Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost; Sept. 7, 2014, Year A
Ezekiel 33.7-11; Psalm 119.33-40; Romans 13.8-14; Matthew 18.15-20
Pastor Renee Splichal Larson
Grace and peace to you from the One who gives us the ministry of reconciliation, Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
I have a great aunt named Margerie. She is 84 years old, is the child of German immigrants, and farmed much of her life since she was born. Just in the last year I was visiting her and she looked down at her hands and said, “I just don’t know why my hands are so large. It must have been all those years of using the hoe in the garden.”
I looked at her hands when she called attention to them. I had never noticed them before. They actually were disproportionately larger to the rest of her body. They were clearly strong and bore the resemblance of decades of exposure to the sun and the hard work of stewarding the land. I love and appreciate her hands. Her hands have given me small and precious gifts over the years. I somehow feel a part of her hard-working hands that tell a story of her life and my heritage.
I’ve been thinking a lot about hands this week, particularly because we are celebrating God’s Work, Our Hands, Sunday, with the rest of our church body of the ELCA. What a beautiful way we demonstrated being Christ’s hands to one another through the flipping of pancakes, the serving of food, the passing of a plate, the washing of a fork, and the shaking of a hand.
In a letter to his barber, Martin Luther writes: “God has no hands but ours, no bread but the bread we bake, no prayers but the ones we make, whether we know what we are doing or not” (Barbara Brown Taylor. An Altar in the World, p. 201. Luther’s letter to Peter the Barber).
This makes our hands quite important. Take a moment to look at your hands. Notice them. Where do the lines make their way across your palms? Do you have any scars or calluses? What about tattoos and their meaning? Do they have wrinkles that tell of the many years God has given to you on this earth? Are they smaller still, not yet having grown into their full size? What stories do your hands tell?
Have your hands every lashed out in anger? Have they shook a hand or embrace another in reconciliation and forgiveness?
Have you had learning hands in the tying of your first shoelaces?
Or serving hands in offering people communion?
What about the beauty and joy of making music with your hands?
Or the clapping of appreciation for someone who shared their gifts?
Think of a small hand you have held. Have your hands gently held a baby?
What about the worn hands of an elder or grandparent?
Perhaps you have been in the sacred space of holding the hand of someone who was dying.
We do not always realize the ministry and sacredness of our hands, or of the work God accomplishes on this earth through you and through me as the people of God together.
Our Scripture readings for today are all about what it means to be in relationship with people. They are not necessarily about our relationships with all people we encounter, but more specifically our relationships within the intentional community God draws us into as people of faith. Our particular intentional community of faith is called “Heart River Lutheran Church.”
We hear the word “church” a number of times in our Gospel reading. We all might have a different perception of what we think of when we hear the word “church,” but the church is really the “body of believers bound by faith in the crucified and resurrected Christ (Eric Barreto: http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2164).”
The church is the people. It’s not a building, but rather a living, breathing, dynamic body of people, knit together in faith, who are Christ’s hands and feet in the world.
This definition of church sounds so nice for the most part, doesn’t it? Sometimes there’s this perception from the outside looking in that the people who are a part of a church are perfect, are happy, don’t have serious problems, walk around with a smile on their face all the time, do not doubt at all, and get along swimmingly with others. There is this perception that the church is supposed to be perfect, almost like a utopian community.
I do not know where these perceptions come from, but they could not be more inaccurate. I learned a hard lesson when I was a ‘practicing pastor’ on internship 6 years ago. I was discussing some of the ways I had seen people treat one another in my internship congregation with my pastor mother-in-law. When I paused for a breath she said to me, “Why are you surprised at the church’s sin?”
I shouldn’t have been, but I was. There is always this language in Scripture concerning love and how we are to treat one another, not only as human beings, but as brothers and sisters in Christ. Brothers and sisters…essentially family members.
Well, if any of you grew up with a brother and a sister like I did, what is inevitable in that kind of relationship?…fighting, disagreements, jealousy. Hopefully these things are balanced out with love, affection, and commitment to each other as well.
Pastor and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote a book called, “Life Together,” which is a book that explores what it means to be in intentional community as a church, a body of faith. In it he writes: “The person who loves their dream of community will destroy community, but the person who loves those around them will create community.”
Romans 13.8 says: “Owe no one anything, except to love one another…”
What Jesus is saying in the Gospel is, “Don’t be surprised when you become angry with someone I have called you into relationship with in the church, when you hurt someone or they hurt you. It will happen. And when it does, this is what you do:
“You first go to them in person and speak with them. If they refuse to listen and reconcile, then bring a couple of others from the church with you. Don’t be afraid because I will be with all of you. If the person closes their ears, then try the whole body of faith to help reconciliation happen. If even then they refuse then let them be as an outsider.”
We can hear this last resort in a few different ways. One is to wash your hands of them and be done. Another is to know Jesus loves and cares for them and give the relationship to him.
Another is to pause and think, “if we are the hands and feet of Christ, his presence in this world, then how did he model how we are to reach out to and treat one who is an outsider?” A clear answer to this is, have dinner with them. Jesus had dinner with and continued to associate with all kinds of “outsiders” all the time: Gentiles, tax collectors, prostitutes, and people with skin diseases.
Theologian N.T. Wright says, “Never stop making forgiveness and reconciliation your goal.” To be part of a church, and here in our context of Heart River Lutheran Church, means to love and care for another through the hurts and commit to living intentionally with one another as a body of faith. It is to take the hard work of forgiveness and reconciliation seriously, which is what it means to love one another.
I was speaking last night with my husband, Jon, about our celebration today of 30 years as being Heart River Lutheran Church. He said this about us: You simply have to say that God knit Heart River Lutheran Church together in a certain and special way. It’s not perfect, no congregation is…but somehow that’s the point. God’s knits us all together individually & communally. We are not perfect. We need healing and restoration and God calls us to work together and love one another. Heart River is an amazing group of people with incredible purpose.”
I couldn’t agree more and I am so privileged to be your pastor.
We are unique in that some of us have called this congregation home for its whole of 30 years, some just 4 years like myself, some of us here know we are only a worshipping part of this congregation for a short period of our lives, especially those of you who look forward to the day of being released from YCC.
Nonetheless, all of us here today, all who have sat in these pews before us, and all who will have a presence here in hope chapel on Sunday mornings to come, are an integral part of who we are as Heart River Lutheran Church.