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The Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost, September 10, 2023

The Rev. Catharine Reid

Sermon                                                                                                Exodus 12:1-14
Catharine Reid                                                                                   Psalm 149
10 September 2023                                                                           Romans 13:8-14
Proper 18A                                                                                          Matthew 18:15-20

When I was a very idealistic twenty-five year old, one who came of age in the late nineteen-sixties, I went off to England to join a lay Christian community in a picturesque setting on the north coast of Devon. Just out of grad school, I had decided that I wanted to do something specifically connected to my faith for a few years before starting on a career, and the fact that I was an Anglophile of long standing made the Lee Abbey Community doubly appealing.

I went with the intention of being a part of the work they did, and with little thought about what it might mean to live as part of an intentional community beyond my experience of a college dorm or summers at camp. Only after some months did I begin to recognize and face up to the expectations I had unwittingly brought with me.

Lee Abbey was, and remains, a large community of over sixty people from around the world, of different protestant denominations, young and old, families and singles, who come together for varying lengths of time to run a holiday and conference center. My first roommate was from Germany; a close friend was from South Africa, and I worked with folk from Japan, Sweden, and the Netherlands. All the time I was there, I was the only American. We came from diverse cultures and economic and educational backgrounds, held together only by a common faith. Or perhaps better said, faith in a common person, Jesus. Our denominational differences didn’t seem to matter, until you realized what a challenge it was for the woman from a Dutch Reformed background to attend the weekly community Eucharist – when she was used to receiving communion only once a year.

I grew and learned a lot over those two years – how to cook for a hundred eighty people, to preach my first sermon, to lead guests on long walks over the moors, to talk to strangers every day over meals and tea, to lead bible studies and much more. But the most important thing that I learned is that living in community is hard, that it is a most incredible gift, but hard all the same.

I had forgotten that everyone else there, as I did, was bringing their less-than-perfect selves into community. Somehow I had imagined, without realizing it, that things would be a lot different than in the wider culture. And it was, but it also wasn’t. Along with our national, denominational and other differences, we brought all our personal foibles and weaknesses. And when a particular hurtful situation arose involving a close friend, I found myself face to face with serious disillusionment. I couldn’t help wondering what hope there was for the rest of the world if this was the best that committed Christians could do.

I had arrived at that point that the writer and pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer describes in his book “Life Together”, that all Christians in community must come to if genuine community is to emerge. He titles the section “Not an Ideal, but a Divine Reality”.

“The serious Christian, set down for the first time in a Christian community, is likely to bring with him a very definite idea of what Christian life together should be and to try to realize it. But God’s grace speedily shatters such dreams. Just as surely as God desires to lead us to a knowledge of genuine Christian fellowship, so surely must we be overwhelmed by a great disillusionment with others, with Christians in general, and, if we are fortunate, with ourselves.” (pp 26-27)

Last week’s gospel spoke of following Jesus, of carrying our own cross, reminding us that discipleship is costly, and that we must lose ourselves to gain our true selves – to grow into authentic persons who are only too aware of our own failings, or as Bonhoeffer would put it – to be disillusioned with ourselves. To know ourselves for who we are, and to be open to being known. That was one of the promises we made as we became full members in the Lee Abbey community – to be open to be known for who we are. It’s not about being nice, it’s about being real. It is in coming together as authentic, disillusioned persons who recognize that we are all in need of forgiveness, that we can create genuine community.

And as one writer says: One of Christ’s gifts to us is the gift of community, where we meet our brothers and sisters heart to heart, spirit to spirit, and face to face. Christian community is that place, that way of being, where we know, and are known by, the Love at the center of the community: God, a life-giving, sacrificial, persistent love that calls us to reach beyond ourselves, to realize we are connected, woven together into one body, the family of God.”

And while it is not easy, it is essential. Our faith is not a private matter. Spirituality is all about relationship – not only to God but to each other. And it is in community that we meet God face to face. But despite our best intentions, we will mess up. We will fail each other and our own best selves. As I learned, all those year ago, and continue to re-learn, what makes Christian community work and what makes it different is not only that we are forgiven, but that we know that we need to be forgiven, over and over again.

And it is this need for reconciliation not just to God, but to the community, that Matthew addresses in the eighteenth chapter of the Gospel. “Jesus said, “If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one.”  It is all about meeting face to face; about seeking out the person who has distanced themselves from the community and bringing them back into relationship. And this is hard – even when we think we are in the right. It is so much easier to talk about someone who has wronged us to others, than to go directly to them. Or to pretend that everything is fine – when it is not, and to avoid dealing with the situation at all.

And if going alone doesn’t work, we are to go back a second time with someone else, and then again a third time with others. Over and over we are to work for reconciliation, to reach out and invite one another back into full communion, and only when that fails, and the person continues to distance themselves are we to let them go; to recognize that they have chosen to remain outside the community. And we are to name that separation, not pretend not to notice. This is what is meant by letting them be as a tax collector or Gentile – we are not banishing, but recognizing a choice on their part.

And it is here in the midst of these difficult, awkward face to face encounters that Jesus is in the midst. “For where two are three are gathered in my name, I am there among them”. Too often we think of this as about our common worship – most often when we are seated facing the back of someone’s head, and not interacting directly except perhaps at the Peace. It is rather face to face with one another in our messiest situations that we encounter the face of Christ in our midst.

As Bonhoeffer also says: “Christian brotherhood is not an ideal which we must realize, it is rather a reality created by God in Christ in which we participate. The more clearly we learn to recognize that the ground and strength and promise of all our fellowship is in Jesus Christ alone, the more serenely shall we think of our fellowship, and pray and hope for it.” (p. 30)

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