Rev. Dr. Martha ter Kuile

Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost

September 6, 2020

Psalm 119.33-40

Teach me, O Lord, the way of your statutes,
and I will observe it to the end.
Give me understanding, that I may keep your law
and observe it with my whole heart.
Lead me in the path of your commandments,
for I delight in it.
Turn my heart to your decrees,
and not to selfish gain.
Turn my eyes from looking at vanities;
give me life in your ways.
Confirm to your servant your promise,
which is for those who fear you.
Turn away the disgrace that I dread,
for your ordinances are good.
See, I have longed for your precepts;
in your righteousness give me life.

Matthew 18.15-20

‘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.’

May God bless to our understanding these words from Holy Scripture.

In the passage that Gaye Frances read to us, the Psalmist asks God to tell us what to do.  Show me your laws, she says, turn my eyes away from the distractions and emptiness around me, and show me your path.  I don’t think this is a simple request for help in becoming a goody-goody, who always follows every rule and regulation.  The writer seems to have an understanding that God’s laws are somehow different from the lists of acceptable and unacceptable actions that human legal systems devise.  Even at their best, the precepts of human justice will lack the amplitude and compassion and wisdom of the divine law that creates and sustains all life.  It is good for us to aspire toward that deeper goodness as we try to live together, bound on earth.

But living together on earth, bound as we are by our own shortcomings and limitations, is never easy for human beings.  We need not just laws and principles, but practical advice.  In our Gospel reading today we hear Jesus trying to put some wheels under his great commandment to ‘love one another’.  If you are going to love one another, he tells us, this is how to do it.  The specific case he addresses is about a dispute, but I think the method he proposes has even broader application.

First step, he says – talk to the person about the problem, one on one.  Second step, get one or two others and talk about it again.  Third step, talk it over with everyone in the church.  Fourth step – and you hope you won’t be taking this one – give up.  Or at least, recognize that you have failed for the moment.

This four step process takes for granted the immense difficulty all human beings have understanding one another.  It doesn’t call it a moral failing, just a fact of life.  Jesus assumes that it is natural not to be able to see the other person’s point of view, not to be able to imagine what it feels like to be them.  He tells them that the only way to begin to overcome that mutual incomprehension is to talk about it, and to get others to help you improve your grasp.

You can see how this is true in many parts of life.  Just these last two weeks, as our family has experienced the sudden grief of my parents’ death, it has occurred to me a number of times that I didn’t have a grasp of what other people had been going through when they lost their parents.  Even when you try to listen sensitively, and to open your heart to others, the imagination often fails.  And yet the reaching out and care that we have received in these sad days is such a potent reminder that people do reach out and touch one another, and that that compassion brings so much consolation.  Making the effort to understand another person’s experience is probably the most profound spiritual act there is.

And this isn’t only in our personal lives.  The challenges that Michael set us in his sermon last week were invitations to engage with reconciliation and reparation and human rights work.  He talked about indigenous people, people of African descent, people in Palestine and the Philippines.  And there are others. At the core of that engagement will be the imaginative effort to grasp human realities which are outside one’s own experience.  To walk in their shoes.

Our gospel reading this morning suggests that Christians have to be ready to persevere with this.  To engage person to person, with respect and openness.  And also in groups, step two – you can learn from others who are trying to learn. In some ways that is the purpose of our Anti-racism study group – to help those of us who are not black catch a glimpse of lives different from ours, lives that matter, through reading their stories.  To build our imaginative capacity.  The engagement has to be at an institutional level too – step 3, says Jesus, take it to the whole church.  Let the church itself have the tough conversations.  When you have a problem, says Jesus, do a lot of talking.

And if you fail, admit it.  Give it a break.  Treat each other like Gentiles and tax collectors, he says….   But look how he treated Gentiles and tax collectors.  He just kept trying.  He never stopped talking to them, never stopped seeing them. Like us, he was bound on earth, yet living in God’s larger law of love.

If we can make the effort to imagine each others’ lives, and talk together honestly, and understand each others’ truth, we will be on the path he set.

And for this we give God thanks.  Amen.

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