Sermon by Revd Caroline Risdon
13th Sunday after Trinity, 6 September 2020
You can hear an audio recording of the sermon here
This week in Matthew's Gospel, we seem to have a lesson in conflict and conflict resolution from Jesus. A lot of what is suggested makes sense; if you have a disagreement or feel that someone has sinned against you, talk to them directly to try work it out. If you cannot find a resolution, take one or two others with you to try resolve the issue. Should the matter persist, the whole community together must make a decision about any action that needs to be taken. This is in fact the basis for many a complaints procedure!
But we cannot overlook the context in which this advice comes. Immediately before our Gospel reading today, we have the parable of the lost sheep where we are told to leave the 99 in search of the individual. And immediately after this Gospel reading, we have Jesus telling us to forgive one another not 7 but 77 times. So, we are being encouraged here to take ownership. If someone behaves badly, we are to address it, not to create enemies or to exert our own power, but to bring that person back into 'communion' with the body of Christ. If we in fact avoid all conflict, we end up with a fractured community.
Perhaps this reading is easier to undestand if we shift the perspective from managing conflict to 'loosing and binding.' Time and again over the past several weeks we have heard this expression in our Gospel readings- whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in Heaven. What does that actually mean? By happy coincidence, we learn a bit more from the reading in Romans.
St Paul tells us to owe no one anything, except love. Now the language of obligation defined the livelihood of first century Roman citizens in many spheres of life. To the emperor they “owed” honour and allegiance; to their benefactor (if they had one, and many did), they owed also money and possessions; slaves owed service and their very lives; wives owed submission, and so on.
So when Paul exhorts his audience to “owe” nothing except love, he is in a sense reconfiguring the arrangement of the furniture. To owe nothing except love eliminates the structures inherent in the Roman way of life. To owe nothing but love to one another is to own the reality that we all are completely dependent on God’s grace. Not only our forgiveness, but for our very existence. It reframes how we live in relation to one another in our everyday interactions.
In Matthew 18, Jesus does not seem very interested in authority or status or hierarchy. Matthew’s Jesus is concerned about “the least ones,” the vulnerable, the socially unacceptable ones. We hear this message repeatedly through Matthew’s gospel- better to tie a millstone around your neck and jump in the ocean than cause a little one to stumble; better to leave ninety-nine sheep on the mountains than lose a little one. The point this gospel reading is to convince us that when the Church or its members exercise authority, we must pay ceaseless attention to the least powerful members of the community. Whenever and whatever we bind or loose, the Christian community is called to defend the interests of the least ones in our midst, as well as to create the space and the conditions necessary for forgiveness and restoration.
Surely, as we each stand before the Cross, each of us broken and each of us reconciled, we feel this deep call? To loose all those behaviours and attitudes, within ourselves, within this Church family and within our local community, that bring division and unhappiness. To bind together and to ourselves those ‘little ones’, the lonely, the vulnerable, those most in need of dignity and restoration, among whom we must surely count ourselves.