Jonah imagined it, would be served, and nothing more about the matter would have to be said. Jonah was willing to defy God rather than allow for God’s mercy to manifest itself and save Jonah’s enemies.

            Jonah did so because, to him, God’s mercy was despicable, “How dare God be merciful!,” Was his essential cry, “God, you know what is coming down the line and you are letting them seek forgiveness? Forty days from now they could have been gone and we would not have had to worry about them! Why could you not have just wiped them out and made our lives easier? Why oh why did you have to be merciful?”

            Nineveh repents, Jonah sulks. Jonah wishes to die, first because God showed Mercy to Jonah’s enemies, and secondly because the tree that had given him shelter had died. God chastises Jonah and reminds him that the life of over one hundred thousand people is more important than his single tree and his pet comforts. God is clear, Mercy cannot be bound up based on the condition of what may happen in the future, Mercy does not belong to one people or country or place, Mercy is a form of Justice we can never truly understand except to give it freely as God has given it.

            Still, the story ends without resolution. Jonah does not repent and we are left with a deadlock between God and the prophet. The narrative leaves us open to decide for ourselves – who side will we take? Do we, like Jonah, want to see bloodshed and hellfire given to our enemies, real or perceived? Or do we like God want to extend a chance to change, and to work toward reconciling even the most dreaded of situations? Do we like Jonah value our comfort over the lives of hundreds of thousands of people, or are we willing to wear a mask in public and make sacrifices when it comes to leaving our house? That last one may seem sneaky, but mercy is not always in response to crime. Mercy is love enough to suffer a little indecency for the good of all people.

            Mercy is the marrow that supports all life, we live only through Mercy, and we are sustained through a Just God who gives that mercy freely. Are we willing to do the same, not only in forgiving those we have written off as enemies, but in serving those who greatly need our care? Cast yourself upon the Love of God, repent as Nineveh did long ago, and show Jonah up in your ability to do Justly and Love Mercy. – Amen.

[1] Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Trans. Douglas Stephen Bax. “The Center of the Earth.” In Creation & Fall (Minneapolis, Minnesota: Fortress Press. 1997) Locations 822-844

[2] Andre Lacocque & Pierre-Emmanuel Lacocque. “A City’s Fate.” In Freedom Beyond Forgiveness. (New York, New York : Bloomsbury 1997) 133

God so Loved the World – Lectionary 09/13/2020

Numbers 21:4b-9

From Mount Hor they set out by the way to the Red Sea, to go around the land of Edom; but the people became impatient on the way. The people spoke against God and against Moses, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we detest this miserable food.” Then the Lord sent poisonous serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many Israelites died. The people came to Moses and said, “We have sinned by speaking against the Lord and against you; pray to the Lord to take away the serpents from us.” So Moses prayed for the people. And the Lord said to Moses, “Make a poisonous serpent, and set it on a pole; and everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live.” So Moses made a serpent of bronze, and put it upon a pole; and whenever a serpent bit someone, that person would look at the serpent of bronze and live.

John 3:13-17

No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.

“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”

Sermon Text

            Snakes in the wilderness, and sinners living in a broken world. Poison that seeps through the blood – either as a neurotoxin from the fangs of a viper or as the wicked inclinations that lodge in the heart and manifest in our actions in the world. Christ, in telling Nicodemus how he can be born again of the Spirit, reaches into the history of God’s salvation of God’s people. To understand Jesus, we must understand the work of the Exodus, to understand the Exodus, we must understand the bronze serpent lifted up for the people of God. If we want to know what God is doing, we must see what God has done.

            When the people of God were taken out of Egypt, out of the House of Slavery, they were not led directly into the promised land. That journey would have taken them only a few months in the worst of circumstances, however we are told that they spent years moving in a circuitous root around the desert. They went from Egypt to Sinai, or Horeb as it is sometimes called. This took them down through the Sinai Peninsula and then back up to the land of Edom. From Edom they circled round into Zin and Paran, and then back again. Finally, they went through Edom and Moab to the land of Canaan – crossing the Jordan river to enter Jericho.

            The route they took, long and complicated, was far longer than it needed to be. However, we cannot see this journey as only about reaching a destination. The long journey the Israelites took is similar to our own journey. For many of us the “point” of becoming a Christian is that when we die, we get to go to Heaven. Blessed gift that our eternal presence with God is, that presence permeates all our life, not just our afterlife. We must understand that the strange and complicated journey that we take is not a distraction from the end goal, but part of the process of becoming people who can enjoy that eternity with God.

            In the wilderness, the people constantly long to return to the evil they knew, rather than face the promise of what could be. They suddenly remember Egypt as a place full of good food and plentiful shade. The burden of slavery, the abuse and death suffered in Egypt was forgotten, all because the path to the promised land was not the walk in the park the people expected. While we could easily sit and judge the shortsighted Israelites, I think we all know we are not far off from them. While we are not often migrating from one place to another over miles and miles and months and months, we do have destinations in mind and that we simply cannot stay motivated to reach.

How many times have we had our self-improvement plans fall flat? When we want to be more active or study more intensely or be better organizers? A great example is how the average Bible reading plan lasts only about two months, being generous, and many people go most of their life having never read the scriptures cover to cover. In the same way we all have bad habits that we simply cannot part with – whether they be simple things like leaving the lights on in the house, or large things like a tendency toward mocking others. Sometimes they are issues of excessive consumption, sometimes they are a consequence of our lacking moral imagination.

            Yet, the constant nostalgia of the migrant Israelites was the source of conflict. They doubted Moses, and they doubted God, they doubted their eyes and ears and preferred illusionary scenarios and conspiracies. The people longed for Halcyon days that never existed, they saw in hardship the antithesis rather than the method of their deliverance. When the going got tough, they and we got out of there.

            Except, not really, because you can never actually escape hardship in life, especially when you are working through a process of improvement. Change is never pleasant; we would much rather stay the same than ever alter our course. Even if the end of our path is ruin.

            The emergence of snakes in the wilderness is presented as an outcome of the Israelite’s nostalgia. Their longing left them sitting in the same dangerous space, not moving forward into the promise that was ahead of them, they sat still, and danger manifested as a result. As a consequence for their foolishness, for their unbending love of their own destruction, death found its way to nest among them. Burning snakes, striking out, ripping and tearing and the community. When they realized their need to be saved, when they sought deliverance, God offered a strange source of relief – something that would have seemed an anathema to those in the desert.

            God commanded that a graven image be made – a thing forbidden by the first commandment! – And that that image be raised up within the Israelite camps. The bronze serpent, the burning serpent, the Nehushtan, raised up above the community to be looked upon if ever they were in need. How strange that God provided an image to deliver people from their torment, how scandalous that it be lifted up above them, how strange that God should save God’s people in this way.

            We can see how Jesus saw this as the best way to explain his own passion. We as sinful people lost in the world needed deliverance. The consequences of our sin plain to us – the death we all must face, the degradation of relationships we cherish, the erasure of the good gifts we are given in the sea of greed we create. We cannot find a way out, no matter how hard we try, and the path that has led us to where we are has been long and winding. We have suffered a great many hardships inherent to all living people, and if we are living a truly Christian life, a few unique to that calling. The death of the self, the denial of sinful desire, the destruction of our tendency to deny others and increase ourselves. We are lost in the wilderness, we are tormented by the consequence of our actions, and we need a deliverance.

            Sometimes we may be made to wonder if there couldn’t have been another way for our sin to be washed away. Could God have erased our sin with a wave of the hand? Could God have instituted purification sufficient to erase our sin? Why do we need a cross? Why should Christ have to suffer the way Christ did? We may never know every reason the scandal of the cross was necessary, but we know that it is the way we are made whole. More than that, this image, like the Nehushtan in the desert long ago, brings us to be freed from death, freed from the punishment of our sins, freed and truly free.

            God did not see it as sufficient to give us a clean slate without an image. God did not give an order from on high to deliver us and then give us nothing to look to that we might remember our deliverance. God took on flesh, sending the eternal Logos, the eternal word of God, to live among us. In the image not only of a person, but a slave, not as someone born to glory, but as someone written off as a ne’er-do-well and sinner. He took on the image of sinful humanity, his colleagues abandoned him, people across Judea justified the execution of a rabble-rousing minister who should have just followed orders. Jesus became everything despicable and rejected by society without once warranting an ounce of this treatment.

            All this to then die on a cross, a Roman punishment for treason and sedition. To suffer under the cruelest death imaginable, drawn out over hours and following a previous night of torture and abuse. The image of our sin, and the punishment for it, was lifted up. Yet, instead of being looked upon and bringing healing in that moment, the world turned away, and only two among Jesus’s closest confidants remained to look up at him – the beloved disciple John and his mother. The image of our deliverance was hung up for the world to see, but we could not stomach it. Faced with the reality of sin and death, we rejected both and with them, we rejected our savior.

            Yet the image of Christ was not limited to the image on the cross. Christ rose from death and lives today in the blessed company of the Father. This image of our affliction raised up again, not as an example of shame and sin, but of glory and victory. For us who remain on earth, we strive to find that image. We work to become more like the ascendant Christ, more perfect and lovely, more good and loving. Yet, we must work through the wilderness we have created for ourselves, yet we must suffer the consequences of our actions and those of others.

            This is why it is important for us who are called to follow Christ to not only look to the resurrection, but like Jesus informs us of in our text, we must look to the cross itself. For as the people in the wilderness looked upon the bronze serpent and were saved, so too do we find salvation in the cross. Our savior, haven taken on an image of sin and death, hanging above us for our salvation. This is what can inspire us to persevere in the midst of hardship. The fact that Christ suffered for us, with us, as one of us, gives us the strength we need to face anything.

            The cross is the ultimate sign, not that we should get over the troubles that we face, but that we can overcome them. Even if not in victory, then in loss we can find gain because we lose alongside Christ, we suffer alongside Christ. At the end of all things, we will be raised victorious in Christ, but we are not at the end of all things. We are very much caught up in the middle. We are not in Egypt where our sin ruled us completely, nor are we in the promised land of perfection and union with God. We are in the wilderness, between our first meeting with God at the holy mountain and our final and eternal communion with God in eternal rest.

            Yet this image, found not only in artistic representations but in our celebration of Communion every month,  this icon of our salvation and of our hardship, it stands above us as a reminder that we can make the journey. It is the image of all our failings, and an image of the promise of our redemption. For God so loved the world, that we were given this blessed sight to inspire us onward, and this blessed savior that we may be reconciled to God once again.

Wherever Two or More are Gathered – Lectionary 09/06/2020

Matthew 18:15-20

“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 Text

            No one has ever been excited about conflict entering into their life. Even people who love a good argument, even people who go out of their way to cause trouble, ultimately only want to do so if they have nothing to lose in the process. Argumentative people usually exercise their argumentativeness against people who they either have relationships with that allow for this kind of conversation – friends who like to get together and fuss over one thing or another – or else they take out their argumentativeness against people who have no way of stopping them – cashiers, wait-staff, anyone who is required because of their profession to take their abuse. The same largely stands for people who like to cause trouble, as long as they are in a consequence free environment or talking to someone who cannot retaliate, they are fine being ornery.

            Truly, there are not many no-risk situations in our life. When we get into arguments with one another, when someone does something that deeply affects us emotionally, even with just a passing word, when this happens, we are taken aback. Our strength leaves our body, our brow furrows questioningly, we are left wondering how we came to the place we are in. Worse than this, there are moments where we see the same thing happen to someone, we have said something to. Their face suddenly becoming worried, their posture locking up, the outward sign of inward harm shown plainly on their features.

            The burden of being in relationship with other people is that we will inevitably do something that hurts the people we are in relationship with. Our dear loved ones who we say something careless to, our coworker who we make feel slighted, our friend who we unwittingly offend. All these small things, the little pin pricks of mundane violence that we find manifesting between ourselves – they can add up. So many people are on a tightrope, struggling to balance their emotions, their self-worth, the health of their relationships, against the strong wind of conflict.

            It has often been our practice that we respond to conflict through silence. We let the small indecencies we face be met with an apparent indifference. For fear of making too much of a fuss we just let things slide. We do not tell our friend that we would really rather they not joke about the clutter in our living room or confront our coworker who cannot get it through their head that their jokes are in poor taste. Still worse, our family members often are the ones we wish above all to avoid this kind of confrontation with. The cousin who always asks when the single people in the family will go ahead and get married, the sister who is a little too quick to mock her siblings, the husband who says unkind things about his wife or children without a second thought.

            What happens when we do not address these topics? Do we see them disappear? No, in fact they tend to fester. The little pin pricks to our self-esteem, the insults to our dignity, we cannot sit by and take them indefinitely. Eventually, the wounds we sustain will be significant enough to leave us with nothing but shreds of these qualities. More than that, the structures underpinning the relationships we have with others – trust, mutual care, interest in the simple as well as complex aspects of their life – will begin to decay. In silence, in the effort to avoid conflict, we find ourselves smothering the love and connection we share with one another.

            Our scripture today offers us an alternative to avoiding conflict, and that is to engage with it honestly. To let our dissatisfaction be made known. There are moments where that may be uncomfortable, but it is only in naming something that we are able to move beyond it. The little comments that just will not stop, the hurt that has eroded the connection between us and those we know, they will destroy even the strongest relationships if left alone.

            The solution that Christ puts forward in our scripture is that when someone sins, and the implication here is that we are talking about interpersonal sin, then we must be direct in addressing it with the person who has caused the harm. If someone has said something cruel, then they need to be told it was cruel. If someone has hurt our prospects in a work setting, if someone has betrayed our trust, then we cannot just wait until they forget or we forget, we have to proactive in fixing the problem at hand. Not only that, but the discussion has to be one on one, direct and honest in every way.

            Our basic instinct when people mistreat us is to say nothing to them and tell anyone and everyone else about it. “Can you believe he would say that to me?” “What were they thinking acting like that!” We vent our feelings about the problems that face our relationships, but we do not face the problems in themselves. Yet Jesus is clear in telling us, if someone wrongs us, we have to tell them what they have done. The idea here is not just to get context, although certainly that can help us understand why someone acted the way they did, but it is primarily a chance to let the other person realize the wrong they did and try to make amends.

            While we must account for misunderstandings, the majority of conflict is not based in accidents of interpreting circumstances. If someone comes up to me and says something I find insulting, when I go to tell them that it was insulting, they cannot tell me that it was not. The person who is hurt is hurt regardless of the intent of the action. Making amends, repenting of the wrong we do, is not about explaining why we did wrong, it is about stopping the wrong we did. Someone telling us they did not intend to cause harm lets us understand why they said what they did, but it does not change the fact that they did something harmful.

            The escalation of community involvement that follows is done out of necessity. If the person who has been hurt fails to reconcile with the person who hurt them, then we are not asked to abandon them, but to try harder to bring about a just resolution. We call in other friends, preferably ones that are better at getting along with people than we are, and they can mediate the conversation. Maybe there is more than just this one incident that led to the rift between the parties involved. Maybe, the person asking for reconciliation in themself had contributed to the current situation, and only an outside, neutral, observer can identify this.

            The authority given to us by Jesus, to bind and to loose, is given so that we can draw ourselves closer together in community. However, because the relationships we have must be mutually loving, mutually honest, mutually oriented toward reconciliation, there are moments when we must stop our attempts at reconciliation – temporarily at least. If someone cannot see that they have harmed us, if they refuse to follow advise then we may need time apart. We make them, “as a tax collector,” to us – a person distinct from our community, someone we cannot currently productively associate with. However, the promise of Christ is that no one is permanently out of reach.

            Though the relationship that once was may never be restored, something like it can be found again. Even if it is a simple acceptance from both parties that wrong was done, that the best reconciliation they can give one another is to abstain from interacting with one another, even this is better than quietly fomenting our hurt in the dark. The ties that bind us together are not always tightly wound, and though we ideally would see ourselves in close and loving relationships with one another, sometimes this is not possible. However, the work must be put in to preserve what we have, to strive to work to fix rather than throw away. We are given steps to follow toward reconciliation, we cannot deny a single one of them.

            Seek community, seek love, and seek to make amends in the face of all wrongs. – Amen.