09/10/17 – The Tool of Love

The Tool of Love

September 10, 2017

14th Sunday after Pentecost
Exodus 12:1-14; Psalm 149; Romans13:8-14, Matthew 18:15-20
Rev. Denise Clark-Jones

One of my Jewish friends once told me that all of Jewish history and traditions could be summed up this way: “They tried to kill us. They failed. Let’s eat!”

Our Old Testament reading is God’s command to the Hebrew slaves that they should share a special meal together before Moses led them out of slavery in Egypt. This first Passover meal was the fast-food variety, but it would become an elaborate annual feast that celebrated the very foundation of Judaism. It would become a time in which Jewish people remembered the story of their freedom from slavery and their becoming a community based on their common faith and shared history.

With the logistical instructions, God not only spelled out how the Hebrew slaves would be freed, but also what attitude they should take. What was essential to the instructions was that what they would do was done for all and all would participate in the event. If a household was too small to eat a whole lamb, then they should share with another household. Like the manna in the wilderness, no one should take too much and no one should be left with none. The leftovers would be burned, which kept anyone from hoarding, slowing their escape or creating conflict later. These instructions would continue in their 40-year trek through the wilderness and further shape them as a people. This was not practical event planning, it was social justice. There was no individual freedom without the whole community being freed. Freedom was delivered by God’s hand and with all the members of the community helping each other. This is how all slavery ends, no matter what group of people are enslaved or to what power they are enslaved – all involved must participate. This is how the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., fighting a form of slavery in this country, the denial of equal rights for African-Americans in this country, summed it up:

“It really boils down to this: that all life is interrelated. We are all caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied into a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. We are made to live together because of the inter-related structure of reality.”

God commanded that the Hebrew people continue to celebrate their freedom with worship and a re-enactment of this prescribed meal. The Passover would serve as a reminder to the Jewish people of who they are and to whom they belong.  Many generations later, Jesus would add to that Passover tradition. The Jewish celebration of Passover gave us the basic format of our own celebrations of Good Friday and Easter – a shared meal, death, freedom.

Jesus’ disciples were also given explicit instructions for the last Passover meal he would share with them in that upper room. Jesus commanded that the disciples continue to break bread and share wine in remembrance of him. This sacramental meal was to continue for all of Christ’s disciples to remember their shared story, their freedom, and their identity, which was also gained by the blood of a Lamb — the Lamb of God that frees us from the sins of the world.

The Apostle Paul talked a lot about slavery to the sins of the world. In our epistle reading Paul refers to the sins of the flesh. For Paul, “the flesh” meant not just the human body specifically, but all the powers and temptations of the world. Our lectionary passage begins with the admonition: “Owe no one anything…” This phrase has been taken out of context to support a self-centered lifestyle that foolishly denies God’s gracious gifts and cruelly justifies refusal to serve the common good. Paul and Jesus, both devout Jews, understood that their God was relational. The well-being of the individual is inextricably bound to the well-being of one’s community.

The entire Epistle passage we read today is taken out of a longer section of Paul’s letter about the tension between being good citizens to the state versus being faithful to God. Paul declared that Christians must make a choice about our ultimate allegiance. He was telling the church in Rome they should release themselves from their allegiance to the empire, which enslaved and oppressed, and submit their allegiance to citizenship in the Kingdom of God where love is the supreme law. “Owe no one,” – means owe no political, social or economic system; owe no party allegiance; but, do owe any and all according to God and the rule of love.

Paul cites four of the 10 Commandments: ‘do not commit murder or adultery, do not steal or covet, envy, your neighbor’s stuff.’ Each of these commandments have to do with our relationships with our neighbors and the well-being of the community. Paul uses Jesus’ summation of these “neighbor laws” to reinforce his statement that we owe love to one another.

Owe love? That’s quite a difficult debt to repay, isn’t it? It’s a good thing Paul also said ‘we are all sinners and all fall short of the glory of God.’ I’ll have to admit, that there are some people for whom my best effort has only gotten me as far as tolerance and pity… so far. Being a Christian does not mean we are always successful at fulfilling the goals Jesus set before us in the Gospels and Paul wrote down in his letters to the early Church.

Being a Christian means we owe it to God, because of our being loved and forgiven first and unconditionally, not to give up trying to love our neighbors. It means working at lifting the “stumbling blocks” in our way that Paul talks about. It also means lifting the “stumbling blocks” that our society places on people due to their perceived “otherness.” In God’s kingdom we all belong. Paul reminds the church: “Love does no wrong to a neighbor.”(Rom.13:10)

In our gospel reading for today, Matthew describes the challenge of living in community when members are in disagreement about their mutual agreed upon rules of conduct. Here again, love is both the goal and the means to achieving the goal. As with the Romans passage, there is a danger in taking a phrase of scripture out of its context. Throughout the history of the church, members have seemed to listen to the first part of the sentence in Matthew 18:15 and ignored the rest. So, what you have is: “If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault.” Wow, Jesus finally tells us to do something we’re good at! It’s not just easy, it can be downright satisfying. We revel in having that balance sheet of righteousness marked in our favor. But, wait, doesn’t Jesus also tell us there is no balance sheet, no earned merit from God. Can we skip that part? No. What does Jesus tell us: ‘Got a real hard case in the congregation, treat them like a gentile or a tax collector.

In Jesus’ world, gentiles and tax collectors were the worst. So we can shun them and gossip about them, right? But, wait a minute, how did Jesus treat Gentiles and tax collectors. Oh…he treated them with love and compassion and invited them to eat with him.

Jesus didn’t say it was going to be easy. In fact, being both human and divine, he understands that we can’t do it alone. That kind of strength, that kind of love can only be attained by letting God help us. Accepting God’s grace frees us to be gracious to others. Jesus assures us that if we truly desire reconciliation, divine intervention is ours for the asking. Jesus promises: “19… 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. 20 For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.” Love is the balm that can heal any wound. It’s particularly effective on wounded pride, the source of much human discord.

From our Old Testament reading, we are informed how the eating of a meal in community serves as a confession of our mutual need and dependence on God. We are all called to participate in each other’s freedom from slavery. The Apostle Paul, in his letter to the Roman congregation and Jesus, in his instruction to his disciples, tells us how we live in order to create a community that provides mutual respect and caring. Jesus gave his assurance that God continues to work to deliver the oppressed, those suffering in exile or sin. God stretches out a hand and calls us to extend our hands to our neighbors.

The Church, as the body of Christ, is entrusted with the responsibility of presence and liberation. With God’s help and guidance, we are equipped to take on this mission. Anne Lamott describes the task God has set before us with this thought:

“I always imagined when I was a kid that adults had some kind of inner toolbox full of shine tools: the saw of discernment, the hammer of wisdom, the sandpaper of patience. But when I grew up, I found that life handed you rusty, bent tools – friendship, prayer, conscience, honesty – and said, “Do the best you can with these. They’ll have to do.” Mostly, against all odds, they’re enough.”

The all-purpose, all you need tool is love. With love — which is what we owe to God, to ourselves and to one another — all things are possible.

Thanks be to God!


© Rev. Denise Clark-Jones, 2017, All Rights Reserved
Westminster Presbyterian Church – Peoria, Illinois