St Andrew’s Parish of Indooroopilly
Sunday 6 September, 2020
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