In 1992 the Consultation on Common Texts, an ecumenical worship advisory forum, published the Revised Common Lectionary, a three-year cycle of readings for worship use, rooted in the lectionary traditions of the western Church. Since 1992, for 25 years, we have known what texts will be used on what day, and have known that on September 10, 2017, this would be the Gospel reading. So, yes, it was picked specifically for today…because part of it should sound familiar: “Whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” We heard that two weeks ago. Jesus said, “You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the Gates of Hell will not prevail against it…. Whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” That was awesome! Today, we hear those words in the context of a difficult, awkward conversation that confronts sin. What lies between then and now is last week, the passion prediction, Jesus’ words: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” The cross lies between the exultation following Peter’s confession and the gritty reality of confronting sin.
It never hurts Christians to remind themselves about the Cross, and how it fit into the Roman world of Jesus. The cross was an over the top, spectacular punishment used to enact how Rome was infinitely more powerful than any non-citizens who rebelled. (Not everybody who lived in the Empire was a citizen.) Yet Rome fancied itself the most civilized place on Earth. Rome told itself it had brought peace—not only peace on earth, but cosmic peace. Everywhere you went you saw gorgeously sculpted statues and monuments to Rome’s military conquests, inscribed with reminders that the Emperor was a god and the savior of the world. The economy flourished, and goods and people traveled across the Empire from Great Britain to Iraq, from Morocco to the Ukraine, from Egypt to Holland. There was little in the way of armed conflict because everyone was happy.
Except of course the tenant farmers, expected to produce maximum returns or sell themselves into slavery to cover the losses. And the subject people who got to look at those gorgeously sculpted monuments, which often portrayed their conquest pornographically: Rome a virile man, conquered people a subdued woman, you can figure out what he’s doing to her. And on the borders, you had the Britons and the Germans and the Scythians and the Parthians, all of whom apparently missed the memo where Rome was perfect, and who instead fought to keep the legions out and, if possible, to take back lost land. And the day laborers who were lucky to get a day’s wage (which never actually paid for all the things you needed in a day). And the handicapped left to die in the streets. That’s the gritty reality Jesus faces daily. That’s the world that didn’t change when Jesus only taught and preached. That’s the world Jesus has decided he must challenge directly.
In deciding that, he is in keeping with a long prophetic tradition of naming sin. He hearkens back to Ezekiel. Ezekiel, more than anyone else in Scripture, holds us personally accountable for our role in a sinful world. In today’s First Reading, God tells Ezekiel, “I have made you a sentinel.” God tells him, “If I warn the wicked of the consequences of their sin, and you don’t tell them what I said, it’ll be your fault. I will still get them, ‘but their blood I will require at your hand.’ On the other hand—get it? Blood on your hands, on the other hand? God joke. Sorry—on the other hand, if you do tell them what I said, they may not listen, and may pay a price for that, but you will have done your job.
Ezekiel prophesies for at least 22 years, so he doesn’t have just one thing to say or one person to whom to say it. But the fall of Jerusalem comes right in the middle of his career, and Ezekiel’s work as sentinel centers on that event and why it happens. He tells his people, “You claim as your own the stories of Exodus and conquest, yet you act like God is not the one giving you everything. That’s literally the whole point of those stories, that God gives you everything you have.” He tells his people, “You keep claiming that the Lord alone is your God and that he makes us special among all people, yet just a cursory look around Jerusalem shows you openly worshipping other gods and asking them for favors. (I’m sure this has nothing to do with the Lord expecting you to care for orphans and widows.)” And he tells his people, “You act like you own the place. You don’t. God does.” For Ezekiel, the Fall of Jerusalem is God’s Last Judgment upon Israel. God will make something new, but it won’t be a nation state like Israel, and these are the reasons why.
When Jesus goes to Jerusalem and the cross, he carries out a Last Judgment of his own. It’s different because Jesus is God, and because his cross ends not in the tomb but in resurrection. Pharisees and other Hebrews believed the Resurrection would happen on the Last Day. Easter morning has made the Last Day and the Last Judgment a reality for us now. Jesus declares repeatedly, “Whatever you do even to the least of these you do to me,” you do to Jesus, the Sentinel on his cross, the Judge at the Last Judgment. In each encounter with another person we see Jesus. In each encounter, Jesus announces the Last Judgment: “What will you do about this person? Eternity depends on it!” And in each encounter, Jesus looses the bonds on us. Jesus says, “I free you. I free you to do what I would do. I am raising you up from the dead right now so you can do my work for your neighbor right now. No, I don’t need your good works, but she does (and yes, technically, she is me to you), so I’ve loosed you. You’re able to serve, because I have loosed you on earth and in heaven.”
Jesus looses us to serve the world, and sometimes that service takes the form of confronting those who have bound others. Jesus says, “If a brother sins go and point out the fault.” Our translations have opted to use the phrase “sins against you,” even though our best manuscripts of Matthew don’t include “against you.” This passage probably is not just about a dispute between two church members, though it can be used that way. This passage includes—and may be mostly about—our responsibility as Christians to confront the sins of the world, or be held complicit in them. It is the same principle as how when you hear your neighbor beating their spouse you don’t just turn up the music. We have at least a working idea of what God does—we’ve heard the Word of God, like Ezekiel—and we can see when the world doesn’t quite match up.
So, when the world learned of genocide unfolding in Myanmar, Archbishop Desmond Tutu in South Africa spoke up. In doing so, he had to confront a fellow Nobel Peace Prize winner, Myanmar State Counsellor and de facto head of government, Aung San Sau Kyi. Tutu has long admired Aung San Sau Kyi for her persistent peaceful opposition to corrupt and broken government while under house arrest for 20 years. Tutu even kept a picture of her on his desk as inspiration. Friday, he asked her to speak out against the ongoing slaughter of Muslim minorities in Myanmar, stating, “If the political price of your ascension to the highest office in Myanmar is your silence, the price is surely too steep.” Tutu is, in his own words, “elderly and decrepit,” sick with cancer and formally retired. Yet he sees the face of Christ in the Muslim victims and refugees, and Christ loosed him to serve even now.
That’s famous people on the other side of the world. What about here? Here, we’ve learned that DACA—protections for people brought to the US as children—will be rescinded in six months. Here, we are also in the Year of Matthew, Year A in that 25-year-old Revised Common Lectionary. Matthew’s Gospel opens with the story of the birth of Jesus, and his becoming a refugee. Jesus’ father’s name, Joseph, reminds us of a previous time God’s people were immigrants in Egypt, then refugees in the wilderness. And then we learn that for nine years we’ve been deporting people, most of them taxpayers, some of them US combat veterans, from Gary-Chicago International Airport.
And we hear the voice of God say, “I have made you a sentinel.” And we say, “Thanks, God. I can tell this is gonna be really popular.” So, the Northwest Indiana Federation of Interfaith Organizations followed Matthew 18. They went first to airport brass. Turned out they were opposed to their airport being used for this, but legally had to allow it. Next came witnessing. Some of you know I’ve been there on a Friday, when the buses of deportees show up—windowless, to keep them faceless and not human—and people are sent away from home and into danger or even certain death. And those of us standing on the roadside are left asking, “What if Egyptian border patrol sent Jesus back to Bethlehem and Herod?”
For the Christians doing this work, it is not a matter of slapping a collar or stole on a political issue; it is a matter of remembering Jesus’ flight to Egypt, learning that something going on in our backyards doesn’t synch with what God calls us to do, and accepting that Christ has loosed us to confront the bondage of others. That’s why we read this Gospel today: We are the Rock, on which Jesus builds the Church, and Jesus Christ has loosed us to loose others. And that loosing always happens at the foot of the cross, where we are aware of our world’s capacity for evil, and where we trust in God’s power to raise the dead.