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“Do Not Despise Those Whom God Has Welcomed”: The Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Sunday, September 13, 2020
[The first Sunday “back” in-person.]
Genesis 50:15-21
Romans 14:1-12
Matthew 18:21-35

There’s a lot I don’t know. This whole experience of pastoring a parish during this pandemic has shown me how true this is, about a lot of things. But through this, one gets the sense that there’s something to be done (like making a recording to send out over the internet, or hosting a live gameshow on Facebook, or bringing people back together, like today), and you figure out a way to do it. It usually involves struggling through something, like learning how to use a new camera, or using new computer programs, or doing lots of measuring, and putting posters everywhere. And at the end of the day you look back at it, and realize it wasn’t perfect, but you hope that someone’s experience was made a little less worse through whatever was done. And you trust that in the struggling, beneath the not knowing, and through the messiness of the doing, God was in that.

Today’s a new chapter in this ongoing process of not knowing and yet doing, in that we’ve got a hybrid sort of service that we’re offering now, where we bring together the online and the physical gatherings. And each of those two expressions might actually suffer a little bit; each makes some sacrifices. But we trust that through this messiness, Jesus is specially present, especially as we now more fully participate in Christ’s offering of himself, for the sake of the world, as we offer up bread and wine, and with them, ourselves; and in doing so, in some way we unite ourselves with Christ’s sacrifice. And we believe that through this, the saving effects of that sacrifice (that we call the Passion, or the Cross, or atonement) are made real in the here and now, and our experience of life made a little less worse. And allowing room for this sacrifice to have reverberations in our community and our world that we might not see or understand. But at the end Jesus said two things — he said “love one another” and “do this in remembrance of me” — and so we do this.

And I can’t think of a better set of readings for this messy, hybrid, celebratory-yet-anxious day. Especially turning to that Letter to the Roman Church. There’s a lot I don’t know about this reading. There’s some issue between the vegetarians and the meat-eaters. And the holy day observers, and the ‘every day is awesome’ people. Maybe the first group is just really strict. We call the “ascetics.” Spiritual athletes. No meat. Or did it have something to do with how some meat, in that time and place, had been sacrificed to pagan idols, so they avoided it. While the meat eaters scoffed, strong in their faith, and said that the idols were imaginary, so eat up.

And the holy days: were these Jewish holy days that the early Jewish Christians still observed? Or were they Greek holy days that had some resonance for the Gentiles? Or were they days of fasting and other disciplines, like Friday, that were important for some in the early Church? I don’t know, but for some they were important, and for others, they could find life-changing meaning in the ordinary and everyday.

We might make some rough comparison to how today we some here in person, and some here, through the camera. Two different experiences, each with its own advantages. And beyond the pandemic, we could point to the different varieties of spirituality: those on the Catholic end of the spectrum, and those of the evangelical wing, and those in-between. To the south of us, though hardly unique to them, you have the political poles of left and right. And every year (and every day, as their election approaches) it seems that the tension between the two poles, and the animosity between them, grows and grows.

There’s something for us in this reading, and perhaps I’m somewhat messily throwing it out there, but in our church situation today, and in our world situation, I find some solace in how the early Church experienced tension, and difference, and worked through and with this. And Paul’s solution wasn’t to jettison the inconvenient group. Nor was it to say that everything was fine. But what he does say is something akin to “love one another.”

“Those who eat must not despise those who abstain, and those who abstain must not pass judgment on those who eat; for God has welcomed them.”

If only our world had a little more of the honesty, vulnerability, and co-operation that we see on display there.

I recall something that a mentor of mine, Brother Christian Swayne, said to me, years ago (and I’ve probably said it here before). Something about how “we’re Christian, not primarily because we’re perfect, but because we’re forgiven.” The beautiful words in the Prayer Book say it best: “We do not presume to come to this thy Table, O merciful Lord, trusting in our own righteousness, but in thy manifold and great mercies.” It’s not the perfection that makes us Christian; it’s the forgiveness (and forgiven-ness).

Again, look at the world as it is today, and it doesn’t seem like forgiven-ness is the starting point of how people treat one another. Wouldn’t things be different if everyone reflected more deeply on the mercy of God, and the mercy shown to us by those who’ve loved and cared for us? Instead, it seems to me that we have a lot of people judging their neighbour through the lens of perfection. Another word for “lens of perfection,” I’d suggest, is “hypocrisy.”

Today, whether we will eat, or not, Paul reassures us that we all serve the same Lord. The gospel parable vividly reminds us to show mercy, following the way of Jesus, and in response to the mercy we’ve been shown through his offering of himself on the Cross. The Old Testament fragment we heard from the Joseph story shows a group in tension and conflict. But looking back, they realize that the tragic betrayal of Joseph by his brothers ended up leading to the saving of many people’s lives from starvation, as Joseph, surprisingly, rose to a position of authority in Egypt. It’s a reminder that God can and does act through the messiness of human conflict.

We would do well to leave vengeance to God, and take to heart Paul’s counsel:

“[Group A] must not despise those [from Group B], and those [from Group B] must not pass judgment on those [from Group A]; for God has welcomed them…. For to this end Christ died and lived again, so that he might be Lord of both.” Amen.

© 2020 The Rev’d Matthew Kieswetter