A Sermon for the Fifteenth Sunday after Penetecost

So, today is a great day in the life of this parish. At St. Mary’s Church we call today Kick-off Sunday. It is not an official feast day in the liturgical calendar, but it might as well be. It’s a day that sort of reminds me of old cowboy movies where some old hand rings the dinner bell to call everyone in for dinner from wherever in the world they all are. So from wherever in the world we all are, we’re here now to resume the regular round of our worshiping life after a summer lull. A lull that I should say never really quite happened. All through the summer, I kept expecting the numbers of us who came on Sundays to fall off. But that never really happened. Still, today our parish as a whole is sharing a little ‘come home to Jesus’ moment of getting it together to get here for a fresh start to the fall, a fresh start to life. There are children to get up and dressed. There are older bones and joints to coax into cooperating and getting us here on time. And there’s just the simple practice of getting back into the habit of being in church on Sunday. Our world has changed so much in such a short time and there’s a whole multitude of us trying to make sense of it all.

I’ve stood at the back of this church on Sunday morning as everyone is getting their selves in here just before the organ sounds the processional hymn and thought, ‘look at all these people, Lord. Your people. All these lives going on out there. What has brought them here. What’s happening in their lives that has landed them here. I wonder, what are they looking for? Hoping for?’

I suppose there are lots of reasons why you’re here. And I also think there’s only one reason. Because the One who made you, who knew you before the foundations of the earth, has been seeking you. And somehow, some way, your soul caught wind of that. And you’re here, maybe on a wing and a prayer. Maybe you’re here with a renewed longing for God. But whatever it is, it’s enough, thanks be to God!

Though after hearing the Gospel reading just now, you might be having second thoughts about showing up here this morning. Or at least that’s what occurred to me as I read through this passage a couple of weeks ago. Reading the commentators didn’t help much. One of them headed what they wrote ‘Church Discipline’. Well, oh joy! Aren’t you glad you got here for that?! Still, to put it frankly, we human beings are just a mess. Maybe a little direction wouldn’t hurt.

One of my mentors, Michael Rowell, a very wise, hilarious, super healthy Episcopal priest told me about a vestry meeting he once led. It was a wonderful group of faithful folks who on that night had gotten into the weeds about something that didn’t matter even one little bit. But that didn’t stop some of them from getting a little crosswise with each other. Michael finally had enough and shouted out, ‘Oh the joy of living in community.’

Which are sentiments that I’m sure Jesus was familiar with in our life together with him. We are a mess. His disciples have lately been wondering aloud: I wonder which one of us is the greatest. And so he says, if someone sins against you, you go to that person and tell them. Don’t go tell some other person in the parking lot. Tell the person who hurt you. Anyone knows that just doing that, 95 times out of 100, goes a long way to fixing whatever needs fixing. But, if it doesn’t, bring two or three others to talk with the person who hurt you. Not so they can gang up on that person but so that they can affirm what each of you have said and maybe help the two parties hear each other. And if that doesn’t lead to reconciliation, then the whole community should take up the matter. And if that doesn’t work, then turn away from the offending party, which just makes formal what was probably already true.

What Jesus says tracks pretty closely with something in the Prayer Book called ‘The Disciplinary Rubrics.’ It’s on page 409. If you want, you can read there the pastoral approach a priest should take that might ultimately result in refusing to offer someone Communion. It also says that if a priest takes this step that priest had better call the bishop and let her or him know what is going on because in the church community, we are all accountable. I do want to jump in here and say that in more than 30 years, I’ve never taken such a drastic step and no one I know has either. And that’s not because there hasn’t been conflict. But mostly people talk to each other. Because there’s just too much to lose by not. Namely each other. And God’s dream for us to be a whole community.

Which is the whole point. In a community gathered in Jesus’s Name, there is just too much to lose. A community like this, gathered by the Spirit to be Christ’s Body in the world is a gift of God, something to be treated with great care.

I was reminded of this so vividly two Sundays ago when Amelia met with parents to talk about our children’s ministry. She did an exercise where the group created a little timeline of the past several years. We started the timeline back when Amelia first came and tried to name how the children’s ministry happened then and the changes that have happened. And then came 2020 and a worldwide pandemic where none of us knew our right hand from our left. And one on top of the other, people started remembering what had happened. Someone would mention something, and others would say, ‘oh, I loved that!’ or ‘I’d forgotten that. That was so great!’ One parent started talking about how much it meant when a package came in the mail from church with a project for the Church season or a note or a birthday card. All of them an outward and visible sign, a sacrament of belonging to this community in Christ. And oh, yeah, remember church outdoors and moms getting together on the terrace to talk and share ‘a beverage’? And remember the drive-thru pageant and then the pageant switched to the parking lot at the last minute and the drive-thru meals and time to connect at an open car window which was just as good as the delicious food? And remember the altar guild made scores and scores of little flower arrangements and packed up their cars with them and drove off to give a bunch to someone who was isolated and might be lonely, or to someone who just needed something beautiful, or to someone who just needed a sign that someone loves them, or because it’s what we do for each other. They talked about how much all these different things meant and how all of these things showed us how much we need to be a part of a community that’s built on the life and death and resurrection of Jesus: a life and story spacious enough and gracious enough to hold the mess we are in God’s loving hands; to be his people in the world with a sacred story to tell.

The mission of the Church, of this church, is to reconcile all things to God in Christ, and nothing less. That is happening in communities just like this one, who by grace have been given the gift to bear Christ into this world. God has given us a story to tell. Sometimes it sounds like that group of young parents reflecting on how the Spirit kept us whole when we didn’t know how to stay whole. To be a part of this community makes us accountable to one another by telling the great story of Jesus, one that is spacious enough and gracious enough for the mess we all are, and to live for his high calling to heal this world and nothing less. Amen.

The Rev. David H. May