Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost, September 16, 2018
Year B, Proper 19: Proverbs 1:20-33; Psalm 19; James 3:1-12; Mark 8:27-38
CLICK HERE to listen to the recorded sermon.
What a time we’ve been having here on the East Coast. There hasn’t been much sun, we’ve had 40 inches of rain in Shenandoah County since June, yet we can count our blessings as Rosemary Clooney used to sing.
We are not in the path of what was Hurricane Florence and will likely only add an inch or two of rain to our totals. In the meantime, my friends on the West Coast would dearly like to see some of this rain.
Liturgically it’s one of those many Sundays of what we call in the Episcopal Church, the “season after Pentecost”. In the Roman Catholic church, it’s referred to as “Ordinary Time.
In the season after Pentecost we get to concentrate on living the real life of being a Christian.
Community is central to living this Christian life. Sometimes when we talk about the benefits of community, what comes to mind first is the consolation it gives us. That wonderful sense of knowing we’re not alone. Knowing that when times are happy – or when they’re hard – we’re going through life with other people, people who will be there for us through the good and the bad.
But what I want to focus on today is not that joyful feeling of togetherness but the challenge of community – actually, the challenges of community, plural. There are a couple of aspects of that. One very basic challenge is the fact you don’t actually have to like people to love them, and sometimes we just don’t like the people we find ourselves with. But even when that part is good and things are going well, one of the ongoing challenges of being in a community is that it’s always a learning experience. And another challenge is coming to terms with the fact that we don’t get to decide who’s in and who’s out in Christian community.
The Christian brothers and sisters who went before us understood very early – and this is a thread that runs all the way through the letters of Paul, actually – that one of the functions of our experience in community as the Body of Christ is showing each other what the face of Christ looks like. Teaching each other – by word and example – what the life of a Christian looks like. So there’s more than togetherness in this going along together – there’s content.
And of course the members of this community are showing us all the time – in so many different ways – what the good life looks like. I saw it before I left for vacation in the camaraderie that went into putting together Saint Andrew’s rummage sale that raised almost $1600 for local charities. I see it in the community lunch at Saint Andrew’s. I see it in Emmanuel’s Table, which this week served 190 people. 190. That’s huge.
We learn how to be a Christian from other Christians, and one of the responsibilities we accept comes in the form of our promise to support our new members in living this life. This is big, and important – it’s up to us to teach them what we know, and to back that up by demonstrating our faith through our lives.
But it goes both ways, so pay attention, because there are lessons they are going to teach us as we go along together.
It seems fitting that our New Testament reading over the last few weeks has been from the letter of James, which is all about how faith and works – good deeds – complement and complete each other. It is Jesus who saves us. His work is complete and there is nothing we can do to add to it. And yet if the faith we speak is real, how can we not demonstrate that by the way we live, by our actions. Anything less is empty indeed. “Be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves,” is how James puts it, in a passage we read a couple of weeks ago.
There’s another part we’ve heard that gets to the second point I want to make about community this morning: that we don’t get to choose who’s in and who’s out. James criticizes communities that welcome well-dressed rich people, but would turn their backs if a poor person in dirty clothes also came in.
I don’t believe have this exact problem here, but there are other ways we are tempted to divide people into the good guys and the bad guys, the ones we want in our community and those others who are less welcome.
There’s a book by Dietrich Bonhoeffer called Life Together. Bonhoeffer is one of my heroes. He was an ordained pastor who stood up to the Nazi regime and paid the price of his life. He was studying at Union Seminary in the United States when World War II was breaking out, and he could have stayed here. He would have been safe here, but he felt that he had to go back.
When the establishment Christian church in Germany bowed to the Nazis and began to teach some amazing things that did violence to the true Gospel – the Reich church had no use for the Old Testament, for example, because it was too Jewish, and under Hitler they made Jesus into the ultimate Aryan – this undoubtedly rather dark Middle Eastern Jewish man! – Bonhoeffer joined forces with a group that stood against the establishment church. He led an underground seminary to train pastors for this church, and the book Life Together came out of his experience there.
It’s a hard book, actually. Bonhoeffer basically rejects some of the aspects of living in community that we cherish here. He insists that community is not a social experience, for example. It’s not about good feeling.
Bonhoeffer insists that you don’t get to join Christian community because of who you are or how you behave or anything you’ve done to deserve it. And likewise, you don’t get put out because of anything you do.
What Bonhoeffer says is that the basis of Christian community is what Jesus has done for us. It’s about how God loves us. That is what binds us in community. That is the basis of our life together, and nothing we do can change it. The Christian life that we share in community.
This is the life. This is the life.
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