It’s Labor Day Weekend, a time when people head to the beach for one of the last times, or have a cookout, or spend some time doing whatever they do to rest, to relax, to “chill,” or to “loosen up.”
Our Gospel today invites us to “loosen up,” but in a way that can have enormous consequences for our relationships with other people, and our relationship with God. But this idea, this invitation, this command (at certain points) comes up a number of times in the Bible.
The word used is one of the first words one learns in Biblical Greek. You can find many a first-semester seminarian sounding like he or she is trying to remember the lyrics to the song, “Louie, Louie,” as she or he memorizes the conjugation of “luo, lueis, luei.” The word means “to loosen, to free up, to separate, to unbind.”
Whenever this word shows up, there is power. People become free. The power of God is let loose.
This happens when Jesus encounters a woman in a crowd. He sees this woman who is bent over from a disease, he heals her, and power goes out from him. (Luke 13:16) He helps this woman break loose. She breaks loose from her sickness, from her deformity, from her embarrassment, from her isolation, from all that is limiting her and holding her back.
This happens also with Lazarus. When Jesus hears that his friend Lazarus has died, he goes to see Martha and Mary. Jesus gets to the tomb. The entrance is cleared and Jesus prays to God. Then he says with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” And Lazarus comes. He gets up, he walks out, and then Jesus says, “Unbind him, (loose him) and let him go.” (John 11:1-46) Lazarus will die again, on another day, but for now, Jesus has shown the power of setting loose. He has foreshadowed his power of freeing us even from the bonds of death.
We heard of this power of holding tight or loosening up as it relates to the disciples a couple of weeks ago when we read of Saint Peter’s encounter with Jesus. You’ll remember that Peter is named as a rock on whom Jesus will build the church. Jesus gives Peter what he calls the “keys of the kingdom of heaven,” and then goes on to explain what these “keys” really are. “Whatever you bind on earth shall have been bound in heaven,” Jesus says. “And whatever you loose on earth shall have been loosed in heaven.” In other words, this power of binding and loosing, is the power of having keys, of being able to keeps something locked up, or to unlock it and let it be loose, free and fully alive.
This power to bind and to loose is not just kept by Peter. He hands this power on to the early church community, made clear in today’s Gospel. The Gospel of Matthew is thought to have been written somewhere between 50 and 100 years after the death and resurrection of Jesus. The words we read show the early Christian community listening through the Holy Spirit for the word of Christ in their midst. Jesus didn’t talk about casting people out of the community. He didn’t equate difficult or sinful Christians with “Gentiles and tax collectors.” Remember, he went out of his way to include Gentiles and tax collectors and prostitutes and outcasts of all kinds. What we hear in Matthew is the early church struggling with itself, trying to understand how to maintain a community, how to live with each other, and how to confront each other and forgive each other.
What developed was a practice whereby the victim, the wronged person, was encouraged to speak to the person who had offended or done wrong. If that doesn’t work, then take a couple of others with you. If the person still does not address the wrong she or he has done, then you tell the whole church, and if the person still doesn’t repent, she or he is put out of the church.
We have power not only to turn toward the life of God ourselves. But we also have some say, some power in whether another is able to turn to God fully. It has to do with this power to loosen and unbind.
This power to loose, to set another person free from guilt, from worry, from fear—this power clearly does good for the person who is separated for feels cut off or left out. Perhaps some of us have known that feeling of welcome when we have found a church that truly accepts us as the child of God we were created to be. But that power of forgiveness and welcome also sets loose the one who is able to forgive, or accept, or welcome.
This can sound daunting, this idea of speaking to someone who has wronged us. And it may be impossible (because of distance, or death, or danger). It may be unwise for some other reason. But even in the best of circumstances, it is a frightening idea to pull someone aside, and speak honestly by explaining how the person has wronged you. While today’s Gospel gives an outline of how this happens, it doesn’t make explicit something that I think is assumed and this assumption makes all the difference.
The important thing to remember, it seems to me, is that one never enters into this conversation with the other (who has wronged me), or with the elders, or with the whole congregation alone. Christ is in our midst. Jesus Christ, risen from the dead, lives and moves among us. And so, when I try to gather my wits about me to speak honestly with another person, Christ is there with me.
When I’m alone, there are really two who are present. When I’m with one another person, there are three of us because Christ is there. When we’re together in a small group or a large group, the spirit and love and life of the Risen Christ is with us. And so, there’s no reason to fear. Words will come when we need them. Whether the other person is responsive to what we’re saying is out of our control, it’s really none of our business, but can be left in the hands of Christ who is our mediator, our holy go-between, our intercessor, and our Advocate. He is the power that connects us and binds us to one another.
We illustrate this “binding” liturgically whenever we have a marriage ceremony. After the couple has exchanged vows, there is a blessing of the new couple—the two, now become one. We follow the ancient custom of tying the couple’s hands together in a stole. Sometimes I’ve watched as a priest simply allows a stole to fall over the two hands and the prayers are said. I’m sure those prayers are just as effective, but as I learned to do it, the stole should be tied, good and tight. All four hands. Tied together. It should hurt a little bit. It should be slightly scary as the couple wonders, “Is this crazy priest going to untie us before the reception? Is this stole going to wrinkle the wedding clothes? Is the stole going to grind this new ring into my finger?” These are good questions because they have to do with the burden of being in relationship, in communion one with another. Even after the stole has been untied, I hope the couple remembers that feeling. I hope the congregation remembers that symbol, because it applies to all of us.
We are tied to one another. As living beings on this planet. As brothers and sisters with the whole human race. But especially, as people of faith, we are bound to one another by the blood of Jesus Christ. We are his body. As members of that body we can be in tension, anger, resentment, control. Or we can contribute toward loosening, easing up, allowing grace, making for peace, extending forgiveness.
Friends, let us live loosely this weekend and always, rejoicing in the forgiveness and joy of our God.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.