Sunday, September 28, 2008

Proper 21

Philippians 2
2make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. 3Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. 4Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. 5Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, 6who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, 7but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, 8he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death— even death on a cross. 9Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, 10so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

12Therefore, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed me, not only in my presence, but much more now in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; 13for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.

This morning’s advantage goes to trivia buffs, fans of Brad Pitt and former Roman Catholics: What are the “seven deadly sins?”


Now, I’ve never been one for the sermon series, but it’s awfully tempting to spend seven weeks really getting into those sins. Luckily for you, sloth keeps me from doing it: It sounds like too much work to collect all those sins and talk about them week by week.

What about the opposite? Back in the Middle Ages, one of the most popular books was an ancient one called the "Contest of the Soul.” Written in the fifth century, the work described the epic contest between the seven deadly sins and the seven “heavenly” virtues. Suddenly we have two lists:

Lust Chastity
Gluttony Temperance
Greed Charity
Sloth Diligence
Wrath Patience
Envy Kindness
Pride Humility

At this point I expect the former Roman Catholics to say “wait a minute, Michael, didn’t St. Thomas Aquinas lift up the four cardinal virtues of justice, fortitude, prudence and temperance?” And I would say, of course, but at some point we have just too many lists going at once. And really I only want to talk about number seven on second list.

Put your hands up if you are humble.

People fall into that trap every time. Would the humble really put up their hands? In fact, they might, since the cardinal virtue of fortitude demands that we bravely claim our virtues at the risk of embarrassing ourselves. Well done, humble ones.

So what is humility? According to the Catholic Encyclopedia, humility “is that by which a man [or woman] has a modest estimate of his own worth, and submits himself [or herself] to others.” Now I don’t have to tell you that this runs contrary to every single trend in the world that surrounds us.

Somewhere back in the 1970’s educators decided that there was a connection between self-esteem and grades. If the children feel better about themselves, the theory goes, then they will do better in school. Suddenly the idea of correcting mistakes when out the window, because to correct a mistake could somehow damage fragile self-esteem. Of course I’m giving an oversimplification of the theory, but it was the beginning of a trend where ideas like “self-realization” and “self-acceptance” became much more important than self-criticism or having a realistic sense of self.

Luckily, researchers have largely discredited the self-esteem “movement.” In some ways, however, the damage is done because many continue to imagine that self-esteem is something fragile that needs protection rather than one more aspect of our personality that may or may not get in the way of having a realistic sense of self. When I supervise students for the ministry the first thing I have them do is draw up a list of the things that scare them about ministry or the things they know they don’t do well. This is where theological education begins.


Hidden in Paul’s letter this morning is an ancient hymn, a fragment of older poetry found inside one of the oldest letters of Paul. If you want to know what the very earliest followers of Jesus were singing or saying, it goes something like this:

Let the same mind be in you
that was in Christ Jesus, who,
though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death
—even death on a cross.

The tune is long gone, although many hymn writers have formed and reformed these words into the hymns we now sing. But back on the day this letter arrived in Philippi, the first readers would have known this hymn and hummed along as they received Paul’s teaching. They had the tune.

One of the great misconceptions of the Christian life is that there is virtue in suffering. I checked the list, and suffering is not there. We know that as we follow “the way” of Jesus suffering may come, but we are not to welcome it and we are certainly not to pursue it. “Pick up your cross and follow me” did not mean go and find a cross, but rather this: should a cross arrive, do not hesitate to pick it up and know that Christ will be with you in your suffering.

The way of humility, the way the virtue is best expressed and found in the very first life of the ancient hymn: “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.” This is the goal of the Christian life: to understand the mind and meaning of Jesus and find it in you. And how can we know the mind of Jesus and cast his mind in our own? By telling the story:

Jesus loved small things: smallest seed, smallest coin, smallest child.
Jesus healed people with dirt and spittle, the most humble medicine of all.
Jesus was more worried about thieves to his left and to his right than he was for himself.
Jesus does things everyone should know but says “tell no one.”
Jesus washes hands and feet and every human heart.
Jesus touched wounds and invited others to touch his.

How is it that this Jesus, present at the very moment of creation, the eternal Word, the King of Kings, can empty himself to enter our world and live as we live? How could Creator become creature? How could he take flesh and walk among us? The only answer is humility. He gave up equality with God to live with us, to see what we see, to experience the full range of human experience including suffering and including death. He did this only for us, not for himself, but for us: so that God could know in the most intimate way what it means to be human.

More wisdom from the desert fathers and mothers: A brother asked Abba Tithoes, "Which way leads to humility?" The old man said, "The way of humility is this: self-control, prayer, and thinking yourself inferior to all creatures." (Ward, p. 237)

What if we truly imagined we were inferior to all creatures: how would we live? How would we receive the news that the population of the most common North America birds has dropped by half in the last forty years? Would we humble ourselves and listen to the birds? How would we hear the news that fully a third of all frog species are threatened with extinction? Would we listen to the frogs? Can we live in the way of humility and listen to the birds and the frogs and the tune of the earth?

The most ancient of words found in the Christian Bible is a hymn to humility, a hymn to the goal of the Christian life. What’s missing, of course, is the tune, the very tune that the believers in Philippi and Corinth and Rome and Ephesus would have called to mind as they read Paul’s words. The tune was lost in time. Or was it? We have the words, printed there on the page, and the tune – the tune is you and me. We are the tune that makes the words sing, we are the tune that allows God’s song to be heard, we are the tune that is one in mind with Christ Jesus. May you sing with courage and hope, in a loud voice, the song of God with all you meet. Amen.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Proper 20

Matthew 20.1-16

“For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. 2After agreeing with the laborers for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard. 3When he went out about nine o”clock, he saw others standing idle in the marketplace; 4and he said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ So they went. 5When he went out again about noon and about three o”clock, he did the same. 6And about five o”clock he went out and found others standing around; and he said to them, ‘Why are you standing here idle all day?’ 7They said to him, ‘Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard.’ 8When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his manager, ‘Call the laborers and give them their pay, beginning with the last and then going to the first.’ 9When those hired about five o”clock came, each of them received the usual daily wage. 10Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received the usual daily wage. 11And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, 12saying, ‘These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.’ 13But he replied to one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? 14Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. 15Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?’ 16So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”

Everything I know about investment banking I learned in the last week:

I learned that Freddie Mac is not a famous rapper and Fannie Mae is not a hillbilly.
I learned that “short-selling” has nothing to do with getting a pair of cut-offs at the mall.
I learned that the “big five” are now the “big two” and may not be for long.
I learned that investment banks are not really banks at all, but vehicles for selling things that don’t really exist.
I learned that somehow government intervention is wrong until the people with the most money stand to lose it.
I learned that “greed is good” until you want the votes of those who know the opposite.
I learned that very little will be learned from the current crisis, and someday it will all happen again.

Legend has it that Joe Kennedy exited the stock market before the crash of ’29 because a shoeshine boy gave him a stock tip. His logic was that when people with little or no knowledge of the market were getting involved, it was time to leave. The Kennedy’s remained rich.

Fast-forward eighty or so years and it seems you no longer need the wisdom of a Joe Kennedy, you only need to wait while Congress decides how to bail you out. For those who work hard all day and avoid unnecessary risks, it all seems terribly unfair. The people who gambled with money they didn’t earn now expect to end the day as secure as everyone else.


Tom Long tells this story about teaching the Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard:

Late in the term his class reflected together on the Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard. They recounted the story of workers hired early in the day and promised a denarius, an honest wage, enough to feed a family for a day. Later, at the third hour of the day, and at noon, and again at the ninth hour of the day, the owner went to the marketplace for more workers. Even at the eleventh hour he was still looking for workers, and when he found them he said, “why do you stand about all day? Come, work for me.”

When it came time to pay them all, he began with those hired last. As they received the denarius, the workers hired first began to imagine the money they would make this day. They got a denarius. Enraged, they said “this us unfair, you have made these eleventh-hour people equal to us, and we worked in the scorching heat all day!”

The students smiled to themselves, as they knew the end of the story: “My friends,” the owner said, “I was good to my word, paying you a living wage. Don’t I have the right to be generous with my money?” The classroom filled with goodwill, as student after student marveled at the generosity of their God and the grace that surrounded them.

Then came a knock on the door. “Are you Professor Long?” a breathless student asked.
“Is this New Testament Class?”
“Oh, thank God. I just realized that I’m enrolled in your class and somehow it didn’t appear on my timetable. If I don’t get this credit, I won’t be able to graduate. I know this is a lot to ask, but is it possible to borrow some class notes and write the final paper?”

The room exploded. “That’s not fair! That’s not possible! You can’t do that! We’ve been here since the fall! Dr. Long, no!”

Dr. Long and the young actor he hired to play the part of the tardy student just smiled. So much for the lesson of the Workers in the Vineyard. So much for all that grace.


Someday soon, I don’t know when, we’ll roll out that baptismal font. Happy parents will bring forward a little one, wrapped in some slippery sateen gown, and I’ll practice my not-quite-forgotten baby holding skill as I baptize a little bundle of joy.

While this is happening, maybe for just a moment, and in a mostly facetious way, I’ll make a little comparison: nearly twenty years of ministry, years of involvement before that, a life given to the church. Looking down I will remember that me and the little upstart I’m holding and are fully equal in God’s eyes. Baptized for mere minutes, little baby X will have as much claim on the grace of a remarkable God as me.


It seems I have no shortage of “older brother” stories, and I’m not even an older brother. If my older brother was here, boy would he have stories. “It’s not fair; everything is easier for you; where’s my compound miter saw?” Perhaps I’m being unfair to poor Andrew, so far away and unable to defend himself. The truth is, each of us has lot of older brother in us. We remember the times that someone got what we deserved, whether it was a fatted calf or a better party or a father’s forgiveness. And each of us can remember a time we enjoyed the good fortune of others until we began to suspect it came at our expense.

We love grace, but we love it more when we get it.
We love a gracious God, but we prefer some people to meet an angry God instead.
We love the idea of a living wage, but the like the little boy with the empty bowl, we’d like some more.


The Israelites grumbled. “Did you bring out here into the desert to kill us? You should have killed us back in Egypt, and at least we would have had a decent last meal!” Apparently they wanted liberation and food, and so they complained. God heard the complaints (the word appears seven times in twelve verses) and gave them quail in the evening and manna in the morning: enough for everyone to eat.

All of this, however, was a test: Food enough for each day was a gift and a discipline. If you were weak, and couldn’t gather all your manna, God filled your cup. The seventh day was Sabbath, so twice as much appeared on Friday. But if you got greedy, on any of the six days for gathering, and you collected more than you needed, maggots filled your cup and it was all ruined.

“Give us this day our daily bread” is really just a bible study. Jesus, like all faithful Jews, didn’t really recognized that passage of time when it came to the story of the liberation. Death passed over all their houses; Pharaoh’s men chased them all to the edge of the Red Sea; God made a way for each of them to cross. Jesus prayed for his daily portion of manna, and prayed that temptation would not lead him to collect more. Jesus prayed that everyone would receive their daily bread, knowing full well that it was human nature for some to want more.

It was Hans Frei who said that the task of the church is to “take a Polaroid of the Jesus we meet in scripture and hold it up wherever pain and sorrow exist.” And it seems to me that this is exactly what we are doing as we serve people in need in our community. We bring the daily bread of Jesus, just enough, not too much, to the very people who need liberation. We defy the Pharaoh of the free market, trickle-down, invisible hand and allow God to free people to be fully human: loved, cared for, children of grace.

Now what about the older brothers who say “I work hard and they can too.” What about the older brothers who say “a tax cut will make everyone richer, then they can eat.” What about the older brothers who say “these are eleventh-hour people, and we’ve been working in the hot sun all day.”

The truth is we are all eleventh-hour people. We have received the same daily bread of forgiveness as everyone else. We have been released from the same sin and sorrow as everyone else. We have stood beneath the cross with everyone else. We may grumble like first-hired, but at the end of the day we are all eleventh-hour workers, praying “give us this day our daily bread.”
May the God who hears all prayers be with us, now and forever, amen.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Proper 19

Matthew 18:21-35

21Then Peter came and said to him, “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” 22Jesus said to him, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times. 23“For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves. 24When he began the reckoning, one who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him; 25and, as he could not pay, his lord ordered him to be sold, together with his wife and children and all his possessions, and payment to be made. 26So the slave fell on his knees before him, saying, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ 27And out of pity for him, the lord of that slave released him and forgave him the debt. 28But that same slave, as he went out, came upon one of his fellow slaves who owed him a hundred denarii; and seizing him by the throat, he said, ‘Pay what you owe.’ 29Then his fellow slave fell down and pleaded with him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’ 30But he refused; then he went and threw him into prison until he would pay the debt. 31When his fellow slaves saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their lord all that had taken place. 32Then his lord summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. 33Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?’ 34And in anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he would pay his entire debt. 35So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”

For those of you looking for simple ways to improve your life, look no further than Google. To qualify for truly simple, I’m thinking that a good improvement should take no more than three steps. Here’s a sample:

3 Steps to Staying Healthy
3 Steps to Becoming a Millionaire
3 Steps to Clutter-Free Living
3 Steps to Quick Healthy Meals
3 Steps to Saving for Retirement
3 steps to perfect eyebrows
3 Steps to making your own baby wipes
3 steps to Fabulous Curtains
3 steps to turn worry into action
3 Steps to Achieving Your Big Dream
3 Steps to True Happiness
3 Steps to Save Your Life

I expect everyone with an Internet connection to have achieved your big dream by next week, or at the very least have perfect eyebrows. Unless, of course, your big dream is to have perfect eyebrows, then perhaps you will have both.

I did find one “three step” bit of research that speaks to our lessons today, and that is the three steps to a meaningful apology. The author, Beverly Engel, claims that the people who have some difficulty apologizing can follow her three steps and reap the benefits of a really good apology.

In an attempt to make it memorable, Engel breaks it down to the three R's: regret, responsibility and remedy.** It works like this:

Regret: statement of regret for having caused the hurt or damage

This is the acknowledgement that something has happened. The secret here is to keep it simple: “I’m sorry I’m late.”

Responsibility: an acceptance of responsibility for your actions

“I’m sorry I’m late: I should have left earlier.” This is the place, of course, where most apologies go off the rails. The temptation to find an excuse lurks near step two, and suddenly traffic was heavy, the kids were in slow motion, or the dog ate my sermon (this really happened).

Remedy: a statement of willingness to remedy the situation

“I’m sorry I’m late, I should have left earlier, please dock my pay.” Okay, maybe “it won’t happen again” fits here too. Either way, the Remedy is an opportunity to make it right or at least indicate that you are aware of an alternate approach to the same situation for the future.

Taken together, the three steps offer an effective antidote to the glib way too many people throw around the words “I’m sorry.” It also counteracts the very Canadian habit of saying, “I’m sorry,” when we properly should have said, “pardon me.”


The parable Jesus shares with Peter is the long answer to a very simple question: "Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?"

A couple of things we can notice immediately, one of which relates back to last week. Recall that whenever we see the words “member” or “church” we know that Matthew is being creative with the timeline, and that in fact he is addressing us rather than the original audience. Some find this takes away from the power of the story, but I would suggest that Matthew is simply underlining the urgency of the message, and the perhaps the extent to which the question of forgiveness was critical to the life of the early church. We can assume there was much to forgive.

The second point here is the use of seven. Within the Hebrew Bible, and in later Jewish writing, seven usually has some other meaning. Sometimes it points to something obvious like the seven days of creation, and in other places it is simply an exaggeration number.

Hands up if you have an exaggeration number. My mother’s exaggeration number is 68,000, and I knew as a kid that if my mother said 68,000 that was my cue to go to my happy place and wait out the storm. My exaggeration number is much lower, 700 to be exact, and if you ever you ever hear me complain about the 700 things I dislike about politicians during a general election, you will know that I may be exaggerating.

So Peter’s exaggeration number is seven (this is before inflation). Jesus’ exaggeration number, however is 490, since seven times 70 is such an outrageous number of times to forgive, and clearly not to be taken literally. Seriously, but not literally.


Jesus tells a parable. And luckily for me, I spent and entire week this past summer with Tom Long, and expert on these things, as part of my Doctor of Ministry programme in Chicago. Dr. Long had a great many things to say about parables, but I’ll ease in today with just one Longism to help shed some light on Matthew 18:

“Parable creates a new world, which sours, then requires the creation of another new world.”

And this, it would seem, is a near-perfect description of Jesus’ “Parable of the Unmerciful Servant.” The king becomes aware that one of his servants has amassed an enormous debt. The debt is forgiven, the servant departs and immediately confronts a debtor of his own. Forgiveness is not extended. The king becomes aware of the inequity, and bad things happen to the unmerciful servant.

There is one more thing I should say about parables: they are not “three step” how-to guides to human action. They are stories. And as stories, they have the potential for interpretive meaning, meaning that they can be read in a number of ways. For example:

The parable means forgive generously, but do some follow-up too. The parable means careless forgiving may not make people more forgiving. The parable means that unforgiving people can be tortured until they become more forgiving.

Each of these three conclusions can be found in the parable, it we read it literally rather than seriously. A serious reader will begin by “trying on” the parable. When have I been the king, or when have I been the servant, or when have I been the poor guy who was clearly in the wrong place at the wrong time?

And if your Bible did a more contemporary translation of sums, we might also catch the exaggeration number that lives in the middle of the parable. Ten thousand talents is somewhere in the neighbourhood of five billion dollars, and so the absurdity of the story would have met your imagination differently from the beginning.

Back to trying on the parable, we could also enter the story and track our own emotional response: It might be something like this:

Holy cow, that’s a lot.
How’s he ever gonna repay that?
Wow, what a guy!
Good Lord, you’re kidding!
Oh, that’s not right.
Good, good on him!
Yeah, torture that unmerciful servant, yeah!

Viewed this way, we go through the story with such a jumble of emotions, we can hardly keep up. And this is precisely the point. The parable is not a recipe to be followed, or a guide to how kings should deal with less than forgiving previously forgiven servants. This is more like an emotional roller coaster or maybe a funhouse mirror.

We enter the story and we find ourselves trying on different parts: I might be able to forgive that, I would be more grateful that that guy, I could never forgive his lack of forgiveness, and the story continues. We are teased into becoming precisely the person we condemn: We can’t forgive, we forgive, we could never forgive. Jesus is telling this story with a big smirk.

The smirk (we can only imagine) reminds us that this little story has the power to comfort or convict. Some won’t get the subtlety and draw a quick lesson from the story. Some will get angry that they were led down this emotional path. And some will simply shake their heads and imagine a world where feeble humans interact and often offend and try to forgive and fail to forgive and live another day: maybe a little wiser but maybe not.

And this is the point of the parable. It takes our world and it turns it upside down and gives it a bit of a shake and waits to see what will fall out. What usually falls out is whatever pride we bring to stories where other people fail and we imagine we would do better.


You will discover over time that I occasionally turn to the stories of the Desert Fathers and Mothers, stories of fourth and fifth century monks who tried to live away from the world and recorded a tradition that has much to teach us. This is one of the stories of Abba (Father) Sisoes:

A brother whom another brother had wronged came to see Abba Sisoes and said to him, 'My brother has hurt me and I want to avenge myself.' The old man pleaded with him saying, 'No, my child, leave vengeance to God.' He said to him, 'I shall not rest until I have avenged myself.' The old man said, 'Brother, let us pray.' Then the old man stood up and said. 'God, we no longer need you to care for us, since we now do justice for ourselves down here.' Hearing these words, the brother fell at the old man's feet, saying, 'I will no longer seek justice from my brother, forgive me, Abba.'

And this, perhaps, is the ultimate meaning of the story: We always remain the people in need of forgiveness. We do some forgiving of our own, and we try our best to do it well, but ultimately we stand shoulder to shoulder with our fellow debtors, needing the forgiveness that only God can give. We will sometimes forget ourselves, and even act like we can “do justice for ourselves down here,” but that moment will pass, and we will remember that God does most of the forgiving and we receive most of the forgiveness. This is Good News, thanks be to God, Amen.


Sunday, September 07, 2008

Proper 18

Romans 13
13:8 Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law.
13:9 The commandments, "You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not covet"; and any other commandment, are summed up in this word, "Love your neighbor as yourself."
13:10 Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.
13:11 Besides this, you know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers;
13:12 the night is far gone, the day is near. Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light;
13:13 let us live honorably as in the day, not in reveling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarreling and jealousy.
13:14 Instead, put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.

I want to begin this morning with a quick look at hands. What do you see?

Assuming you see ten digits (if not, take off your shoes and try again) you will see the basis for a few important things. What are they? (Metric, mathematics) These, and of course, the Ten Commandments. I have little doubt that the number of commandments and those ten little memory aids you have on your hands line up perfectly. Wanna behave? Look at your hands. Wanna remember, number them off.

So let’s try:

No other gods
No idols
Don’t use God’s name in vain
Keep the Sabbath
Honour parents
No killing
No adultery
No stealing
No lying (false witness)
No coveting

Notice I didn’t put you on the spot. In one of the best bits of television I have seen in years, Stephen Colbert interviewed some Congressman who created one of those bills that would place the Ten Commandments in court houses and municipal buildings all over the U.S. A very earnest politician made his case for the importance of the Ten, and their place in the centre of American life. Then Colbert asked him to name them. He got three.


Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law.

St. Paul lives in two worlds. First, he is a teacher of the Law, and an effective one, because he is given the task of persecuting Christian believers. As Saul, he brings his vast knowledge of the law to bear on those who would follow Jesus. As Paul, he does exactly the same thing, but this time he does it to bring these two worlds together. He is writing to Jewish Christians, the first step in the forging of a unique Christian identity.

And in bringing these two worlds together, he begins at the beginning:

The commandments, "You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not covet"; and any other commandment, are summed up in this word, "Love your neighbor as yourself."

You might almost think Paul has forgotten use his fingers. Nevertheless, Paul is making a first attempt at creating a system of understanding, a way of bringing one world into another. The Ten Commandments remain the Ten Commandments, but somehow they have to fit into Jesus’ own summary of the law. Can you remember it? It’s found in Matthew 22:

36"Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?" 37Jesus replied: " 'Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.' 38This is the first and greatest commandment. 39And the second is like it: 'Love your neighbor as yourself.' 40All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments."

So we have ten and we have two. We have Jesus’ summary of the whole of the law and the prophets, and we still have ten fingers and ten toes. So Paul, wanting to make sense of all of this for his people, begins to put them together. And for Romans 13, he takes hand number two. He takes prohibitions regarding murder, adultery, stealing, lying and coveting and says this is what it means to love your neighbour. Five become one.

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

So hand number one is all the ways we love the Lord our God with heart and mind and soul, and hand number two is loving your neighbour as yourself.


Now, there is certainly no conflict in this congregation, right? I’m new here, so tell the truth. Maybe a little? Let’s not spoil all our illusions just yet, as we bask in the glow of mutual self-discovery. Like all new relationships, we’ll live for a while in the assumption of near-perfection and them slowly learn otherwise. But by then our affection will have grown too, and whatever imperfection we find will be offset by all the good stuff we discover on the way.

Paul and Jesus lived without illusions. Maybe they were a product of the their times: living under Roman occupation, living at the crossroads of near-eastern conquest, they routinely say the worst of human life. They knew that sin was a predictable part of being human, and that eventually everyone falls into some sort of conflict. Paul coined the famous phrase “you stupid Galations” and Jesus predicted the cross long before he got to Jerusalem, both fully aware that sin and failure would turn up as soon as any project started. The church was no different.

It is for this reason that Matthew begins his famous summary of how to resolve conflict with these words:

If another member of the church sins against you…

Hold on, we have a problem. Matthew here is recounting Jesus’ words, words directed at the church, but there is a no church. Jesus is pre-church. Jesus is Jewish. Jesus hasn’t created a church: he has created a way for Jews to be better Jews. He is trying to reform something, not make something new. The teaching on conflict is all Jesus, but the words “member” and “church” are not. They didn’t exist yet.

So what are we to make of this? Matthew is speaking to someone with these words, and that someone is us. Whenever you see the words “member” or “church” in a place where they didn’t come into being yet, Matthew is speaking directly to us. We are the primary audience for this stuff, not the first century people that stood about listening to Jesus. They would be the ones with the puzzled look saying “church, what’s a church?” The church is us, and the conflict resolution strategy is a direct teaching to future generations of believers.

My favourite part of the passage from Matthew is the end: “For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.” Maybe this is the birth of the Christian church, hiding there at the end of the passage. He pronounced it, and it was so. We can take comfort knowing that the two or three or a hundred gathered here have a plan, a pre-arranged plan to deal with whatever conflict enters the life of this congregation.


Back to our friend Paul, he is anxious that not a moment be wasted in the project of loving our neighbour. He takes the second hand of commandments and he insists that we see these as the very first steps toward loving the people that surround us. He rounds out the list a little, maybe to make it more interesting, adding drunkenness, licentiousness, and jealousy. And he insists that the time is now:

Besides this, you know what time it is: how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers.

I love the last part: salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers. If you are a language geek like me, you’ll recognize something here called metonymy (meton-a-mee). If I said “Westminster deposed Edward II” or “Ottawa might cut taxes” you might not immediately see that Ottawa can’t actually do it, but Ottawa is symbolic for MP’s in Parliament who might. So, salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers. And salvation is symbolic, it is metonymy. But what is salvation? Is it going to heaven? Is it liberation from slavery? Is it being “saved?”

I don’t think we know exactly what salvation is. But we do know that it’s near. Paul is very clear on this point. It is near like light before dawn, it is near like the moment before waking, when the sounds around us intrude on our dreams. Salvation is near whenever two or three people gather and become neighbours. Salvation is near whenever we follow Jesus’ simple code for overcoming strife, salvation is near whenever we extend our definition of neighbour to include the least and the last and the unloved. Salvation is near.

Jesus said “point out the fault when you are alone.” If that fails, bring a couple of friends, and maybe together you can solve it. If that doesn’t work, tell the church. And if they cannot listen to the church, then it is settled: that person becomes like a Gentile or a tax collector. Settled, or is it?

The best insult they could level on Jesus was this: “Here is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners.” (Mt 11). Even at the end of conflict, even as we are ready to say “case closed,” there is one more appeal, one more reprieve, one more note of grace: he was a friend of tax collectors and sinners alike. Salvation is nearer to us now then when we became believers, thanks be to God. Amen.