If any of you grew up with siblings close to you in age, or maybe have kids who are close to each other in age, you know that kids always get along so well, right? They’re polite to each other, they share things, and they never fight.
I know – yeah right!
I grew up with a younger brother and a younger sister, all of us within a few years of each other. I even had a bonus set of siblings – several first cousins who were near my age. And I remember the way we all grew up fighting with one another.
My sister Molly and I grew up fighting over clothes and toys and shoes, some of which ended up getting thrown at my face!
On my sixth birthday, my cousin Kenny stole one of my dolls, and after a chase, I ended up with a huge scar all across my forehead. You don’t even want to know.
And I remember one family vacation – in my teens! – where my brother Ben and I were so angry at each other we could barely even look at one another. I don’t even remember what we were fighting about anymore. I’m not even sure we knew then.
Does this kind of family drama sound familiar to any of you? Yeah.
It’s amazing how easy it is to fight with the people closest to us, with the people we are supposed to love the most. It’s easy to forget about what holds us together, about the love we owe one another, and to focus on the small things that we may disagree on.
But, in reality, we have so much in common, so much that links us together. And I don’t just mean with the people we call brother, sister, cousin, parent, and so on. We as the whole human family are much more closely connected than we might think. To put it into perspective from a genetic standpoint, our closest living relatives – other than each other – are chimpanzees. Anybody want to guess how much of our DNA we share with chimps?
99%! We share 99% of our DNA with chimps. That is a LOT. And yet, we are even more closely related to other humans. We share about 99.9% of our DNA with each other. 99.9% – let that sink in for a second. Look around at all the other people in this room, think about the people you see at the grocery store or in the street or at work and realize that we are 0.1% from being exactly the same, genetically speaking. As Christians, we profess ourselves to be siblings in Christ, and in creation, we can see evidence that we literally are siblings, one big human family made in the image of God. How cool is that?
I’m really hammering on this point, because all of our texts for today have everything to do with how we relate to one another, and through each other, how we relate to God.
Starting in our first reading, we hear God instructing the prophet Ezekiel about what he is to do, and what he is to say to the people of Israel in exile. He is to be a sentinel, a watchman who waits for God’s word and then tells God’s people when they have gone off the rails. Now we, being human people, we like that part – I mean, I know I love telling people when I think they’re wrong – it’s delightful. But God isn’t sending this warning through Ezekiel in order to gleefully punish the people of Israel. Not at all. In verse 11, God says, “As I live, says the Lord God, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from their ways and live; turn back, turn back from your evil ways!” These words from God aren’t about Ezekiel being able to say to the Israelites, “nya nya, I told you so!”; rather, God is doing everything possible to reconcile and restore a broken relationship.
Paul picks up this theme of right relationship in this text from his letter to the Romans. Paul calls our love for each other “the fulfilling of the law,” the basis for how we live together with one another in community. “Love does no wrong to a neighbor,” Paul writes. A person who loves their neighbor doesn’t murder them or sleep with their spouse or steal or covet their stuff or treat them badly in any other way; this is why the whole basis of the commandments God has given us can be summed up in the words, “Love your neighbor as yourself.”
And in our gospel text, Jesus gives very detailed instructions for how to go about the work of reconciliation when we have failed to act in a loving way toward our neighbors. It’s worth noting the language Jesus uses here to talk about the person with whom we need to be reconciled. In our translation, it’s written “If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one.” Jesus actually uses more intimate language: “If your brother sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If your brother listens to you, you have regained them.” You have regained your sibling. This is about family, our human family, about how we are made whole again.
And Jesus makes it clear how much trouble it’s worth to protect and fight for these relationships. If, after we talk with our sibling, they’re still not willing to listen, then we bring in more people to help strengthen and restore that relationship. If they still won’t listen, then we bring in the whole community, the whole family – because each relationship affects us all. And if they still won’t listen, then we are to treat them as an outsider and a foreigner – as a Gentile and a tax collector. Haha! Now we get to kick them out, right? But then, of course, we remember: how did Jesus treat Gentiles and tax collectors? Yeah, that’s right. He ate with them. He healed them. He even called them to be disciples!
With God, there is never a point at which we are to stop seeking to be in relationship with our neighbor. Never. God wants us to be one big, happy human family. And God wants this because there is never a point at which God stops seeking to be in relationship with all of us. Never. So when we feel that we have reached the end of our ability to be in relationship with someone else, that’s actually when the real work of loving them is to begin. That’s when the Holy Spirit really gets to work in us to bring about reconciliation. And as Jesus shows, it’s work that belongs to the entire community of faith.
I realized this week just how timely this message is for our world and for our church in particular. On Monday, Bishop Eaton made a statement condemning the repeal of DACA. DACA is a program for undocumented immigrants brought here as children that protects them from deportation. And reactions to this news varied widely across the ELCA, to say the least. I would venture to guess that even in this room, we have a lot of divided opinions about the matter.
Some of us applauded Bishop Eaton for speaking the truth to power and for taking a stand to defend our neighbors who are most vulnerable. Some of us felt that she was overstepping her boundaries, that the church should not be involved in politics at the risk of becoming too partisan. And there were some of us who disagreed with her opposition to the repeal of DACA, who in good conscience could not support those who have broken the laws of our country. And I am sure there are many other more nuanced stances among us that I am not aware of.
Without a doubt, it is a controversial topic. Especially living in the borderlands, each of us here at Peace Lutheran must wrestle with what this means for us. We must wrestle with how this impacts our commitment to hospitality, in saying that all are welcome. We must prayerfully consider what justice looks like for those who have broken our nation’s laws – laws which Paul exhorted us to follow just a few verses before our reading for today. And we must ask whether God’s command to love our neighbor as ourselves and to care for the stranger and the sojourner calls those very laws into question.
I’m sure that we have differing opinions on how our faith should lead us to respond to this situation. And that’s okay. But that does not mean that we should let those differing views divide us. They are not reason enough for giving up on our relationships with each other. Instead, we can see them as opportunities for building up our relationships, and for recognizing that what unites us far outweighs the things that divide us.
We are called to be members of the one human family – of God’s family. And just like the people we grew up with – or the ones we raised – sometimes our siblings can be difficult and frustrating and, frankly, impossible. But at the end of the day, they are still our siblings. At the end of the day, we are still family, because God has already done the work of making us family. In the cross of Christ, God reconciled all humanity to Godself. Without the cross, we would be lost. But God has forged an unbreakable bond of love with all of us, opening the way for us to live into the same kind of love with one another. So let us discuss and disagree and defend our different views, but at the end of the day, let us come together as siblings to be reconciled to one another – here, at the family table.