The Tie That Binds

When I was researching today's scripture, the commentaries spoke about the emotion of anger. This scripture is an opportunity to acknowledge that we all get angry. There certainly is a lot to be angry about lately; the lists of ongoing injustice in our world certainly a call for some anger.

But today, I want to take our scripture focus in a different direction. I love being here in this church. It’s like I have a great big “family.” We all try to take care of each other, to be friends, to help when help is needed. That’s part of what a family does. On our altar/worship center are four boxes each with a special word on it: the first one, the red box, is labeled LOVE; the green box is labeled HOPE; the blue box is labeled PEACE, and the yellow box is labeled FAITH.

Each of those words is special when it comes to being a family, either at home or at church. As I thought about the red box, I thought about God’s love: that is always here for us, no matter what is happening in our lives. The green box has the word HOPE on it, and it reminds me that we have to have hope for the future. Surprisingly, each one of us is part of that hope. It keeps us going, moving ahead into the future. The blue box is special to me because it reminds me of PEACE. Being at peace is important in community. Where there is anger and strife, there is separation and hurt. Finally the yellow box, with its sunshine colors helps me to think of FAITH. Faith brightens my life! It is something that gives me strength when things are difficult and gives me courage for what lies ahead. The problem is that my paper chain is not complete. It only has a few links. I think I would like to have more.

This week I asked some of the children to help me make a paper chain, using my strips of construction paper. I tried to glue them together, but making the links of the chain worked better when I stapled them. I needed several helpers: one to pick out the color strip to be used, and one to staple the strip into a ring making a chain.

Take a few minutes to make the chain – what would happen if we hooked them together with white strips representing COMMUNITY?

There is something fascinating about chains. Many are made from various metals ranging from steel to gold, some are made with intricately carved links of wood, others might be plastic or glass, and still others created using paper links. Some chains are meant to be decorative, others to bind things up, others to prevent items from being stolen, some to be worn as a clothing accessory, but one of my favorites are the paper chains which so often appeared in our house at Christmas. These chains were very fragile. We tried to keep them from year to year, but many links had to be replaced due to deterioration.

As I said earlier this week our children had fun creating that long paper chain which now graces our altar. They commented on how pretty it looks up there. Let’s look a little deeper at the symbol of chains… specifically as it relates to our church. Each one of us is a link. Each one of us brings something unique to the chain. Some of us feel strong, and others feel weak. Yet it is God who uses our strengths and our weaknesses to create this remarkable chain called the church. We are bound together in love, so the hymn says. In that love-binding, we are empowered for ministries of hope and healing that we never could have undertaken alone.

Jesus is gently reminding us that by being members of the church community, we are responsible for one another, and one of our tasks of love may be that of correcting our brother or sister who errs. This is never an easy task in our relativistic times, and our advice risks being rejected. Fraternal correction must always be inspired by real charity - it is one of the spiritual works of mercy. I pray to be given this love and the wisdom to find the right way to carry out this task of love.

Because Jesus shares his own spirit with us, the connection between the community of believers and Jesus is very close: what we bind or loose here is bound or loosed in heaven, and whatever we ask in union will be given to us by the Father. I ask for this insight and for a stronger faith in the presence of Jesus in the midst of the Church.

Jesus speaks to the challenge and the wonder of being in community. He recognizes that being his follower, being part of his body, will not relieve us of brokenness. Jesus is clear that being Christian doesn’t mean avoiding conflict, and that discord should not be allowed to fester and infect the entire body. He lays out a plan that requires his followers to engage a brother or sister who has done harm. His plan is one that seeks to preserve the dignity of the one perceived to have done wrong and to restore his or her relationship with the community. Community, after all, is one of those feel-good words that draw us into idealisms -- we imagine something out of Cheers, a place where you're accepted for who you are, where you're never lonely, and where, of course, everyone knows your name. But the really difficult thing about community is that it's made up of people! And people -- not you and me, of course, but most people -- can be difficult, challenging, selfish, and unreliable. Which means that usually when we're daydreaming about community we're often prompted to do so because we don't particularly like the people -- i.e., the community! -- we're currently a part of. It's into this reality that Jesus, according to Matthew, speaks, and I find his candor refreshing. Let me summarize what I take to be the main points:

  • People sin.

  • Communities are made up of these sinning people.

  • When that happens and you're involved, do something about it; namely, go talk to the other person directly like a mature adult rather than behind his or her back.

  • If that doesn't work, involve some others of the community. (As Karl Jacobson points out in an excellent commentary on this passage, this isn't a "gathering of witnesses" but rather a way to involve and preserve the larger community that is affected by this dispute.)

  • If that doesn't work, then things are serious and you're all at risk.

I'd put it this way: Authentic community is hard to come by. It's work. But it's worth it. Because when you find it, it's like discovering a little bit of heaven on earth; that is, it's like experiencing the reality of God's communal fellowship and existence in your midst. And, as Jesus promises, when you gather in this way -- with honesty and integrity, even when it's hard - amazing things can happen because Jesus is with you, right there, in your very midst, forming and being formed by your communal sharing.

To engage one another in the way that Jesus describes in our gospel selection poses challenges on several fronts, not least of which is that we don’t always agree on what constitutes a sin. For another, we each have our own sins to reckon with, and times when we act out of our brokenness rather than our lovingness. It’s often so much easier to point toward what we see as sinful in another’s life than to deal with the ways that we ourselves bring harm to the body of Christ. Jesus knows this, too. It wasn’t so many chapters ago that he said, “Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye?” (Matthew 7:3)

Dealing with the sources of conflict in the church requires such profound humility on our part. Being people of humility and forgiveness doesn’t mean doing away with discernment; the health of the community requires us to be vigilant about rooting out the sources of harm. Yet Christ calls us to do so with a spirit that acknowledges our own brokenness and shortcomings and seeks to restore relationships wherever possible.

Engaging one another around the most difficult challenges of living together means that we have to know each other. It compels us to see one another with a clarity by which we not only recognize one another’s shortcomings but also know each other’s stories. This clarity grows elusive in a culture where face-to-face connections are becoming more difficult to form and maintain. It requires effort and intention to seek and sustain such seeing.

Jesus recognized the power of this kind of knowing. For all the challenges of conflict in a community, the power of concord is stronger. “Truly I tell you,” Jesus goes on to say in this passage, “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” (Matthew 18:20). Where we find a place of connection amid conflict, where we gather in the name of the one who calls us to be his body, where we give ourselves to knowing one another: that is not only astounding, it is a miracle that moves heaven and earth.

Jesus underscores this by telling his followers what he has recently told Peter: that what they bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and what they loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. Jesus’ phrase about binding and loosing come from the rabbinic tradition, in which rabbis had the power to discern whether a questionable action would be permitted under the law. Yet in the context of this passage about our life together as followers of Christ, his words about binding and loosing prompt me to ponder what connects us?

So, on this September day, what binds you? What holds you together with others? What do you fashion from the scars you carry? What do you long for in your relationships? What are you willing to do to find or create it? Who can help? In your binding and loosing, in the conflict and concord that come in your loving: blessings.

We can do so much because we are bound together. When one link feels weak, the others will provide the necessary strength needed to accomplish the goal. The point is that we are all important, we all bring unique gifts, we all are called to be in supportive community with each other. And together, in the love of Christ, we can achieve great things.

So, I remind you today, that this community of faith, this chain needs you and your wonderful gifts. We need your prayers as we faithfully seek to discern God’s will for us. We need your presence which always lifts and encourages us to go om. We need your gifts (those wonderful talents that you possess which builds up this body of Christ), and we need your service, the willingness to work together in whatever way is best.

So here's what I'd like to see this Sunday. I want you to think about just what kind of community you want to be. "Community" is all over the place. There are cyber-communities, and social-media communities. There are work-related and school-centered communities. Many of the communities we're a part of we fall into as affinity groups -- our kids' playgroups, or a running club, or the folks we eat with in the dining room of our college or elder-care facility. All of these communities are different, and each shares distinct characteristics. So what kind of community do we want from our congregation -- largely social, somewhat superficial (which is, of course, safe)? Do we want something more meaningful or intimate (which is riskier and harder)? Do we want a place that can both encourage us and hold us accountable? Are we looking for a place we can be honest about our hopes and fears, dreams and anxieties? Do we want somewhere we can just blend in or are we looking for a place we can really make a difference?

Now, let’s weave the chain in and around the boxes. This is how community is formed – people working together in Love, Hope, Peace, and Faith. God, we thank you for the blessings you have given us and your guidance as we become a true community of faith. Bless each person here and all those who could not be with us.

At the close of worship I invite you to come, take a strip of paper, and link it to the children’s chain on the altar/worship center. This is a special way to demonstrate our common-unity as we go into the world to serve Christ by helping others. AMEN.

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