SERMON Lectionary 23a 2017
By Pastor Leo E. Longan
I’m not sure I would have chosen Matthew 18 for a Rally Day sermon, but as an obedient son of the church, I’ll take it on. It’s a good place to dive into the Reformation, which will be our theme in the run-up to the 500th anniversary next month.
So: here goes.
Have you noticed our tendency to turn nouns into verbs? It’s become so common these days. Have you googled yet today? Did you facebook anybody this morning? Or did you text someone who had friended you? A prominent restaurant chain has come out with an advertising campaign that asks “Do you Soup or Sandwich? Let’s go down Memory Lane: does anyone remember saying “I hoovered the living room this morning”? Now there’s: I blogged, he was tasked, the storm impacted. I’ll skateboard downtown to workshop my play … on and on it goes …
Well, I’ve heard a new one recently that takes us into the lesson this morning: speaking about a disagreement among colleagues, a friend said: “I can’t believe he Matthew 18ed me! That was a new one on the nouns-to-verbs scale.
To be Matthew 18ed means to be called onto the carpet for something one said or did in church. It refers to a procedure written into our church constitutions for handling disagreements and problems in the church: go first privately to an offender, then with witnesses, then take the matter to the whole church. Then, if the problem is not resolved, turn him out. Sounds pretty good, and there’s actually a lot of love in Matthew 18, if we look for it; but there’s not much love in the way we use it in the church. It’s all law. By the time you get Matthew 18ed, it’s all over but the shouting.
Forty years of working in the church – as musician, teacher and pastor – has taught me that Matthew 18, as law, never works, never heals the problems to which it is applied. It didn’t work when the Roman church tried to shut Luther up in 1517, my guess is that it’s never worked since and I know it doesn’t work now.
This is what happens when we make the gospel into law – there’s a gravity that pulls that way, a gravity that pulls us down, and when we give in to that gravity we distort the faith.
It’s not important to me to litigate Matthew 18 today. What’s important to me, is that we understand the spiritual forces that we have to contend with: the gravity that pulls us down, and what I will call heavenly gravity that lifts us up. This goes right to the heart of what the Reformation means.
The church has been around a long time, and by the 16th century, everything about the gospel had yielded to the gravity of the law: God’s grace was quantified and sold for money. Confession and communion became obligations, enforced with penalties. Love was not a factor. The faith became all about avoiding hell.
Simply put, the Reformation, led by Martin Luther, turned all that upside down. He was mired in the law, mired in guilt, he believed in God, but he was hopeless. Luther discovered the gospel, the good news about God’s love, and the gospel has its own gravity, it’s own power. Luther gave in to the heavenly gravity of the gospel and discovered a loving, forgiving God.
Read Matthew 18 – or any of the gospels for that matter – with love in mind, and you will feel the pull of this heavenly gravity.
Taking the love out of it, though, turns it into a baseball bat and that is how it has been used. “I can’t believe he Matthew 18ed me!” That’s what the church did to Luther when he began to preach the gospel, and Luther lost that game. Luther and those who chose to follow him against a corrupt and rapacious pope were officially thrown out of the church.
The Reformation exposed the sin of the Church in yielding over centuries to earthly gravity of law and things, thus distorting the faith. Simply put, the church needed to be reformed. By Luther’s time, the church had been taken over to the rapacious billionaires of the day – the pope and the bishops – and they played the church for money for themselves. Like just about every sin I know about, including those of the present day in America and around the world, it can be traced to greed for money.
When Luther attacked indulgences, a gross swindle that purported to sell God’s grace for money, he was doing God’s work. He was responding to the pull of heavenly gravity in his soul. He felt that gravity operating in his own life when it dawned on him – one day in the toilet as it happened – that God really, really did love him, sinner that he was, sinner though he remained. His encounter with the gospel brought a personal healing that, when he began to preach about it, was a nuclear explosion in the 16th century Europe. It changed the direction of western civilization.
That heavenly gravity, the power inherent in the gospel to lift us into God’s love, is still operating within and among us, in spite of the forces pulling us down, and they are many. Heavenly gravity can be felt; we all have felt it. God has lifted our hearts time and time again when we needed that lift, has he not?
Matthew 18, read as gospel, brings humility, patience, and love into the process of healing disagreements. We, however, have turned it into law, and law does not heal.
The gospel heals. It heals the little things, like depression and disappointment, by lifting us spiritually into the abundance of God’s grace and the certainty of God’s future. It heals the big things, by challenging the greed and lust for power that pull civilizations down.
There is great power in the gospel, a powerful, heavenly gravity that lifts us into God’s own heart. Let us yield to the power, let us gravitate to God. As we do so, we will find the healing we need for ourselves and for our world.
Have you gospelled today? Have you graced yet this morning? Think about it: maybe God … is a verb.
Let us pray.