(Editorial note: This article is adapted from a sermon preached at St. Paul Lutheran Church, Evanston, Ill.)
“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; the night is far gone, the day is near. Let us than lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light; let us live honorably as in the day, not in reveling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarreling and jealousy.” Romans 13:11-12.
We always hear the readings for the day against the backdrop of the events that surround us.
And so, in Romans, what ordinarily sounds like a straightforward, good idea—“let us live honorably as in the day, not in reveling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness”—sounds, today … a little poignant. No more debauchery with beignets? Gumbo? No reveling on Mardi Gras? No more tipsy, bead-flinging parades?
“Now is the moment for you to wake from sleep. ... The night is gone, the day is near.” This is the language the early Christians used for death and resurrection. The night is this life; the day is new life in Christ. “Salvation is nearer to us than when we became believers.” Salvation: death and life, linked together. Our death, which we will enter with Christ, to arise in God.
Nearer to us: nearer than ever, this week. We are so newly, keenly, aware how near to us death and life have come.
All week we have seen and heard the incomprehensible: America looking and sounding like a war zone somewhere in the Third World. Thousands of our citizens left with nothing: no food, no water, no shelter, no sanitation. The appalling split between rich and poor. The dramatically different fates of those who could get away and those trapped in the fetid waters of the flood. It is a scandal: In the most powerful, best-organized, nation on Earth, how can this be?
The scale of the suffering is staggering. The numbers, too large to wrap our minds around: 40,000 troops. An area the size of Great Britain. Millions of gallons. Three to six months. Eighty percent. Two hundred thousand people. It’s so immense, we can’t take it all in. The figure that sticks in my mind is sandbags that weigh 15,000 pounds apiece.
In a week when we’re stunned by the sheer brute force of nature, the massive extent of the damage and the impotence of even the best human agencies, the cosmic scale—the life-and-death intensity—of the reading from Paul’s letter to the Romans and from Ezekiel (33:8-9) is fitting: Wake up! The moment is now! Turn back! The day is near.
The words of the prophets give warning to the people.
If you divert the river so the silt can’t build up, the city will sink! If you keep cutting flood-control funds, neighborhoods will drown! If you reorganize your agencies so they can’t communicate with each other, the consequences will be catastrophic! If you destroy the wetlands, people will die!
But after the cosmic sweep of Ezekiel and Paul, today’s Gospel sounds more than a little surreal. After a week of immersion in disaster, we have Matthew telling what Jesus advises about personal relationships (Matthew 18:15-20).
But maybe that’s not so strange after all. Because when we have nothing else—no food, no water, no shelter, no possessions—then all we have is what’s within us and what’s between us. When each of us comes face to face with death, what else will we have but what’s within us and what’s between us? What we have become inside, and the quality of the relationships we have formed with those closest to us.
Think of all the stories you’ve heard and watched this week: family members separated from each other, moved to remarkable acts of courage. Doing whatever they had to do to save each other or just to reconnect.
The love of those closest to us, and our love for them, is what gives us power, carries us through. But frayed or broken relationships with family and friends—at home or at work—wear us out, erode our energy.
And so Jesus instructs us how to act when we are hurt by someone close to us: “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 ....” (Matthew 18: 15-17). It sounds so simple; but if it were, he wouldn’t have to keep repeating it, with constant variations! If someone sins against you, try to talk with them about it. Directly. If they don’t listen to you, take along a couple more people. If they don’t listen to that little group, only then go to the whole church.
Now remember, both Matthew and Jesus love to play with words. The next line sounds like hellfire and brimstone—but it’s a trick! “If the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector” (Matthew: 18: 17). Wait a minute! Trick answer! “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” Who was Jesus always getting in trouble for hanging with? Whom did he constantly reach out toward and seek for company?
So, even if they don’t listen to the whole church, the last word toward them is grace: The grace that begins in God and extends to each of us. We’re not let off the hook; we’re still to reach out, as God does—while we have time, while the day draws near, seeking reconciliation.
And so, at the end of a week when we may feel overwhelmed by the scope and ferocity of massive destruction, today’s Gospel directs us to another scale and another form of power. As we’re reeling from having witnessed the unimaginable, Jesus draws our focus to relationships, one on one. “For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them” (Matthew 18: 20). This is how God works: one … by one … by one.
And then we remember all that footage we’ve watched over the past week: rescues of people stranded on rooftops, where a helicopter lets down a basket that’s just large enough for one person, and lifts it up. Thousands of rescues, each made one … by one … by one.
When we’re stunned by forces that are so far beyond us, Jesus reminds us of something different. Jesus invites us to consider God’s work on a different scale and of a different sort. God, at work in our everyday conversations with those who are closest to us. Where two or three are gathered.
It sounds naïve … but, what else do we have? Only what’s within us and what’s between us.
During World War II, Piet Hein, a Dane, invented cute little poems that he called “grooks.” The poems were his form of resistance against the Nazis—and the Nazis never caught on. One of them runs:
Naïve you are
if you believe
life favors those
who aren’t naïve.
The ordinary care we take with our relationships, day by day—the habits we practice … exchanges and reconciliations that shape and reshape our friendship and our love—these are what will sustain us in the midst of crisis. The love we cultivate in our closest relationships, day after day—love within us and between us—ripples out into the world with a hidden power all its own.
And whether or not we can perceive it, God is at work through us—through our gathering—bringing rescue, nourishment and consolation to people and places in need.
Now, when we most need to hear it—when death has drawn so perilously near—Jesus offers us strong reassurance: Where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there. From this reassurance, take heart.
© 2013 Augsburg Fortress, Publishers