Christ Church on the Common

The Episcopal Church in Gardiner, Maine

Sermon for October 11, 2020

Kerry Rhoads Mansir

Christ Church Gardiner

Sermon for October 11, 2020

New Member Sunday

 

Good Morning.  I want to extend a particularly warm welcome to those of you becoming new members of Christ Church today.  Based on the Gospel that we just heard, I would say that it’s a good thing you showed up and didn’t shun the invitation. And I hope that your outfit is appropriate to the occasion so that you don’t have to be thrown into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.

Given the choice, I wouldn’t have chosen this parable from Matthew as the basis of your welcome sermon, but the Bible often gives us stories that we wouldn’t choose but must contend with, nonetheless.

 

I have heard it said that the parables are meant to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.  This one definitely makes me squirm.  I’d much rather preach God’s mercy—God’s invitation to all, like when the king in this parable sends out his slaves to gather all the people found, both the good and the bad.  That preached a lot easier than God’s judgment and wrath, as we saw in the parable when the guest was bound and thrown into the outer darkness and told, “For many are called, but few are chosen.”

 

And it is the tension between these two things, mercy and judgment, that I find most interesting in this parable.  That tension, contradiction even, makes me curious about the community for which Matthew was writing.  How did they hear this parable?  What did it mean for them?  Communities, like families, have personalities.  They have stories and events and memories that make them who they are.  I know that my family does.  Like the story of some distant relative who choked on a fish bone while drinking milk…and now we can never drink milk if we are eating fish. It’s just a weird family rule.  Or the memory of my grandmother making biscuits—we would eat one after another, usually smothered in chocolate gravy, and then my uncle would stop by and eat his share, and it always felt like we would surely run out, but we never did, teaching me something about abundance and generosity.  Or the story of the pastor in our family who wouldn’t let his mother inside his church after returning from seminary, believing her to be unworthy because she had been divorced —teaching me the tragedy of believing more in God’s judgment than in God’s mercy.   You have them too—those major events, relationships, and circumstances that have made you who you are.

 

This morning, I want us to explore what made the community of Matthew who they were

First of all, we must remember that this Gospel was written about fifty years after the crucifixion of Jesus, and this tragic thing had happened that would change Israel forever.  The Jews revolted against their Roman oppressors, and in the year 70, the Romans brought the force of their army down upon Jerusalem, reclaiming it, and in the process, burned the Temple to the ground.  All that was left was the Western retaining wall which still stands today.

 

This was a calamity for the Jewish people. The Temple was the divine presence of God in their midst, the point where heaven and earth met.The Jews struggled to make sense of themselves without the Temple.  Matthew’s community were followers of Jesus, but still considered themselves entirely Jewish.  The teachings of Jesus helped them find an identity in a post-Temple world.  Often in opposition to these early Christians were the Pharisees, whose popularity in the post-Temple world grew because their focus was on the Law, not the Temple.  The Law could be obeyed without need for a Temple, and the Pharisees brought the synagogues to prominence where the Torah was learned.  The followers of Jesus believed that the Law had been fulfilled in him, the Pharisees did not. This became contentious.  Not just between the emerging Christian community and the Pharisees but other groups as well who were searching for a new way of being Jewish.

 

A political and social reconstruction took place and the different groups even began to persecute each other over who would write the next chapter in Israel’s history.  There are lots of clues in Matthew’s Gospel to lead us to believe that the community was being persecuted by outside groups.  Parables like the one we heard today would have reassured the community of their place at the banquet of God—theywere the true followers.  The ones who would accept the invitation and show up in their wedding robes. Unfortunately, this may have been good news for them, but it didn’t leave a lot of space for repentance and forgiveness for those on the outside.  Their pain and anxiety were real, and we can sympathize with that, but that doesn’t mean we have to support such a limited view of salvation.

 

So context matters.  The experiences, stories, and memories of a community shape who they are.  That was true for Matthew’s community, and it’s true for the community of Christ Church.  The stories that shape us our from the Gospels, of course, like all the stories depicted on this stole that was given to me when I arrived at Christ Church.  And then there are the particular experiences of this community that have shaped it for over 200 years.  I know only a fraction of those experiences and stories.  Some of you know many more.  Communities are always in process, always changing, based on who is showing up. Those of you joining the church today, you will change who we are.  Your experiences and stories and the ways you relate to the rest of the community will get woven into the fabric of who we are.

 

I want to share with you a story about how this community was shaped by someone who made it her church family.  When I arrived at Christ Church as an intern in the summer of 2017, one of the first person I met was Marty.

 

Marty was a transgender woman. But Marty really only needs to be described as a woman of God.  When I came to Christ Church, I was a transitional deacon.  I had not been ordained to the priesthood yet.  Marty wanted to be a deacon, and she came to me to talk about answering that call to ministry—she had a deacon’s heart and wanted to serve the church.  During my first year at Christ Church, I watched the way that this community responded to Marty…their love for her, how they had called her to be an acolyte and surprised her with a brand new white lace-fringed alb because the acolyte robes that we had were a little too small.

 

And sadly, I watched as the congregation, and a few people in particular, cared for her at the end of her life, driving her to doctor’s visits, bringing her meals, and visiting her at the hospital.  Because not long after I arrived, Marty’s cancer came back with a vengeance.  She died within a year of my arrival.

 

At her funeral, I watched a community grieve her passing and the hole that she would leave behind.  And then I was able to meet at her funeral, her non-church friends, many from the LGBTQ community, who came to the church to pay their respects to Marty and to speak kind words about how she loved them and advocated for them.  Even in her death, Marty changed our community by opening it up—allowing those who had plenty reason to be suspicious of churches to walk through those doors and feel welcomed because this had been Marty’s church.

 

I tell the story of Marty to share how our communities shape us and how we shape our communities.  As we welcome new members this morning, we vow to journey in faith together.  We will change each other—for better or worse.  It won’t always be easy.  There are no perfect communities, and every human community will disappoint eventually, no matter how well-intentioned.  But we can do more good together than we can apart.  After the welcome of new members, you will be given a Prayer Book.  These are intentionally not new, but used Prayer Books from our pews.  So that you can imagine the hands that have held them in prayer, and feel that you have joined this communion of Christ Church—a communion where each of us is both sinner and saint.

 

How will we continue to shape one another and be shaped by this community?

There’s a great hymn that will be played after the sermon called “They’ll know we are Christians by our love.”  Wouldn’t it be wonderful if that’s how people knew this Christian community—by our love?  May it be so. Amen.

Christ Church – Gardiner, Maine | A member of The Episcopal Diocese of Maine, The Episcopal Church, and the Worldwide Anglican Communion