Sunday, September 7, 2014

Sermon: 'ekklesia'

Sermon for September  7, 2014
Proper 18, Year A, 13th Sunday After Pentecost
St. Philip’s In The Hills Parish, Tucson, AZ
The Rev. Vicki K. Hesse
For readings click here

Open our lips, O Lord,
That our mouth shall proclaim your praise.  Amen

Today’s gospel text draws us
directly into church conflict. 
That can be a difficult place to start.

The opening sentence launches us into a
“how to” process for disciplinary action.

I think that before we can explore
discipline within the church,
we need to ground ourselves on what church is.
On what is our “ecclesiology”
--- the theological understanding of church. 

In the book
The Churches The Apostles Left Behind[1],”

we find an entry way
into this “ecclesiological” discussion,
through imaginative poetry:
offered perhaps, by John the last apostle,
as he is dying in concealment. 

The poet writes,
“… when [my ashes] scatter, [and] there is left on earth
"No one alive who knew (consider this!)
"—Saw with his eyes and handled with his hands
"That which was from the first, the Word of Life.
"How will it be when none more saith 'I saw'?[2]
* pause *
How HAS it been when none more saith ‘I saw’?

I wonder:  how was it
when the last apostolic witness
disappeared from the scene?
… when churches could
no longer depend on the testimony
of those who said “I saw”? 
How did the church keep going? 

Well, of course we have scripture: the NT.
The NT written mostly after the death
of the last known apostle.
The NT describing Church
in the book of Acts and
the letters of Paul and Peter,
teaching about Church and
outlining how to live in community. 

Today’s NT text from Matthew includes
one of only two times that the word “church”
shows up in the Gospels.  
[The word Church, in Greek, is ekklesia,
which means the “called out ones of God.”]
The other time occurs also in Matthew,
when Jesus announces to Peter
that on him, the rock, Jesus will build his Church.[3] 

In this text, sometimes referred to as Jesus’
“Sermon on the Church,”
Jesus reminds the community
to deal with a sinful “brother” or “sister”
through his love.
That Love was the core of community.
That Love was the heart of their gathering.
His Love pulled the community together.

It’s impressive, I think,
that the Gospel writer knew the timeless truth
about how most people still work:
that often the offended
does not go directly to the offender.

Instead, the offended goes over the offender’s head
(to the authority) or
triangulates with someone else
to get the offender to change.  .  .  Timeless!

But Jesus says, “Go direct.”
Go to the offender, alone, to preserve honor.
Go to the offender with others, if needed.
Only then, through prayer and love,
with grace and forgiveness,
Only then, when the community gathers
and prays in Jesus’ name,
can a spiritual, not just an administrative,
solution arise.

And what did it mean for Matthew’s community,
to “let him be to you as a Gentile or a Tax Collector.” ?
That seems like a severe response to me.
But Jesus harnesses the cultural attitudes
toward these outcasts and
Jesus invited the disciples not to shun or expel,
but to reach out through his love,
with forgiveness that can be “loosed” in heaven
to welcome that person home. 

To survive in the world
after the death of the last apostle
who actually “saw,”
the church has had to show
a different way of including and loving and forgiving.
And what happens
when The Church
is not
including and loving and forgiving?

People leave.
Faith communities separate. 
Congregations divide.

According to a 2011 Pew Forum study[4]
there are 41,000 Christian denominations in the US. 

And there are all kinds of reasons that people leave:
·        In my own experience, some left the church in Oregon because of my relationship with my partner
·        Others left because they changed the color of the carpet
·        Some people left a friend’s church because they were benched on the church softball game and
·        Some because they changed the service times. 

When people leave church in anger,
death has dominion and grace is thwarted
– thwarted among the very people
called to extend grace to the world.

All these reasons point to what might be called
“bad ecclesiology.” 
That is,
misunderstanding of what it means to be church;
--- of what church is for.

To be Christian is
to be bound together in community of Jesus’ love
and to pray “Our Father”
even in the privacy of our own room.

Borrowing from one Bishop who said it clearly:
“Church is not a social club.
Church is not an interest group. 
Church is not a political party. 
It is not a support group. 
It’s not where you come to get your needs met,
not where you come to network,
not where you come to connect with
people who have the same political views…

The Church is the community
that is held together
by the radical love of Jesus Christ.  Period.
We come together because
we have experienced that love. 
We come together because /we hunger for that love. 
We don’t come together because of one another.
We come together because of Jesus. 
His love pulls us here.” [5]
At its core,
church is about the radical love of God
revealed in Jesus Christ
and if its not about that, its not about anything.

So when a brother or a sister offends,
God’s love empowers us to go direct:
and in love, with humility, grace and forgiveness,
and bring that our relationship back into community. 
And so a story about the Babemba tribe[6] in South Africa
and how they discipline. 

When a tribe member does something
hurtful or wrong, the tribe places that person
in the center of village, alone. 
The entire village stops work, and
everyone gathers in a circle
around the accused.  
For two days, each person in the tribe
speaks to the accused, one at a time,
recalling the good things the person has ever done. 

They share every incident and every experience
of that person’s positive attributes,
good deeds, strengths, and kindnesses. 

For the tribe believes that every human being
comes into the world as good,
desiring safety, love, peace and happiness. 
But in the pursuit of those things,
sometimes people make mistakes. 

The tribe, the community,
sees misdeeds as a cry for help. 
So they band together for the sake of
their sister or brother, and for their community,
to hold that person up,
to reconnect that person with their true nature,
to remind them of who they really are.
And the circle continues until that person
remembers the truth from which
they had been temporarily disconnected,
and says, “I am good.”   

When we are out of Christian fellowship
with one another, when we are disunited,
we are not going to get back to unity
by making people behave like us. 

Only by going deeper, as a community,
in the love of Jesus Christ. 
Only by getting to our core
can we find a holy communion. 

The core of our unity is the mutual love of Jesus Christ. 

As John the last apostle asks in the poem,
“How will it be when none more saith ‘I saw’?”

It will be glorious – filled with God’s glory –

and that is our mission -
To share and go deeper in
the love, grace, and humility of Jesus. 

To invite others to experience that love.
To share that peace of Christ
that the world cannot give and
the world cannot take away.

For there is no place else in our world
who is clear about that. 
The Church is the only agency
that can call people back to where they belong – by getting centered in the love of Jesus Christ.

How will it be?  It will be glorious
when two or three are gathered in his name,
and he is there among them. 

May we, as a church, yearn for his presence
and treasure his presence...
May we share the love of God so that this church
will always be the Church of Jesus Christ.[7]


[1] Raymond E. Brown, SS, (New York, Paulist Press, 1984), p. 13
[2] Raymond Brown quoting Robert Browing poetically describing John, the last apostle, expiring in concealment – how will it be when none more saith “I saw”? see
[3] Matthew 16:18, NRSV
[5] Inspired by Rt. Rev. G. Porter Taylor in this sermon:
[7] Taylor, ibid.