The Rev. Dr. Austin Leininger
Sermon of Proper 18
14th Sunday After Pentecost
10 September 2017
Over the past couple of weeks we’ve seen examples of Jesus offering both gentle and more stern correction to his disciples and followers. Just before last week’s gospel picked up the story, Jesus had commented on Peter’s faith being blessed in the organic faith formation that allowed him to recognize Jesus as the messiah, a deep and abiding faith that represented the rock on which the church would be built, and which held the Keys to unlocking the Kingdom of heaven in the world around him. Then he asked his disciples not to tell people he was the Messiah, but rather to live into his teachings and introduce people to God in a new way that might spark their own organic faith formation. Last week’s gospel picked up the story with Peter rebuking Jesus for foretelling his death in Jerusalem, and Jesus stern rebuke of Peter, saying, “Get behind me Satan… you are a stumbling block to me – you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”
Six days following this encounter, Jesus took Peter, James, and John to the mountaintop where he was transfigured, after which Jesus cast out a demon that the other disciples had been unable to cast out of a boy (again, he taught them by correcting them, reminding them that only through prayer can they achieve the deeds of power that give glory to God). Again, some days later, the disciples asked Jesus “who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” To answer, he took a child onto his lap and explained that humbleness is what marks greatness, “whoever is humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven,” he tells them. Then, paralleling his discussion with Peter, he warns his disciples and listeners not to become a stumbling block to others.
This is where we pick up this morning, essentially with the question of what happens when, like Peter and the other disciples, we DO get lost, or when we do get off track and become a stumbling block to others. Clearly we’re not going to tie a millstone around our necks and cast ourselves off a bridge, nor gouge out an eye or cut off a hand, though these less than helpful suggestions are noted as preferable to leading others away from God – so what DO we do for ourselves? Or, perhaps more to the point of Christ’s teaching, what do we do for each other in those times?
This is not one of the questions we like to deal with in our modern church – we don’t particularly embrace the whole concept of rebuke, of the ‘call to repentance’ that so marks the more outspoken members of the Christian faith who appear in the media calling our nation, or more usually some particular group that doesn’t fit into their theology, to repent and return to the “True teachings of Scripture.” Yet, what we do have, particularly here at Calvary, is perhaps closer to what Jesus’ followers had in his own time – that sense of community that goes beyond acquaintanceship to what more closely resembles a chosen family. And while the liberal pen of the early church scribes may have elaborated on Christ’s teaching for their own context, the heart of the message is clear – when we see someone who is struggling, be it with addiction, financial hardship, or just making bad choices that are going to hurt them and potentially others around them, we are bound by love not to simply sit idly by, but to reach out and make a difference.
So much of Christ’s teachings can be safely general – we’re exhorted to love God’s kingdom into the here and now, reaching out and helping others to share God’s abundance in the world, we’re told that when we feed the hungry, clothe the naked, soothe the suffering, greet the stranger, and visit the prisoner, we’re loving Christ’s own self in each of them… and while these are challenging, they are more safely challenging in their vagueness and subjective applicability. But speaking for myself, when I came to today’s reading there was something uncomfortable about the specificity of it that really triggered my aversion reflex. I love the idea that when two or three are gathered, Christ is amongst us, but confronting my friends in times when they are making bad choices is something I must admit that I rather dread.
As is so frequently the case, when I am averse to a particular passage in scripture, God sees fit to give me the opportunity to preach on it. True to form, after struggling with this scripture over the course of this past week, I finally came to peace with it. Where I found a connection was in realizing that none of us is alone in our faith. Our relationship with God is necessarily formed through and frequently because of our relationships with one another. How I live out my faith in the world necessarily impacts those with whom I come into contact, and, conversely, how others live out their faith in the world necessarily impacts me. Through this lens, our readings this morning began to take shape for me.
Israel, particularly at the time of their enslavement in Egypt, was one big extended family descending from Jacob’s twelve sons. Their community was premised on their lived covenant with God—faith in action—and their collective cry, unified in its desire for deliverance, was—as we heard last week in the story of the Burning Bush—heard by God. Moses, in turn, was sent to speak with Pharaoh—to call him to repentance and to set God’s people free to leave Egypt. Moses took Aaron with him, a second member of the community, and together they sought justice for Israel. In our reading from Exodus this morning, we hear the story of the first Passover, one of the most important of the Jewish traditions handed down through the centuries, which we may remember from the story in Exodus was the final plague in God’s rebuke of Pharaoh before he let Israel leave Egypt.
Continuing the story, in echoing Israel’s period of wandering in the desert immediately following their crossing over into freedom through the red sea, Paul speaks to us today about the commandments—but particularly through the lens of Christ’s new commandment to his followers to Love one another—our neighbors as our selves, and God with our whole hearts, minds, and strength, and by which, Paul asserts, all the other commandments are fulfilled. As we heard last week, this applies equally to friend, neighbor, loved one, and even to our enemies, whom Paul exhorts us to feed if we see them suffering from hunger.
Building further on this concept of Love, Christ tells us this morning that, essentially, there is a duty that comes along with this kind of love. If we are to Love as Christ loved, it is not simply loving from a far, or a simple kind of love that affirms and superficially looks after people in times of need, but a deep and abiding love, that cares enough even to confront when one of Christ’s beloved children of God is lost, self-destructing, or becoming a stumbling block.
Christ models for us, in the stories leading up to today’s gospel, how we can, with love in our hearts, and with open and honest words, seek to help one another.
His rebuke of Peter, while shockingly candid, is immediately followed by a teaching moment with all of Christ’s followers—if you are going to follow me, it means following me for who I am, not for whom you expect me to be. Take up that cross on your own shoulders, but be prepared to crucify your expectations when God’s idea of messiah doesn’t fit with human expectations. Peter, forgiven before Jesus even rebuked him, is then invited as part of Jesus’ innermost circle of friends to the mountaintop.
Echoing Christ’s words to Peter, he tells the rest of his followers in today’s gospel “Whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven”—Just as Peter was handed the key to the Kingdom of Heaven—so too each of us, counted amongst Christ’s followers and disciples, is given the same key—we are to love as Christ loved, and forgive as Christ forgave, loving God’s kingdom into the here and now. Yet this comes as a double edged sword. This same love that proclaims God’s abundance and brings God’s kingdom into the here and now, loving and forgiving unconditionally, also brings with it the duty to love one another so deeply and completely that, when the necessary time comes, we too can love to the point of shocking candor.
This is the voice of deep compassion, love, and empathy, yet on the receiving end, it is also the voice of rebuke, challenge, and chagrin.
It is the co-dependent friend or spouse finally confronting their loved one with their addiction. It is the voice that says—you’re messing up your life, and others are suffering because of it. It is the voice that says—if you keep going in this direction you’re going to cut yourself off from those who love you. It is the voice that says, I love you too much to watch you kill yourself.
It is the voice speaking on behalf of the abused spouse or child, confronting their abuser. It is the voice that says—you’re hurting the people who love you most and you need to seek help. It is the voice that says—I love you too much to watch you tear your family apart.
It is the Coffee Hour friend who has watched the downward spiral in the faith life and health risks of a fellow churchgoer, and confronts the rumors. It is the voice that says—you don’t seem okay, and there are rumors starting to circulate about your personal life; do you want to go somewhere safe and talk?
It is the peer in ministry who has been left feeling abandoned and unsupported in a time of need confronting their team leader. It is the voice that says—you dropped the ball, and I was left feeling hurt, abandoned, and frightened. It is the voice that says—I am too wounded by your inaction to discuss this now, please give me space. It is the voice that says—please learn from this so it doesn’t happen to me or someone else again.
Having at various points in my life been on the giving or receiving end of each of these examples, I can honestly say that the truth sometimes hurts. In each case, having the courage to speak up or having the courage to listen, to ‘own’ our mistakes, and to change our ways is tough. Many of us avoid it for as long as we can, but the heart of Christ’s message in today’s gospel lies precisely in this space of painful truth where our duty to one another in relationship with each other and in community as a people of faith is not simply to love with hugs, pats on the back, or a shoulder to cry on, but to have the level of respect, care, and love for one another that, when necessary, transgresses the boundary of niceness and politeness.
If we truly are to love as Christ loved, we must learn to love enough to be able to say – even to our best friend, “Get behind me satan!” when the circumstances demand it. As hard as it might be to confront those we love with the painful truth, we can be assured that the consequences may be far worse if we don’t, and when we see the far reaching impact of each of our actions within a small and tightly knit community such as our families, and even such as Calvary, it is easy to see the importance of this message for the health and thriving of our collective faith life.
If, as Christ indicates, each of us has within us the Kingdom of God, then it is most certainly true that whatever we retain in our lives and hearts is retained in God’s kingdom, and that whatever we loose in our lives and hearts is set loose in God’s kingdom. May Paul’s words guide us in discerning our path based on Love, and may Christ’s words guide us into a deeper and fuller understanding of what love truly is.