A Sermon Preached
Homecoming Sunday – September 7, 2014
St. Augustine’s Episcopal Church – Wilmette, Illinois
At first hearing, today’s gospel sounds to me like it’s always and only about rules. Worse, those rules are about what to do when somebody messes up. Someone sins against you, go to him alone. If he listens, great. If not, go back to him with two others. If he still won’t listen, take it to the whole church. If he won’t listen then, even to the church, let that person be to you like a Gentile, or a tax collector.
Clear, right? Someone makes a mistake, you take this step, then the next, then the next, and here’s the result: Option A or Option B. Apologetic and restored, or unapologetic and shunned. It’s like some kind of divine flow chart for how the church deals with sinners.
When I hear this gospel, I think about opposites that are finally just a little too simple: right and wrong, offended and offender, problem and solution. It feels too-quickly-sorted, too hard. And that bit about treating somebody who doesn’t come through like a Gentile or a tax collector? Those were the people most likely to be ostracized by the community already. So now Jesus is reinforcing that notion? It doesn’t even sound much like Jesus to me.
So, welcome to Homecoming Sunday. On this day when so many are returning after a time away, when others are coming to us for perhaps the first time, I have to tell you: the preacher doesn’t get to pick the gospel lesson that the community hears, on this Sunday or any other. It’s chosen through an elaborate process that I learned about in seminary and will share with you another time. But I will confess that were I the chooser of today’s gospel, at first flinch I would have chosen something else – something about trust and hope and becoming the beloved community. At first flinch, I would not have chosen a gospel that begins with the line: “If another member of the church sins against you…” and continues, “let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.”
Then again. How did Jesus treat people, even Gentiles? Even tax collectors? Isn’t Matthew himself, the one writing down these words, a member of Jesus’ own closest community of friends and followers, isn’t he a tax collector?
This part of Matthew’s gospel is entirely about how a community of faith is meant to be church, to and for one another and God. You have sheep? Great. Losing one means you don’t look around for a couple of minutes and then move on with most, instead of all, of your flock. You stick around. You find your sheep. Somebody sins against you? You forgive them. You forgive them not once, but seventy times. And another. And another. And another. And another.
Because, as church, this is who we are: we are a people who belong to each other, and to God. And because we are human, this is what we do: we make mistakes. We disappoint. We hurt each other. So what keeps us as church, for one another and for God, is not whether we make mistakes, disappoint, hurt each other, but how we knit ourselves back together, restore ourselves to ourselves, and to God, when (not if) that happens.
Nadia Bolz-Weber is a Lutheran preacher and pastor I admire. She leads a house church in Denver that actually outgrew her own home, called House for All Sinners and Saints. She tells the story of newcomer brunch gatherings, led by established members of House for potential new members. Those folks who have been members and are welcoming new members share stories about what drew them and has bound them to this church, what they love about it. And then, at the end, Nadia stands up, and says this: “Welcome to House for All Sinners and Saints. We will disappoint you.” She talks about her own love of the church and her own mistakes, promises that she does her best as the pastor, and that she will do her best imperfectly. And she says this: “Decide now. Decide now what you are going to do…when I or someone else falls short in this community. Decide now, before it happens, whether and how you will create space for restoration. Because I tell you that at that moment, if you do not, then when (when, not if) that mistake happens, you will miss the beauty of grace. You will miss the beauty of God restoring what people have broken.”
I’ve been wrestling with this gospel text all week. On Friday, I talked with a St. A’s friend about it, about my ambivalence with the rules and the apparent shunning. A little while later, she texted me with this thought: “so maybe the gospel was about the idea that the community is so important and necessary that it overrides absolutely everything else…”
Belonging to each other is an act of willing vulnerability, something the sociologist Brené Brown might call wholehearted living. Participating as a member of a community of faith is counter to what our culture would teach us about placing ourselves at the center of everything, about believing we are able to buy our own comfort, our own safety, our own happiness. Too often, I think, we talk nostalgically about that word “community,” forget the hard work of honesty and authenticity that real community requires.
Last Sunday marked the feast of our patron saint, Augustine of Hippo. The passage from Paul’s letter to the Romans at the heart of Augustine’s conversion is actually found in today’s second lesson: “Instead,” Paul writes, “put on the Lord Jesus Christ.” Put on Christ.
Jesus’ words at the end of this gospel resonate with the same message: “Where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there with them.”
Let me tell you about the ways I have seen this church put on Christ in these last days. Last Sunday, just before church began, a member of St. A’s came up to tell me that the Rev. Joe Howell, former rector of this parish, was gravely ill. We prayed for Joe as part of our worship…and an hour after church, another of our members, Pieter DeVryer, called me to say that Joe had departed this life. I have spent time this past week with people whose family members have died, and what they have said to me is this: “I don’t know what I would do without the people of St. A’s around me.” Our beautiful choir gathered together again on Wednesday after the summer’s break, began their gathering with a meal before singing, began their meal by singing their grace. Our vestry, the leaders of this church, gathered on Thursday night and worked together in good humor and trust, with hope and deep faith, to do the work of leading the church we love. I visited our most senior member, Ruth Johnston, this week. We will be praying for her in the Prayers of the People as her 104th birthday is next Friday. Ruth is sick now, and I took her a prayer shawl knitted by our new guild, by folks who gather in fellowship to knit these shawls as a source of comfort and love. I wrapped that shawl around Ruth’s very thin shoulders, and as I think again of that moment, the words that I hear are Paul’s words from the Letter to the Romans: “put on Christ.”
In the end, maybe this gospel is exactly the very word we need to hear today. Because as my parishioner friend wrote, Christ calls us to protect what is most sacred, the beloved community. This beloved community. Maybe we need rules that sound hard at first hearing because we do make mistakes, and we will…because those moments of grace are too precious to not happen…because we need to have a way to restore ourselves to right relationship, in order that they can. We need each other, to surround and enfold one another in moments of grief and loss, and wonder and joy. We need to remember the people who have helped make this church what it has been and what it is becoming, need leaders who gather in trust and hope. We need a choir that finds joy and harmony together, and then sings those things into our midst.
Welcome home to a church where we belong to each other, and to God, in vulnerable and grace-filled ways. Welcome to a place where we strive, persistently and imperfectly, as our patron saint did, to put on Christ. Welcome to a community in which we gather, trusting Christ’s promise that as we gather, he’s right here.