Friends, we need to talk. Now, when I hear those words, I get nervous because that phrase never precedes something good. And I don’t know anyone who looks forward to a confrontation—whether they are the ones speaking those words or the one hearing them. But this is how Jesus’ teaching starts off in today’s gospel.
Wait, that isn’t quite true. Today’s passage is an extension of what he started earlier in the chapter. The disciples had asked him who was the greatest, and he took a child into their midst and said, “Unless you become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” Then he went on to say that if you put a stumbling block in front of the least, then it would be better if you placed a millstone around your neck and be drowned. For if anything causes you to stumble—including others—you should cast those out.
Because, he goes on, if even one sheep strays from a flock of 100, the shepherd will risk the lives of the 99 to find the one who is lost. Therefore, if someone in your own community sins (the ‘against you’ was added later), go and address the issue privately. If they listen, you can be reconciled and move forward. If they refuse to hear you, take others from the community who can stand as witnesses to what is said. If they still refuse, take the matter to the community. And if they still don’t listen, treat them as a Gentile and a tax collector.
Now, at this point, we need to take a moment to consider how Jesus treated Gentiles and tax collectors. He welcomed them. He ate with them. He healed them. He gave them the gospel. So, when he repeats what he said two chapters ago about binding and loosing, he’s referring to whether you bind in reconciliation into the community or let them go their way, but not without love and hope.
For if you and at least one other have prayerfully discerned how to respond to that one, then the Father in heaven will honor your decision. Because when you are gathered in prayer and conversation—even in confrontation—Jesus is present, also witnessing to you and inviting you into wholeness.
I went through that passage this way because we often misrepresent this passage as one that gives the church authority to excommunicate those who disagree. We also misrepresent it as one that says that if someone else prays like I do, God will give us what we want. And we misrepresent it as a passage that talks about worship in terms of where two or more are gathered. But this whole section is about how we treat those who stumble and those who are stumbling blocks; how we treat those who are lost or who wandered or ran away; how we treat those who scared the vulnerable or ignored the pain of their loss; how we treat the sinner and how we treat the one who speaks up.
Now, I have a tendency to see myself as the one who points out the fault. It’s natural because the translation talks about what ‘you’ do and what ‘they’ do. But what if you’re the ‘they?’ What if you’re the one who sinned? How does that change the passage for you? What if you’re the one who is called to bear witness to the events? What if you’re the one who is sort of on the sidelines, simply being brought in as part of the community?
I think we’re probably all of these at various times. The question is, what are we in terms of creation and the sin committed against it? I can’t help but think of the Lorax every time we get to this season in the year. The story conjured by Dr. Seuss tells about a man who came through the forest of trees, cutting them down in order to make money off of the tufts on top. After the first tree came down, a strange little furry guy popped up. He called himself the Lorax and said that he speaks for the trees. He basically said, “Hey, we need to talk.” And he addressed his concern about the wellbeing of the trees and forest and all the creatures that lived in it. But the man didn’t listen.
He kept cutting down more trees. And the Lorax brought with him the bears and the birds and the fish as witnesses to the damage he was doing. But he still didn’t listen. Instead, he kept cutting…until the last tree came down. And with great sadness, the Lorax departed and left the man alone in his destruction. The Lorax loosed the man from the relationship—but not from the consequences of his actions.
The tale was written in the 60’s, but not much has changed since. In fact, though efforts have been made by the US and countries across the world to limit gas emissions, restrict waste dumping into local rivers, and protecting national parks and forests from demolition, the past three years has seen a giant step away from these efforts—nearly 100 environmental rules and regulations have been rolled back; oceans have been opened for additional off-shore drilling, including the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge; we have taken ourselves out of global summits and the Paris climate accord; the Clean Water Rule has been repealed. Allowances are being made that benefit fossil fuel and chemical companies, but who is speaking for the trees? And the rivers, the lakes, the birds, the bees, the fish, the foxes, for you and me? Who is speaking on behalf of God’s beloved creation?
The passage from Isaiah was written as the people of Israel were anticipating a return home. But as they thought about what it would take to leave Babylon and travel the long miles back to the Promised Land, all they could think of was the parched earth, the dry land, and the heat of the desert. But Isaiah words brought them the hope they needed to take the next step. “When the poor and needy seek water, and there is none, and their tongue is parched with thirst, I will open rivers on the bare heights and fountains in the midst of the valleys. I will create an oasis in the middle of the wilderness, and trees will spring up to provide shade and food. I will do this for my people because I love them. And those who see it will know that I am the Holy One of Israel, the Creator of all things.”
God saves by creating. Creation is a bearer of salvation. Salvation is not about rescue and escape from the things of this world but about abiding with and in and for all of creation. We are intertwined. We cannot hurt or destroy the trees without destroying ourselves, as well. And when, like the Israelites, we feel like it is no longer possible to return home, to make right all that we have shattered, God makes a way. It is not an easy or convenient way, but there is a way.
There is a way for us to take the roll of the Lorax—to speak for the trees—to confront all that seeks to damage and destroy—to identify the stumbling blocks and the wayward sheep. God makes a way for us to live out our faith in the gospel written on every leaf and every grain of sand. It is time for us to stand up and say, “Listen, we need to talk.”
Pastor Tobi White
Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church