Mother Katherine’s sermon preached on Sep. 10, 2023

Posted by on Sun, Sep 10, 2023 in Season after Pentecost, Sermons

The 15th Sunday after Pentecost

Sep. 10, 2023

Do you think of yourself as a critical reader or an appreciative reader? It’s kind of a trick question because both are true; we are all a combination of both and influenced by things like context, style, topic, genre, etc. The Episcopal Church invites is to apply both our critical and our appreciative minds to scripture, which to some might seem a bit heretical or even anti-Christian. It’s not. And we might read it for different gifts; praying with favorite passages, being inspired by the stories of God’s people, enjoying the sense of excavation in bible study, etc. Even given the most excellent scholarship available, scripture is a translation of ancient texts in other languages, taken up by inspired human hands and minds, and each gospeller has their own perspectives. None are untrue, and we don’t read for fact-checking or literalism. They each tell the story as they received or experienced it. For example, the Gospel of Matthew has the strongest sense of a Jewish audience and links the ‘Old Testament’ (or Hebrew Scriptures) with the New Testament, treating it as a continuation and then culmination of God’s dealings with the covenant people of Israel. (Beverly Roberts Gaventa, The New Interpreter’s Bible One-Volume Commentary, Abingdon Press. Kindle Edition 2010.) 

Today Matthew shows us something of the difficulties and strains of the early church, in particular of personal disagreements among them, and how Jesus’ teachings might be applied. When we read him advise unreconciled members to go ‘tell it to the church/congregation” it makes us wonder since Jesus didn’t organize a church. He was born, lived, worshipped, was tried, convicted, and died as a Jew. Jesus began a movement inspired by love and which through the grace of God continued and became the church. 

We read resolution starts in private conversation, and to be thankful if that resolves it. If not, you take witnesses along, and then if the member is still not listening, they tell it to the church. This sounds to me more like church bylaws that the sayings of Jesus. Then we come to a line of final disposition that sounds unlike Jesus at all; “if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.” Does it mean to cut them off, to drop them as the wrong sort of people who aren’t really part of the ‘church’? He could also be likening them to those new to these teachings, those whom Jesus calls ‘infants’ in other passages. Might this be an invitation to patient mentoring and teaching, to draw them into a community who tries to live by Jesus’ ways? Earlier Matthew cites an old Jewish saying and Jesus’ corrective; “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven.’” 

Reading the Book of Acts offers further insight into how the early church lived and settled differences, discerning what Jesus really would’ve had them do, and I commend it to your reading. I once called Mother Ann from my church in Minneapolis about a heated conflict around liturgy which had become increasingly hostile—some regarding others like Matthew’s “Gentiles and tax collectors”! She pointed me to the Book of Acts and there it was. No church or person is immune, and it invites even longer listening to be open to what Jesus could do with our struggle. In Acts and here in Matthew we’re reminded it wasn’t all white flowy robes, agreement and complete harmony. They too had to work at it — and if they could chart a way through such challenges there’s hope for our generations to do so, and for those yet to come. Are there people we think of like Matthew’s “Gentiles and tax collectors”? Next week the two Sacred Ground groups will have their final session looking at this very thing, and hopefully offer another group. Sacred Ground is the Episcopal Church’s “series on race, grounded in faith, where participants are invited to peel away the layers that have contributed to the challenges and divides of the present day – all while grounded in our call to faith, hope and love.”

Church growth workshops and self-help books (yes they have them for churches to!) often urge their version of going back to the ways of the early church as if all things were simple and harmonious then. If so, Paul would have had much less to write about! His letter to the church in Rome today is an emphatic exhortation to live honorably, and not in reveling, drunkenness, debauchery, licentiousness, quarreling and jealousy. They too were real people, broken, mistaken, loving, well-intentioned, shortsighted, hopeful, at times obtuse and other times listening deeply. The church still draws broken people, myself included. Who is not broken, fragile, —human— struggling in some way? Oddly it looks very much an element of how God created us and how people learn to love us, and  we each other. Which brings us to our Deep Roots groups where we reflect on small passages of scripture and look at what they inspire. You’ll hear more about this shortly.

Br. Curtis Almquist of the Society of St. John the Evangelist wrote “There is more than meets the eye in everyone. And so our posture in life toward others should surely include the humility that we do not know them as God knows them, that God is at work in them as much as God is at work in us, please, that God is not in a rush, and that none of us is a mystery to God, who so loves the world.” (From Brother give us a word; ‘Mystery,’ posted on SSJE site September 6, 2023.)

Our reading ends with Jesus saying “For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.” In the rabbinic writings called the Mishnah (the collection of the Jewish oral traditions that are known as the Oral Torah) we read, “if two people sit together and the words of Torah do not pass between them, it is a company of scorners… (Psalms 1:1-2). But if two people sit and the words of Torah pass between them the Divine Presence rests between them. (Malachi 3:16) (From chapter 3 of Pirkei Avot). Jesus’ promise that, “where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them” is making this promise new, more immediate, for he’s saying he is that Divine Presence. 

I want to close with my version of a very old story. You may know it already—whether you do or not, try to picture it in your mind’s eye.

In a place much like Issaquah, a priest had heard second-hand grumblings from an unhappy member who had announced he would no longer be going to church. He could be with God just as easily out in the woods and mountains in nature as he could in Church amongst all those do-gooders, with their volunteerism and new ministries, people he wasn’t sure he liked or the new ones he just didn’t know. Plus they kept slipping in hymns he’d never heard of.

The first Sunday ‘off’ he slept in and did the crossword. The second week he did some yard work and took a walk. The third week the priest headed out to his place to make a friendly pastoral call. It was a chilly fall dusk. Seeing a small light on she knocked. No answer. She rang. No answer. His truck was there and she picked up a smell of woodsy smoke in the air. She went around back and found the unenthusiastic member sitting by a outdoor burning pit with a crackling fire and a nice bed of coals. She sat with him and quickly warmed up. They talked a good while about nothing much. He braced for her to bring up his church absence—but she never did. 

Just as the stars were coming out there was a lull in their conversation. The priest took the long stick he’d been using for a poker, and reached in just under the logs to coax a single bright red coal out to the edge of the rock-lined circle. They sat quietly watching the glowing ember just sitting there by itself a few minutes. As it cooled the red became orange, then ashy and grey. Then it went out with a final little wisp of smoke. Neither said a word as they saw the ember die out. The rest of the fire continued to burn brightly, with new wood causing little pops and sparks to fly. After a long pause, the man, still staring at the cold ember, said to the priest, I’ll see you next Sunday.

For where two or three are gathered in his name, Christ is there—Christ is here among us.

My thanks to Episcopal priest and blogger the Rev. William Joseph Adams for his linking of the story of the burning coal with this scripture.

© 2023 The Rev. Katherine Sedwick. All rights reserved. Posted with permission.

Post will be removed at 8:00 AM on Wed., Sep. 10, 2025.