The Rev. Sara Warfield
There’s a chapter in the book we’re reading for our Membership gathering on Thursdays this month that’s about the Episcopal approach to the Bible, which emphasizes the importance of hearing, reading, and studying the scriptures in community. Why? Because, Christopher Webber writes, “we are reminded of the limitations of our own individual understanding…It is appropriate that each should hear something different [when we read the Bible], but it is important for me to remember that what I hear is not the whole message or the only message.”
We see this play out every week in our Bible Study. Last Tuesday, one person heard this Ezekiel passage and cringed. Understandably.
It seems like God is saying to Ezekiel, “If you don’t tell those wicked people that if they don’t change their ways they’re going to die, then their death is on you. But if you do tell them and they keep it up, then it’s on them when they die.”
It’s got a very “God is ready to smite you if you don’t straighten out” kind of vibe. And we don’t like to think of our God of love as a vengeful smiter.
But then in the Bible Study we talked about the historical context of Ezekiel. He was writing to the Judeans who had already been exiled to Babylon. Ezekiel himself was among those exiles, taken from his home and everything he knew to live in the city of his captors. At this point in Ezekiel, chapter 33, the Babylonians have thoroughly destroyed Jerusalem and the temple, the center of their community and spiritual life.
Even if they could go home, what would be left of it? They’re feeling dejected, paralyzed by hopelessness.
But chapter 33 is also a turning point in Ezekiel. It’s actually when his prophecies turn from trying to explain why this destruction has happened to the assurance that they will go home and they will rebuild.
So God is telling Ezekiel, “You need to tell them that they can turn this around. And if you don’t, that’s on you. Because these downtrodden exiles are your responsibility. You are each others’ responsibility. It’s up to you to give one another hope when it’s fading, it’s up to you to remind others of their strength when they’re feeling weak. Because falling into hopelessness is what leads to their wickedness and their death.”
“Say to them, As I live, says the Lord God, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from their ways and live; turn back, turn back from your evil ways; for why will you die, O house of Israel?”
Now in this sermon I’ve taken this reading a little further than we got in the Bible Study. In the Bible Study, we talk about all four readings, so the conversation moves around a lot. But I do think that what God is telling Ezekiel is what happens in our Bible Study so much of the time: by talking about the scriptures in community, we can move from a sometimes narrow, sometimes harmful or hopeless individual reading into something broader and more life-giving. By talking about the scriptures in community, we take responsibility for one another, give one another hope and strength simply by having the courage to share our own perspective, our own interpretation of what we’re reading together.
As Christopher Webber writes, “The Anglican tradition…reminds us to bring our private thoughts, insights, and understandings into the community where the collective wisdom and faith can help us to understand and interpret Scripture with greater accuracy,” and, I would add, hope. Even just the realization that no one person really reads the same scripture in the same way can be really liberating, really hopeful.
This doesn’t happen just during Bible Study, of course. It’s different when we hear the scriptures in worship than when we’re reading them at home alone. Even when I hear them from my bench, I’m looking out at all of you and certain scriptures click differently. When I see your faces, I hear them through the lens of what struggles I know you’re going through or what I know you’re celebrating. A dozen different sermons pop up for me as I hear the scriptures read here every Sunday.
I imagine you do the same. I imagine when some of us here “Owe no one anything, except to love one another,” from Paul’s letter to the Romans today, you might look across the sanctuary to someone who you may be struggling with right now. Maybe you’ve been stewing on something they said or did, and this scripture calls you to think about them differently.
Being in community, being part of the Body of Christ, makes us think differently and asks us to live differently. It asks us, as God asked Ezekiel, to take responsibility for one another—for one another’s safety, for one another’s hope, for one another’s joy.
And doing so, our gospel in Matthew tells us today, requires us to be intentional about how we engage one another, particularly in conflict.
Jesus said, “If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one. But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.
If that sounds familiar, it’s because it echoes something we’ve formally adopted for our community. Something we call 10 Rules for Respect, which I’ve recently renamed 10 Agreements for Respect, which you can find in your bulletin this morning. The first four agreements echo what we heard in our gospel.
If you have a problem with somebody, go directly to that person (privately).
If someone has a problem with another person and comes to you, send them to the person they have a problem with.
If someone consistently will not go to the person they’re having a problem with, say to them, “Let’s go to whoever together. I am sure they will see us about this.” If you don’t feel comfortable facilitating that interaction, go to Rev. Sara, come to me.
If you come to me with a problem about someone else, I will support you in talking directly to that person, including offering to be present to help facilitate that conversation, if needed.
Now I know how hard these can be. I have sometimes fallen short of these. But I do think the gospel gets it right: direct, honest communication is how we love one another, most faithfully and most kindly.
Not talking about a person behind their back. Not staying silent and letting an issue with a person seethe inside you, building into an impossible, unmanageable resentment.
Telling someone how they’ve hurt you is an act of courage and an act of love. It gives them the opportunity to learn how to love you better. And when done with care and intention, it also builds trust between you which ends up strengthening your relationship.
This gospel’s timing was impeccable for me. Just recently, someone in this community had the courage to come to me and tell me how something I did hurt them. Now it was never my intention to hurt this person, but sometimes even when we don’t mean to we end up hurting people we care about. And I was able to reflect on my actions and think about how I might say and do things differently next time, how I can be more thoughtful and loving. By coming to me, which must have been at least a bit scary, that person gave me the opportunity to learn about myself, to grow more deeply into God’s love.
That’s going to help me love not only that person more fully, but also to love everyone in my life, including this community, more fully.
If there’s one thing I hope we all get from being part of this St. Luke’s community, it’s learning how to love one another more fully, more deeply.
I hope this is a community where it’s safe enough to have the courage to tell one another how we’ve hurt each other, where we have the trust in one another to be able to hear and hold when someone tells us how we’ve hurt them, knowing that probably wasn’t our intention but it was the impact of our words or action, so that we can all learn how to love one another more fully, more deeply, which makes us stronger as individuals and as a church community.
And listen: this sermon isn’t passively addressing some secret or stewing conflict in our community. At least not one that I know about! For the most part, I think we do a pretty good job of loving one another. And I think there’s always room for growth.
May it be so.