Sermon 9 6 20
Each of these Sundays is precious to me as they represent fewer and fewer times I get to meet with you all. God has blessed us with wonderful readings for our upcoming weekends. (Of course, they’re all wonderful, but I thank God that these are especially helpful at this time.)
Today we go from the sorrowful to the sublime.
Our first reading comes to us from the prophet Ezekiel. He was a man who lived and prophesied from exile. It’s hard for us, who live in a country whose borders have never been violated by conquerors, to imagine what being conquered is like. Ezekiel was taken captive by Nebuchadnezzar’s army, to live in captivity in Babylon. God chose an effective way to impress upon the people of Israel the evils of their way of life. God caused Babylon to not only conquer them but to entirely remove them from their promised land, which had been a gift from God and to allow the king of Babylon to set them up in exile, outside of their homeland, in captivity in Babylon. The exiles were not imprisoned, they were simply removed to exist elsewhere as non-citizens, non-people with no home.
When Babylon conquered, they didn’t necessarily slaughter the conquered people. No. They marched all the intelligentsia to a strange place and made them relocate there as refugees. They left the poor and uneducated behind to farm the land, barely survive, and send the produce back to Babylon.
Ezekiel wrote as a man without a country, a man whose religious center, the temple, was razed to the ground. He had warned the people. They didn’t pay attention, and then he witnessed how everything he prophesied came to pass.
Try to imagine what that was like – no home – no country – no center, a citizen of nowhere. And all God had asked was that they turn back, turn from their evil ways, and change. “Why will you die, O house of Israel?” God asked. By choice. It was their choice.
No wonder our psalm begs for teaching and understanding. “Incline my heart to your decrees and not to unjust gain.” “Turn my eyes from watching what is worthless; give me life in your ways.” These are words that beg for the ability to discern and for the security of boundaries, of rules, the security of God.
And then Paul, with his letter to the Romans, gives us the boundaries Jesus imposed with his love. The boundaries of love are more strong, more secure than any other boundaries. “Owe no one anything, except to love one another.” That is the only way to fulfill God’s law. “Love one another” is God’s basic rule – and the hardest rule. We learn from Paul’s letter to the Romans that all of God’s laws come down to loving our neighbor, who is everyone, loving each other as much as we love ourselves.
And it’s really hard to do. We want to react to each other. But Jesus teaches us to love each other. Right in the moment when we feel self-defensive, to offer love. So hard to remember! Paul tells us to wake up! And face what Jesus’ laws really mean. Jesus’ laws are deceptively simple – and yes, hard to follow. He teaches us to love our neighbor, our neighbors, everybody, as much as we love ourselves.
Jesus asks us to treat the idealism of the Bible as practical instructions for daily life. Paul asks us to put on the armor of light, to put on Jesus Christ. This is hard stuff. Let’s face it. We don’t want to do this! We want to decide who we like and who we hate and we want to live our lives accordingly.
Well, Jesus says we can’t. Will we face exile if we don’t change and follow the way of Jesus? Loving the world – everybody else – as much as we love ourselves? There is such a thing as spiritual exile, as finding oneself separate from God. And that is finding oneself in outer darkness – utter loneliness — true exile.
But not if we fulfill the law. As Paul says, we know what time it is. It is now the moment for us to wake from sleep. “For salvation is nearer to us now then when we became believers; 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. Jesus asks us to live honorably in the daylight, not in quarreling and jealousy. Putting on the armor of light means to put on Jesus Christ. He is our armor, all the protection we will ever need. “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind and love your neighbor as yourself.
And then our gospel gives us practical instructions as to how to deal with our fellow members of our church if we sin against each other. Go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If you’re not listened to, take one or two others with you, so that every word can be confirmed by two or three witnesses. If the member refuses to listen to them, then tell it to the church. If the member refuses to listen to the church, then they must be considered to be “as a Gentile and a tax collector,” in other words, outside of common decency and social acceptability.
Then we get the extraordinary promise of prayer, which I must confess, I’ve never tested. “Truly I tell you if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven.” How many parish budgets could be balanced if we truly believed in that?!
But that is followed by the greatest promise of all! And this is today’s most important lesson. “For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.” Here! With us! Now! Yes, even across the airways, we are gathered NOW in Jesus’ name. He’s with us. Wherever we are. What a promise! Consider that. Let us vow to Jesus to always gather in his name. And let us vow to ourselves that we will always be aware of his presence with us. Look across the room or next to you. Who do you see? See Jesus too – right there with you – right there beside you. He’s present and he’s real and he’s with us. Save a seat for Jesus.
Invite him to be with you every time you gather.