14th Sunday after Pentecost

video service for the 14th Sunday after Pentecost

Ezekiel 33:7-11
33:7 So you, mortal, I have made a sentinel for the house of Israel; whenever you hear a word from my mouth, you shall give them warning from me.
33:8 If I say to the wicked, “O wicked ones, you shall surely die,” and you do not speak to warn the wicked to turn from their ways, the wicked shall die in their iniquity, but their blood I will require at your hand.
33:9 But if you warn the wicked to turn from their ways, and they do not turn from their ways, the wicked shall die in their iniquity, but you will have saved your life.
33:10 Now you, mortal, say to the house of Israel, Thus you have said: “Our transgressions and our sins weigh upon us, and we waste away because of them; how then can we live?”
33:11 Say to them, As I live, says the Lord GOD, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from their ways and live; turn back, turn back from your evil ways; for why will you die, O house of Israel?

Matthew 18:15-20
18:15 “If another member of the church ἀδελφός (adelphos) a brother, near kinsman or relative; one of the same nation or nature; one of equal rank and dignity; an associate, a member of the Christian communitysins ἁμαρτάνω (hamartanō) to miss a mark; to be in error, 1 Cor. 15:34Tit. 3:11; to sin, Jn. 5:14; to be guilty of wrong, Mt. 18:15 against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone μόνος (monos). If the member listens ἀκούω (akouō) to hear; to hearken, listen to, Mk. 4:3Lk. 19:48; to heed, obey, Mt. 18:15Acts 4:19; to understand, to you, you have regained that one (your) ἀδελφός (adelphos).

18:16 But if you are not listened ἀκούω (akouō) to hear; to hearken, listen to, to heed, obey, to understand, to, take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses μάρτυς (martys) (1) a judicial witness, deponent, Mt. 18:16Heb. 10:28; (2) generally, a witness to a circumstance, Lk. 24:48Acts 10:41; in NT a witness, a testifier, of a doctrine, Rev. 1:53:1411:3; (3) a martyr, Acts 22:20Rev. 2:13.

18:17 If the member ἀδελφός (adelphos) refuses to listen ἀκούω (akouō) to hearken, listen to,  to them, tell it to the church; and if the offender refuses to listen ἀκούω (akouō) even to the church ἐκκλησία (ekklēsia) a popular assembly, Acts 19:323941; in NT the congregation of thechildren of Israel,Acts 7:38; transferred to the Christian body, of which the congregation of Israel was a figure, the Church, 1 Cor. 12:28Col. 1:18; a local portion of the Church, a local church, Rom. 16:1; a Christian congregation, 1 Cor. 14:4, let such a one be to you as a Gentile ἐθνικός (ethnikos) national; in NT Gentile, heathen, non-Israelites, Mt. 5:476:718:173 Jn. 7 and a tax collector -one who farms the public revenues (9:10,11; 10:3; 11:19; 21:31,32) .

18:18 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.

18:19 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.

18:20 For where two or three are gathered συνάγω (synagō) collect, to bring together, to gather, to collect an assembly; to convene, come together, meet, in my name, I am there among them.”

In the Name of the Father, and of the+Son, and of the Holy Spirit. AMEN.

I don’t know if you noticed, but that first reading for today is pretty heavy, packs quite a punch! It’s the kind of reading that makes you sit up & pay attention! Perhaps I, & those like me, who are called to the ministry of the Word, are understandably more sensitive particularly because its punch is specifically aimed at such as us; “sentinels”, forth-speakers-of the-Divine-Word. We are charged to faithfully proclaim the Divine Word, even when it’s not popular, even when that Word is warning. It’s our responsibility. There are consequences to failure. (We will hear more of this in a few Sunday’s when hebrew scripture is from the prophet Jonah). ‘Tho’ the reading is hefty it ends on precisely the appropriate concluding note, inviting, lovingly pleading, everyone to change course & choose life. This offers us an important context in more clearly understanding today’s gospel too

As I often point out, it’s important to notice how today’s reading fits in its context. Our gospel comes immediately after Jesus tells the parable of the lost sheep (18:12-14), (part of a triplet in Luke (15), with the lost coin & the lost son) and before the parable of the forgiven but unforgiving servant (18:23-35) (next Sunday’s gospel). Whatever today’s fierce reading might mean it is couched between “so it is not the will of your Father in heaven that one of these little ones should be lost.” (which sounds quite like ” As I live, says the Lord GOD, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from their ways and live; turn back, turn back from your evil ways; for why will you die, O my people? Ezekiel 33:11). And, (how much am I obliged to forgive?), response: heartily, as (much as) you’ve been forgiven. So, today’s text is really practically all about forgiveness & the scope of radical inclusion.

The first thing one obviously notices on reading today’s gospel is that Christianity, as exemplified by Matthew’s Jesus, recognizes that life together in community isn’t, as we all too well know, without its challenges, difficulties & brokenness. An authentic Christianity doesn’t allow us to gloss over the reality of our wounded broken familial relationships. And yes, this is good news! Christianity invites honesty.  Christianity commends taking responsibility. Owning our woundedness, rather than doubling down in contrary, damaging, deceptive, death-dealing denial. But ultimately most importantly forgiveness.
It is both not about (18:21-22) & all about the numbers. Notice that Jesus recommends giving the offender four chances to amend. That’s perhaps far more opportunities than most of us would give. But this is the protocol you follow when you have a problem with someone in the faith-family, ἐκκλησία (ekklēsia). The repeated persistence is the point. (even 70×7!!!)

And this is entirely consonant with the point that it is the offended (not as we would expect the offender) who is to initiate the conciliatory process! For many people, it is easier to identify the ways they have been harmed than it is to recognize the ways their actions can harm others, even if unintentionally. Perhaps one of the most difficult truths of this passage is a reminder of the human capacity to cause harm to others—both in the systems in which we participate as well as in our personal actions (or failures to act). All this effort is because God, characteristically, extravagantly, wants to exhaust every effort & opportunity in restoring the lost.

Notice that the repeated desired effect sought is listening! Four times in the first three verses, Jesus makes reference to listening or refusing to listen. The repetition suggests that the call to hear one another, to listen closely to the truth of the other, is a vital component of a community grounded in the ways of Jesus. Listening is hard. If we’d only just listen to each other. Really listen. One has to shut up to listen. Not be jumping ahead to the next response we are going to make. This is the position of discipleship (16:23). Listening is putting the best construction on that others behaviours. Really listening is to silence & discard our fears & prejudices, to unilaterally disarm, & to offer a preferential option to the alienated other. Listening is attending to ourselves, recognizing that other in ourselves. Daring forgive that other as we’ve been the recipient of so much mercy & grace.

“If another member of the church…” unfortunately, our inclusive language translation does not in this case serve us very well. In striving to be faithfully gender inclusive it distorts an important aspect of the text. The Greek uses the more intimate familial; ἀδελφός (adelphos) brother. Matthew’s faith community must already be experiencing faults, cracks, that his Jesus has to offer them a formula for reconciliation. This is how Jesus’ disciples sort it out, this is how siblings sort it out. It is in the family. We act like we are all children of the same Abba. We are connected. We belong to each other. And even that final, seemingly ostracising, step of the hopeful, expectant, conciliatory process, failing all else, treat them like, “let such a one be to you as a Gentile ἐθνικός (ethnikos) and a tax collector. Treating the recalcitrant as non-Israelite & tax collector does not mean what we have traditional presumed. It does not mean showing them the door & giving them the boot! It does not mean shunning & excluding! To the contrary it means precisely the opposite! Just remember how ethnics (the “G” word with every bit the same force as the “N” word) are represented in Matthew’s gospel; foreign, ethnic, Magi, outsiders in Israel, recognize & appropriately worship, the Herod rejected & threatened infant Jesus, & (only a few Sunday’s back) an out of bounds (“C” word) ethnic Canaanite woman was commended by Jesus as having mega faith when his own disciples keep on missing the boat & getting tagged “micro-faiths”. To just mention a few most obvious familiar examples. ἐθνικός (ethnikos) are exemplars of faith that cause even Jesus to revise his vision. (Prejudged) Gentiles “get it” & are consequently not at the shunned periphery but at the very heart of the christian faith community-family ἐκκλησία (ekklēsia). Similarly unpopular tax-collectors (-one who farms the public revenues; in other words takes advantage of community) are so integral to the fledging Jesus community that one (this reporter) is identified as disciple amongst the others (10:3), Jesus himself, identified by the company he keeps, is tagged “friend of tax collectors (plural!!!)” (9:10-11 & 11:19). Tax-collectors too are the particular object of the ministry of Jesus & are identified as folks who get it; “Jesus said to them, ‘Truly I tell you, the tax-collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you. For John came to you in the way of righteousness and you did not believe him, but the tax-collectors and the prostitutes believed him; and even after you saw it, you did not change your minds and believe him.” (21:31-32). To treat the recalcitrant as an ἐθνικός (ethnikos) Gentile, or a tax-collector is treat them as honourably as friend-of-the-Lord & as respectfully as models of mega faith. Such folks are the particular object of the focus of the ἐκκλησία (ekklēsia).

Jesus confidently places a powerful tool in the hands of his assembly ἐκκλησία (ekklēsia). It is the healing power of forgiveness, the impact of which cannot be underestimated (18:18)!
A last, explanatory, hopefully clarifying, word about a much misunderstood & misused scripture, “For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them” (18:20). This is the kind of Bible verse that gets calligraphed on bookmarks, plaques & cards, the more to its misunderstanding. This verse with its preceding are not intended to affirm that it only needs a quorum of two to assure invoking Divine Presence, but instead as the context we’ve been reviewing suggests once again it’s in the numbers! I’m normally not inclined to numerology, but here it has significance! Notice the numbers in today’s reading. “when a (one) brother offends…go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone μόνος (monos) one…If the member  (one) listens to you, you have regained that one (your) ἀδελφός (adelphos)…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, the ἐκκλησία (ekklēsia), the gathering, the assembly (xs!!!)…Again, truly I tell you, if two of you agree on earth…For where two or three are gathered“. Do the Math. Do the numbers. They start small, one, two. But they end in the ἐκκλησία (ekklēsia), the gathering. This large, indefinite number, like 30, 60 & 100fold, like 5000+women+children & twelve baskets full of leftovers or a catch of fish with every kind, or a motley faith community that embraces 70×7 reconciliation & is exemplified by foreign women & the most reknown self-serving advantage grasping capitalists & consequently, the likes of us too. We ought to remember that what makes church ἐκκλησία (ekklēsia) church is precisely the presence of so many troublesome people. That the expulsion of the troublemaker is expelling not just this individual but our own selves.
(Matthew’s) Jesus, is “God with us”, is particularly present in & to his assembly ἐκκλησία (ekklēsia) even with its brokenness, fractures & when we honour the least likely, welcome the most vulnerable, include those most in need of renewal & transformation, & in so doing find ourselves forgiven, reformed & included. Jesus promises to be present where his motley inclusive assembly exercises his ministry of forgiving reconciliation.

The Lord Jesus, is assuredly present, when even a bare minimum of his disciples gather invoking his name in confirming prayer & worship, but (with respectful apologies to Cramner & the prayerbook) this is not what today’s scripture affirms! Unfortunately, such reading of the text is not consonant with the context. Rather Matthew declares something much more radically, evangelically inclusive. It assures us Jesus is himself present participating in the difficult ministry of reconciliation when in his assembly we treat each other tenderly as siblings, as family, when we welcome the unexpected witness of foreign, “ethnic”, Gentile women & this very witness we today heed from a controversial disciple called Matthew, a tax-collector (10:3). They are the sentinels. Such are God’s (Jonah-like) warnings. They are the ones that indicate the health of a community. They are the icons that so clearly display that Abba is achingly longing for us (rejecting doubling down in death dealing) to just chose life..

“When a sibling sins against you” began today’s reading. This scripture is explicitly addressed to “you”. This is God’s umpteenth opportunity afforded “you”,
(please!) chose life…

In the Name of the Father, and of the+Son, and of the Holy Spirit. AMEN.

the Reverend Brian Heinrich