Sermon preached on September 7, 2008 at the Church of St. Luke & St. Simon Cyrene, Rochester, NY: Romans 13:8-14, Matthew 18:15-20 (Proper 18A)
When two or three are gathered in my name, I am among them there.
The one who loves has fulfilled the law.
At its heart our religion is very simple. We hear the simplicity from both Paul and Jesus this morning. Paul tells us that it’s all about love—love of neighbor is what fulfills the law. Jesus tells us that whenever two or more people gather in his name, he is present with them.
That’s it. We really don’t need to know much else. It’s simple and direct.
But the implications are staggering.
“Love does no wrong to a neighbor,” Paul says. It sounds like his more well-known passage in the First Letter to the Corinthians, the famous “love chapter.”
Love is patient, love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends. 1 Corinthians 13:4-8a
Couples frequently choose those words to be read at their wedding or commitment celebration. I almost always include in my sermon on such occasions the reality that this is a very high standard, one from which they are likely to fall short by the end of their wedding day.
Love of neighbor is simple and clear and it is a very difficult and high standard. It is difficult because of who my neighbor is, some of whom I like very much and some of whom, well, not so much.
And it gets worse, because it is not simply personal. The neighbors about whom Paul speaks are not even necessarily people I know. In fact, most of them are strangers to me, people whose lives seem in no way connected to mine. Part of that simple and clear message of our religion, however, is that they are, they are connected—my life with every life on the planet. In fact, in that great reality we call the communion of saints, our lives are connected to every life that has been or ever will be.
If you think about it for more than a few seconds it is overwhelming—such a high responsibility and even an outrageous one.
As I said, the implications are staggering.
So too are they for those often quoted words of Jesus, “When two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.” They are very comforting words, until you begin to think about who the other person I am with might be. And from what Jesus says in this morning’s Gospel reading, he clearly means that the two or three just might be enemies. The person I am with just might be someone who has done me wrong.
There is comfort in Jesus’ words about his presence when we gather but there is also deep responsibility and accountability. Jesus’ presence means that relationships change—enemies work to be reconciled, strangers work to become friends, friends seek to deepen their relationship with one another. These things have to be or the presence of Jesus is betrayed, because Jesus is not present and things remain the same. Jesus always transforms.
Our message is simple and clear, but also a little frightening. What Jesus wants of us—unconditional love for all and a commitment to his presence that always, always transforms us—is deep and broad. How, in fact can we do it?
The first thing to grasp in wrestling with that question is not about us. It is about God. God does these things. God loves perfectly like Paul describes in First Corinthians. God shows up in relationships of all kinds, in all places, under all circumstances. There is no one who is not God’s neighbor. God even puts Mr. Rogers to shame.
Why is it important for us to grasp this? Well, because we are not God. We don’t do perfect, that’s part of the definition of being human. God expects us not to get it right.
But that, of course, does not let us off the hook. God does want us to try and try again. In the passage in Matthew immediately following this morning’s we hear the question, “How many times must I forgive, as many of seven?” Jesus answers, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.” He does not mean literally to count and you’re off the hook at 78, he means “as long as it takes.”
This is difficult stuff. It stretches us. It’s not necessarily what we were taught growing up, either in word or by example. It’s not necessarily the “normal” standard in the world around us. In fact, I dare say forgiveness is a rare commodity in this world. I would say that is unfortunately true even among Christians.
This is sad, but not necessarily surprising. Being reconciled with everyone is hard work. And we are, as I said, human.
But this work is so important especially in a parish family like ours with all of its diversities. If we are known both for our diversity and the quality of our love for one another, we will have gone a long way to living into our mission and fulfilling our vision. We will be living close to the heart of God, and displaying that Jesus, is, indeed, among us.
Let us continue to commit ourselves to the good news of the simple and clear message of God’s love for all and work hard to make it so among us. And let us always remember that Jesus is with us in this great work, whenever two or three of us are gathered.