Mt. McKinley in Alaska, originally known as Denali, "the Great One." .... "Lead me to the rock that is higher than I; for you are my refuge..." (Ps. 61:2-3)

       "Who do you say that I am?" Jesus asked.  Simon Peter answered, "You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God."  And Jesus answered, "Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! ... You are Peter (petros), and on this rock (petra) I will build my church..."  Jesus then began to speak of the rough road ahead. And Peter took him aside and rebuked him... "Get behind me, Satan!" Jesus replied. "You are a stumbling block..."
                                                (Matthew 16:13-23)

May these words of this Peter be like a rock,
not a stumbling block!

"Binding and loosing"

Message preached August 21, 2005
Long Green Valley Church of the Brethren
Glen Arm, Maryland USA

based upon Matthew 16:13-20

Order of Worship

            Sitting in a Doctorís office waiting room this week, I picked up the latest issue of Money magazine. In it I found an interesting question and answer in an advice column called "Do the Right Thing." The experts who respond to these questions are very qualified, Iím sure. At the bottom of the page it says that they are "trial consultants who advise attorneys on Peopleís ethical beliefs." Now, I donít mean to second guess them, or pretend like Iím an expert in financial matters, for I am not. Itís just that something in what I read nagged at me long after I put the magazine down. Letís see what you think.

            Under the heading "Must I Pay for a Deadbeat Neighbor?" a person asked this question:

            My wife and live in a six unit condo complex in Sacramento. Recently, the homeowners voted to boost our earthquake insurance, which will raise homeowners fees by $85 a month. The problem: One homeowner, a widow, says she canít afford the increase. We donít want to be callous toward our nice neighbor, but we also donít want to be underinsured. Help!

            Here was the answer given:

            As nice as your neighbor may be, she is not being fair to her fellow homeowners. Condos, like single-family homes, need to be adequately insured and maintained. It is the ethical - and legal - obligation of each owner to pay a pro rata share of the bill. If your neighbor were asking you to, say, postpone the increase until her tax refund arrives, you could probably accommodate her. What she canít expect you to do, however, is pay her share of the premium forever or risk being underinsured. Thatís not right.
            So you are doing nothing wrong by increasing your earthquake insurance. That said, it would be nice if you and the other homeowners could lend your neighbor $500 to cover the first six months of her fee increases. That would give her some breathing room to try to solve her financial problem.

Money, August 2005, p.32

            As I said, I am no financial expert, nor do I wish to set myself as "Mr. Know-it-all" when it comes to homeowner ethics. Itís just that I wonder about this woman who says she "canít afford the increase" to her condo fee. All that is said about her is that she is a widow. How old is she? Is she on a fixed income? Is this a high or low end condo? Does she have adult children who could help her out? Is she truthful about her situation or has she money stashed away that she just doesnít want to touch? Donít know any more details. As she is referred to as a "nice neighbor," I wonder who choose the title "deadbeat" for this particular Q & A?

            Shifting slightly, the law of the land says that in a divorce situation, the non-custodial parent must contribute to the financial care of children. Those who renege on this responsibility are referred to as "deadbeat" parents, the name being a stigma meant to shame them into compliance. It seems a bit harsh to stigmatize this admittedly "nice" "widow" as a "deadbeat" neighbor. However, strictly speaking, if she doesnít contribute her fair share, the law is binding upon her - so I guess she will be a "deadbeat" when that extra $85 a month isnít paid. Makes you wonder, though. Makes you wonder.

            By the way, the Bible has a few things to say, if we allow ourselves to be bound by them, about the treatment of widows. In the Torah, the Law of Moses, we hear, "You shall not abuse any widow or orphan" (Ex. 22:22). "For the LORD your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who is not partial and takes no bribe, who executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and who loves the strangers, providing them food and clothing" (Dt. 10:17-18). In fact, with words that stigmatize and shame in their own right, the Torah says, "Cursed be anyone who deprives the alien, the orphan, and the widow of justice" (Dt. 27:19).

            In an old practice that needs to be translated into our modern experience, the Torah says that, "When you reap your harvest in your field, and forget a sheaf in the field, you shall not go back to get it; it shall be left for the alien, the orphan, & the widow, so that the LORD your God may bless you in all your undertakings. When you beat your olive trees, do not strip what is left; it shall be for the alien, the orphan, & the widow. When you gather the grapes of your vineyard, do not glean what is left; it shall be for the alien, the orphan, & the widow." (Dt. 24:19-21).

            Such gleaning of harvest leftovers by widows is an important part of the Old Testament book of Ruth, which is - in a way - a Biblical advice column about doing the right thing. In this story, Naomi is a widow to whom daughter-in-law Ruth binds herself after the death of both of their husbands, saying, "Where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God"(Ruth 1:16). In the process Ruth shows what the Torah truly intended - that people care for one another. This woman, Ruth, who was herself not a child of the covenant, born to Hebrew parents, nevertheless bound herself to what God in the Torah called the children of Israel to do.

            The New Testament is full of stories about widows and commandments to do the right thing in relation to them. Jesus included them as main characters in his parables. The office of deacon in the early church came into existence because the apostles heard in the teaching of Jesus their responsibility to care for widows, among others. They took seriously what God said and made it binding in a way that we still follow to a certain extent. That someone would so quickly link the words "widow" and "deadbeat" in a modern day money magazine says something about our society, and what we bind and loose ourselves to today.

            In this morningís gospel lesson we have the interesting story of a man stepping out on a limb and with a confession of faith beginning the process of binding himself to someone he claimed as Messiah or Christ. As I have said many times, the disciple Peter is my favorite Bible character, for obvious reasons. Not only is my name connected to his, but I can resonate with his sometimes bumbling personality. In but a few verses after this morningís grand confession that Jesus is "the Messiah, the Son of the Living God," Peter sticks his foot in his mouth and Jesus shifts from calling him "the rock upon which I will build my church" (16:18) to a "stumbling block" in the way of Godís kingdom (16:23). Peter is, as the song says, a "fragile stone."

            And yet it is to this fragile stone that Jesus gave the "keys of the kingdom" and the power to "bind and loose." Now, I wouldnít be a Protestant minister if I believed that this pronouncement applied only to this particular man and his successors in a solid line on down to Pope Benedict the 16th. This power and responsibility from Christ, I believe, belongs to the church - to all who, like Peter, claim Jesus as their Christ and who seek to live out this faith. We, like Peter, may also be fragile stones, prone to wander, to trip and fall, to misunderstand, and even to deny Jesus. Even so, we have been given the power and the responsibility to bind and loose.

            Itís called discernment, and itís something we all possess in Christ. In fact - and this is a peculiar aspect of our faith as Brethren, who follow in the traditions of Anabaptism and Radical Pietism - we do not look outside ourselves for an expert to figure out what is right and wrong in the face of changing circumstances in life. Instead, we listen to the movement of the Spirit and to the wisdom of our brothers and sisters and together discern what is binding and what is not.

            Jesus showed us the way. Some aspects of the Law he made more binding, some less. For instance, when the religious experts of the day came to Jesus complaining about his disciples doing what youíre not supposed to do on the Sabbath, Jesus loosed that commandment, or rather laid aside the legalistic interpretation of it. Yes, "remember the Sabbath and keep it holy," but, "the Sabbath was made for man, not man made for the Sabbath." Thatís discernment.

            On the other hand, Jesus made the command to "love your neighbor" even more binding by linking neighbor and enemy. "Love your enemy," he said, a command we stumble over during times of war. Do we make that less binding or more? Jesus linked "neighbor" (as in someone who is similar to us) with "stranger" when he made a Samaritan (someone different religiously and culturally) an example of what a good neighbor should be. Thatís discernment. Notice, that "binding" involves more than making a decision over a law. Itís personal. Loving your neighbor is not an abstract philosophy. It involves "binding" your life to your neighborís life.

            Speaking of good neighbors, I wonder about that condo complex in California. One of the struggles of our society at present is that we are hungry for community and yet we tend to hold each other at armís length. One thing Marta shared with the children at camp is that in the Dominican Republic people are in each otherís homes constantly. "Mi casa es su casa ... My house is your house." Here we need an advance invitation. We hardly know our neighbors.

            To be a true community, however, we bind ourselves to more than the letter of the law. I wonder if there wasnít a deeper question being asked, knowingly or not, in that magazine column. "To what extent," the writer may have been asking, "am I bound to my neighbor, a widow who cannot afford a $1,020 a year increase in her condo fee?" Granted, a condo association is not a church. But if we wish to be more than just a collection of individuals, each guarding our own space; if we long for a sense of community, then we need to move beyond the letter of the law. There is a degree of binding ourselves to one another which happens, when and where we deeply care about and bear responsibility for each other.

            Now, as I said, I am no expert, and every situation is unique involving circumstances that may not all be evident at first glance. Furthermore, I know that there are times when "loosing" involves wiping the dust off our feet in relation to certain persons. We do not help an addict, for instance, by allowing them to escape responsibility for their own actions. We have the power to lovingly let them go, one of the hardest things a person can do. I might add that such "loosing" is best done in the context of a community where we can support one another in the process.

            Itís no mistake that 2 chapters after this morningís scripture in the gospel of Matthew, when Jesus speaks of how to deal with conflict within the community of faith, after every effort has been made to reconcile and the time comes for a parting of ways, for loosening the bonds between us, he says, "Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. Again, truly I tell you, if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them" (Matthew 18:18-20).

            Therein lies the real power. Amen?

online resources for this scripture text

For commentaries consulted, see Matthew.

(para traducir a espaŮol, presione la bandera de EspaŮa)


©2005 Peter L. Haynes
(you are welcome to borrow and, where / as appropriate, note the source - myself or those from whom I have knowingly borrowed.)

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