Sermon for the Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost
September 7, 2014
There is one sentence in the English language that truly frightens me. It happens all the time when I’m sitting in my office and someone comes in and says, “I’ve got good news and I’ve got bad news.” And you know what comes next. With some weird combination of smile and grimace that person says, “Which do you want first?” I mean, what kind of choice is that? If I pick the bad news first, then I’m just some sort of masochist. But if I pick the good news first, then whatever joy I heard from the good news will be killed off when I hear the bad news second. There really is no good choice.
So I hate to say this, but here it goes: “I’ve got good news, and I’ve got bad news.” But this is not an sermon, and you don’t get to pick which comes first, so I’ll start with the good news. God is here right now.
This is fantastically good news. Jesus says, “for where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.” Okay, so that is awesome. That means that the Holy Spirit is here, right now. We will say the Nicene Creed with the Spirit’s help and we will feed upon the Holy Spirit in the bread and the wine. The very presence of Jesus is here, in this church, right here and right now. The Spirit of Jesus is here, forgiving our sins and reminding us of God’s love. I hope that good news gives you goosebumps because it does to me. Think about it – that means that there is a place in the world in which you can be reminded, week by week, that you are loved. That you are forgiven. That you have a place. That you are a beloved child of God. That place is right here, the church. That is some astonishingly good news.
So are you ready for the bad news? Here it goes: God is here right now. That’s bad news because it means that God stands as a witness to all that we do and all that we say. Not that God is like some mean ogre or Big Brother keeping an eye on you. It’s more that we have gathered together in the Name of Jesus, and that means that God is here. God stands as a witness to the good that we do and say in this place, but also to the evil that we do and say in this place. God is here right now. That is terrifyingly bad news if we aren’t behaving as we would before God. Because we are before God.
And Jesus is awfully clear, that if somebody is misbehaving, they may have to be removed from the church. They are to be treated as a tax collector and a Gentile. Whoa. That’s some bad news.
Or is it good news? Because, actually, tax collectors and Gentiles get a pretty good deal from Jesus. Jesus says of a Gentile soldier, “Truly I tell you, in no one in Israel have I found such faith” (Mt. 8:10). That doesn’t sound so bad. Jesus even sits down and eats with tax collectors and sinners (Mt. 9:10), much to the chagrin of the Pharisees. So if we are going to treat one of our brothers and sisters as a tax collector and a Gentile, that means that we are going to love them as a brother or a sister, perhaps even love them more. That also means that those who are tax collectors and Gentiles, the outcasts of society, must be treated like our brothers and sisters.
Jesus says something else about the church in this passage that is both good news and bad news. He says, “If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone.” Instead of “member of the church,” the original text says, “brother.” “If a brother sins against you.” So good news right? The relationship we have with one another in the church is so fierce, so close, that we refer to one another as brothers and sisters. Brothers and sisters are the people you share the most with, the people you grow up with. Bad news? Fights among brothers and sisters are the worst, aren’t they? You’ve heard of “sibling rivalries”? I don’t know of anybody who has gone through life without having at least one major meltdown with a brother or sister or a family member. Good news? In the church, we treat one another as brothers and sisters. Bad news? In the church, we treat one another as brothers and sisters.
So what does this have to do with us? The Church has something to give to the world, and it’s both good news and bad news. The good news that we need to share is that there is place for anybody and everybody to worship God. That place is our church, and even if they are as down and out as Gentiles and tax collectors, they are welcomed here. Because we welcome anybody and everybody from teenage drug addicts to corporate executives to stay at home moms to people in their nineties to newborn babies. All are welcome here because Jesus welcomes them here. The good news that we have to give is that God loves every single person who walks through these doors. God loves them, loves you, more than we can ever know. The good news is that we are loved. The bad news? That means we have to love other people. We must interact with others as if God is in our midst, because God is in our midst. And it’s not necessarily easy to treat everybody with respect and grace and dignity; the way God treats us.
I think this good news/bad news is best summed up in Holy Communion. We are invited to participate in the Body and Blood of Christ, which is, by definition, awesome. Through that we are healed and renewed and forgiven and strengthened. The bad news is that communion calls us to truly examine our conscience, to confess our sins, and to face the stark reality of who we are. The grace in communion is beyond beautiful, but so is the solemnity. That’s why sometimes you’ll see me smiling at communion, and sometimes you’ll see me grimacing. Because I know that I am loved, but I also know that I am in desperate need of forgiveness.
What it gets down to is this: you can be honest with yourself and with your brothers and sisters in the church. You can be honest about what you are feeling. But you must do so with grace and compassion. And if we can be that honest with one another, then surely we can be that honest with God. You can tell God your good news and your bad news. And God doesn’t care if you give him the good news or the bad news first. No, God just wants to hear from you.