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September 10, 2023

Fifteenth Sunday After Pentecost

Ezekiel 35:7-11

Psalm 119:33-40

Romans 13:8-14

Matthew 18:15-20

Dear fellow ministers of the gospel of Jesus Christ,

grace and peace to you from the one who calls us to love one another. Amen

It’s fitting,

on a day when we’re celebrating

the coming together of a community,

that our scripture readings address

how to live together as a community, as a church.

Paul in Romans starts us off on a positive note,

echoing Jesus saying “Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law.”

and goes on to explain how all the commandments

are fulfilled when you love your neighbor as yourself.

Want to live in harmony with God and one another?

It’s simple,

love one another.

Sure, simple.

Paul already indicates

that he knows people will make it more complicated than that

as he goes on to be sure to say

“Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.”

There have certainly been folks

who have claimed to be acting out of love for the neighbor

who have very much wronged them,

that is not the fulfilling of the law,

rather a breaking of relationships,

made worse by using the name of Jesus to justify the actions

and Paul knows that no one fights harder than believers of the same faith,

and the reality of it is,

we need ways to deal with the conflict.

Which brings us to Jesus and his teachings that we heard in our gospel today.

As we see Jesus is nothing if not realistic

about humanity’s ability to disagree with one another,

we have to back up before we get to our particular gospel text

but it is preceded by the disciples arguing among one another,

over something silly-

they have asked him “Who is the greatest in the kingdom?”

presumably hoping that the answer would be one of them,

instead Jesus takes a child,

one without social status,

and puts the child among them

and tells them that they must become like this child

- humble, without concern for social status-

to enter the kingdom,

and in fact a welcome of one such person

is the same as welcoming Jesus.

And then Jesus doubles down on his teaching,

telling them “If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believes in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were fastened around your neck and you were drowned in the depth of the sea.”

and incase that didn’t sink in,

pun unintentional,

Jesus tells them a parable about a shepherd with 100 sheep,

who when one wanders off

leaves the other 99 to go look for the one

and there is great rejoicing when it is found and returned to the flock.

And only then

does Jesus outline a process for dealing with broken relationships,

first going to the person one on one and talking to them,

and if that doesn’t work

take a couple other people to witness and mediate,

and if that doesn’t work then take it to the whole church,

and if that doesn’t work treat that one as a Gentile and a tax collector,

which has been interpreted as ostracism,

but remember who Jesus especially sought out

Gentiles and tax collectors

people particularly in need of good news and forgiveness.

And then Jesus reminds the disciples,

and all of us,

that our words and actions matter in both heaven and earth,

what we say and do is not something to be taken lightly

he then reminds them

that where two or three are gathered in his name,

he is there among them.

Now this is usually applied to worship,

especially lighter attended worship services,

but worship is not the context of this whole discussion,

it’s conflict and conflict resolution

yes Jesus is with us in the midst of worship,

Jesus is also in the midst of us

when, gathered in his name

we’re arguing with one another,

and when we’re trying to problem solve.

And though this is the end of our reading for today,

it’s not the end of Jesus’ teaching,

as we’ll hear next week,

Jesus ends this section

by teaching about forgiveness.

Peter even asks him

how many times he should forgive someone who sins against him,

as many as seven times?

and Jesus tells him- not seven times, but seventy-seven times.

Jesus calls us to approach life in community with humility,

without concern for social status,

and indeed calls us to be especially careful of those who lack status, or power.

Jesus reminds us that our actions have an impact,

one so great that it is felt in heaven as well as on earth,

that all are precious

even the one that wanders away,

that when we come into conflict with one another

we need to address it head on,

and most of all we are to forgive and keep forgiving.

In other words,

we are to love one another.

We are to love our neighbors as ourselves,

in love we are to do no harm to anyone,

most of all we are to follow the new commandment

that Jesus gave his disciples on their last night together

“love one another as I have loved you”

a command he gave them

after kneeling at their feet

and before going to the cross.

It’s simple and yet incredibly complex,

and we as humans tend to swing back and forth

between the simplicity and complexity.

Between focusing on Christ and the core message of love

and then the complexity of trying to live out that love

in a world that runs counter to the way of love.

As we try to live out love in the world

we get distracted,

we get distracted by trying to figure out

just who is deserving of our love

and the help of our limited resources,

and then we start comparing ourselves to other individuals,

other congregations

and we start wondering who is the greatest

and if it’s not us, how can we become the greatest

or perhaps great again,

and before we know it

we’re claiming to follow Jesus

but we’re really following the world

and we find ourselves in need of help,

in need of Jesus.

And that’s when

Jesus calls us back together,

and together we confess our sins

and hear words of forgiveness,

together we hear in the words of scripture

the story of God and the people,

a story where God is always faithful,

we return to God in prayer,

we offer some of what we have to God,

and then Jesus brings us to the table,

meets us there in bread and wine

body and blood,

offering forgiveness,

renewing our strength,

recalling us to that night with his disciples

where he commanded them to love one another as he loved them,

a love that puts God and others before self.

And recalled to this love, fed and forgiven,

Jesus sends us back into the world,

to love one another.

And we repeat this process

over and over, week after week,

month after month, year after year,

no matter how far we stray,

again and again Jesus calls us back to love

and sends us forth in love.

At the end of seminary,

a common topic of conversation among those who were about to graduate

was to about what kind of churches

or what kind of ministry we felt called to,

were hoping to be called to.

Some of my classmates had very specific hopes

requirements even,

when I was asked,

my standard answer was:

“I just want a church to love”

simple, but it’s so easy to get caught up in all sorts of other things

some of which are important

but not the most important thing.

When I started feeling nudged by the Holy Spirit

to look for a second call,

and as I started filling out paperwork that asked: what are you looking for?

I started dreaming,

thinking oh this would be nice in a congregation,

and this, and I’d really like this the next time around

and then I got paperwork and I did a couple of interviews

and in the midst of an overwhelming amount of choices

I realized that my old answer still rang true for me,

what was I really looking for?

A congregation to love,

and yes there were other important factors,

but the Holy Spirit reminded me that whatever congregation I was called to

would not be perfect, (just as I was not perfect) but I was called to love them.

Grace Lutheran,

you are the congregation the Holy Spirit has called me to love,

and I believe that the Holy Spirit has called us together

because our gifts and yes even some preferences

are aligned in a way

that together we will have abundant life,

and share the good news of Jesus Christ with all we encounter.

And because this world is not yet perfect,

there will be times when we disagree and disappoint each other,

and Jesus will be with us

and my hope is that when those times come,

we will seek one another out,

engage in conversation grounded in love that fulfills the law,

that strives for clarity and understanding

and that when necessary we will offer one another forgiveness

not seven times but seventy-seven times.

And Jesus will be with us

Even as Jesus is with us right now as we celebrate,

Celebrate the present

and a future full of hope.

So as we formally start our relationship

as pastor and congregation,

let us start

(and continue)

in love.

The love of Christ,

the love that changes the world. Amen

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