Lenten Noonday Preaching Series
Calvary Episcopal Church
March 18, 1999
"Loose" Is Not to "Lose"
Yesterday I said that I would be preaching on three different texts, each of them leaving us with a promise from Jesus. This is a text from Matthew 18; I will begin reading with the 15th verse moving through the 20th verse:
This is the word of the Lord.
You probably were wondering what sort of promise that was as I began, but I hope you heard the end of the reading's particular power. "Where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them," said Jesus.
When I did campus ministry, this was our memory verse, because we seldom had very big crowds. I would meet with a group of students on a Wednesday or a Thursday night, and I would say to myself, "Well, I remember it is written, 'Where two or three are gathered together in my name,' said Jesus, 'there I am among them.'" I think some of us may fear that this will become the memory verse of the mainline churches, as we sometimes look out on sanctuaries that seat 750 and there may be 50 people scattered around, sitting where they always sat.
It is a wonderful promise. It is an amazing promise. Jesus is speaking of a time after He's gone from the midst of the disciples. "Where two or three of you are gathered in my name, I am there in the midst of you." In the midst of you. We can be tempted to take that little verse out and make it into a refrigerator magnet and put it up so we can see it every day. It would not be a bad verse to put up on the refrigerator, but you need to remember, along with me, where it comes in Matthew's Gospel.
This verse comes in what we often call the section on church discipline. Instead I think it should be called the "restoration clause," because this section of Matthew's Gospel is really about how to restore a brother or a sister to us. It outlines how that is to be done, saying if the person doesn't listen even to the church, then let that one be as a tax collector and a gentile. I don't have time now to go into what that might mean, except I want you to remember that in Matthew, Chapter Nine, just after Jesus has called Matthew the tax collector and gone to eat in Matthew's house, it is the leaders who complain to the disciples saying, "Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?" Thus it doesn't seem to me that even at the end of this chapter those people are completely lost.
Where our verse comes in, however, is in the need for two or three to gather in the name of Jesus to discern what is even a wrongdoing. How can I even go to my brother or sister and say, "You have wronged me," unless I know what indeed is wrong. This is where we come to some rather strange words in today's reading. "Truly, I tell you," said Jesus, "whatever you bind on earth, will be bound in Heaven, and, whatever you loose on earth, will be loosed in Heaven." This is tough. It is tough because we don't use the words this way anymore in the English language. I can tell you something is binding, and I think you know what I mean. But, what if I say we have to loose something? We don't talk that way. We may say, "You need to loosen your tie, you look a little uptight," but we don't say, "loose your tie." We use loose as an adjective. We might say, "The stone is loose. You better get some scaffolding up there to protect the people on the street or you're going to have a lawsuit on your hands." But we don't talk about loosing things.
When I went to my computer and typed in "loosing," the computer underscored it with a red line to indicate it was spelled wrong. No such word as "loosing." So, I took out one "o" and turned it into "losing." "Go right ahead," my computer said. But "loosing" is not the same as "losing." I think this is where the church right now is in deep trouble, because we have said that loosing and losing are the same. This may make no sense to you, but I hope it will as we move on.
Jesus is saying here in this passage of Matthew, "I am giving to the church the task of binding and loosing. Whatever you bind on earth will be bound in Heaven. Whatever you loose on earth will be loosed [that is set free] in Heaven." They are terms that Jesus has picked up from the Rabbis who talked about binding and loosing.
Already in the Gospel of Matthew, we have seen Jesus binding and loosing, functioning as a teacher. In the Sermon on the Mount--that first block of teaching materials in Matthew's Gospel--we see Jesus looking at the law. Some of you will remember that Jesus says, "You have heard it said, you shall not kill. But, I say to you, whoever is angry with a brother or sister is liable to judgment." Now, Jesus is taking the written word of the law and saying, "Not only is this word still binding upon you, it is more deeply and expansively binding than you thought. Even if you're angry with a brother or sister, you need to seek forgiveness before you take your gift to the altar." This whole section of Matthew 5 is about binding and loosing. Jesus talks about laws about killing, about adultery, about divorce and remarriage, about making an oath, and in every case Jesus says, "These laws to you are binding."
But, Jesus also was loosing the law. You see this in the many stories that we have in the Gospels about the Sabbath. Jesus' disciples were out picking grain on the Sabbath because they were hungry, and there were complaints all over the place. "Why do you let your disciples do this? You know what the law says." Then there is a long section where Jesus heals a man with a withered hand on the Sabbath. Finally in Matthew 12 Jesus says, "It is lawful on the Sabbath to do good." At that point, he seems to have set aside some of the traditions that were taught about what you could and could not do on the Sabbath.
So Jesus, as a teacher, is binding and loosing. And he calls the church to this same ministry. How do we do this as a church? How do we decide what is binding? How do we decide what we might loose in order to be faithful to the Gospel, for loosing is not the same as losing? Jesus said, "If two or three are gathered in my Name, there I am in the midst of them." He was picking up a phrase from the work of the Rabbis--where two or three are gathered, studying Torah, there the presence of God is in the midst of them. Jesus didn't just make this up. He was taking something from the Rabbis and saying, "Now, what I want you to see is that you not only have the written words in the midst of you but you have me. You have not only Torah, but you have my presence in your midst. So, when two or three of you are gathered in my Name, there I am among them."
But why would the church ever loose anything in the Bible as Jesus loosed some of the teachings on the Sabbath? This is a very pressing question. Is binding the only faithful thing or can loosing ever be faithful? We could look many different places for answers. I want to look at a passage we haven't thought about much lately, but it was at the heart of a great debate in the 1800s.
In the mid 1800s, anesthesia was discovered; surgery could actually be done with anesthetics and without terrible pain. The discovery opened up whole new areas of healing for people. But there were Christian medical doctors who said, "We cannot use anesthesia in one particular case. That is, we can never use it for women in childbirth." Why? Because of this verse, Genesis 3:16. God is speaking to Adam and Eve as they are cast out of the garden. "To the woman, God said, I will greatly increase your pains in childbearing. In pain, you shall bring forth children." That is the Word. Thus there was a great debate. Could we use anesthesia to help women who were in terrible pain in childbirth? Some said, "Never." They went to the Hebrew dictionaries and looked up exactly what was said and they reported, "It says exactly that. 'I will increase your pain in childbearing.'" So to give someone an anesthetic would be to go against this Word.
But there were others, including a man who was among the discoverers of anesthesia, who said, "God was the first anesthesiologist. Didn't God put Adam to sleep during that operation where God took the rib and created the woman." So, finally, after some great debate, women were given anesthesia to help alleviate some of the worst pain of childbearing. People really believed that it was loosing a word but not losing the faith.
The church has been engaged in binding and loosing since the day Jesus talked to the disciples in Matthew, Chapter 18. We have loosed almost everything about money. For example, the definition of the church in Acts 2 and 4 doesn't apply to us anymore. [In that definition] the believers held all things in common. Those who had lamb, sold them, and there was not a poor person among them. Instead we have said, "Well, you know, that was another time." We loosed that word. Other words have been binding. For centuries, the words about slavery were utterly binding on the church. For example, Ephesians, Chapter 6: "Slaves obey your earthly masters in all things as unto Christ," which is repeated again in Colossians, Chapter 3. But I don't hear anybody today saying, "A real Bible-believing Christian will have slaves." Do you? The church has loosed that word. It is no longer binding. In fact, it is considered harmful and dangerous.
We loose these words, these particular literal understandings of text, because I believe Jesus was sitting in the midst of us. Jesus was in the midst of us calling us to do something that [not only could loose the written text but] could alleviate pain, that could honor the well-being of women and their infants. [He was calling us to] a word that had compassion, a word that took into consideration a new reality.
You know where I'm going. I'm going to the place where all of our churches are today being torn utterly in pieces, and that is the discussion and the debate and the controversy about homosexuality. It is tearing all of us apart. It is tearing us apart partly because we have equated loosing and losing. The people will say, "If we loose these condemnations, we will lose the Bible."
We have done all the work we can, sisters and brothers, on exegeting these passages. We have looked at the Hebrew and the Greek until the cows come home, just like those doctors did when they turned to Genesis 3:16 and they found out that the Hebrew really did say, "In pain, you shall bring forth children." There was no getting around it. We're at a dead-end if we keep equating loosing with losing, and we'll never get any place. We will not be able to see that we have, in a sense, in this time of history, a new reality in terms of understanding homosexuality. It's as new a reality as the discovery of anesthesia in the 1800s. We will come to a place where we see that compassion can be part of our reason for loosing something that has bound just as it did when we loosed the text on slavery. We will come to see that this part of Matthew's gospel is about reconciliation and restoration.
I know, people of God, that this scares us to death because we're scared about sexuality period. All you have to look at is the last year in the United States to see that we don't know what to do about sexuality. So when we find something in this Book that seems to us to be binding, we hold on to it at all costs, believing in our hearts that to loose it would be losing. Jesus didn't say, "Hold on to this book in the midst of you for dear life." Jesus said, "When you gather, make sure that you have all the laws in front of you. Make sure you have everything written down." Jesus said, "Where two or three of you are gathered in my Name, there I am in the midst of you." I don't pretend for a moment that we will soon come to a decision about this. I do wish we could have more conversations with Jesus in the midst of us.
So, finally, I turn to that great teacher, Huckleberry Finn, who, though he did not know it, was about the business of binding and loosing in this part of the story. You'll remember that he had really stolen Miss Watson's property-- Jim, the slave, the black man. He had just stolen him away from Miss Watson, and then Jim and Huck had floated down this very Mississippi River, right here beside our door. Jim became a good friend of Huck's as they were floating down the river, and finally the white boy, Huck, got really disturbed by this. He had learned that stealing was wrong and he had learned that slaves were to obey their masters. He had this word right in his head, and he was starting to be troubled by this. He says, "The plain hand of providence was slapping me in the face and letting me know my wickedness was being watched all the time from up there in heaven, whilst I was stealing a poor old woman's [slave]."
So he sits down and writes a letter to Miss Watson, and he tells her exactly where Jim is so she can come and get him back, because Jim is her rightful property. He decides it is the only thing to do to avoid everlasting fire. Huck says when he wrote that letter, "I felt good and all washed clean of sin for the first time I had ever felt so in my life." Freed for Heaven. Freed from hell. But before sending the letter, Huck thinks about Jim. He says, "I got to thinking over our trip down the river; and I see Jim before me all the time: in the day and in the nighttime, sometimes moonlight, sometimes storms, and we a-floating along, talking and singing and laughing. But somehow I couldn't seem to strike no places to harden me against him."
Huck thinks about how sweet and good and gentle Jim is, and he thinks about the fact that Jim is a slave and he has stolen him and it is wrong to steal and that slaves are supposed to be obedient to their masters. Then he sees Jim's face and he sees the letter. What should he do? He has this letter for Ms. Watson lying there, and he says, "I took it up, and I held it in my hand. I was a-trembling, because I'd got to decide, forever, betwixt two things [Heaven and hell], and I knowed it. I studied a minute, sort of holding my breath, and then says to myself, 'All right, then, I'll go to hell.'" Then, he tore it up.
Loosing is not always losing. Not losing the Bible, not losing the faith,
not losing Jesus. Amen.
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