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Love at the Center

St. John’s Lutheran Church
10 September 2023 + Lect. 23a (15 Pentecost)
Matthew 18.15-20; Romans 13.8-14

Rev. Josh Evans



Every time this gospel reading comes around, I cringe. Not because I don’t think it has value, but because of the way it has been misunderstood and misused.

In one interpretation, conflict management escalates from a one-on-one conversation, to a small group discussion, and finally to the whole church – where, if resolution is not reached, kick ‘em out! Excommunicate them! Block them on Facebook! Cut them out of your life!

Except … that’s not what Jesus says.

“If the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.”

Huh … that’s an interesting choice of words. Where have we heard that before?

What about nine chapters earlier: “When the Pharisees saw [Jesus eating dinner], they said to his disciples, ‘Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?’” (Matt 9.10)

There it is!

How does Jesus treat tax collectors, sinners, and Gentile outsiders? He eats with them. He enters into conversation with them. He intentionally seeks them out, time and again. Instead of shunning or unfriending, Jesus’s conflict resolution offers another way. Always with the aim of reconciliation and being drawn back into community.

In Jesus’s model of conflict resolution, and indeed in his description of the kingdom of heaven, love is at the center.

***

When love is at the center, it does no wrong to a neighbor, the apostle Paul reminds us.

Not a saccharine kind of love that overlooks conflict, but a reconciling love that speaks into the midst of conflict, division, and hurt, and offers another, different way.

Paul knew something of what it was like to live in a world of deep divisions – between rich and poor, or between people of different religious persuasions or ethnic origins.

Still, Paul urges: Love one another! In a world fraught with such division, Paul offers another way – a way where love is at the center.

***

What does it look like when love is at the center?

I can’t help but think of the sermon that Episcopal Presiding Bishop Michael Curry gave at the 2018 wedding liturgy of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle.

Some people watch royal weddings for the pageantry. I watch them for the sermons (okay, and the pageantry).

“Imagine a world where love is the way,” Bishop Curry invites us. And he goes on to imagine:

“When love is the way, then no child will go to bed hungry in this world ever again.

“When love is the way, we will let justice roll down like a mighty stream and righteousness like an ever-flowing brook.

“When love is the way, poverty will become history.

“When love is the way, the earth will be a sanctuary.

“When love is the way, we will lay down our swords and shields, down by the riverside, to study war no more.

“When love is the way, there’s plenty good room – plenty good room – for all of God’s children.”

***

That’s what it looks like when love is at the center.

Love is at the center of the kingdom of heaven – God’s better way of life – as Jesus describes. Love is at the center of what it means to be an early Christian community, as Paul urges.

Love is at the center because it has to be.

***

This weekend, our siblings and full communion partners in the Episcopal Diocese of Albany elected their next bishop. It’s no secret there has been a lot of hurt and division in the diocese these past several years. In many ways, this weekend’s election only continued to underscore that division over the church’s inclusion of and ministry to its LGBTQIA+ members.

In his first address as bishop-elect to the convention and to the diocese, the Rev. Jeremiah Williamson spoke of his eagerness to listen and learn and of his great hope for the future of the diocese.

Williamson’s election is a breath of fresh air for lay Episcopalians who have for so long yearned for greater inclusion in their church, though as the Facebook comments suggest, not everyone is thrilled (never read the comments, by the way).

With the imminent weighty task of leading a divided diocese forward, the bishop-elect concluded his remarks in the words of one of my favorite blessings, perhaps as much as a reminder to himself as to the faithful in the diocese: “Life is short, and we do not have much time to gladden the hearts of those who walk this journey with us. So be swift to love, and make haste to be kind…”

Love is at the center because it has to be.

***

It’s a good reminder for us on this Rally Sunday, as we celebrate being together again after a long summer in many places.

Rally Sunday offers us an opportunity to re-center ourselves: around word and sacrament, among beloved community, and in a love that first loved us.

Love is at the center because it is at the core of who we are.

At the core of who are is a radical love made known to us in Christ, who reached out across every dividing line there is, and that compels us to do the same.

This is a love that needs our hands, our feet, our voice – to embody and proclaim God’s unconditional welcome for those who question whether they belong, and for those who have long since left, or been kicked out.

Love is at the center because it has to be.

And when love is at the center, all God’s beloved children know:

There is a place for you here.

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