Love is the Commandment
Pentecost 14A, September 6, 2020
For St. John’s Christopher St, NYC
Text: Romans 13:8-14, Matthew 18:15-20
A reading from Romans:
8 Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. 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.” 10 Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law. 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; 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 let us live honorably as in the day, not in reveling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarreling and jealousy. 14 Instead, put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.
Word of God, Word of Life. Thanks be to God.
* * *
The Holy Gospel according to Matthew. Glory to You, O Lord.
15 “If another member of the churchsins 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. 16 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. 17 If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if the offender refuses to pay attention even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. 18 Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. 19 Again, 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. 20 For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.”
The Gospel of the Lord. Praise to You, O Christ.
Grace and peace to you from God the Creator, Christ the Liberator, and the Holy Spirit who is Breath. Amen.
Since streaming services like Netflix have become the primary way that I watch TV, there are two distinct ways that I watch shows. The first is where I will choose a show, often one I’ve already seen, often a reality show, and put it on in the background, for hours on end. I’ll be knitting, or sewing, or messaging with friends, catching most, but not all, of what’s going on in the show. Early on in the pandemic, I re-watched all of the seasons of Top Chef this way, which was the second or third time I had done that in seminary. It’s not quite background noise, but a backdrop.
The second way is much more intentional, and is for shows that are more intense, that I haven’t seen before, that are so good and so nuanced that I actually can’t multitask with them. I watch them slowly, one or two episodes at a time, following the story and getting deeply invested in the characters. While I might have a few backdrop shows that I bounce between, I go through these more intentional shows one at a time. Lately, I’ve started watching This is Us. It’s a show that follows a family across generations, with time jumps and flashbacks. The story develops over time, since time and memory are fluid on the show. It is a show deeply rooted in love.
The love that’s in This is Us, like the love Paul is writing about in his letter to the Romans, is complicated. It’s deep. The characters in the show are not perfect. They cause harm, and have experienced trauma, and are shaped by their experiences of the world. And they are deeply loved.
The world tells us certain things about love, through Hallmark cards, and Valentine’s Day, and yes, even religious spaces. I wonder if you, like me, were taught that, in order to be loved, you can’t make mistakes, or bring up conflict, or name harm. That you need to be quiet, agreeable, perfect, in order to deserve love. Perfectionism is insidious, especially when it creeps into love, upholding systems of white supremacy, upholding models of scarcity, causing us to doubt our identities as beloved children of God.
Beloveds of God, you do not need to be perfect to receive the perfect love of God.
Paul is not writing to perfect communities where no one makes mistakes, where no one sins. He’s actually writing because of mistakes and harms that are happening, and he doesn’t want those to be the end of the story. He doesn’t want people to be written off, cancelled, because they sin. He wants those early church communities to care about their neighbor the same way they care about themselves. Love is the commandment.
The pairing of this passage from Romans with our gospel text from Matthew is so beautiful to me. This is the only Gospel that includes this passage, and the three-step method to address harm and sin. Because it doesn’t really make sense to have the commandment of love from Romans without some system in place to address when love is complicated, and when harm happens. When people turn away from God, and from love.
Because harm is inevitable. We will experience harm, and we will commit harm.
But talking about harm is challenging, and this three-step system towards accountability and restoration – talking one-on-one, bringing a couple of people with you, bringing it to the whole community – doesn’t apply in all cases. There is a line between harm and abuse. Sometimes that line is extremely clear, as is the case with assault. These three steps, that include a one-on-one conversation between the person who sinned and the person who was hurt, don’t work in the case of assault. Sometimes, the line between harm and abuse isn’t as clear, and the power should be with the person who was hurt to determine what accountability is, and might start with the larger community, or a close group of friends. The passages before this actually set this idea up – immediately before is the story of the lost sheep, and the admonition to not place stumbling blocks in front of children – stories of God protecting and caring for the most vulnerable. And so when we think about how this system can work, or not, for situations in our own lives, our own communities, protecting the most vulnerable is a requirement as well.
When I think about the conflict, sins, and harm that Matthew is addressing, I often imagine much more mundane, everyday situations. Miscommunication and misunderstanding between colleagues. A friend making a racist joke. Being talked over and interrupted. Situations that, if they’re not addressed, continue to grow and pile on. That, left unaddressed, will do deep harm to relationships and community.
And I wonder how many of us have experienced harm and never said anything. Never talked to the person directly, never brought it up to a friend, because the harm felt so mundane, so ordinary. Second-guessing our own experience and thinking the harm was too small, not worth bringing up. Operating from a space of fear – fearing rejection, and loss, instead of operating from a space of love and knowing that we are bound together. And the relationships that are bound together on earth are likewise bound together in the Kingdom.
It is an act of love to name that you have been harmed. It is an act of love to want people to know how to care for you. It is an act of love to bring up necessary conflict, and to name when sin happens.
It is an act of love to be called back into community. As I sat with the texts this week, I reflected on the times that I reacted with defensiveness, when someone has let me know that I harmed them. The times that I don’t know I’ve sinned. And still, the gratitude when folks name those sins to me, as I continue to grow and transform and be shaped by God.
I feel a tension between individual and communal responsibility in this text. In the examples so far, reflecting on the steps laid out in Matthew, it does seem to be addressing individual harm. There’s a note in the text, in the first line – that it can also read “If another member of the church sins”. The individual “against you” is not always present. To me that not only implies that we are responsible for naming sin and harm even when it doesn’t directly affect us, but it also implies that communities can sin. Paul’s writing is evidence of that. This communal sin is sometimes a result of lots of little harms piling up, being ignored, until those sins are enmeshed in the power structures. How many times, collectively, have white folks ignored invitations to one-on-one conversation and transformation about racism? And still not listened when those conversations grow to a handful of people? And still not listened when whole communities are saying: this is not right. Refusing the invitation to transformed relationships. I know I have. It took so much, too much, death before I was activated to the ways our systems are designed to harm. And that’s not right – not when there have been so many invitations throughout history to turn towards God and neighbor. We are bound together.
This text costs us something, even as it gifts us a pathway towards restoration. It is a risk to name when you’ve witnessed harm, even as it is an act of love. It is a risk to acknowledge when we have hurt others, because sometimes the relationship will be beyond repair, and we need to find peace with that. Or it might bring up feelings of shame, or brokenness. It’s scary, especially surrounded by a culture that demands nothing less than perfection. The work of love, and transformation, is not easy. But we are freed to that risky, challenging commandment to love through the grace and love of God.
God is always calling us towards love, through all of those feelings and reactions and imperfections. A love that is complicated, and deep. A love that can navigate conflicts, can support those who have been harmed, that practices open communication. A love that can imagine different ways of relating to each other and to Creation. A love that binds us closer to each other and to God. Love is the commandment. Amen.
Vicar Reed Fowler,