Binding and Loosing

Here’s just one story from last Sunday’s wedding! Leroy and I included two readings in the ceremony; a poem from Maya Angelou and the Gospel account of Jesus and his mother attending the wedding in Cana. We were married at a former winery in the center of the Finger Lakes region of New York, which is the third largest wine-producing area in the United States. We had a wine theme for the wedding that carried through to the readings. Our two UCC preacher friends who officiated prepared a wonderful sermon that lifted up the actions of Mary. They described the wedding faux pas of running out of wine in Cana. They said that although Jesus seemed a bit slow to get with the program and fix the embarrassment of running out of wine at the wedding, Mary urged Jesus to just do something about it. And so, as you may know, Jesus told the wedding server to fill jugs with water and the rest is history.

In preparation for our wedding, Leroy and I visited numerous wineries close to the wedding site over the span of a year to select five wines. As people RSVP’d, we did careful calculations and made our best guess at how many people would drink what kinds of wines and in what amounts. Then we added extra bottles just to be sure. And of course you can guess what happened. Three bites into my brisket at the reception, the head server pulled me aside and said “Sir we have run out of wine.” As it turned out, we had only run out of the kind of wine that people wanted the most. It wasn’t even the one I would have paired with the brisket. I’d like to tell you that a miracle happened, but unfortunately we had to just buy some extra Chardonnay that had been stored for who knows how long in the basement.

The vast majority of our friends and family were overwhelmingly supportive of our wedding celebration. A few were not, and though I didn’t ask for their opinion, I suspect they would speak from a conservative religious position and say our marriage isn’t biblical. However, the experience of running of wine at the feast made the whole day feel much more biblical than I would ever wish!

There are many practices at weddings to symbolize the union of two people in a covenant relationship: the giving and receiving of rings, lighting the unity candle, breaking wine glasses, and jumping over a broom. At a wedding last year, I was asked to tie a ribbon around the hands of the bride and groom in an ancient ritual known as the hand-binding ceremony. Once the marriage was complete and official, the ribbons were loosened and unwrapped so we could move on to the party.

Jesus in today’s Gospel reading talks about a concept he calls “binding” and “loosing.” These are words we know. Binding is good when we sing “blest be the tie that binds”, but if you’re a woman in China who was a child before the practice of binding feet was outlawed, it’s pretty bad. I tend to think of binding as negative: restricting, holding tight, preventing, and denying.

If we “loose” something, on the other hand, we are releasing, allowing, expanding, and empowering. The Hindu reading from The Gita speaks of the importance of detachment. Of letting go or releasing what binds us in an unhealthy way.

Jesus uses this curious phrase: “Whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven; whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” He said the same thing two chapters earlier in Matthew when he commended Peter’s faith and said “On this rock I will build my church.”

In this case, Jesus is talking about what people do when they don’t get along: when the good feelings of fellowship are interrupted by some offense. He lays out a strategy for dealing with conflict that is quite excellent and has been used as official policy by many churches. It’s great not only because Jesus said it but because it makes good, solid, common sense.

In short order, Jesus says to deal directly with someone if they’ve made you mad. Don’t triangle in a third person. Don’t take it to the highest court. Have a one-on-one, heart-to-heart conversation and hope there’s a good result. But if that doesn’t work, include another one or two in the conversation. In other words, you might need a mediator. And if that doesn’t work, involve others in the church. And if, in the end, the offending person doesn’t listen, you get to kick them out. Or at least that’s how this text has been used by some churches. Actually, the text says that you should treat them like Gentiles and tax-collectors. Considering how Jesus himself befriended both of those groups, maybe it doesn’t mean what people think it means.

Jesus then says “Whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” I think what that means is that the actions and the decisions we make within the community of faith have cosmic implications. It really matters how we treat and how we deal with one another.

It’s actually pretty interesting that Jesus is quoted here talking about life in the church. After all, there was no church at the time. Jesus never converted from Judaism and there was no Christian church to convert to even if he wanted to. The church was formed by followers of Jesus after he was no longer with them.

The Gospel of Matthew sprung from a community of early Christians who were reflecting on the person and the message of Jesus. They were part of the fledgling movement called the church and maybe they didn’t even realize the irony when they wrote of Jesus talking about the church. Or perhaps they envisioned him speaking about what would be a future reality. Regardless, it seems very likely that they were already having their own struggles. Members disagreed; they offended one another; they disrupted the fellowship, and who better to address the issues with authority than Jesus?

I like how this passage ends with a pretty familiar saying. “Where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.” All of these words about binding and loosing and speaking truth to one another and gathering in the name and spirit of Jesus are really just aspects of what is required to build authentic community.

I was grateful to be here two weekends ago to hear the stories told for our 50th anniversary. And to hear Rev. Phil Campbell describe how the church was re-named to reflect who we are rather than where we are. We know that the concept of Community is at the core of our self-understanding. And I believe we know that authentic community is dynamic. It is always being created and re-created. We all say that we want it; it’s usually much harder to achieve than we imagine; but it’s always worth it.

Whenever being tied to one another in covenant is a challenge, a good place to begin is with the words of Matthew 18. When there’s a point of struggle, we talk directly with one another about it. Loving one another means valuing the unity of the whole above our own need to be right. But it’s not just about being bound to one another. When we do the hard work to stay in fellowship with one another, we are loosing or releasing each other to make a difference in the world that exists outside the boundaries of the church. How we treat and deal with one another affects heaven and earth; it has cosmic implications.

We are still in the early weeks of getting to know one another. I suspect we’re mostly on our best behavior, and that’s really not a bad thing. But creating authentic, deep relationships built on trust takes time. And along the way we will stumble. And although it’s not intended, I can promise you that somewhere along the way, somehow, I will do or say something to offend you. It’s inevitable, so just plan on it! And it’s very possible if not likely that you will do the same. When I mess up, or when my beliefs or leadership priorities don’t seem in sync with yours, I hope that you will speak with me directly. Let me know. I promise to respect you and listen carefully and respond in the best way I can. Always the goal of such conversation is to preserve and deepen our covenant.

We are bound together in a good way; and we have much to release through acts of justice in the world for the sake of peace. What we do together affects heaven and earth. It has cosmic implications.

Here is a story from the Zen tradition. One day a young Buddhist on his journey home came to the banks of a wide river. Staring hopelessly at the great obstacle in front of him, he pondered for hours on just how to cross such a wide barrier. Just as he was about to give up his pursuit to continue his journey he saw a great teacher on the other side of the river. The young Buddhist yelled over to the teacher, “Oh wise one, can you tell me how to get to the other side of this river”? The teacher pondered for a moment, looked up and down the river, and yelled back, “My son, you are on the other side!”

Jesus’ teaching on dealing with conflict reminds me that none of us is on the other side. We are all on the side of love, justice, peace, and the building of authentic community. May we have the grace to live daily in covenant with one another! Amen.

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