Worship Sunday at 10:30

Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

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Pentecost 09/04/2011

You’re all faithful church members, here on a holiday weekend at the end of summer, so I’m sure you could all recite the Ten Commandments for me.  I bet you could, if pressed and prodded a little bit maybe, but I bet you could at least come up with most of them, maybe all of them, maybe not in order.  I tested myself earlier this week and I got all ten.  You know them too; actually today’s second lesson included most of them; Thou shalt have no other gods before me; Don’t take the Lord’s name in vain; Remember the Sabbath; Honor your father and mother; then the next four, in some order, thou shalt not kill, steal, commit adultery or bear false witness; then the last two on coveting.

Those are the ten.  There are a couple of other ways to order them basically so that the first two become three and the two on coveting get combined into one, but it still comes out to ten.  As we read through portions of Exodus as part of the lectionary they’ll come up again in about a month so keep this in mind; maybe I will give you a quiz then. 

From about the time Moses came down the mountain with the two stone tablets though, there has been discussion about exactly what the commandments mean. Some of that discussion occurs in the Bible itself but there’s even more in the writing of the rabbis from early Jewish tradition who get very specific in the kinds of questions they raise.  For example, if you found a dove and didn’t look too hard to find the owner, could you be accused of stealing? 

Or an updated version of that might be…a Lutheran pastor and a lawyer (no names here) were picking up trash along Rt. 41 for the local Kiwanis club as part of Adopt a Highway.  They were walking along and the pastor noticed a ten dollar bill lying there and picked it up.  A bit further on the lawyer picked up a twenty.  Nor far from there the pastor found a five.  Thirty five dollars; what were they to do with it?  They couldn’t possibly find the rightful owner; that was out of the question.  What were they to do, a pastor and a lawyer?  If they kept the money for themselves it certainly couldn’t be considered stealing, could it? 

You get the idea; the commandments don’t address every specific case regarding any of them.  Thou shalt not kill doesn’t get into abortion or capital punishment or assisted suicide.  Thou shalt not commit adultery doesn’t address all manner of sexual activity.  Thou shalt not bear false witness certainly is about more than what goes on in a courtroom.    

There is a need for interpretation but such interpretation can get pretty complicated as sometimes the interpretation requires interpretation.  In the question about the dove, by the way, in case you were wondering, if it was found within fifty cubits of a dovecote (a place where domesticated doves were kept) then keeping it would be considered stealing.  Beyond fifty cubits, finders keepers, losers weepers.  As far as the found money goes, the pastor thought that a reasonable solution would be for him to keep $20 and the lawyer could have fifteen since the lawyer must make a lot more money than the pastor.  After further consideration though, whether it was stealing or not they decided that keeping the money wasn’t the right thing to do, so instead at the next Kiwanis meeting they turned it in to be added to the money that ultimately gets distributed for one cause or another.

Interpretation regarding the commandments is what the binding and loosing in today’s gospel is about.  It’s the second time in three weeks that these terms have been used in our readings, the first as Jesus addressed Peter, today as Jesus addresses the twelve disciples.  But Jesus himself also engaged in this interpretive process.  As part of the Sermon on the Mount there are the parts where Jesus says, “You have heard that it was said,” followed by “but I say to you”…and he then talks about murder, adultery, divorce, bearing false witness and so forth.  In each case he binds the law concerning those things; he upholds the prohibition against them and in fact broadens the understanding to include, for example, not just the act itself but even the emotions like anger and lust that can lead to the specified sin.  He bound and broadened “love thy neighbor” to include those who we might find unlovable. 

Jesus was more into binding than loosing, but he loosed some of the prohibitions regarding unclean foods and unclean people as he frequently crossed those boundaries himself.  He loosed the prohibition concerning work on the Sabbath to allow plucking grain in order to satisfy hunger and in regard to acts of doing good like healing.  Jesus wasn’t a literalist concerning the law. 

By extending this power to bind and loose to Peter and through the disciples to the whole church, Jesus opened up this interpretive process and more or less sanctioned it as part of the ongoing work of the church.  Binding and loosing are best understood then in reference to the practice of determining how the commandments are to be applied in contemporary situations.  It’s not a new thing; it’s a practice the church has been involved in from the beginning, out of necessity precisely because the Bible does not address every situation and because culturally things aren’t the same as they were in ancient Israel.  Because of that, points of controversy between and within church bodies are inevitable.  Not everyone’s interpretation of what should be bound and what should be loosed is the same, which raises the question of exactly how we go about this binding and loosing.

First of all, it is never done lightly.  This is important work as it is no less than attempting to determine the will of God.  But still, it has to be done.  It is not to be done alone though.  No one individual can decide I’m going to bind this one and loose that one.  Binding and loosing are done in the context of the church community which believes that the Spirit is at work in the process.  Individual opinions are to be valued, but authority is given to the community as a whole.  But that quickly gets complicated because these days there are many communities, many churches.  Is authority given to an individual church, or to the larger church body?  But then there are many larger church bodies, many denominations and what they take into account in binding and loosing isn’t always the same.

Some are very literalist, the Bible says it, I believe it, that settles it. 

Some churches aren’t so literal but rely heavily on what the church has traditionally taught on any issue; others honor the tradition but also believe that the Spirit can still be at work in new ways.  Some, like ELCA Lutherans, look more broadly at the Bible’s overall message of welcome and grace which is made flesh in Jesus and let that be the lens by which they decide how things are to be bound and loosed.  Inevitably though, someone is going to be accused of not taking the Bible seriously when in fact they’re just engaging in the process that Jesus permitted; they’re just engaging in it differently.

The larger point then isn’t so much who’s right and who’s wrong, it’s  that controversy is part of the process, part of being a member of the church.  And how do Christians behave in the midst of controversy?  Not very well sometimes, yet the process outlined at the beginning of today’s gospel is instructive.  It’s more specifically about what an individual is to do if they are “sinned against,” but I think it applies here as those who disagree with Churchwide decisions on binding and loosing do feel sinned against.

Each step of the outlined process involves discussion among those who are affected.  There’s no shunning of anyone, no talking behind someone’s back, no pick up your toys and go home.  Reconciliation is the goal and whether it’s between individuals or groups of people that can only be achieved with honest engagement.  What’s also important is humility.  In issues of binding and loosing there has to be acknowledgment by everyone that they could be wrong.  Even when the church has been given the authority and has spoken, as the decision is lived out there has to be great humility about it because after all, it is the will of God we’re talking about.  There has to be a degree of fear and trembling without the arrogance of certainty on either side. 

Issues of binding and loosing are important.  For some they become deal makers or deal breakers regarding their membership in a given church community.  But we are members of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.  I think the best way to end this is with a short part of Bishop Hanson’s report to this year’s Churchwide Assembly which was held a few weeks ago.  It’s an assembly that you probably didn’t hear anything about because it didn’t get into any of the hot button binding and loosing questions that draw media attention.  But in describing who we are collectively as a church and who we are individually as new creations in Christ, Bishop Hanson said this in describing the ELCA:

“In this new creation in Christ, we resist withdrawing into a fortress of judgment, choosing instead to engage others as ambassadors for Christ, embodied messengers of God’s generous reconciliation.  Therefore, we are a church that will not yield to cultural and religious pressures to draw lines in the sand.  We know from the biblical witness to beware of drawing lines because Jesus in going to be standing on both sides of the line even when those lines become set in concrete.  Rather let us seize the opportunity to bear witness to our living, confident faith in God’s grace and say to all, ‘There is a place for you in this church.’  Deeply committed to dialogue, we are a church that lives in the midst of the complex questions and dynamic themes we experience at the intersections of faith and life.”

He wasn’t specifically talking about binding and loosing, but he does describe a grace filled approach to being the church, a grace filled, reconciliation oriented guide to the important work of binding and loosing.

Rev. Warren Geier

Bethany Lutheran Church
715 Mather Avenue
Ishpeming, MI 49849

Phone: 906-486-4351
Fax: 906-486-9640

Rev. Warren Geier, Pastor

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