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September 10, 2023

The Reverend Kathleen Killian

Proper 18A/23

Ezekiel 33:7-11

Psalm 119:33-40

Romans 13:8-14

Matthew 18:15-20


Choose Life

In our collect for the day, we prayed: Grant us, O Lord, to trust in you with all our hearts—not our thinking or our heads or our egos—but the heart, the seat of life and abode of God. We might also pray it this way: Grant us, O Lord, to trust in your love with all of our love; love that is genuine, un-hypocritical, love that is true. 

The first and great commandment tells us that you shall love, the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. And a second is like it, that you shall love, your neighbor as yourself (Matthew 22:37-40). In our epistle passage this morning, Paul also writes of the obligation of love: Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another. 

Indeed, as Christians, and as the Church, we are indebted to love, and to love one another. I am indebted to love you, and you to love me. Our mandate is unequivocal, and yet so hard to carry out; to love you-know-who in the pew, at home, at work, or in the news. But, as I remind myself, love is not simply a feeling of affection or approval. Love is letting go of our judgement; of disagreeing with another’s opinion or behavior without condemnation of their souls. Love is listening well. Love is forgiveness; and if we can’t find it in us to personally forgive, love is getting out of the way and allowing God’s mercy and Christ forgiveness to do so. 

Love is infinitely spacious and welcomes unto itself all manner of difficulty and darkness, which is exactly what Jesus did. He opened his arms and welcomed all who were suffering, cast out, and lost in the dark, saying: I did not come to call the well, the whole, and the righteous, but those who are crippled by sickness and sin (Mark 1:17, Matthew 9:12, Luke 5:31). Jesus opens himself so completely to the people and their struggles, that he is us and his love is our own. When we tear each other down with gossip, jealously and pride, judgment and hypocrisy, willful ignorance, complacency and resistance to change, we are not loving God, ourselves or our neighbor, but hurting each other and persecuting Christ.

There never has been nor will there ever be a perfect Christian community. Think about it, Jesus worked and ministered in the midst of conflict, crisis, clamoring crowds, opposition, and forces of nature; and rarely, if ever, in ordered and serene circumstances or in a room with soft light and hushed tones. As the gospels reveal there was also plenty of conflict among Jesus’ hand-picked disciples. 

Our gospel passage considers how to navigate the often wide gulf between love and conflict in relationship. Though it’s considered by most scholars to be the product of the developing church in Matthew’s community, rather than words from Jesus himself, it delineates an almost legalistic approach for helping a community member acknowledge their wrongdoing and then accept responsibility for it. First, meet directly with the person; then if need be, meet together with a few trusted others. If to no avail, let the person and or situation go—shake off the dust from your shoes and move on. 

On the other hand, our Old Testament passage addresses what can occur when we realize the harm caused by our transgressions or wickedness, to use Ezekiel’s word, and the shame and hopelessness that results; as we read, Israel has sinned so and been so wicked, that they are utterly despairing and cry out: Our transgressions and our sins weigh upon us, and we waste away because of them; how then can we live? But God turns it around and says to them: Why would you choose death when you can choose life, O House of Israel? For I have no pleasure in the death of anyone, says the Lord God, Turn, then, and live!

Love would have it that we humans are given infinite chances to turn back to the Holy One and return to love; to turn our eyes from watching what is worthless, as our psalmist prays. Remorse for our sins, offenses, and omissions is meant to lead to new life; life in God’s ways, in Love’s ways. Even in our most fallen state, Christ is lower still. I was really taken by this phrase, and I’d like to share a few lyrics from a song by the same name (Christ is lower still, The Porter’s Gate): When from grace I fell, Christ was lower still. Humbly, lowly, Jesus waits in the valley . . . and suffers with me. In his wounds I find room for all of mine. With him, I’ll rise again. 

As we will sing in our closing hymn, Christ is made the sure foundation: the lowest load bearing part of our being; our footing and base, substructure and underpinning, bedrock and groundwork. 

And yet the choice remains ours: do we choose death, or do we choose life and to truly live? A favorite scripture of mine from Deuteronomy (30:19) speaks plainly to this choice, and though we didn’t read it this morning, I wanted to share it: Today, says the Lord God, I have given you the choice between life and death, between blessings and curses. Now I call on heaven and earth to witness the choice you make. Oh, that you would choose life, so that you and your descendants might live!

One might think it a moot point, that of course we choose life over death! Yet how often we sleep walk through life, barely awake, barely free, existing on autopilot and conditioned to think that this is living.To truly live is akin to the life abundant that Jesus speaks of in John (10:10). I have come that you may have life, and have it to the full. Abundant life is depth of awareness, and awareness of the fullness of the heart and all therein. With time and attention and grace, the heart welcomes all therein—all manner of difficulty and darkness, simplicity and goodness—and in doing so surrenders to all encompassing love; becoming then full of the fruits of the Spirit, and bearing joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, and faithfulness (Galatians 5: 22); fruit that is nourishment for body and soul. To choose life is to trust in the Lord and in God’s abounding and abundant love. 

Yesterday, our diocese chose life by voting Fr. Jeremiah Williamson of Colorado Springs to be our Bishop-elect. Yesterday, God did a new thing, a very surprising thing, and a great reversal was made out of relative isolation into widening inclusion; from rather inward looking clergy led power to the outward looking power of the people or laity who drove the election forward. Some folks had to yield, some hold fast. But new life was had. As Fr. Jeremiah said in his accepting remarks, this power of love transcends our differences, and holds our hearts together. Indeed, the Diocese of Albany chose to truly live and trust with fullness of heart in God’s love. 

St. Paul’s puts in this way in his letter to the Romans: You can’t go wrong when you love, and when we love one another. Be up and awake to what God is doing! We can’t afford to squander ourselves in frivolity and indulgence, in sleeping around and dissipation, in bickering and grabbing everything in sight. Let us cast off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light. Let us love one another! 

From our opening hymn:  Let us build a [diocese] where all are named, their songs and visions heard, and loved and treasured, taught and claimed as words within the Word. Built of tear and cries and laughter, prayers of faith and songs of grace, let this [diocese] proclaim that all are welcome (All are Welcome, Marty Haugen).

Today is a new day. May our hearts cease their brooding upon old wrongs and let bitterness and resentments depart, that we are reconciled with one another and God and restored to unity; that we receive the blessings of life, now, and forever more.