Sunday, September 4

Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Proper 18A
Exodus 12:1-14
Psalm 149
Romans 13:8-14
Matthew 18:15-20

The word I had thought to bring at the beginning of the week was usurped-- upended and set aside and washed away, just as surely as anything we saw on the news this week. This is more or less what came out instead. . .

Seems to me that today’s readings are about choices. Jesus and Paul have this in common today-- both of them are talking about how we treat people; how we choose to act, and react, toward one another, whether the “other” is also a follower of Jesus or not. It’s about interpersonal relationships, and living in community, and better ways to direct our behavior in order to strengthen the bonds of faithful fellowship.

But in light of recent events, I find that I hear that Word now in a very different light than when I first read it at the beginning of the week.

Oh, it’s still about choices. And it’s still about how Jesus would have us treat one another. But I’m also hearing more clearly from Jesus that this is not all about sweetness and light. In fact, this gospel addresses how hard that can be. How should you deal with a member of the church who sins against you-- who is likely difficult and uncooperative and unpleasant in the bargain?

Well, you are to try to go privately and work it out, to restore the relationship to health and wholeness.

And if it doesn’t work? Do you give up? Nope. You take reinforcements, and you try again.

And if that doesn’t work, you still don’t give up. You try again, with everything you have. The whole enchilada.

And if the problem still persists, even after that? “Let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector,” Jesus says.

Now, be careful here. Often, I’ve heard this interpreted to mean that you give up and ignore them, but I think there’s more of a lesson here than that. A harder road, maybe-- but one of possibility, and of grace, that we miss if we stop there.

Let’s look at Jesus. How did he treat tax collectors and gentiles? He did not, in point of fact, shun them at all. They did not control his life or his decisions, certainly; and he was not swayed by their unacceptable practices. However he still ate with them, still taught, and healed... still cared for them, even through it all. He remained open, hoping every moment that every person, every possible relationship in his path would become one of faithfulness, wholeness and love. He sometimes got impatient, sometimes bluntly sarcastic, and once in a while actively angry; but he never, ever gave up.

This week, the Gulf Coast region of this country has experienced unprecedented devastation. We’ve all read the news, and heard the reports, and seen the pictures and the videos. . . homes destroyed, and lives taken. . . so much that, honestly, the more I hear, the harder it is to take it all in.

And as time goes by, the stories seem to get worse.
People who lived through the storm, dying in the streets. . .
looting, and rape, and murder. . .
people so desperate and disconnected from any semblance of civilized standard of behavior that they behave like rabid dogs. . .
officials at state and national levels charged with “promoting the general welfare” of the citizenry, whose decisions about funding and emergency planning are found to have ranged from questionable ignorance to thoughtlessly, neglectfully criminal. . .

Given all of this, it seems a reasonable question to ask: where is God in all this?

I do not have all the answers to that question, my brothers and sisters; as God is my witness, I wish I did. However, I believe that I’ve seen part of the answer-- and this Gospel points to it.

I have a friend-- an alum from my seminary-- who is rector of a church in Mississippi, on the Gulf. This week, after Katrina went through, he found that the building is simply not there anymore. Not damaged beyond repair, not demolished. . . gone. As are the homes of something like a third of the congregation. And estimates are that 90% of the remaining parishioners' homes are damaged.

And yet. . . the first word I heard from him, had to do with today.

"We will hold services Sunday," he says. "After that, I don't know. But this I do know - we will get through this and we will continue to be the church."

He’s not giving up.

And his bishop, the Rt. Rev. Duncan Gray, likewise has a reminder to share.

We are a people of both the Cross and the Resurrection. The last word from God is not death, but life. God uses the open hearts, minds and lives of faithful souls to renew, restore and redeem that which seems beyond hope.

We will work hand in hand with the people of the Gulf Coast to rebuild their homes and their churches. We will walk with them as bearers of hope through the work of our Crucified Lord. He has borne our grief, brought our sorrows into His heart and has become for us the vehicle and means for life and hope.

We are His witnesses. We shall be faithful.

He’s not giving up.

Nor does Jesus. “Where two or three are gathered in my name, I will be among them,” is how he finishes today's Gospel. Not only in church on Sunday; not only when he’s in the mood, or except for when he’d rather focus his energies elsewhere; not when our behavior is good enough. . .

Every time.

He’s not giving up.

There is good news, indeed-- good news worth owning, and worth sharing. And there is also a lesson, an opportunity. . . a gift, in the midst of the horror. We also have the chance to choose Jesus’ way, and not to give up. We have gifts placed before us, and within us, to share-- the money in our pockets, the possessions in our homes, the skills in our hands and our hearts. . .

We are his witnesses. How shall we be faithful?