Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost 4 September 2011
(Ezekiel 33:7-11 Psalm 119 Romans 13:8-14 Matthew 18:15-20)
“Blest Be the Tie the Binds!”
Let me begin by telling you an amazing story:
He was born in the year 1740 near the town of Yorkshire, England. He was orphaned at age 12. As a young boy he was then forced to work in a sweatshop 14 hours a day. He learned to read by candlelight during these traumatic growing years of his life. He was converted at age 16 under the preaching of the Anglican priest George Whitefield. He entered the seminary and was ordained a Baptist minister at the age of 25. He began his ministry at a poor church in Wainsgate in northern England, a tiny congregation that could only afford to pay him a minimal salary, partly in potatoes and wool.
After seven years of ministry, he received a call to the prestigious Carter’s Lane Church of London. He accepted the call and preached his farewell sermon. The wagons were loaded with his books and furniture, and all was ready for his departure, when the parishioners gathered around him, and with tears in their eyes begged of him to stay.
His wife said, “ John, John, I cannot bear this.” “Neither can I,” exclaimed the good pastor, “and we will not go.” And so he stayed.
Not long afterward, John Fawcett wrote a hymn for the congregation at Wainsgate entitled, Blest Be the Tie that Binds, recognizing that the hand of love he knew there in that small, simple congregation was worth more than any material wealth.
If John Fawcett holds out a vision of congregational life with this beloved hymn, the playwright Thorton Wilder holds up a mirror to congregational life, as we too often experience it. In the first act of his play, Our Town, which depicts life in Grover’s Corner, an average town in 20th century America, we have met the bitter choir master, Simon Stimson as well as three gossipy choir members, Mrs. Webb, Mrs. Gibbs, and Mrs. Soames. As we hear Mr. Stimson berating the choir about their singing, and then we hear in the first act, the three women tittle-tattling about the alleged alcoholism of the choir master, in the background we hear the choir practicing the hymn Blest Be the Tie That Binds.
Human beings are sinners. We do not always agree with each other. We have differing opinions, different visions, and different ways of resolving issues. We hurt each other, and sometimes I really think we are not aware of how or how deeply we hurt another person; and then I do think, sadly, that there are times when we hurt each other very deliberately.
This Gospel text from Matthew 18 comes out of community life, and it gives us a recipe for reconciliation between people. Jesus is pretty clear to provide advice on how to move toward reconciling grievances. And although I recognize that this may not be a recipe for every situation, it does give some pretty clear and specific advice.
Note: the initiative almost always comes from the one who has been aggrieved.
Note the steps:
The first step, says Jesus, is for the one who has suffered the hurt to go to the person who has inflicted it. This is never as each as it may sound. The reality is that we often like to wallow in our hurt but never really address it to the person who has hurt us. But if the one hurt has the courage to speak to the other and the other has the courage to listen honestly and openly, Jesus is saying that reconciliation is a possibility.
And if this does not work? Then take one or two others along with you. Not so you can gang up on the other person, but in Jewish tradition, at least two people were needed as witnesses.
And if that does not work, invite the community to help resolve the situation.
And then Jesus says, if this strategy fails, “…then treat the offender as a Gentile or a tax collector.”
For me this is the heart and soul of this passage. It can easily be misunderstood. Here’s why! At first glance this verse may seem to mean that the offender should be excluded from the community. After all, Gentiles were outsiders! They were not members! They were the ones forbidden by Jewish Law to be part of the family!
But when we look at the way Jesus befriended and ate with such people—Gentiles, outsiders, sinners–it may very well be that Jesus is asking us to be willing to sit and break bread together, even, and most especially with those persons with whom we have irreconcilable differences.
What holds we sinners together is not that we all think alike, or even that we always treat each other in a nice way. What holds us together is our Baptismal promise and commitment to die to self, and our being sealed as one community by the Holy Spirit and marked with the Cross of Jesus Christ. And all of this, not simply so we can be one, big happy family sitting together enjoying ourselves, but that we can work together to use our combined resources to reach out beyond ourselves.
In the Old Testament Book of Hosea, that profoundly personnel prophetic book that gives us an image of God as deeply loving and compassionate and vulnerable, in spite of the fact that God’s people are wayward, sinful and seemingly without gratitude, in Chapter 11 we hear God speaking as a distraught and disappointed parent, yet one filled with undying love, when God says:
“When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son.
The more I called them, the more they went away from me.
Yet it was I who taught Ephraim to walk,
I took them up in my arms, but they did not know that it was I who healed them.
I led them with cords of human kindness, with bonds of love.
I was to them like those who lift infants to their cheeks.
I bent down to them and fed them.”
Verse 4, “I led them with cords of human kindness, with bonds of love”—this was surely the verse that inspired John Fawcett to write his hymn, Blest be the tie That Binds. This verse speaks of God’s loving relationship with God’s people, God as a loving parent unwilling to stop loving, as well as the vision, the way we are called to love each other.
We are called to forgive because Christ has first forgiven us.
As St. Paul writes to the Romans: “Owe no one anything, except to love one another.” (Romans 18:8). Amen.