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What Love Looks Like in Community

A sermon on Matthew 18:15-20, Ezekiel 33:7-11, and Romans 13:8-14.

[for an audio recording of this sermon, click here. Photo by Hannah Busing on Unsplash.]

As most of you know, I have been dealing with a knee problem over this summer that required surgery a couple of weeks ago.

Happily, the surgery was a success, and I am on my way to full healing.

I am truly grateful for everything that made this surgery and healing possible: starting with lots of prayer support, and also including skilled medical professionals, good health insurance, a job that makes it relatively easy to take time off, and a family that fills in the gaps when I am out of commission.

ALSO - it’s hard to be out of commission.

I don’t like being dependent on other people. I am far more comfortable being the one who gives help than the one who needs help.

And when needing help meant needing to ask someone else every single time I needed a glass of water, or an ice pack, or a charging cord, or literally anything that required a free hand to carry the item… it meant a pretty constant reminder that I was dependent on help.

Thankfully, I have an amazing family, so the repeated refrain of “can someone please get me…” was not a source of significant conflict in the days following my surgery.

Nevertheless, having this experience of dependency as the context for reading today’s gospel message gave me a perspective on this passage that I have never before considered.

It is a familiar passage, but it is one I have always sort of compartmentalized in my mind.

This is the “church-conflict” text.

Its purpose is to provide a clear process for addressing bad behavior in a congregation, with escalating levels of accountability, that minimize stress on the system.

In leadership theory language, this is the equivalent of a “technical solution” to the inevitable problem of conflicts in community. It does not require much imagination to implement, and it has a clearly defined goal.

In other words, it is probably one of the least theological texts in the New Testament…. Or, at least, that’s how I have always read it before.

And, to be fair, that’s mostly how I have heard it discussed in church circles.

Churchy-types will talk about the “Matthew 18” process in the same way that HR-types will talk about employee improvement plans.

But in the immediate context of my week of dependency, I found something I did not expect in these 6 verses.

Rather than a technical, four-point process for escalating responses to problem behavior… I saw a picture of committed, interdependent community.

The frame for that picture is the context of conflict between two members.

But the picture itself is of a far bigger reality: it is a picture of what it looks like to belong to each other… to be part of a community where actions that cause harm need to be dealt with in a particular way, a way that considers the needs of the people immediately involved, but also the impact of a lingering conflict on the community as a whole.

Because of my recent perspective on what it feels like to be dependent, I suddenly saw how much this scripture presupposes that we are all interdependent - that we all need each other.

That we can’t just deal with a conflict in whatever way feels most natural, or emotionally cathartic, or least anxiety-producing for us as individuals.

Because we are NOT just separate, autonomous, completely independent individuals… not in the kind of church that Jesus is trying to create.

And that truth is probably even more uncomfortable for most of us than a week of enforced dependence on my family was for me.

Because our culture tells us to fiercely guard our independence.

We are taught to defend our rights, and even our opinions, against all who would challenge them.

We are taught to treat with suspicion anyone who might impose upon our resources or take more from society than they put into it.

We are taught that none of us should ever be forced to compromise our personal interests for the common good, or - increasingly - to even be exposed to any ideas that make us uncomfortable.

And American Christianity, for the most part, has not challenged these cultural values.

When American Jesus calls us to “take up our cross” it’s mostly expressed in an individualistic way, calling for personal moral purity or sacrifice … it’s not understood to be about committing to a community that might actually require us to consider the needs of others as seriously as we consider our own.

If you disagree, then I invite you to consider what you would feel like if you found yourself in Ezekiel’s position:

Imagine hearing from God that you need to deliver a word of dire judgment from God against your community - the people you love, the culture you identify with, the society with which your whole life is bound up.

Imagine hearing God say to you that if you decide NOT to deliver this devastating message (because it is horrifying, or frightening, or just makes you intensely anxious and uncomfortable to put yourself in this role of delivering a message that it likely to get really strong reactions), then you will be personally responsible for every one of their deaths.

It feels violating, right?!

Justice is not supposed to work that way. We are each accountable for our own actions. We aren’t responsible for other people. Right?

This is part of the bedrock of the moral foundations we are raised with in our culture.

But neither Ezekiel nor Jesus are American. Their cultures are much more communally-oriented, with an innate understanding that human beings ARE responsible for each other.

What is more, the guidance Jesus gives for the creation of his church is communally-oriented as well… and not only for cultural reasons.

Jesus might not be fighting deeply ingrained patterns of individualism in his words to his disciples about how to deal with conflict, but neither is he just offering them a technical process for conflict resolution.

Of course, he’s not! That would be completely out of character! Everything he does, everything he teaches, is always about revealing the kingdom of God to humanity.

And in the kingdom of God, we belong to each other. We are responsible to and for each other. We make decisions considering MORE than just ourselves and our comfort level, or our preferred way of functioning. There is no room for “just me and Jesus” is the faith that JESUS teaches.

Whether it is a question of how we deal with conflict, or how we call out harmful behavior, or how we respond to the needs of others. The faith that Jesus teaches is a faith that is inseparable from community.

This is the theological foundation beneath the idea of “God’s Work, Our Hands.”

Not God’s Work, My Hands or God’s Work, Your Hands. God’s Work, Our Hands.

The ELCA calls us to practice, on the second Sunday of September each year, a calling that Jesus has lain on us every Sunday and every day in between:

a calling to be about the work of caring for each other and the world around us. A calling to be his church, which means belonging to each other.

There are ways that this calling is uniquely challenging for our society and our time in history with its obsession with individualism.

But there is also a gift in this calling that may be especially sweet for us:

The reminder that “we owe no one anything, except to love one another,” as Paul puts it in the reading from Romans.

This is actually what it means to belong to each other: that our only obligation is love.

It’s not an onerous burden. It’s not an imposition on our inalienable rights.

It’s a release from the prison of self-absorption to actually experience the fullness of love.

Love that changes every prohibition, and every commandment into the life-changing shift that fulfills our deepest created purpose: To live in love just as we are loved.

And whether - in any given moment - that means working intentionally through conflict,

or calling for repentance when someone is causing harm,

or helping a neighbor in need,

or accepting when we are the one who needs help…

It always means belonging to a community of love.

Thanks be to God.


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