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The Tie that Binds

Matthew 18.15-20

Anne Hutchinson loved God.  And she believed that God loved her.  But there were members of her church who weren’t quite sure.

Anne believed and taught some things that made the leadership of her church nervous.  And paired with the fact that she was a woman in the year 1638, in the Puritan colony of Massachusetts, it made for a bad combination.  So, Hutchinson was brought up on charges by the Church.  And their rule was law.

The trial was short.  And pretty ugly.  They brought up their charges against Anne, suggesting that she had disobeyed their authority, preached heresy, and failed to abide by church guidelines.  People like Rev. Thomas Weld, Peter Bulkey, and governor John Winthrop, leaders in the colony, who made it clear that she had done wrong.  So their verdict was clear: Anne and her children were banished from the colony.

I wish the story had a happy ending, but it does not.  Within 5 years, after they were forced to move to the edge of the frontier, Anne and all six children living with her were caught up in the civil unrest there and killed.  Only one daughter, out picking blueberries, survived.

Many of us would see her death and the death of her children as a tragedy.  Not these men.  Upon hearing of her death, the men who had sentenced her were clear in their reaction:

Weld: “The Lord heard our groans to heaven, and freed us from our great and sore affliction… God’s hand is the more apparently seen herein, to pick out this woeful woman.”

Bulkey: “Let her damned heresies, and the just vengeance of God, by which she perished, terrify all her seduced followers from having any more to do with her leaven.”

Winthrop: “Thus it had pleased the Lord to have compassion of his poor churches here, and to discover this great imposter, an instrument of Satan so fitted and trained to his service for interrupting the passage [of his] kingdom in this part of the world, and poisoning the churches here.”

 

This is how much of the world today sees us.

Closed-minded.  Graceless.  Patriarchal.  Judgmental.  Heartless.  Infighting.  Majoring in telling people what they can and cannot do, and kicking out of the church those who don’t toe the line.  Welcoming only people who look like them, sound like them, act like them, or who are willing to change in order to be like them.

I’d like to say that Christians aren’t like this anymore!

But just this week, Christians lined up to explain how the hurricanes and flooding in Texas and the Caribbean and Florida were God’s punishment for people that they don’t like.  In the wake of terrible and tragic news of flooding and storms in Texas and the Caribbean, some Christians thought it was a good time to blame others – just like these men did 400 years ago – suggesting that Hurricanes Harvey and Irma were God’s punishment on those with whom they disagree politically.

I’d like to say that Christians aren’t like this anymore, but I can see why the world looks at us and sees echoes of those heartless men from 400 years ago.

 

This is not a new issue.  This tendency to divide and excommunicate is older than a week, even older than 400 years.  Matthew’s church seems to have struggled with internal conflict as well.  His Gospel includes this section in chapter 18 in which he is applying Jesus’s words to his context.  “If a brother wrongs you…”  When there is conflict.  When there is personal disagreement.  When there is infighting.  It was true in Matthew’s day the same as it was in Anne Hutchinson’s, and this seems to be a model for how to deal with such conflict.

And doubtless, there were those in Matthew’s day who were probably about like those in Anne Hutchinson’s church.  If someone disagrees with us, it is our job to fix them or kick them out.  And afterwards, the only word we offer is “good riddance.”

Is this who we are?

Or, perhaps the more difficult question: Is this who Jesus commands us to be?

Today, I want to look at the command of Jesus.  I want to dig a little deeper into this passage, and so I invite you to turn to Matthew 18, in your Bibles or in the pew Bibles, and look at the section that explains at what point we are to kick out of the church the offending party.

While you are looking for that, I will suggest that this tendency to divide and excommunicate is a pretty basic part of who we are.  Neuroscientist R. Douglas Fields suggests that our fear and judgment of the “other” – immigrants, ethnic and religious minorities, etc. – is deep-seated.  In fact, he suggests that our brains are able to recognize and categorize people as insiders or outsiders within 170 thousands of a second of first seeing them.  So, this is not a new phenomenon.  What is learned behavior is what we do about it.

Which brings us back to Matthew.  Look at the place in chapter 18 where it says to kick out the ones with whom we disagree?

Upon further review, it seems that those words aren’t there.

We think it does.  We assume it does.  The Puritans assumed it does.  The church at times throughout its history has assumed it does.  I assumed it does.  I have read this passage dozens of times, even preached on it before – more than once.  I preached that this was a list of things that you had to do before you kicked someone out of the church.  But I didn’t notice what it actually said.  It wasn’t until I had read it several times this week before I noticed that it doesn’t say to kick these people out of the church!

Perhaps Fields would suggest that this is because part our brains are wired to react out of fear to those who are different, who upset the balance, and the only way to stay safe is to remove them.

So what does it say instead?  When we have tried personal conversation, engaging unbiased parties, even invited the whole church to take part, what shall we do in the face of division: “treat them as you would a Gentile or tax collector.”

But how did Jesus treat Gentiles and tax collectors?  He ate with them.  He reached out to them.  He invited them to his parties.   He gave them extra grace.  He wanted to include them and not exclude them.  And he never, not even once, told anyone to kick them out of the church.  In fact, when others told Jesus to kick them out – of his dinner meals or his entourage – Jesus always doubled down on inclusivity.  Gentiles and tax collectors were some of his best friends.  In fact, the traditional assumption about the Gospel of Matthew is that it was written by the apostle Matthew, also known as Levi, the…tax collector.  “Treat them as you would a Gentile or tax collector” is not a command to exclude, to excommunicate, to remove.  But to include, to see the outsider as an insider, to love them as God does and not as our fear-induced brains might.  Jesus invited us to a new way.  This whole section of Matthew hinges on that phrase, I believe.  While your Bibles are open, look at the rest of the context surrounding it:

  • The story right before is a parable about how God leaves behind the 99 in search of the one sheep who is lost, how we prioritize the one who is lost and alone and afraid and different, and not the safe ones who look like us.
  • And in the first 3 verses of this passage, Matthew lays out this method for dealing with disagreement and divisiveness in the church. In a context in which publicly shaming people was the norm – think about the teachers of the law trying to publicly embarrass Jesus – Matthew lays out this model from the words of Jesus that is very different.  Don’t publicly shame them, but go to them in secret, in person.  And if that doesn’t work, bring another objective witness, someone to help you figure it out.  Only if those things don’t work, then bring it to the house church.  And if that doesn’t work, it doesn’t say to kick them out, but treat them like Gentile or tax collector:  Treat them with inclusivity and love.
  • Then, look at the next three verses, in the context of inclusion. It talks about binding and loosing in heaven, making the point that the binding together, the connecting of the body is not just about here and now but about eternity.  So when we sing, “we are one in the bond of love”….when we sing, “bind us together, Lord”….when we sing “Blest be the tie that binds”….we are singing about the eternal binding together.  Look at the language of these verses: We are bound.  We “agree.”  We are “gathered.”  All words of inclusivity.
  • And, in case the disciples didn’t get it, which we often don’t, the exchange right after the passage I read is about how the disciples want to know what kind of limits to we place on forgiveness, and Jesus tells them to forgive, “seventy times seven.”

This passage – this whole section – is about inclusion and restoration and grace.  In spite of our human tendency to divide, Jesus gives us an avenue to unify.  In the face of our fear of those who are different, Jesus speaks of “regaining,” “gathering,” and “binding”.  When we disagree (for we will disagree) disagree in ways that make unity and inclusivity and grace the center!

So, when we transform this phrase from our assumption about division to Christ’s word of grace, it changes everything.  All of a sudden, the passage looks different.  The point of the passage is not to reject, but include.  It is not to divide but bring together.  Which is a healing balm to our world today, isn’t it?  Now, at the end of partisan politics, and divisive arguments, and even at the end of the worst church conflict, when it feels like our differences are too great to overcome, the word from Jesus in Matthew is this: “Open up a new box of grace.  Infuse more loveInclude in ways that you didn’t imagine that you could.”

The FBC of Hays was just like a lot of churches on the prairie of Kansas.  Relatively small.  Mostly white.  In an old brick building downtown with one of those signs with movable letters so you can change the words every week.  Struggling to know how to reach out to a culture that is less interested in church than they used to be.  But God moved in the heart of Pastor Rodger Tyrrell and convinced him that they could be more.  He saw the growing numbers of Hispanic residents of Hays and wondered what their church might be able to make a difference in their lives.  So, they began to talk, and listen, and pray about what God was doing.

And they began a Hispanic ministry.  Now they offer worship services in English and Spanish.  Now Pastor Rodger and Pastor Lory minister together to the community of Hays.  Their mission statement is simple: “loving people and making disciples”.  And they mean it.  Loving all people. And now the church is this beautiful, diverse, loving place.  Because they asked what it would take to welcome Gods children and not send them away.

I had some great conversations about this passage this week.  I met with two different groups to talk about these words, and both wrestled with it.  I can see in hindsight how we were all wrestling with our ideas and assumptions about the passage.  It was at one point in the conversation, where this disconnect between the message of Jesus and the way that we usually read this passage were at odds, that Dixie Kinkaid, a wise and long-time member of this church, threw up her hands in frustration and cried, “I thought we were supposed to put up with everybody!”

We.  Are.  That’s what the whole passage is really about.  What the whole chapter is about.  Maybe what the whole Gospel is about.  It’s about making room for the one who is on the outside, or who is different, even someone who has done something to wrong another!  It’s about putting up with everybody.

 

I never told you what Anne’s heretical theology was that got her in such hot water.  Besides being a woman who had the audacity to teach men, what did she believe that was so wrong?  There was this controversy in the church sometimes called the “free grace” controversy.  For it seemed that some in the church believed that salvation depended on obedience and right behavior and submission to authority, what is sometimes called salvation by works.  But Anne taught something very different.  She said, “As I do understand it, laws, commands, rules and edicts are for those who have not the light which makes plain the pathway. He who has God’s grace in his heart cannot go astray.”

The whole thing is about grace.  About the free gift of God’s love.  For every single human being, not just the ones that we like.  Anne died because she never backed down on her insistence on that grace.  “Better to be cast out of the church than to deny Christ,” she said.  And her legacy of faithfulness to the message of free grace still stands today.

Let us not deny Christ with our hearts or our actions.  May we be a church that opens our doors seventy times seven.  May we be a church that binds together in the name of Christ.  And may we be a church that proclaims the free grace of God in all that we do and all that we say.

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