Saturday, September 20, 2014

Everybody Gets the Same

Matthew 20:1-16
September 21, 2014
William G. Carter

For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard...

I’m glad to be far enough away that you can’t throw any sour grapes at me. This parable from Jesus always provokes a strong reaction. He tells of a vineyard owner who pays everybody the same. He gives no preferential treatment. He has no regard for seniority or length of tenure. It doesn’t matter if you show up for work at dawn or put in only hour before closing time: everybody gets the same. That man is so fair that it looks unfair.

We can understand the grumbling, can’t we?

Imagine the new kid that they hire for your office. Brand new off the street. You catch a peek at the paycheck and that kid is making as much as you. Doesn’t it matter that you have been there forever? No, apparently it doesn’t.

Or there’s that eighth grader in Westchester County. One of my buddies was his pastor and his confirmation teacher. The eighth grader’s mother said she was going to bring him to class each week. He never got there. Always had an excuse – soccer, hockey, baseball, never made it to class. Then it’s Confirmation Sunday. The kid shows up with his hair slicked back and a clip-on necktie. My friend said to the mother, who was also the Christian Education committee chair, “What’s he doing here?” She said, “He has come to be confirmed.”

The pastor sputtered, “But he hasn’t even been here to learn a single Bible verse.” The kid looks up and says, “I know a Bible verse. Jesus said, ‘The last shall be first.’” Just imagine the grumbling.

The parable suggests Jesus is remarkably indifferent to the time and effort that the hard-working faithful put in. As carpenters go, he doesn’t seem to care about billable hours and normal labor relations. No, he says the long-timers and the short-termers get paid the same. It’s a stinker of a story.

You can’t go out for football, miss all the practices, and expect to play the game. You can’t put on the danskins, miss every ballet rehearsal, and plan to go out on stage. The world doesn’t work that way. You have to put in your time!

The newcomer gets elected to the church board. The old-timers were gasping for breath, looking for fresh flesh. They find this person, get her on the board. She goes to the first meeting full of ideas. And they look at her, and they sigh, and then one of them says it, “You know, you have to understand that’s not going to work around here.” There is pause and another one says, “I move we adjourn to the parking lot and talk about this newcomer who hasn’t yet put in her time.”

What is Jesus insinuating? That everybody is the same? That isn’t true. Some of you are right-handed, and I am proper-handed…and in my right mind. Some of us are chronologically amplified, and others are inexperienced. Some of us have a wall full of awards and others are hardly recognized. Is he telling a story to prove that everybody bears the same value, that regardless of longevity, everyone bears equal value?

I don’t know. That may be it, but I don’t know if that’s it. I do know that when he speaks his favorite floating proverb – “the first shall be last, and the last shall be first” – it sounds different here.

Over in the Gospel of Luke, he talks in terms of great reversal: the mighty will be lowered, the lowly lifted up; those who exalt themselves will be lowered, the humble will be exalted. Those who think they are righteous will be cast away, and the unexpected others will be welcomed at God’s Table. The first shall be last, the last shall be first.

But here, in the vineyard of Matthew 20, there is no reversal but rather an equal sign. The first equals the last who equals the first. That’s the problem, isn’t it? And we don’t like being reminded that nobody is better than anybody else.

When my friend McSwegin was diagnosed with the illness that would kill him, I walked into his hospital room five minutes after they told him what he had. I went to cheer him up and to offer an uplifting prayer. That day nothing could cheer either of us and we did not know how to pray. Then he cut through it and said, “Everybody gets a turn and this is mine.”

Sometime later, as we walked together around his neighborhood together, he explained himself. He said, "Who am I to think I am exempt from the rest of the human race? Who am I to think that I am better than anybody else?"

Sometimes we have these dramatic moments – a life-threatening illness, a lost job, a difficult kid – and we ask, “Why me?” McSwegin taught me to say, “Why not?” Nobody is exempt from pain or joy. It comes with being a creature, made by the same Creator like anybody else. Regardless of when we tune in or tune out of this truth, all of us are the same.

But I don’t think that’s what Jesus is talking about in this parable.

Could it be that he speaks of another kind of equality? A lot of us were alive in the 1960’s when there was great talk of the equality of opportunity. Everybody needs the same opportunity. This contagious idea built the public schools and fired up a concern for civil rights. No one should be left behind because of who they are, what they look like, or where they were born. We can extract these ideas from the Bible, if we look hard enough, but Jesus seems to be speaking about the equality of reward. Some receive less than they have earned, others receive more than they deserve. Nobody gets ahead of others. Nobody falls behind. One denarius for each worker.

I recall some of the best utopian visions by our best imagineers. Remember Star Trek, in the future? Did you ever see anybody get a paycheck? Ever see somebody pay for a meal? In the 23rd century there are differing levels of responsibility on the Starship Enterprise, but as far as we could see, nobody ever gets paid. Or rather, it’s not about the money.

It’s a way to regard the future, I suppose. In heaven, there will be no paychecks. In heaven, there will be no labor disputes. In heaven, everybody will be regarded the same . . . presuming, of course, that they get there. Sometimes we catch a glimpse of heaven on earth, which is what Jesus told us to pray for – heaven on earth.

Have you been watching the new Ken Burns series on The Roosevelts? What an extraordinary slice of American history! Franklin Roosevelt was so well-spoken, so good looking, so successful. And then, in August 1921, he contracts polio. His legs stop working. He never accepted his paralysis as final. This seems to have changed him. He purchased a resort in Georgia, called it “Warm Springs,” and invited anybody with polio to come to pursue a cure. It didn’t matter who they were. It didn’t matter if they could afford it. He said, “Come.”

And then, after the economy fell apart, the Great Depression hit, and he was elected president, FDR created all kinds of New Deal government programs to jump start the job market and make sure everybody was fed. That patrician man of enormous privilege got a mere mortal’s disease like anybody else, and it enlarged his concern for those much less fortunate. Equality of reward: there is something for everybody.

But I don’t think that is what Jesus is talking about.

No, the troubling thing about this Bible story is not merely the equality. It’s the owner of the vineyard. What kind of farm owner doesn’t hire enough workers at the beginning of the day? This guy goes down to the town square, finds some grape pickers, and says, “Work for me!” The pay is already set. They don’t have to negotiate. The workers know what they have to do; they are clear about what they will be paid, so off they go!

But a little bit later he goes back down to the market and finds some more workers. “Go out to my vineyard,” he says, “and I’ll treat you right.” If that was it, there would no squabble at all. A denarius was a single coin; you can’t cut it in half, you can’t make change. Keep the change.

But then he goes back down at noon, at three, and at five o’clock. He is so persistent. He will hire the workers that nobody else chooses. He wants to fill his blessed vineyard with workers. He must have a lot of grapes!

That’s the scandalous generosity here: that vineyard owner is going to bring in whoever he can. He doesn’t care if they have eighty-five tattoos or unblemished skin. He doesn’t care if they got there late, started early, or took off a lot of time in between. He doesn’t care how many grapes they actually pick, or whether they pick any at all. Notice there is no mention of their productivity? All it says is he wants them in his vineyard!

The problem comes when those who were present first hold up the measuring stick to the others. They believe they are worthy of greater reward because they have been there longer. That’s the point at which the Vineyard Owner starts to snarl right back. He says to one of the grumblers, “Friend, I am doing you no wrong.”

He says “friend,” but he doesn’t mean “friend.” No, in the Gospel of Matthew, it’s a term of sarcasm. It’s like calling him “Buster.” Three times, Jesus uses the word “friend.” As we will hear in a couple more weeks, in a few more chapters, Jesus says a man sneaked into a wedding banquet and the guy in charge says, “Friend, how did you get in here?” (22:12). And when Judas Iscariot shows up to condemn him with a kiss, Jesus says, “Friend, do what you’re here to do.” (26:50)

So in our parable: “Buster, I am doing you no wrong. Am I not free to do what I choose with what belongs to me?” Am I not free to do what I choose with those who belong to me? Of course, he’s free. He’s the Owner. It is his vineyard. And he will do whatever he can to fill his vineyard with the people he chooses.

So I guess it comes down to where we think we are standing: at the front of the line or the back of the line. All of us are in that line because we are wanted. The owner of the Beloved Vineyard wants you… and you… and you… and even you... and especially you. If we are in the line it is because we are chosen by a kindness that we cannot totally understand. The word for that kindness is grace. Grace can be amazing and it can be disturbing. It is amazing when you discover it’s for you. It is disturbing when you discover it’s for somebody else.

In the dominion of God, everybody gets the same. How do you feel about that? Have you ever been angry with the generosity of God?

For some people, the most disturbing thing of all is that God is going to get his way. For others, the kindest truth of all is that God is going to get his way.

(c) William G. Carter. All rights reserved.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

The Tedious Business of Forgiving People Over and Over Again

Matthew 18:21-35
September 14, 2014
William G. Carter

How many times?
How many times?
How many times must I forgive?

That’s the question Peter asks Jesus one day. He has been listening to the Master speak of life in the Christian community. In the church, children are the greatest and humility is honored. In the church, we do not trip other people with stumbling blocks nor permit any distraction to lead us away from the fullness of Christ’s life within us. We chase after those who wander astray and rejoice when we can bring them back. We work together to restore one another, affirming that Jesus lives where two or three agree.

And then Peter, who has a hard time sitting on his hands, shoots up his arm and says, “Ooh, how many times must I forgive somebody in the church who hurts me?” How many times?

I am assuming it’s not a hypothetical question. Hypothetical questions can be pretty empty when you are talking about real people. I wonder about the circumstances. Did James and John push him out of line on the day Jesus was doing all the healings? Did Matthew charge him too much when he prepared his tax return? Did Simon the Zealot intimidate him with his hidden dagger? Did Judas Iscariot stick a fork in his hand when he reached for an extra piece of fish?

How many times must I forgive – not just anybody, but a brother or sister in the family of God? It sounds like he’s been hurt more than once.

You know, that is one of the problems of living with other people. They bump into you. Disagreements are inevitable. Differences bubble up. Maybe you have seen the bumper sticker: CONFLICT HAPPENS. There is no truer word. As a minister who spends some of my time among birds with ruffled feathers, I know all about the hurts, both real and perceived. It is hard work to live with other people.

We know that if we have been called to the gift of marriage. Marriage is the smallest form of community. Two people share a life. Sooner or later they bump into one another. It goes with the territory. Marriage is a laboratory for forgiveness. You get to practice it, perhaps seventy-seven times a day.

How many times must we forgive? Is there a limit, so that if I forgive that many times, I don’t have to do it any more? That is Peter’s question. It’s a good question, a practical question.

In the collections of sermons that we call the book of Amos, God begins by saying repeatedly, “Three times there is a transgression, the fourth time I will punish.” (1:3 and following). It was the four-strikes-and-you’re-out law. After Amos, the rabbis continued talking about this. Peter picks up on this, doubles the word of God in Amos, and adds one more: “What about seven times? Is that the limit of forgiveness? Seven strikes and you’re out?”

As you know, Jesus responds with an extraordinary number: “Not seven times, but seven-seven times.” Or if you saw the footnote, you can translate the number “seventy times seven.” That is outrageous! And before Peter can sputter, “That’s impossible!” Jesus tells an even more impossible story.

There is this king, he says, who is unlike any other king you have ever heard. He had a lot of money. He lives in a stone palace, while his servants live in straw huts. He is driven around in a gold carriage, while his servants drag their mules through the mud. Every evening the king eats caviar and roast pheasant on hand-crafted china plates, while most of his servants think it’s a good night if they have cold sausages and a crust of bread. He is the king, after all, and they are not.

But this is a generous king. He is willing to lend his wealth to them for a while. He extends himself, and provides them with loans. He doesn’t care if this is a questionable business practice. His servants have a better life because of their borrowed generosity.

Then the day comes when the king settles accounts. He asks the chamberlain to pull out that thick, old ledger book. It has everybody’s name and address, and all the sums of money that each one owes. The moment comes to call them in. The debtors are summoned. They line up at the palace door to prepare for the day of reckoning. At the very beginning of the line is this man who owes a whole lot of money. We know he’s at the beginning of the line because Matthew mentions him first. 

With perfect clarity, the king opens his ledger, turns to the precise page, finds the correct name, announces his debt, and says, “Pay what you owe.” He is the king. The man before him has been living on borrowed money.

Well, we know what happens. The servant cannot pay so the king calls for his auctioneer. The servant cries out for patience, and for no rational reason, the king releases the entire debt. He is free and clear. He does not owe a cent.

Now that is an extraordinary story. No one has ever heard of a king like that. No other king would float that much credit to a servant. No other king would ever write off the loss. The debtor was free. 

Debt is a heavy obligation. Some people ring up their credit card balances. Sometimes the balances go so high that they take out a cash advance to pay the minimum balance. Once they fall behind, they can’t even dream of staying even, much less ever paying it off. The debt is too heavy, and it’s keeping them down. 

Just consider this poor slave: he owns ten thousand talents. Did you see the footnote in your pew Bible? A talent was a sum of money worth 15 years’ salary. So this servant owed a hundred fifty thousand years of salary to the king. That was the size of his debt. Whatever did he need that much money for? Did he build a cedar deck on the back of his hovel, buy himself a nice fishing boat, and put four gold horseshoes on his mule? (Don’t miss the point – Jesus is making a joke here!) Ten thousand talents? He could never repay that.

And then the king, who was foolish to loan that kind of money to a servant, cancels the entire debt. So the king writes off the whole thing. He dismisses the entire burden. This is how he treats the very first debtor in line. Imagine the buzz down the rest of the line! When you see incalculable forgiveness like that, you simply can’t keep it a secret.

Can you see who else is in that line? There is a washer woman who owes twenty thousand talents to the king. Behind her is a teenage boy who owes seven and a half thousand talents. These are people so deeply in debt. Maybe the king will be generous enough to cut them a break as well. This is, after all, a very generous king.

But as the story goes, that fortunate guy who had his entire debt cancelled went whistling out the door. Suddenly he sees a neighbor who owed him thirty bucks. Even though his debt was cancelled, or perhaps his debt was cancelled, he decided to reclaim some money that he had loaned out, money that presumably he had first borrowed from the king. So he grabbed his neighbor by the neck, shook him a good bit and said, “Pay what you owe!” When the neighbor couldn’t come up with what was an infinitely smaller sum, the lender had him thrown into debtor’s prison. With that, the news rustled back up all the way to the front of the line. And the king was overheard to say, “Is that so?”

In a flash the king’s soldiers grabbed that man by both of his ears, dragged him to the front of the line, stood on his feet long enough for him to hear the king’s condemnation, and then they tossed him into the torture chamber until he paid off the entire debt, all one hundred fifty thousand years of it. Last anybody checked, he was still there… 

That’s what his kingdom is like, say Jesus. And he lets us draw the necessary parallels.

What are we going to do with this story? A lot of people like the first half – it’s about forgiveness. We like to hear about this servant who was in debt up to his eyeballs and then gets forgiven. Whew! Wouldn’t that be nice? Wouldn’t it be wonderful to live way beyond your means, and just when the whole thing comes due, we are let off the hook? What a relief that would be!

Just imagine if you tempted the providence of God and went down to the casino. Presbyterians don’t gamble, of course, because they don’t believe in chance. But imagine you went to the Super Duper Casino. In the roll of the dice, you hit it big. You hit it really big. In fact, you hit it so big that they have to close down the casino permanently and give you all the money. Even all the gangsters who have a “business interest” in the establishment have to empty out their bank accounts and give it all to you. Count it up: the sum is ten thousand talents!

Just imagine how you are feeling – your heart is racing, your eyes are circling in opposite directions – you’ve hit big. You don’t walk out of there, you float on air. And imagine, on the way out to the parking lot, as people are cheering, you see the next door neighbor who owes you twenty bucks.  Are you going to slam down your feet, seize him by the throat, and say, “Pay what you owe”? Of course not! You’ll say, “Forget about it. Twenty bucks, that’s nothing.”

Do you see the problem with the man in the parable? He hits it big and it brings out the worst in him. He scores an unexpected sum and refuses to pass it along. He is totally unchanged by the generosity shown to him. He is unmoved by the mercy that set him free. He has been forgiven – but in turn, he will not forgive.

Peter asks, “How many times must I forgive?” If you have truly received the forgiveness of God, do you have to ask the question? Jesus reminds, “Forgive the neighbor seventy-seven times.” We could take him literally, and think of what that would do to us. If you forgive somebody seventy-seven times, forgiveness will become a habit, in the name of the God who first forgives you.

And what about that alternate translation? Jesus says, “Forgive the neighbor seventy times seven.” He pushes forgiveness beyond bookkeeping. Mercy is a matter of multiplication. Mercy multiplies. The more we forgive, the more it expands. Not merely to “forebear” somebody else, to give them room to exist, but to forgive them – to cancel the debt, to release the hurt, to stop picking at the wound. To declare the damage is finished and a new day has begun.

This can be hard to do. This can be easy to do. I don’t know how it is for you. I think the Anne Lamott tells the truth. If you don’t forgive somebody, she says, “it’s like drinking rat poison and then waiting for the rat to die.”[1] How much better it would feel to let it go! To stop fussing about it. To cease clinging to it. To let it go.

I believe that is the King’s intent. He lets go of what he hasn’t received, what the indebted servant could never pay back. He wishes to create a chain reaction of graciousness. When it doesn’t happen, when the forgiven slave refuses to extend the forgiveness he has received, the mercy of the king comes unraveled. That’s why the king won’t let him loose on the streets.

So theologian Miroslav Volf says about this parable:

Our failure to forgive undoes God’s forgiveness. God takes back that which is given if we don’t give as God gives. God’s forgiveness is here conditional on our performance. Though we couldn’t earn God’s forgiveness, we could, so to speak, un-earn it.[2]

Then he brings it home, and says: 

If I am united with Christ in faith, I’ll have forgiveness and Christ will live in me, forgiving through me those who offend me as he has forgiven me.[3]

When the dust settles, it really comes down to this. Have we truly received the Word that our sins are forgiven? That God does not remember them because of the grace of Jesus Christ? Do we trust that everything that we’ve done wrong has been scrubbed clean? The best evidence will be in our readiness to forgive other people.

One day they asked Jesus how to pray. He said, “Forgive us our debts, as we forgive others.”   

(c) William G. Carter. All rights reserved.

[1] Anne Lamott, Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith (New York: Pantheon, 1999) 134.
[2] Miroslav Volf, Free of Charge: Giving and Forgiving in a Culture Stripped of Grace (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2005) 155.
[3] ibid, 156.

Saturday, September 6, 2014

Binding and Loosing

Matthew 18:15-20
September 7, 2014
William G. Carter

“If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one. But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. Again, truly I tell you, if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.”

Most of us have heard that final verse as a great promise. If two or three are gathered in the name of Jesus, he is right there among them. It is a wonderful promise.

I heard the promise in a college Bible study group. We had gathered a list of students to invite. Everybody seemed interested. So on a Friday night, we opened the door and there were three of us. I suppose there are other things for college students to do on a Friday night. But someone remembered the verse: "wherever two or three are gathered in my name, I am there."

We can take this as a gracious promise of the Risen Christ. I recall visiting the sanctuary of First Presbyterian Church of Hazleton, built in the days when coal was king. It’s an enormous sanctuary, much wider than it is long. It was built to seat five hundred people. Back in the days when the coal company took your “pledge” out of your paycheck, the sanctuary was full. Now they have forty-four members with an average Sunday attendance of ten. But they do not despair because of the promise of Jesus: "wherever two or three are gathered in my name, I am with them."

You know, a lot of people fuss about numbers: attendance numbers, membership numbers, seating capacity, parking spaces. And this is a time in American life where church attendance is down across the board. It doesn’t matter what kind of church it is. The total number of American people who actually sit in a church on a Sunday morning has been steadily decreasing for the past thirty years. I know that because I’ve been a minister for 29 of those years; it’s hard not to take it personally. But the obsession with numbers is a distraction from the real question, which is, “Is Jesus Christ with us or not?” For my money, that’s the only question that matters. Either he is with us or he is not. So I take great comfort in his promise: "wherever two or three are gathered in my name, I am with them."

Notice that it’s “two or three.” It’s not “one,” it’s two or three. You can’t have a church of one person. By definition, a church is a community. It’s a group of people, not a building, not a steeple. So Jesus gives this promise in the midst of a teaching section about what it means to be the church. A community has a life that it shares together. It runs counter to the individualism that pervades our culture, counter to that notion that I alone am the center of all things, that I alone am the one who decides all things. There is something more important than going it alone, and that is being together, because when we are together in the name of Christ, he is in the midst of us.

That’s why Jesus talks about working through our differences and learning to live together. “If one of you in the church is harmed by somebody else in the church, you - the victim – go to the offensive person and point it out.” You take the initiative. Don’t simper in the corner. Don’t withdraw from the rest of the people. Don’t gossip to others about how hurt you are. No, take the initiative as a peacemaker. Start the forgiveness process by saying privately, one on one, “You hurt me.”

Now, Jesus has addressed these matters before. Back in the Sermon on the Mount, he looks at it from a different perspective. He says to the offensive party, “If somebody has something against you, take the initiative. Go to them and make it right. Come to terms quickly with your accuser.” (5:23-26). Don’t insult them. Do not demean them. Don’t call them “stupid.” You go and work it out.

How remarkable! It doesn’t matter if you are the one who has hurt another; it doesn’t matter if you perceive yourself as the victim. In the community of Christ, relationships are more sacred than prayer. And when two or more gather in his name, Jesus is with them.

The sad truth is that this may not be good enough for some people. They are in such pain themselves that they would prefer to perpetuate the wound, to keep picking at it so it never heals. Others can be invited in as witnesses, but the offender might shrug all of them off. The whole church might be drawn in and it might not do any good, because the offender has decided to go it alone. They choose not to be part of the community. And the tragic truth is that Christ promises to be with those who come together in his name; there is no such promise for those who pull away by themselves and refuse to be reconciled to their brothers and sisters.

What Jesus is looking for is agreement. “If two of you agree on anything, your Father in heaven will do it.” Again, it’s another promise for a community. To get two people to agree on something in the church? What a miracle that would be! One person says, “I love the new hymnal,” another says it’s terrible. One says, “When are you going to paint over that ugly green paint up there,” another says, “I like it.” We live in a time when individual opinions are amplified to the exclusion of everybody else. “It’s my way or the highway.”

I remember the man who walked in the door on the corner. It was the middle of the week. He knocked on my study door and said, “I want to know if this church agrees with me. If it does, I will come.” We talked for a few minutes and he decided he didn’t agree with us, so off he went. After shaking my head, I said to my co-worker Nancy, “Only in America does your opinion matter more than your baptism.” She raised her eyebrows as she does, as if to say, “What do you mean?”

I replied, “When we are baptized, we are welcomed into a community where Christ is at the center. But these days, individuals want to decide if they are going to be part of that.” As if it’s all up to them, as if they are the sole arbiters of what they want. You know, it’s not about me and my opinion; it’s about us, all of us, and agreeing to walk together with Christ in the middle. That’s what a church does.

In a room like this, what do we have? A hundred and fifty people? That would suggest at least four or five hundred opinions. But do any of these opinions matter as much as Christ? He is the One at the center, not any one of us, and what he wants from us is to agree that he is the center. That’s all that matters.

In fact, he is so determined to score this point that he gives an unusual power to the church that lives in agreement. He says, “Whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” That’s you – plural, or as they say in Tennessee, you-all. The church is given the power of binding and loosing.

Now what does that mean? Actually it’s a technical term from the ancient Jewish rabbis. It has to do with how they interpreted scripture. They wanted to live by the words of God, but life didn’t always fit. So the “practice of binding and loosing” developed as a way of interpreting Scripture. It was not a way of changing the Bible, but an agreed-upon way of deciding what was binding and what was not.

If your ox fell into a deep ditch on the Sabbath, was it lawful to save the ox’s life – or would that be considered breaking the law? The rabbis would stroke their beards, ponder and discuss this, and then determine if they agreed on what to say. If two or three agreed, they might loosen the restriction and make that binding. If you remember the Bible stories, Jesus lived in the middle of this practice. He healed people on the Sabbath, declaring “It is lawful on the Sabbath to do good.” Similarly, the Jewish law of Leviticus (13:46) said, “Don’t ever touch a leper,” but Jesus loosed that command, saying to the diseased man, “I choose to make you clean.”[1] Now he gives that same authority to the church, and says, “If two or three gather in my name, you have more than a Bible; you have me. And if together you agree to bind or loose, it will be bound or loosed in heaven.”

What a remarkable declaration of the power given to a Christian community! Back in mid 1800’s anesthesia was discovered. Medical procedures could be done without pain. Women could deliver babies without so much pain. Well, wait a second, said the Christians. The Bible says that God told Adam and Eve that, as a judgment on their sin, “In pain, you shall bring forth childbearing.” That’s what the verse says. But earlier it says God put Adam to sleep in creating Eve; therefore God is the first anesthesiologist! After much debate, many Christians agreed to loosen the restriction. They weren’t losing their faith; they were loosing the word.

The church has been doing this since Jesus gave them the authority in Matthew 18. One New Testament passage says, “Slave, obey your earthly masters” (Ephesians 6), but I don’t know any Christian who now says, “If you believe the Bible, you have to have slaves.” The church has agreed to loose that word. That is no longer binding. This is not a denial of the faith; this is the agreement of Christians that a flat view of scripture can do harm to others. And as they agree, Christ promises to be in the midst of them.[2]

Throughout the ages, the faithful church wrestles with Scripture in light of the presence of Jesus. From congregation to congregation, the discussions might not be unanimous. Some branches of the Christian church forbid divorce and remarriage, because the Bible says so; I am grateful to be in a part of the church that has loosened the restriction because it has discerned that Christ can be in the midst of second chances.

What does it mean to live the Christian life? I believe it is about healing, it’s about creating life and not destroying it, it’s about living in peace with God and one another. As the apostle Paul declared, “In Christ, God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us.”[3]

So we are invited to the Lord’s Table, not because we are worthy, but because all of us are loved. All of us! We are called to receive God’s mercy and to extend it to one another. We can’t take this lightly.

This week, we expect a teacher’s strike in this town, with all the attendant division, animosity, and an unwillingness to find common ground. Our community has been through this many times before. We know good people on both sides may be scorned and humiliated. We will be tugged to take a side, to feed into the twisted values of a society where people are bent on disputing with one another. Meanness and hard-headed division is the devil’s work. Christ calls us to be better than that. He calls us to pursue together the higher righteousness of heaven, rather than merely insisting that we alone are right.

And so we are invited to the Table, invited to agree that nothing shall ever separate us from the love of Christ and our love for one another. There is nothing more important than having Jesus in the center of our life together. Surely let us agree on that.

(c) William G. Carter. All rights reserved.

[1] Matt. 8:3
[2] Thanks to Barbara Lundblad, whose sermon “To Loose Is Not To Lose” has been helpful in developing this sermon and extends it even further. It is available at
[3] 2 Corinthians 5:19