So I guess now is a bad times to take a vacation in the tropics. Hurricane season has hit full force and doesn’t seem to be taking any prisoners. Just as we were getting over the destruction of Hurricane Harvey in Texas, then we heard the warnings of Hurricane Irma and watched as it just tore up the Caribbean and starting its way into Florida. The really crazy part is that my buddy was in the Dominican Republic when the storm warnings came, but thankfully Westjet came to the rescue and flew their passengers out early before the storm.
But it was pretty scary, as usually we read about these storms in far off places and we might think that is just sad. But when it affects someone we know and love, then suddenly the storm just got real. It’s like mother nature can hit at any time, and can change everything forever. And I won’t even lie, that freaks me out a little bit. Maybe not so much for me, but when I think that my loved ones could so easily be wiped out without a chance for me to even be there or say goodbye or in some cases, make amends, then I get scared of what the future might bring.
Before my dad died in the hospital, I spent a lot of time with him, talking to him, holding his hand, but mostly apologizing to him. I felt bad for being this thorn in his side for most of my life and just generally being a bad son. I felt the strong need to say these things to him before I wouldn’t have the chance anymore, and I am thankful that he was around for like 3 weeks before the stroke finally took him so I had plenty of time. But that was in its own way a fortunate situation, as we don’t always have that time as the end can come suddenly and unexpectedly.
Isn’t that a common fear for us humans? Not reconciling with our loved ones before it’s too late? We hear it in movies and stuff, something like “my last words to them were angry” or “I wish I had more time to goodbye” or “if only I could tell them I love them one more time” or along those lines. The fact is that we are a relational species, we are defined by our relationships and how well we can maintain them to a certain degree. Think about it, often when we meet someone the first couple questions usually are around what they do for a living and what their family make up is like. Right or wrong those are the things that seem to shape us the most and tell others of who we really are.
And because of this, our nature as relational beings, that I find myself appreciating the bible and the teachings of Jesus so much. Jesus know about this about us, how we are so relational, and gives us guidelines on how we can flourish in our relationships. I mean, all of the 10 Commandments describe to us what a good relationship looks like between us and God and each other. A good relationship with God has love and respect for God, and doesn’t replace God with other things that aren’t God. A good relationship with other people is respectful as well, not lying to and stealing from and especially not killing each other. I don’t care what you say, if you murder your friends that would be as sure sign that your relationship is dysfunctional.
Paul knew this too. In our reading from Romans today he tells us how all the Commandments can be summed up with love God, love your neighbour, and love yourself. And I know it isn’t always easy. It isn’t easy to love people who aren’t all that lovable. It isn’t easy to love even the lovable people all the time. It isn’t easy to love your kids, or your spouse, or your parents, or your friends when they are acting annoying or just treating you poorly. And it is even harder to learn to forgive them, especially when they don’t admit fault.
I know, because my kids (and my wife) often have no idea when they are doing something that angers me. They have no idea while they are doing their thing that they do that I am actually festering internally in my irritation. They have no idea that I am expecting them to say sorry for the “wrong” that they are doing, because in their minds they aren’t even doing anything wrong at all. And I’m supposed to just forgive them? Yeah, easier said than done.
But Jesus gives us some concise guidelines on how to do this if someone wrongs us. I actually wish that it was translated when someone wrongs us, because c’mon, let’s be real. These guidelines have gone over so well that they actually have become the template for many of our churches’ constitutions around conflict resolution. Throughout my years connected to the Lutheran church and many other churches through my schooling, I have heard countless stories of how committees and councils, congregations and communities, individuals and small groups have used these guidelines to effectively resolve conflict. They swear by it, because it works for them. It is the tried and true way to make sure that we can “fix” that relationship before it was too late.
At least, “fix” the relationship so that it isn’t our problem anymore.
See the thing with these guidelines, at least in my experience with them in the past, is that they have been interpreted as grounds for excommunication. They weren’t seen as a way to mend the relationship, but instead they were seen as giving us the authority to end it. They weren’t used to build up the church, but they were used to “purify it” if you will, to ensure that everyone coming out of the church fits the cookie cutter mold that was so carefully shaped by the generations of tradition, culture, and biblical interpretation of what is “right.”
I don’t think that is what Jesus meant with this teaching. While many in the past have thought “treat them as a Gentile or tax collector” to mean excommunication, to draw a line separating them from us, to build an impenetrable wall that will keep us in and those who are different out, I believe that Jesus mean to treat them as he quite literally would treat a Gentile or tax collector. And that is with grace, welcome, and love, in spite of difference.
Time after time Jesus was chastised for loving the unlovable. It wasn’t uncommon for Jesus to make the religious leaders feel uncomfortable because of the counter cultural way he would welcome the sinners and those on the fringes of society. In fact, Jesus’ radical love and almost sacrilegious hospitality for the undeserving outsiders was so against the grain that it had him killed. It was too much for those so steeped in tradition, religious rules, and what they saw as “good order.”
But Jesus, being fully human, was also a relational being. Jesus, feeling what we feel and needing what we need, had insight on how to maintain a healthy community. Jesus, having a loving heart so big that he was called the Son of God, freely extended that love to all people and taught us how to do the same.
This is what Jesus meant with his instruction today. Not to go through a checklist of actions so we can kick someone out of our community, but to provide a means where we can reconcile, understand, and ultimately love those whom we disagree with. See, these guidelines aren’t for the other to shape up, but they are for us to learn how to forgive in spite of difference. They aren’t giving us the authority to kick the other out, but they are showing us how to welcome all people. They aren’t about purifying the community and ending relationships, but they are about building up the community and creating right relationships full of grace and love.
Jesus knows we are relational people, so he helps us with our relationships. Jesus knows we are intrinsically in need of a welcoming community, so he teaches us how to build one. Jesus knows that we have a strong desire to reconcile and be reconciled with our loved ones before it is too late, so he shows us the importance and urgency of doing so, that this heaven on earth may spread and flourish until all people see and feel that love of God in and through their lives.
This is what Jesus meant with whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. He wasn’t talking about some mystical and eternal place where the consequences of your actions will be felt forever. But he was talking about the here and now, while we have the chance and opportunity to make a positive and lasting effect, that our actions and relationships matter. We aren’t building our relationships so that heaven will be a better place, but we are building our relationships so that earth, here and now, will be a better place. There is no time like now, there is no place like here, and there is no love like God’s that can help us to build up the kingdom full of welcome and glory for all people.
A few years ago, Larry King, who you all know and love, interviewed physicist Neil DeGrasse Tyson, who is better known as the only real life person to ever appear in a Superman comic, and talked about matters of life and death. I appreciate DeGrasse Tyson’s comments because they are always dogmatic and practical, even when they may not be entirely fuelled by faith. This is what he has to say:
While he says that his own death is his motivation for focus, I think it is the death of others that becomes be our focus. The death of my dad gave me focus to make amends with him. The potential danger my friend was in when the storm warnings came made me wonder if I needed to say anything to him. The fact that each and every one of us in this room will eventually end up dead causes me to want to make sure that we all have been reconciled to each other, hard feelings squashed and forgiven, and make it known that this is a community of welcome and grace. The time is now. We will not be around forever. So what we do in the here and now, in this place called earth, in this and other communities, our groups of friends, our families, matter. Really, really matter. While we are taught to treat each day as though it were our last, I think we should treat each day as though it was their last. That is what time it is.
As we continue through this season after Pentecost, exploring the growth of the church and community, may we remember the importance of relationship in our lives, that we may cherish them, work on them, and allow them to flourish for the sake of the gospel. Thanks be to God. Amen.