Proper 18 Year A
September 10, 2017
There’s a billboard overlooking the northbound side of the New Jersey Turnpike, just after the tolls from I-78. And even as I dodge trucks and weave through traffic trying to merge on to the Turnpike, the sign catches my eye every time. It reads, “Real Christians Obey Jesus’ Teachings,” and it even includes a number to call 1800 REAL TRUTH.
Now, I’ve never been much of a rule-follower, and in fact, if a particular rule doesn’t pass my own internal “makes-sense-test,” I could definitely be considered a rule-breaker, for better or for worse. [Ask Joe LaVela about the time I drove wrong way down an empty one-way street in order to get through some heavy Newark traffic!] So, even as much as I’m all-in on Jesus, this billboard – “Real Christians Obey Jesus’ Teachings” - makes me incredibly uneasy. I cringe at the thought of who or what determines a person to be a “real” Christian. And I balk at the word “obey,” and feel like it’s an order for some sort of blind or forced march.
Now, of course, we know and acknowledge the 10 Commandments. Obeying them has been a part of our belief and ethic system for over 3000 years. They were such an important part of community life and faithful worship, that Moses trekked up Mount Sinai, spent 40 days in the clouds talking with God, and came down – not just once, but twice (after he smashed the first set) - with the Commandments written in stone.
Matthew’s Gospel picks up on that theme, and is considered by many to be the most legalistic of all the Gospels. In it, Jesus calls his followers to love and obey him and to keep his commandments. Or, using the terminology from the Turnpike billboard, Matthew would say “Real Christians” love their enemies. “Real Christians” don’t take oaths. “Real Christians” share their wealth with the poor. “Real Christians” deny themselves, and take up their crosses.
These are just some of Jesus’ teachings, critical for ordering and sustaining a faithful Christian community. And in today’s reading, Jesus presents what sounds like a pretty neat and practical formula for keeping order. Someone offends you. You confront them; call them out on it, in an attempt to restore peace to a community. If that doesn’t work, you intervene with the help of others. And if that fails, you cut them off and kick them out. Boom. “Real Christians follow Jesus’ Teachings.”
But what the Turnpike billboard misses, and what reading these teachings legalistically misses is the subtlety of Jesus’ true focus; his on RELATIONSHIPS.
You see, what if Jesus isn’t simply setting up rules of engagement or some sort of fence or border to determine who’s in and who’s out? Because as far as I know Jesus – and maybe that’s not saying much – Jesus is not in the business of building fences or borders. Rather, Jesus is in the business of building relationships and binding us together in community.
So, what if the point of these commandments, or of today’s Gospel is less about having a code of conduct to follow, and more about restoring a relationship . . . regaining a brother or sister? And what if the main concern isn’t necessarily about settling disputes, but about creating an environment where Christ’s presence brings forgiveness, healing, joy, wholeness?!?
Truthfully, when you think about it, forging and maintaining relationships is MUCH much harder than it is following some set of rules. It’s a lot harder to talk to someone, directly, than it is to go behind their back and drum up support for your position. It’s a lot harder to listen to someone’s hurt in person than it is posting something on social media. It’s a lot harder to work through disagreements or disputes than it is passing judgment, and walking away. Believe me, I know. I have lived it. I have lived by it, and I have failed at it. Over and over and over again. But, I am convinced, that all of that – and more – is what living in community requires. And I think that THAT is what “Real Christians” do.
Living in community is no picnic. No panacea. And for first century Christians, community was not just a matter of convenience or luxury either. Community was a matter of survival.
Truth be told, though I think many of us loathe to admit it, the same goes for us today. The pull for us to be isolated, independent, and self-sufficient is one of the most powerful forces going. We bury ourselves in our phones or other devices. Or keep earbuds in to avoid conversation. I am as guilty of this as anyone. Texting instead of talking. Or, someone might say, “I’m spiritual, but not religious.” But what I hear in that is that ‘I find God in sunsets or yoga poses, but I won’t do the work – I won’t risk the vulnerability - that living in community takes.’
We are not meant to stand alone. Not meant to bear our burdens alone. Not meant to wear our imperfections alone. God’s desire – and Jesus’ teaching – is that we walk together. That we disagree, apologize, make amends – forgive and be forgiven – as a community, and that we serve the world, as a community. ‘For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.”
So, this morning, I invite you to look around. Look at the people here, the people in the pews around you, in the pews across the aisle, in the front and in the back, up in the choir loft . . . . And also, bring to mind someone that’s NOT here. Someone that’s missing worship today. And I invite you to see each person as a gift from God, as a necessary and gifted part of our lives, and as part of a powerful community that can witness to God’s glory, grace and forgiveness.
There’s an old saying that the “Church is like Noah’s ark. You can’t stand the stench inside except for the storm outside.” And the storm outside does not just include hurricanes Irma and Harvey. The storm outside also includes places where hate and intolerance, and violence rage. Places of paralyzing fear. And of course, we face plenty of internal storms as well – grief, loss, pain, addiction, heartache. Community is how we survive, and no matter how challenging at times, it’s also how we know God’s presence.
What a gift to the world we are as a community; witnesses to God’s transformative power. A witness to glory. A witness to grace. A witness to forgiveness. And a real witness to what it means to be a “Real Christian.” Amen.
*Special thanks and attribution to David Lose’s “In the Meantime,” which offered this interpretation on today’s Gospel!