The Twenty Third Sunday after Pentecost
Sirach 35:12-17; Psalm 84:1-6; 2Timothy 4:6-8,16-18; Luke 18:9-14
Several weeks ago in an adult forum session an Emmanuel member asked a very important question, “What is being done to contact and invite the people who are no longer here?” I had a ready answer as anyone who had been put on my radar screen I had either called or sent an email explaining a bit about the transition here and inviting them to come and see.
The question has lingered with me uncomfortably since that morning, in part because I don’t know who left and why, because I don’t have any coherent plan to reach out, and because my pastoral experience tells me that chasing folks is a very delicate dance that has proved not very fruitful. If I am very honest I need to own that it is not entirely my ministry to do. It is one that we share.
If we take all those parables about the shepherd going after the single lost sheep seriously, then we also have a call as people who have a very open and welcoming front door to attend to those who may drift away out of the back door. We share in that call because we all know what it is like to stand in the corner because something or someone has sent us away, because dreams get broken, because we have been neglected or profoundly misunderstood, because we have felt disliked, disconnected, unwanted, unworthy and uninvited. We are called to share in this ministry of tending those who are far off because we know who is in the corner or the margin of this life because of poverty, injustice and absence of a civic will to be present to those who have real and systemically reinforced problems like mental illness, homelessness, joblessness and addictions. Add our endemic racism into the mix and you can see how easy it is for so many to slip away.
We share in this ministry of welcoming back those in the corners of our lives and life in this community because speaking personally here I know all the times I have stood before God and justified myself in these words:
I thank God that I am not like that neighbor who is clearly by the lawn sign is in the other political party. Thank God that I am not like all those candidates running for public office. I thank God that I am not like that person pulled over by the highway patrol. I thank God that I know better than… I thank God that I am not like…you can fill in the blank however you would like. Clearly in each of those statements putting someone into the corner of this life.
Remember that I once said that the simplest and plainest meaning of the word justify is to “adjust or space (lines or letters) to the proper length in printing.” No writing can justify itself. We have to set margins for this to work. The same is true before God. I can’t justify myself because not only is it spiritually impossible to do what only God can, the moment I even start down that road I start suturing closed my very self from being present to the grace and mercy of God. That’s hell for me and everyone within earshot of that prayer.
What is to be done then? This parable besides reminding me that I am in a continuous recovery program from my ego, points out that our status before God is not about what we do. It is about what God does, pouring out grace and mercy on all, loving steadfastly all of us even when we are demonstrating an amazing inability to contain ourselves. In a parable about two people one walks away justified simply because by confronting his own brokenness and estrangement from God, asking for God’s mercy without excuses, he opened his life to receive and to trust the mercy he so desperately needed.
We gather today before the God who offers us self-giving self-sacrificial love. The best way we can pray I thank you God that I have been given this love is to give it to one another, and especially to offer it to those who have wandered to the margins or the corners of our own lives, the life of this community called Emmanuel and this city. Like the communion we share this love is the food we need to journey together, to endure and persevere amid the joy and the challenge of being in a time of transition.
In the end, while I know the story of the last often difficult and sad two years, I don’t know very much about why people walked away from this community and this life in Christ. I remind myself each day about all of it to assume nothing. Because I also believe that your life needs to be grounded in your deep sense that God is with you and not whoever is your rector, no matter how good or bad, I think this is a time in which we together exercise another kind of stewardship. Who felt consigned to the corner in the life of this place? Take a moment to say a prayer for anyone you remember and do not see. Then pick up the phone and text or call. Go to your computer and send an email. Tell this person that he or she is missed and loved, and finally say come home, we would love to see you.
In a world in which the consistent message to those who are hard for us to know, to respect, to imagine living with, let alone, loving, it is the church that is to be the place where all are welcome and none are despised. I thank God that you are here today. Let’s thank God today for those who are not with us as well. God’s mercy and love is also theirs. Amen.