Saturday, September 3, 2011

Where Everybody Knows Your Name (September 4, 2011)

Homily:  Yr A Proper 23, Sept 4 2011, St. Albans
Readings:  Ex 12:1-14, Ps 149, Rom 13:8-14, Mt 18:15-20

I have to tell you that there are a few things that really bug me in today’s readings.  And yet, as this past week progressed, as I wrestled my way through the stuff that bugs me, I also realized that there’s a lot of great stuff too.  Often that’s my experience when I go through the Bible readings that are appointed for any particular week.  The bits that I have problems with jump right out at me, and it’s only after I’ve come to some sort of peace with these that I see the richness of what lies underneath.

Often, by the time we reach Sunday, those of us who preach on a Sunday morning will just skip right over the problem bits and go straight to the good stuff.  But sometimes, maybe it’s good to open the kimono a bit and talk about the problems.  Are you okay if I do that this morning?

Let’s take the Exodus reading.  It reminds me of the time I was invited as a guest to a Sunday School class of 12 year olds, and the teacher told the kids they could ask me any question they wanted about the Bible.

First question:  “Why would God give us the ten commandments and then proceed to break every single one of them?”

My response:  “what do you mean Johnny?”

“Well we’re told not to murder, but God went and murdered all the first-born Egyptians”

It’s a problem isn’t it.  It was problem for Johnny and it’s a problem for us.  I have a hard time believing that the God who was revealed in Jesus Christ would do such a thing.  But our text today says that’s what God did.

Marcus Borg has just written a new book called ‘Speaking Christian’ in which he makes the point that it is important to be able to say that in some places the authors of the biblical text may have got it wrong.  It may be that the ancient Israelites, who were much more familiar with “an eye for an eye” than “love your enemies”, got it wrong when they interpreted whatever happened back in Egypt as God striking down the Egyptian first-born.

People like me and Johnny need to have the space to wrestle with these difficult bits in order to get to the beauty and richness of the text.  Because once I’ve got past the problem I have with God striking down the first born, then I can open up to so much more of what this text has to say:  that God heard the cries of an oppressed people, and acted in history to rescue them and brought them out of slavery in Egypt.  And that God gave them a founding story, the Exodus, and a ritual event, the Passover, which would shape and mold this people into a community, perhaps the most cohesive and enduring community in the entire history of human civilization.

If there is a common theme in today’s readings, it is the theme of community.  It’s certainly present in Paul’s letter to the Romans.  In today’s reading, Paul exhorts the Christians in Rome to love one another, for love is the fulfilling of the law.  Communities may have rules and practices and even constitutions, but what makes a community really tick is love for one another.

And then there’s today’s gospel from Matthew, with its explicit instructions for how to deal with sin in the community.  And again, my first reaction is that this text bugs me.  Maybe it bugs me because sometimes in the church we seem only too eager to point out the faults in others.  Maybe it bugs me because the injunction to treat offenders as Gentiles and tax collectors has too often been misused to exclude people from our church communities and to make them feel unwanted.

But the main thing that bugs me about today’s gospel is that the short selection which we read has been taken out of context.  Let me put back some of that context for you. 

Immediately preceding today’s gospel, in verses 12-14, Jesus teaches about the shepherd who has a hundred sheep, and how if one of them goes astray, he will leave the 99 and go in search of the one who went astray, and rejoice over it when it is found.  The conclusion is that our Father in heaven does not want anyone to be lost or separated.

And immediately following today’s gospel, in verses 21-22, Peter asks Jesus just how many times he has to forgive his brother or sister.  Is seven times enough?  No, Jesus responds, but seven times seventy.

And finally, when Matthew writes that the one who refuses to listen to the church is to be treated as a Gentile or a tax-collector, we need to be reminded that Matthew himself is a tax-collector.  How was he treated?  Jesus is the one who went to Matthew’s home, Jesus is the one who reached out to Gentiles and tax-collectors, who entered their houses, who ate with them, who treated them with hospitality and compassion.

So when we put today’s gospel back in context, when we pull it all together, what do we get?

We get that community is tremendously important.   That Jesus cares about community.  That Matthew, the one who has gone from being an outcast to a member of the community of disciples has been moved by his experience.  That authentic, loving community is something that we all long for, something that indeed is a taste of the divine in our midst.

But, communities are made up of people, and people will have conflicts, will disagree, will hurt one another, will ignore one another, people will be, well, people.  So what do we do about this?  Communities don’t just happen by accident, and it takes work to develop and preserve them.  Jesus, in Matthew’s gospel, is telling us that community is so important that when something goes wrong, we need to do something about it.  Deal with it.  Talk to each other.  Be honest and loving and compassionate and forgiving.  And when two or three are gathered, whether it is to pray or whether it’s to air your disagreements, know that Jesus is present.

There is a longing for authentic community in our world.

[Play Cheers theme song]
Making your way in the world today takes everything you've got. 
Taking a break from all your worries, sure would help a lot. 

Wouldn't you like to get away? 

Sometimes you want to go 

Where everybody knows your name, 
and they're always glad you came. 
You wanna be where you can see, 
our troubles are all the same 
You wanna be where everybody knows 
Your name. 

You wanna go where people know, 
people are all the same, 
You wanna go where everybody knows 
your name. 

What sort of community do we want to be?

There are communities that are “affinity-groups”, communities where risk of conflict is minimized because the members are somewhat alike and the community is focused around a common interest.

There are communities that are social groups, that strive to be pleasant to one another and suppress and avoid conflicts because these might strain the social fabric of the community.

There are communities where “everybody knows your name”, where we know each other and are known by each other, where anyone is welcome, where there is a commitment to each other’s lives, where we love one another, where there is intimacy, where conflicts and disagreements arise and are engaged in creatively, communities which care about the one person who hasn’t been around for a while.

Here at St. Albans, we are a new community, a new congregation that is still in the process of forming.  There are many ways of being community.  Authentic community is hard to come by, it takes work, but it’s worth it.

Let’s talk about it:

What have been your experiences of community? 

And perhaps most importantly, what kind of community do we want to be?


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