One of the classes that I’m taking here in my last summer as a DMin student at the University of the South, is taught by the Rev. Martin Smith called “Implanting the Word: Skills for Helping People Internalize Scripture’s Transformative Symbols” The core thesis of the class is that through imaginative engagement with the symbolic world of the Scriptures, religious leaders can help their people make the transformative work of God in their lives more of a living and active thing. With my fears that the class would be nothing be spiritualist navel gazing suitably dispensed with, I’ve found this class to by actually quite a lot of fun. We’ve made deep cuts into developmental psychology, symbology, and hermeneutics. As we now turn our attention to the role of symbol in the sermon, today we spent time brainstorming the symbol of exorcism in Mark’s version of the story of demoniac from Gergesa.
What struck me in the work of my small group was a) how much I miss my long-lost lectionary study group, and b) how my engagement with a symbol from my particular context can inform and be informed by the engagement of another from his/her particular context. As we bounced ideas around, we alighted on all sorts of profound images and symbols in Mark’s story, many of which make their way into Luke’s version which will be heard this Sunday. I would encourage you to read this lesson aloud a few times and to let the various symbols sink in through mediation. (I know what you’re thinking, can Steve Pankey possibly be writing this? To paraphrase Paul, “I type with my own hands).
Of particular interest to me is the image of binding and loosing. Maybe because it took me back to the first few days of my seminary experience and Tony Lewis’ brilliant teaching of Greek for dummies, but this idea of being loosed, one that has very little standing in contemporary American idioms, is a powerful one. To what am I being bound by outside forces? More importantly, to what do I bind myself? What his holding me back from a full relationship of love to God and neighbor? And, in light of the story, what is Jesus doing to loose me from those bonds? What does it feel like to be set free? I’m once again finding myself drawn to music, and specifically to Chris Tomlin’s work on the classic hymn “Amazing Grace” for a recent film on William Wilberforce, a man who worked to set people free even as he struggled to be loosed from the confines of his position in English Parliament. The preacher might engage those thoughts imaginatively in sermon prep this week. For me, even thought I’m not preaching, that work has already been fruitful.
I had breakfast this morning with a parishioner and friend, WEV. During the course of our conversation, he mentioned how much he’s enjoyed our journey through Romans 12 over the past two weeks. At one point he said something to the effect of, “I get the idea of an Acts 2 or and Acts 8 church, but I really want to be part of a Romans 12 church.” I’m sure he’ll comment here if I ask him what he thinks of being a Matthew 18 church?
The lesson for Sunday is a profoundly dangerous one, which has, as you might expect, been utilized by less than scrupulous religious leaders to oppress and victimize the faithful. Because of that, many will suggest that we just ignore Matthew 18:15-20, which is, I suspect, precisely why the RCL has decided to include it in the three year lectionary. This whole notion of binding and loosing, a power which was given exclusively to Peter in Matthew 16:19 is now being given to all of the disciples in 18:18. Taken with the “If two of you agree on anything, it will be done for you,” the preacher is presented with a particular challenge this Sunday.
- Some Christians forbid dancing, so is dancing forbidden in heaven? And if so, how come both of my children have been dancing since before they could walk?
- Some Christians forbid alcohol, so is alcohol forbidden in heaven? And if so, why did Jesus use wine for his Last Supper and command us to “do this in remembrance” of him?
- Some Christians allow for same-sex marriage, so are same-sex relationships allowed for in heaven? And if so, why do so many others agree that they aren’t?
- Some Christians take Mark 16:9-20 literally, so is snake handling cool in heaven? And if so, why do so many others think the long ending of Mark is a late addition?
The list of these questions goes on and on. In the end, they are all quite unhelpful because the Church has been shifting the list of what is bound and what is loosed since the very beginning: from circumcision and the Law of Moses to whether priests can get married to whether women can be ordained to whether Jesus can be manifest gluten free bread. What is helpful, however, is that Matthew 18:15-20 reminds that we are part of something much larger than our own congregational context. As Christians, we take our place in a long history of people who have struggled with how best to be disciples of Jesus. From Peter and Paul to you and me, we do our best to follow Jesus, but each of us fails from time to time. Each of us needs to seek forgiveness and be restored to right relationship with God and one another. The good news is that we aren’t making it all up as we go along. Instead, we have 2,000 years of examples of those who have done it well and those who have failed miserably to try to figure out how we, in our place and time, can follow Jesus as faithfully as possible.