A reflection on Romans 13:8-14 and Matthew 18:15-20 by The Rev. Terri C. Pilarski
A woman, studying the spontaneous remission of cancer, placed an ad in a local newspaper looking to interview people who felt they were in remission. She tells this story from one of the people she interviewed: There was a farmer with an advanced case of the disease and a challenging prognosis. Nonetheless he was doing quite well and seemed to be in remission.
About the disease and possible remission he said, “I didn’t take it on.”
By this he meant that he knew that his illness was advanced, he just didn’t let it determine how he went about living his life. He understood his doctors and this prognosis the same way he regarded the government soil experts who analyzed his fields. The farmer listened to the experts and respected them as they showed him findings in their tests that said that corn would not grow in his field. Like the doctors who gave him the diagnosis and treated him, he valued the opinion of the soil experts.
But, he said, “Nonetheless a lot of the time corn grows anyway.”
In other words the diagnosis was one thing, but what it was going to mean to him and his life, remained to be seen. (Kitchen Table Wisdom: Rachel Naomi Remen)
This story reminds me of a Jewish saying from the Talmud that goes like this: we do not see things as they are. We see things as we are.
So, who are we?
Well, for starters, I think we are living, broadly speaking, in a time when the world is deeply broken. All around us we see disease, anger, war, divisiveness, and people polarized by this issue or that. We argue over who is right and who is wrong when human life is at stake. We are so inundated with images on television of violence and poverty that we have become numb and fail to see the brokenness when it is right in front of us. We live in a world where each one of us thinks we are entitled to having things our way, and lose sight of the needs, hopes, or desires of another person let alone, of community. In the 21st century we are, broadly speaking, a people who are: self-centered, quick to judge, opinionated, and demanding. We hurt others and rather than apologize we justify our actions, why we are right and why they got what they deserved.
You may not feel this way in your life, but we see it all around us, in the newspaper, on television shows, and in our politic, locally, nationally, and globally.
It reminds me of a story of the leader of a monastery named Abbot Moses, a desert father who lived in the second century and who spent much of his earlier life as a thief:
One day a brother of the monastic community offended some of the other brothers. So a council meeting was called and Abbot Moses, the brother in charge of the monastery, was asked to come to the meeting and mediate, but he refused to go to it. Eventually the monastery priest sent someone to get him, ‘Come,’ he said, ‘everyone is waiting for you.’ So Abbott Moses got up and headed toward the meeting. On the way he picked up a jug that was cracked and had several small holes. He filled it with water and carried it with him, the water trailing out behind him. The others came out to meet him and said to him, ‘What is this, Abbott, what are you doing?’ The old man (who had been a thief in his younger years) said to them, ‘My sins run out behind me but I do not see them, and yet today I am coming to judge the errors of another.’ When the brothers heard that, they said no more to the brother who offended them, but forgave him. (Benedicta Ward, The Sayings of the Desert Fathers.)
We do not see things as they are. We see things as WE are.
Our reading from Romans reminds us that how we live our lives matters. As Christians we are called by Jesus to be a people of reconciliation. We are not called to judge others. Judgment, when and how it happens, is God’s decision. Rather than judge we are called, by God through Christ, to bring forth God’s love into the world, heal the brokenness, restore relationships, be the face of Christ. As Christians we know that loving our neighbor matters. Loving ourselves matters. Loving God matters. How we do this, how we love, matters. With this kind of love, when our neighbor suffers we suffer. When our neighbor is joyous we are joyfilled. Love like this is not some warm fuzzy, but a challenging call in which God will use us to do God’s work in the world.
Who we are matters.
Paul tells the Romans: Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law.
He continues by saying: "You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not covet"; and any other commandment, are summed up in this word, "Love your neighbor as yourself."
In her book, “The Hiding Place,” Corrie ten Boom, a Dutch Christian holocaust survivor who helped many Jews escape, tells this story about encountering, many years later, one of the former guards from the concentration camp where she spent 4 months:
It was at a church service in Munich that I saw him, the former SS man who stood guard at the shower room door in the processing center at Ravensbruck. He was the first of our actual jailers that I had seen since that time. And sudden it was all there – the roomful of mocking men, the heaps of clothing, the pain-blanched faces….
He came up to her after her speech, as the church was emptying, and said how grateful he was for her message. “To think,” he said, “that as you say (Jesus) has washed away my sins.” Then he thrust his hand out to shake hers. But Corrie could not respond. She, who had preached so often about the need to forgive, kept her hand at her side. Inside an anger boiled and vengeful thoughts popped up. She knew that these thoughts were sinful, that Jesus had died even for this man, this awful guard and all the horrible things he had done. Corrie would not ask more of Jesus, so she prayed that Jesus would fill her heart and help her forgive the guard.
Corrie tried to smile and struggled to stretch out her hand. Then, as she took the guards hand the most incredible thing happened. From Corrie’s shoulder, down her arm, and through her hand, a current seemed to pass from Corrie to the guard. And into Corrie’s heart sprang a love for this guard that could only be from Christ. The forgiveness she felt that night was the forgiveness of Christ, the grace of God. Corrie says, When God tells us to love our enemies, and we do so, God gives us that love itself.
God calls us to be a people of reconciliation. Who we are matters. It’s not about simply “being nice.” It’s about the ability to love even under the most challenging of circumstances…loving through the most difficult of challenges by loving as God loves.
Women often have real first hand experience of this, loving under the most challenging of experiences. For centuries women have been encouraged, by society and even the church itself, to stay in abusive marriages. Women have been subjected to second class citizens, forced by circumstances to push down and deny our intelligence, gifts, and skills, because they didn’t fit the paradigm of women’s work and role in society. Often women have taken on the role of mediator in family disputes; for better or for worse women have been in the position of healers and nurturers for a multitude of ills.
There is nothing wrong with women taking on this role, except when taking on that role comes at the cost of the woman herself. It isn’t really love when it comes at the cost of the woman living through pain and suffering and abuse and losing herself in the process. Paul’s Letter to the Romans reminds us that we are called to love our neighbor – but first we have to learn how to love God by letting God love us, and then to love ourselves.
You might say that heaven comes down to earth when two people, previously alienated, are brought together in relationships of dignity, respect, hope, love. And, in the case of women, it may also be that heaven comes down to earth when we, preciously alienated from ourselves, are brought into an authentic sense of self. From this place of authenticity we really can love.
In order to do this it is helpful to remember that first we have to reconcile our own sin. Women, in particular, suffer less from the sin of pride than from the sin of self-doubt, less from humility than from a lack of self worth. Over and over Jesus reminds the disciples, and therefore us, to worry about the log in our own eye….And so it’s helpful to remember that we do not all define sin the same way.
To get at this we can begin by looking at the baptismal covenant as found in the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer. In this way sin can be defined as those occasions when we fail to live into the covenant: when we fail to respect the dignity of others, fail to proclaim the Good News of God in Christ, fail to seek and serve Christ in all persons, fail to strive for peace and justice.
And for women, in particular, it may be our failure to respect the dignity of ourselves, failure to see how the Good News of Christ is alive in us, and failure to see the need for justice that reconciles the ways women are contained and confined by the bias of a misogynist society.
Sadly, one thing (among many) that the Presidential election process in this country is pointing out is the disparity of how we view power, especially when a woman is in the role of power.
So, begin with yourself, myself. In what ways do you, do I, struggle to live the baptismal covenant?
We do not see things as they are. We see things as WE are.
So hwho are we?
Portions of this reflection were influenced by John Shea "On Earth as it is in Heaven" Matthew Year A and Jan Richardson at The Painted Prayerbook.