Life in community … our opening remarks on the front of our bulletin says, “We gather in the name of Christ, assured that he is present among us with gifts of peace and reconciliation.” The scripture we’ve just read and heard talks about how God wants there to be reconciliation and peace among members of the family of God. “Where two or three are gathered there in my name, I am there among them,” Jesus says. In the midst of tragedy and disaster, pain and suffering so enormous that it defies description, there Jesus is. With hurricanes, earthquakes, tornadoes, fire, rain, and wars raging in our world, we certainly would seem to long for peace and reconciliation – with each other as human beings and with the earth. In our understanding of the Theology of the Cross, where Jesus goes to the cross for our sins, for the sins and suffering of the world, suffers for us … it is at this cross that we go to lay our burdens down, to cry out and wonder if we have been abandoned in the midst of terrible human suffering. It would seem that our land and our very being with each other is in great turmoil at this time.
I loved playing in the band ever since I began playing an instrument. I loved the music we made and the getting everyone together for a common reason of making music. For the most part, I liked band rehearsals. I remember my high school band teacher telling us that we didn’t need to like the person sitting next to us – as there was conflict and contention at times as we battled for our seating order in the band, but that we needed to love making music and that the band was about being community. If we loved making music, we could get passed our differences for the sake of making great music together. I didn’t quite get it until I was a senior and a new student moved into the district and she was a very talented musician. I had held the first chair flute since I was in 7th grade and she came in and won the seat in our fall auditions. She not only was a talented flutist, but she was a talented vocalist and was in my soprano section in choir, displaying her fine talents with a trained voice that few of us had had in our small rural community. My parents couldn’t afford private lessons for us – there was two of everything being a twin and the budget was always tight. I was band president my senior year and had been working hard throughout high school towards the John Phillips Sousa Award given out in the Spring to the Senior most deserving of it. I simmered inside for much of the year, fearing that she would take that too. To make matters worse, my twin brother had a crush on her and they dated much of our senior year. But for the sake of community and love of music, I learned to get passed this in order to make beautiful music in our band. It may seem like a kind of “mushy” story to tell alongside this gospel lesson, but some of our life thorns in our sides are almost as petty as what this now seems to be, although it seemed like a huge thorn at the time. One thing it did was it challenged me in ways that made me accountable for being the best I could be and I learned more about what it meant to be community.
Paul’s letter to the Romans reminds us that we are reconciled to God through faith rather than through works of the law, and he encourages Christians to practice God’s law of love while we wait for the salvation that is to come. So our readings are about relationship and community. Community life, whether it’s in a family, a congregation, community or groups such as school, athletic teams, 4-H clubs, activities, is the testing ground of faith. St. Teresa of Avila thought that relationships in community were often a greater indication of one’s relationship to God. Community activist Dorothy Day wisely believed that injustice and exploitation were as present in small service communities as in the political scene locally, nationally and globally. Many have observed that it takes greater charity, humility, and love to get along with a co-worker than with a stranger. Paul reminds us that love is frequently tested in our immediate relationships with our neighbor – be that brother or sister, the person who lives down the road or street, Council member, co-workers … you name it. While we can list horrendous crimes and sins such as murder, stealing, betrayal in relationships, these are actually variations in everyday sins of manipulation, deception, cheating, lying, gossiping, and taking care of #1 in spite of the needs of others right in our midst. Sounds simple, love one another, love your neighbor as yourself. But love is complicated; building community is never simple. Love makes us accountable and responsible for others beyond ourselves. Love is complicated because it’s about more than our selves; it’s about our relationship with God and our relationship with others. It reminds me of the shape of the cross: relationship with God and self is the long bar that comes down from God, and the cross-bar is about our relationship with God and others. That’s how Jesus ends up on the cross, because of our sin, our inability to love one another and love God; that’s how God knows our pain and suffering, pays our debt with his son, Jesus.
Jesus has just told the parable about the lost sheep in the text before this one. He wants us to go out and find the lost sheep from the flock of 99 because that one matters, has value, is significant to the community. We might go find the lost sheep because of its dollar value, what it will cost us in financial loss, and fail to realize that it has other value. In this gospel text, we are given a way to deal with problems and behaviors that complicate community life. We don’t usually enjoy directly confronting another person, especially someone with whom we are having difficulties. Some families and organizations go years without addressing problems. Grudges and resentments within a community often die with those who hold them rather than come to resolution in open and healing dialogue. The things that irritate us most about friends or relatives are usually discussed with anyone but the accused. Encountering the truth, struggling with bettering the relationship for the sake of the relationship itself is painful and challenging. However, if we seriously love another person as the “other”, not just want them for our own needs and our own desires of usefulness, when we can truly value them as valued also by God, then we have a chance to transcend our humanity and begin to love them as God loves them. Sometimes we only imagine our relationship with God being about what God can do for us, what our needs are and what it is that we expect from God. Relationships are always two-way streets. A true relationship with God also means that something is expected of us, and our lives must reflect not only God’s love in and for us, but our love for God and our willingness to be more than mouthpieces, but real servants, real love in action. Our human relationships mirror our relationship with God. Whenever we encounter each other, and that happens continuously, there Jesus is in our midst. We are always in a three-way relationship.
As we contemplate the destruction and years of rebuilding from tornadoes, hurricanes, flooding, fire, and horrendous storms that have hammered so many communities close to us and far away, we could just send a check and be glad we could give some kind of help. We often find that we have connections with those experiencing disasters. We share in their pain because they are family or friends. People often have to be relocated and have to rebuild their lives in other communities; the one they knew is gone. Our response to these disasters needs to come from our hearts and from our prayers and from what it means to be the body of Christ. Sometimes it means a rebuilding in our own churches. It’s about the importance of our mission projects like the work we do as inner city churches to be a presence in Kishwaukee School with our mentors and our gifts of school supplies and clothing for those whose needs are so great. The underwear, socks, the backpacks and supplies all enhance the lives of our brothers and sisters far beyond our own walls. We need to get over thinking that someone else will do it. WE can care and be accountable; we can step up to what it means to be a community of believers where Christ is in our midst. We thank God for our families, our friends and for our brothers and sisters in Christ suffering both in these local and national disasters and through-out the world, and for the opportunity we are given to love them and serve them because of what we ourselves have already been given. We love because God first loved us. We are community in so many ways and God is always with us, wherever we are and in all our relationships. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Ezekiel 33: 7-11
Psalm 119: 33-40
Romans 13: 8-14
Matthew 18: 15-20