Pentecost 12 (Year A), Sunday, September 4, 2011
Ezekiel 33:7-11, Psalm 119:33-40, Romans 13:8-14, Matthew 18:15-20
Preached by Anna C. Haugen, Trinity Lutheran Church, Somerset, PA
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord.
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
As some of you know, I have two younger brothers. The youngest is sixteen years younger than I am: we didn’t really grow up together. But the middle brother, Nels, is only four and a half years younger than me. In general, Nels and I had a very good relationship growing up … except for Saturdays. Saturdays, we didn’t get along. You see, our parents own their own business. When we were growing up they worked almost every Saturday during their busy season. Nels and I would be at home alone together, and since I was the elder, I was in charge. There were two things we had to do every Saturday: we had to eat a good lunch—not just snacks, but a nutritious meal—and we had to clean the bathrooms. Dividing the labor was where the trouble began.
The first part was easy. Cleaning toilets kind of grossed me out, but they didn’t bother Nels. And Nels could never quite get the mirrors spotless enough to pass Mom’s inspection. So Nels did the toilets, and I did the countertops, sinks, and mirrors. So far, so good. The conflict arose when we got to the bathtubs. You see, one of the bathtubs was easy to clean. The other was not. The other bathtub was stained, and showed dirt and grime, and required a lot of scrubbing to get it acceptably clean. So that was the battle each week: who would clean which tub?
Being the one left in charge, I was the one who got to decide. My decree was that the fairest way to do it would be that the one who finished cleaning their assigned part of the bathrooms first got to choose. It was a fairly safe decision for me, given the differences in how Nels and I approach tasks. When I start, I tend to work hard and constantly until I’m done, so that I can get on to doing something else. Nels, on the other hand, is more of a daydreamer. He worked slowly, with frequent breaks. Despite the fact that I had more surface to clean, I don’t think Nels ever finished cleaning the toilets before I was done with the counters, sinks and mirrors. Which meant that I always got to choose, and of course I always chose the easier tub to clean. You can see how I thought that division of labor was perfectly fair. After all, I was the harder worker, surely that deserved a reward. But you can also see why Nels did not agree.
And it didn’t stop there. We had a deal that we would trade off making lunch every week, but I’m not that fond of cooking. So I would sometimes try and get Nels to do it, even if it was really my turn. After spending quite a long time cleaning—remember that Nels was not a fast worker—and having to clean the harder tub, Nels would come out into the living room only to be confronted with his older sister asking him: “Isn’t it your turn to make lunch?” I’m sure you can imagine the squabbles and hurt feelings between us. Many Saturdays followed that pattern. We got along fairly well the rest of the time, but on Saturdays, we fell back into the same unhealthy pattern. We never tried to fix it, do things differently, to find a way to work together in love. We just did the same old thing, and fought the same battle over and over again.
I think both Paul and Jesus would have a lot to say about that. In our reading from Romans today, Paul writes: “The commandments … are summed up in this word, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.” The commandments our parents gave us for Saturday mornings were given in love. We were commanded to eat nutritious meals so that we would grow up healthy and strong. We were commanded to clean the bathrooms so that we would learn responsibility and so that the whole family would have a clean place to live. Both commandments were given for our good, and for the good of the whole family. But we did not follow them in love, and so they only caused turmoil and arguments. And because the guidelines I developed to tell us how to follow those commandments were based on my own selfish desires rather than love of my brother, they caused trouble and pain.
Have you ever had a similar time in your own life? A time when commandments and rules that were designed for good were used instead to hurt? It’s something I’ve noticed humans are particularly prone to. God’s commandments were given in love. They are designed to help us live good and faithful lives, abundant lives rich in grace and mercy. Instead, through our own sinfulness, we make them into burdens. Instead of helping us to love God and one another, we interpret the laws so that they work to our own advantage, even at the expense of our neighbor. We use laws and rules as weapons. We use them to separate ourselves, keep ourselves apart, rather than as ways to help us live together in love and harmony. We keep the letter of the law and ignore the spirit. We let division and selfishness rule instead of love.
Love is not always easy. There’s this idea, in America, that love should be effortless, and if there’s a struggle, that it’s not really love. I think that’s one reason there are so many divorces, these days. Couples start out in harmony, but the honeymoon doesn’t last forever. Eventually there comes a time when things get hard, when they disagree. Some of them decide that since it isn’t easy—since it requires work to get through whatever the trouble is—that it means they’re not really in love any more. People do the same with friends. There’s a disagreement, a problem of some kind. Someone’s feelings get hurt. And instead of working through it, the friendship is abandoned. There’s a saying that love means never having to say you’re sorry. I think that’s wrong, because even when we love people, we sometimes hurt them through selfishness or carelessness or honest disagreement. I think that love truly means being willing to admit when you’re wrong, to apologize, and work together to rebuild your relationship. And love means being willing to forgive even when you’ve been hurt.
We as Christians should know this well. God loves us so much that he is willing to forgive us no matter how we hurt him. As Paul said earlier in Romans chapter 5, “ God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us.” God loves us even when we sin, so much that he gave his only son to die for us, to save us and make us whole. In return, God asks only that we love one another as God has loved us. Because as Paul says, all the commandments can be summed up with one word: love. Even when we hurt one another, even when we go astray, we are still God’s beloved children, brothers and sisters in Christ and members of Christ’s body.
In today’s Gospel reading Jesus gives instructions for times when our love for one another has fallen short. Matthew 18 has a practical step-by-step guide on how to resolve disagreements. First, go to the person who hurt you, or who has a disagreement with you, and trying to resolve the trouble privately. Don’t complain to your spouse, your sibling, your parents, your children, your neighbor, your best friend, the church secretary, or the pastor. If you have a problem with someone, Jesus says, you should talk to them about it directly and see if that solves the problem. How often do we do that? Too often, we vent at someone else about our problems and so make the whole thing harder to resolve. By going to others instead of the one we’re mad at, we start to form factions and further divide the body of Christ which is the church. We may feel better, more in the right, but that self-righteousness comes at a price. Nothing is resolved, and the same pattern plays out on a larger scale. The love that should bring us together is sacrificed on the altar of our resentment. We repeat our mistakes, we make the hurt grow bigger. We fail to love one another as God loves us.
If one-on-one discussion of the trouble doesn’t work, Jesus says, bring in two or three witnesses. Now, he doesn’t mean gang up on someone. These witnesses should be impartial people to help mediate and settle things and provide an unbiased account. Only if that doesn’t work should the matter made public. And it shouldn’t be made public through rumors, innuendo, or gossip. Instead, there is open communication so that everyone knows the full story and the community of faith can judge rightly. You see, each of these steps is designed to be fair, so that the truth may be spoken and relationships may be mended. These steps are designed to help us work through our disputes so that a loving relationship may be restored. It’s not an easy process, nor is it one that comes naturally to most people. But if used with love and compassion it is the best way that broken relationships can be made whole.
The problem, of course, is the same one Nels and I had on Saturday mornings. The command is given in love and designed for our good and wholeness, but we take it and use it in such a way that it brings dissent, instead of love. We get so focused on what we want, on how we can get our own way, that we don’t even see how we hurt one another. We use the rules God gives to break people down, instead of build them up in love. We live by our own way, instead of God’s love.
“The commandments … are summed up in this word, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.” Sometimes, that kind of love is harder to fulfill than any rule or regulation could be. All too often, we fall short, and fulfill the letter of the law by breaking its spirit. All too often, we act out of selfishness or anger instead of love. Thank God, that Jesus loves us, and forgives us no matter how often we go astray and completely miss the point. May the love of Christ dwell within us, that we may learn to show that love to one another.