Sermons

Ezekiel 33:7—11; Romans 13:8—14; Matthew 18:15—20

As we sit here this morning, we do so knowing that our brothers and sisters around the country and the world are suffering.  Hurricanes on the Gulf, wildfires in the Pacific Northwest, earthquakes off the coast of Mexico, flooding in south asia, and mudslides in Sierra Leone.  To say nothing of the disasters of opioid addiction, gun violence, mass incarceration, racism, xenophobia and the list goes on.

Let’s just sit for a moment absorbing that, and giving thanks that we are here, safe and dry, for the moment.

(pause)

Some might wonder, in the face of such overwhelming need, fear, and uncertainty in the word, how coming together like this does any good.  How we can gather to sing hymns of joy and celebration, to rejoice in one another’s company, to concern ourselves with things like yard sales, Sunday school, coffee hours, and the many other ministries that we begin again this morning with renewed attention and focus as another program year begins?

How can we think about church at a time like this?  How can we not?

I am becoming increasingly convinced that the church and other communities of faith are the brightest hopes the world has.  

Because I believe that there is a power in community that is greater than the power of any one of us, and because I believe that communities who are joined in mission with the God they follow have a power greater still.

Some might think that coming here this morning was the easy choice to make, given the challenges we face in our world.  But I assure you, it isn’t.  Not if we are serious about being who it is we are called to be fully.  

The work of responding to God’s call to us with our whole selves is hard work, or it should be.  Creating Christian community is hard.  If it were easy, everyone would be doing it.

Unlike most of our affiliations in life, church is unique in that it is voluntary (at least for the adults in the room).  It is voluntary, but it also requires us to tolerate discomfort without pulling away.  

Most of my affiliations are one or the other.  There are places I tolerate discomfort or displeasure longer than I’d like because it is not optional that I am there.  Perhaps those of you in school know what I’m talking about.

And then there are places in my life where my participation is optional, and I am free to leave when I don’t like something, or someone, and I do.  

But this thing we call Christian community asks us to stay even when it is hard.  Stay when we are confused.  Stay when we are angry. Stay when we are full of doubts.  Stay when we are challenged.  Stay when we are wrong.  

This morning’s Gospel reading from Matthew can sound, at first reading, like a behavior contract for a local church community.  This is how we do things here.  Here is the policy manual.  In this season of back to school orientations and syllabi, Matthew’s words can sound like just one more.  

But the beauty behind Matthew’s words comes from the primacy that Jesus puts on holding community together, maintaining relationship even when that relationship is tested, even when trust is broken.

Even if someone refuses to be reconciled after talking to them, talking to them with a member of the community, and talking with them in the community, Jesus says to treat the one who will not be reconciled after all of that “as a Gentile or a Tax Collector.”  How is a Gentile or a Tax Collector to be treated? Well, remember, Matthew was a tax collector, and Jesus called him to be an apostle.  

How do we treat one who won’t be reconciled, the one who won’t talk to us?  Jesus says we treat them with mercy.  We treat them with love.  We pray for them and for the restoration of our relationship.

In a world and culture that reinforces our tendency to gather with others who think like us, act like us, look like us, who have the same tastes, hopes, dreams and priorities as us, we throw ourselves together in this place.  This place, where we are more different than we care to admit, and not as different as we’d like to be.

This place where someone’s favorite hymn gives another hives.  Where a sermon is too political for one, and too timid for another.  

This place, where the same act in worship can be seen as too fussy for someone and not nearly as elegant for someone else.  This place where the needs of the world beg us to respond, but our hearts don’t always lead us to the same place in how best to respond or to whom.

This place is a rare opportunity God gives us to practice being together in ways we long to be together in our lives out in the world.  

Here, because we gather in Jesus’ name, we find a little more patience, maybe we extend a little more grace.  Here, because God is our common denominator, we rub elbows with folks we don’t know and we promise to love them.  And then we practice loving them, and being loved by them.

Here, because mercy is a value, we can try admitting our own brokenness, claiming our own need for forgiveness.  Here, because we believe God loves us, no exceptions, we can risk believing that, even if just for an hour or so a week.

Doing this work of creating beloved community is full of glorious challenges, and innumerable blessings.  It is countercultural, and it can be really, really hard.  

But that is what we are about.  That is our shared longing. And we do it because it is our belief that the more we practice it here, the better shot we have of living it out there.

In the Gospel, we hear Jesus say that where two or three are gathered he will be in the midst of them and we think it is some kind of incantation, as though God is waiting for the second or third person to arrive before showing up.  

What Jesus is saying here is that whenever we are in relationship, we are never alone in those relationships.  When we are having a hard conversation, God is there.  When we are in a meeting, God is there.  Whenever we encounter another beloved child of God, God is there.

How might it change the way we are with the people we encounter in our everyday lives if we remembered that God is always there in those encounters; listening, waiting, watching, loving, holding.  

God is there, longing to be as present in our relationships with each other as God is in our hearts: fully, completely.

So that is what we are about, or try to be about.  As we begin another program year, you should know up front that it won’t always be easy.  You might not always agree.  You might not want to be best friends with the person standing across from you in the circle at communion.  

But they will lift up their hands and they will be fed.  You will lift your hands and you will be fed.

Because whatever differences we have, in whatever ways we are broken, God feeds us all equally, and abundantly. And whatever differences we have, in whatever ways we are broken, God asks that we feed each other.

We practice that here; being fed, and feeding, being fed, and feeding.  We keep practicing that here, in daring hope to get it right out there.

There is incredible need in the world.  And you are the incredible people God has brought to this place to face that need, and to respond in ways big and small.

There is hard work to do.  But we don’t do it alone, for God is there.  When there are two or three, God is there.  God is here.

AMEN

© 2017 The Reverend Jeffrey W. Mello

 

While all direct and indirect quotes are always cited, there are sources I read regularly in preparation for sermon writing.  Chances are thoughts have been spurred by these sources and so I list the usual suspects here:  David Lose, In the Meantime, The New Interpreters Bible, Sacra Pagina .

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