Everything belongs


St Andrew’s Parish of Indooroopilly 

Sunday 6 September, 2020 

Exodus 12.1-14  

Romans 13.1-10  

Matthew 18.10-20 

Everything belongs ©Suzanne Grimmett 

This month we celebrate the Season of Creation, a time in the liturgical  calendar for us to honour the sacredness of the natural world and our  shared place in the web of life. 

Yet in today’s Gospel we hear not about our essential belonging and  unity, but about exclusion and conflict. What we hear today is only a  section of the chapter in which all the teachings and stories can be  related to the earlier question of the disciples, “Who is the greatest?”  and the kind of conflicts and rivalries that arise from such posturing and  competition. Jesus answers this question by pointing to a little child,  and then implies that their rivalries and inability to make peace amongst  themselves results in the stumbling and suffering of many “little ones”  who are caught up in the human drive for self-advancement. It is in this  context as an extended response to the question about greatness that  references to seeking lost sheep and pursuing reconciliation within  community need to be heard.  

This section on how to deal with disagreements and hostilities in a  community is often seen as a blueprint to be applied to conflict and  boundary setting. Jesus says when others hurt us we should first try to  privately point out the fault. If there is a refusal to listen we should work together with the community. Only if that fails then, “let such a one be  to you as a Gentile and a tax-collector.” 

The principle is there- talk to one another about your hurts and listen to  one another. Do not be like the surrounding culture which avoids real  and honest conversations by seeking punishment first- generally by  reporting on to a higher authority – because the task of reconciliation  requires mental and emotional abilities that seem too difficult. This is  what we are called to as followers of Christ: it is not easy but honesty  and forgiveness is the narrow road. Love and grace that is extended  without truth-telling becomes false love and cheap grace. Confession  and change are not doctrine so much as a daily practice through which  our spirits become more open to the difficult work of hearing criticism  and responding with grace. 

However, sometimes this passage has been used as a justification for  exclusion. Doesn’t Jesus give permission for us to cast another out  when he says, “If the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let  such a one be to you as a Gentile and tax collector?” 

To interpret these words in this way is to ignore the context in which  they are found and indeed to the witness of Jesus’ life. How did Jesus  treat tax collectors? Well he called them to follow, scandalised  onlookers by hanging out with them and made them his disciples. How  did Jesus treat Gentiles? He frequently recognised demonstrations of  their faith, and, in a couple of notable encounters, entrusted them with  the secrets of his identity and the kingdom. So Jesus is telling us that  when people exclude themselves, we are called to invite them into the  family and try to restore them to community. When we end up in conflict, we are called to lay down our rivalries and power games and  seek out peace with all the humility and loving attention we can muster.  

Immediately after today’s text in Matthew, Peter, (who clearly was understanding the trajectory of Jesus’ teaching), asks, “Lord, if another  member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive?”  The answer effectively is that there is no limit. Forgiveness is a daily  practice and all the talk about binding may be about what we do to  ourselves when we think we can cut off a brother or a sister from our  fellowship. God’s hands are indeed tied when we are determined to  nurse our resentment. When we open ourselves to forgiveness and  intentionally create communities of forgiveness and grace we let loose  on earth a transformative power for good.  

The lost sheep reminds us that God is not interested in numbers, return  on investment or 10 steps to being an effective manager. The God  revealed in Jesus is interested in wholeness and connection, and so  everything will be risked in ridiculous extravagance for the one who has  lost themselves and is wandering alone. This is no lessening of the  requirement upon us to treat one other with utter seriousness and care  and to tell people honestly when their actions or speech is hurtful, but it  is a strident refusal to allow anyone to be banished. We belong together  and all too often judgemental voices and internal rivalries result in the  despair of some of those very ‘little ones’, the poor or powerless, who  are wounded by our divisions and lack of care. If we take the  interconnectedness of all life seriously, then we should surely see some  of the vulnerable species on this earth as some of those “little ones” as  well. The vulnerable who should not be forgotten and discarded  because it happens to be expedient. 

Jesus in this whole chapter is pointing the disciples to a different way,  beyond rivalry and self-interest to sharing in a loving and diverse  community which recognises that we all belong and every part of this  web of life on this earth is infinitely precious. It is opposite to some of  the totalising ideologies holding power in the world today- perhaps best  epitomised by the leadership of Donald Trump in the US. Such  ideologies reveal an uncritical embrace of national exceptionalism, of  winners and losers, of lucky insiders, and outsiders who are always  going to remain at the bottom of the pile. Instead of the community of  friends envisioned by Jesus we have, in the words of Walter  Brueggemann, “the commoditisation of all social possibilities and the  endless production of dispensable persons who have no legitimate  membership.” In this time of pandemic such regimes have made it 1 clear that some lives are disposable. This is the opposite of what Jesus  is speaking about through this 18th chapter of Matthew when he tells  us to eschew the easy path of rejection and careless exclusion,  communicate with honour to all, protect the powerless ones, forgive  and seek out those who feel utterly lost and alone.  

When we begin to see ourselves as not having to relentlessly strive for  achievement or security, but rather as inextricably caught up in the web  of life, always connected to other living things and the source of all life,  we can let go of such heavy burdens and rest in our “belongingness.”  But I also think that when Jesus speaks of the relentless search for the  one who is lost, when he reaches out again and again to those others  would despise as Gentiles, tax collectors or sinners, we are being given steadfast assurance that we, too, will never be excluded by God. We  would have to wilfully insist on our own separation to not be at the  table, and even then we would be sought…pursued….beloved.  

The cost of separation is high. Too high for any of us to pay, yet we are  paying for it in our time because we have forgotten that we belong to  one another and belong in this sacred web of life. The God whom we  see incarnate in Jesus the Christ is a God who was not willing to let the  poor go hungry or any of the little ones perish. We are drawn to the holy  calling that says enough of sacrifice, enough of exclusion; we were all  made to find a home in the one who is love. We see this in the witness  of Jesus’ life and his teaching including the prayer he gave us  beautifully paraphrased by Steven Shakespeare…we pray; 

Divine mother, divine father  

To be in you is to be in heaven.  

May we hear the wonder that echoes in your name.  May we accept no rule but the rule of love.  

May we never tolerate the evil of hunger.  

May the hurts we cause be forgiven  

And the hurts we receive be healed.  

May we remember that we are fragile  

And cherish the love we share with all.  

For all love, and life and power  

Is the gift of the Spirit. Amen.  

So let us honour one another, cherish the diversity and wonder of the  earth and live into our fullest humanity where we all conspire- breathe  together- with God, in a life lived in forgiveness and love.  +Amen.

 Walter Brueggemann, The Prophetic Imagination: 40th Anniversary edition (Fortress Press, 1 Minneapolis: 2018) p 131