Sermon for 7Sept14
Matt18:15-20; Ezek33:7-11; Rom13:8-14
That’s important to say first, because no place else is home quite like here. The family of God, with all of you sisters and brothers, is not the same when you’re not here, nor is it the same anyplace else you’d go.
I begin there as clarification for our last words from Jesus. He said, “wherever two or three are gathered, I am there among them, in their midst.” We like that verse. It gets used a lot.
But here’s something of what he’s obviously not trying to say. Yesterday, two or three of you (and a few more) gathered at the Badger football game. I’m not arguing that Jesus was not there; indeed as the ruler of the cosmos we expect that he’s everywhere—within every cell, in every tiny tree leaf as Luther said, even in this table’s bread and wine. That’s omnipresent, in the old official terminology.
Yet Jesus being there mostly didn’t matter to you who were gathered at Camp Randall. Again, I won’t rule out that it could matter, that at the game you may have been clinging to the promised presence of Emmanuel, God-with-us. But likely not so much. You weren’t reacting to his presence with you by saying, “Yo, Jesus, I’m going for nachos. Can I grab you a brat?” Even if you pray for the Badgers, still that is not what Jesus means in this Gospel reading, as he promises his presence where two or three are gathered.
Another thing this passage does not mean is just exactly how it gets used at a lot of church functions. As church, we sadly become used to some pretty low expectations, and so when turnout isn’t great for whatever the event might be—the monthly peace prayers, or volunteering to clean the kitchen, or holding a prayer group, or gathering leaders to work on stewardship, or taking families on an outing—in the many circumstances of our life together, if we face disappointing numbers, we then go on to quote Jesus, not confidently but as a joking, shrugging consolation. “Well, wherever two or three are gathered…”
I’ll tell you right now, though, that low expectations and lack of involvement was not what Jesus was aiming for when he said this. In fact, it’s the exact opposite. His words are intended as the strongest of encouragements, the reminder of just how important and powerful our gathering together is.
That’s what the earlier verses were about. Brokenness in this family causes such deep harm to our shared mission, making mutual accountability an absolute must. Jesus began by saying that if a brother or sister sins against you, have a conversation him or her about it. That’s already a persuasive and perhaps scary suggestion. When we know we’ve done wrong, we usually believe the remedy is to bow our heads in confession at the start of the service. We confess to God our list of the week’s sins, or our more general sinfulness, and await God’s response of forgiveness.
In this reading, however, it’s not kneeling before God in silent prayer that Jesus tells us to do, but is about talking to each other, about saying aloud what the sins are and then forgiving each other, with all the authority of God in heaven.
In some way, that’s what is intended as we share the peace, not just for saying “howdy,” but for reconciliation, to turn to each other, not obstructed by your errors or faults, to mend any brokenness. We’re able to do that, not because we’re so perfectly caring for others or, said another way, because we’re so careless about our own rights or feelings or opinions when wronged. What we share, what mends us, is the peace of Christ. We recognize that what brings us here and what keeps us together isn’t that we agree on every topic or that we’re such whole-hearted, devoted folks, or even really that we’re at all likeable to each other. What binds us together is Jesus.
With that, today I’d suggest that Jesus is talking more specifically. Besides exchanging the peace of Christ as a remedy for when you’re grumpy at somebody, or even straight-up pissed off, this is also for something else. If we’re united here together in the Body of Christ, this is about things that may directly harm the health of that Body, or that fail to exercise the Body’s parts, or that ignore our unity.
Along those lines, I will directly tell you right now at the start of a new program year that when you fail to show up, when you decide to put other priorities before this gathering, you are hurting our Body, it dis-members and dis-integrates us, making us all something less by your absence. When you fail to pay attention to announcements and the newsletter, when you ignore what is going on, you dis-able us and cut off some of our good work, some of God’s mission. When you forget your prayers, when you don’t take part in Bible studies or classes, you are leaving the Body less agile, weaker in faith than we could be. When you shortchange financial devotion and do less than you could or should, it leaves others needing to compensate, to pick up your slack. When you fail to step forward and leave it to the same old cadre of volunteers to teach Sunday School or to ring handbells or pull weeds or help our service projects today, you are sinning, offending the church, giving insult and injury to the very Body of Christ.
I hope all of you feel implicated somehow by those words. I do, too. And if you have other grievances with me, for Christ’s sake you should tell me.
But the purpose of this isn’t to be ashamed. It’s not to guilt trip or point fingers or rub your noses in it. Ezekiel says God takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked. Rather, these are good and reasonable expectations. It’s to help you recognize the relationships and the blessing, to inspire you in faith, to hold each other accountable.
Because this is so important. It is so very good that we are here together. And not only when you personally need the feeling of peace from all of life’s stresses, but so much more. It’s life-changing. This practice of community here is a kind of love and openness and welcome that is even more than in our families, maybe especially there, where brokenness is so difficult to get past. Still more, this neighborhood and all of God’s good creation needs the love that we have to share. It needs what we can accomplish together.
That is why we gather here in Jesus’ name, gathering sometimes in too small of numbers but still with his presence among us. That’s why with his presence in this meal, we practice being in communion, sharing, receiving exactly what we need. And before that, that is why straight off the bat, no questions asked, you are assured once again of forgiveness, of grace, that it is all right, that for the sake of Jesus Christ, your sins are removed, so we can proceed forward together into his new creation.
And again for his sake, you are sent, to use all your skills and talents and abilities, and also your quirks and your foibles and all whom God made you to be, sent to love your neighbor and to care for this whole wide world.
I started with a word of Homecoming. I want to end with what seems like perhaps the best word out of all three of our Bible readings for this rally Sunday. Paul wrote, “you know [that] salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers.” Instead of the expectations, like a syllabus to start a new semester, this is an indicator of graduation, the commencement of Jesus’ rule breaking into our universe and our own lives.
God’s work continues to spread across this world in more ways than we can fathom, broader than we can understand, through channels and means we never could have expected. It’s reaching out to people we thought were unreachable or unforgiveable or untouchable. It’s at Winnequah School today, and also tomorrow, spreading across the globe, across the cosmos and, yes, even at Camp Randall. The love and peace of Christ is on the loose and at work, with you or without you, whether you’re ready or not. But seeing how good this is, and how the kingdom of God is already in our midst, it’s good that you are here to be joined in the work and the blessing of Jesus.
Hymn: God, When Human Bonds are Broken (ELW #603)