Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Who Can Save?

1 Timothy 4:12-16

Let no one despise your youth, but set the believers an example in speech and conduct, in love, in faith, in purity. Until I arrive, give attention to the public reading of scripture, to the reading');" onmouseout="return nd();"> to exhorting, to teaching. Do not neglect the gift that is in you, which was given to you through prophecy with the laying on of hands by the council of elders. by the presbytery');" onmouseout="return nd();"> Put these things into practice, devote yourself to them, so that all may see your progress. Pay close attention to yourself and to your teaching; continue in these things, for in doing this you will save both yourself and your hearers.


This past Sunday (9/28), I was installed as the pastor of the Lutheran Church of Hope (Anchorage, AK). The passage above was read directly from the ELCA's installation service as one of the scriptural charges to me. (The service doesn't actually include the youth opening verse, but it seems appropriate to me- so I included it.)

However, in preparing for the service- the last half verse caught my attention and gave me significant pause: "... for in doing this you will save both yourself and your hearers."

This made me stop in my tracks because I in no way believe that I save anyone. I believe that all salvific action is the work of God through Christ. We come to know that work and believe in it through the power of the Holy Spirit. So, what is this charge saying to me? I cannot save people... so what does this phrase mean? (Like its sibling verses, 1 Timothy 2:11-12, we cannot exorcise it from the canon, but we have to wrestle with it.)

That being said, I view being a pastor as working alongside and with fellow believers- encouraging them in the work of ministry, vision and hope. Nowhere in my vision, do I save anyone from anything? Am I even capable of that in any way?

I don't save from sin. I don't save people from themselves. I don't save from death.

Maybe the solution is this: in giving "attention to the public reading of Scripture, to exhorting, to teaching,"... I can save myself from thinking that I know everything. The more I read and study Scripture and writings, the more I realize that the full comprehension of God is beyond my grasp. If I can, in some small way, help myself and those who are around me from believing that we can fully know and understand God- we will be saved from some of our greatest errors. If I can keep myself and a few others in awareness of God's grace and constant love for us, we may well manage to remember that we cannot save ourselves. Maybe the writers of Timothy are reminding me and others that salvation comes from God, but if we don't do the work of uplifting and supporting one another in faith- that one freeing truth will be the first thing we forget. And once we've forgotten that... nothing else matters.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Johnny Appleseed

Friday was Johnny Appleseed Day. I didn't get to post then, but here are some thoughts today in the form of the Friday Five, which comes from here.

September 26, 1774 was his birthday. "Johnny Appleseed" (John Chapman) is one of America's great legends. He was a nurseryman who started out planting trees in western New York and Pennsylvania, but he was among those who were captivated by the movement west across the continent.

As Johnny traveled west (at that time, the "West" was places like Ohio, Michigan, Indiana, and Illinois) he planted apple trees and sold trees to settlers. With every apple tree that was planted, the legend grew. A devout Christian, he was known to preach during his travels. According to legend, Johny Appleseed led a simple life and wanted little. He rarely accepted money and often donated any money he received to churches or charities. He planted hundreds of orchards, considering it his service to humankind. There is some link between Johny Appleseed and very early Arbor Day celebrations.

So, in honor of this interesting fellow, let's get on with the questions!

1. What is your favorite apple dish?
This is hard for me to decide. I love apples, but I love them as apples. I'll eat almost any kind at any time. I ate a a delicious spice cake once with chunks of apples in it. If I could ever find a recipe for that... I'd be thrilled.

2. Have you ever planted a tree? If so was there a special reason or occasion you can tell us about?
When I was in grade school, we used to receive little pine trees on Arbor Day. I remember planting a few of them in our yard. We moved away and now I live across the country from where I was raised, so I don't how the trees turned out.

3. Does the idea of roaming around the countryside (preaching or otherwise) appeal to you? Why or why not?
There is some appeal to the idea of traveling and preaching, but I really like getting to know a congregation. I believe my preaching and teaching is better shaped by knowing the needs and joys of the congregation. Maybe when I'm much older, I'll enjoy a career as an Alaskan circuit rider. (On a sled?)

4. Who is a favorite "historical legend" of yours?
I love the story of the name "teddy bear". I'm fascinated by President Theodore Roosevelt. The story is told that he was bear-hunting and hadn't seen one. Finally his assistants managed to trap a bear and tied it to a tree, asking TR to shoot it. He refused to do so and the story hit the newspapers shortly thereafter. Then toy manufacturers came out with little stuffed bears- calling them "Teddy bears".

5. Johnny Appleseed was said to sing to keep up his spirits as he traveled the roads of the west. Do you have a song that comes when you are trying to becheerful, or is there something else that you often do?
I love the hymn "My Life Flows on in Endless Song". See my sermon about it here and a separate post about it here.That songs shores up my strength and keeps me focused. It also helps me to cope with stress, sadness, fear and being afraid. "The Lord is good to me," sang Johnny Appleseed. I agree, so "how can I keep from singing."

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Angels

Hebrews 1:14

"Are not all angels spirits in the divine service, sent to serve for the sake of those who are to inherit salvation?" (NRSV)
"Are not all angels ministering spirits sent to serve those who will inherit salvation?" (NIV)
"Isn't it obvious that all angels are sent to help out with those lined up to receive salvation?" (The Message)

During a recent study on the book of Hebrews, this verse brought up many questions and sparked curious conversations. Basically, the questions boil down to this: we do not know what angels do.

What do we know: Angels are created being like us, but possibly even more transient in nature. (Psalm 104:4, Hebrews 1:7) They are guardians for us (Ps. 91:11) and they have tasks that come from God and are working on our behalf (Heb. 1:14).

Angels do not achieve salvation or fight the forces that oppose God (that's the work of the Son). Angels are not our Advocate nor do they stir up in us the gift of faith (that's the work of the Holy Spirit). They do not create (the work of the one God through all parts of the Trinity).

Yet, from Hebrews, we do learn that angels are among us- doing God-given tasks for us. (Because we are the ones set to inherit salvation.) Hebrews argues carefully and strenuously against equating angels or their work with the work of God. However, it consoles us with the idea that God's love even sends workers, whose purpose and tasks we do not fully understand, to minister to us.

Sometimes we glimpse them or in hindsight, we think we understand their work, but angels remain part of the mystery of God. However, God's grace is never mysterious and it's evident here by the promise of the working angels.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Brother's Keeper

Genesis 4:8-9 (NRSV)
Cain said to his brother Abel, "Let us go out to the field." And when they were in the field, Cain rose up against his brother Abel and killed him. Then the Lord said to Cain, "Where is your brother Abel?" He said, "I do not know; am I my brother’s keeper?"

Genesis 4:8-9 (The Message)
Cain had words with his brother. They were out in the field; Cain came at Abel his brother and killed him. God said to Cain, "Where is Abel, your brother?" He said, "How should I know? Am I his babysitter?"


I was recently reading a book that urged congregations to accept the idea of being one's brother's keeper. The idea sort of irked the Libertarian in me. I'm glad to help my brother, but I'd like to see him take some responsibility. Yet, even within my own thoughts, I knew that there is a chasm between being your brother's keeper and totally ignoring him.

"To be my brother's keeper" has taken on an extremely political connotation (see my initial reaction). The phrase is used to divide (in the most simplistic terms) those who seek government and institutional help for society's less fortunate and those who favor a more hand's off approach. That's a very un-nuanced description, but I hope you get my point.

However when we look at that passage in its context in Genesis, there is one glaring fact. Cain knew exactly where his brother was and how his own actions contributed to that location. Cain was trying to escape God's anger by pretending to be innocent from wrong-doing and ignorant about Abel.

I find that on both sides of the political aisle, this attitude still prevails. On the one side, people rail against those who continue to keep down the poor, without regarding their own complicit behavior. On the other side, there are those who anger about "handouts" without considering the importance of a just society.

It's true that there will be no fully just society until Christ returns. If we rest in that knowledge, though, we are ignoring the God's call to us through the Word to work toward the fulfillment of the kingdom.

Since we are simultaneously saint and sinner, we live out both aspects in our daily lives. We are called to seek ways in which we can help our neighbors- through gracious action AND through empowerment. We are also called to always consider the advantages we have (and everyone has at least one) and to be grateful for them- seeking to use that advantage as we help others around us.

Am I my brother's keeper? Maybe not day in and day out, but I am called to bring life to him, not death. And I am called to be honest about my actions toward my neighbor- both how they help and how they hinder. And I ask God to help me do more of the former and less of the latter.


Sunday, September 21, 2008

It's not Fair (Sermon 9/21)

Jonah 3:10- 4:11; Philippians 1:21-30; Matthew 20:1-16

Hands down, the last line of the book of Jonah is one of my favorite verses in the whole Bible. Not only does it show God’s exasperation with Jonah, but it also shows that God has a sense of humor and cares about all of creation. God says, “And should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?” In short, “Who is going to love this city full of idiots and their animals if I don’t?”

But let’s back up from that verse for a few minutes and think about the rest of Jonah’s story. You may recall that Jonah, a Jew, was called by God to go to Nineveh, a city full of people who had persecuted the Jews. Jonah is called to go to Nineveh and preach repentance to them. God wants the people of Nineveh to have the abundant life that is only possible within the knowledge of God’s grace, so he sends Jonah.

Jonah does not want to go. Not only because he’s a little afraid of the people of Nineveh, but also because he doesn’t want them to receive God’s grace. He knows if he goes out there, the people will repent and God won’t destroy them and all will be well. And he can’t bear the thought of all that forgiveness and rejoicing, so he gets himself down to the docks, rents a boat and heads in the exact opposite direction.

Long story less long, God ends up asking Jonah if he doesn’t think the Ninevites might at least smell better than the belly of a whale. And the whale itself has a little indigestion and spits up Jonah back onto the beach. And Jonah gets up and goes to Nineveh, but he’s still not happy about it. However, he preaches convincingly enough that all of Nineveh, including the king and all the cattle, puts on sackcloth and ashes and repents.

And that brings us to today’s passage wherein Jonah has what my grandmother would have called a hissy fit about God’s grace. If this isn’t the most pitiful whine, “O Lord! Is not this what I said while I was still in my own country? That is why I fled to Tarshish at the beginning; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing. And now, O Lord, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live.” In other words, “God, I knew this would happen. It’s not fair! You always forgive. Why did I need to come all the way out here? Do you know how the other Jews are going to feel when they hear that I came out to Nineveh to spread your message of love? You might as well kill me now.”

Then Jonah sits down to wait, hopeful that maybe God will change his mind back and go ahead and wipe Nineveh off the map. Then God provides a lovely tree for shade and then sends a worm to eat it, throwing poor Jonah into a tailspin and creating the time for God to say, “You care about a tree you didn’t make, and you want me to kill a city full of people who are my own creation.”

Sometimes I think we mostly think about the whale portion Jonah’s story because it is the part that bears the least resemblance to anything we recognize. When we look at the rest of the story, it’s almost painfully familiar. How often have you found yourself on a boat in the opposite direction of where God was calling you? When we say to ourselves, I don’t have the time, the energy, or the skills to do any kind of ministry right now… we’re setting ourselves up to experience the fishy smell of being in the belly of a whale of despair and sadness.

If God is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing- then why do we need to do anything? Why do we have to discomfort ourselves, if God is going to be merciful anyway? If the last will be first and the first, last- why make the effort to be anywhere but the middle? If God so loves the whole world, why do we have to do anything?

Because not everyone knows.

Like the Ninevites, not everyone is familiar with God’s story of grace and love through all time. In the Anchorage bowl, there are 300,000 people (and also many animals!) who might know their right hand from their left, but many are hungry for the gospel message of hope and grace.

And we are called to bring it to them. We can sit around here and worry about what would happen if we did live into our gospel call. What could happen if we went out to Nineveh- preaching the gospel we have received? Some hungry people eat. Some naked people might have clothes. Some sick people might be healed. Some prisoners might be visited. Some outcasts might be welcomed.

And what would happen to us? We, like Jonah, sometimes need the lessons of grace more than the Ninevites. If we go out carrying the gospel, we will meet Jesus. In our encounters with one another and our neighbors beyond this family, we would encounter our Savior in all the places He promised to be. We would experience God’s widening mercy- increasing the boundaries of our experience, our faith and our understanding of mercy and justice.

The theme in the Jonah and Matthew readings today can almost be seen one of “fairness”. First Jonah and then the vineyard workers pout about the grace of God and the vineyard owner. It’s not fair for the Ninevites to be forgiven. It’s not fair the last workers hired to get paid the same amount. And those of us who are old enough to talk already have experienced, at some point, that life isn’t fair.

But grace isn’t about fairness. There is no greater reward for longer service within the kingdom. Within the kingdom of God, the same salvation goes to everyone. Christ is present to everyone in the bread and the wine, regardless of age, belief or personal habits. The Holy Spirit works through everyone, whether bidden or not, whether recognized or not.

And rather than making us pouty like Jonah or taken aback like the workers who expected more, this knowledge should comfort and relieve us. At some point, we all struggle with knowing our right hand from our left. We all resist from time to time the calls God whispers in our ears. We ignore the gospel commands and we hope someone else will do the work. Sometimes we want to be the workers who come in at five. Despite all this, we still receive the forgiveness, the mercy and the righteousness that God extends to all through Christ Jesus. No matter what we do, God’s grace is always at hand for all people, even for us.

God is gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing. Grace is never fair, thanks be to God, because it extends even to us! Rather than fair, grace is amazing.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Fall Equinox Friday Five


As this vivid season begins, tell us five favorite things about fall:

First I should comment for the majority of my blog readers (in Alaska), we know in our heart of hearts that fall is nearly over, not just beginning. The snow on the mountains creeps ever closer to my house in the Eagle River Valley. The first snow that appears on the hills in called "termination dust" in Alaskan parlance... and I'm not totally sure why. I think it's because it represents the sure termination of summer; however, my husband thinks the name comes from the fact that the snow "kills" everything it on which it falls. That being said... a few thoughts on fall as prompted by the RevGalBlogPals site.

1) A fragrance
What does fall smell like? I think the smell of wet leaves and the smell of animals. I know that the moose and bears are traveling through my yard these days- my little doggy lets me know when they pass by. And when I take him outside, we both sniff. I only smell wet horse (moose?) and rotting leaves, but his little sniffer takes in a lot more, but he doesn't share his discoveries. Though it's not a smell, I love sharp, crispness of the air and how it feels in my nose.

2) A color
At the tops of the mountains, just above the treeline and below the termination dust, there is a deep rust color. It's probably the blueberry and cranberry bushes (and some fireweed) turning before the frost. It makes me think of Nome and fall tundra colors- easily rivaling the beauty of trees everywhere. For me, nowhere ever feels like Nome in the fall- the peeking moose, the running bears, the crisp, crisp air.... Ah, memories. But I do like trees and the sharp orange of the birches in Eagle River has its own special beauty. Want to go for a drive?


3) An item of clothing
Fall means I can wear the bright jewel tones in the sweaters I've missed all year. I love the colors of fall and the feel of sweaters and light layers (far different than the needs of January and February). I also get to break out the corduroy- in jackets, pants and skirts! I love my fall/winter clothes and the advent of cool weather means they're in the closet to stay- at least until April.

4) An activity
I like to go to the Eagle River Nature Center, kick up a few leaves and say good-bye to the last of the summer's salmon. At the end of September, there are sometimes a few beaten-up sockeyes and cohoes which have made it to the end of the line and the end of the run. They have completed their mating dance and their tails swish in tired rhythms. They're fascinating to watch and to me, it's like they bring winter- the last little fishes coming into to lay their eggs and pass their hope to the future, which lies in a spring they shall not see. (Is there a lesson in this?)

5) A special day
If I had to think of a particular fall day, I would remember meeting my husband in Nome, bear hunting with him a year later and deciding we were going to make our relationship work for a long time. Fall is a season of anticipation for me: at this time last year, the coming of fall meant being even closer to his return from Iraq. He's scheduled to go again next year and I expect fall will mean the same thing to me at this time in 12 months. Fall has always been a restless and energetic time for me. Maybe I'm gathering my nuts for the winter ahead or maybe this is just my favorite season and I respond to it.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

It's about Forgiveness

Genesis 50:15-21; Romans 14:1-12; Matthew 18:21-35

When I was 17, my boyfriend at the time gave me a box of chocolates for Valentine’s Day. I kept the chocolates in the room I shared with my sister, not hidden, but not exactly on public display. A couple days after the holiday I noticed that a few additional chocolates seemed to be missing. I didn’t have to look far to discover the culprit.

She had to buy a replacement box of chocolates for me. Shortly thereafter, I came home to discover my chocolates, which where hidden this time, were fewer in number than I remembered. Furthermore, there was tooth mark in one of the chocolates. No intensive sleuthing was needed… I knew who did this.

As I recall, the scenario happened a third time, but I confess that I did not make it to forgiveness a third time. Seven times? Ha! Seventy times seven? Double-ha! I couldn’t even forgive three times in a row.

That brings us to an interesting point in Jesus’ words to Peter here. This takes place after Peter has been told that Jesus will use him and those who come after him to build the church. Then Peter has heard about taking care of the lost sheep and welcoming people back into the fold. And now Peter definitely thinks he is demonstrating to Jesus how compassionate a leader he can be.

To forgive once is human, twice is amazing, three times seems nearly impossible and kind of foolish. So Peter thinks he’s going out on the limb of grace and forgiving seven times. In the context of last week’s passage, Peter is asking if a congregation should welcome and forgive someone up to seven times.

Seven is a holy and special number in the Bible as it held strong significance in the Middle Eastern world of the time. However, Jesus says seven doesn’t even come close to the forgiveness we are expected to give. We are to forgive someone seventy times seven times. Jesus doesn’t mean that we should then keep a little tally sheet until we hit 490 (seventy time seven) because keeping such a record is not really in the spirit of forgiveness.

Yet when we hear about this kind of forgiveness, our minds make a leap (or at least, mine does) to actions that seem unforgivable. We think of murders, abuse of children, manipulation of good faith, and so many other actions. So we have to be clear about what forgiveness is and isn’t and what it does and does not do.

Forgiveness does not offer an excuse for bad behavior. It does not pretend the scars do not exist. It does not eliminate the consequences of some actions. Forgiveness does not mean continuing to put yourself or someone else in harm’s way. The king’s forgiveness of the servant did not eliminate the absence of the money. However, it removed the burden from the servant and cleared any relationship barriers between the servant and the king, though because of their positions- they remained unequal.

However, when the servant met his fellow slave who owed him a debt, miniscule in proportion to the debt he had owed the king, he threw this second slave into prison until he could pay the debt. When the king hears of this, he rescinds his debt forgiveness and throws that servant in prison as well.

When we do not forgive our brothers and sisters, we ourselves become imprisoned by our debts, our trespasses, our sins. We miss out not only that specific relationship, but on the fullness of other relationships because we are held back by our fears, concerns and anger that we retain.

When we become obsessed with retribution and justice, we also miss out on the forgiveness aspect of a relationship. But consider the words of Paul, “We do not live to ourselves and we do not die to ourselves. If we live, we live to the Lord and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s. For to this end Christ died and lived again, so that he might be Lord of both the living and the dead.”

Our lives are not our own and, more importantly, no one else’s life belongs to us either. We are all accountable to God and God’s word calls us into accountability in our relationships with all people.

After the third round of chocolate stealing, I caught my sister. It’s important at this part of the story to know that she would have 14 years old at this point, old enough to know what she was doing. When I found the missing chocolates the third time, I pushed her on the floor and held her down with my knees. Then I forced fed her the chocolates from the box, especially the truffles.

It was awful and not really my proudest moment, or hers. To this day, neither she nor I can eat truffles. My strong desire to punish her in a mean way ruined that sweetness for both of us.

Forgiveness does not usurp the role of courts or laws. As Paul says elsewhere, we are not called to sin so that grace may abound. Instead we are called to something more difficult. Releasing each other from the prison of wrongs where we trap one another and ourselves.

When we pray, “Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us,” it is not conditional. God does not only forgive us in proportion to how we forgive one another. Instead, we are praying for the ability to forgive, in some small way, in way that we have been forgiven.

We are asking to have some measure of strength to forgive a fourth time and a fifth. We’re asking for the wisdom to repair relationships that are broken and wisdom in how to act for the good of those around us. We are asking for the Spirit to intercede for us, with sighs to deep for words, so that we can again taste the sweetness of freedom in God’s forgiveness of us through Christ.

It is hard enough to comprehend all that God has done for us. Our beings, our time and our possessions are all gifts from God. We are not called to return them or to use them for the earning of salvation. We have received them, in addition to love, mercy and forgiveness, as free gifts from God.

When we imprison one another by the chains of unforgiveness, we lose our ability to taste and see the goodness of the gifts of God. God has forgiven us far more than 490 times and will continue to do so in the future. Through the power of the Spirit, God also helps us to forgive one another and to remind each of the forgiveness we have received.

To paraphrase a certain movie, forgiveness is like a box of chocolates- if you keep it to yourself, it will make you sick.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Excommunication (Sermon 9/7)

Ezekiel 33:7-11; Romans 13:8-14; Matthew 18:15-20



How do you feel when you hear the term “excommunication”? (Worried, wonder what it is, curious, angry…) It is not a term that’s very much used in the church in this day and age, though we hear occasionally hear rumors of it. Maybe in your mind, right now, you can think of someone you would like to have excommunicated in a prior time. Maybe someone is thinking of you, or me, when they hear that word.

When it comes to issues like excommunication or bad behavior in the church or flagrant sinfulness, it is hard for us to think about anything, but the Law. I do not mean what’s on the books in terms of law; I mean, what’s in the Book. In traditional Lutheran understanding, the Law is found throughout scripture. It is the portions that prick our hearts and remind us of how far we fallen from grace. The Law serves as a reminder of our constant and desperate need for God’s love and forgiveness.

The gospel passage today seems very full of Law and even seems to point toward excommunication as a practice of the church. Within this section, we are confronted with the hard truth of what it means to be in a community. We will sin against one another; we have sinned against one another. Through words and deeds, things done and left undone- we create ruptures in the fabric of our community of faith.

Our greatest, and most frequent, sin is when we forget that God is God, the only God. When we break that first commandment and try to put our needs, our knowledge or ourselves first, we end up pushing away those around us and we’re standing in the middle where we wanted to be, but alone.

Even when we take the action in this passage, when we confront someone who has hurt us, we often approach the situation from the idea that we were right and they were wrong. The truth of Law is that even in being wronged, we were messing up in our behavior. Anyone who has been a son or a daughter, a mother or a father, a brother or a sister understands what can happen in a family- how things can hurt. The same thing applies in a faith family. We look at our brothers and sisters and know in our hearts that we have not been able to keep God’s law of love with regard to those brothers and sisters.

The wounds caused by our actions, and aggravated by the Law, are soothed by the medicine of the Gospel. Sometimes that medicine can be hard to swallow. Have you ever noticed that? That it can be easier to keep feeling hurt and angry than to confront the issues and begin the healing process.

In this Gospel passage, Jesus tells his disciples, then and now, to speak up about wrongdoing. This is not about excommunication or about power over one another. It is not the same as the church leaders in John who dragged the adulterous woman in front of Jesus; their hip holsters full of stoning rocks and their throwing arms already warmed up and rarin’ to go. Jesus is telling us that we are called to go to members who seem outside of the community, maybe because of their actions, maybe because they have actually left.

The Body of Christ is not whole without them, so they are to be brought back in- through invitation, conversation and initiation. We are called to swallow our pride, our anger and our certainty and to go to our neighbor.

And this passage is not even about forgiveness. We are not called to go to our brother and demand an apology or reparation. We are called to go and say, “I have been angry with you because of this. Please forgive me. I hope we can move forward from here together.”

The graciousness of this openness in community cannot be over-emphasized. Jesus stresses it, himself: “What you bind on earth will be bound in heaven and what you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” When we act aggressively within the community of the church, we bind ourselves by those actions and, in that tightness, we are unable to experience or see the free-flowing work of the Spirit. When we act with compassion and care toward one another, when we love as we have been loved, we open ourselves to the work that God is doing through us- with and for one another and the world.

Jesus promises that where two or more are gathered in his name, he is there among them. This means that the church is more than a social organization or a moral group. The church is a family, a group of people bound together by something greater than themselves, a family gathered specifically and especially in the name of Jesus.

Jesus says that people who just cannot seem to get along with other people are to be treated as Gentiles and as tax collectors. When we take that statement apart, it seems to be very strong and negative. Treat them like IRS agents…

But this reading is from the book of Matthew- the presumed author of this book is a tax collector! A tax collector who traveled with Jesus and ate with Gentiles, the person writing these words is using his own experience to say, “Jesus tells us to feed his sheep and tend his lambs.” These words are strong and positive: we are being called to active and embracing compassion and relationship with one another. We must move to a new stage of compassion with one another, even as we look toward and hope for the growth of the church and the spread of the gospel.

The thought of that, like the Law, can be frightening, but when we live in the midst of such good news- how can we keep it from one another. In a time of many changes and turmoil in the world, we need one another now more than ever, so that we may experience the reality and truth of the presence of Christ among us.

The church itself is not perfect, but God’s love for the Church and God’s children is whole and perfect. It is through that love that we are able to reach out to one another and do the work that needs to be done- the work of healing, reconciliation, ministry and building.

The commandments about how to treat our neighbor are summed up by the apostle Paul, “Love your neighbor as yourself. Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law. Besides this, you know what time it is, how it is the moment for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers; the night is far gone, the day is near… Let us… put on the armor of light… put on the Lord Jesus Christ…”

Love yourself- for you are wondrous work of God. That can be difficult, but sometimes harder still is to love your neighbor. You might think he is a piece of work and she is- a wondrous work of God. God’s Church has survived years of human failure- from the early difficulties of the disciples to the excommunications in the Reformation to the great division that is happening in this day and age. Yet still it survives, not because of us, but in spite of us and because of our risen Savior who sustains the church in this and every age. Today’s gospel calls us to the task of reminding those around us, everyone around us, that nothing can excommunicate any of us from the One who made and loves the whole world.