Sunday, September 6, 2020

14 Pentecost, 2020-A: Prophets of the way of love


 LectionaryExodus 12:1-14, Psalm 149; Romans 13:8-14; Matthew 18:15-20

Note: This sermon can also be found on my website.

I once had a bishop who used to tell our diocese that we are all called to be prophets. I always agreed with that. I still do… because a prophet is an inspired teacher, a person who proclaims the will of God, who speaks in a visionary way about a new idea, belief, or cause that God is revealing to the world.

So much of what is called Christian teaching isn’t Christian at all. As our Presiding Bishop Michael Curry is wont to say, “If it isn’t about love, it isn’t about God.


So, a prophet teaches about love, proclaims the will of God, which is the reconciliation of the whole world to God who is love, and envisions a way to go that leads to love on earth as it is in heaven.

We are all prophets, and as Walter Brueggemann teaches, ‘the prophet does not ask if the vision can be implemented, for questions of implementation are of no consequence until the vision can be imagined. For those who realize the need for change in society if justice, peace, and the Will of God for the world are ever to be achieved, the new vision that must be molded requires immersion in the mind of Jesus and time, time, time.’

I came across this quote at our clergy retreat this week and it got me thinking… We’ve been living within a disjointed experience of quick and sudden change together with slowing to a standstill. It’s been very disconcerting at times for me to be so rushed and so completely stopped at the same time.

Time has been transformed. For example, for Deacon Janet and me, most of our Sunday is now on Thursday, while part of our Sunday is still on Sunday. My internal rhythms have been so disrupted by this that I hardly know what day it is anymore.

Being off-balance in this way feels vulnerable, but the truth is, for a person of faith, it’s an opportunity for transformation - of ourselves and of the world we serve in God’s name. When we know for sure that we cannot rely on ourselves, on our intellect and our strength, we are reawakened to the reality that what we can, and already do rely on- is God.


This place of vulnerability is our stronghold. Everything we do - from how we understand what we see happening around us to how we respond to what’s happening around us - comes from this foundational reality that we rely on God, not ourselves, to see, understand, and respond.


It’s also the only answer to the problems of racism, classism, sexism, individualism, all the -isms that have risen up into our communal awareness in such a big way right now. How we understand what we’re seeing and how we respond, when they come from God’s inspiration and not our own intellect or strength, can be transforming to us and to the world.


Like many people, I’ve dedicated much of my personal reading time lately to books that help me break open from what I was taught and go more deeply into new ways of understanding race, class, history, and religion, and I’m participating in book studies and discussions that help me hear other perspectives. When we invite God to use our time of imbalance and vulnerability to awaken us to a new reality, we can own that the church, and we the members of it, have sinned.


This isn’t news to us. There isn’t much disagreement that the Crusades and the Inquisition are blights on our church’s history. We all know that our beloved Episcopal Church was complicit with the institution of slavery, segregating African Americans to the balconies in the back of the church, while rich white families sat in their gated pews up front.  


But did you know this about our history?  “In 1882, a Mississippi [Episcopal] priest launched a virulent attack on blacks, arguing that sparse black Episcopal growth was due to their intellectual, moral and leadership inferiority. The southern bishops then proposed the Sewanee plan to segregate blacks into a racial diocese…  In response, the Conference of Church Workers Among Colored People was formed.


This according to the UBE, the Union of Black Episcopalians which is the current iteration of this Conference. The Conference of Church Workers Among Colored People “met annually. Every third year, it met at the site of General Convention and appointed lobbyists to press for black goals… through protest and agitation, [the Conference] served as the conscience of the Church, recalling it to its catholic ideal.[As a result,] Segregation was never written into national policy or canon law [in the Episcopal Church].”

Today the Union of Black Episcopalians continues its tradition as the conscience of the church by its prophetic teaching, proclamation, and visioning the way of love. I encourage you to check out their website.

In every generation, we as a church and as individual members of it, fail to love one another as Jesus loved us. That’s why we have to be able to talk to one another about our sin. It isn’t about passing judgment, that isn’t ours to do. It’s about opening the doorway to freedom and walking together on the path of love toward wholeness.


Jesus knew this and showed us how to go here, and it’s really important in our world today to hear this good news. Jesus said, “If a member of the church sins…”


I need to point out here that the words “against you” were added later and weren’t in the earliest manuscripts. The sin Jesus was talking about wasn’t an individual offense, but a corporate one. It was about things like complicity in racism, trans and homophobic segregation, or covering up child abuse.


If a member of the church sins, go and speak to them alone first. Respect their dignity. Humiliation and confrontation are not part of the way of love. If they refuse to listen, take one or two others with you and try again. If they still won’t listen, tell it to the church.


Coming from the deep south, it is a common practice among some Christians who take this passage literally, to force a sinful member to confess their sin in front of the whole congregation. That is not only coercive and unloving, but it accomplishes little besides shaming. More importantly, it misses the point of this teaching.


Telling it to the church is what the UBE does so well, as we heard earlier: “through protest and agitation” they continue to serve as an inner guide, leading to Church back to the way of love, to its all-embracing ideal.


Telling it to the church is why we have required training programs like Safeguarding God’s People and Safeguarding God’s Children - because child abuse in the church was (and sadly still is) real. People didn’t want to believe that such things would happen in church, but they do happen, and the church was called upon to wake up from its collective sleep, be transformed in how we understand what’s happening around us, and respond from that transformed understanding.


The next part of Jesus’ teaching is critical. If, after telling the church, the offender still refuses to listen, Jesus says, “let that one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.” I hear so many people interpret this as a direction to cast out the offender from the community - but that too misses the point.


All we have to do is look at how Jesus treated Gentiles and tax collectors. He healed and forgave them, reconciling them back into love, even welcoming one of them - the writer of this gospel - to be his disciple.


There is a place for the separation of an offender from the one they have harmed. It’s in our Disciplinary rubrics (BCP, 409), but that’s a discussion for another time.


The point is, we have one direction to go - the way of love. Right now, the revelation of how far we as a church and a culture have strayed from that path of love is bright with the clarity of Christ’s light. Now is the moment for us to wake up from our collective sleep on the issues of racism, sexism, individualism, and the other -isms that plague our church and society.


Our response, our responsibility as Christians, is to refocus on God’s vision for us and for the world. That will mean shaking ourselves loose from our habitual and comfortable, yet sinful ways of understanding, and binding ourselves to God’s inspiration, that is, God’s breathing into us the divine way of love as it is being revealed to us in this moment.


It will mean listening to the prophetic voices among us, like the UBE, and joining with them as prophets who teach about love, proclaim the will of God, which is the reconciliation of the whole world to God who is love, and envision a way to go together that leads to love on earth as it is in heaven.


Let us pray... “Grant us, O Lord, to trust in you with all our hearts” and guide us on your way of love. Amen.

No comments: