14th Sunday after Pentecost
Exodus 12:1-14; Psalm 149; Romans 13:8-14; Matthew 18:15-20
Paul continues his talk about genuine love this week in Romans, as he proclaims that we should not be indebted to anyone, our only debt is to God, to love one another. In loving one another, Paul decrees, we are fulfilling all the Law, because when we love each other with genuine love then we are loving God and, we would hope, vice versa. Yes, there is “an oughtness to love,” the late Frederick Craddock once wrote, then quoting 1 John 4:11: “Since God loved us so much [in the life and sacrifice of Jesus Christ] then we ought to love one another.”
God’s call on for us to love one another is not only an invitation; we are bound, commanded, obliged by the sacrifice of Jesus to love each other. We are not merely made free to love by Christ, we are bound to one another in love through and because of Christ.
So, how does Jesus’ teaching in Matthew advance the idea that we are bound to each other in love? After all, Matthew ends Jesus’ teaching by saying, if the person who has sinned against us refuses to accept even the efforts of the community to reconcile him and me, then he shall be cast out of the community; shunned, banished, like a “tax collector or Gentile.” Well, this is Matthew’s Gospel and what did Matthew do for a living again before he came into the Christ-fold? Yes, he was a tax collector and at the very end of the Gospel, Jesus sends His disciples out to “all nations to preach, make disciples and baptize in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.” At the time of Matthew’s writing there were challenges between Jewish and non-Jewish Christians about what Gentile converts to Christianity ought to have to do and be, in terms of Judaism. A lot of this passage’s most strident claims are, perhaps, colored through the lens of that conflict. But if we listen to the final words of Jesus in Matthew, or look at the totality of the Gospels, they tell us that no one is ever outside the scope of God’s love, known to us through the love of Jesus Christ our Lord.
Our Rite I liturgy prays, after the Collect for Purity: “Hear what our Lord Jesus Christ saith: you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, all of your soul, and all of your mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it: you shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments hang all the laws and the prophets.” Loving our neighbor is fulfilling the will of God, even as loving God himself. Answering one command flows from another.
We complicate things, however, in our human desire to avoid having to love our neighbors, at least, most of them. Loving one another as Christ loved us is not a difficult command to understand but it is very hard, terribly challenging, for us to do it. We, unfortunately for us and the world, tend to see folks that we don’t agree with, understand, or want to understand as people that we are free not to love. And this isn’t, Christ often reminds us, and Paul, too, the way it works. Our country, and actually most of the world, is a place of divisions, casting this person in that category or this light. Paul tells us that the night is far gone …There is an urgency to “putting on” Christ. Let us put on obedience to God and, for God’s sake, let us leave the really challenging things for us to God to sort out.
A movie came out about 20 years ago called Normal, set in the “Corn Belt”. The film follows a husband (Roy) and wife (Irma), who obviously love each other; they have a son and daughter. It becomes clear early on, however, that something is going on with Roy, the husband. He finally tells his wife that he is going through a crisis of gender; he has always felt that he was a woman, trapped inside a man’s body. She reacts, initially with anger, and throws him out of the house. Then she asks their pastor over from their nondescript, conservative church, and he explains to Roy that what he is experiencing is sin, and he needed to put his thoughts behind him and return to “normal.”
But Roy cannot and will not. His wife, who loves him, begins to find a way forward with them staying together. Roy begins to take hormone therapy and wear women’s clothing, the wife gives him fashion advice (he is hopeless in the women’s dress department), and they try to move forward with humor and not a little tension. Their children deal with it in very different ways. There is a powerful scene about 2/3 of the way through the film. They are in their home church, full and the offertory plate is being passed. Irma is in the choir where she sings; Roy and their daughter (who is maybe 12 or 13) are sitting in the very back pew. When the plate comes to Roy, he tries to put his pledge envelope in, but the usher pulls it away. Then an usher comes over and tells him quietly that he needs to leave. He nods, makes no fuss, and walks out with their daughter. Then his wife, seeing what has happened, puts her choral book down and weaves her way through the congregation, following her spouse out of the church.
Now this may seem like a radical example of difference, but in fact, we encounter difference in our lives frequently. Love of neighbor does not command us to understand everyone, what everyone is going through – sometimes we cannot possibly know what another child of God is going through – but God’s sacrificial life in Christ calls us to “love one another; love one, even as I have loved you.” We cannot allow our lack of understanding, our fear of someone’s difference that has morphed into anger, to prevent us from fulfilling Christ’s command to love our neighbor. “Who is my neighbor?” we hear the lawyer ask Jesus in Luke 15? And Jesus proceeds to tell them the story of the good Samaritan, hated by Jews for their difference and perceived lack of faith. Christ informs all who would listen that Samaritans, too, are neighbors and we are bound by the mandates of Christ’s love even to those we are completely opposed to. And we should be wary of any system or party who tell us that there is someone we need to fear so that we can learn to hate them … God, in His goodness, would have us come together in love, even if we will never understand each other this side of heaven.
Paul reminds us that our obedience to God is demanded urgently. “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.” We need, I believe, to urgently see God’s designs for us. We need not make ourselves the keeper of what is right and what is wrong, in the kingdom of God. God will sort out what needs sorting, so we have been told by God himself. We, of course, are not God, and we should not behave as such. We are would-be disciples of Jesus who, if we are going to follow in faith, must better learn how to love.