A series of essays in the Episcopal Church
By The Rev. Terry Pannell
Pentecost 16 A The Reverend Terry Pannell
Proper 18 St. Albanís Episcopal Church
Texts: Romans 12: 9-21 Monroe, Louisiana
Matthew 18: 15-20 September 4, 2005
If there is one thing we can say with certainty it is that calamities like the hurricane that struck the gulf coast have a way of getting our attention. Going through life on cruise control lulls us into becoming so focused on our own lives that we take for granted just how connected we are to one another. Not until tragedy shows up at our doorstep do we realize just how fragile communities are. Faced with many challenges this week, we all had to change our priorities. In deciding to open St. Albanís doors to people in need, this community put love of neighbor as its first priority.
Making room for love is what Paul is encouraging in his epistle to the Romans. In it he extols the virtues that Christians are to uphold not only during sentinel events like the tragedy we just witnessed, but also in the day to day challenges we face as a community of faith. Paul eloquently lays before us the characteristics of Christianity. In many of his letters to the early churches Paul stressed the importance of humility in oneís relationship with God and neighbor. Cautioning against being haughty, Paul warns Christians not to be disdainful of one another because such conduct contradicts the very faith we claim to have and creates division within the church.
We know that the early house churches were made up of Jews and Gentiles, each claiming to be Jesusí disciples. And from time to time disagreements arose, usually involving opposing views about faith and practice; what was acceptable and what was not. We know for instance that there were disagreements over whether Gentile Christians had to follow Jewish dietary customs. Other situations involved the assertion that the gift of speaking in tongues was somehow more important than other gifts. The common denominator in these conflicts often boiled down to a kind of group think mentality from which we get that old game of self-deception known as Iím a better Christian than you are.
The disagreements we see today within Christianity are uncannily similar to the ones the early church experienced. In the midst of ecclesiastical tugs of war, one group accuses the other of being narrow minded while the other charges that its counterpart has abandoned or compromised the faith. Underlying the rhetoric is that each party claims to be superior, in effect declaring the other party is unacceptable in the eyes of God. The problem with that is that no one has 20/20 vision. Paul himself wrote that at best we can only ďsee in a mirror dimly.Ē 
Throughout its history the church has struggled to discern acceptable faith and practice. While we may claim to have faith, having faith doesnít mean that we have complete knowledge. Jesus once said that we have to become humble like children. In other words, we need to recognize our dependence on Godís wisdom and guidance in our common life and in the decisions we make.
Todayís Gospel reading tells us something about the nature of decision making within the community of faith. When Jesus talks about binding and loosing he is referring to the rabbinic practice of determining how scripture should be applied in certain situations in life. For example, when Jesus loosed a commandment like healing someone on the Sabbath, he was reinterpreting the law in a more humane way. Let me point out here that Jesus was not negating Jewish law. His focus was on the intent of the law rather than the letter of the law.
Now anyone can point out what scripture says about a particular subject but there is a difference in being able to quote from the Bible and comprehending it. The latter involves the hard work of interpretation from one generation to the next as Christians struggle with change. That is what binding and loosing is about and yes the church does this. For example, Jesus told his disciples not to store up treasure on earth. However, there is a deafening silence in the church that Jesusí words in this matter should be taken literally. Be thankful that the church chose the loosing option on this one. Otherwise you might find yourselves having to choose between keeping your 401k plans and remaining in good standing with the church.
Likewise, it hasnít been that long ago that the Episcopal Church loosened its restrictions on remarriage after divorce. There are more than a few Episcopalians including clergy in this diocese who have benefited from this change. But not every one wants to deal with matters of binding and loosing. The thought of change upsets those who prefer to go through life on cruise control. Maintaining the status quo is an easy choice when you are not the one trying to live under the burden of the law.
The fact is though, dealing with matters involving binding and loosing is one of the churchís most important responsibilities. Jesus gave the community the authority to decide matters of faith and practice that affect its common life. Unlike the Roman Catholic Church, in the Episcopal Church decision making is a corporate endeavor involving laypeople and clergy alike. At the moment we are trying as a community of faith to determine what the full inclusion of gays and lesbians in the life of the church means.
The church has been given the responsibility to faithfully take up the task of deciding what it will bind and what it will loose. And the key word here is faithfully because decisions made by the Body of Christ must necessarily be guided by the Holy Spirit and must focus on transformation not coercion. With that said, the conduct of church members reflects the presence or absence of integrity in this discernment process. Ultimately, the decisions that will be made by the church will be evidenced by love or they will not.
Right now the sound advice found in Paulís words to the Romans seems especially helpful. When he said that our love should be genuine he wasnít talking about loving only those with whom we agree. When he said that Christians should hate what is evil, he was not talking about hating someone because they are a different. When Paul warns us not to claim wisdom beyond our understanding, he was talking about claiming to irrefutably know the mind of God. The early Christians in Rome did not have 20/20 vision and neither do we. That is why in matters of the churchís binding and loosing the Holy Spirit plays a pivotal role in the discernment process. Jesus did after all promise us that he would be there for us.
Once the church realizes this, it will find that the task of binding and loosing is not about deciding who the ďrealĒ Christians are. The fact is no one knows the heart of another person. Judging that another human being is evil is tantamount to usurping Godís authority, which many have tried with none succeeding. Deciding who is acceptable in the eyes of God is not part of the job description for being a Christian. The job of Jesusí disciples is to love, to pray, to be a blessing to others, to seek out the stranger, to practice hospitality, to embrace those who suffer, and to work for peace instead of seeking revenge. Jesusí disciples are not to be overcome by evil, but to overcome evil with good. For attempts to overcome evil with evil only leads to more evil.
Based on todayís polarized environment not only in this country but also within the church itself Iím beginning to wonder if we have forgotten what love is. Perhaps it isnít that the church has a poor memory. Maybe it is just that it has become too much fun drawing lines in the sand so that we can sort out for ourselves who the real Christians are. I tell you there is no virtue in such a pitiful game. There is no humility in trying to reshape Godís character to support an agenda that seeks to close the churchís doors to keep people out. If we refuse to let God shape our character, then we are merely worshipping a puny deity that we have created in our own image.
But there is nothing puny about the God of love. In the kingdom of heaven that Jesus proclaims love is what guides our decisions and our proper position is humility, that expression of faith, the outward sign of the grace within that extends into the life of the community and connects us to one another as the Body of Christ. As we struggle to be the church it is wise to remember that God called us into being not for the purpose of preventing sin but to help people flourish as faithful and loving human beings. And isnít that what we all aspire to be?
It has been said that if you want to see what a real Christian looks like, find a place where love is being practiced. Well I have witnessed love being practiced in abundance all this week at St. Albans. In the wake of a disaster of biblical proportions, you opened your hearts and your doors to sisters and brothers who lost everything. Muslims, Jews and Christians alike have been welcomed into your midst and shown unreserved hospitality that Abraham himself once showed to angels. In the midst of tragedy you have done what the church is supposed to do. You have welcomed the stranger and shown them hospitality. You have made room for love.
Do not forget what you have experienced this week. Do not be lulled into returning to life on cruise control because there is yet another tragedy outside the churchís doors and it is more powerful than Hurricane Katrina. The destructive forces of polarization are destroying entire communities without regard for the pain and suffering left in the aftermath. Godís beleaguered children await the churchís response. The question is will we make room for love? If the churchís latest response is any indication, then there is hope. May you always be united in love and guided by the Holy Spirit so that you may be a blessing to all who seek shelter in the place where love dwells.
 1 Corinthians 13: 12 NRSV
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